Friday, May 8, 2020

Slowing down pleasures and pains, once again

If suddenly everything in game and in my brain slowed down while I was having a good time playing Asteroids, my conscious sequence wouldn’t be subjectively affected, and the hedonic value of the game would not change in any way. It would just take proportionately longer to get the same overall hedonic value.

But this leads to a paradox. Suppose that I am experiencing an approximately constant moderate pleasure for five minutes, and you experience that pleasure for ten minutes. Then, obviously, you get approximately twice the hedonic value. But one way to make it be the case that you experience the same pleasure for ten minutes is just to slow down all of your life by a factor of two. And yet such a slowdown should not affect hedonic value.

I think I previously thought that one way out of this paradox was to suppose that time is discrete. But I don’t think so any more. In fact, it seems to me that making time be discrete makes the paradox worse. For in your slowed-down ten minutes of pleasure, there will be twice as many pleasurable moments of time, which should predict, contrary to the intuition I began with, that you will have twice the hedonic value. Granted, if time is discrete, there will be some technical difficulties with how the slowdown happens at very short time-scales. But that doesn’t matter for us, since if time is discrete, it is discrete on a Planck scale, which is way below any time-scales relevant to my enjoying a game of Asteroids. And we need not imagine any weird “microphysics slowing down” for the thought experiment: it suffices that the computer software slow down by a factor of two and that you be given drugs that make your brain work more sluggishly than mine.

A different way to try to solve the problem is to suppose that there is some kind of a clock in my brain, and that only states at a clock tick are pleasurable. Thus, if your life is slowed down by a favor of two, then that clock will slow down, and in ten minutes of your enjoying Asteroids there will be the same number of pleasurable ticks as in me, and so you will get the same total pleasure.

But this is tricky. Whatever process is generating the clock ticks in our brains is presumably a fairly continuous analog process. Thus, there will be no such thing as an instantaneous tick of the clock. Rather, there will be an extended period of time (on a time-scale many orders of magnitude above the Planck scale, so any discreteness of physical time will be irrelevant) at which the tick occurs. (Think of a physical clock ticking. The tick is a sound that occurs every second for a fraction of a second—but that fraction is non-zero.) So if I am having pleasure during the tick and you’re having pleasure during the tick, since your tick takes twice as long, it seems you have twice as much pleasure.

I can think of only one way out of the paradox right now, and that is to deny that it makes sense to talk of there being a pleasure or a pain at an instantaneous physical time. Rather, pleasures and pains (and presumably other qualia) always occur over an interval of times. The clock toy model can now be rescued. For we could say that what counts is a pleasurable or painful tick, but if the tick itself is shortened or extended, the hedonic value does not actually change. Let’s imagine that the clock works like some processor clocks. There is an electric square wave generated somewhere, and the ticks are the transitions from a high to a low voltage. Since real-life “square wave” isn’t actually square, but has transitions with wobbly smooth edges, the ticking—i.e., the transition from high to low—takes time. What makes it be the case that one has experienced a pleasure or pain during an interval of times is that this interval contained a clock transition from high to low together with some further state that is not itself pleasurable or painful but that, when combined with the clock transition, constitutes the pleasure or pain. The number of pains or pleasures during a period of time is the number of such transitions.

If one slows down the system, the clock transitions become slower. But the number of clock transitions is unchanged, as is the number of pleasurable or painful clock transitions. Thus there is no change in overall hedonic value.

But notice that on this toy model it is never true that one is experiencing a pleasure or pain at an instant. For there is no transition from high to low clock state at an instant. Transitions happen over an interval of times. This will bother presentists.

The above line of thought assumed supervenience of the mental on the physical. But a robust dualism faces the same problems of slowing down and speeding up, and the fundamental idea of the solution, that pleasures and pains are constituted by essentially temporally extended processes and that there are no instantaneous pleasures or pains, is still available.

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