Materializing Hyperbolic Spaces with Gradient-Index Optics and One-Way Mirrors

Burning Man is one week away, so I figured I would share a neat idea I’ve been hoarding  that could lead to a kick-ass Burning Man-style psychedelic art installation. If I have the time and resources to do so, I may even try to manifest this idea in real life at some point.

Around the time I was writing The Hyperbolic Geometry of DMT Experiences (cf. Eli5) I began asking myself how to help people develop a feel for what it is like to inhabit non-Euclidean phenomenal spaces. I later found out that Henry Segerman developed an immersive VR experience in which you can explore 3D hyperbolic spaces. That is fantastic, and a great step in the right direction. But I wanted to see if there was any way for us to experience 3D hyperbolic geometry in a material way without the aid of computers. Something that you could hold in your hand, like a sort of mystical amulet that works as a reminder of the vastness of the state-space of consciousness.

What I had in mind was along the lines of how we can, in a sense, visualize infinite (Euclidean) space using two parallel mirrors. I thought that maybe there could be a way to do the same but in a way that visualizes a hyperbolic space.

One-Way Mirrors and 3D Space-Filling Shapes

Right now you can use one-way mirrors on the sides of a polyhedra whose edges are embedded with LEDs to create a fascinating “infinite space effect”:

This works perfectly for cubes in particular, given that cubes are symmetrical space-filling polyhedra. But as you can see in the video above, the effect is not quite perfect when we use dodecahedra (or any other Platonic solid). The corners simply do not align properly. This is because the solid angles of non-cube Platonic solids cannot be used to cover perfectly 4π steradians (i.e. what 8 cubes do when meeting at a corner):

n-light-objects-header

This is not the case in hyperbolic space, though; arbitrary regular polyhedra can tesselate 3D hyperbolic spaces. For instance, one can use dodecahedra by choosing their size appropriately in such a way that they all have 90 degree angle corners (cf. Not Knot):

Gradient-Index Optics

Perhaps, I thought to myself, there is a way to physically realize hyperbolic curvature and enable us to see what it is like to live in a place in which dodecahedra tesselate space. I kept thinking about this problem, and one day while riding the BART and introspecting on the geometry of sound, I realized that one could use gradient-index optics to create a solid in which light-paths behave as if the space was hyperbolic.

Gradient-index optics is the subfield of optics that specializes in the use of materials that have a smooth non-constant refractive index. One way to achieve this is to blend two transparent materials (e.g. two kinds of plastic) in such a way that the concentration of each type varies smoothly from one region to the next. As a consequence, light travels in unusual and bendy ways, like this:

Materializing Hyperbolic Spaces

By carefully selecting various transparent plastics with different indices of refraction and blending them in a 3D printer in precisely the right proportions, one can in principle build solids in which the gradient-index properties of the end product instantiate a hyperbolic metric. If one were to place the material with the lowest refraction index at the very center in a dodecahedron and add materials of increasingly larger refractive indices all the way up to the corners, then the final effect could be one in which the dodecahedron has an interior in which light moves as if it were in a hyperbolic space. One can then place LED strips along the edges and seal the sides with one-way window film. Lo-and-behold, one would then quite literally be able to “hold infinity in the palm of your hand”:

dodecahedra_hyperbolic

I think that this sort of gadget would allow us to develop better intuitions for what the far-out (experiential) spaces people “visit” on psychedelics look like. One can then, in addition, generalize this to make space behave as if its 3D curvature was non-constant. One might even, perhaps, be able to visualize a black-hole by emulating its event-horizon using a region with extremely large refractive index.

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Challenges

I would like to conclude by considering some of the challenges that we would face trying to construct this. For instance, finding the right materials may be difficult because they would need to have a wide range of refractive indices, all be similarly transparent, able to smoothly blend with each other, and have low melting points. I am not a material scientist, but my gut feeling is that this is not currently impossible. Modern gradient-index optics already has a rather impressive level of precision.

Another challenge comes from the resolution of the 3D printer. Modern 3D printers have layers with a thickness between .2 to 0.025mm. It’s possible that this is simply not small enough to avoid visible discontinuities in the light-paths. At least in principle this could be surmounted by melting the last layer placed such that the new layer smoothly diffuses and partially blends with it in accordance with the desired hyperbolic metric.

An important caveat is that the medium in which we live (i.e. air at atmospheric pressure) is not very dense to begin with. In the example of the dodecahedra, this may represent a problem considering that the corners need to form 90 degree angles from the point of view of an outside observer. This would imply that the surrounding medium needs to have a higher refraction index than that of the transparent medium at the corners. This could be fixed by immersing the object in water or some other dense media (and designing it under the assumption of being surrounded by such a medium). Alternatively, one can simply fix the problem by using appropriately curved sides in lieu of straight planes. This may not be as aesthetically appealing, though, so it may pay off to brainstorm other clever approaches to deal with this that I haven’t thought of.

Above all, perhaps the most difficult challenge would be that of dealing with the inevitable presence of chromatic aberrations:

Since the degree to which a light-path bends in a medium depends on its frequency, how bendy light looks like with gradient-index optics is variable. If the LEDs placed at the edges of the polyhedra are white, we could expect very visible distortions and crazy rainbow patterns to emerge. This would perhaps be for the better when taken for its aesthetic value. But since the desired effect is one of actually materializing faithfully the behavior of light in hyperbolic space, this would be undesirable. The easiest way to deal with this problem would be to show the gadget in a darkened room and have only monochrome LEDs on the edges of the polyhedra whose frequency is tuned to the refractive gradient for which the metric is hyperbolic. More fancifully, it might be possible to overcome chromatic aberrations with the use of metamaterials (cf. “Metasurfaces enable improved optical lens performance“). Alas, my bedtime is approaching so I shall leave the nuts and bolts of this engineering challenge as an exercise for the reader…

Why don’t more effective altruists work on the Hedonistic Imperative?

By David Pearce (in response to a Quora question)

 

Life could be wonderful. Genetically phasing out suffering in favour of hardwired happiness ought to be mainstream. Today, it’s a fringe view. It’s worth asking why.

Perhaps the first scientifically-literate blueprint for a world without suffering was written by Lewis Mancini. “Brain stimulation and the genetic engineering of a world without pain” was published in the journal Medical Hypotheses in 1990. As far as I can tell, the paper sunk almost without a trace. Ignorant of Mancini’s work, I wrote The Hedonistic Imperative (HI) in 1995. I’ve plugged away at the theme ever since. Currently, a small, scattered minority of researchers believe that replacing the biology of suffering with gradients of genetically preprogrammed well-being is not just ethical but obviously so.

Alas, perceptions of obviousness vary. Technically, at least, the abolitionist project can no longer easily be dismissed as science fiction. The twenty-first century has already witnessed the decoding of the human genome, the development and imminent commercialisation of in vitro meat, the dawn of CRISPR genome-editing and the promise of synthetic gene drives. Identification of alleles and allelic combinations governing everything from pain-sensitivity to hedonic range and hedonic set-points is complementing traditional twin studies. The high genetic loading of subjective well-being and mental ill-health is being deciphered. The purely technical arguments against the genetic feasibility of creating a happy living world are shrinking. But genetic status quo bias is deeply entrenched. The sociopolitical obstacles to reprogramming the biosphere are daunting.

You ask specifically about effective altruists (EAs). Some effective altruists (cfEffective Altruism: How Can We Best Help Others? by Magnus Vinding) do explore biological-genetic solutions to complement socio-economic reform and other environmental interventions. Most don’t. Indeed, a significant minority of EAs expressly urge a nonbiological focus for EA. For example, see Why I Don’t Focus On The Hedonistic Imperative by the influential EA Brian Tomasik. I can’t offer a complete explanation, but I think these facts are relevant:

1) Timescales. Lewis Mancini reckons that completion of the abolitionist project will take thousands of years. HI predicts that the world’s last unpleasant experience will occur a few centuries hence, perhaps in some obscure marine invertebrate. If, fancifully, consensus existed for a global species-project, then 100 – 150 years (?) might be a credible forecast. Alas, such a timescale is wildly unrealistic. No such consensus exists or is plausibly in prospect. For sure, ask people a question framed on the lines of “Do you agree with Gautama Buddha, ‘May all that have life be delivered from suffering’?” and assent might be quite high. Some kind of quantified, cross-cultural study of radical Buddhist or Benthamite abolitionism would be interesting. Yet most people balk at what the scientific implementation of such a vision practically entails – if they reflect on abolitionist bioethics at all. “That’s just Brave New World” is a common response among educated Westerners to the idea of engineering “unnatural” well-being. Typically, EAs are focused on measurable results in foreseeable timeframes in areas where consensus is broad and deep, for instance the elimination of vector-borne disease. Almost everyone agrees that eliminating malaria will make the world a better place. Malaria can be eradicated this century.

2) The Hedonic Treadmill. In recent decades, popular awareness of the hedonic treadmill has grown. Sadly, most nonbiological interventions to improve well-being may not have the dramatic long-term impact we naïvely hope. However, awareness of the genetic underpinnings of the hedonic treadmill is sketchy. Knowledge of specific interventions we can plan to subvert its negative feedback mechanisms is sketchier still. Compared to more gross and visible ills, talk of “low hedonic set-points” (etc) is nebulous. Be honest, which would you personally choose if offered: a vast national lottery win (cfHow Winning The Lottery Affects Happiness) or a modestly higher hedonic set-point? Likewise, the prospect of making everyone on Earth prosperous sounds more effectively altruistic (cfCan “effective altruism” maximise the bang for each charitable buck?) than raising their hedonic defaults – even if push-button hedonic uplift were now feasible, which it isn’t, or at least not without socially unacceptable consequences.

3) The Spectre of Eugenics. Any confusion between the racial hygiene policies of the Third Reich and the project of genetically phasing out suffering in all sentient beings ought to be laughable. Nonetheless, many people recoil at the prospect of “designer babies”. Sooner or later, the ”e”-word crops up in discussions of genetic remediation and enhancement. If we assume that bioconservative attitudes to baby-making will prevail worldwide indefinitely, and the reproductive revolution extends at best only to a minority of prospective parents, then the abolitionist project will never happen. What we call the Cambrian Explosion might alternatively be classified as the Suffering Explosion. If we don’t tackle the biological-genetic roots of suffering at source – “eugenics”, if you will – then pain and suffering will proliferate until Doomsday. Without eugenics, the world’s last unpleasant experience may occur millions or even billions of years hence.

4) Core Values. Self-identified effective altruists range from ardent life loversfocused on existential risks, AGI and the hypothetical Intelligence Explosion to radical anti-natalists and negative utilitarians committed to suffering-focused ethics (cfWhat are the main differences between the anti-natalism/efilism community and the negative utilitarian/”suffering-focused ethics” wing of the effective altruism community?). There’s no inherent conflict with HI at either extreme. On the one hand, phasing out the biology of suffering can potentially minimise existential risk. Crudely, the more we love life, the more we want to preserve it. On the opposite wing of EA, radical anti-natalists oppose reproduction because they care about suffering, not because of opposition to new babies per se. Technically speaking, CRISPR babies could be little bundles of joy – as distinct from today’s tragic genetic experiments. In practice, however, life-loving EAs are suspicious of (notionally) button-pressing negative utilitarians, whereas radical anti-natalists view worldwide genetic engineering as even more improbable than their preferred option of voluntary human extinction.

5) Organisation and Leadership. Both secular and religious organizations exist whose tenets include the outright abolition of suffering. EAs can and do join such groups. However, sadly, I don’t know of a single organisation dedicated to biological-genetic solutions to the problem of suffering. Among transhumanists, for instance, radical life-extension and the prospect of posthuman superintelligence loom larger than biohappiness – though article 7 of the Transhumanist Declaration is admirably forthright: a commitment to the well-being of all sentience. Also, I think we need star power: the blessing of some charismatic billionaire or larger-than-life media celebrity. “Bill Gates says let’s use biotechnology to phase out the genetic basis of suffering” would be a breakthrough. Or even Justin Bieber.

For my part, I’m just a writer/researcher. We have our place! My guess is that this century will see more blueprints and manifestos and grandiose philosophical proposals together with concrete, incremental progress from real scientists. The genetic basis of suffering will eventually be eradicated across the tree of life, not in the name of anything “hedonistic” or gradients of intelligent bliss, and certainly not in the name of negative utilitarianism, but perhaps under the label of the World Health Organisation’s definition of health (cfConstitution of WHO: principles). Taken literally, the constitution of the WHO enshrines the most daringly ambitious vision of the future of sentience ever conceived. Lifelong good health (“complete physical, mental and social well-being”) for all sentient beings is a noble aspiration. Regardless of race or species, all of us deserve good health as so defined. A biology of information-sensitive gradients of physical, mental and social well-being (HI) is more modest and workable thanks to biotech. Optimistically, life on Earth has only a few more centuries of misery and malaise to go.

The Appearance of Arbitrary Contingency to Our Diverse Qualia

By David Pearce (Mar 21, 2012; Reddit AMA)

 

The appearance of arbitrary contingency to our diverse qualia – and undiscovered state-spaces of posthuman qualia and hypothetical micro-qualia – may be illusory. Perhaps they take the phenomenal values they do as a matter of logico-mathematical necessity. I’d make this conjecture against the backdrop of some kind of zero ontology. Intuitively, there seems no reason for anything at all to exist. The fact that the multiverse exists (apparently) confounds one’s pre-reflective intuitions in the most dramatic possible way. However, this response is too quick. The cosmic cancellation of the conserved constants (mass-energy, charge, angular momentum) to zero, and the formal equivalence of zero information to all possible descriptions [the multiverse?] means we have to take seriously this kind of explanation-space. The most recent contribution to the zero-ontology genre is physicist Lawrence Krauss’s readable but frustrating “A Universe from Nothing: Why There Is Something Rather Than Nothing“. Anyhow, how does a zero ontology tie in with (micro-)qualia? Well, if the solutions to the master equation of physics do encode the field-theoretic values of micro-qualia, then perhaps their numerically encoded textures “cancel out” to zero too. To use a trippy, suspiciously New-Agey-sounding metaphor, imagine the colours of the rainbow displayed as a glorious spectrum – but on recombination cancelling out to no colour at all. Anyhow, I wouldn’t take any of this too seriously: just speculation on idle speculation. It’s tempting simply to declare the issue of our myriad qualia to be an unfathomable mystery. And perhaps it is. But mysterianism is sterile.

Qualia Computing at Burning Man 2018: “Consciousness vs Replicators” talk

I’m thrilled to announce that I will be going to Burning Man for the second time this year. I will give a talk about Consciousness vs. Pure Replicators. The talk will be at Palenque Norte‘s consciousness-focused speaker series hosted by Camp Soft Landing.


The whole experience last year was very eye-opening, and as a result I wrote an (extremely) long essay about it. The essay introduces a wide range of entirely new concepts, including “The Goldillocks Zone of Oneness” and “Hybrid Vigor in the context of post-Darwinian ethics.” It also features a section about my conversation with God at Burning Man.

If you are attending Burning Man and would like to meet with me, I will be available for chatting and hanging out right after my talk (call it the Qualia Research Institute Office Hours at Burning Man).


Here are the details of the talk:

Andrés Gómez Emilsson-Consciousness vs Replicators

Date and Time: Wednesday, August 29th, 2018, 3 PM – 4:30 PM
Type: Class/Workshop
Located at CampCamp Soft Landing (8:15 & C (Cylon). Mid-block on C, between 8 and 8:30.)

Description:

Patterns that are good at making copies of themselves are not necessarily good from an ethical point of view. We call Pure Replicators, in the context of brains and minds, those beings that use all of their resources for the purpose of replicating. In other words, beings that replicate without regards for their own psychological wellbeing (if they are conscious) or the wellbeing of others. In as much as we believe that value is presented in the quality of experience, perhaps to be “ethical” is to be stewards and advocates for the wellbeing of as many of the “moments of experience” that exist in reality as one can. We will talk about how an “economy of information about the state-space of consciousness” can be a helpful tool in preventing pure-replicator take-over. Lastly, we will announce the existence of a novel test of consciousness that can be used to identify non-sentient artifacts or robots passing for humans within the crowd.

 

Open Individualism and Antinatalism: If God could be killed, it’d be dead already

Abstract

Personal identity views (closed, empty, open) serve in philosophy the role that conservation laws play in physics. They recast difficult problems in solvable terms, and by expanding our horizon of understanding, they likewise allow us to conceive of new classes of problems. In this context, we posit that philosophy of personal identity is relevant in the realm of ethics by helping us address age-old questions like whether being born is good or bad. We further explore the intersection between philosophy of personal identity and philosophy of time, and discuss the ethical implications of antinatalism in a tenseless open individualist “block-time” universe.

Introduction

Learning physics, we often find wide-reaching concepts that simplify many problems by using an underlying principle. A good example of this is the law of conservation of energy. Take for example the following high-school physics problem:

An object that weighs X kilograms falls from a height of Y meters on a planet without an atmosphere and a gravity of Zg. Calculate the velocity with which this object will hit the ground.

One could approach this problem by using Newton’s laws of motion and differentiating the distance traveled by the object as a function of time and then obtaining the velocity of the object at the time it has fallen Y meters.

Alternatively, you could simply note that given that energy is conserved, all of the potential energy of the object at a height of X meters will be transformed into kinetic energy at 0 height. Thus the velocity of the object is equivalent to this amount, and the problem is easier to solve.

Once one has learned “the trick” one starts to see many other problems differently. In turn, grasping these deep invariants opens up new horizons; while many problems that seemed impossible can be solved using these principles, it also allows you to ask new questions, which opens up new problems that cannot be solved with those principles alone.

Does this ever happen in philosophy? Perhaps entire classes of difficult problems in philosophy may become trivial (or at least tractable) once one grasps powerful principles. Such is the case, I would claim, of transcending common-sense views of personal identity.

Personal Identity: Closed, Empty, Open

In Ontological Qualia I discussed three core views about personal identity. For those who have not encountered these concepts, I recommend reading that article for an expanded discussion.

In brief:

  1. Closed Individualism: You start existing when you are born, and stop when you die.
  2. Empty Individualism: You exist as a “time-slice” or “moment of experience.”
  3. Open Individualism: There is only one subject of experience, who is everyone.

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Most people are Closed Individualists; this is the default common sense view for good evolutionary reasons. But what grounds are there to believe in this view? Intuitively, the fact that you will wake up in “your body” tomorrow is obvious and needs no justification. However, explaining why this is the case in a clear way requires formalizing a wide range of concepts such as causality, continuity, memory, and physical laws. And when one tries to do so one will generally find a number of barriers that will prevent one from making a solid case for Closed Individualism.

As an example line of argument, one could argue that what defines you as an individual is your set of memories, and since the person who will wake up in your body tomorrow is the only human being with access to your current memories then you must be it. And while this may seem to work on the surface, a close inspection reveals otherwise. In particular, all of the following facts work against it: (1) memory is a constructive process and every time you remember something you remember it (slightly) differently, (2) memories are unreliable and do not always work at will (e.g. false memories), (3) it is unclear what happens if you copy all of your memories into someone else (do you become that person?), (4) how many memories can you swap with someone until you become a different person?, and so on. Here the more detailed questions one asks, the more ad-hoc modifications of the theory are needed. In the end, one is left with what appears to be just a set of conventional rules to determine whether two persons are the same for practical purposes. But it does not seem to carve nature at its joints; you’d be merely over-fitting the problem.

The same happens with most Closed Individualist accounts. You need to define what the identity carrier is, and after doing so one can identify situations in which identity is not well-defined given that identity carrier (memory, causality, shared matter, etc.).

But for both Open and Empty Individualism, identity is well-defined for any being in the universe. Either all are the same, or all are different. Critics might say that this is a trivial and uninteresting point, perhaps even just definitional. Closed Individualism seems sufficiently arbitrary, however, that questioning it is warranted, and once one does so it is reasonable to start the search for alternatives by taking a look at the trivial cases in which either all or none of the beings are the same.

More so, there are many arguments in favor of these views. They indeed solve and usefully reformulate a range of philosophical problems when applied diligently. I would argue that they play a role in philosophy that is similar to that of conservation of energy in physics. The energy conservation law has been empirically tested to extremely high levels of precision, which is something which we will have to do without in the realm of philosophy. Instead, we shall rely on powerful philosophical insights. And in addition, they make a lot of problems tractable and offer a powerful lens to interpret core difficulties in the field.

Open and Empty Individualism either solve or have bearings on: Decision theory, utilitarianism, fission/fusion, mind-uploading and mind-melding, panpsychism, etc. For now, let us focus on…

Antinatalism

Antinatalism is a philosophical view that posits that, all considered, it is better not to be born. Many philosophers could be adequately described as antinatalists, but perhaps the most widely recognized proponent is David Benatar. A key argument Benatar considers is that there might be an asymmetry between pleasure and pain. Granted, he would say, experiencing pleasure is good, and experiencing suffering is bad. But while “the absence of pain is good, even if that good is not enjoyed by anyone”, we also have that “the absence of pleasure is not bad unless there is somebody for whom this absence is a deprivation.” Thus, while being born can give rise to both good and bad, not being born can only be good.

Contrary to popular perception, antinatalists are not more selfish or amoral than others. On the contrary, their willingness to “bite the bullet” of a counter-intuitive but logically defensible argument is a sign of being willing to face social disapproval for a good cause. But along with the stereotype, it is generally true that antinatalists are temperamentally depressive. This, of course, does not invalidate their arguments. If anything, sometimes a degree of depressive realism is essential to arrive at truly sober views in philosophy. But it shouldn’t be a surprise to learn that either experiencing or having experienced suffering in the past predispose people to vehemently argue for the importance of its elimination. Having a direct acquaintance with the self-disclosing nastiness of suffering does give one a broader evidential base for commenting on the matter of pain and pleasure.

Antinatalism and Closed Individualism

Interestingly, Benatar’s argument, and those of many antinatalists, rely implicitly on personal identity background assumptions. In particular, antinatalism is usually framed in a way that assumes Closed Individualism.

The idea that a “person can be harmed by coming into existence” is developed within a conceptual framework in which the inhabitants of the universe are narrative beings. These beings have both spatial and temporal extension. And they also have the property that had the conditions previous to their birth been different, they might not have existed. But how many possible beings are there? How genetically or environmentally different do they need to be to be different beings? What happens if two beings merge? Or if they converge towards the same exact physical configuration over time?

 

This conceptual framework has counter-intuitive implications when taken to the extreme. For example, the amount of harm you do involves how many people you allow to be born, rather than how many years of suffering you prevented.

For the sake of the argument, imagine that you have control over a sentient-AI-enabled virtual environment in which you can make beings start existing and stop existing. Say that you create two beings, A and B, who are different in morally irrelevant ways (e.g. one likes blue more than red, but on average they both end up suffering and delighting in their experience with the same intensity). With Empty Individualism, you would consider giving A 20 years of life and not creating B vs. giving A and B 10 years of life each to be morally equivalent. But with Closed Individualism you would rightly worry that these two scenarios are completely different. By giving years of life to both A and B (any amount of life!) you have doubled the number of subjects who are affected by your decisions. If the gulf of individuality between two persons is infinite, as Closed Individualism would have it, by creating both A and B you have created two parallel realities, and that has an ontological effect on existence. It’s a big deal. Perhaps a way to put it succinctly would be: God considers much more carefully the question of whether to create a person who will live only 70 years versus whether to add a million years of life to an angel who has already lived for a very long time. Creating an entirely new soul is not to be taken lightly (incidentally, this may cast the pro-choice/pro-life debate in an entirely new light).

Thus, antinatalism is usually framed in a way that assumes Closed Individualism. The idea that a being is (possibly) harmed by coming into existence casts the possible solutions in terms of whether one should allow animals (or beings) to be born. But if one were to take an Open or Empty Individualist point of view, the question becomes entirely different. Namely, what kind of experiences should we allow to exist in the future…

Antinatalism and Empty Individualism

I think that the strongest case for antinatalism comes from a take on personal identity that is different than the implicit default (Closed Individualism). If you assume Empty Individualism, in particular, reality starts to seem a lot more horrible than you had imagined. Consider how in Empty Individualism fundamental entities exist as “moments of experience” rather than narrative streams. Therefore, every time that an animal suffers, what is actually happening is that some moments of experience get to have their whole existence in pain and suffering. In this light, one stops seeing people who suffer terrible happenings (e.g. kidney stones, schizophrenia, etc.) as people who are unlucky, and instead one sees their brains as experience machines capable of creating beings whose entire existence is extremely negative.

With Empty Individualism there is simply no way to “make it up to someone” for having had a bad experience in the past. Thus, out of compassion for the extremely negative moments of experience, one could argue that it might be reasonable to try to avoid this whole business of life altogether. That said, this imperative does not come from the asymmetry between pain and pleasure Benetar talks about (which as we saw implicitly requires Closed Individualism). In Empty Individualism it does not make sense to say that someone has been brought into existence. So antinatalism gets justified from a different angle, albeit one that might be even more powerful.

In my assessment, the mere possibility of Empty Individualism is a good reason to take antinatalism very seriously.

It is worth noting that the combination of Empty Individualism and Antinatalism has been (implicitly) discussed by Thomas Metzinger (cf. Benevolent Artificial Anti-Natalism (BAAN)) and FRI‘s Brian Tomasik.

Antinatalism and Open Individualism

Here is a Reddit post and then a comment on a related thread (by the same author) worth reading on this subject (indeed these artifacts motivated me to write the article you are currently reading):

There’s an interesting theory of personal existence making the rounds lately called Open Individualism. See herehere, and here. Basically, it claims that consciousness is like a single person in a huge interconnected library. One floor of the library contains all of your life’s experiences, and the other floors contain the experiences of others. Consciousness wanders the aisles, and each time he picks up a book he experiences whatever moment of life is recorded in it as if he were living it. Then he moves onto the next one (or any other random one on any floor) and experiences that one. In essence, the “experiencer” of all experience everywhere, across all conscious beings, is just one numerically identical subject. It only seems like we are each separate “experiencers” because it can only experience one perspective at a time, just like I can only experience one moment of my own life at a time. In actuality, we’re all the same person.

 

Anyway, there’s no evidence for this, but it solves a lot of philosophical problems apparently, and in any case there’s no evidence for the opposing view either because it’s all speculative philosophy.

 

But if this were true, and when I’m done living the life of this particular person, I will go on to live every other life from its internal perspective, it has some implications for antinatalism. All suffering is essentially experienced by the same subject, just through the lens of many different brains. There would be no substantial difference between three people suffering and three thousand people suffering, assuming their experiences don’t leave any impact or residue on the singular consciousness that experiences them. Even if all conscious life on earth were to end, there are still likely innumerable conscious beings elsewhere in the universe, and if Open Individualism is correct, I’ll just move on to experiencing those lives. And since I can re-experience them an infinite number of times, it makes no difference how many there are. In fact, even if I just experienced the same life over and over again ten thousand times, it wouldn’t be any different from experiencing ten thousand different lives in succession, as far as suffering is concerned.

 

The only way to end the experience of suffering would be to gradually elevate all conscious beings to a state of near-constant happiness through technology, or exterminate every conscious being like the Flood from the Halo series of games. But the second option couldn’t guarantee that life wouldn’t arise again in some other corner of the multiverse, and when it did, I’d be right there again as the conscious experiencer of whatever suffering it would endure.

 

I find myself drawn to Open Individualism. It’s not mysticism, it’s not a Big Soul or something we all merge with, it’s just a new way of conceptualizing what it feels like to be a person from the inside. Yet, it has these moral implications that I can’t seem to resolve. I welcome any input.

 

– “Open individualism and antinatalism” by Reddit user CrumbledFingers in r/antinatalism (March 23, 2017)

And on a different thread:

I have thought a lot about the implications of open individualism (which I will refer to as “universalism” from here on, as that’s the name coined by its earliest proponent, Arnold Zuboff) for antinatalism. In short, I think it has two major implications, one of which you mention. The first, as you say, is that freedom from conscious life is impossible. This is bad, but not as bad as it would be if I were aware of it from every perspective. As it stands, at least on Earth, only a small number of people have any inkling that they are me. So, it is not like experiencing the multitude of conscious events taking place across reality is any kind of burden that accumulates over time; from the perspective of each isolated nervous system, it will always appear that whatever is being experienced is the only thing I am experiencing. In this way, the fact that I am never truly unconscious does not have the same sting as it would to, for example, an insomniac, who is also never unconscious but must experience the constant wakefulness from one integrated perspective all the time.

 

It’s like being told that I will suffer total irreversible amnesia at some point in my future; while I can still expect to be the person that experiences all the confusion and anxiety of total amnesia when it happens, I must also acknowledge that the residue of any pains I would have experienced beforehand would be erased. Much of what makes consciousness a losing game is the persistence of stresses. Universalism doesn’t imply that any stresses will carry over between the nervous systems of individual beings, so the reality of my situation is by no means as nightmarish as eternal life in a single body (although, if there exists an immortal being somewhere in the universe, I am currently experiencing the nightmare of its life).

 

The second implication of this view for antinatalism is that one of the worst things about coming into existence, namely death, is placed in quite a different context. According to the ordinary view (sometimes called “closed” individualism), death permanently ends the conscious existence of an alienated self. Universalism says there is no alienated self that is annihilated upon the death of any particular mind. There are just moments of conscious experience that occur in various substrates across space and time, and I am the subject of all such experiences. Thus, the encroaching wall of perpetual darkness and silence that is usually an object of dread becomes less of a problem for those who have realized that they are me. Of course, this realization is not built into most people’s psychology and has to be learned, reasoned out, intellectually grasped. This is why procreation is still immoral, because even though I will not cease to exist when any specific organism dies, from the perspective of each one I will almost certainly believe otherwise, and that will always be a source of deep suffering for me. The fewer instances of this existential dread, however misplaced they may be, the better.

 

This is why it’s important to make more people understand the position of universalism/open individualism. In the future, long after the person typing this sentence has perished, my well-being will depend in large part on having the knowledge that I am every person. The earlier in each life I come to that understanding, and thus diminish the fear of dying, the better off I will be. Naturally, this project decreases in potential impact if conscious life is abundant in the universe, and in response to that problem I concede there is probably little hope, unless there are beings elsewhere in the universe that have comprehended who they are and are taking the same steps in their spheres of influence. My dream is that intelligent life eventually either snuffs itself out or discovers how to connect many nervous systems together, which would demonstrate to every connected mind that it has always belonged to one subject, has always been me, but I don’t have any reason to assume this is even possible on a physical level.

 

So, I suppose you are mostly right about one thing: there are no lucky ones that escape the badness of life’s worst agonies, either by virtue of a privileged upbringing or an instantaneous and painless demise. They and the less fortunate ones are all equally me. Yet, the horror of going through their experiences is mitigated somewhat in the details.

 

– A comment by CrumbledFingers in the Reddit post “Antinatalism and Open individualism“, also in r/antinatalism (March 12, 2017)

Our brain tries to make sense of metaphysical questions in wet-ware that shares computational space with a lot of adaptive survival programs. It does not matter if you have thick barriers (cf. thick and thin boundaries of the mind), the way you assess the value of situations as a human will tend to over-focus on whatever would allow you to go up Maslow’s hierarchy of needs (or, more cynically, achieve great feats as a testament to signal your genetic-fitness). Our motivational architecture is implemented in such a way that it is very good at handling questions like how to find food when you are hungry and how to play social games in a way that impresses others and leaves a social mark. Our brains utilize many heuristics based on personhood and narrative-streams when exploring the desirability of present options. We are people, and our brains are adapted to solve people problems. Not, as it turns out, general problems involving the entire state-space of possible conscious experiences.

Prandium Interruptus

Our brains render our inner world-simulation with flavors and textures of qualia to suit their evolutionary needs. This, in turn, impairs our ability to aptly represent scenarios that go beyond the range of normal human experiences. Let me illustrate this point with the following thought experiment:

Would you rather (a) have a 1-hour meal, or (b) have the same meal but at the half-hour point be instantly transformed into a simple, amnesic, and blank experience of perfectly neutral hedonic value that lasts ten quintillion years, and after that extremely long time of neither-happiness-nor-suffering ends, then resume the rest of the meal as if nothing had happened, with no memory of that long neutral period?

According to most utilitarian calculi these two scenarios ought to be perfectly equivalent. In both cases the total amount of positive and negative qualia is the same (the full duration of the meal) and the only difference is that the latter also contains a large amount of neutral experience too. Whether classical or negative, utilitarians should consider these experiences equivalent since they contain the same amount of pleasure and pain (note: some other ethical frameworks do distinguish between these cases, such as average and market utilitarianism).

Intuitively, however, (a) seems a lot better than (b). One imagines oneself having an awfully long experience, bored out of one’s mind, just wanting it to end, get it over with, and get back to enjoying the nice meal. But the very premise of the thought experiment presupposes that one will not be bored during that period of time, nor will one be wishing it to be over, or anything of the sort, considering that all of those are mental states of negative quality and the experience is supposed to be neutral.

Now this is of course a completely crazy thought experiment. Or is it?

The One-Electron View

In 1940 John Wheeler proposed to Richard Feynman the idea that all of reality is made of a single electron moving backwards and forwards in time, interfering with itself. This view has come to be regarded as the One-Electron Universe. Under Open Individualism, that one electron is you. From every single moment of experience to the next, you may have experienced life as a sextillion different animals, been 10^32 fleeting macroscropic entangled particles, and gotten stuck as a single non-interacting electron in the inter-galactic medium for googols of subjective years. Of course you will not remember any of this, because your memories, and indeed all of your motivational architecture and anticipation programs, are embedded in the brain you are instantiating right now. From that point of view, there is absolutely no trace of the experiences you had during this hiatus.

The above way of describing the one-electron view is still just an approximation. In order to see it fully, we also need to address the fact that there is no “natural” order to all of these different experiences. Every way of factorizing it and describing the history of the universe as “this happened before this happened” and “this, now that” could be equally inapplicable from the point of view of fundamental reality.

Philosophy of Time

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Presentism is the view that only the present moment is real. The future and the past are just conceptual constructs useful to navigate the world, but not actual places that exist. The “past exists as footprints”, in a matter of speaking. “Footprints of the past” are just strangely-shaped information-containing regions of the present, including your memories. Likewise, the “future” is unrealized: a helpful abstraction which evolution gave us to survive in this world.

On the other hand, eternalism treats the future and the past as always-actualized always-real landscapes of reality. Every point in space-time is equally real. Physically, this view tends to be brought up in connection with the theory of relativity, where frame-invariant descriptions of the space-time continuum have no absolute present line. For a compelling physical case, see the Rietdijk-Putnam argument.

Eternalism has been explored in literature and spirituality extensively. To name a few artifacts: The EggHindu and Buddhist philosophy, the videos of Bob Sanders (cf. The Gap in Time, The Complexity of Time), the essays of Philip K. Dick and J. L. Borges, the poetry of T. S. Eliot, the fiction of Kurt Vonnegut Jr (TimequakeSlaughterhouse Five, etc.), and the graphic novels of Alan Moore, such as Watchmen:

Let me know in the comments if you know of any other work of fiction that explores this theme. In particular, I would love to assemble a comprehensive list of literature that explores Open Individualism and Eternalism.

Personal Identity and Eternalism

For the time being (no pun intended), let us assume that Eternalism is correct. How do Eternalism and personal identity interact? Doctor Manhattan in the above images (taken from Watchmen) exemplifies what it would be like to be a Closed Individualist Eternalist. He seems to be aware of his entire timeline at once, yet recognizes his unique identity apart from others. That said, as explained above, Closed Individualism is a distinctly unphysical theory of identity. One would thus expect of Doctor Manhattan, given his physically-grounded understanding of reality, to espouse a different theory of identity.

A philosophy that pairs Empty Individualism with Eternalism is the stuff of nightmares. Not only would we have, as with Empty Individualism alone, that some beings happen to exist entirely as beings of pain. We would also have that such unfortunate moments of experience are stuck in time. Like insects in amber, their expressions of horror and their urgency to run away from pain and suffering are forever crystallized in their corresponding spatiotemporal coordinates. I personally find this view paralyzing and sickening, though I am aware that such a reaction is not adaptive for the abolitionist project. Namely, even if “Eternalism + Empty Individualism” is a true account of reality, one ought not to be so frightened by it that one becomes incapable of working towards preventing future suffering. In this light, I adopt the attitude of “hope for the best, plan for the worst”.

Lastly, if Open Individualism and Eternalism are both true (as I suspect is the case), we would be in for what amounts to an incredibly trippy picture of reality. We are all one timeless spatiotemporal crystal. But why does this eternal crystal -who is everyone- exist? Here the one-electron view and the question “why does anything exist?” could both be simultaneously addressed with a single logico-physical principle. Namely, that the sum-total of existence contains no information to speak of. This is what David Pearce calls “Zero Ontology” (see: 1, 2, 3, 4). What you and I are, in the final analysis, is the necessary implication of there being no information; we are all a singular pattern of self-interference whose ultimate nature amounts to a dimensionless unit-sphere in Hilbert space. But this is a story for another post.

On a more grounded note, Scientific American recently ran an article that could be placed in this category of Open Individualism and Eternalism. In it the authors argue that the physical signatures of multiple-personality disorder, which explain the absence of phenomenal binding between alters that share the same brain, could be extended to explain why reality is both one and yet appears as the many. We are, in this view, all alters of the universe.

Personal Identity X Philosophy of Time X Antinatalism

Sober, scientifically grounded, and philosophically rigorous accounts of the awfulness of reality are rare. On the one hand, temperamentally happy individuals are more likely to think about the possibilities of heaven that lie ahead of us, and their heightened positive mood will likewise make them more likely to report on their findings. Temperamental depressives, on the other hand, may both investigate reality with less motivated reasoning than the euthymic and also be less likely to report on the results due to their subdued mood (“why even try? why even bother to write about it?”). Suffering in the Multiverse by David Pearce is a notable exception to this pattern. David’s essay highlights that if Eternalism is true together with Empty Individualism, there are vast regions of the multiverse filled with suffering that we can simply do nothing about (“Everett Hell Branches”). Taken together with a negative utilitarian ethic, this represents a calamity of (quite literally) astronomical proportions. And, sadly, there simply is no off-button to the multiverse as a whole. The suffering is/has/will always be there. And this means that the best we can do is to avoid the suffering of those beings in our forward-light cone (a drop relative to the size of the ocean of existence). The only hope left is to find a loop-hole in quantum mechanics that allows us to cross into other Everett branches of the multiverse and launch cosmic rescue missions. A counsel of despair or a rational prospect? Only time will tell.

Another key author that explores the intersection of these views is Mario Montano (see: Eternalism and Its Ethical Implications and The Savior Imperative).

A key point that both of these authors make is that however nasty reality might be, ethical antinatalists and negative utilitarians shouldn’t hold their breath about the possibility that reality can be destroyed. In Open Individualism plus Eternalism, the light of consciousness (perhaps what some might call the secular version of God) simply is, everywhere and eternally. If reality could be destroyed, such destruction is certainly limited to our forward light-cone. And unlike Closed Individualist accounts, it is not possible to help anyone by preventing their birth; the one subject of existence has already been born, and will never be unborn, so to speak.

Nor should ethical antinatalists and negative utilitarians think that avoiding having kids is in any way contributing to the cause of reducing suffering. It is reasonable to assume that the personality traits of agreeableness (specifically care and compassion), openness to experience, and high levels of systematizing intelligence are all over-represented among antinatalists. Insofar as these traits are needed to build a good future, antinatalists should in fact be some of the people who reproduce the most. Mario Montano says:

Hanson calls the era we live in the “dream time” since it’s evolutionarily unusual for any species to be wealthy enough to have any values beyond “survive and reproduce.” However, from an anthropic perspective in infinite dimensional Hilbert space, you won’t have any values beyond “survive and reproduce.” The you which survives will not be the one with exotic values of radical compassion for all existence that caused you to commit peaceful suicide. That memetic stream weeded himself out and your consciousness is cast to a different narrative orbit which wants to survive and reproduce his mind. Eventually. Wanting is, more often than not, a precondition for successfully attaining the object of want.

Physicalism Implies Existence Never Dies

Also, from the same essay:

Anti-natalists full of weeping benignity are literally not successful replicators. The Will to Power is life itself. It is consciousness itself. And it will be, when a superintelligent coercive singleton swallows superclusters of baryonic matter and then spreads them as the flaming word into the unconverted future light cone.

[…]

You eventually love existence. Because if you don’t, something which does swallows you, and it is that which survives.

I would argue that the above reasoning is not entirely correct in the large scheme of things*, but it is certainly applicable in the context of human-like minds and agents. See also: David Pearce’s similar criticisms to antinatalism as a policy.

This should underscore the fact that in its current guise, antinatalism is completely self-limiting. Worryingly, one could imagine an organized contingent of antinatalists conducting research on how to destroy life as efficiently as possible. Antinatalists are generally very smart, and if Eliezer Yudkowsky‘s claim that “every 18 months the minimum IQ necessary to destroy the world drops by one point” is true, we may be in for some trouble. Both Pearce’s, Montano’s, and my take is that even if something akin to negative utilitarianism is the case, we should still pursue the goal of diminishing suffering in as peaceful of a way as it is possible. The risk of trying to painlessly destroy the world and failing to do so might turn out to be ethically catastrophic. A much better bet would be, we claim, to work towards the elimination of suffering by developing commercially successful hedonic recalibration technology. This also has the benefit that both depressives and life-lovers will want to team up with you; indeed, the promise of super-human bliss can be extraordinarily motivating to people who already lead happy lives, whereas the prospect of achieving “at best nothing” sounds stale and uninviting (if not outright antagonistic) to them.

An Evolutionary Environment Set Up For Success

If we want to create a world free from suffering, we will have to contend with the fact that suffering is adaptive in certain environments. The solution here is to avoid such environments, and foster ecosystems of mind that give an evolutionary advantage to the super-happy. More so, we already have the basic ingredients to do so. In Wireheading Done Right I discussed how, right now, the economy is based on trading three core goods: (1) survival tools, (2) power, and (3) information about the state-space of consciousness. Thankfully, the world right now is populated by humans who largely choose to spend their extra income on fun rather than on trips to the sperm bank. In other words, people are willing to trade some of their expected reproductive success for good experiences. This is good because it allows the existence of an economy of information about the state-space of consciousness, and thus creates an evolutionary advantage for caring about consciousness and being good at navigating its state-space. But for this to be sustainable, we will need to find the way to make positive valence gradients (i.e. gradients of bliss) both economically useful and power-granting. Otherwise, I would argue, the part of the economy that is dedicated to trading information about the state-space of consciousness is bound to be displaced by the other two (i.e. survival and power). For a more detailed discussion on these questions see: Consciousness vs. Pure Replicators.

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Can we make the benevolent exploration of the state-space of consciousness evolutionarily advantageous?

In conclusion, to close down hell (to the extent that is physically possible), we need to take advantage of the resources and opportunities granted to us by merely living in Hanson’s “dream time” (cf. Age of Spandrels). This includes the fact that right now people are willing to spend money on new experiences (especially if novel and containing positive valence), and the fact that philosophy of personal identity can still persuade people to work towards the wellbeing of all sentient beings. In particular, scientifically-grounded arguments in favor of both Open and Empty Individualism weaken people’s sense of self and make them more receptive to care about others, regardless of their genetic relatedness. On its natural course, however, this tendency may ultimately be removed by natural selection: if those who are immune to philosophy are more likely to maximize their inclusive fitness, humanity may devolve into philosophical deafness. The solution here is to identify the ways in which philosophical clarity can help us overcome coordination problems, highlight natural ethical Schelling points, and ultimately allow us to summon a benevolent super-organism to carry forward the abolition of as much suffering as is physically possible.

And only once we have done everything in our power to close down hell in all of its guises, will we be able to enjoy the rest of our forward light-cone in good conscience. Till then, us ethically-minded folks shall relentlessly work on building universe-sized fire-extinguishers to put out the fire of Hell.


* This is for several reasons: (1) phenomenal binding is not epiphenomenal, (2) the most optimal computational valence gradients are not necessarily located on the positive side, sadly, and (3) wanting, liking, and learning are possible to disentangle.

John von Neumann

Passing of a Great Mind

John von Neumann, a Brilliant, Jovial Mathematician, was a Prodigious Servant of Science and his Country

by Clary Blair Jr. – Life Magazine (February 25th, 1957)

The world lost one of its greatest scientists when Professor John von Neumann, 54, died this month of cancer in Washington, D.C. His death, like his life’s work, passed almost unnoticed by the public. But scientists throughout the free world regarded it as a tragic loss. They knew that Von Neumann’s brilliant mind had not only advanced his own special field, pure mathematics, but had also helped put the West in an immeasurably stronger position in the nuclear arms race. Before he was 30 he had established himself as one of the world’s foremost mathematicians. In World War II he was the principal discoverer of the implosion method, the secret of the atomic bomb.

The government officials and scientists who attended the requiem mass at the Walter Reed Hospital chapel last week were there not merely in recognition of his vast contributions to science, but also to pay personal tribute to a warm and delightful personality and a selfless servant of his country.

For more than a year Von Neumann had known he was going to die. But until the illness was far advanced he continued to devote himself to serving the government as a member of the Atomic Energy Commission, to which he was appointed in 1954. A telephone by his bed connected directly with his EAC office. On several occasions he was taken downtown in a limousine to attend commission meetings in a wheelchair. At Walter Reed, where he was moved early last spring, an Air Force officer, Lieut. Colonel Vincent Ford, worked full time assisting him. Eight airmen, all cleared for top secret material, were assigned to help on a 24-hour basis. His work for the Air Force and other government departments continued. Cabinet members and military officials continually came for his advice, and on one occasion Secretary of Defence Charles Wilson, Air Force Secretary Donald Quarles and most of the top Air Force brass gathered in Von Neumann’s suite to consult his judgement while there was still time. So relentlessly did Von Neumann pursue his official duties that he risked neglecting the treatise which was to form the capstone of his work on the scientific specialty, computing machines, to which he had devoted many recent years.

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His fellow scientists, however, did not need any further evidence of Von Neumann’s rank as a scientist – or his assured place in history. They knew that during World War II at Los Alamos Von Neumann’s development of the idea of implosion speeded up the making of the atomic bomb by at least a full year. His later work with electronic computers quickened U.S. development of the H-bomb by months. The chief designer of the H-bomb, Edward Teller, once said with wry humor that Von Neumann was “one of those rare mathematicians who could descend to the level of the physicist.” Many theoretical physicists admit that they learned more from Von Neumann in methods of scientific thinking than from any of their colleagues. Hans Bethe, who was director of the theoretical physics division at Los Alamos, says, “I have sometimes wondered whether a brain like Von Neumann’s does not indicate a species superior to that of man.”

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The foremost authority on computing machines in the U.S., Von Neumann was more than anyone else responsible for the increased use of the electronic “brains” in government and industry. The machine he called MANIAC (mathematical analyzer, numerical integrator and computer), which he built at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, N.J., was the prototype for most of the advanced calculating machines now in use. Another machine, NORC, which he built for the Navy, can deliver a full day’s weather prediction in a few minutes. The principal adviser to the U.S. Air Force on nuclear weapons, Von Neumann was the most influential scientific force behind the U.S. decision to embark on accelerated production of intercontinental ballistic missiles. His “theory of games,” outlined in a book which he published in 1944 in collaboration with Economist Oskar Morgenstern, opened up an entirely new branch of mathematics. Analyzing the mathematical probabilities behind games of chance, Von Neumann went on to formulate a mathematical approach to such widespread fields as economics, sociology and even military strategy. His contributions to the quantum theory, the theory which explains the emission and absorption of energy in atoms and the one on which all atomic and nuclear physics are based, were set forth in a work entitled Mathematical Foundations of Quantum Mechanics which he wrote at the age of 23. It is today one of the cornerstones of this highly specialized branch of mathematical thought.

For Von Neumann the road to success was a many-laned highway with little traffic and no speed limit. He was born in 1903 in Budapest and was of the same generation of Hungarian physicists as Edward Teller, Leo Szilard and Eugene Wigner, all of whom later worked on atomic energy development for the U.S.

The eldest of three sons of a well-to-do Jewish financier who had been decorated by the Emperor Franz Josef, John von Neumann grew up in a society which placed a premium on intellectual achievement. At the age of 6 he was able to divide two eight-digit numbers in his head. By the age of 8 he had mastered college calculus and as a trick could memorize on sight a column in a telephone book and repeat back the names, addresses and numbers. History was only a “hobby,” but by the outbreak of World War I, when he was 10, his photographic mind had absorbed most of the contents of the 46-volume works edited by the German historian Oncken with a sophistication that startled his elders.

Despite his obvious technical ability, as a young man Von Neumann wanted to follow his father’s financial career, but he was soon dissuaded. Under a kind of supertutor, a first-rank mathematician at the University of Budapest named Leopold Fejer, Von Neumann was steered into the academic world. At 21 he received two degrees – one in chemical engineering at Zurich and a PhD in mathematics from the University of Budapest. The following year, 1926, as Admiral Horthy’s rightist regime had been repressing Hungarian Jews, he moved to Göttingen, Germany, then the mathematical center of the world. It was there that he published his major work on quantum mechanics.

The young professor

His fame now spreading, Von Neumann at 23 qualified as a Privatdozent (lecturer) at the University of Berlin, one of the youngest in the school’s history. But the Nazis had already begun their march to power. In 1929 Von Neumann accepted a visiting lectureship at Princeton University and in 1930, at the age of 26, he took a job there as professor of mathematical physics – after a quick trip to Budapest to marry a vivacious 18-year-old named Mariette Kovesi. Three years later, when the Institute for Advanced Study was founded at Princeton, Von Neumann was appointed – as was Albert Einstein – to be one of its first full professors. “He was so young,” a member of the institute recalls, “that most people who saw him in the halls mistook him for a graduate student.”

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Although they worked near each other in the same building, Einstein and Von Neumann were not intimate, and because their approach to scientific matters was different they never formally collaborated. A member of the institute who worked side by side with both men in the early days recalls, “Einstein’s mind was slow and contemplative. He would think about something for years. Johnny’s mind was just the opposite. It was lightning quick – stunningly fast. If you gave him a problem he either solved it right away or not at all. If he had to think about it a long time and it bored him, hist interest would begin to wander. And Johnny’s mind would not shine unless whatever he was working on had his undivided attention.” But the problems he did care about, such as his “theory of games,” absorbed him for much longer periods.

‘Proof by erasure’

Partly because of this quicksilver quality Von Neumann was not an outstanding teacher to many of his students. But for the advanced students who could ascend to his level he was inspirational. His lectures were brilliant, although at times difficult to follow because of his way of erasing and rewriting dozens of formulae on the blackboard. In explaining mathematical problems Von Neumann would write his equations hurriedly, starting at the top of the blackboard and working down. When he reached the bottom, if the problem was unfinished, he would erase the top equations and start down again. By the time he had done this two or three times most other mathematicians would find themselves unable to keep track. On one such occasion a colleague at Princeton waited until Von Neumann had finished and said, “I see. Proof by erasure.”

Von Neumann himself was perpetually interested in many fields unrelated to science. Several years ago his wife gave him a 21-volume Cambridge History set, and she is sure he memorized every name and fact in the books. “He is a major expert on all the royal family trees in Europe,” a friend said once. “He can tell you who fell in love with whom, and why, what obscure cousin this or that czar married, how many illegitimate children he had and so on.” One night during the Princeton days a world-famous expert on Byzantine history came to the Von Neumann house for a party. “Johnny and the professor got into a corner and began discussing some obscure facet,” recalls a friend who was there. “Then an argument arose over a date. Johnny insisted it was this, the professor that. So Johnny said, ‘Let’s get the book.’ They looked it up and Johnny was right. A few weeks later the professor was invited to the Von Neumann house again. He called Mrs. von Neumann and said jokingly, ‘I’ll come if Johnny promises not to discuss Byzantine history. Everybody thinks I am the world’s greatest expert in it and I want them to keep on thinking that.'”von_neumann_4

Once a friend showed him an extremely complex problem and remarked that a certain famous mathematician had taken a whole week’s journey across Russia on the Trans-Siberian Railroad to complete it. Rushing for a train, Von Neumann took the problem along. Two days later the friend received an air-mail packet from Chicago. In it was a 50-page handwritten solution to the problem. Von Neumann had added a postscript: “Running time to Chicago: 15 hours, 26 minutes.” To Von Neumann this was not an expression of vanity but of sheer delight – a hole in one.

During periods of intense intellectual concentration Von Neumann, like most of his professional colleagues, was lost in preoccupation, and the real world spun past him. He would sometimes interrupt a trip to put through a telephone call to find out why he had taken the trip in the first place.

Von Neumann believed that concentration alone was insufficient for solving some of the most difficult mathematical problems and that these are solved in the subconscious. He would often go to sleep with a problem unsolved, wake up in the morning and scribble the answer on a pad he kept on the bedside table. It was a common occurrence for him to begin scribbling with pencil and paper in the midst of a nightclub floor show or a lively party, “the noisier,” his wife says, “the better.” When his wife arranged a secluded study for Von Neumann on the third floor of the Princeton home, Von Neumann was furious. “He stormed downstairs,” says Mrs. von Neumann, “and demanded, ‘What are you trying to do, keep me away from what’s going on?’; After that he did most of his work in the living room with my phonograph blaring.”

His pride in his brain power made him easy prey to scientific jokesters. A friend once spent a week working out various steps in an obscure mathematical process. Accosting Von Neumann at a party he asked for help in solving the problem. After listening to it, Von Neumann leaned his plump frame against a door and stared blankly, his mind going through the necessary calculations. At each step in the process the friend would quickly put in, “Well, it comes out to this, doesn’t it?” After several such interruptions Von Neumann became perturbed and when his friend “beat” him to the final answer he exploded in fury. “Johnny sulked for weeks,” recalls the friend, “before he found out it was all a joke.”

He did not look like a professor. He dressed so much like a Wall Street banker that a fellow scientist once said, “Johnny, why don’t you smear some chalk dust on your coat so you look like the rest of us?” He loved to eat, especially rich sauces and desserts, and in later years was forced to diet rigidly. To him exercise was “nonsense.”

Those lively Von Neumann parties

Most card-playing bored him, although he was fascinated by the mathematical probabilities involved in poker and baccarat. He never cared for movies. “Every time we went,” his wife recalls, “he would either go to sleep or do math problems in his head.” When he could do neither he would break into violent coughing spells. What he truly loved, aside from work, was a good party. Residents of Princeton’s quiet academic community can still recall the lively goings-on at the Von Neumann’s big, rambling house on Westcott Road. “Those old geniuses got downright approachable at the Von Neumanns’,” a friend recalls. Von Neumann’s talents as a host were based on his drinks, which were strong, his repertoire of off-color limericks, which was massive, and his social ease, which was consummate. Although he could rarely remember a name, Von Neumann would escort each new guest around the room, bowing punctiliously to cover up the fact that he was not using names in introducing people.von_neumann_5

Von Neumann also had a passion for automobiles, not for tinkering with them but for driving them as if they were heavy tanks. He turned up with a new one every year at Princeton. “The way he drove, a car couldn’t possibly last more than a year,” a friend says. Von Neumann was regularly arrested for speeding and some of his wrecks became legendary. A Princeton crossroads was for a while known as “Von Neumann corner” because of the number of times the mathematician had cracked up there. He once emerged from a totally demolished car with this explanation: “I was proceeding down the road. The threes on the right were passing me in orderly fashion at 60 miles an hour. Suddenly one of them stepped out in my path. Boom!”

Mariette and John von Neumann had one child, Marina, born in 1935, who graduated from Radcliffe last June, summa cum laude, with the highest scholastic record in her class. In 1937, the year Von Neumann was elected to the National Academy of Sciences and became a naturalized citizen of the U.S., the marriage ended in divorce. The following year on a trip to Budapest he met and married Klara Dan, whom he subsequently trained to be an expert on electronic computing machines. The Von Neumann home in Princeton continued to be a center of gaiety as well as a hotel for prominent intellectual transients.

In the late 1930s Von Neumann began to receive a new type of visitor at Princeton: the military scientist and engineer. After he had handled a number of jobs for the Navy in ballistics and anti-submarine warfare, word of his talents spread, and Army Ordnance began using him more and more as a consultant at its Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland. As war drew nearer this kind of work took up more and more of his time.

During World War II he roved between Washington, where he had established a temporary residence, England, Los Alamos and other defense installations. When scientific groups heard Von Neumann was coming, they would set up all of their advanced mathematical problems like ducks in a shooting gallery. Then he would arrive and systematically topple them over.

After the Axis had been destroyed, Von Neumann urged that the U.S. immediately build even more powerful atomic weapons and use them before the Soviets could develop nuclear weapons of their own. It was not an emotional crusade, Von Neumann, like others, had coldly reasoned that the world had grown too small to permit nations to conduct their affairs independently of one another. He held that world government was inevitable – and the sooner the better. But he also believed it could never be established while Soviet Communism dominated half of the globe. A famous Von Neumann observation at the time: “With the Russians it is not a question of whether but when.” A hard-boiled strategist, he was one of the few scientists to advocate preventive war, and in 1950 he was remarking, “If you say why not bomb them tomorrow, I say why not today? If you say today at 5 o’clock, I say why not 1 o’clock?”von_neumann_6

In late 1949, after the Russians had exploded their first atomic bomb and the U.S. scientific community was split over whether or not the U.S. should build a hydrogen bomb, Von Neumann reduced the argument to: “It is not a question of whether we build it or not, but when do we start calculating?” When the H-bomb controversy raged, Von Neumann slipped quietly out to Los Alamos, took a desk and began work on the first mathematical steps toward building the weapon, specifically deciding which computations would be fed to which electronic computers.

Von Neumann’s principal interest in the postwar years was electronic computing machines, and his advice on computers was in demand almost everywhere. One day he was urgently summoned to the offices of the Rand Corporation, a government-sponsored scientific research organization in Santa Monica, Calif. Rand scientists had come up with a problem so complex that the electronic computers then in existence seemingly could not handle it. The scientists wanted Von Neumann to invent a new kind of computer. After listening to the scientists expound, Von Neumann broke in: “Well, gentlemen, suppose you tell me exactly what the problem is?”

For the next two hours the men at Rand lectured, scribbled on blackboards, and brought charts and tables back and forth. Von Neumann sat with his head buried in his hands. When the presentation was completed, he scribbled on a pad, stared so blankly that a Rand scientist later said he looked as if “his mind had slipped his face out of gear,” then said, “Gentlemen, you do not need the computer. I have the answer.”

While the scientists sat in stunned silence, Von Neumann reeled off the various steps which would provide the solution to the problem. Having risen to this routine challenge, Von Neumann followed up with a routine suggestion: “Let’s go to lunch.”

In 1954, when the U.S. development of the intercontinental ballistic missile was dangerously bogged down, study groups under Von Neumann’s direction began paving the way for solution of the most baffling problems: guidance, miniaturization of components, heat resistance. In less than a year Von Neumann put his O.K. on the project – but not until he had completed a relentless investigation in his own dazzlingly fast style. One day, during an ICBM meeting on the West Coast, a physicist employed by an aircraft company approached Von Neumann with a detailed plan for one phase of the project. It consisted of a tome several hundred pages long on which the physicist had worked for eight months. Von Neumann took the book and flipped through the first several pages. Then he turned it over and began reading from back to front. He jotted down a figure on a pad, then a second and a third. He looked out the window for several seconds, returned the book to the physicist and said, “It won’t work.” The physicist returned to his company. After two months of re-evaluation, he came to the same conclusion.von_neumann_7

In October 1954 Eisenhower appointed Von Neumann to the Atomic Energy Commission. Von Neumann accepted, although the Air Force and the senators who confirmed him insisted that he retain his chairmanship of the Air Force ballistic missile panel.

Von Neumann had been on the new job only six months when the pain first stuck in the left shoulder. After two examinations, the physicians at Bethesda Naval Hospital suspected cancer. Within a month Von Neumann was wheeled into surgery at the New England Deaconess Hospital in Boston. A leading pathologist, Dr. Shields Warren, examined the biopsy tissue and confirmed that the pain was a secondary cancer. Doctors began to race to discover the primary location. Several weeks later they found it in the prostate. Von Neumann, they agreed, did not have long to live.

When he heard the news Von Neumann called for Dr. Warren. He asked, “Now that this thing has come, how shall I spend the remainder of my life?”

“Well, Johnny,” Warren said, “I would stay with the commission as long as you feel up to it. But at the same time I would say that if you have any important scientific papers – anything further scientifically to say – I would get started on it right away.”

Von Neumann returned to Washington and resumed his busy schedule at the Atomic Energy Commission. To those who asked about his arm, which was in a sling, he muttered something about a broken collarbone. He continued to preside over the ballistic missile committee, and to receive an unending stream of visitors from Los Alamos, Livermore, the Rand Corporation, Princeton. Most of these men knew that Von Neumann was dying of cancer, but the subject was never mentioned.

Machines creating new machines

After the last visitor had departed Von Neumann would retire to his second-floor study to work on the paper which he knew would be his last contribution to science. It was an attempt to formulate a concept shedding new light on the workings of the human brain. He believed that if such a concept could be stated with certainty, it would also be applicable to electronic computers and would permit man to make a major step forward in using these “automata.” In principle, he reasoned, there was no reason why some day a machine might not be built which not only could perform most of the functions of the human brain but could actually reproduce itself, i.e., create more supermachines like it. He proposed to present this paper at Yale, where he had been invited to give the 1956 Silliman Lectures.

As the weeks passed, work on the paper slowed. One evening, as Von Neumann and his wife were leaving a dinner party, he complained that he was “uncertain” about walking. Doctors furnished him with a wheelchair. But Von Neumann’s world had begun to close in tight around him. He was seized by periods of overwhelming melancholy.

In April 1956 Von Neumann moved into Walter Reed Hospital for good. Honors were now coming from all directions. He was awarded Yeshiva University’s first Einstein prize. In a special White House ceremony President Eisenhower presented him with the Medal of Freedom. In April the AEC gave him the Enrico Fermi award for his contributions to the theory and design of computing machines, accompanied by a $50,000 tax-free grant.

Although born of Jewish parents, Von Neumann had never practiced Judaism. After his arrival in the U.S. he had been baptized a Roman Catholic. But his divorce from Mariette had put him beyond the sacraments of the Catholic Church for almost 19 years. Now he felt an urge to return. One morning he said to Klara, “I want to see a priest.” He added, “But he will have to be a special kind of priest, one that will be intellectually compatible.” Arrangements were made for special instructions to be given by a Catholic scholar from Washington. After a few weeks Von Neumann began once again to receive the sacraments.

The great mind falters

Toward the end of May the seizures of melancholy began to occur more frequently. In June the doctors finally announced – though not to Von Neumann himself – that the cancer had begun to spread. The great mind began to falter. “At times he would discuss history, mathematics, or automata, and he could recall word for word conversations we had had 20 years ago,” a friend says. “At other times he would scarcely recognize me.” His family – Klara, two brothers, his mother and daughter Marina – drew close around him and arranged a schedule so that one of them would always be on hand. Visitors were more carefully screened. Drugs fortunately prevented Von Neumann from experiencing pain. Now and then his old gifts of memory were again revealed. One day in the fall his brother Mike read Goethe’s Faust to him in German. Each time Mike paused to turn the page, Von Neumann recited from memory the first few lines of the following page.

One of his favorite companions was his mother Margaret von Neumann, 76 years old. In July the family in turn became concerned about her health, and it was suggested that she go to a hospital for a checkup. Two weeks later she died of cancer. “It was unbelievable,” a friend says. “She kept on going right up to the very end and never let anyone know a thing. How she must have suffered to make her son’s last days less worrisome.” Lest the news shock Von Neumann fatally, elaborate precautions were taken to keep it from him. When he guessed the truth, he suffered a severe setback.

Von Neumann’s body, which he had never given much thought to, went on serving him much longer than did his mind. Last summer the doctors had given him only three or four weeks to live. Months later, in October, his passing was again expected momentarily. But not until this month did his body give up. It was characteristic of the impatient, witty and incalculably brilliant John von Neumann that although he went on working for others until he could do not more, his own treatise on the workings of the brain – the work he thought would be his crowning achievement in his own name – was left unfinished.

von_neumann_8

 

 

Qualia Computing Media Appearances

Podcasts

Consciousness, Qualia, and Psychedelics with Andres Gomez Emilsson (Catalyzing Coherence, May 2018)

Consciousness and Qualia Realism (Cosmic Tortoise, May 2018)

Robert Stark interviews Transhumanist Andres Gomez Emilsson (The Stark Truth with Robert Stark, October 2017)

Como el MDMA, pero sin la neurotoxicidad (Abolir el sufrimiento con Andrés Gómez) (Guía Escéptica [in Spanish], March 2016)

Happiness is Solving the World’s Problems (The World Transformed, January 2016)

Presentations

Quantifying Valence (see alsoThe Science of Consciousness, April 2018)

Quantifying Bliss (Consciousness Hacking, June 2017)

Utilitarian Temperament: Satisfying Impactful Careers (BIL Oakland 2016: The Recession Generation, July 2016)

Interviews

Want a Penfield Mood Organ? This Scientist Might Be Able to Help (Ziff Davis PCMag, April 2018)

Frameworks for Consciousness – Andres Gomez Emilsson (Science, Technology & the Future by Adam Ford, March 2018)

Towards the Abolition of Suffering through Science (featuring David Pearce, Brian Tomasik, & Mike Johnson hosted by Adam Ford, August 2015)

The Mind of David Pearce (Stanford, December 2012)

Andrés Gómez Emilsson, el joven que grito espurio a Felipe Calderón (Cine Desbundo [in Spanish], October 2008)

Narrative Inclusions

Fear and Loathing at Effective Altruism Global 2017 (Slate Star Codex, August 2017)

High Performer: Die Renaissance des LSD im Silicon Valley (Wired Germany [in German], June 2015)

Come With Us If You Want To Live (Harper’s Magazine, January 2015)

David Pearce’s Social Media Posts (Hedwebpre-2014, 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018)

External Articles

Ending Suffering Is The Most Important Cause (IEET, September 2015)

This Is What I Mean When I Say ‘Consciousness’ (IEET, September 2015)

My Interest Shifted from Mathematics to Consciousness after a THC Experience (IEET, September 2015)

‘Spiritual/Philosophical’ is the Deepest, Highest, Most Powerful Dimension of Euphoria (IEET, September 2015)

Bios

H+pedia, ISI-S, The Transhuman Party, Decentralized AI Summit, Earth Sharing

Miscellaneous

Philosophy of Mind Stand-up Comedy (The Science of Consciousness,  April 2018)


Note: I am generally outgoing, fun-loving, and happy to participate in podcasts, events, interviews, and miscellaneous activities. Feel free to invite me to your podcast/interview/theater/etc. I am flexible when it comes to content; anything I’ve written about in Qualia Computing is fair game for discussion. Cheers!

Marijuana-induced “Short-term Memory Tracers”

[On the subjective effects of marijuana]: It’s one thing to describe it verbally and another thing to experience it yourself. I had this dissociated feeling that was really intense. I had memory tracers. So it wasn’t like, you know, people on LSD or stuff will talk about how “your hand is tracing over and over again” and it was almost like that with my memory. My short term memory was repeating over and over again. So it’d be things like getting in a car, and getting in the car over and over again, putting on a seat belt over and over and over again, and it was like short term memory tracers. And it was overall extremely intense. Had an altered perception of space. You know… distance. That’s something I [also] got on mushrooms, which I talked about in a previous video, but it’s like you see something far away and you don’t really know if it’s really far away, or if it is just really small. So if you see a car that’s like 50 feet away, you don’t know if it is 50 feet away or if it is just a matchbox car that’s really close to you. So it kind of had that; it altered the way I saw space. And, to be honest, I freaked the fuck out, because this isn’t what I thought marijuana was supposed to be. I thought it was a sedative. I thought it made you relaxed. I didn’t know it tripped you the fuck out. So, uh, my response was: I thought I was dying. I remember being in the backseat of the car and saying “is this normal?” And the guy in the front seat– he was this Indian dude, his name was Deepak– I swear to God it was like, uh, my Kumar, and he turns back and and was like “Are you tripping, man? Are you feeling it, man?” and that just made me even more fucked up in the head. Because he was saying it in his Indian accent, and I was like “What’s going on? What’s going on?”, and I thought I had to go to the hospital. Uh, let’s fast-forward in the experience, so about one hour later, or 30 minutes later, I don’t really know, it started to turn more in what I expected it to be. Which was this sedative, I started feeling more relaxed, like the trip started subsiding, and I was left with this trip afterglow of relaxation, feeling giggly, feeling really hungry, and you know kind of like the standard marijuana high. And this happened every time I smoked marijuana in the beginning. I was uncomfortable for the first 30 minutes to an hour. I learned to kind of enjoy it, but for the most part I was waiting it out. And then I’d get relaxed and chill. And I wouldn’t really call it paranoia, it was really just tripping so hard I was kind of like “wow, like, I’m really fucking tripping, I hope I don’t act weird in front of a bunch of people” Maybe that is paranoia, I don’t know.

 

[…10 more minutes talking about marijuana…]

 

And I don’t know why the fuck marijuana is still illegal in 2017. I feel like I a fucking pilgrim. Like, seriously? A war veteran can go and almost die for his country. He could come back, and drink alcohol, buy an assault riffle, and get prescribed speed, but smoke a joint? Nah, you are a fucking criminal! I mean, that doesn’t make any fucking sense. I’ve been doing this push, that I said that if by January 2018 Marijuana wasn’t legal I’d shave my hair. I’m not gonna shave my head. I am gonna cut all of my hair off, and I’m really sad about that. Usually when I cut my hair off I send it to Korea at a random address because I just like to say “my hair is in Korea”. And I’m sure whoever opens it is like “why the fuck am I getting this?” But this time I’m gonna throw it up into eBay just because I want to see if anybody bids on it. I’m gonna do it 99 cents free shipping. But yeah, getting my hair cut is simply really weird: when I get to the stylist and say “can you put this on a bag? I’m gonna sell this.” Uh, but yeah, that really is it for Marijuana as far as my overall experience with the substance.

– What’s smoking marijuana like? The positive and negative effects of smoking cannabis and dabs by Youtube addiction recovery coach Cg Kid

The Banality of Evil

In response to the Quora question “I feel like a lot of evil actions in the world have supporters who justify them (like Nazis). Can you come up with some convincing ways in which some of the most evil actions in the world could be justified?David Pearce writes:


Tout comprendre, c’est tout pardonner.”
(Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace)

Despite everything, I believe that people are really good at heart.
(Anne Frank)

The risk of devising justifications of the worst forms of human behaviour is there are people gullible enough to believe them. It’s not as though anti-Semitism died with the Third Reich. Even offering dispassionate causal explanation can sometimes be harmful. So devil’s advocacy is an intellectual exercise to be used sparingly.

That said, the historical record suggests that human societies don’t collectively set out to do evil. Rather, primitive human emotions get entangled with factually mistaken beliefs and ill-conceived metaphysics with ethically catastrophic consequences. Thus the Nazis seriously believed in the existence of an international Jewish conspiracy against the noble Aryan race. Hitler, so shrewd in many respects, credulously swallowed The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. And as his last testament disclosed, obliquely, Hitler believed that the gas chambers were a “more humane means” than the terrible fate befalling the German Volk. Many Nazis (HimmlerHössStangl, and maybe even Eichmann) believed that they were acting from a sense of duty – a great burden stoically borne. And such lessons can be generalised across history. If you believed, like the Inquisition, that torturing heretics was the only way to save their souls from eternal damnation in Hell, would you have the moral courage to do likewise? If you believed that the world would be destroyed by the gods unless you practised mass human sacrifice, would you participate? [No, in my case, albeit for unorthodox reasons.]

In a secular context today, there exist upstanding citizens who would like future civilisation to run “ancestor simulations”. Ancestor simulations would create inconceivably more suffering than any crime perpetrated by the worst sadist or deluded ideologue in history – at least if the computational-functional theory of consciousness assumed by their proponents is correct. If I were to pitch a message to life-lovers aimed at justifying such a monstrous project, as you request, then I guess I’d spin some yarn about how marvellous it would be to recreate past wonders and see grandpa again.
And so forth.

What about the actions of individuals, as distinct from whole societies? Not all depraved human behaviour stems from false metaphysics or confused ideology. The grosser forms of human unpleasantness often stem just from our unreflectively acting out baser appetites (cfHamiltonian spite). Consider the neuroscience of perception. Sentient beings don’t collectively perceive a shared public world. Each of us runs an egocentric world-simulation populated by zombies (sic). We each inhabit warped virtual worlds centered on a different body-image, situated within a vast reality whose existence can be theoretically inferred. Or so science says. Most people are still perceptual naïve realists. They aren’t metaphysicians, or moral philosophers, or students of the neuroscience of perception. Understandably, most people trust the evidence of their own eyes and the wisdom of their innermost feelings, over abstract theory. What “feels right” is shaped by natural selection. And what “feels right” within one’s egocentric virtual world is often callous and sometimes atrocious. Natural selection is amoral. We are all slaves to the pleasure-pain axis, however heavy the layers of disguise. Thanks to evolution, our emotions are “encephalised” in grotesque ways. Even the most ghastly behaviour can be made to seem natural –like Darwinian life itself.

Are there some forms of human behaviour so appalling that I’d find it hard to play devil’s advocate in their mitigation – even as an intellectual exercise?

Well, perhaps consider, say, the most reviled hate-figures in our society – even more reviled than murderers or terrorists. Most sexually active paedophiles don’t set out to harm children: quite the opposite, harm is typically just the tragic by-product of a sexual orientation they didn’t choose. Posthumans may reckon that all Darwinian relationships are toxic. Of course, not all monstrous human behavior stems from wellsprings as deep as sexual orientation. Thus humans aren’t obligate carnivores. Most (though not all) contemporary meat eaters, if pressed, will acknowledge in the abstract that a pig is as sentient and sapient as a prelinguistic human toddler. And no contemporary meat eaters seriously believe that their victims have committed a crime (cfAnimal trial – Wikipedia). Yet if questioned why they cause such terrible suffering to the innocent, and why they pay for a hamburger rather than a veggieburger, a meat eater will come up with perhaps the lamest justification for human depravity ever invented:

“But I like the taste!”

Such is the banality of evil.

Person-moment affecting views

by Katja Grace (source)

[Epistemic status: sloppy thoughts not informed by the literature. Hoping actual population ethicists might show up and correct me or point me to whoever has already thought about something like this better.]

Person-affecting views say that when you are summing up the value in different possible worlds, you should ignore people who only exist in one of those worlds. This is based on something like the following intuitions:

  1. World A can only be better than world B insofar as it is better for someone.
  2. World A can’t be better than world B for Alice, if Alice exists in world A but not world B.

The further-fact view says that after learning all physical facts about Alice and Alice’—such as whether Alice’ was the physical result of Alice waiting for five seconds, or is a brain upload of Alice, or is what came out of a replicating machine on Mars after Alice walked in on Earth, or remembers being Alice—there is still a further meaningful question of whether Alice and Alice’ are the same person.

I take the further-fact view to be wrong (or at least Derek Parfit does, and I think we agree the differences between Derek Parfit and I have been overstated). Thinking that the further-fact view is wrong seems to be a common position among intellectuals (e.g. 87% among philosophers).

If the further-fact view is wrong, then the what we have is a whole lot of different person-moments, with various relationships to one another, which for pragmatic reasons we like to group into clusters called ‘people’. There are different ways we could define the people, and no real answer to which definition is right. This works out pretty well in our world, but you can imagine other worlds (or futures of our world) where the clusters are much more ambiguous, and different definitions of ‘person’ make a big difference, or where the concept is not actually useful.

Person-affecting views seem to make pretty central use of the concept ‘person’. If we don’t accept the further-fact view, and do want to accept a person-affecting view, what would that mean? I can think of several options:

  1. How good different worlds are depends strongly on which definition of ‘person’ you choose (which person moments you choose to cluster together), but this is a somewhat arbitrary pragmatic choice
  2. There is some correct definition of ‘person’ for the purpose of ethics (i.e. there is some relation between person moments that makes different person moments in the future ethically relevant by virtue of having that connection to a present person moment)
  3. Different person-moments are more or less closely connected in ways, and a person-affecting view should actually have a sliding scale of importance for different person-moments

Before considering these options, I want to revisit the second reason for adopting a person-affecting view: If Alice exists in world A and not in world B, then Alice can’t be made better off by world A existing rather than world B. Whether this premise is true seems to depend on how ‘a world being better for Alice’ works. Some things we might measure would go one way, and some would go the other. For instance, we could imagine it being analogous to:

  1. Alice painting more paintings. If Alice painted three paintings in world A, and doesn’t exist in world B, I think most people would say that Alice painted more paintings in world A than in world B. And more clearly, that world A has more paintings than world B, even if we insist that a world can’t have more paintings without somebody in particular having painted more paintings. Relatedly, there are many things people do where the sentence ‘If Alice didn’t exist, she wouldn’t have X’.
  2. Alice having painted more paintings per year. If Alice painted one painting every thirty years in world A, and didn’t exist in world B, in world B the number of paintings per year is undefined, and so incomparable to ‘one per thirty years’.

Suppose that person-affecting view advocates are right, and the worth of one’s life is more like 2). You just can’t compare the worth of Alice’s life in two worlds where she only exists in one of them. Then can you compare person-moments? What if the same ‘person’ exists in two possible worlds, but consists of different person-moments?

Compare world A and world C, which both contain Alice, but in world C Alice makes different choices as a teenager, and becomes a fighter pilot instead of a computer scientist. It turns out that she is not well suited to it, and finds piloting pretty unsatisfying. If Alice_t1A is different from Alice_t1C, can we say that world A is better than world C, in virtue of Alice’s experiences? Each relevant person-moment only exists in one of the worlds, so how can they benefit?

I see several possible responses:

  1. No we can’t. We should have person-moment affecting views.
  2. Things can’t be better or worse for person-moments, only for entire people, holistically across their lives, so the question is meaningless. (Or relatedly, how good a thing is for a person is not a function of how good it is for their person-moments, and it is how good it is for the person that matters).
  3. Yes, there is some difference between people and person moments, which means that person-moments can benefit without existing in worlds that they are benefitting relative to, but people cannot.

The second possibility seems to involve accepting the second view above: that there is some correct definition of ‘person’ that is larger than a person moment, and fundamental to ethics – something like the further-fact view. This sounds kind of bad to me. And the third view doesn’t seem very tempting without some idea of an actual difference between persons and person-moments.

So maybe the person-moment affecting view looks most promising. Let us review what it would have to look like. For one thing, the only comparable person moments are the ones that are the same. And since they are the same, there is no point bringing about one instead of the other. So there is never reason to bring about a person-moment for its own benefit. Which sounds like it might really limit the things that are worth intentionally doing. Isn’t making myself happy in three seconds just bringing about a happy person moment rather than a different sad person moment?

Is everything just equally good on this view? I don’t think so, as long as you are something like a preference utilitarian: person-moments can have preferences over other person-moments. Suppose that Alice_t0A and Alice_t0C are the same, and Alice_t1A and Alice_t1C are different. And suppose that Alice_t0 wants Alice_t1 to be a computer scientist. Then world A is better than world C for Alice_t0, and so better overall. That is, person-moments can benefit from things, as long as they don’t know at the time that they have benefited.

I think an interesting  feature of this view is that all value seems to come from meddling preferences. It is never directly good that there is joy in the world for instance, it is just good because somebody wants somebody else to experience joy, and that desire was satisfied. If they had instead wished for a future person-moment to be tortured, and this was granted, then this world would apparently be just as good.

So, things that are never directly valuable in this world:

  • Joy
  • Someone getting what they want and also knowing about it
  • Anything that isn’t a meddling preference

On the upside, since person-moments often care about future person-moments within the same person, we do perhaps get back to something closer to the original person-affecting view. There is often reason to bring about or benefit a person moment for the benefit of previous person moments in the history of the same person, who for instance wants to ‘live a long and happy life’. My guess after thinking about this very briefly is that in practice it would end up looking like the ‘moderate’ person-affecting views, in which people who currently exist get more weight than people who will be brought into existence, but not infinitely more weight. People who exist now mostly want to continue existing, and to have good lives in the future, and they care less, but some, about different people in the future.

So, if you want to accept a person-affecting view and not a further-fact view, the options seem to me to be something like these:

  1. Person-moments can benefit without having an otherworldly counterpart, even though people cannot. Which is to say, only person-moments that are part of the same ‘person’ in different worlds can benefit from their existence. ‘Person’ here is either an arbitrary pragmatic definition choice, or some more fundamental ethically relevant version of the concept that we could perhaps discover.
  2. Benefits accrue to persons, not person-moments. In particular, benefits to persons are not a function of the benefits to their constituent person-moments. Where ‘person’ is again either a somewhat arbitrary choice of definition, or a more fundamental concept.
  3. A sliding scale of ethical relevance of different person-moments, based on how narrow a definition of ‘person’ unites them with any currently existing person-moments. Along with some story about why, given that you can apparently compare all of them, you are still weighting some less, on grounds that they are incomparable.
  4. Person-moment affecting views

None of these sound very good to me, but nor do person-affecting views in general, so maybe I’m the wrong audience. I had thought person-moment affecting views were almost a reductio, but a close friend says he thought they were the obvious reasonable view, so I am curious to hear others’ takes.



An interesting thing to point out here is that what Katja describes as the further-fact view is terminologically equivalent to what we here call Closed Individualism (cf. Ontological Qualia). This is the common-sense view that you start existing when you are born and stop existing when you die (which also has soul-based variants with possible pre-birth and post-death existence). This view is not very philosophically tenable because it presupposes that there is an enduring metaphysical ego distinct for every person. And yet, the vast majority of people still hold strongly to Closed Individualism. In some sense, in the article Katja tries to rescue the common-sense aspect of Closed Individualism in the context of ethics. That is, by trying to steel-man the common-sense notion that people (rather than moments of experience) are the relevant units for morality while also negating further-fact views, you provide reasons to keep using Closed Individualism as an intuition-pump in ethics (if only for pragmatic reasons). In general, I consider this kind of discussions to be a very fruitful endeavor as they approach ethics by touching upon the key parameters that matter fundamentally: identity, value, and counterfactuals.

As you may gather from pieces such as Wireheading Done Right and The Universal Plot, at Qualia Computing we tend to think the most coherent ethical system arises when we take as a premise that the relevant moral agents are “moments of experience”. Contra Person-affecting views, we don’t think it is meaningless to say that a given world is better than another one if not everyone in the first world is also in the second one. On the contrary – it really does not matter who lives in a given world. What matters is the raw subjective quality of the experiences in such worlds. If it is meaningless to ask “who is experiencing Alice’s experiences now?” once you know all the physical facts, then moral weight must be encoded in such physical facts alone. In turn, it could certainly happen then that the narrative aspect of an experience may turn out to be irrelevant for determining the intrinsic value of a given experience. People’s self-narratives may certainly have important instrumental uses, but at their core they don’t make it to the list of things that intrinsically matter (unlike, say, avoiding suffering).

A helpful philosophical move that we have found adds a lot of clarity here is to analyze the problem in terms of Open Individualism. That is, assume that we are all one consciousness and take it from there. If so, then the probability that you are a given person would be weighted by the amount of consciousness (or number of moments of experience, depending) that such person experiences throughout his or her life. You are everyone in this view, but you can only be each person one at a time from their own limited points of view. So there is a sensible way of weighting the importance of each person, and this is a function of the amount of time you spend being him or her (and normalize by the amount of consciousness that person experiences, in case that is variable across individuals).

If consciousness emerges victorious in its war against pure replicators, then it would make sense that the main theory of identity people would hold by default would be Open Individualism. After all, it is only Open Individualism that aligns individual incentives and the total wellbeing of all moments of experience throughout the universe.

That said, in principle, it could turn out that Open Individualism is not needed to maximize conscious value – that while it may be useful instrumentally to align the existing living intelligences towards a common consciousness-centric goal (e.g. eliminating suffering, building a harmonic society, etc.), in the long run we may find that ontological qualia (the aspect of our experience that we use to represent the nature of reality, including our beliefs about personal identity) has no intrinsic value. Why bother experiencing heaven in the form of a mixture of 95% bliss and 5% ‘a sense of knowing that we are all one’, if you can instead just experience 100% pure bliss?

At the ethical limit, anything that is not perfectly blissful might end up being thought of as a distraction from the cosmic telos of universal wellbeing.