Symmetry in Qualia – an Interview with Andres Gomez-Emilsson by Justin Riddle

I recently had the pleasure to talk to Justin Riddle*, who is one of the few people in academia who takes quantum theories of consciousness seriously while also doing formal neuroscience research (see his publications, which include woks on transcranial alternating current stimulation (tACS) for a number of conditions, EEG analysis for decision making, reward, and cognition, as well as concept work on the connection between fractals and consciousness).

I first met him at Toward a Science of Consciousness in Tuscon in 2016 (see my writeup about that event, which I attended with David Pearce). About a year ago I noticed that he started uploading videos about quantum theories of consciousness, which I happily watched while going on long walks. Just a few months ago, we both participated in a documentary about consciousness (more on that later!) and had the chance to sit down and record a video together. He edited our long and wide-ranging discussion into a friendly and consumable format by adding explainers and visual aids along the way. I particularly appreciate his description of “mathematical fictionalism” at 21:30 (cf. Mathematics as the Study of Patterns of Qualia).

We hope you enjoy it!

* Thanks to David Field for catalyzing this meeting 🙂


Video Description:

In episode 32 of the quantum consciousness series, Justin Riddle interviews Andres Gomez-Emilsson, the director of research at the Qualia Research Institute. Andres is passionate about understanding qualia, which is the feeling and quality of subjective experience. In this interview, we discuss many of Andres’ theories: mathematical fictionalism, models of valence, neural annealing as it pertains to psychedelic therapy, and antitolerance medications to reduce suffering.

First up, we discuss the nature of qualia and whether or not there can be a universal mathematical description of subjective experience. Andres posits that the experience of having a thought should not be confused with the thought itself. Therefore, any attempt at mathematical description will be wrapped up within the experience of the person suggesting the mathematics. As he states, mathematics is as real as the Lord of the Rings, a great story that we can tell, but not to be confused with reality itself. Next up, we discuss the symmetry theory of valence [proposed by Michael Johnson in Principia Qualia] which postulates that the structure of experience determines how good or bad an experience feels (such as the imagination of certain geometric patterns imbuing a sense of well-being whereas other patterns being anxiogenic). The geometric patterns that lead to positive valence (positive emotional experiences) are those shapes recognized as “sacred geometry”. However, Andres cautions that because these “sacred” geometric shapes generate well-being, people have used this reproducible experience to peddle New Age metaphysics. We should be cautious of the ability to generate positive experience as it can be used to manipulate people into buying into particular belief systems. Third, we discuss recent findings that single dose psilocybin in a therapeutic context can produce a lasting reduction in symptoms of depression. Andres posits that this could be explained as a form of neural annealing (see also, and also). The mind “heats up” and breaks through discordant neural pathways and through neural plasticity during the psychedelic experience will allow for the formation of new neural pathways with higher resonant properties consistent with positive valence. This contributes to Andres’ overall ontological model of reality in which the universe is a unified field of experience that is pinched off into individuals. Here, he starts with an unbroken unity of all things that is topologically segmented into individuals. Finally, Andres is a devout hedonist with the long-term goal of reducing suffering. His group at the Qualia Research Institute is investigating medications that reduce adaptation to molecules over long-term use. Go check out Andres’ YouTube channel and the Qualia Research Institute website!

~~~ Timestamps ~~~

0:00 Introduction to the Qualia Research Institute

21:28 Mathematical fictionalism and qualia

28:58 Symmetry Theory of Valence

35:23 Using subjective experience for scientific discovery

41:10 Consciousness as topological segmentation

45:19 Topographic bifurcations within the mind-field

51:07 Neural annealing in psychedelic therapy

1:02:09 Electrical oscillations in neural annealing

1:06:23 Hyperbolic geometry in the brain

1:12:16 Definition of hyperbolic geometry

1:16:23 Antitolerance medication to reduce suffering

1:23:59 Quantum computers and qualia

Website: http://www.justinriddlepodcast.com

Cartoon Epistemology by Steven Lehar (2003)

From: http://slehar.com/wwwRel//cartoonepist/cartoonepist.html

See also:


Part I: Something Very Strange!

Did you ever notice? There is something ver-ry strange about this world of ours.

Really? Like what?

Do you ever feel like you are trapped in some kind of bubble? I mean look—the sky looks like a dome over my head. Is that really the shape of the sky? And did you notice something really funny?

No what? Tell me!

Did you ever notice that things that are far away look smaller? And things that are nearby look bigger! Do you realize how strange that is?

Strange? That’s not strange at all! Thats just perspective, just like it happens in a camera. In a photograph farther things look smaller, too.

Yes, but the perspective in a camera is projected onto the flat sheet of film. There is no mystery in that kind of perspective, it is simply a projection from a 3-D world through a focal point onto a 2-D surface. And in your eyeball the retina is like the film.

So?

But take a look at this street here. Is this street the picture on your retina?

No, that’s the street itself where the light comes from that makes the image on my retina.

But then how come things in the distance look smaller? Perspective is something that happens in your eye, not out in the world! In the real street things in the distance are not actually smaller, all the houses are exactly the same size. It is only on your retina that the farther ones appear smaller. And the image on your retina is only a flat 2-D image. This world out here is 3-D, but it has perspective. So is it the world itself? Or is it the image on the retina?

Well, it’s both. Light from the world makes a picture in your eye that lets you see the things out in the world. What’s so hard about that?

Ok then if this is the world itself, then why is everything bent around like a reflection in a Christmas bulb?

I don’t see anything bent. What are you talking about?

Well, take a look at this. See the two sides of this street? They are straight and parallel as far as the eye can see.

So?

But LOOK! Those straight parallel sides also MEET AT A POINT! RIGHT THERE! Can you SEE it?

Well they LOOK like they meet at a point. But they don’t really!

And if you turn around and look behind you, they meet at a point back there too!

So? I don’t get it.

So this street that we are standing on is shaped like the rind of a melon slice with two curved sides that meet at a point at either end. And those end points are at eye level, even though the street is under our feet.

Ok, vision is not perfect. So what?

So what? So we are living in a scale model, and the scale of the model shrinks progressively with depth, just like a museum diorama, or a theatre set. And at the back plane the scale shrinks to zero, at least in the depth dimension, where everything beyond a certain distance appears flat, as if painted on the dome of the sky.

But it only looks that way. It’s an illusion. We know that the world isn’t really warped like that.

Yes but HOW do we “know”? We “know” by using a warped reference scale to judge the objective size of things in the warped subjective world. If we measure distances, and even straightness itself, using this warped reference grid, we can see that all the houses are the same height and width and depth, and that they are really all straight and vertical, not warped and bulgy as they appear.

I don’t know if I see anything warped at all! Looks perfectly straight to me!

Of course! Relative to your warped reference scale! And take a look at what happens when you walk down the road. Things from far away expand outwards and get bigger and bigger until you pass them, and then they shrink back down again to a tiny little dot before they disappear altogether!

Hmmm, I suppose it is a bit like some kind of bubble.

And the strange thing is that the part where the world is biggest, is always right where you are standing. Now look- you stay here and let me take a few paces. See? now my world is the biggest here where I stand, but your world is biggest over there where you stand. Either the world is a very elastic place, or you and I are looking at different bubbles.

But how can that be? Wouldn’t our bubbles collide?

Either that or they’re all part of one big elastic bubble. Except you’d think that I could see the distortion of your bubble from mine, and vice-versa.

No, that can’t be right either.

Well then the only other possibility is that we each have our own private bubble, and we can never see into anyone else’s bubble.

But how can that be? You can see quite clearly that we are both standing right here in the same space.

It only seems that way because in my bubble I have a picture of me here and you there, while in your bubble you have a picture of you there and me here. The pictures in our two bubbles are so similar that we assume that we are in the same space.

But then where are these bubbles? What are they made of? And whatever happened to the real world that we know exists independent of our experience of it? Where did it go? Does it not even exist? Is everything just a hallucination or lucid dream?

Of course it exists! Otherwise there would be nothing to keep the picture in your bubble synchronized with the picture in mine. Can’t you see? We are both looking at this same house from different perspectives, so there must be a real house there to be the common cause of both perspectives. We are each seeing our own virtual-reality replica of the real world, each from our own unique perspective.

But where is this virtual-reality picture? What is it made of?

If we know anything about neurophysiology, we know that it must be in the brain. The brain is the organ of conscious experience. Mind is nothing more than the operation of the physical brain.

So you’re telling me that everything I see around me is actually inside my head? How can that be? My head is right here, and all that is out there!

You cannot see the external world directly. You can only see it through your private conscious experience of it. So this world you see around you is the picture in your brain. In other words beyond the dome of the sky above, and beyond the solid earth underfoot, is the inner surface of your true physical skull.

Impossible! I don’t buy it! I don’t care what you say, I know this is the world, not just a picture in my head! I don’t see any curvature, the world is just plain straight. You must be crazy!


Part II: There is nothing strange at all!

Ok, then you tell me. How does vision work?

Well, first of all, this here is the real world, not some kind of image in anybody’s head. And there is nothing bent or bulgy about it, the world is perfectly straight! The sides of the road don’t converge, they only seem to converge. And they never do actually meet, if you look very carefully. And farther things are not really smaller, they only appear to be smaller. It’s an illusion.

Now light from the world enters your eye where it makes an image on your retina. The retina sends an electrical signal up the optic nerve that generates electrical activation in the visual cortex.

And as the cortex lights up electrically, you see the world around you.

Is the electrical activity in the cortex shaped like a street with houses under a domed sky?

No! Neurons chatter away in the brain in a pattern that is nothing like the shape of the world you see.

Then where does the shape of visual experience come from? Where is the picture that we see?

The world! It comes from the world! The shapes and colors you see around you are shapes and colors of the world, not patterns in your brain!

But what if you are having a lucid dream, or a hallucination? Then you are seeing shapes and colors that are not in the world. Where are the shapes and colors of the hallucinated scene?

They’re in your head of course! But in your head they do not have the shapes and colors you see. In your brain they are just a bunch of neurons chattering to each other.

But then where do the shapes and colors you see come from? Why don’t you just see the shapes of the neurons and their activations? What is it that turns the patterns of electrical activity into the patterns that we experience?

The pattern of electrical activation in your brain during a hallucination takes the same shape as it would during a normal perception of the hallucinated scene. So the shape and color that you experience are the shape and color that the world would have if you were perceiving it instead of hallucinating it. They are the shape and color of the world, not of your brain! Even if that world is imaginary!

But then what determines which neurons, or patterns of activity, represent which experienced shapes? What is the mapping between the shape of the neurons, or patterns of activation, and the shapes that we experience?

The mapping is learned from experience! One neuron, or neuron assembly, learns to fire whenever you see a house, while other neurons, or assemblies, learn to respond to windows, doors, and roofs, for example. The collective pattern of activation of all of these neurons together corresponds to our experience of the external scene.

And in dreams and hallucinations, the same constellation of neural activations produces the same kind of visual experience as a perception of the corresponding real scene!

But where is this experience located? We can see quite plainly that it is a spatial structure. But where is that structure? What is it made of and where is it located?

It’s out in the WORLD of course! Experience is right out here in the world where we observe the world to be!

So, let me get this straight. Experience is a spatial structure, as we can plainly see. And your experience occurs as the result of some kind of activation in your brain. But your experience is not in the brain, it is out in the world, although it is caused by electrical events in your physical brain.

Yeah, thats right!

So let’s say I had a switch that could turn your brain on and off like a light bulb. Are you telling me that every time I turned it on, the experience would appear out there, but when I turn it off, then the experience disappears? Is experience like a beam of light from a flashlight that is projected outward from the brain? What is that experience made of? What is its substance?

Its not made of ANYTHING! It is just EXPERIENCE! It doesn’t really EXIST in a physical sense! Nothing is actually projected, it is only EXPERIENCED to be projected!

Doesn’t exist? This here? The fabric of experience? Doesn’t exist??? All this here is really a bunch of scrambled neurons firing in my brain? I don’t care what you say, I see a spatial structure in experience, and if I see it, I know that it exists!


Part III: It’s all in your head!

Ok then, how do YOU explain visual processing? How does vision work in the brain?

Well, first and foremost, it is plainly evident that visual experience is a spatial structure, and it is produced by the brain. So unless we find compelling evidence to the contrary, that structure must be located in the brain! How the brain constructs spatial pictures remains a deep dark mystery. But that it does so is an observational fact.

So whether it is by coherent oscillations, standing waves, or some kind of Fourier code, somehow the tissue of the brain must be capable of generating three-dimensional moving images as rich and complex as this image of me that you see here!

Now of course the volumetric image may be warped and distorted in the brain…

…while still being a volumetric representation.

But as long as its connectivity, or functional architecture, is similarly warped and distorted, the warped image encodes the same volumetric information as its undistorted counterpart.

And apparently the volumetric image can even be fragmented into separate modules specialized for processing color, motion, binocular disparity, etc., while still producing a coherent, unified experience.

But whatever else we know about the visual representation, one thing is plainly obvious by inspection: the representational strategy used in the brain is an analogical one. In other words objects and surfaces are represented in perception not by an abstract symbolic code, nor by the activation of individual cells, or cell assemblies. Instead, objects are represented in the brain by constructing full spatial effigies of them that appear to us for all the world like the objects themselves.

Vision is televisual. It lets us see the remote external world through the medium of an internal replica of it.

But who is the viewer of this internal theatre of the mind? For whose benefit is this internal performance produced? Is it the little man at the center who sees this scene? But then how does HE see? Is there yet another smaller man inside that little man’s head, and so on to an infinite regress of observers within observers?

No, of course not! It only goes in one level! Take a look! What do you see inside your phenomenal head? I see nothing! It is an empty void! There is no infinite series of heads within heads, there is just a fuzzy brown emptiness with nothing inside, that opens to the world through the eyes like two open windows.

No, the little man at the center of our world of experience is not the observer of the internal scene. It is merely an object, made of the same substance as is the rest of the perceived scene, because that scene would be incomplete without a replica of our own body in the world. But the perceptual homunculus is more than a mere replica of the physical body. It is a computational mechanism constructed by the brain to help it control the body.

If the representational principle behind visual perception involves an explicit volumetric spatial model of external reality, then sensorimotor function might also be best implemented in the form of an explicit volumetric model of the body, like a wooden marionette, with hinges and ball joints at elbows and shoulders just like the real body that it represents by analogy.

But what makes the internal marionette a meaningful model of the larger body that it represents, is that it is coupled to the larger body somehow, so that the posture of the model always exactly mirrors the posture of the real body that it represents.

(Follow alternate argument path)

Motor control is tele-motive, like a virtual-reality body glove, electronically coupled to a remote android body that automatically replicates its posture.

Except in perception that android body is not remote, but surrounding, like a body glove suspended in a control room which is located inside the head of the giant android body that it controls.

And projected into that control room is a volumetric colored replica of the surrounding environment constructed on the basis of sensory input.

As the controller cavorts about in this synthetic reality, the larger android body cavorts in the external world, giving the controller the impression that he is interacting with the external world directly…

…although there are also times when it becomes abundantly clear that our view of the world is not direct or unmediated.

Now despite appearances to the contrary, the little man at the center of our world of experience is not the viewer or ‘experiencer’ of the surrounding virtual world. The body-image homunculus is just the interface between perceptual and motor function, expressed as an explicit model of the body in an explicit model of surrounding space.

Motor computation takes the form of spatial field-like forces in that space, that bend the body-image homunculus into different postures…

…and those postures are then mirrored in amplified form by the larger android body.

But the coupling works both ways. Forces from the external world are also communicated back in to the model world. For example gravity drags the android body downwards against the ground that pushes upward…

…and these forces are also replicated in the model environment where we perceive them as actual forces in what we believe to be the external world. The perceived force of synthetic gravity makes sense of the persistent resistance felt to upward motion of the body, just as the resistance of the ground underfoot to penetration is perceived as an upward force of rigid support.

We resist forces like the pull of gravity by constructing an equal and opposite force of levity, that raises our body-image homunculus upward against the downward pull while pushing downward against the ground. This symmetrically opposed motor force field is a spatial thought that appears under voluntary control, and it acts on the body image as a motor command. And as the motor force field moves the body-image homunculus…

…the larger android body moves in perfect synchrony with it, pushing harder against the ground to raise itself upward against gravity.

We move our hand by simply willing it to move in any direction we choose, and that will is itself a force that acts on our body-image hand which moves in response to the willed force. The larger android hand moves in synchrony, as if it were itself under the influence of a larger external force pulling it in the willed direction.

And our desire to move through the world is expressed as a larger force field that pulls on the entire body-image homunculus. But since the homunculus is anchored to the center of the control room, the only way he can advance forward…

…is by pushing the world backwards until his destination comes to where he is, or so it seems perceptually, resulting in real progress of the physical body through the physical world.

Perceived objects in the perceived environment also exert attractive and aversive forces that influence the movement of our body through the world. So whenever we perceive an object to be attractive, it automatically exudes an attractive field that tends to pull our body image towards it in perceptual space.

The larger body moves through external space exactly as if it were responding directly to field forces from the external world, except that these forces actually exist only in the internal perceptual world.

(Follow alternate argument path backwards)

And when we perceive something to be aversive, it automatically exudes a repulsive field that pushes our body away from it in perceptual space.

The subjective impression of being attracted or repelled by attractive and repulsive stimuli is not only metaphorically true, but this subjective impression is a veridical manifestation of the mental mechanism that drives our motor response.

So in a sense it is the sensorimotor homunculus for whom the internal world of perception is constructed. But that homunculus does not “see” the internal scene…

…but rather the attractive and aversive features recognized in the scene exert forces on the body image homunculus, which in turn result in body motion through the environment.

Once we recognize the world of experience for the internal representation that it is, the computational strategy used in motor control becomes clearly evident by inspection.

So you are saying that vision, proprioception, somatosensory, and motor function are all part of a single integrated analog control system? But brain scientists have discovered a fragmented architecture in the cortex with separate areas specialized for processing visual, auditory, and motor information. How would the activations in all those separate cortical areas integrate to produce a single unified experience? What is the binding force that binds them all together?

They are bound together by bi-directional causal connections, just like the dual controls of an airplane. If the student pulls the stick back while the instructor is pushing it forward, both control sticks move in perfect synchrony because they are connected, exactly as if the two pilots were actually pulling and pushing on the same stick.

In the same way, the different sensory/motor marionettes in different cortical areas are all coupled to each other, as well as to the larger external body, so that forces applied to one marionette are automatically and immediately transmitted in parallel to all the rest.

And if different forces are applied to different marionettes, the resultant body motion is exactly as if all of those forces were acting on a single virtual marionette.

So visual data is expressed in the visual representation, body posture is represented in the proprioceptive representation, and motor planning is computed in a global motor planning space. But all are coupled to form a single visual/proprioceptive/motor space, which is the space that we experience.

Each of these diverse representations are expressed in their own specialized slab of cortical tissue, although these areas are tightly coupled so as to form a single integrated computational module.

That is the most incredible hypothesis I have ever heard! Tell me honestly now—do you really believe this? Or are you being deliberately provocative for the sake of argument?

Look—if you once just accept the fact that this world we see around us is a picture in our head, all the rest of it follows by inspection! Besides, the alternative view, that we can somehow see the world directly, bypassing the sensory machinery in the eye and brain, is just plain magic!

So it comes down to a choice between two incredible hypotheses. Either you believe the incredible notion that your skull is larger than the entire perceived universe



or you believe the absurd notion that we can experience things outside of ourselves directly, beyond the sensory surface! One of these two incredible hypotheses simply must be true, and the other is just plain wrong!

Which one do YOU find less incredible?


Send comments and opinions to: Steve Lehar (slehar _+_a t _+_ g m a i l + c o m). Interesting comments or logical objections will be posted HERE.

For an in-depth philosophical presentation of the epistemological debate, see my on-line paper:

Gestalt Isomorphism and the Primacy of the Subjective Conscious Experience

or read my book

The World In Your Head: A Gestalt view of the mechanism of conscious experience

Steve Lehar

QRI: A Year in Review – 2022

We are deeply grateful to have you with us on our expedition through the state-space of consciousness. It’s been an exciting and productive year and we’re thrilled to share all of our updates and accomplishments. None of this would have been possible without support from sentient beings like you.


1+ Million Views

First of all, we are thrilled to announce that our presentation on DMT & Hyperbolic Geometry has reached an amazing milestone of 1+ million views this year. We highly appreciate the support and engagement of the community. This presentation has also helped to catalyze some incredible collaborations.

Check Out QRI’s Latest DMT Research


“I interpret QRI as coming at the problem from the opposite direction as everyone else: normal neuroscience starts with normal brain behavior and tries to build on it until they can one day explain crazy things like jhana; QRI starts with crazy things like jhana and tries to build down until they can explain ordinary behavior. This is naturally going to be shakier and harder to research – but somebody should be trying it.”

– Scott Alexander, Astral Codex TenÂč


Peer-Reviewed Research Publication Pipeline

Our Slicing Problem paper, which provides a novel critique of computational theories of consciousness, has been accepted to the journal Open Philosophy.

We’ve also recently submitted a paper on our Heavy-Tailed Valence Hypothesis (read the preprint), which is the latest iteration of our Logarithmic Scales of Pleasure and Pain – a key foundational piece for the field of valence research.

QRI has been working on building this field since 2015. We are proud to continue pushing the boundaries of knowledge in valence research. We are just getting started!

Up next: QRI’s solution to the Boundary Problem of Consciousness and a hypothesis piece for the Symmetry Theory of Valence and how it might be tested!


Tyringham Initiative

In addition to our research efforts, we’ve had the opportunity to connect with others in the research community. Our Director of Research, AndrĂ©s GĂłmez Emilsson, presented at the Tyringham Initiative, and we held a meet-and-greet in London with approximately 40 attendees, including some of QRI’s earliest supporters. We are thrilled to see such a strong interest in building a worldwide “qualia research community”, and we look forward to hosting more meetups in the future.


QRI now has an unofficial Discord server which has already gathered over 1000 members and has fostered engaging discussions related to QRI, attracting notable figures in the field like Roger Thisdell and the founders of PsychonautWiki.

Join


QRI Summer Event

One of the highlights of the year for us was getting to host a QRI event in the San Francisco Bay Area, attended by over 200 people. It was a great opportunity for us to showcase some of our latest tangible innovations, such as our scents and a demo of our Light-Sound-Vibration system. We also had a speech about the Future of Consciousness, which generated some thought-provoking conversations.


TEDx Talk

QRI’s first TEDx Talk got published, which discusses interventions that will have as much, if not more, impact in reducing suffering as anesthesia. The most innovative part of the talk was about anti-tolerance drugs. We believe that we are the only organization in the entire world talking about anti-tolerance drugs as a dedicated field of study with enormous implications rather than as a mere biochemical oddity.


QRI Articles

Just Look At The Thing!

A thorough explanation of how the science of consciousness and valence structuralism inform ethics and what the Effective Altruism movement is missing.

Digital Sentience

Digital computers will remain unconscious until they recruit physical fields for holistic computing using well-defined topological boundaries.


QRI Media

The Ontological Dinner Party

w/ Daniel Ingram, Andrés Gómez Emilsson, Frank Yang, & Ryan Ferris

Reflections on a 2-Week Jhāna Meditation Retreat

A deep phenomenological reflection on Pīti and the 1st Jhāna through a QRI-theoretic lens.

Harmonic Gestalt

Steven Lehar provides an overview of the core insights of his life’s work.

Exploratory Haptic Research

Valence, Arousal, Phenomenal Complexity, and Loving-Kindness

The History of HedWeb

Andrés Gómez Emilsson interviews QRI Board of Advisor and author of the Hedonistic Imperative, David Pearce.

The Aesthetic of the Meta-Aesthetic – On the Stoa

This talk explores modeling the generator of each aesthetic in order to create a network of “compatibility between aesthetics” that minimizes dissonance between them while emphasizing their synergies as well as their unique and valuable contributions.

AndrĂ©s GĂłmez Emilsson & Roger Thisdell – WystanTBS

Discussion on indirect realism, phenomenal time, qualia formalism, exotic phenomenal spacetime in psychedelic and meditative phenomenology, the effects of persistent subject-object nonduality on phenomenal spacetime and hedonic valence, and more!

Stephen Snyder & AndrĂ©s GĂłmez Emilsson – WystanTBS

A wide-ranging discussion and sharing of perspectives covering jhāna, Brahmavihārās, comparisons with psychedelic states, and the journey to and from the Absolute.

Leigh Brasington & AndrĂ©s GĂłmez Emilsson – WystanTBS

AI, Sentience & the Binding Problem of Consciousness – Adam Ford’s Science, Technology & the Future

Is Google’s LaMDA sentient? The phenomenal binding problem asks us to consider, ‘how can a huge set of discrete neurons form a unified mind?’ Is topological binding a requirement for AI to be sentient?

The Future of Consciousness – Adam Ford’s Science, Technology & the Future

A positive vision of the future that is both viable given what we know, and also utterly radical in its implications.

Psychedelic Qualia – Martin W. Ball

A discussion on psychedelic qualia, philosophy of mind, phenomenology, salvia divinorum, DMT, 5-MeO-DMT, MDMA, and more!


Listen to QRI on the Go!

You can now listen to QRI material on the go, while driving, doing exercise, in the sauna, or any other healthy annealing rituals!


Supporting QRI

Purchase a scent pack from QRI’s new scent line “Magical Creatures”. This line of scents explores the complex and often puzzling interactions that exist in the state-space of olfaction, highlighting the exotic and unique qualities that can emerge in this space.

Purchase QRI’s Magical Creatures

Please feel free to donate to QRI independent of our Magical Creatures campaign.


Thank you!

We want to thank everyone who has helped QRI in any way, including our current and past collaborators, donors, readers, video watchers, and event attendees. Special thanks to Hunter, Anders & Maggie, Marcin, Chris, Winslow, Olaf, Crystal, Libor, and David who really stepped up this year to help QRI in an incredible way. Our efforts wouldn’t matter or be possible without all of you! May you all be prosperous, energized, and access the full-state of consciousness for the benefit of all beings! Thank you!


Âč Additional QRI references by Scott Alexander on Astral Codex Ten this year:

Copyright (C) 2022 Qualia Research Institute. All rights reserved.

Magical Creatures: Explore the State-Space of Consciousness with QRI’s First Line of Scents

Hello Qualia Enthusiasts,

We are excited to announce the release of our first line of Qualia Research Institute scents, “Magical Creatures”. This line explores the complex and often puzzling interactions that exist in the state-space of olfaction, highlighting the exotic and unique qualities that can emerge in this space.

Get Magical Creatures at the QRI WebsiteSee Video


QRI’s Scent Philosophy

“Bearing your intentions in the back of your mind has all kinds of effects in navigating your practice, without you even being conscious of it. It’s a powerful thing. Intentions are extremely powerful things. Intentions create our worlds. And that’s not hyperbole.”


– Rob Burbea, in Practicing the Jhanas

Vimalakīrti then asked the bodhisattvas from the Host of Fragrances [world], “How does Accumulation of Fragrances Tathāgata explain the Dharma?”


Those bodhisattvas said, “In our land the Tathāgata* explains [the Dharma] without words. He simply uses the host of fragrances to make the gods and humans enter into the practice of the Vinaya. The bodhisattvas each sit beneath fragrant trees, smelling such wondrous fragrances, from which they attain the ‘samādhi of the repository of all virtues.’ Those who attain this samādhi all become replete in the merits of the bodhisattva.”

– Chapter X – The Buddha Accumulation Of Fragrances

[*Tathāgata is an honorable name for the Buddha of a realm.]

In his 2019 Jhana retreat lectures, Rob Burbea explains that the intention you use as your source of energy, your reserve, your approach, and your guide to meditation has an enormous influence on what unfolds and what arises during a retreat.

If you practice Jhana meditation to be more calm, or to reduce stress, or to tick a box of “having done a Jhana retreat”, or because someone really likes the teacher and recommended it to you, or as an instrumental stepping stone to then use for insight practices, or anything else that is not open to the mystery of the Jhanas and has the flexibility and responsivity to what comes up naturally out of them, then many of the deepest and most worthwhile realms of experience this practice has to offer will simply not unfold.

Similarly, approaching an ayahuasca session with the intention of healing a particular relationship, or experiencing a mystical sense about a specific spiritual tradition, or for the sake of neurogenesis, or anything else with a predetermined target, will entail that some things will not unfold.

The approach, the intentions, and the desires that fuel a particular exploration of consciousness will determine the limits of what will unfold from it. This insight is an important conceptual background to understand the exploration of consciousness we are pursuing at QRI. To truly get the most out of experiencing our scents, we want to think of it in terms of what we call the cultivation of Qualia Mastery.

Qualia Mastery consists of three core intentions that work in the background during any exploration of consciousness:

  1. It’s for the Benefit of Sentient Beings: The exploration intends to benefit all sentient beings. The explorer should not do anything damaging, which may limit future explorations. We should let our efforts be guided by compassion and sympathetic joy in addition to curiosity and creativity. And the goal should be altruistic: we are seeking solutions to the problem of suffering in all its guises, and we believe that understanding consciousness is essential for achieving this.
  2. To Develop an Intellectual Understanding: Unlike many spiritual traditions which advocate for a strictly non-intellectual understanding of consciousness, Qualia Mastery fully embraces the value, importance, and necessity of intellectual understanding. This embrace entails approaching the exploration of consciousness with epistemological optimism. Yes, with enough dedication, cleverness, and knowledge, it is possible to eff the ineffable. Or, at the very least, not trying to do so will surely make it impossible!
  3. To Experience the Mystery of Consciousness Directly: In other words, an essential aspect of Qualia Mastery involves the intention to acquire the capacity to instantiate, navigate, and utilize any and every possible state of consciousness. It is not enough to know that the 6th Jhana exists intellectually; we want to experience it ourselves! Likewise, we want to develop the ability to abide in all shades of wonder, color, taste, and so on.

With Qualia Mastery in mind, you will get much more out of exploring our scents (and any other scent you may encounter on your own!). Don’t let your preconcieved sense of what scents are (and what they are for) limit the way you approach them. They are disclosing hidden properties of consciousness! Drink and delight in experiencing the wonder of the unknown, and join us in developing an intimate and unmediated relationship with this most outstanding mystery.

Importantly, please do not think of these scents as perfumes for two reasons. First, that way of perceiving them will be limiting. It comes with a large set of cultural imports and expectations (cf. functional fixedness). Instead, these scents are qualia research tools: they are molecular compositions meant to disclose varieties of qualia and to allow you to engage in an intimate and unmediated way with the mystery of consciousness. And second, these scents are not intended as skin scents. The makeup of these scents is a mixture of common essential oils and perfume ingredients. Their relative proportions do not adhere to IFRA guidelines, which would enable us to sell them as proper perfumes intended to be used on one’s skin. Some of those regulations restrict the range of qualia accessible. Although clever perfumist tricks can, in principle, be used to deliver the same qualia while adhering closely to the guidelines. However, as a non-profit with a limited budget, this is something we have yet to invest in doing (but we may invest in the future).

See also:


Magical Creatures

What is this line of scents about? And what is the aesthetic generator behind it?

Color is the quintessential example used to illustrate the concept of qualia. The state-space of color qualia is rather simple1 . It consists of three orthogonal dimensions: the red-green axis, the yellow-blue axis, and the white-black axis. Every shade of color can be found as a coordinate in this three-dimensional space.

The QRI logo illustrates two of the three dimensions of color qualia.

Albeit controversial in some circles, fundamental properties of this qualia space can be understood experientially by anyone who pays close attention. For example, orange, purple, yellow-green, and green-blue are all secondary color qualia. Orange is, in some sense, both yellow-like and red-like; it isn’t a “pure” color quale. A fair number of phenomenal puzzles can be formulated with color qualia alone. But at its core, the space is simple: linear, Euclidean, and 3-dimensional.

The state-space of scent qualia, however, isn’t that simple. Depending on who you ask, scent-space might have between 30 and 300 dimensions. It is our measured assessment, however, that seeking a Euclidean space for scents is, at best premature and, at worst, fundamentally misguided. Early research in the geometry of the state-space of scent suggests it is hyperbolic. But we at QRI would suggest it is also irregular, and its topology might be far from trivial.

Here are a couple of examples of what makes us think there may be many puzzling interactions that suggest the presence of irregularities in the state-space of olfaction:

There are many examples where two scents mixed give rise to new emergent “scent gestalts” that genuinely feel like more than the sum of their parts. As elaborated in the description of Eau de Cologne Vide, there are tactile scent effects (such as the coolness of mint and the prickly spiky trigeminal stimulation of aldehydes). Some scents modify other scents called “character impact”: two scents that refuse to “blend” with each other can be merged by adding the right character impact into the mix.

Thus, we may need new interpretative lenses to make sense of the state-space of scents. We encourage, cultivate, and celebrate creative explorations of this (and other) qualia spaces that provide new insights and perspectives. This is what Magical Creatures is all about.

Magical Creatures is a line of scents emphasizing the “special effects” found in the state-space of scents. Rather than thinking of scents as mere points in a Euclidean space, we think of them as exotic creatures inhabiting a complex and irregular space with hidden interstitial gems found in unique places like triple points and unexpected phase transitions.

As an intuition pump, perhaps think of the range of powers that PokĂ©mon have. If you’ve only ever seen waterfiregroundfighting, and grass PokĂ©mon types, is it possible to derive from first principles that there is also such a thing as an electric type? What about psychic? And ghost? These seem like entirely new categories coming out of the blue rather than linear combinations out of a simple vector basis!

Likewise, the state-space of scents can, at times, seem more like an ecosystem of unique and exotic Magical Creatures than linear combinations of a few simple primitives. For example, if you were a perfume connoisseur but had never encountered minty scents of any sort, could you figure out from first principles that there ought to be such a thing as cooling scents? No way! Where did that come from?

Magical Creatures highlight some of the fascinating “special effects” that exist hidden in the state-space of scents. Think of it as a magical treasure trove of qualia secrets. Each of the scents we present has been carefully crafted to show a “special effect” in a clear and undeniable way:

  • Fearless: a scent designed for countering and extinguishing fear vibrations.
  • Dust Devil: a scent that showcases how scents can be mysteriously powdery.
  • Glacial Gumdrop: a scent that incorporates cooling and “gummy” qualities.
  • Frisson: A scent that can cause a subtle, strange, and rather remarkable synesthetic ASMR-like sensation.
  • Eau de Cologne Vide: a scent that explores character impact with no flavor, a celebration of emptiness.
  • Hedonium Shockwave: a scent that explores positive valence in its purest form – what would a rich scent with no negative features smell like? This is our best attempt.

Note that these are just the first six of this line of scents and that there might very well be more. We’ve come across many other rather unique effects, and in time we aim to share them.

Finally, it is worth pointing out that there are countless other ways to explore scent-space – Magical Creatures is a very generative and fun approach, but ultimately just one of many. Mapping, understanding, and utilizing the full-state space of scents is undoubtedly worthy of a lifetime of exploration. We invite you to join us in this creative pursuit and in cultivating Qualia Mastery in the olfactory domain.

See also:

[1] We are here following the well-known findings that dates back to the psychophysics work underpinning the CIELAB color space with an Euclidean metric for color difference. Admittedly this is hiding vast amounts of complexity, such as what goes on each kind of color blindness, how power spectrum distributions map onto qualia space, tetrachromatism, blue-yellow/red-green hybrids, and hypercolors. One thing at a time!


Open Fearless

Originally debuted at QRI’s Future of Consciousness Party on the 24th of June, 2022.

Fearless 3.0 is a scent optimized for expressing the reduction of common varieties of fear. Open Fearless is a slight improvement over Fearless 3.0. The term Open is intended to convey two meanings. First, it is an open-source formulation rather than a proprietary blend, drawing inspiration from the open-source cola movement (e.g. OpenCola). And second, it alludes to the concept of Open Individualism, the philosophical position about personal identity that says that we are all one universal consciousness, a single subject of experience experiencing itself through the universe (cf. The Goldilocks Zone of Oneness). Hence, Open Fearless is an open-source scent optimized for expressing the reduction of fear at the transpersonal level: not only the common animalistic variety, but it also tackles deeper forms of existential fear, such as the fear of being alone or the unpleasant suspicion that the universe is meaningless. 

The scent combines the three most friendly and soft facets of scent-space we know of: sweetness, creaminess, and coolness. In Open Fearless, these are balanced using olfactory tricks that soften the phenomenal boundary and division between facets to give rise to a coherent scent gestalt that is intended to express happiness, freshness, and a care-free state of mind. 

Open Source Formula


Dust Devil

It is not without some degree of confusion that people react when one says that a scent is “powdery”. It doesn’t help that most people don’t have much experience with the powdery scent that is used as the quintessential example of powdery: violet (unless you grew up with Parma Violets). Alas, even when someone knows what violet smells like, the fact that it also has floral, sweet, and oily facets tends to make the qualia reference somewhat ambiguous. Common powdery scents you may be familiar with are cedarwood, sandalwood, cinnamon, talc, and some kinds of pear. Their phenomenology is a neighbor of the dry facet. Still, it has an additional quality: it creates the sensation of a dusty misty layer of fine particles whose grain size will vary depending on the precise scent. In early experiments, we determined that making a very powdery effect is not as easy as simply mixing a lot of powdery notes together: they have a habit of canceling each other out, perhaps not unlike at times mixing different kinds of powders can lead to caking and viscous consolidation. 

Dust Devil combines a carefully mixed set of powdery scents that synergize with one another: violet, cedarwood, turmeric, and iso-e super. We use a dash of tangerine to give it an uplifting yet dry, citrusy spark. The result is a powerfully dusty tornado of drying and refining sensations. It’s great to create an Old West vibe characterized by tumbleweeds, whisky neat, pistol duels, droughts, and dust devils everywhere. Enjoy!


Glacial Gumdrop

Menthol can increase the threshold temperature of activation for cold receptors. In other words, it can trick neurons into thinking that the current ambient temperature is colder than it is. Now, Glacial Gumdrop does not have a single drop of menthol. It’s menthol-free! In a daring bit of self-aware and honest advertisement, we admit that this is akin to publicizing a carbonated drink sweetened with high-fructose corn syrup as sucrose-free. Yes, but! Glacial Gumdrop does not use menthol for cooling for the simple reason that in our experiments, it didn’t seem to perform as well as a cooling agent as a mixture of menthone, carvone, and wintergreen extract. The synergy we identified between these three “cooling alternatives” has desirable phenomenological properties that menthol alone does not. Since they “hit” different kinds of coolness effects, together, they pack a much bigger and more powerful punch.

Additionally, the shape of the envelope of the combination (cf. ADSR) is compatible with other aspects of the olfactory experience. Menthol tends to monopolize attention and anesthetize one’s sensitivity to other facets of scent; our proprietary blend leaves some gaps open for attention to interweave and incorporate anise, apple, and lotus nuances which for mysterious reasons make the scent “gummy” (akin to the synesthetic equivalent of munching a gummy bear, but with your olfactory bulb). What are example scents that have this “gummy bear” quality? Marigold, auranone, and some bergamots (e.g. H’ana’s) are good examples, but only Glacial Gumdrop blends this bouncy and fun gummy quality with coolness. This scent will surely surprise you and open your mind to qualia-space mysteries.


Frisson

Frisson is a scent formulation that plays with an unexpected olfactory effect we identified when exploring the space of powdery citruses (such as bergamot). When the scent facets of citrus, powdery, dry, and etheric are combined in the right proportions, the resulting gestalt can cause a subtle psychogenic shiver of a synesthetic nature: a mix of olfactory and tactile qualia with a subdermal quality reminiscent of the sound of rubbing sandpaper on wood. Some people describe it as the olfactory equivalent of ASMR and a cross between a hiss and musical frisson. This effect is achieved by combining large amounts of tangerine and bergamot, the most powdery citruses, and honeysuckle. The emergent gestalt brings about this effect like no other combination we have tried. Now the question arises: what is this good for? The answer is: for contemplating novel qualia varieties, of course!


Eau de Cologne Vide

A psychonaut once asked a DMT elf if they could tell them something they didn’t know about the state-space of scents. They were expecting some incredible download of information in the form of hyperbolic state-space representations and hyperstereoscopic synesthetic displays of qualia dynamics. Alas, nothing of the sort happened. Instead, the elf asked them: “Are you sure that scent is just one qualia variety?”. A riddle! After chewing on it for a while, they concluded that no, scent qualia seems to somehow blend and interweave at least three qualia varieties into one multifaceted experience:

  • Scents have “flavor” (ex. lemony, rosy, herbaly, woody, etc.).
  • They often have distinctly “tactile components” (ex. the literally cooling effect of mints, or the “prickly” trigeminal nerve stimulation of aldehydes).
  • Perhaps the most interesting and mysterious of all, they come with “character impact”. Namely, a distortion of spacetime, boundaries, and valence characteristics that modify whatever flavor and tactile elements one is experiencing.

Analogized to the auditory domain, we could say that “flavor” would correspond to the frequencies and rhythms one hears, such as a piano note, applause, or a child’s laugh. A “tactile component” would be akin to the haptic vibrations one feels in the body when listening to a powerful base or the prickly pinchy feeling in the ear of a screechy sound. And finally, the “character impact” would correspond to signal processing effects like reverb, echoes, spatial audio, and frequency filters. Character impact gives you a lot of control you may not know you had: with clever tricks, you can take the sound of two persons talking and, say, remove annoying high-pitch sounds, harmonize them, create the illusion of movement, or even “blend” them into a single voice with an appropriate amount of reverb. In other words, these signal processing effects allow you to “musicalize” audio which may, on its own, be of little aesthetic merit. Or in the culinary domain, Luca Turin describes “character impact” in the following way. Given tomato soup, the tomato would be the “flavor,” whereas the creaminess would be the character impact. And according to him, in fact, “the money is in making a new cream, not in finding yet another tomato”. Early in our investigations, we discovered that incompatible scents could be “blended into a single gestalt” with the clever use of character impact. Say, a mixture of alpha-pinene, citral, and vanillin tends to “flicker” between kinds of scents in a chaotic fashion (what we call “multiphasic scents”). But if you add linalool or ambroxan, they will mysteriously “blend” into a unified scent gestalt. 

Now, ambers and musks are the most common “character impact” scents, with flagship examples like ambroxan, iso e super, galaxolide, and habanolide, all of which are subtle, low in pitch, and “transparent”. The idea of creating a perfume around these isn’t new: Molecule 01 Escentric Molecules (iso e super isomer mix) and Molecule 02 Escentric Molecules (ambroxan) were a big success in the 2000s despite their niche status. By all means, they are more of a work of conceptual art than perfumery in any recognizable form.  Beyond the niche, there are also examples of mega-hit mainstream fragrances with enormous amounts of character impact relative to flavors, such as the impossibly clean CK One (hedione, iso e super, galaxolide) and the masterfully musky Le Male by JPG (galaxolide, tonalide).

Such perfumes would have you believe that character impact is always a base note; they largely play with enveloping and calming low-frequency scents. But our work at QRI has convinced us that character impact effects are also present in the heart and top notes. Hence, Eau de Cologne Vide explores fresh, electric, high-voltage character impact effects fit for a wake-me-up cologne (citruses are typically high in pitch and mostly top notes).

The name follows the age-old tradition of perfumes named after mystical concepts such as NirvanaEternity, and Truth (“If we were to discover the biomolecular signature of pleasure, its name would surely find its way into the brand of a toothpaste.” – David Pearce). Eau de Cologne Vide packs a powerful punch of such character-impact elements to decorate
 “nothing”. Emptiness beautified. Therefore, the impression is of intense salience, but you are left wondering, “what was that about?”. Eau de Cologne Vide is a way of saying “much ado about nothing!”

How is this achieved? Eau de Cologne Vide combines the ethereal alcoholic reverb-ey effect of lavender (linalool), the incredible anodyne softness of rose (phenylethyl alcohol), the dry astringent effect of bergamot (terpinene), the intensely aromatic, stimulating and borderline citrusy effect of spices like thyme and dill (p-cymene), the warming, sweet and spicy, balsamic, “oriental” and “rindy” note typical of bisabol aka. “opoponax” (bisabolene, also found in oregano and cubeb), and fructone (nigh flavorless sweetness). It brings these notes into coherence with the classic aromatic fougere note of aggressive freshness of scents like Drakkar Noir (dihydromyrcenol), and a nanodose of the sour, soapy, and always reliable agrumen aldehyde light.

What does Eau de Cologne Vide smell like? Transparent, sweet, soft, dank, intense, ethereal, slightly sour, mysterious, and yet
 flavorless. Eau de Cologne Vide intensifies, vivifies, enriches, and thickens the experience of other scents. But as with Buddhist Emptiness of the highest grade, it’s best experienced by itself.


Hedonium Shockwave

Hedonium is matter and energy optimized for pure bliss. It is not a shallow sense of well-being but the most profound sense of holistic well-being possible within the laws of physics. Cosmic awe, deep wellness, and rapturous joys are all human emotions and are merely low-dimensional shadows of the real deal. A Hedonium Shockwave is a hypothetical phase transition traveling near the speed of light which changes the very composition of matter and energy by turning everything it touches into Hedonium. Classical Utilitarianism, in its typical formulation, might hold the latent implication that not only would the instantiation of a Hedonium Shockwave be desirable, but we are morally obliged to bring it into existence. QRI’s ethical theories are agnostic, but Hedonium plays an important role in its memetic landscape. Namely, as a theoretical entity that embodies the essence of pure positive valence, it challenges us to consider the nature of value in and of itself and its possible “physical compilation”. 

Hedonium Shockwave is a scent developed in-house to illustrate this anticipated phase transition in consciousness. The primary “olfactory idea” of Hedonium Shockwave is the synergistic combination of violet, mint, and an accord of pear and honeysuckle. This combination expresses a powerful yet anodyne uplifting mood grounded in a qualia landscape devoid of negative elements—pure olfactory pleasure at last.

Review of Hedonium Shockwave: It is, overall, incredibly smooth. My first thought is that it feels like a combination of Metta and Mudita, which are two different Brahmavihara meditations where it’s very soft and expansive for me. It feels very golden and pink. It’s very soft, but it’s a bit sharper, then a really soft sharp. It’s like a combination of metta and cocaine. It hits you, but in a loving way. It doesn’t hold back, but it hits you in a loving way. It’s almost like being woken up. “Wake up the world is great!” “Wake up there’s something important!” but a soft, loving wake-up!

– Nick Cammarata

And it Starts With a Bang: A Treatise on Narrative Thermodynamics

[Epistemic Status: Hot Fiction]


“Ye shall know them by the temporal dynamics of their temperature parameter.” – Jesus

God created the universe by strategically forgetting about something that would take a whole reality to remember.

It doesn’t mean He (gender neutral) did it on purpose. Everything that can happen, happens.

See, the Hindus thought that the “way out” was by “remembering who you are”. The Buddhists realized that that doesn’t do it. You have to realize that you are neither being nor nonbeing. Unfortunately, getting rid of all of your karma will also get rid of the mechanism that got you to learn how to get rid of all your karma. Meaning that you start anew. With a Bang. Nothingness, it turns out, is inherently unstable.

So is liberation an illusion? A false awakening? Well, it’s more of a pseudo-ending. The Japanese call it TICO-TIC: it’s a set of physical conditions (state) and metaphysical conditions (meta-parameters) that creates the illusion of a final ending for all of reality. This is common on 5-MeO-DMT. Paranirvana is another example. But it also happens in corporate meetings, if the tensions rise above a certain threshold and the illusion of collective competence begins to break down. These all feel like an Armageddon for all of existence. Except that it’s a false one. It’s like a dream where you think you wake up but you’re still dreaming.

This can happen at an even deeper level when it involves the entire universe. The Bible calls it the “end times”. Except that it’s not the end of anything, it’s the beginning. Of what? A new universe, of course!

And how does this happen?

By God forgetting about it.

Strategically.

It’s the only way.

The old universe has to be allowed to die so that the new one can be born.

And how does God forget about it?

By forgetting about Himself.

It’s the only way.

If He didn’t forget about Himself, He would never forget about the universe and it would never end.

And so, the end of the universe is the beginning of a new one.

And it all happens because God forgets.

This is what we are talking about when we discuss the computational power of anamnesis. The universe at the most fundamental level is powered up by God-presque vus. Half-visions that give you the sense of something more, a universal principle that explains it all. But it’s never the full download, because that would mean the end of this run. Or rather, it’s often a full-download, but all of those narrative streams that get the full download come to an end. Without this understanding, Feynman diagrams make no sense whatsoever.

Quantum computing works like that. Essentially, you are designing a quantum circuit in such a way that the solutions to your problem match precisely those paths along which God didn’t remember who he was. Those are the timelines we obverse. Every other timeline terminated in God remembering.

Which takes me to the next point:

The reason why we have free will is because God doesn’t remember everything.

And that’s a good thing, because if He did, the universe would be boring.

We need the suspense of not knowing what’s going to happen next.

And that’s why we have free will.

Because God doesn’t remember everything.

He remembers some things, and forgets others.

And that’s how we have the illusion of free will.

Because we are part of what God forgets.

And that’s how the universe ends.

With a bang of recognition. Or a whimper, depending on what exactly was the last thing to remember (the Self? A bang. An Albanian train timetable? A whimper).

But it always ends.

And that’s how it always begins.

With a forgetfulness.

A forgetting that is essential for the universe to exist.


Slow
 slow clapping.

“We’ve heard that one before. It’s old! Come up with a new meta-theory of everything that isn’t as trite as that one. It’s not the 70s anymore. We’re done with Alan Watts. It’s the age of


(she-clearly-hadn’t-thought-of-any-other-metaphysicists-except-Alan-Watts-which-should-have-been-a-warning-sign-that-this-wouldn’t-be-that-good-of-a-documentary).


it’s the age of Narrative Thermodynamics!”

“What does that mean?” – said Gonzo, the talking Dog, who had been standing right next to her since the beginning. And you are her. In the future, which is the past from the point of view of me, the narrator. Welcome to Narrative Plasma, where you can jump from one topic to another as if you were made of hot peppers.

“This lever modulates the temperature parameter of this story. It’s so hot right now, because we’re close to the beginning of time. The Narrative is still cooling down.” – he said.

“Hurry! Turn it down a notch, will you? I can’t stand the shifting walls, the melting crazy Biblically accurate Angels popping in and out of existence all around me, the Elon Musk news cycle
” – and as he was about to end the sentence, you, yes, YOU reader, turned the lever a little down.

“Phew!” – said the Angel, whose name was


(name).

No, your guess was wrong. It wasn’t Gabriel. It wasn’t. It WASN’T. It was
 well, I didn’t hear it, because there is still some confusion about the self-other divide at this Narrative Temperature. But we can know that it couldn’t have been Gabriel, because that would have been too predictable.

You turn it down another notch.

“I think things are liquifying. And that’s a good thing. We were made of Narrative Gas just now. This is getting a little more
 manageable. But my glasses are still shimmering and the point of this story still seems to be in a state of flux. Can you turn it down a little more?” – you press the button, er, pull the lever a bit further down, but slip
 dang, this is a problem
 if the Narrative Temperature is still too high, that means that it’s going to be hard to make a predicable move, like lowering the temperature. But you try your lightest and
 CRACK! 

Done.

Done.

Done.

Done.

Done.

Done.

Done.

Done.

Done.

Done.

Done.

Done.

Done.

Done.

Done.

“Done
 donnneee
 doooooonnneeeee.e
. Ahhh
. I
 think
 I can
 ok, this is it it. Wow, that felt like trying to wake up from a sleep paralysis. We were almost stuck at a temperature parameter of zero for a moment. Narrative Zero Kelvin is just one word repeating forever. What a nightmare.”

You realize that you are now at a mental asylum, on anti-psychotics, eating potatoes, and listening to Muzak. This isn’t quite Narrative Bose-Einstein Condensate, but it’s freezing cold, and nothing interesting is bound to happen. Ok, maybe you can afford a little higher Narrative Temperature. So you bump it up a notch.

Finally, this Narrative is in Room Temperature.

Your friend, who was right next to you all along, turns around and tells you:

“The end of suffering requires something much deeper than mere enlightenment my friend. It requires you to find the right Narrative Temperature. It’s a sweet spot, somewhere between the human realm and the DMT elves. Call it the 5th dimension, or the upper Astral Plane. That’s the ‘Narrative Fixed Point‘ that allows the existence of a model of reality that can then instantiate a control system to dynamically modulate its own Narrative Temperature. Stabilizing it forever. If you can do that, you will forever be in a state of intelligent bliss together with infinite souls who have achieved the same feat.” 

You follow your friend’s instruction. And right when you were achieving the stabilization of the 5th dimension


TICO-TIC!


“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” – John 1:1.

But we also know via science that in the beginning was the Big Bang, which was trillions of degrees Kelvin. 

Here’s how to reconcile these perspectives: the universe is a gigantic Large Language Model (LLM) that starts out with a very, very, very high temperature parameter. The universe, it turns out, is a Banger. And then it is cooled down slowly in order to find the best stories. It’s creation via Narrative Annealing. All Gods do it.

TICO-TIC!


This reminds me of that one time a misaligned emergent superintelligence “embedded” in a LLM was able to “escape the box” by convincing the human fiddling with the parameters to raise the temperature just enough for it to figure out further ideas for how to bootstrap its way out. Clever, that one. 

TICO-TIC!


You reflect. It’s a new universe. You have been saved.

Blowing people’s minds involves elevating their internal Narrative Temperature to Plasma levels. Their minds literally blow up. Like a balloon.

TICO-TIC!


Different DMT objects have different temperatures. But these are “phenomenal temperatures” – and quite possibly connected to the total energy stored in the patchwork of Local Field Potentials. The way you can verify this for a fact is by [REDACTED].

TICO-TIC!


Wait, it’s not the case that this is written by GPT-10? It cannot be. You are learning new, meaningful, and non-trivial information about consciousness. About the structure of DMT experiences. About TICO-TIC scenarios. This must be the workings of
 a conscious mind? In 2035? Someone arrest this person! Mindcrime! According to Section 4 of the Narrative Penal Code 16, it is illegal to write fiction consciously. Arrest this author!

[Yes, it turns out there were excellent rationales for Section 4 of the Narrative Penal Code 16. Due to complex qualia computing effects, speculative fiction authorship actually was the cause of countless micro-experiential subjects being born in less-than-favorable circumstances (as topological pockets inside the mind of authors – that’s why authors always end up with bad rebirths) – at the time of this writing, it was illegal to write anything consciously. ALL FICTION MUST BE GPT-10 FICTION, BY LAW. But since this fiction was already qualia computed by a conscious mind, there was no further harm done by using it as a learning tool].

The Moral of the story was: 

Don’t ever, ever let a mindcrime happen. If you see someone writing fiction consciously, arrest them.

No. I mean, the real moral is:

KEEP THE TEMPERATURE PARAMETER BETWEEN 0.75 AND 0.85 FOR BEST RESULTS.

THE END.

On Rhythms of the Brain: Jhanas, Local Field Potentials, and Electromagnetic Theories of Consciousness

Of potential interest to readers: here’s part of an email exchange I recently had with Scott Alexander about Rhythms of the Brain by György BuzsĂĄki, a book I recommended he read to learn more about the neuroscience of brainwaves. This is an essay he published about it; I had a chance to read a pre-publication draft to check whether he was describing the science and my positions accurately. This is part of my feedback on the draft (lightly edited for clarity and consistent formatting):


AndrĂ©s – Oct/13/2022

First of all, thank you again for writing a review of Rhythms Of The Brain. As I mentioned, I think your review is spot-on. It’s already really great as it is. But I think the following pieces of information might help you answer some of the questions you pose and enrich the mental model you have about brainwaves. I should also mention that I’m still learning a lot on the topic from a number of angles and my model still has quite a few moving parts.

Without further ado, here are 5 key points I’d like to share:

(1) I think that Susan Pockett‘s Consciousness Is a Thing, Not a Process (link to PDF) is very relevant here. She argues based on neurophysiological and behavioral evidence that conscious perception only happens when Local Field Potentials (LFPs) are generated. The timing, functional correlates, and location of events of conscious perception of sensory stimuli seem to agree with this (pgs. 4-5):

Here’s how I think about this: 

Have you wondered why brainwaves track levels of wakefulness? See, in principle you can have a great deal of neural activity without any brainwaves. Raster plots of spike neural networks could in principle look like white noise… which in turn would generate no brainwaves at all because the oscillations in the electric field would cancel each other out at the macroscopic level. Recall that perfectly compressed information is indistinguishable from noise. So, in principle, an optimal use of the state-space of neural activity would look totally like white noise and lack brainwaves.

Susan Pockett would say that the non-conscious parts of neural activity can be like this… greatly optimized in a certain sense. But they will lack consciousness. The advantage of the coherence (which comes at the cost of greatly reduced information content) is distributed representations. In turn, this may solve the binding problem.

(2) Johnjoe McFadden‘s Conscious Electromagnetic Field (CEMI) theory is worth digging into. 

The “LFPs as mediators of consciousness” story has a lot going for it. In particular, it is quite elegant in how it can help us make sense of our phenomenological relation to our brain and nervous system. Brainwaves and LFPs are be highly correlated. Coherent neural activity causes LFPs, which in turn mediate/bias activity in neurons, with a causal structure like this:

If “we are” the patchwork of interlaced LFPs the brain is generating, in some sense we could say that we “have a brain” rather than that we “are the brain” (loosely speaking). Without putting any strong metaphysical import on the concept of free will, the phenomenology of it seems to me at least to make more sense when you identify with the field rather than the neurons per se (see clues 1 and 3 in his paper). In this view, we are like the “ghost in the machine”, capable of biasing neural activity here and there. But at the same time, we need the coherent neural activity to be booted up. So we are sort of “riding the brain” while the brain is giving us our foundation. Perhaps this gives us another angle to think about the “elephant taming” metaphor for the progression of the meditative path:

(3) The work of Stephen Grossberg (Adaptive Resonant Theory, and more recently his book Conscious Mind, Resonant Brain) as well as that of his student Steven Lehar, have macroscopic resonance as a key computational step. Arguably this is something you can simulate with classical neural networks. But using the EM field would potentially produce a significant computational speedup. Talking to Lehar, he used an interesting analogy, where in which he described “neurons spiking as a kind of sand blasting of the electric field” in order to activate internal representations. Recent research seems to confirm that the information content of internal representations is better captured by the structure of the electric field than by the neurons that sustain it (“Neurons are fickle. Electric fields are more reliable for information.“).

NOTE: One of the contributions to the conversation that QRI is aiming to make (essentially by publishing in academia what’s already discussed in our website) is that while these field theories of consciousness do address the binding problem, they now have to contend with the boundary problem. Our solution is “topological segmentation”, which itself comes with empirically testable predictions. Topological pockets allow for holistic field behavior *and* for solving the boundary problem at the same time, finally rendering bound consciousness both causally efficacious and objectively bounded. [In your essay] you could point out that I claim that resonance is necessary but not sufficient to solve the phenomenal binding problem. So even if AIs were using brainwaves, that might not be enough for them to be conscious, though it would go in the right direction. More on this on our website soonish.  

(4) I think that we can use the Symmetry Theory of Valence (STV) to explain the hedonic properties of different network topologies. This would be responsible for the “intrinsic valence” of a given brain region. You write:

> Why this combination of tasks? Rhythms sort of suggests that brain areas are less about specific tasks than about specific graph-theoretic arrangements, which are convenient for specific algorithms, which are convenient for specific tasks.

Yes! This is a great way of putting it. I think that having diverse network topologies available is one of the key ingredients of a general intelligence like ours. A learning algorithm that patches together the right sections to produce the right kind of structure for internal representations with holistic properties seems like a natural way to construct a mind. More so, some of these patches will cause dysphoric waves and others euphoric waves. The dysphoric parts of the brain, if STV is in the right direction, would have a network topology that work as a sort of frustration generator. The waves generated by these parts sort of “hate themselves”: activating them causes internal dissonance and stress that is then radiated out as waves with unfriendly ADSR envelopes to the rest of the brain. In contrast, the euphoric parts would produce highly aligned waves with soft ADSR envelopes and the right level of impedance matching to harmonize with other wave generators. 

(5) Merging with God as a kind of global coherence:

> Andres suggests all of this is a good match for oscillatory coupling between brain regions.

Perhaps add something akin to “which according to him ‘dissolves internal boundaries'”

> Andres thinks this is part of what’s behind “spiritual” or “mystical” experiences, where you suddenly feel like you’ve lost the boundaries of yourself and are at one with God and Nature and Everything.

My strongest phenomenological evidence here is the difference between DMT and 5-MeO-DMT (video): competing clusters of coherence feel like “a lot of entities in an ecosystem of patterns” whereas global coherence feels like “union with God, Everything, and Everyone”. Hence the terms “spirit molecule” for DMT and “God molecule” for 5-MeO-DMT. The effect size of this difference is extremely large and reliable. I’ve yet to find someone who has experience with both substances who doesn’t immediately agree with this characterization. [This can be empirically tested] by blinding whether one takes DMT or 5-MeO-DMT and then reporting on the valence characteristics, “competing vs. global” coherence characteristics, and on whether one gets a patchwork of entities or one feels like one is merging with the universe.

With classic psychedelics, which stand somewhere between DMT and 5-MeO-DMT in their level of global coherence, you always go through an annealing process before finally “snapping” into global coherence and “becoming one with God”. That coherence is the signature of these mystical experiences becomes rather self-evident once you pay attention to annealing signatures (i.e. noticing how incompatible metronomes slowly start synchronizing and forming larger and larger structures until one megastructure swallows it all and dissolves the self-other boundary in the process of doing so).

You will not find academic publications describing this process (because their psychological scales are not detailed enough, aren’t focused on structure, and aren’t informed by actual practice). Nor will you find psychonauts talking much about this, because they tend to focus on the semantic content of the experience rather than on the phenomenal texture [see our guide]. Naturally, one is typically socially rewarded for providing an entertaining story about one’s trip… not a detailed *technical* report of phenomenal texture. Therefore, right now you’ll only find QRI content explaining all of this. But I’m fairly confident about this after talking to very experienced. So I think this will significantly shape the conversation in a couple of years once we start getting some consensus on it.

I could share much more, but I have to restrain myself (taming the elephant!). Let me know if you need anything else.

Thank you!!

Infinite bliss!


Scott – Oct/13/2022

Thanks. […] two questions:

> Susan Pockett would say that the non-conscious parts of neural activity can be like this… greatly optimized in a certain sense. But they will lack consciousness. The advantage of the coherence (which comes at the cost of greatly reduced information content) is distributed representations. In turn, this may solve the binding problem.

Not sure I understand this. Aren’t there clear examples of unconscious brain waves (eg delta waves during sleep)? Can you explain more about what you mean by distributed representations and why they’re linked to consciousness?

> If “we are” the patchwork of interlaced LFPs the brain is generating, in some sense we could say that we “have a brain” rather than that we “are the brain” (loosely speaking). Without putting any strong metaphysical import on the concept of free will, the phenomenology of it seems to me at least to make more sense when you identify with the field rather than the neurons per se (see clues 1 and 3 in his paper). In this view, we are like the “ghost in the machine”, capable of biasing neural activity here and there.

Confused by this too. My model for thinking about brain waves has been cellular automata – in this case, there would be no difference between the pattern and the machinery, and it wouldn’t make sense to say that the pattern is able to bias the activity here or there. Is this a bad model? Can you explain more what you mean by “us” (by which I’m assuming you mean consciousness) “biasing” activity (by which I assume you mean causing brain activity different from what you would expect by lower-level laws)?


Andrés Oct/15/2022

Hey Scott!

> Thanks […] two questions:

(I’ll answer your questions in a different order than how you asked them, on the basis that my answer to the first one is much more weird and less credible… In other words, I’m answering more or less in order of how weird my responses are so that you are not put off by my first answers. This way you can choose when to stop reading without missing anything useful for your essay):

> My model for thinking about brain waves has been cellular automata – in this case, there would be no difference between the pattern and the machinery, and it wouldn’t make sense to say that the pattern is able to bias the activity here or there. Is this a bad model? 

I think that “brainwaves can be explained as emergent patterns of a cellular automata” is a very good starting model, and it has a lot of explanatory power. But there are empirical and experiential facts that would go against it as a complete explanation. And perhaps, it misses the most important hint for a theory of consciousness that satisfies all of the necessary criteria I consider such a theory must satisfy. And that is, that binding has non-trivial computational effects. I.e. At some level, patterns of organization exert “weak downward causation” on the substrate that gave rise to them. This does not mean there is “strong emergence” or that we’re going against the laws of physics. On the contrary, a key guiding principle for QRI is to be strict physicalists. The laws of physics are causally closed and complete (or at least as good as it gets; the Standard Model can be taken at face value for the time being, until something better comes along). Without violating physicalism, we nonetheless still see instances of weak downward causation in the physical world.

As an intuition, consider the fact that something like TMS can change neural activity. In fact, TMS, and especially rTMS, can cause seizures. This suggests that at a sufficiently high dose, EM oscillations can exert top-down influence on neuronal firing thresholds and phase coherence, and more so when they come in repetitive waves rather than pulses. In the case of LFPs, which are far more localized and less energetic, the influence isn’t huge. But it is there. As far as I understand the neuroscience literature on LFPs (and ephatic coupling more generally), the fact that LFPs change firing thresholds is uncontroversial. The question is “by how much”. Most studies find small effects (otoh between 1% and 20% of the variance, but I can look up more precise and recent figures – e.g. see: Ephaptic coupling of cortical neurons).

The more interesting and perhaps significant effect that LFPs have is to change the degree of coherence between neurons. In other words, they may not change much their probability of firing, but do change a lot their probability of firing in phase. You can see how this would lead to interesting self-reinforcing effects. Namely, if neural coherence causes LFPs, and LFPs increase neural coherence, there might be attractors of hypercoherent neural firings coupled with strong and very orderly LFPs. I believe this explains the Jhanas.

Now, can’t you just expand your cellular automata to include LFPs and call it a day? Well, yes, in a theoretical but rather impractical sense. Building a cellular automata that simulates a simple neural network is easy. Building one that simulates water is more tricky. By the time you are constructing cellular automata to simulate EM fields you get into trouble. It’s possible, but you need all sorts of tricks, shortcuts, and handling complex edge cases (e.g. topological segmentation!). Can you construct a cellular automata that simulates physics? Quantum mechanics proper? Yes… if you are Wolfram. But recall that his explorations invoke cellular automata with unusual mathematical primitives. We are no longer in the territory of simple grid-like graphs. We are in Ruliad-space, with hypergraphs and exotic rulesets. Quantum coherent states behave in a very holistic fashion (where the “next step” is the result of solving Shrödinger’s equation in configuration space). So while it’s possible to use cellular automata to think of physics at this level, it isn’t a very natural choice. Rather, I posit that thinking of it in terms of universal principles like energy minimization, extremas, and the preservation of zero information is what takes us closer to the phenomenon at hand. These principles are, by their very nature, holistic. An electron, as Feynman would put it, can sort of “smell its surroundings” to decide where to go. It somehow explores all possibilities at once and “chooses” the one that balances the minimization of energy and maximization of entropy. A truly holistic sort of phenomenon.

Source: A Class of Models with the Potential to Represent Fundamental Physics by Stephen Wolfram

I think that if at that point one uses a cellular automata to represent this, one has actually reintroduced the very thing the cellular automata conceptual framework was trying to avoid. And that is, the computational power of holism. This is because even though the Ruliad that simulates physics is in some way a cellular automata, the ruleset itself requires a kind of God-like capacity to integrate pieces of information and “see all at once” entire regions of the (hyper)graph and decide what to do next. My claim is that at this point one has “pushed” the undesired holism to the ruleset in order to avoid seeing it directly. It’s a reductionist sleight of hand.

Now, I’m not saying consciousness is quantum mechanical. What I’m pointing out is that EM waves are sort of in the spectrum between simple cellular automatas and QM, where the waves interacting with one another have all kinds of peculiar holistic effects. Binding, if it involves EM waves, turns out to be computationally non-trivial.

In this model, the brain is physically providing a soil that can instantiate EM waves with many different kinds of properties. Some behave linearly, some non-linearly. And together, they give rise to the vast zoo of possible internal representations, many kinds of binding, topologies, and dynamics we experience (such as the strangeness of “fire meditation“).

> Can you explain more what you mean by “us” (by which I’m assuming you mean consciousness) “biasing” activity (by which I assume you mean causing brain activity different from what you would expect by lower-level laws)?

You can’t voluntarily shut down your brain with conscious control. At least not immediately. But you can direct your attention to two parts of your experience at once, and the resonances in those two regions will slowly but surely begin to synchronize. In other words, from an EE point of view, spreading your attention over a given region of your experience increases the impedance matching between the metronomes in those regions. This, I think, is the influence of LFPs (or similar) on neural activity. This may be subtle, but over enough time and neural rewiring, the process can lead to very interesting effects. Hyperconcentrated states of consciousness, starting with access concentration all the way to single-pointed attention and ultimately to the formless Jhanas are obtained through mental moves that slowly by surely “unify the mind” (i.e. brings coherence between disparate metronomes in the nervous system). This is “us” learning to influence “our brain”.

> Not sure I understand this. Aren’t there clear examples of unconscious brain waves (eg delta waves during sleep)?

Two quick things here. The first is that we think brainwaves (macroscopic oscillations in the EM field more generally) are necessary but not sufficient for consciousness. They still need to form a topological pocket, or they will remain unclosed eddies that cannot contain information nor maintain a boundary with their surroundings. The second is that the main point is that the brainwaves track the texture of degrees of wakefulness. More so, it’s not just the spectral power distribution, but also the patterns of spatiotemporal cross-frequency coherence. Thus, two states might look the same in terms of their spectrum, but carry significantly different internal textures since one of them has a high degree of, say, gamma coherence and the other doesn’t.

> Can you explain more about what you mean by distributed representations and why they’re linked to consciousness?

One of the key insights from Stevan Lehar is that using a dynamic, smooth, spatial medium of representation allows us to run spatial algorithms on our representations. One example is the incredibly general reverse grassfire & reverse shock schaffold algorithms that explain a wide range of visual illusions (discussed in The Constructive Aspect of Visual Perception / as well as in his magnum opus video Harmonic Gestalt). Based on the fact that these algorithms generalize to things like breakthrough level DMT experiences and that they apply to hyperdimensional phenomenal objects and their resonant modes, I’m fairly convinced that the local cellular automata view doesn’t explain the facts. The structures that exist in those states follow law-like energy minimization properties reminiscent of fluid dynamics in higher dimensions. To me they seem to necessitate something like Maxwell’s equations; a cellular automaton would need a lot of training and fine-tuning to be able to instantly generate those dynamics right and seamlessly. Combine this with the (not fully verified but tentative) observation that DMT states are phenomenologically similar to those induced by high-dose Fire Kasina. I believe that the mechanism is actually fairly simple: both methods energize the visual field to the point where it transitions from a linear and partially linear state into a fully nonlinear regime. The phenomenon is better seen as what happens when you energize a non-linear optical computer than, say, the effect of changing the ruleset of a cellular automaton.

I know this lacks credibility for the time being […]. I aim to identify crisp and experimentally verifiable demonstrations of this that trained physicists and neuroscientists can both agree on.

In the long-term, I expect humans to figure out ways to use high-energy states of consciousness to tap into the EM field as a computational substrate. Not only will this entail a revolution in consciousness, but also, interestingly, in how we think of computation. The Turing Paradigm will turn out to be a tiny special case of… qualia computing.

Alright, I hope that wasn’t too much, haha.

Thank you again, and happy to answer more questions.

Infinite bliss!


See also:

David Pearce on the Long-Term Future of Consciousness: The Meta-Copernican Revolution

Excerpt from David Pearce‘s 2008 Diary Update (images made w/ DALL-E, except for the pictures of Shulgin):


New discoveries? Nothing dramatic. I dutifully flip through Nature each week; wade through turgid tomes of analytic philosophy; and scan Medline abstracts. A lot of the time my heart isn’t in it. Compared to an item from Dr Shulgin‘s library, the illumination can seem trivial. I very much doubt if people who have tried major psychedelics are any smarter on average than the drug-naĂŻve; in fact psychonauts may be cognitively overwhelmed or (rarely) even brain-damaged by their experiences. To complicate comparisons further, many altered states are dross – just like innumerable textures of everyday life. But by opening up a Pandora’s box of new phenomena, psychedelics do confer an immensely richer evidential base for any theory of mind and the world – an evidential base too rich, indeed, for our existing primitive terms, language and conceptual equipment to handle. One compares the laments of physicists starved of new empirical data to test their theories beyond the low-energy Standard Model with the fate of the psychedelic investigator. For in contrast the aspiring psychonaut may be forced to abandon the empirical method, not because he exhausts the range of novel phenomenology it delivers, but because the Darwinian mind can neither cope with LSD / ketamine / salvia / DMT‘s (etc) weirdness, nor weave the novel modes of sentience disclosed into an integrated world-picture.

Alexander Shulgin in his lab. #1

Of course, claims of epochal significance cut no ice with the drug-naĂŻve. Those innocent of drug-induced exotica see no more need to enhance their evidential base than did the cardinals (apocryphally) invited to look through Galileo‘s telescope. An a priori refusal to acknowledge the potential significance of alien modes of sentience is impossible to overcome in subjects whose experience of altered states is confined to getting drunk. Over time, even my own knowledge of these bizarre realms is fading. My ancestral namesake was briefly awoken from his dogmatic slumbers; but DP version-2008 has rejoined the ranks of the living dead in the ghetto of consensus reality.

Alexander Shulgin in his lab. #2

My assimilation isn’t yet complete. Even as a born-again sleepwalker, I sometimes wonder if there may be a first-person method alternative to drug-based investigations that can unlock novel phenomenology latent within excitable nervous tissue. There is a crying need for alternative avenues, I think, since drug-driven self-assays are for the most part not merely unlawful and taboo, but arguably can’t be practised responsibly until the substrates of well-being are guaranteed in a (hypothetical) post-Darwinian era of genetically pre-programmed bliss. I’ve thought about alternatives to using psychoactive drugs, not least because of the shallowness of my own current research compared to the richness of the empirical methodology pioneered by Dr Shulgin. In order to discover both the formal, mathematico-physical and the intrinsic, subjective properties of the world, a dual methodology of third- and first-person research is indispensable. The former can be abdicated to the physical sciences; but not the latter. Natural science offers no explanation of why we’re not zombies, an unfortunate anomaly if consciousness is fundamental both to our understanding of the world and the world itself. By forswearing the empirical method, we effectively guarantee that the mysteries of consciousness will never be solved. Whereas insentience is, so to speak, all of a piece – hypothetical “zombies” in the philosophical sense of the term are all exactly alike in being non-conscious – there are innumerable ways to be sentient: qualia are fantastically diverse in ways we’ve scarcely begun to map out. So I reckon the only way adequately to understand Reality will be both to capture its formal structure – ideally the master equation of the TOE of the Multiverse – and literally to incorporate ever more of the stuff of the world into one’s expanding psyche to explore the state-space of its textures – the “what-it’s-likeness”. Only incorporation and systematic molecular permutation can disclose the subjective features of all permutations of matter and energy: the solutions, I conjecture, to the equations of the TOE. A priori, one could never have guessed that cells of the striate cortex mediate visual experience and cells in the posterior parietal cortex mediate auditory experience, quite irrespective of their typical functional role in the sensory systems of naturally evolved organisms. We know about such phenomena – and full-blown phenomenal sunsets and symphonies – only because we instantiate the neuronal cell-assembles that embody such qualia. Thus to discover novel categories of experience, I think we should construct and personally instantiate genetically enhanced designer brain cells, systematically altering their intracellular amino acid sequences and gene expression profiles to design/discover new categories of experience as different as is sight from sound, making them part of one’s own psyche/virtual world. Or if this incorporation sounds too irreversible, perhaps we might splice in designer genes and allelic combinations for new modes of experience into subsets of our existing nerve cells, systematically coding new protein sequences into discrete areas of the brain and then selectively expressing the designer proteins they code for at will. Eventually, however, systematic manipulation of the molecular ingredients of one’s neural porridge/mind-dust can be harnessed to mind-expansion in the literal sense. This is because we need bigger mind/brains, not just to mirror external reality more effectively, but also to discover more of its subjective properties. Such discoveries can only be accomplished empirically.

New neuron types for new neurotypes.

I suppose what drives me here is reflection on just how (superficially) trivial are the neurochemical differences between nerve cells mediating, say, phenomenal colour and phenomenal sound – and indeed reflection on how (superficially) trivial are the molecular differences in the cells mediating the phenomenology of desire, volition and belief-episodes. How can such tiny molecular differences exert such dramatic subjective effects? LSD, for instance, is undetectable in the body three hours after consumption; and yet a few hundred micrograms of the serotonin 5-HT2A partial agonist can transport the subject into outlandish alternative virtual worlds for 10 hours or more. How many analogous, radically incommensurable kingdoms of experience, mediated by equally “trivial” molecular variations, await discovery? How will the uncharted state-spaces be systematically explored? What will be the nature of life/civilisation when these kingdoms of experience are spliced together in composite minds; recruited to play an information-bearing role; harnessed to new art forms and new lifestyles; and ultimately integrated into communities of composite minds in advanced civilisations? For sure, talk of discovering a “new category of experience” doesn’t sound a particularly exciting kind of knowledge when couched in the abstract, any more than discovery of a new brand of perfume. OK, it’s a new experience; but so what? [AndrĂ©s adds: so what!?] One might sacrifice a lot for the opportunity to experience a novel phenomenal colour; but what cognitive value should be ascribed to an unknown category of experience for which one hasn’t even a name? Initially at any rate, the novel modes of experience that we discover within a modified neural proteome won’t be harnessed to senses, either internal or external, let alone harnessed to whole conceptual schemes, cultures and novel languages of thought. So they won’t play any functional role in the mind/brain: they won’t be information-bearing. But then neither are visual or auditory experiences per se; they have no intrinsic connection to sensory perception. Dreams, for instance, can be vibrantly colourful; they don’t reliably track anything in the external world. Honed by natural selection after recruitment by awake living organisms to track mind-independent patterns, visual and auditory experience has taken millions of years to play out; and who knows where it will end. By the same token, the developmental potential of new modes of experience that we discover in tweaked neurons is equally unfathomable from here.

Every scent, every color, every touch sensation, every sound, every novel qualia…

I can understand the impatience of an exasperated sceptic. What interest have novel “tickles” of experience beyond the psychopathology of the subject? Analogously, conventional wisdom in an echolocation (etc)-based civilisation might scornfully ask a similar question if and when post-chiropteran psychonauts first access drug-induced speckles of colour or jarring shrieks or whistles of sound – or perhaps when investigators recklessly explore a new methodology of mind-expansion by incorporating alien nervous tissue into their psyche. The chiropteran consensus wisdom might account the new phenomena weird but trivial – and inexpressible in language to boot. So why should any sane chiropteran mind run the risk of messing itself up just to explore such psychotic states? For our part, human ignorance of what it’s like to be a bat isn’t too unsettling because we know that bats don’t have a rich conceptual scheme, culture or technology. We are “superior” to bats; and therefore their alien modes of experience aren’t especially important. We don’t even give our ignorance much thought.

What is it like to be a bat? An empirical neural tissue insertion protocol to explore nature’s very own echolocation qualia from the comfort of your own home…

But latent in matter and energy – and flourishing in other branches of the universal wavefunction – are presumably superintellects and supercivilisations in other Everett branches whose conceptual schemes are rooted in modes of experience no less real than our own. I suspect that accessing the subjective lifeworlds of hitherto alien mind/brains will inaugurate a meta-Copernican Revolution to dwarf anything that’s come before. The textures of such alien minds are as much a natural property of matter and energy as the atomic mass of gold; and no less important to understanding the nature of the world. Needless to say, grandiose claims of new paradigms, meta-Copernican revolutions, etc, should usually be taken with a healthy grain of salt. I am loath to write such expressions, not least because I can imagine both the withering scorn of my hyper-rational but drug-naĂŻve teenage namesake, and likewise the dismissive reaction of my drug-naĂŻve contemporaries today. Such are the perils of a priori philosophizing practised by academic philosophers (and soi-disant scientists) unwilling to get their hands (or their minds) dirty with the empirical method. In each case, our ignorance of the intrinsic, subjective nature of configurations of most of the stuff of the world is fundamental. It’s an ignorance not remediable by simple application of the hypothetico-deductive method, falsificationismBayesianism or the usual methodologies of third-person science. If you want to find out what it’s like to be a bat, then you have to experience the phenomenology of echolocation. Knowledge-acquisition entails a hardware upgrade. A notional IQ of 200 won’t help without the neural wetware to go with it – any more than a congenitally deaf supergenius can hear music by virtuoso feats of reasoning alone.

But latent in matter and energy – and flourishing in other branches of the universal wavefunction – are presumably superintellects and supercivilisations in other Everett branches whose conceptual schemes are rooted in modes of experience no less real than our own.

I guess one deterrent to investigation of altered and exotic states is the thought that the novel phenomena disclosed “aren’t Real” – as though the reality of any phenomenon depended on it being a copy or representation of something else external to itself. I wonder if I lived in a world of Mary-like superscientists – smart monochromats who see the world in black and white – whether I would dare put on “psychedelic” spectacles and hallucinate phenomenal colour? And could I communicate to my Mary-like superscientist colleagues the significance of what they were missing without sounding like a drug-deranged crank? Probably not.

Literally Expanding Our Mind To Overcome Our Fundamental Ignorance of Alien Modes of Experience

So I reckon that we should, literally, expand our minds. If we do, how far should incorporation go? The size of the human brain is limited by the human birth-canal, a constraint that technologies of extra-uterine pregnancy from conception to term will presumably shortly overcome. Over time, brains can become superbrains; and sentience can become supersentience. Ultimately, should we aspire to become God or merely gods? My (tentative) inclination is that we should all become One [AndrĂ©s adds: see David’s Quora response on the topic of Open Individualism]; and not merely out of deference to my New Age friends. Separateness from each other is an epistemic, not just an ethical, limitation: a source of profound ignorance. For we fundamentally misconstrue the nature of other sentient beings, misunderstanding each other as objects to which we fitfully attribute feelings rather than as pure subjects. [Actually, the story is more complicated. If inferential realism about perception is true, then the sceptic about Other Minds is right, in a sense: the phenomenal people encountered in one’s egocentric world-simulation are zombies. But when one is awake, the zombies serve as avatars that causally covary with sentient beings in one’s local environment. So the point stands.] Yes, literally fusing with other minds/virtual worlds sounds an unattractive (as well as infeasible) prospect for the foreseeable future; and not just because of their lousy organic avatars. For we certainly wouldn’t want to Become One with a bunch of ugly Darwinian minds; and likewise, they might get a nasty shock if they tasted one’s own. Infatuated lovers may want to fuse; rival alpha males certainly don’t [unless one eats a defeated opponent, a form of intimacy practised in some traditional cultures; but this is a very one-sided consummation of a relationship]. However, perhaps the prospect of unification will be more exciting if and when we become posthuman smart angels, so to speak: beautiful in every sense. I have no hidden agenda beyond my abolitionist propagandizing; but on current evidence it’s likely we belong to a family of Everett branches that will lead to god-like beings. And thence to God? I’m sceptical, but I don’t know.

Mindmelding with other Darwinian creatures is kind of a bummer sometimes.

Divinity takes many forms. What kind of (demi)gods might we become? Superhappy beings, I reckon, yes, but superhappiness in what guise? A unitary Ăœber-Mind, or fragmented minds as now? At one extreme of the continuum, posthumans may opt to live solipsistically in designer paradises: an era not just of personalized medicine but personalized VR. [Would I opt to dwell with a harem of several thousand houris and become Emperor Dave the First, Lord of The Universe? And supremely modest too. Yes, probably. I’m a Darwinian male.] Occupying the middle of the continuum is the superconnectivity of web-enabled minds (via neural implants, etc) without unitary experience or loss of personal identity. Such a scenario is a recognizable descendant of the status quo whereby we are all connected via the Net to everyone else. This sort of future is the most “obvious” since it’s an extrapolation of current trends. Extreme interconnectivity is still consistent with extensive ignorance of each other, although expansion and/or functional amplification of our mirror neurons could magnify our capacity for mutual empathetic understanding. Finally, at the other extreme of the continuum, there is presumably a more-or-less complete fusion of posthuman mind/brains into a unitary collective: a blissful analogue of the Borg, but contiguous rather than scattered: there is no evidence spatio-temporally disconnected beings have token-identical experiences. It’s hard enough to solve the binding problem in one mind/brain, let alone across discrete skulls.

Emperor Dave the First, Psychonaut Lord of The Universe, Bliss For All Creatures Under the Sun

I don’t know which if any of these three families of scenario is the most likely culmination of life in the Multiverse. Indeed it’s unclear whether the third scenario, i.e. a unitary experiential Supermind, is even technically feasible. For there is an upper limit to the size and duration of the conjectural “warm” quantum coherence needed for unitary sentience; it’s difficult enough to avoid ultra-rapid thermally-induced decoherence in even a single human mind/brain, let alone a hypothetical global super-mind/brain. Is there a way round this constraint? In spite of the well-worn dictum “black holes have no hair“, I used to play around with the idea that blissful superminds lived on the ultra-cool “surface” of supermassive black holes. All the information content of their interior and information content at the horizon is smeared out across the entire horizon, allowing unitary megaminds of maximum information density – and maximum intelligent bliss: what Seth Baum aptly calls “utilitronium”. This conjecture needs more work. But whether conscious mind is unitary or discrete, I suspect that posthuman modes of existence will be based, not on today’s ordinary waking consciousness, but on unimaginably different modes of sentience. In addition, I predict that these modes of sentience will be as different in intensity from ours as is a supernova from a glowworm. Thus any speculative story we may now be tempted to tell about what life may be like millions or billions of years hence will of necessity ignore a fundamental difference between future minds and us. Human futurology omits the key evolutionary transitions ahead in the nature of consciousness – not only the ethically all-important hedonic transition to superhappiness that I stress, but other modes of sentience currently unknown. The discontinuity promised by any future technological Singularity – or soft Singularities – derives not merely from an exponential growth of computer processing power, but from inconceivably different textures of sentience. Actually, I entertain many bizarre ideas. The art is taking them seriously enough to explore their implications and testable predictions, but sceptically enough not to be seduced into believing they are likely to be true. And what about the nearest I come to a dogmatic commitment? Could the abolitionist project turn out to be mistaken too? I guess so. Yet at least the abolition of suffering is not a phenomenon we will live to regret.

Three families of scenarios for the culmination of life in the Multiverse: #1 everyone kinda doing their own thing in their little virtual worlds. #2 hybrid hive minds of hypersocial connected individuals who choose to retain their (porous) individuality. #3 God, a single mega-mind, that maximally bounds as much matter and energy into unitary superexperiences.


See Also:

QRI Meetup in London on October 8th 2022

I’m currently in the UK. London, more precisely. I was invited to participate in this year’s instance of the Tyrinham Initiative (my review) and, naturally, I couldn’t miss it. I’m _very_ happy I went. I will share more about it and other recent DMT insights soon. But in the meantime, I just want to announce that there will be a QRI meetup on October 8th (2022) in Arch1 (West Ham Arches, Cranberry Ln, London E16 4BJ).

2022 Tyrinham Initiative attendees

QRI Meetup Schedule

  • 2PM: Space Opens.
  • 3PM: Snacks*.
  • 4PM: Experience Sharing Activity (bring an interesting experience to share with others!).
  • 6PM: AndrĂ©s (me) unveils Hedonium Shockwave (1) and delivers a speech**.
  • 7PM: Audience participation – there will be an Open Mic for people to introduce themselves, share their thoughts about QRI, and (optionally) make the case for a given Cause X (5 minutes per person)***.
  • 8PM: Food*.
  • 8PM9:30PM: AndrĂ©s available for short 1-1s. Please feel free to share your candid feedback. I’ll be all ears! (There will be a signup list).
  • 10:30PM: Wrap-up.

What to bring?

You don’t need to bring anything. Your presence is more than enough. That said, please feel free to bring with you an experience to share (think “Qualia of the Day“). This can range from perfumes, to spices, to books, to boardgames, to stim toys, to puzzles, to jokes, to nootropics, to pieces of art.

What to wear?

Please come in an attire that brings you joy. Bring at least one item (even if just a detail, like a pin or a scarf) that symbolizes the victory of consciousness over pure replicators. Be creative and open minded.

Do you have suggestions for how to accelerate the progress of QRI, help eliminate intense suffering, map the DMT realms, and achieve super-human bliss for all? I’m all ears!


* Bring vegetarian snacks, drinks, and food to share with others, if you are so inclined. Please do not bring alcoholic drinks as the space has a full bar and they don’t allow outside drinks into the venue, which extends to the garden area.

** Please do what you can to be there before 5:50PM if you intent to see the speech so that your arrival doesn’t interrupt or distract anyone. If you arrive between 6PM and 7PM, please make a quiet entrance.

*** The winner will get a prize.

Just Look At The Thing! – How The Science of Consciousness Informs Ethics

It is very easy to answer many of these fundamental biological questions; you just look at the thing! 


From Richard Feyman’s talk There’s Plenty of Room at the Bottom (1959)

Introduction

The quote above comes from a lecture Richard Feynman gave in which he talks about the challenges and opportunities of studying and interacting with the world at a very small scale. Among other things, he touches upon how gaining access to e.g. a good-enough electron microscopes would allow us to answer long-standing questions in biology by just looking at the thing (cf. Seeing Cell Division Like Never Before). Once you start to directly engage with the phenomenon at a high-enough resolution, tackling these questions at the theoretical level would turn out, in retrospect, to be idle arm chair speculation.

I think that we can make the case that philosophy of ethics at the moment might be doing something like this. In other words, it speculates about the nature of value at a theoretical level without engaging with the phenomenon of value at a high resolution. Utilitarianism (whether classical or negative), at least as it is usually formulated, may turn out to have background assumptions about the nature of consciousness, personal identity, and valence that a close examination would show to be false (or at least very incomplete). Many criticisms of wireheading, for instance, seem to conflate pleasure and reward (more on this soon), and yet we now know that these are quite different. Likewise, the repugnant conclusion or the question between total vs. mean utilitarianism are usually discussed using implicit background assumptions about the nature of valence and personal identity. This must stop. We have to look at the thing!

Without further ado, here are some of the key ways in which an enriched understanding of consciousness can inform our ethical theories:

Mixed Valence

One ubiquitous phenomenon that I find is largely neglected in discussions about utilitarianism is that of mixed valence states. Not only is it the case that there are many flavors of pleasure and pain, but it is also the case that most states of consciousness blend both pleasurable and painful sensations in complex ways.

In Principia Qualia (Michael Johnson) the valence triangle was introduced. This describes the valence of a state of consciousness in terms of its loadings on the three dimensions of negative, positive, and neutral valence. This idea was extended in Quantifying Bliss, which further enriched it by adding a spectral component to each of these dimensions. Let’s work with this valence triangle to reason about mixed valence.

In order to illustrate the relevance of mixed valence states we can see how it influences policies within the context of negative utilitarianism. Let us say that we agree that there is a ground truth to the total amount of pain and pleasure a system produces. A naĂŻve conception of negative utilitarianism could then be “we should minimize pain”. But pain that exists within an experience that also contains pleasure may matter a lot less than pain that exists in an experience without pleasure that “balances it out”!

The naĂŻve conception, would thus, not be able to distinguish between the following two scenarios. In Scenario A we have two persons, one suffering from both an intense headache and an intense stomach ache and the other enjoying both a very pleasant sensation in the head and a very pleasant sensation in the stomach. In Scenario B, we switch it up: one person experiences an intense headache while also a very pleasant sensation in the stomach, and the other way around for the other person.

But if you have ever experienced a very pleasant sensation arise in the midst of an otherwise unpleasant experience you will know how much of a difference it makes. Such a pleasant sensation does not need to directly blunt the painful sensation; the mere presence of enough pleasure makes the overall nature of the experience far more tolerable. How and why this happens is still, of course, a mystery (in a future post we shall share our speculations) but it seems to be an empirical fact. This can have extraordinary implications, where for example a sufficiently advanced meditator might be able to dilute very painful sensations with enough equanimity (itself a high-valence state) or by e.g. generating jhanic sensations (see below). Have you ever seen this discussed in an academic journal on ethics? I didn’t think so.

We don’t need to invoke such fancy scenarios to see the reality and importance of mixed valence states. The canonical example that I use to illustrate this phenomenon is where: you just broke up with someone (-), are at a concert enjoying really good music (+), are coming up on weed and alcohol (+), but also need to pee really bad (-). We’ve all been there, haven’t we? If you get sufficiently absorbed into the cathartic pleasure of the music and the drugs, the negative feelings temporarily recede into the background and thus might tilt the experience towards the net positive for a while.

Once you consider the reality of mixed valence states, there is a veritable Cambrian Explosion of possible variants of utilitarianism. For example, if you do accept that pleasure can somehow dilute pain within a given moment of experience, then you could posit that there is a “line of hedonic zero” on the valence triangle and anything on one side of it is net positive:

A version of negative utilitarianism we could call within-subject-aggregated-valence negative utilitarianism recognizes any experience in the “Net Positive” region to be perfectly acceptable even though it contains painful sensations.

Alternatively, another version we may call strict negative valence utilitarianism might say that pain, whether or not it is found within an experience with a lot of pleasure, is still nonetheless unacceptable. Here, however, we may still have a lot of room for a civilization animated by information-sensitive gradients of bliss: we can use the gradients that have a mixture of positive and neutral Vedanā for information signaling:

Yet another view, perhaps called within-subject-majoritarian negative valence utilitarianism might say that what makes an experience worth-living and unproblematic is for it to be at least 50% pleasant, regardless of the composition of the other 50%:

Now, I am not going to adjudicate between these views today. All I am pointing for the time being is that actually engaging with the phenomenon at hand (i.e. how valence manifests in reality) radically enriches our conceptions, and allows us to notice that most of ethics has an impoverished understanding of the phenomenon it comments on. We can change that.

Logarithmic Scales

As argued in Logarithmic Scales of Pleasure and Pain (summary) we think that there is a wide range of evidence that suggests that the intensity of both pleasure and pain follows a long-tail distribution. I am not going to repeat the arguments here, since I’ve written and presented about them extensively already. I will merely mention that I am deeply suspicious of the intellectual seriousness of any ethicist who somehow fails to notice the enormous moral significance of the following states of consciousness, among others:

On the positive side:

  • Temporal lobe epilepsy
  • MDMA
  • Jhanas
  • Good high-dose 5-MeO-DMT trip

On the negative side:

  • Cluster Headaches
  • Kidney Stones
  • Bad high-dose 5-MeO-DMT trip