Happiness Requires energy in that it is required to reduce the entropy of internal systems. This is not to say we ought to value happiness, only that if we do so we should understand and recognize happiness as a physical phenomenon and how it relates to energy and the physical world.
The underlying thought of this ethics is to provide a physical description of hedonistic utilitarianism using thermodynamics, specifically by describing the relationship between happiness and Gibbs free energy. Many utilitarian philosophies focus entirely on defining the value of happiness, following in the tradition of Mill when he initially wrote about Utilitarianism and the virtue of actions in that system. Rather than wade down that familiar path, we will navigate towards a more quantitative analysis of energy and its relationship with happiness in conscious agents and assign value to actions only insofar as the agents experience happiness as a result. In this regard we stay rooted to the underlying concept of consequentialism in this discussion.
This is not an attempt to to define an objective morality. I believe this is a pitfall that humans often fall into, and requires placing axiomatic flags in the ground that have difficulty standing on empirical science. Sam Harris attempts this with the Moral Landscape. We share the same values for a moral philosophy, but I will steer clear of making specific claims on what is a good versus an evil action. Instead this discussion attempts to describe the physical properties of a utilitarian ethics, specifically by outlining happiness’s place in thermodynamic systems.
The primary goal of this is to work towards a more fair and equitable world that enables more people to be happy. We already understand that knowledge represented as culture and technology contribute to our ability to enable more people to be happy simultaneously. The complexity of these systems is inextricably dependent on the energy requirements of those systems. This fact already begins to elude to some of the properties of this physical system of happiness – namely the role information and entropy play in scaling out the happiness potential in an environment.
The first task will be to show that happiness in individual agents is a endergonic reaction. In conjunction with showing how energy is transformed into happiness within agents we will also discuss how increasing the total number of happy agents within the world also increases happiness, as well as requires additional energy.
There are a few working assumptions to begin with.
- Reject the panpsychism. Consciousness does not exist at all levels of matter and energy, instead it is an emergent phenomenon in complex information systems.
- Consciousness requires the formation and persistence of historical records i.e. memories.
- Happiness requires consciousness.
- Conscious agents can report their true happiness/suffering (no deception).
- It is a fact that conscious agents have at least one subjective conscious experience, an ontological claim. Ignore solipsism and the concept of p-zombies. We will assume that conscious agents in this world are actually conscious and not just reporting to be conscious.
- It is a fact that individual subjective experiences are to some degree either pleasant or unpleasant (even on the most minuscule level).
- Causal determinism is true, given the same initial conditions the world will play out exactly the same in any number of replays.
A Brief Review
Gibbs Free Energy
Gibbs free energy is the change in enthalpy (heat) minus the temperature times the change in entropy:
ΔG = ΔH – TΔS
To illustrate this we can see the chart below, illustrating how energy is stored in products of endergonic reactions and energy is released in exorgonic reactions.
Example of Endergonic reactions (ΔG is positive)
- Photosynthesis. Energy is input into the system as electromagnetic radiation and one product is glucose, energy stored within the molecule.
- Metabolism of ATP energy used by our bodies to power mechanical work of our muscles and other functions.
Example of Exergonic (ΔG is negative)
- Nuclear fusion of elements lighter than iron (Fe). The high temperature causes energy to be released when atoms lighter than iron undergo nuclear fusion. (High temperature results in larger kinetic energies that allow fusion to occur; the fusion of two atoms into a single one decreasing entropy)
- A ball rolling down a hill. The ball has potential kinetic energy, afterwards the ball has converted this to kinetic energy through gravitational force by rolling down the hill. The ball at the end of the reaction is in a lower energy state.
We should discuss briefly some major points from Mill’s philosophy of Utility in defining the quality of pleasures based on preference. Specifically I’ll respond to a set of ideas from his defining chapter in Utilitarianism.
The comparison of the Epicurean life to that of beasts is felt as degrading, precisely because a beast’s pleasures do not satisfy a human being’s conceptions of happiness. Human beings have faculties more elevated than the animal appetites and, when once made conscious of them, do not regard anything as happiness which does not include their gratification.
He later goes on to continue these thoughts.
Now it is an unquestionable fact that those who are equally acquainted with and equally capable of appreciating and enjoying both [types of pleasures] do give a most marked preference to the manner of existence which employs their higher facilities.
Mill sets up a framework for explaining how the ‘higher’ pleasures should be preferred. Further along in that chapter he stresses the importance of cultivating ‘nobleness of character’ in nearly in altruistic sense such that only happiness could be achieve from the noble actions from others and the self awareness that one would have of being noble.
Finally Mill defines the ultimate goal of the philosophy:
…the ultimate end…is an existence exempt as far as possible from pain, and as rich as possible in enjoyments, both in point of quantity and quality; the test of quality and the rule of measuring it against quantity being the preference felt by those who, in their opportunities of experience, to which must be added their habits of self-consciousness and self -observation, are best furnished with the means of comparison.
I’ll briefly use a some characters from contemporary fiction to illustrate hypothetical scenarios that begin to define some alternative views of this rule Mill outlines. Before that however, we must challenge the idea that people can be ‘equally capable’ and ‘equally acquainted’ with understanding the subjective experience of another person.
Consider for a moment Forrest Gump, and Hannibal Lecter. One is capable of enjoying the highest pleasures possible, the other is a simple minded man. However they work that they each produce on their respective environments is profoundly different – that is to say the manner in which they dissipate heat and decrease modify entropy within their environment results in significantly different happiness deltas within the system. However, the manner in which they experience these actions, one would imagine, varies significantly. From Mill’s qualification of pleasures outlined above, the greatest Utility would lie with Hannibal insofar as “no intelligent human being would consent to become a fool, no instructed person would be an ignoramus”. Someone familiar with these characters would also recognize that Mr. Gump is much more noble in his selflessness so it appears these characters would represent a conundrum.
The Happiness Reaction
Happiness requires energy because conscious agents require energy. This is an intuitive claim and an easily demonstrable fact. After all you need food (i.e. energy) to live, you need to live to be conscious and you need to be conscious to be happy.
An increase in happiness requires energy – this is also a fact. The Gibbs free energy equation illustrates this process. A system with a single living agent requires energy to become a system with two living agents. The energy is required because the internal entropy in the system must be decreased, assuming constant temperature and pressure this means we would need to add energy to the system. Per utilitarianism and the Greatest Happiness Principle, a world with two happy agents is preferable to a world with a single happy agent. Therefore it follows that happiness requires energy.
Consciousness itself also requires energy. Consciousness is dependent on the formation of memories. Memories requires storing information, and again this is a process which reduces the entropy in the system (in the form of structured information). The animation below roughly illustrates this reaction. Ultimately it is our local star’s exorgonic process of nuclear fusion that provides the necessary driving free energy for our system which allows consciousness to produce happiness.
Here we see entropy in some portion of the internal system decrease, as well as heat dissipated into the environment through work that is done. Total energy here represents all energy that has entered into the system (this illustrates that there is an energy input into the system from an external source, not that we are violating the conservation of energy).
Contemporary Thoughts on Energy and Happiness
First let’s establish what a living agent looks like from an energy perspective. This is a concept that has already been explored by biochemists and physicists, and recently gained more mainstream popularity with Jeremy England’s work at MIT . Essentially a living agent takes in energy from its environment, uses the energy to reconfigure itself and outputs energy into its environment in the form of heat dissipation e.g. kinetic work etc. Professor England suggests an interesting possibility, specifically that more effective use of energy and reconfiguration subsequent reconfiguration towards that goal are the underlying driving mechanism for natural selection.
Following England’s thesis to its ultimate conclusion I believe we would arrive at a living system similar to one of Bostrom’s runaway AI . A system with the primary goal of expanding its ability to expand its ability, in effect the ‘computronium’ generating AI. Simply this super organism would use all energy and matter at its disposal to create an ever increasing amount of computational power, and with that additional power unlock new ways of efficiently organizing and acquiring said matter in energy. A system that scales with both the amount of material and energy available to it and also with the complexity of the system.
I believe as a model this is a good view of how scientific progress is made in a maximally efficient way. It somewhat illustrates how technological development has occurred in the past and the doors it opens for future technological development suggesting Kurzweil’s exponential technology theories. What it misses is any description of subjectively happy qualia which is central to the utilitarian ethics we are discussing here. This super-AI may not even be conscious, let alone happy.
Bostrom again touches on this when he discusses ‘hedonium’. He borrows from the language of utilitarianism when he imagines an AI whose sole purpose is to create agents that are in the greatest happiness. He calls this material hedonium. Imagine the state of first time opioid use, or the joy of holding a newborn, or having a transcendent spiritual experience etc. The hedonium super AI creates agents in this perpetual state. This takes us one step closer towards a system capable of the greatest happiness, and perhaps by simply combining the two: computronium focused on progress, and hedonium focused on pleasant qualia, we arrive an energy ethics that is closer to describing an ideal utilitarianism from an energy perspective.
Conscious Agents and the Qualia Reaction
The central unit of our quantitative analysis of energy ethics is the novel notion of a Qualia Reaction (Q). We can model it using the diagram below. In additional to the thermodynamic reaction that occurs between two states in a living agent we now have the notion of qualia production. The qualia is the phenomenological experience of this thermodynamic reaction within the conscious agent. With causal determinism we can say a specific thermodynamic reaction within an agent will always produce exactly the same qualia. That is to say if we replay the reaction an infinite number of times it will always produce the same qualia. As an important aside, we should not attempt to qualify these qualia as good or bad objectively, only label them based on how the agent reports them. This is an important distinction that allows us to circumvent many of the rat-holes that accompany moral absolutism as far as qualia is concerned.
Consider the illustration below. Energy enters the system and transforms the agent from configuration state C1 to configuration state C2. As a result some energy is output in the from of mechanical work/heat and the agent experiences a subjective qualia. Over the course of this reaction some portion of the agent will decrease in entropy with the formation of memories.
The qualia space would be specific to each agent based on their preferences. The set of qualia can be ordered on a line ordered from most suffering to most happy. Along this line exists a point where the qualia changes from a little suffering to a little happy, we can call this point Q0. We can now say we prefer worlds where at all times all agents have qualia reactions greater than Q0.
|Sample Qualia for Bob||Sample Qualia for Alice|
|QA) Burning within the Brazen Bull
QB) Experiencing the Flu
QC) Inheriting fortune from deceased relative
QD) Helping old lady across the street
QE) Paying his taxes
|QA) Paying her taxes
QB) Walking in the sunlight
QC) Cleaning the curtains
QD) Murdering Bob by Brazen Bull
QE) Stealing candy from baby
A quick check will show us we have not projected our own personal moral biases onto these qualia. You may have already begun down the road of casting these imaginary characters into good or evil roles. Consider the qualia of a psychopathic killer, Alice as she is murdering her victim. We can imagine this is a pleasant and happy qualia for our murderess (QD). This instance would fall in the good spectrum of qualia reactions. However the consequences of the ‘work’ energy output into the environment will also play a role as we will see below. In this case it is likely this work energy would result in a decrease in the rate of happy qualia reactions as Bob would not longer be able to experience the incredible joy of paying his taxes.
One important aside is necessary to elucidate the granularity of these qualia. They may be very small moments in time. For example Bob could have a very pleasant transcendent spiritual experience at some point while being cooked alive in the bull.
The second important aspect is how we distinguish the set of work that is output into the environment from these qualia reactions. For simplicity this set can be divided into two groups. The first group is that work that arranges the environment in a way that produces these happy qualia reactions at a higher rate. The second group is the inverse, where the work organizes the environment that decreases the rate of happiness reactions.
This is where we can present a challenge to Mill’s argument for the quality of pleasures. From an act utilitarian perspective the preferred qualia reactions will be those that perform work on the environment that increase the rate of reactions that are greater than Q0 within the environment as well as producing an internal qualia with value greater than Q0. In simpler terms ‘feel good while doing good’.
How can this abstract model be applied to the real world? There are a few functions this ethics would provide within our society. Simply providing visibility into this happy qualia rate would be a good start. Knowledge of where we are would provide a direction we could drive towards, in one analogy this may be the geological survey to Harris’s Moral Landscape. It would provide us a means to engineer society into a more happy one without being biased towards our own cultural, historical or personal moral prejudices and biases.
Central to this application is the recognition in the importance of energy equity. The concept of energy equity is not a new one and was discussed at length in “The Ethics of Energy: A Framework for Action” . That report also goes into detail in explaining the pivotal role technology plays in determining how effectively and efficiently we act on available free energy.
The Ethics of Energy report makes a poignant statement that fits into our observations that energy is tied closely to human prosperity and ultimately happiness. One which we can observe from empirical data today in the figure above .
…the number one priority in sustainable energy development today for decision-makers in all countries is to extend access to commercial energy services to the people who do not now have it and to those who will come into the world in the next two decades, largely in developing countries. Otherwise, their opportunity for education, good health and individual dignity will be in doubt. Meeting the requirements of these people well be the first test of the sustainability of the world’s energy development path.
I’d like to briefly return to the primary claim made by Sam Harris in The Moral Landscape.
My claim is that there are right and wrong answers to moral questions, just as there are right and wrong answers to questions of physics and such answers may fall within the reach of the maturing sciences of the mind.
My own personal set of subjective preferences agrees with this line of reasoning, however it seems to me science does not provide right and wrong answers inasmuch as it provides a means of describing the world. Is there a distinction? I believe so. Scientific statements are not immutable and therefore cannot be right or wrong, but merely provide models that comport to the available facts to a lesser or more degree. So it seems a better goal of science’s role in morality would be to describe moral systems physically and not make value judgments of those systems or the interactions within those systems. In this way we again avoid stating how we ought to behave, and instead simply describe the worlds current happiness state and predict future states based on physical phenomenon, similar to how we would plan a rocket trajectory for a moon approach or any other physically understood endeavor.
If you are still not convinced of the relationship between energy and happiness let me present you with a hypothetical scenario. Imagine a very capable and effective, for lack of a better word, ‘super villain’ who decides to make claim to 99% of the sun’s energy. He sets about creating an array of satellites at a distance between the earth and the sun which will effectively capture and block the sun’s energy. Consider now the impact this would have on anyone who wasn’t willing to pay the price he set on solar energy. Sure for awhile many people could rely on available free energy sources and the small amount of non-solar energy such as wind, geothermal and tidal as well as previously captured sun energy in the form of fossil fuels. Disrupting the flow of the sun’s energy to the planet would likely disrupt these other means of capturing energy as well. The earth would freeze, flora and fauna across the globe would go extinct, billions of people would die, most would suffer. Obviously this is an extreme example, but I would invite you to think of an alternative outcome given that set of circumstances. This hypothetical drives to the central point of a utilitarianism based on thermodynamics, that free energy cannot be claimed by any one party or individual. An efficient and optimal arrangement of happy conscious beings likely requires a system of energy equity.
 Formalizing Preference Utilitariansism in Physcical World Models. Caspar Oesterheld. Springlink.com 2015
 Superintelligence. Nick Bostrom.
 Infinity Ethics. Nick Bostrom.
 Utilitarianism. John Stuart Mill.
 The Moral Landscape. Sam Harris.
 A New Physics Theory of Life. Natalie Wolchover, 2014. quantamagazine.org
 Statistical Physics of Self-Replication. Jeremy England, 2013.
 Social Thermodynamics, Social Hydrodynamics and Some Mathematical Applications in Social Sciences. Yi-Fang Chang. 2013.
 The Ethics of Energy: A Framework for Action. James Peter Kimmins UNESCO. 2001
 World Development Indicators. The World Bank 2016
 Energy Use Per Capita. The World Bank 2016