The biological sexual act is vital to current human experience; it is one of our most powerful motivators and vital to the perpetuation of the species.

Humans do not require a present physical partner to participate in sexual experience, thanks to media such as literature, video, games and online chat; each of which equip us with an avatar of sorts.

It seems however that a significant degree of the satisfaction to be gained from participation in these activities relies upon the mechanism which translates cognitive arousal into physical sensation.

If humanity was to ever transition into a purely digital form, and the physical body became redundant, would we continue to derive sexual pleasure from cognitive experience alone?

The question is fascinating largely because of the enormous shift in psychology/behaviour that would ensue from any loss of sexual impulse and gratification.

Broader ramifications impact almost every conceivable realm of what we currently consider intrinsic to the human experience.

(Those with direct/indirect experience of certain types of physical impairment may have some valuable input here).

  • 1
    Instead of verbal, I would suspect avatar sexuality in VR environments with a positive feedback loop to be plausible.
    – Allan
    Aug 5 at 12:40
  • Thanks Allan. Avatar's a great term. I will edit the question. What do you mean by 'positive feedback loop'? Aug 5 at 12:44
  • 1
    similar to how biology gives us pleasure through chemical released, the encounter of two digital beings could have a programmed reaction that enhances the situation. (this assumes emotions carry over in digitization)
    – Allan
    Aug 5 at 12:48
  • Okay. So...essentially a reward system. I suppose there's nothing that necessarily prevents a sufficiently sophisticated technology from endowing us with virtual organs (and their associated sensations), similar to how an amputee might experience "ghost pain", in the missing limb. It seems likely that we would strive to develop such a technology, as it is such a major part of our identity. I wonder if it would diminish in importance however, once actual sexuality - post-biology - became redundant. Would other drives take over? Aug 5 at 13:00
  • When you say "transition into a purely digital form", do you mean mind uploading? If the exact structure of a human brain was being simulated (along with simulated hormones and any other biological factors that have significant effects on brain function), I would think the same biological urges would be present (sex, hunger, etc.), though these urges are affected by culture to some degree.
    – Hypnosifl
    Aug 5 at 13:46

Genes and memes. It's how things impact the replication of replicators, that will shape future population which even in digital space, consist of units of selection in some way.

I would look to understand community and group cohesion to Durkheim, on religion:

"A religion is a unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things, that is to say, things set apart and forbidden -- beliefs and practices which unite into one single moral community called a Church, all those who adhere to them."

This applies to the 'churches' who hold habeus corpus, or free speech sacred too. Challenge what the community enact together the holding sacred of, challenge the communities cohesion. When reproduction is removed, the uses of intimacy and sensory gratification, will be purely cultural, and either help build cohesion, or not. Durkheim juxtaposes social cohesiveness, with anomie.

We discussed how social aims of cooperation, have almost entirely coopted our intuitions towards having sex in private here: How do ethicists tackle the question "Is it immoral to have sex in public places?" Is it possible to use rational and empirical ideas to answer? and more generally How is Society shaped?

I don't think we are far enough along the track, for this to be much more than an area for science fiction, apart from noting evolutiinary history. Sex emerged very early in evolution, as a way to drive diversity & tune selection of new replicators more dynamically. Without change, with immortal digital entities, there can be only stagnation. It would be inevitable, even with a small fraction of new entities joining from meat-space over time. It's likely a complex set of pressures will act, and at some point something like the Cambrian Explosion.

I'd say the replication of tribal mode-of-living at the scale of the Dunbar Number, could replace an individuals genes as the unit of selection, in digital space. Perhaps with core ideas or narratives or values, generating new groups like religious entrepreneurship & cult-making has in the past.

I look at The 'lying flat' movement in China, and historical Beguine Order to examples of cultural shifts away from a kind of materialism around a family, and pursuing social status in that area.

We imagine we are driven by the qualities of experiences themselves. But in reality what we find pleasurable has been shaped by physical evolution. And what we find fulfilling has been shaped by cultural evolution. If we were robots driven by sensations, everyone exposed to hard drugs presumably would have to become addicted (it's typically less than 15% of users over their lifetime). With the right health & support we can reorientate specific behaviours, from our wider being. I'd say if sex ceases to be important, memory of it will fade. But social purposes may keep it important, especially intense intimacy. And a wider driver of change and recombination will remain essential.

I recommend Hannu Rajaniemi's 'Jean le Flambeur' trilogy for the near-ish future of blurring together real and digital worlds, with deep philosophical thinking from the sobornost to strange-loops.

  • 1
    Awesome response. Heaps to learn and think about. Cheers. +1. Aug 5 at 15:25

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.