I suspect quite a lot of AI researchers would think of empathy as a very, kind of, second rate form of intelligence, and will confuse it with the mere personality dimension of agreeableness. But in fact empathetic understanding is extraordinarily cognitively demanding. It is worth recalling that what it is like to be another subject of experience, and what it is like to be able to apprehend fourth, fifth, and even -in the case of someone like Shakespeare- sixth order intentionality is as much a property of the natural world as the rest mass of the electron. So in so far as one wants to actually understand the nature of the natural world one is going to want to understand other subjects of experience.
Now most of us -and it is true for good evolutionary reasons- are not mirror-touch synesthete. We don’t feel the pain of others as if it were our own, we don’t experience their perspectives as if they were our own. But… I think with a greater full-spectrum of super-intelligence, as one actually comes to understand the perspectives of other subjects of experience, as one starts to obtain this god-like capacity to impartially understand all possible subjects of experience, this will entail expanding our circle of compassion. It is not possible if you are a mirror-touch synesthete to act in a non-friendly hostile way to another sentient being, and I would see a generalization of mirror-touch synesthesia as part and parcel of being a full-spectrum super-intelligence.
Any supposedly intelligent being that doesn’t understand the nature of consciousness -that doesn’t understand that there are other subjects of experience as real as you or me right now- is in a fundamental sense ignorant. And if we are talking about super-intelligence, as distinct from savant minds or insentient malware systems, one must remember that by definition a super-intelligence is not ignorant.
David is responding to a question I posed about the relationship between empathy and super-intelligence. One could in principle imagine an Artificial Intelligence system that is capable of designing nanotechnology without ever being aware of other minds. The AI could take over the world from the ground up and never suspect that anyone actually lived in it. The AI could simply model other agents to the extent that is necessary to predict their behavior within the parameters that define the conditions of its success and failure. No need to experience the colors, aromas, feelings and thoughts of humans when you can approximate them well enough with a Bayesian system trained on past observed behaviors.
A lot of people seem to be worried about this sort of scenario. Admittedly, if one thinks that all there is to intelligence is the capacity to optimize a given utility function, then yes, super-intelligences could in principle be completely ignorant of the matter-of-fact about the qualia we are experiencing right now. AI safety organizations and researchers mostly care about this sort of intelligence. As far as the safety concerns go, I think this is fair enough. The problem comes when the view that intelligence is nothing more than utility function maximization conceptually spills over into one’s full conception of what intelligence is and will always be.
The contention here, I think, is the way we conceptualize intelligence. Depending on one’s background assumptions one will end up with some or other idea of what this concept can or cannot mean:
On the one hand, if one starts by exclusively caring about the way autonomous systems behave from a third-person point of view and in turn disregards the computational importance of consciousness, then any talk of “a deep understanding of the nature of other’s experiences” will seem completely besides the point. On the other hand, if one starts from an empathetic mindset that acknowledges the reality -and ethical weight- of the vastness of the state-space of consciousness, one may prefer to define intelligence in terms of empathetic understanding. I.e. as the capacity to explore, navigate, contrast, compare and utilize arbitrarily alien state-spaces of experience for computational and aesthetic purposes.
Implicit in the picture is that the Hedonium Ball is at the verge of becoming critical (and turn into super-critical hedonium, at around 17 kgs, which leads to runaway re-coherence of the wavefunction reachable, i.e. all of our forward light-cone). The only reason why the ball hasn’t gone critical is because the friendly AI is currently preventing it from doing so. But the AI is at full capacity. If it had a bit more power the AI would completely annihilate the hedonium, since it is a threat to the Coherent Extrapolated Volition (CEV) of the particular human values that led to its creation. More so, the friendly AI would then go ahead and erase the memory of anyone who has ever thought of making hedonium, and change them slightly so that they belong to a society of other people who have been brainwashed to not know anything about philosophical hedonism. They would have deeply fulfilling lives, but would never know of the existence of hyper-valuable states of consciousness.
Only you can sort out this stale-mate. The ball and the AI are at such a delicate balance that just throwing a trolley at either will make the other win forever.
“Normal” or so-called “euthymic” people are inclined to judge that hyperthymics/”optimists” view the world through rose-tinted spectacles. Their central information-processing system is systematically biased. Conversely, hyperthymics see the rest of us as unreasonably pessimistic. Chronic depressives, on the other hand, may view euthymic and hyperthymic people alike as deluded. Indeed victims of melancholic depression may feel the world itself is hateful and meaningless. For evolutionary reasons (cf. rank theory), a genetic predisposition to hyperthymia and euphoric unipolar mania are rarer than dysthymia or unipolar depression. Most of us fall somewhere in between these temperamental extremes, though the distribution is skewed to the southern end of the axis. Genetics plays a key role in determining our hedonic set-point, as does the ceaseless interplay between our genes and environmental stressors. Inadequate diet, imprudent drug use, and severe, chronic, uncontrolled stress can all reset an emotional thermostat at a lower level than its previous norm – though that norm may be surprisingly robust. Unlike recreational euphoriants, delayed-onset antidepressants may restore a lowered set-point to its former norm, or even elevate it. Antidepressants may act to reverse stress-induced hypertrophy of the basolateral amygdala and contrasting stress-induced dendritic atrophy in the hippocampus. Yet no mood-brightener currently licensed for depression reliably induces permanent bliss, whether information-signalling or constant, serene or manic. A genetically-determined ceiling stops our quality of life as a whole getting better.
Is the future of mood and motivation in the universe destined to be an endless replay of life’s evolutionary past? Are the same affective filters that were genetically adaptive for our hominid ancestors likely to be retained by our transhuman successors? Will superintelligent life-forms really opt to preserve the architecture of the primordial hedonic treadmill indefinitely? In each case, probably not, though it’s controversial whether designer drugs, neuroelectrodes or gene therapies will make the biggest impact on recalibrating the pleasure-pain axis. In the long-run, perhaps germline genetic engineering will deliver the greatest global enhancement of emotional well-being. For a reproductive revolution of designer babies is imminent. Thanks to genomic medicine, tomorrow’s parents will be able to choose the genetic make-up and personality of their offspring. Critically, parents-to-be will be able to select the emotional dial-settings of their progeny rather than play genetic roulette. In deciding what kind of children to create, tomorrow’s parents will (presumably) rarely opt for dysfunctional, depressive and malaise-ridden kids. Quite aside from the ethical implications of using old corrupt code, children who are temperamentally happy, loving and affectionate are far more enjoyable to bring up.
The collective outcome of these individual parental genetic choices will be far-reaching. In the new era of advanced biotechnology and reproductive medicine, a combination of designer drugs, autosomal gene therapies and germline interventions may give rise to a civilisation inhabiting a state-space located further “north” emotionally than present-day humans can imagine or coherently describe. Gradients of heritable, lifelong bliss may eventually become ubiquitous. The worst post-human lows may be far richer than the most sublime of today’s peak experiences. Less intuitively, our superwell descendants may be constitutionally smarter as well as happier than unenriched humans. Aided by synthetic enhancement technologies, fine-textured gradients of intense emotional well-being can play an information-signalling role at least as versatile and sophisticated as gradients of emotional ill-being or pain-sensations today. Simplistically, it may be said that posterity will be “permanently happy”. However, this expression can be a bit misleading. Post-humans are unlikely to be either “blissed out” wireheads or soma-addled junkies. Instead, we may navigate by the gradients of a multi-dimensional compass that’s designed – unlike its bug-ridden Darwinian predecessor – by intelligent agents for their own ends.
A common way of viewing Everettian quantum mechanics is to say that in an act of measurement, the universe splits into two. There is a world in which the electron has x-spin up, the pointer points to “x-spin up,” and we believe the electron has x-spin up. There is another world in which the electron has x-spin down, the pointer points to “x-spin down,” and we believe the electron has x-spin down. This is why Everettian quantum mechanics is often called “the many worlds interpretation.” Because the contrary pointer readings exist in different universes, no one notices that both are read. This way of interpreting Everettian quantum mechanics raises many metaphysical difficulties. Does the pointer itself split in two? Or are there two numerically distinct pointers? If the whole universe splits into two, doesn’t this wildly violate conservation laws? There is now twice as much energy and momentum in the universe than there was just before the measurement. How plausible is it to say that the entire universe splits?
Although this “splitting universes” reading of Everett is popular (Deutsch 1985 speaks this way in describing Everett’s view, a reading originally due to Bryce Dewitt), fortunately, a less puzzling interpretation has been developed. This idea is to read Everett’s theory as he originally intended. Fundamentally, there is no splitting, only the evolution of the wave function according to the Shrödinger dynamics. To make this consistent with experience, it must be the case that there are in the quantum state branches corresponding to what we observe. However, as, for example, David Wallace has argued (2003, 2010), we need not view these branches -indeed, the branching process itself- as fundamental. Rather, these many branches or many worlds are patterns in the one universal quantum state that emerge as the result of its evolution. Wallace, building on work by Simon Saunders (1993), argues that there is a kind of dynamical process; the technical name for this process is “decoherence,” that can ground the emergence of quasi-classical branches within the quantum state. Decoherence is a process that involves an interaction between two systems (one of which may be regarded as a system and the other its environment) in which distinct components of the quantum state come to evolve independently of one another. That this occurs is the result of the wave function’s Hamiltonian, the kind of system it is. A wave function that (due to the kind of state it started out in and the Shrödinger dynamics) exhibits decoherence will enter into states capable of representation as a sum of noninteracting terms in particular basis (e.g., a position basis). When this happens, the system’s dynamics will appear classical from the perspective of the individual branches.
Note the facts about the quantum state decohering are not built into the fundamental laws. Rather, this is an accidental fact depending on the kind of state our universe started out in. The existence of these quasi-classical states is not a fundamental fact either, but something that emerges from the complex behavior of the fundamental state. The sense in which there are many worlds in this way of understanding Everettian quantum mechanics is therefore not the same as it is on the more naive approach already described. Fundamentally there is just one universe evolving according to the Schrödinger equation (or whatever is its relativistically appropriate analog). However, because of the special way this one world evolves, and in particular because parts of this world do not interfere with each other and can each on their own ground the existence of quasi-classical macro-objects that look like individual universes, it is correct in this sense to say (nonfundamentally) there are many worlds.
As metaphysicians, we are interested in the question of what the world is fundamentally like according to quantum mechanics. Some have argued that the answer these accounts give us (setting aside Bohmian mechanics for the moment) is that fundamentally all one needs to believe in is the wave function. What is the wave function? It is something that as we have already stated may be described as a field on configuration space, a space where each point can be taken to correspond to a configuration of particles, a space that has 3N dimensions where N is the number of particles. So, fundamentally, according to these versions of quantum mechanics (orthodox quantum mechanics, Everettian quantum mechanics, spontaneous collapse theories), all there is fundamentally is a wave function, a field in a high-dimensional configuration space. The view that the wave function is a fundamental object and a real, physical field on configuration space is today referred to as “wave function realism.” The view that such a wave function is everything there is fundamentally is wave function monism.
To understand wave function monism, it will be helpful to see how it represents the space on which the wave function is spread. We call this space “configuration space,” as is the norm. However, note that on the view just described, this is not an apt name because what is supposed to be fundamental on this view is the wave function, not particles. So, although the points in this space might correspond in a sense to particle configurations, what this space is fundamentally is not a space of particle configurations. Likewise, although we’ve represented the number of dimensions configuration space has as depending on the number N of particles in a system, this space’s dimensionality should not really be construed as dependent on the number of particles in a system. Nevertheless, the wave function monist need not be an eliminativist about particles. As we have seen, for example, in the Everettian approach, wave function monists can allow that there are particles, derivative entities that emerge out of the decoherent behavior of the wave function over time. Wave function monists favoring other solutions to the measurement problem can also allow that there are particles in this derivative sense. But the reason the configuration space on which the wave function is spread has the number of dimensions it does is not, in the final analysis, that there are particles. This is rather a brute fact about the wave function, and this in turn is what grounds the number of particles there are.
– The Wave Function: Essays on the Metaphysics of Quantum Mechanics. Edited by Alyssa Ney and David Z Albert (pgs. 33-34, 36-37).
Only when sexual choice favored the reportability of our subjective experiences- with the emergence of the mental clearing-house we call consciousness- did our strangely promiscuous introspection abilities emerge, such that we seem to have instant conscious access to such a range of impressions, ideas, and feelings. This may explain why philosophical writing about consciousness so often sounds like love poetry- philosophers of mind, like lovesick teenagers, dwell upon the redness of the rose, the emotional urgency of music, the soft warmth of skin, and the existential loneliness of the self. The philosophers wonder why such subjective experiences exist, given that they seem irrelevant to our survival prospects, while the lovesick teenagers know perfectly well that their romantic success depends, in part, on making a credible show of aesthetic sensitivity to their own conscious pleasures.
– The Mating Mind: How Sexual Choice Shaped the Evolution of Human Nature (pg. 365) by Geoffrey F. Miller
A Darwinian Set and Setting
According to The Mating Mind, human sexual selection favors particular fitness-indicating traits, both physical and mental. In the context of mental traits, we have verbal and introspective abilities, agreeableness, conscientiousness, openness to experience, low neuroticism and extroversion. No matter how verbally capable and introspective a given person is, unless that is balanced with some degree of agreeableness, conscientiousness, etc. the person will not be all that attractive. But, when all else is being held equal, stronger verbal and introspective abilities are favored. Teenagers, arguably, know this best of all: courtship is intensely verbal.
Our minds evolved in a Darwinian environment. If people like Miller are right in thinking that language evolved as a fitness indicator, we are right to expect that the way we think and verbalize is biased to be impressive to the members of the opposite sex during courtship. Powerful introspective abilities, as it were, can make one’s language seem deeper, more romantic, and even at an entirely different level than that of one’s peers. In this backdrop of sexual choices and judgements, it is not surprising that humans would develop ever-increasing verbal and introspective capacities. At some point everyday life could not present sufficient opportunities for people, especially males, to show off their own abilities. And as these abilities increased over time, culture was forced to invent handicaps so that people could display their top capabilities. Over time, elaborate and competitive handicaps were integrated into the culture. Even verbal and introspective abilities at the top of the scale can still be compared side by side by using carefully selected handicaps: for example, poetry is exactly that; rhyme, rhythm and meter make it easier for the best poets to show off their excellent abilities. The handicaps adjust to the maximum level of competence in the population.
The space of handicaps that are used to show off traits that are reliable indicators of fitness is very large. From Greek Symposiums to modern day Frat Parties, Western civilization has embraced a niche subculture that uses chemical handicaps as a means to display verbal, social and creative skills. If you can philosophize after drinking a gallon of wine, or stay capable of managing the playlist after 16 cheap cans of beer, you are showing off your biological robustness. Clearly, many of our ancestors were capable of impressing potential sexual mates with a mixture of booze, loud music and stunning philosophical conversations.
One could argue that psychedelics have come to disrupt our traditional games of handicaps. “Sure you can drink a bottle of tequila and sing in a band, but can you take three hits of acid and tell me what your experience reveals about the intrinsic nature of consciousness?” Psychedelics are, in a way, a cultural hyper-stimulus that presents the most difficult and interesting handicap currently in existence for verbal and introspective abilities.
Cultures can have an allergic reaction to the states of consciousness that these agents can disclose; people are afraid that psychedelic users will discover something that they themselves don’t know. Notably, psychedelicists have been both demonized and deified since the 60s. Sure, these researchers became extremely open minded, and in many ways weird. But, above all, they became extremely interesting people. And interesting people who challenge the current games of status can cause cultural allergic reactions.
Every acid head and psychedelic researcher has a pet theory of what these compounds are really doing in one’s mind. Many of these folk theories about the effects of psychedelics involve ontologies that currently have little scientific support (such as souls, thought fields, spirit worlds, archetypes, alien conspiracies, and so on). Although we cannot rule out explanations of this sort out of hand, the ontologies themselves are so abstract and poorly defined that we cannot accept them as useful forms of reductions. That said, their future versions will be more interesting. It is likely that committed, rational, spiritual psychedelic users will formalize models of this sort at some point. Rather than talking about a “spirit world,” they will talk about “mind-independent extra-dimensional space that consciousness can access in altered states” and then go on to define the differential equations that govern consciousness’s interactions with this space. When this happens, we will be in a much better position to assess the validity of these models, test the reality of those spaces, and perhaps even recruit the extra-dimensional inhabitants of these worlds for computational tasks.
Psychedelic experiences drastically increase people’s introspection, capacity for deep aesthetic appreciation, while at the same time increasing their ability to entertain unusual ideas. Insofar as the selection pressures of our introspective abilities have been heavily biased towards courtship ability, it is not surprising that people tend to immediately cast self-enhancing, life-affirming and magical narratives into their interpretations of their personal psychedelic experiences. After all, having a very interesting story to tell is highly praised during courtship. Are people’s psychedelic narratives a modern day form of the peacock’s tail? While psychedelic talk does not yet form part of any mainstream game of courtship, I envision this changing in the next decades. Undoubtedly, the most insightful, sound, and scientifically rigorous members of the Super-Shulgin Academy will attract attention, status, resources and… desirable mates.
What is the deep structure of psychedelic experiences?
Psychedelics seem to have a generalized effect on one’s consciousness. At minimum, we could talk of experience amplification. Without delving into specifics, psychedelics introduce spontaneous activity into our consciousness that our mind is compelled to integrate somehow. Our state of consciousness changes dynamically as our mind adjusts itself to the incoming stimulation. The result is tightly dependent on the interplay between our brain anatomy, motivational system and the actual changes to the micro-structure of consciousness induced by LSD.
As John Lilly noted in light of his psychedelic experiences: “in the province of the mind, what one believes to be true is true or becomes true, within certain limits to be found experientially and experimentally. These limits are further beliefs to be transcended. In the mind, there are no limits…”.* While there are reasons not to take this literally, we have grounds for claiming that a large number of limits on our experience are placed there by our deeply held beliefs and attitudes. The space of possible LSD experiences that a single individual can experience is much larger than what said individual will typically be able to explore in practice. Many limits are imposed by his or her beliefs and background assumptions, rather than by physiology per se. Social cognition is a profound attractor in psychedelic experiences. “What will I say about this? What would this person think about this experience? etc.” are captivating thoughts. However, they occupy valuable mental space. And the thick mental judgements that people naturally focus on come with large conceptual and emotional baggage that taints the experience. Meditators, philosophers and scientists are more likely to set aside some time during their explorations to delve more deeply into what the energy introduced by LSD can produce in one’s consciousness.
After extreme training and tens (or hundreds) of trips, dedicated psychonauts will discover qualities that all of the trips share. Most people will likely experience a variant of Lilly’s realization that whatever you believe can be perceived as true during psychedelic experiences. Lilly emphasized the limitless quality of the mind, but one must wonder: If one can experience as true anything conceivable, are we not, then, limited by what we can conceive? No matter how much time one spends with an open mind waiting for new and interesting ideas to take shape, one cannot know the nature of what one has not yet even conceived of.
It may be true that we will always find fundamental limits that cannot be overcome. There are fundamental physiological constraints to the possible configurations of our consciousness, and arguably, chemical agents, while capable of expanding the space of possibilities, will not automatically give access to all possible states of consciousness. As future research is likely to show, 2C-B and LSD probably facilitate slightly different kinds of thoughts and experiences. Thus the limits of our mind are at least to a large extent the result of our physiology. Memes and meditation can only go so far.
In addition to physiological limits, the structure of the state-space of qualia is itself a constraint on what can and cannot be experienced. To the extent that psychedelic states enable the exploration of a larger space of possible experiences, we are more likely while on psychedelics to find states of consciousness that demonstrate fundamental limits imposed by the structure of the state-space of qualia. In normal everyday experience we can see that yellow and blue cannot be mixed (phenomenologically), while yellow and red can (and thus deliver orange). This being a constraint of the state-space of qualia itself is not at all evident, but it is a good candidate and many introspective individuals agree. On psychedelic states one can detect many other rules like that, except that they operate on much higher-dimensional and synesthetic spaces (E.g. “Some feelings of roughness and tinges of triangle orange can mix well, while some spiky mongrels and blue halos simply won’t touch no matter how much I try.” – 150 micrograms of LSD).
One of the objectives of Qualia Computing is to define the state space of possible experiences and the interdependencies between them. While normal everyday states of consciousness are important datapoints, I predict that the bulk of the most useful information will come from studying the behavior and mechanics of consciousness in radically altered states. To this end, however, we should focus on simple explanations that can be generalized to all psychedelic experiences.
Starting Background Assumptions
For the purpose of this article I will assume that direct realism, in all of its guises, is wrong. That is, I will assume that any mind-independent object can only be experienced indirectly. What we experience is not the object (or beings) themselves, but a qualia-furnished representation entirely contained within one’s mind (this is often called the simulationist account of perception). Furthermore, I will also assume that the behavior of the universe can be fully described with the Standard Model of physics (or a future version of it).
In what is to follow I will propose, as a first approximation, an algorithmic reduction of psychedelic states; I will propose a set of changes in our consciousness that (1) is as simple and assumption-free as possible, and (2) can be used to reconstruct as many psychedelic effects as possible.
Two Kinds of Reduction
The word reduction in the context of philosophy of science has a lot of historical and conceptual baggage. In the context of this article, I will use the word in the following sense: We say that a property of a given phenomenon X reduces to Y if we can fully explain X’s property by referencing Y’s properties. X can be a physical phenomenon, a mathematical construct or even an experience. Y is an ontology with interaction rules, which allow the pieces of said ontology to interact with one another. We do not commit to the idea that Y itself needs to be the fundamental (or true) ontology of X. But we do want to make sure that Y is at least more fundamental than X in some appropriate sense. So what kind of ontologies can Y have? In the context of philosophy of mind, reductions usually attempt to account for not only the behavior of consciousness but also for its underlying nature. Thus, functionalism is both a reduction program as well as a philosophical take on what the mind fundamentally is.
Thankfully, we do not need to commit to any ontology in order to advance a particular style of reduction. Reductions are useful regardless: they reduce the amount of information needed to describe a phenomenon, and if accurate, they can also make useful predictions. Finally, these reductions can provide hints for how to bridge different areas of science; by identifying isomorphisms or even further reductions, entire fields can cross-pollinate once their respective reductions are compatible (such as biology and chemistry or chemistry and physics).
For most intents and purposes, science relies on a particular kind of reduction that we can call atomistic reduction. This style of reduction focuses on explaining macroscopic phenomena by modeling it as the emergent structure of many particles interacting with one another at a much finer level of resolution. Even though this style of reduction is usually fruitful (e.g. thermodynamics), it can be counter-productive to assume in some situations. An extreme case would be the quantum computer. If states of superposition help a computer find an answer, it will be hard to explain the behavior of said superposition by postulating that it actually reduces to little particles interacting using simple rules. The model could in principle be worked out, but at the cost of very high complexity. It would be much easier to start with a quantum-mechanical ontology that allows the superposition of wavefunctions! Then what is left is to reduce the rest of the computer to quantum mechanics (which is possible, given that particle models and quantum mechanical models usually converge at the macroscopic limit).
It is tempting to try to reduce the properties of the mind (including psychedelic states) using an atomistic reduction. Unfortunately, the phenomenal binding problem adds a complication to this reduction. Rather than discussing (right now) whether an atomistic (and thus classical) account will ultimately be capable of modeling conscious experience, we will side-step this problem by using a different style of reduction. We will focus only on the algorithmic level of analysis.
Without assuming a fundamental ontology (atoms, fields, wavefunctions, etc.) we can still make a lot of progress. We can restrict ourselves to identifying what we call an algorithmic reduction: find a set of procedures, state-spaces, shapes and overall main effects out of which you can reconstruct as much of the observed behavior as possible.
In reality, every reduction is, at least in part, an algorithmic reduction. By specifying a particular ontology such as “particles”, we restrict the shape of our possible reductions. By keeping the reduction at the algorithmic level, we allow arbitrary ontologies to be the final explanations (then depending on actual empirical measurements). The main criteria for success still includes (1) the overall complexity of the model, and (2) the explanatory power of the model. In other words, how easily and precisely does the model reconstruct the behavior of our experiences?
A Zoo of Psychedelic Effects
PsychonautWiki has a detailed and fascinating taxonomy of reported psychedelic visual effects. One could argue that all of these countless effects are completely unique. As a philosopher might put it, these effects may ultimately be qualitatively irreducible to one another. But what are the chances that a simple molecule would happen to trigger a whole zoo of unrelated effects? As a form of reduction, nothing is achieved by stating that every effect is its own unique phenomenon.
Four Principal Operators: A Simple Algorithmic Model of Psychedelic States
In trying to account for the strange effects of psychedelics, we will aim to propose as few main effects as possible and then use these effects, and their interactions, to derive all of the remaining effects. By doing this, we will be algorithmically reducing the complex phenomena found in psychedelic states. In turn, this will allow us to increase our understanding of the source of information processing benefits provided by psychedelic states, and to derive new and exciting applications of such states. Additionally, by identifying a good algorithmic reduction, we might be able to refine the states themselves, to amplify their benefits while minimizing the drawbacks.
The model we will treat for now has four main effects, and with those four effects we will attempt to reconstruct the rest. These effects are:
Symmetric drifting. What would Giulio Tononi think about this? Source.
Control interruption is the simplest and most universal psychedelic effect. It enables the buildup of qualia in one’s consciousness. People say that psychedelics are intense, deep, bright, etc. Every experience, whether a thought, a smell or an emotion, seems to be both stronger and longer-lasting on psychedelics.
Things seem more lively, and this is not because a switch is suddenly turned on and your experience of the current input is amplified. Rather, one seems to be experiencing a gentle overlap of many previous frames (and feature bundles) of one’s experience. In medium to high doses, this can give rise to solid frame stacking. In turn, the buildup of sensation creates complex patterns of interference:
In order for a perceptual system to transition from a linear to a nonlinear state, negative feedback control must be subverted. If control is entirely removed then perception becomes totally unconstrained, leaving a system that is quickly overloaded with too much information. If control is placed in a state where it is partially removed or in a toggled superposition where it is alternately in control and not in control over the period of a rapid oscillation, then the constraints of linear sensory throughput will bifurcate into a nonlinear spectrum of multi-stable output with signal complexity correlating to the functional interruption of control. Common entheogenic wisdom states that you must relinquish control and submit to the experience to get the most out of psychedelics. Holding onto control causes negative experiences and amplifies anxiety; letting go of control and embracing unconstrained perception is a central psychedelic tenet. This demonstrates that psychedelics directly subvert feedback control over linear perception to promote states of unconstrained consciousness.
– Control Interrupt Model of Psychedelic Action, PIT
Control interruption explains a large variety of effects, including the increase in the raw intensity (and amount) of experience, as well as the longer lasting positive afterimages (and thus tracers). Here we show a simple example of this effect. Consider the “original stimuli” to be what one experiences under a sober state. Likewise, consider the 9 squares to be different states of consciousness brought up by various psychotropic combinations.
The 9 gifs you see above are simulations of control interruption using a simple feedback model (which we will describe in detail in a later article). The x-axis has different “echo strengths” while the y-axis has varying feedback strengths. These are two of the model parameters. Notice that the lower right corner is a credible rendition of something that people describe as moments of eternity. These are experiences where time seems to stop due to an over-saturation of regular and ordered qualia.
When considering the following effects, don’t forget that control interruption is also going on all the time. The stranger the psychedelic effect, the more intense it is.
Drifting is responsible for breathing walls, animated plants, feelings of boundary dissolution, merging and melting, and so on. Small amounts of drifting usually involve individual feature detachments from perceptual objects (such as the color and shape of a chair becoming dissociated). Medium amounts of drifting make textures flow constantly. If one’s experience was made of tiny magnetic gears that are usually aligned in a coherent way, drifting would result from increasing the overall energy of the system. Thus, the visual system is constantly descending to “more aligned local states” while incoming energy is constantly adding noise and destroying all of the alignment progress made.
A particularly salient aspect of drifting is that features and locally-bound fragments of experience can drift in any direction in 3D. Pieces of the wall don’t only drift left and right, but also forwards and backwards.
On high doses of psychedelics or synergistic combinations of dissociatives and psychedelics (e.g. LSD + nitrous, 2C-B + ketamine, etc.), drifting can become all-encompassing. A critical point is crossed when one loses the capacity to define a mainframeof experience (the dominating orientation-giving island of locally bound experience that we use as a reference point). When this happens, one feels like one cannot tell left from right, or up from down. One simply experiences a constant chaotic flow of experience. In some cases one can even spot interesting instabilities that resemble actual physical instabilities found in fluid mechanics (such as the Kelvin–Helmholtz instability).
Drifting does not occur in isolation, and its mechanics are dependent on the particular set and setting in which the psychedelic experience is developing. From a computational point of view, drifting can be useful because it allows a quick exploration of the state-space of possible local binding configurations between the phenomenal objects present in one’s experience. Indeed, not only does red fail to mix with green, but many of the synesthetic qualia varieties present in a scene with constant drifting will refuse to touch each other. Drifting feels like there is some sort of psychedelic energy (somewhat reminiscent of anxiety, but not restricted to body feelings) that overheats certain parts of one’s conscious experience, and in turn disassembles the local connections there.
Enhanced Pattern Recognition: This effect refers to the transient (but often powerful) lowering of the detection threshold for previously experienced patterns and known ontologies (e.g. animals, plants, people, etc.). Psychedelics, in other words, temporarily increase one’s degree of apophenia. Another name given to this effect is eidetic hallucinations. From a Bayesian point of view, the effect could be described thus: psychedelics intensify the effect of our priors. As explained in Getting Closer to Digital LSD, Google’s deep belief neural network inceptionist technique works by finding bundles of features that trigger high-level neurons (such as face-detectors, object-detectors, etc) at sub-threshold levels (e.g. “this almost looks like a frog”) and then modifying the picture so that the network more strongly detects those same high level features. This particular algorithm can be understood in terms of the pharmacological action of psychedelics: one can have breakthroughs of eidetic hallucinations by impairing the inhibitory control coming from the cortex.
In a sense we could say that while tracers are the result of “simple cell control interruption”, eidetic hallucinations are the result of “complex cell control interruption.” The former allows the build-up of colors, edges and simple shapes, while the latter amplifies the features that trigger high-level percepts such as faces and objects.
The way one directs attention during a psychedelic trip influences the way eidetic hallucinations evolve over time. For this reason any psychedelic replication movie will probably require human input (in the form of eye-tracking) in order to incorporate human saliency preferences and interests into an evolving virtual psychedelic trip simulated with the Inceptionist Method.
Lower Symmetry Detection and Propagation Thresholds:Finally, this is perhaps the most interesting and scientifically salient effect of psychedelics. The first three effects are not particularly difficult to square with standard neuroscience. This fourth effect, while not incompatible with connectionist accounts, does suggest a series of research questions that may hint at an entirely new paradigm for understanding consciousness.
I have not seen anyone in the literature specifically identify this effect in all of its generality. The lowering of the symmetry detection threshold really has to be experienced to be believed. I claim that this effect manifests in all psychedelic experiences to a greater or lesser extent, and that many effects can in fact be explained by simply applying this effect iteratively.
Psychedelics make it easier to find similarities between any two given phenomenal objects. When applied to perception, this effect can be described as a lowering of the symmetry detection threshold. This effect is extremely general and symmetry should not be taken to exclusively refer to geometric symmetry.
How symmetries manifest depends on the set and setting. Researchers interested in verifying and exploring the quantitative and subjective properties of this effect will probably have to focus first on a narrow domain; the effect happens in all experiential modalities.
For now, let us focus on the case of visual experience. In this domain, the effect is what PsychonautWiki calls Symmetrical Texture Repetition:
Symmetry detection can be (and typically is) recursively applied to previously detected symmetry bundles. A given symmetry bundle is a set of n-dimensional symmetry planes (lines, hyperplanes, etc.) for which the qualities of the experience surrounding this bundle obey the symmetry constraints imposed by these planes. The planes can create mirror, rotational or oblique symmetry. Each symmetry bundle is capable of establishing a merging relationship with another symmetry bundle. These relationships are fleeting, but they influence the evolution of the relative position of each plane of symmetry. When x symmetry planes are in a merging relationship, one’s mind tries to re-arrange them (often using drifting) to create a symmetrical arrangement of these x symmetry planes. To do so, the mind detects one (or several) more symmetry planes, along which the previously-existing symmetry planes are made to conform, to organize in a symmetrical way (mirror, rotational, translational or otherwise). There is an irresistible subjective pull towards those higher levels of symmetry. The direction of highest symmetry and meta-symmetry feels blissful, interesting, mind-expanding, and awe-producing.
If one meditates in a sensorially-minimized room during a psychedelic experience while being aware that one’s symmetry detection threshold has been lowered by the substance, one can recursively re-apply this effect to produce all kinds of complex mathematical structures in one’s mind.
In the future, perhaps at a Super-Shulgin Academy, people will explore and compare the various states of consciousness that exhibit peak symmetry. These states would be the result of iteratively applying symmetry detection, amplification and re-arrangement. We would see fractals, tessellations, graphs and higher dimensional projections. Which one of these experiences contains the highest degree of inter-connectivity? And if psychedelic symmetry is somehow related to conscious bliss, which experience of symmetry is human peak bliss?
The pictures above all illustrate possible peak symmetry states one can achieve by combining psychedelics and meditation. The pictures illustrate only the core structure of symmetries that are present in these states of consciousness. What is being reflected is the very raw “feels” of each patch of your experiential field. Thus these pictures really miss the actual raw feelings of the whole experience. They do show, however, a rough outline of symmetrical relationships possible in one of these experiences.
Since control interruption is also co-occurrent with the psychedelic symmetry effect, previously-detected symmetries tend to linger for long periods of time. For this reason, the kinds of symmetries one can detect at a given point in time is a function of the symmetries that are currently being highlighted. And thanks to drifting and pattern recognition enhancement, there is some wiggle room for your mind to re-arrange the location of the symmetries experienced. The four effects together enable, at times, a smooth iterative integration of so many symmetries that one’s consciousness becomes symmetrically interconnected to an unbelievable degree.
What may innocently start as a simple two-sided mirror symmetry can end up producing complex arrangements of self-reflecting mirrors showing glimpses of higher and higher dimensional symmetries. Studying the mathematical properties of the allowed symmetries is a research project that has only just begun. I hope one day dedicated mathematicians describe in full the class of possible high-order symmetries that humans can experience in these states.
Anecdotally, each of the 17 possible wallpaper symmetry groups can be instantiated with this effect. In other words, psychedelic states lower the symmetry detection threshold for all of the mathematically available symmetrical tessellations.
All of the 17 2-dimensional wallpaper groups can be experienced with symmetry planes detected, amplified and re-arranged during a psychedelic experience.
Revising the symmetrical texture repetition of grass shown above, we can now discover that the picture displays the wallpaper symmetry found in the lower left circle above:
In very high doses, the symmetry completion is so strong that at any point one risks confusing left and right, and thus losing grasp of one’s orientation in space and time. Depersonalization is, at times, the result of the information that is lost when there is intense symmetry completion going on. One’s self-models become symmetrical too quickly, and one finds it hard to articulate a grounded point of view.
The Micro-Structure of Consciousness
At Qualia Computing we explore models of consciousness that acknowledge the micro-structure of consciousness. Experiences are not just higher-order mental operations applied to propositional content. Rather, an instant of experience contains numerous low-level textural properties. This is true for every sensory modality, and I would argue, even for the what-its-likeness of thought itself. Even just thinking about a mathematical idea (ex. “the intersection of two arbitrary sets”) is done by interacting with a background of raw feels, and these raw feels determine our attitudes and interactions with the ideas we are trying to abstract (some people, for example, experience emotional distress when trying out mathematical problems, and this is not because certain mathematical spaces are inherently unpleasant or anxiety-inducing).
In the case of vision, the micro-structure of consciousness is capable of supporting at least the following low-level features: color, color gradients, points, edges, oriented movement, and acceleration. A full conversation about the range of visual features that we are capable of experiencing is a discussion for another time. But for the time being, it will suffice to point out that (static) models of peripheral vision only need 5 summary statistics. With only five summary stats you can create textures that a human will find impossible to distinguish in peripheral vision.
These so-called mongrels are texturalmetamers (equivalence classes of subjectively indistinguishable input patterns). The state-space of perceivable visual textures is the space of possible mongrels, and that is an example of the sort of micro-structure we are looking for. Unlike the cozy high-definition space inscribed in the fovea, most of the information found in our sensory modalities comes in the form of textures that are mappable to state-spaces of summary statistics.
Psychedelic symmetry detection and amplification operates on the inner structure of mongrels. The fact that the mongrels are the objects becoming symmetric is something that can elude introspection until someone points it out. It happens right in front of any tripper’s eyes and yet people don’t seem to report it very often (if at all). This may be a result of the fact that the fine-grained structure of consciousness is rarely a topic of conversation, and that we usually describe what we see in the fovea (unless we have no other option). Our words usually refer to whole percepts or, at best, the simplest raw values of experience (such as the hue of colors or the presence of edges). And yet, the structure of our mongrels is quite obvious once symmetry propagation has conformed a large patch of your experience to have a tessellated identical mongrel repeating across it.
How Are these Components Related to Each Other?
The Kaleidoscopic technique to induce qualia annealing relies on a combination of drifting and symmetry detection in order to resolve implicit inconsistencies within one’s own memory gestalts. As we live and grow our experienced evidence base, we accumulate memories and impressions of many worldviews. Each worldview is, in a way, a response to all of the previous ones (or at least the memorable ones) and the current situation and the problems one is facing. Thanks to the four effects here described, a person can utilize a psychedelic state to increase the probability of the systematic co-occurrence of (usually) mutually-exclusive gestalts (worldviews) and thus enable their mutual awareness. And with mutual awareness, the symmetry detection and amplification effect creates (somehow forcefully) a unified phenomenal object that incorporates the inconsistent views into an unbiased (or less biased) point of view. One can achieve a higher order of memetic and affective integration.
Given the symmetry detection and amplification property of psychedelics, one can reasonably argue that psychedelic states may be able to reveal the properties of the micro-structure of consciousness. Timothy Leary, among others, described LSD as a sort of microscope for one’s psyche. The very word psychedelic means mind-manifest (the manifestation of one’s mind). Given the four components of these experiences, the fact that psychedelics work as some sort of microscope should not be surprising. Symmetry detection and control interruption multiply the amount of raw experience, while pattern recognition shows you what you are expecting (your priors become evident) and drifting makes the fleeting synesthetic effects malleable and easier to move around. People generally agree that psychedelics can show you subtle aspects of your own mind with stark clarity. But can they reveal the intrinsic properties of the nature of qualia at the most fundamental level?
The way to achieve this may be to create a fractal structure of symmetries in such a way that any tiny part of one’s experience can get reflected throughout the entirety of the phenomenal structure. One can then use eidetic hallucinations (or further symmetry detection) to focus and stabilize the fractal structure. Thus one would multiply the surface area of all of one’s attention into countless replicas of the micro-structure of a given part of one’s experience. A fractal kaleidoscopic mirror amplifier chamber is exactly what I imagine when I think about how to analyze the fine-grained structure of consciousness. And it so happens that meditation plus psychedelics can allow you to (fleetingly) build just that.
Psychedelic Introspectoscope (fractal kaleidoscope of generalized symmetries) to amplify arbitrary qualia values (such as particular emotions, phenomenal colors, synesthetic inter-junctions, etc.)
Any subtle qualia space can be multiplied countless times in such a way that all of one’s experience becomes a coherent interlocking structure that can be perceived all at once. If one wants to study, for example, the possible interactions between two hues of color, one can amplify the boundary between two regions that make the desired contrast of hues and make the entire fractal structure amplify this boundary hundreds of times.
Arguably, if one discovers that certain qualia values cannot be mixed in the introspectoscope (such as blue and yellow), one may still not know if these are fundamental constraints, or if they are the result of our connectome structure. If, on the other hand, two qualia values can mix in the introspectoscope, then we would know that they are not fundamentally mutually exclusive. Thus we would find out relational properties of the very state-space of qualia.
Reducing All Effects
Can we derive all psychedelic effects using the four components discussed above? While this is not yet possible, I trust that further work will show how most of the weird (and weirder) effects of psychedelics may be reduced to relatively simple (but not always atomistic) algorithms applied to the micro-structure of consciousness. I anticipate that we will discover that high doses actually produce entirely new effects (for example, what happens on 400 micrograms of LSD often include qualitative jumps from what happens at 150 micrograms). To note, ontological qualia and other subtle aspects of consciousness may resist reduction for still many more decades to come.
**An Introspectoscope is a hypothetical apparatus that enables a person to study the deep structure of his or her own consciousness. The concept comes from a paper in the making by Andrew Y. Lee. Obviously this comes with significant challenges. Some challenges come from the fact that we are trying to analyze something very small, and other challenges come from the fact we are trying to analyze qualia. Additionally, there are unique challenges that come from analyzing microscopic qualia qua microscopic qualia. I suggest that we use methods that amplify the micro-structure by taking advantage of fractal states: recursive and scale-free symmetry planes can amplify anything minute to a prominent place in the entire consciousness. Be careful not to amplify pain!
For every word written in scientific journals about the evolution of astonishing language ability, at least a hundred words have been written in women’s magazines about men’s apparent inability to articulate even the simplest thought or feeling. Women commonly complain that their sexual partners do not talk enough to them. If language evolved through sexual selection, and if sexual selection operates more powerfully on males than on females, you may legitimately wonder why your boyfriend or husband cannot share his feelings with you. Is it possible that, his early courtship efforts having brought success, he no longer feels driven to be as verbally energetic, interesting, and self-disclosing as he was before? The man who used to talk like Cyrano now talks like a cave-man. Once he was a poet, now he is prosaic. His verbal courtship effort has decreased.
I have already argued that effective verbal courtship is a reliable fitness indicator precisely because it is costly and difficult. Animals evolve to allocate their energies efficiently. If it took a million words to establish a sexual relationship with you, your boyfriend was apparently willing to absorb those costs, just as his male ancestors were. But if it takes only twenty words a day to maintain exclusive sexual access to you, why should he bother uttering more? His motivational system has evolved to deploy his courtship effort where it makes a difference to his reproductive success- mainly by focusing it where it improves his rate of sexual intercourse. Men apparently did not evolve from male ancestors who squandered high levels of verbal courtship effort on already established relationships. Of course, if an established partner suspends sexual relations, or threatens to have an affair, evolution would favor motivations that produce a temporary resurgence of verbal courtship until the danger has passed. Frustratingly, a woman may find that the greater the sexual commitment she displays the less her man speaks.
This analysis may sound heartlessly unromantic, but evolution is heartlessly unromantic. It is stingy with courtship effort, stacking it heavily where it does the most good, and sprinkling it very lightly elsewhere. Human courtship, like courtship in other animals, has a typical time-course. Courtship effort is low when first assessing a sexual prospect, increases rapidly if the prospect reciprocates one’s interest, peaks when the prospect is deciding whether to copulate, and declines once a long-term relationship is established. We all enjoy a desired partner besieging us with ardent, witty, energetic courtship. That enjoyment is the subjective manifestation of the mate preferences that shaped human language in the first place. As with any evolved preference, we may desire more than we can realistically get. Evolution’s job is to motivate us, not to satisfy us.
So, when women universally complain about their slothfully mute boyfriends, we learn two things. First, women have a universal desire to enjoy receiving high levels of verbal courtship effort. Second, high levels of verbal courtship effort are so costly that men have evolved to produce them only when they are necessary for initiating or reviving sexual relationships. Far from undermining the courtship hypothesis for language evolution, this phenomenon provides two key pieces of evidence that support it.
– The Mating Mind: How Sexual Choice Shaped the Evolution of Human Nature (pg. 382) by Geoffrey F. Miller
Geoffrey Miller is the author of the “Mating Mind”, a highly interesting book on what evolutionary biology has to say about all of our weird “dating and sexual quirks.” David Pearce highly recommends it, too.
Miller’s talk in this video is just as interesting as Ogi Ogas’ talk about his book “A Billion Wicked Thoughts”. Both talks deal with the evolutionary basis of human sexual desires (yes, even the weird ones… specially the weird ones):
Both use sound empirical methods and develop theories of our sexuality based on genetic, anthropological, and biological analysis of human experience and behavior.
Here is an interesting observation: If we were descendants of a specie that used clones as a way of reproduction (or perhaps formed large asexual social colonies like bees or ants) then we would all love each other unreservedly.
Competition for good genes has made us quasi-psychopathic and selfish. The fall of humanity is not, apparently, the result of sinning against God. But rather, for having evolved in small tribes with heavy in-group genetic biases.
Likewise, our Darwinian origin is responsible for states of low mood, depression, anxiety, and so on. Depression itself, to dive into a specific example, is an adaptive strategy for non-alpha males in the ancestral environment, which predisposes you to keep your head low and reproduce in spite of the presence of an Alpha male who is capable of killing you if you try to challenge him. Additionally, depression is a behavioral response that allows you to passively accept and endure a long-lasting stressor, where “trying to make things right” instead of submitting to the reality of the situation was simply not as genetically adaptive. Of course, since we don’t live in the African Savannah anymore, all of that programming is useless.
Unfortunately, since happiness is itself a sign of status, we are stuck in an awful Moloch scenario: Geoffrey Miller would agree that people are sexually motivated to *pretend that they are happier than they are.*
Forgetting about people with a heavy genetic predisposition to depression who cannot even *conceive of what happiness is*, most people are stuck in recurrent cycles of high, neutral and low moods. And yet, they are anxious to pretend that they are happier than they really are; after all, one’s genes are at stake in this signaling activity.
I have often met highly intelligent people who seem incapable of understanding David Pearce’s Hedonistic Imperative. Although there are many possible causes for this, a very prominent one is the fact that believing that “everyone has a chance to be happy” is itself a happy thought. We run away from depressive worldviews, even if doing so is ethically disastrous.
Let us hope for the best, but plan for the worst.
Yes, we can hope that somehow everyone has a chance to be happy, and sincerely wish that “it really isn’t that bad.” However, let us not act *as if this is true.* We are in a unique position to alleviate and outright exterminate all future suffering in our forward light cone. It would be really sad if we let billions of beings suffer for eons (say, in other galaxies) simply because we entertained too heavily the thought that reality is conspiring in “our” favor (nature, perhaps, is not as kind as it looks when one is in a happy state).