Friday, September 21, 2007

"Soma"

In Brave New World, "soma" is a drug which is used by the general population to provide pleasure and to neutralize any negative emotions. It has none of the deleterious side effects of actual drugs. Let's suppose such a drug exists. With what we know currently about neuro-chemistry, we can see that the pleasure that is achieved by productive acts is no different than pleasure produced by chemistry.


Let's ask the question of whether or not we would object to such artificial pleasure. Keep in mind that in the book "Brave New World" the use of soma doesn't have negative effects on productivity of the individual. The drug is freely available and does not distract the individual from his or her assigned tasks. Being rather Victorian in my outlook on morality, I would intuitively object to the use of soma except for pathological cases. However, I have difficulty in rationalizing my objections. From an evolutionary point of view, pleasure has been necessary in a goal-driven creature. However, natural evolution is a much less important force in our time. Society as a whole is now less dependent on large numbers of goal-seeking individuals and artificial pleasure would seem justifiable. If a gram of soma plus a Big Mac produce the same pleasure as a filet mignon, why not? If bicycling through a local neighborhood plus a gram of soma produce the same pleasure as bicycling along the Loire, why not?

5 comments:

Howard Pattee said...

I have nothing against intervals of pleasure, but as a constant state I think it would be boring and unproductive. I don't get anything done without a kind of motivation or mental state (cognitive dissonance) that I would not call pleasurable. Is excitement before a risky adventure really pleasure?

Pleasure or happiness is something like humor. If you have to explain a joke it ceases to be funny.

Howard

Ira Glickstein said...

What a great new Topic for discussion!

Here is a website that quotes all the soma text from Brave New World:
http://www.huxley.net/soma/somaquote.html

Contrary to what Joel intimated, Huxley's soma does seem to affect productivity and hs far from harmless:

"The holiday it [soma] gave was perfect and, if the morning after was disagreeable, it was so, not intrinsically, but only by comparison with the joys of the holiday. The remedy was to make the holiday continuous. Greedily she clamoured for ever larger, ever more frequent doses. Dr. Shaw at first demurred; then let her have what she wanted. She took as much as twenty grammes a day.
'Which will finish her off in a month or two,' the doctor confided to Bernard. 'One day the respiratory centre will be paralyzed. No more breathing. Finished....'"

So, Huxley's soma is a flawed product. If a significant portion of and society became dependent upon soma, they would be like the "lotus eaters" in the Odyssey.

However, let us assume, along with Joel, that a new and improved version of soma was available that met his specifications:

o provide pleasure
o neutralize negative emotions
o no deleterious side effects
o no negative effects on productivity
o does not distract the individual from his or her assigned tasks
o freely available

Joel says his "victorian outlook" causes him to object to the use of soma, but he cannot rationalize his objections.

Well, in our current society, many depend upon coffee, tea, cocoa, and other drugs to help them become more productive and happier with life. Therefore, there is a precedent for taking, in moderation, drugs that have few, if any, negative side effects, and that generally boost productivity and happiness.

Even alcohol, in moderation, is beneficial for most of us. I try to remember to have a glass of red wine a few times a week because it aids sleep and may have a good effect on my heart. (I usually forget and probably have alcohol less than once per week.)

So, if there was some synthetic neuro-enhancer that could aid memory and speed up thinking, I would certainly take it! Millions take ginkgo, as I do, to improve memory and concentration, despite the mixed results from medical studies. Perhaps it is a placebo.

To enlarge the subject a bit, would Joel or anyone else object to the implantation of a brain enhancer to help us remember phone numbers, do calculations, and look up correct spelling and other critical facts? Many of us carry a PDA (personal digital assistant) and/or spend lots of time using the Internet to aid our memory and perform calculation tasks.

I got a combination cell phone/PDA (the T-Mobile "Wing") yesterday and can now access the full Internet at Paneras and anywhere else Wi-Fi is available. It is smaller than my previous cell phone, but stil a bit of a pain to carry around and keep charged. Wouldn't it be great if is was implanted and powered by my digestive system!

I am in favor of genetically-engineered foods (so-called "Frankenfoods") such as tomatoes enhanced with cold-water fish DNA to make them more freeze-resistant, or grains enhanced with DNA to make it toxic against bugs. Nature has developed lots of great tricks in the DNA of animals and plants to make them toxic to predators and better able to survive and reproduce in difficult environments.

How about chimeras (animal-human hybrids)? Rabbits and pigs and other animals have been engineered with human DNA. Some have human blood, can generate human stem cells, and so on. Soon we may have mice with human brains! There is no apparent technological barrier to creating humans with great tolerance for cold or warm conditions, immunity from genetically mediated diseases, or more capable brains.

For each of these possibilities, writers can (and have) concocted "cautionary tales" of how these advances could be misused and backfire. Human history has followed a pattern:

o Someone comes up with a radical new technological idea that appears good on the surface
o Cautionary tales are spun, predicting all the negativ possibilities
o Technologists go right ahead and create products using the radical engineering
o Sure enough, some of the negative affects surface and lost of people are injure or die
o The technology is improved to reduce the negatives and enhanse the positives

Read about "Icarus and Daedalus" about the dangers of human flight. Daedulus ignored his father's warnings and flew too close to the Sun which melted his wings and he died. Many pioneers of human flight also lost their lives as did many early passengers. Yet, today, millions of us fly several times a years and relatively few die!

So, bring on the improved soma and let me have a gram!

Ira Glickstein

joel said...

Ira wrote:

Contrary to what Joel intimated, Huxley's soma does seem to affect productivity and is far from harmless:

"The holiday it [soma] gave was perfect and, if the morning after was disagreeable, it was so, not intrinsically, but only by comparison with the joys of the holiday. The remedy was to make the holiday continuous. Greedily she clamoured for ever larger, ever more frequent doses. Dr. Shaw at first demurred; then let her have what she wanted. She took as much as twenty grammes a day.
'Which will finish her off in a month or two,' the doctor confided to Bernard. 'One day the respiratory centre will be paralyzed. No more breathing. Finished....'"

Joel responds: I'm just going to make a quick comment here on a technical point. I hope to say something more interesting later on. The quote above is taken out of context. It refers to a highly unique pathological case. In the story, Linda is the mother of the Savage, who has been a virtual prisoner on an Indian reservation. She was born as a test tube baby in England and had gone through all the normal indoctrination. As an adult, through misfortune, she loses her way on a holiday to a Navajo reservation in America. The search for her is abandoned. For the rest of her life, she suffers greatly from the lack of contact with civilization, never acclimating to Indian customs. She is reviled by the Indians for her promiscuous behavior. Now she is old, withered, fat and on her last legs as she is returned to English civilization, where she is mocked by all for her decrepit appearance. She hasn't long to live and wants to shut out the world. The doctor decides that there is no harm in granting her wish, since the difference is only a matter of months. In this very unique situation, soma is being used for the purpose of euthanasia. Is is normally harmless. With respect- Joel

Ira Glickstein said...

Joel, thanks for the clarification: "...In this very unique situation, soma is being used for the purpose of euthanasia. Is is normally harmless."

Almost any effective medication will have some percentage of negative effects on some portion of the population, either due to genetic differences or the tendency of some to overuse it. The drug approval process is problematic because a drug that could improve the lives (or save the lives) of many will almost inevitably cause terrible tragedy for a few who may not be able to be identified until the damage is done. Perhaps better DNA screening will help identify the small percentage of the population that may react badly to a drug usefull to the majority. Until then, we will see scare stories on TV about how X drug destroyed Y's life,how the drug companies are greedy, etc., without the balance of how many the drug saved.

I had not read Brave New World for some time and had forgotten the specifics.

The quote I especially like is:

"[Soma has] All the advantages of Christianity and alcohol; none of their defects."

I look forward to your further comments on my posting, particularly if you think you could overcome your "victorian" views if a soma-like drug was proven safe (to the extent anything can be so proven :^). Also, how do you react to implanted PDAs and "Frankenfoods" and chimeras?

Ira Glickstein

Stu Denenberg said...

This is an interesting thread that Joel has raised. In his novel, "The Corrections" Jonathan Franzen raises some of the same questions with a drug that cure one's worries (don't worry be happy comes true!) and it's clear that the author disapproves of taking drugs to solve problems that we should be able to face ourselves as part of the human condition --- it's part of the deal--- and perhaps that's the "Victorian" conviction that Joel alludes to.

Personally, if there were a drug with no side effects that could make me less lazy and less impatient (which cause most of mankind's problems according to Kant) I'd jump at the chance. We take vitamins to become healthier why not psychovitamins? I believe certain antidepressants allow people to function normally and lead a reasonably happy life; who am I to say that this is a bad thing? I think this might be another difference between L and C minds --- judginess (with apologies to Stephen Colbert)?

Ira said:


"How about chimeras (animal-human hybrids)? Rabbits and pigs and other animals have been engineered with human DNA. Some have human blood, can generate human stem cells, and so on. Soon we may have mice with human brains! There is no apparent technological barrier to creating humans with great tolerance for cold or warm conditions, immunity from genetically mediated diseases, or more capable brains.

For each of these possibilities, writers can (and have) concocted "cautionary tales" of how these advances could be misused and backfire."

... and this reminds me of the hybrids bred as cute pets in Margaret Atwood's cautionary tale "Oryx and Crake" that come back to bite us...