Some Definitions

Both physics and philosophy are jargon-ridden. So let’s first define some key concepts.

 

Both “consciousness” and “physical” are contested terms. Accurately if inelegantly, consciousness may be described following Nagel (“What is it like to be a bat?”) as the subjective what-it’s-like-ness of experience. Academic philosophers term such self-intimating “raw feels” “qualia” – whether macro-qualia or micro-qualia. The minimum unit of consciousness (or “psychon”, so to speak) has been variously claimed to be the entire universe, a person, a sub-personal neural network, an individual neuron, or the most basic entities recognised by quantum physics. In The Principles of Psychology (1890), American philosopher and psychologist William James christened these phenomenal simples “primordial mind-dust“. This paper conjectures that (1) our minds consist of ultra-rapidly decohering neuronal superpositions in strict accordance with unmodified quantum physics without the mythical “collapse of the wavefunction”; (2) natural selection has harnessed the properties of these neuronal superpositions so our minds run phenomenally-bound world-simulations; and (3) predicts that with enough ingenuity the non-classical interference signature of these conscious neuronal superpositions will be independently experimentally detectable (see 6 below) to the satisfaction of the most incredulous critic.

 

The “physical” may be contrasted with the supernatural or the abstract and – by dualists and epiphenomenalists, with the mental. The current absence of any satisfactory “positive” definition of the physical leads many philosophers of science to adopt instead the “via negativa“. Thus some materialists have sought stipulatively to define the physical in terms of an absence of phenomenal experience. Such a priori definitions of the nature of the physical are question-begging.

 

Physicalism” is sometimes treated as the formalistic claim that the natural world is exhaustively described by the equations of physics and their solutions. Beyond these structural-relational properties of matter and energy, the term “physicalism” is also often used to make an ontological claim about the intrinsic character of whatever the equations describe. This intrinsic character, or metaphysical essence, is typically assumed to be non-phenomenal. “Strawsonian physicalists” (cf. “Consciousness and Its Place in Nature: Does Physicalism Entail Panpsychism?”) dispute any such assumption. Traditional reductive physicalism proposes that the properties of larger entities are determined by properties of their physical parts. If the wavefunction monism of post-Everett quantum mechanics assumed here is true, then the world does not contain discrete physical parts as understood by classical physics.

 

Materialism” is the metaphysical doctrine that the world is made of intrinsically non-phenomenal “stuff”. Materialism and physicalism are often treated as cousins and sometimes as mere stylistic variants – with “physicalism” used as a nod to how bosonic fields, for example, are not matter. “Physicalistic materialism” is the claim that physical reality is fundamentally non-experiential and that the natural world is exhaustively described by the equations of physics and their solutions.

 

Panpsychism” is the doctrine that the world’s fundamental physical stuff also has primitive experiential properties. Unlike the physicalistic idealism explored here, panpsychism doesn’t claim that the world’s fundamental physical stuff is experiential.

 

Epiphenomenalism” in philosophy of mind is the view that experience is caused by material states or events in the brain but does not itself cause anything; the causal efficacy of mental agency is an illusion.

 

For our purposes, “idealism” is the ontological claim that reality is fundamentally experiential. This use of the term should be distinguished from Berkeleyan idealism, and more generally, from subjective idealism, i.e. the doctrine that only mental contents exist: reality is mind-dependent. One potential source of confusion of contemporary scientific idealism with traditional philosophical idealism is the use by inferential realists in the theory of perception of the term “world-simulation”. The mind-dependence of one’s phenomenal world-simulation, i.e. the quasi-classical world of one’s everyday experience, does not entail the idealist claim that the mind-independent physical world is intrinsically experiential in nature – a far bolder conjecture that we nonetheless tentatively defend here.

 

Physicalistic idealism” is the non-materialist physicalist claim that reality is fundamentally experiential and that the natural world is exhaustively described by the equations of physics and their solutions: more specifically, by the continuous, linear, unitary evolution of the universal wavefunction of post-Everett quantum mechanics. The “decoherence program” in contemporary theoretical physics aims to show in a rigorously quantitative manner how quasi-classicality emerges from the unitary dynamics.

 

Monism” is the conjecture that reality consists of a single kind of “stuff” – be it material, experiential, spiritual, or whatever. Wavefunction monism is the view that the universal wavefunction mathematically represents, exhaustively, all there is in the world. Strictly speaking, wavefunction monism shouldn’t be construed as the claim that reality literally consists of a certain function, i.e. a mapping from some mind-wrenchingly immense configuration space to the complex numbers, but rather as the claim that every mathematical property of the wavefunction except the overall phase corresponds to some property of physical world. “Dualism”, the conjecture that reality consists of two kinds of “stuff”, comes in many flavours: naturalistic and theological; interactionist and non-interactionist; property and ontological. In the modern era, most scientifically literate monists have been materialists. But to describe oneself as both a physicalist and a monistic idealist is not the schizophrenic word-salad it sounds at first blush.

 

Functionalism” in philosophy of mind is the theory that mental states are constituted solely by their functional role, i.e. by their causal relations to other mental states, perceptual inputs, and behavioural outputs. Functionalism is often associated with the idea of “substrate-neutrality”, sometimes misnamed “substrate-independence”, i.e. minds can be realised in multiple substrates and at multiple levels of abstraction. However, micro-functionalists may dispute substrate-neutrality on the grounds that one or more properties of mind, for example phenomenal binding, functionally implicate the world’s quantum-mechanical bedrock from which the quasi-classical worlds of Everett’s multiverse emerge. Thus this paper will argue that only successive quantum-coherent neuronal superpositions at naively preposterously short time-scales can explain phenomenal binding. Without phenomenal binding, no functionally adaptive classical world-simulations could exist in the first instance.

 

The “binding problem(10), also called the “combination problem”, refers to the mystery of how the micro-experiences mediated by supposedly discrete and distributed neuronal edge-detectors, motion-detectors, shape-detectors, colour-detectors (etc) can be “bound” into unitary experiential objects (“local” binding) apprehended by a unitary experiential self (“global” binding). Neuroelectrode studies using awake, verbally competent human subjects confirm that neuronal micro-experiences exist. Classical neuroscience cannot explain how they could ever be phenomenally bound.

 

Mereology” is the theory of the relations between part to whole and the relations between part to part within a whole. Scientifically literate humans find it’s natural and convenient to think of particles, macromolecules or neurons as having their own individual wavefunctions by which they can be formally represented. However, the manifest non-classicality of phenomenal binding means that in some contexts we must consider describing the entire mind-brain via a single wavefunction. Organic minds are not simply the “mereological sum” of discrete classical parts. Organic brains are not simply the “mereological sum” of discrete classical neurons.

 

Quantum field theory” is the formal, mathematico-physical description of the natural world. The world is made up of the states of quantum fields, conventionally non-experiential in character, that take on discrete values. Physicists use mathematical entities known as “wavefunctions” to represent quantum states. Wavefunctions may be conceived as representing all the possible configurations of a superposed quantum system. Wavefunction(al)s are complex valued functionals on the space of field configurations. Wavefunctions in quantum mechanics are sinusoidal functions with an amplitude (a “measure”) and also a phase. The Schrödinger equation:

 

schrodingerequation1

 

describes the time-evolution of a wavefunction. “Coherence” means that the phases of the wavefunction are kept constant between the coherent particles, macromolecules or (hypothetically) neurons, while “decoherence” is the effective loss of ordering of the phase angles between the components of a system in a quantum superposition. Such thermally-induced “dephasing” rapidly leads to the emergence – on a perceptual naive realist story – of classical, i.e. probabilistically additive, behaviour in the central nervous system (“CNS”), and also the illusory appearance of separate, non-interfering organic macromolecules. Hence the discrete, decohered classical neurons of laboratory microscopy and biology textbooks. Unlike classical physics, quantum mechanics deals with superpositions of probability amplitudes rather than of probabilities; hence the interference terms in the probability distribution. Decoherence should be distinguished from dissipation, i.e. the loss of energy from a system – a much slower, classical effect. Phase coherence is a quantum phenomenon with no classical analogue. If quantum theory is universally true, then any physical system such as a molecule, neuron, neuronal network or an entire mind-brain exists partly in all its theoretically allowed states, or configuration of its physical properties, simultaneously in a “quantum superposition“; informally, a “Schrödinger’s cat state”. Each state is formally represented by a complex vector in Hilbert space. Whatever overall state the nervous system is in can be represented as being a superposition of varying amounts of these particular states (“eigenstates”) where the amount that each eigenstate contributes to the overall sum is termed a component. The “Schrödinger equation” is a partial differential equation that describes how the state of a physical system changes with time. The Schrödinger equation acts on the entire probability amplitude, not merely its absolute value. The absolute value of the probability amplitude encodes information about probability densities, so to speak, whereas its phase encodes information about the interference between quantum states. On measurement by an experimenter, the value of the physical quantity in a quantum superposition will naively seem to “collapse” in an irreducibly stochastic manner, with a probability equal to the square of the coefficient of the superposition in the linear combination. If the superposition principle really breaks down in the mind-brain, as traditional Copenhagen positivists still believe, then the central conjecture of this paper is false.

 

Mereological nihilism“, also known as “compositional nihilism”, is the philosophical position that objects with proper parts do not exist, whether extended in space or in time. Only basic building blocks (particles, fields, superstrings, branes, information, micro-experiences, quantum superpositions, entangled states, or whatever) without parts exist. Such ontological reductionism is untenable if the mind-brain supports macroscopic quantum coherence in the guise of bound phenomenal states because coherent neuronal superpositions describe individual physical states. Coherent superpositions of neuronal feature-detectors cannot be interpreted as classical ensembles of states. Radical ontological reductionism is even more problematic if post-Everett(11) quantum mechanics is correct: reality is exhaustively described by the time-evolution of one gigantic universal wavefunction. If such “wavefunction monism” is true, then talk of how neuronal superpositions are rapidly “destroyed” is just a linguistic convenience because a looser, heavily-disguised coherence persists within a higher-level Schrödinger equation (or its relativistic generalisation) that subsumes the previously tighter entanglement within a hierarchy of wavefunctions, all ultimately subsumed within the universal wavefunction.

 

Direct realism“, also known as “naive realism”, about perception is the pre-scientific view that the mind-brain is directly acquainted with the external world. In contrast, the “world-simulation model”(12) assumed here treats the mind-brain as running a data-driven simulation of gross fitness-relevant patterns in the mind-independent environment. As an inferential realist, the world-simulationist is not committed per se to any kind of idealist ontology, physicalistic or otherwise. However, s/he will understand phenomenal consciousness as broader in scope compared to the traditional perceptual direct realist. The world-simulationist will also be less confident than the direct realist that we have any kind of pre-theoretic conceptual handle on the nature of the “physical” beyond the formalism of theoretical physics – and our own phenomenally-bound physical consciousness.

 

“Classical worlds” are what perceptual direct realists call the world. Quantum theory suggests that the multiverse exists in an inconceivably vast cosmological superposition. Yet within our individual perceptual world-simulations, familiar macroscopic objects 1) occupy definite positions (the “preferred basis” problem); 2) don’t readily display quantum interference effects; and 3) yield well-defined outcomes when experimentally probed. Cats are either dead or alive, not dead-and-alive. Or as one scientific populariser puts it, “Where Does All the Weirdness Go?” This paper argues that the answer lies under our virtual noses – though independent physical proof will depend on next-generation matter-wave interferometry. Phenomenally-bound classical world-simulations are the mind-dependent signature of the quantum “weirdness”. Without the superposition principle, no phenomenally-bound classical world-simulations could exist – and no minds. In short, we shouldn’t imagine superpositions of live-and-dead cats, but instead think of superpositions of colour-, shape-, edge- and motion-processing neurons. Thanks to natural selection, the content of our waking world-simulations typically appears classical; but the vehicle of the simulation that our minds run is inescapably quantum. If the world were classical it wouldn’t look like anything to anyone.

 

A “zombie“, sometimes called a “philosophical zombie” or “p-zombie” to avoid confusion with its lumbering Hollywood cousins, is a hypothetical organism that is materially and behaviourally identical to humans and other organic sentients but which isn’t conscious. Philosophers explore the epistemological question of how each of us can know that s/he isn’t surrounded by p-zombies. Yet we face a mystery deeper than the ancient sceptical Problem of Other Minds. If our ordinary understanding of the fundamental nature of matter and energy as described by physics is correct, and if our neurons are effectively decohered classical objects as suggested by standard neuroscience, then we all ought to be zombies. Following David Chalmers, this is called the Hard Problem of consciousness.

 

Non-Materialist Physicalism: An experimentally Testable Conjecture by David Pearce

Who should know about suffering?

“How big do the numbers have to be for insensitivity to begin? Not very, it turns out.”

 

“Consider the recent death of the Syrian child Aylan Kurdi when his family braved the choppy seas off the coast of Turkey. The image of Aylan lying face down on the beach captivated the world’s attention and even, in short order, resulted in refugee policy changes in countries as far away as the United States. But 14 Syrian children drowned in the Aegean Sea the next day. Did you notice? Did you care?”

 

“And even 14 is much higher than necessary to desensitize us. In studies published last year in the journal PLOS One, one of us, Paul Slovic, and colleagues demonstrated that “compassion fade” can occur when an incident involving a single person expands to as few as two people. Participants were asked, in both hypothetical and real situations, to make donations, and to report how they felt about donating, to either a single needy child or two needy children, each of whom was identified with a photograph, name and age. We found that people’s positive feelings about donating declined substantially when the group size was two, and that this decrease was related to lower levels of donations.”

 

The Arithmetic of Compassion

 

Some cognitive biases have ethically disastrous consequences. One of such  biases is scope neglect, and the psychological numbing with which this is implemented.

I find it hard to decide whether it is a good idea to help people realize the magnitude of the problem of suffering.

It’s a catch-22:

(1) Let them remain blissfully ignorant, and they’ll live life focused on immediate surroundings and on comforting sentimentality.

(2) Let them see the horror of reality, and they will either become Effective Altruists (with a small probability), or end up with a broken mind for years until they forget the reality of suffering. Then they’ll end up like (1) again. “After the war, he decided all he cared about was dog figurines. He now collects all sorts of dog figurines… that’s all he ever does!”

Who should, if anyone, be allowed to grasp the problem? Arguably, people who are extremely smart, extremely psychologically robust and highly compassionate. Maybe this should be the genetic target for the next generation of humans…

Ontological Qualia: The Future of Personal Identity

*WARNING* If you are not psychologically robust, this *may* be a memetic hazard. It talks about ideas that may affect hedonic tone in people susceptible to bad philosophical experiences.

Personal Identity

What is personal identity? The word consciousness has many meanings. Some of them are mundane, such as “social awareness.” Others are extremely fundamental, like the nature of qualia. Likewise, personal identity has multiple meanings that are at entirely different levels in the philosophical hierarchy for how fundamental the questions are. A mundane sense of personal identity is “how people see you, and how you perceive yourself relative to others.” This article is not about that. Here the sense of this concept I will address is evoked by the question: What are the necessary and sufficient conditions for my existence?

Say someone is pointing at a given person somewhere in the multiverse. What information do I need to know in order to assert that “this person is me, and I am/did/will experience what he is experiencing”?

Related to this question, we also have what Derek Parfit defined as the question of survival. This is evoked by the following question: Under what circumstances will I exist in the future?

In principle, answering the first question will give you a direct answer to the second question. Answering the second one, however, does not necessarily answer the first one. In this article I will focus on the first question; I will note, however, that what people usually care about is the second one. Why? This is probably due to emotional reasons; caused by how our modeling of our future is implemented emotionally in our consciousness. We are wired to seek our own survival, so that inclusive fitness is maximized. It seems that, somehow, what we care about is whether “we will exist in the future” and not “whether some person in another dimension is also me.” Implicitly, we care about whether we can anticipate future experiences. Not, unfortunately, what the ultimate truth of identity really is.

I would argue, however, that a rational “selfish” individual who wants to survive should also take seriously the question of personal identity:  Even though it does not engage him or her at an emotional level, it still gives you what truly matters.

It gets worse: Even though most young people believe, at an intellectual level, that it is truly they who will experience life as an old individual when the time comes, in practice hyperbolic discounting tends to make us care very little about our (far) future selves. Our survival programs are implemented in a peculiar way, using emotions such as anticipation, desire, and fear, prioritizing perceptually-large, salient and soon-to-be possibilities rather than objectively bigger problems and opportunities in the far future. From an evolutionary point of view this makes sense: Hyperbolic discounting can be explained as a direct consequence of living in uncertain environments. Our ancestral environments were chaotic and unpredictable; if given the chance, placing all of one’s resources into a plan that guarantees one’s survival for a day was more effective than dividing equally one’s resources into improving the chances of surviving tomorrow and next year.

Emotional, Propositional, Ontological Qualia

Competing with our visceral anticipation we also have another representation of one’s survival: A cognitive understanding, which is implemented with thought and propositional beliefs. I call this propositional qualia; this is the very ineffable quality of one’s thoughts and propositional beliefs. Although this is a controversial idea, I am confident that our thoughts have a certain subjective quality. Propositional qualia probably evolved alongside with language and complex social cognition, and it is one of the largest differences between the subjective experience of human and non-human animals.

Propositional qualia is “the way our beliefs and counterfactual reasonings about the world feel.” This qualia is flexible and changes as we think. We start to develop it at the age of 3, and it is not fully mature until roughly our early 20s. Contra purely functionalist accounts of consciousness, the way thought feels like is not merely the result of neural networks churning away searches in a state-space of possibilities. Propositional qualia is, in itself, the instrument with which we do our thinking (via local phenomenal binding constraint satisfaction, but that story is for another article).

There is also a deeper sort of qualia that changes a lot less frequently, and seems to underpin people’s experience of philosophy, spirituality and religion. I call this ontological qualia. This is the way in which “beliefs about the nature of reality, the self and consciousness feel like.”

Psychedelics are well known for being able to change the quality of one’s sensory experience, produce distortions and greatly amplify emotions. What is less frequently talked about is how they also drastically change one’s propositional and ontological qualia. For example, there are reports of people who were devoted materialists and atheists for their entire lives, who suddenly experienced a profound sense of universal oneness after smoking a bit of 5-MeO-DMT.

Philosophical activity recruits a mixture of propositional and ontological qualia. Typically, people have settled ontological qualia, and they express it by playing with propositional qualia. Another way of saying this: People’s “deeply held beliefs and intuitions” rarely change. Rather, these beliefs inform the way they think and approach philosophical questions.

I would argue that beliefs about personal identity are propositional qualia that are informed by underlying ontological qualia. What are these beliefs?

Thanks to Daniel Kolak (the writer of “I am You”) we now have very clear vocabulary to discuss broad varieties of beliefs about personal identity. These varieties are:

Closed Individualism (CI)

This is the common-sense view of survival and personal identity. Most people are Closed Individualists. Our implicit gut feeling is largely Closed Individualistic. This view states that “you begin to exist when you are born and you stop existing when you die.” That said, this is only the classic formulation. One can be a Closed Individualist and believe in God, and the after-life. For example, people who believe in mainstream Abrahamic religions are usually Closed Individualists (gnostics and mystics being exceptions). With an after-(or pre-)life, the formulation is only slightly different: “You start existing when you are born (when your soul is created), and you never stop existing.” The main conditions for a view to be classified as CI is that (1) there is at most one instance of you at any given point in time, and (2) you continue to exist moment after moment.

Empty Individualism (EI)

This is the view that you only exist as a time-slice in space-time. For an Empty Individualist, the passage of time is an illusion. At every point in time you are born, you live and you die, all simultaneously. This is not to be confused with eternalism [as opposed to presentism] (also called The Block View of the universe). An Empty Individualist can be a presentist, and in that case he or she believes that one only exists for a unit of time (or an infinitesimally thin space-time cross-section, if time is continuous). This view is very intimately related to Mereological Nihilism. People like David Hume, Derek Parfit and David Pearce believe in this view, as well as many physicalist philosophers. Among the world’s classic religions, a notorious example of an EI religion is Buddhism (though this depends on the specific branch).

Open Individualism (OI)

This is the view that there is only one (universal) subject of experience. Alan Watts’ would describe it as the realization that we are all “God playing a cosmic game of hide and seek.” Every conscious entity may have a distinct form, a distinct personality, and a distinct causal role in the entire universe. But the essence beneath it all is one and the same. Hindu cosmology is often Open Individualist (we are all made of, and resting on, the same ground of being – Brahman). Famous Open Individualists include Einstein and Schopenhauer.

In a future article I will provide the steel man case for each of these views. This article, however, is focused on the qualia underlying these views… rather than on their merit as plausible truths.

LSD: The Qualia Evolution Neglected

The most recent neuroimaging study on the effects of LSD reveals that functionally coherent neural circuits break apart when one is high on acid. Unfortunately, I do not think such an explanation will be sufficient to account for the entirely novel kinds of qualia people experience under the influence. David Pearce hypothesizes that the indescribable weirdness of psychedelics is the result of changes in the structures of proteins inside cells. In his view, psychedelics drastically change the intra-cellular signaling of neurons, resulting in changes within the structure of cells. He believes that the textures of qualia are the result of the secondary, tertiary and quaternary structure of proteins in neurons. This is a thoroughly testable hypothesis, and it may even be possible to investigate it in-vitro. Opponents to this view would point out that the various parts of the brain, such as the visual cortex and the auditory cortex, can be exchanged with little to no functional deficits. Thus we could argue that any part of the cortex is functionally identical; there is one neat trick throughout the entire cortex.

We can reply to this, however, with the claim that unitary consciousness is actually implemented in the thalamus. Hence it matters little that various parts of the cortex can be used interchangeably for the same information processing task: Where we should be looking to find the one neat trick, is in the thalamus itself.

Anyhow, LSD and other major psychedelics produce entirely new phenomenologies. Are they short-cuts to enlightenment? Once psychedelic research is instantiated on a large scale again we will probably verify that there are strong parallels between the neurological properties (both in terms of signaling and intra-cellular composition) of natural mystical experiences and those induced by psychedelics. Natural selection recruited particular state-spaces of propositional and ontological qualia… spirituality and psychedelics enable us to hack new varieties of it that, so far, have not been useful to increase inclusive fitness.

It Gets Personal

In my personal experience, personal identity views have very distinct subjective qualities. I started my philosophical journey when I was a small kid. At 3 I was informed that every person dies sooner or later, and I remember that this information shocked me very deeply. I did not believe in God, but I still prayed at night “God, I know I can’t live forever. At least make me the oldest man on earth!”

Death was a constant subject of dread for me. I experienced several existential crisis at different points in my youth. The two most dreadfiul were: One that lasted a whole year, at the age of 9, and another that lasted about 6 months when I was 13. In both cases I was experiencing fairly constant dysphoria.

Thankfully, I managed to find some comforting interpretation of reality to quench my fear of death. For example, I managed to convince myself that “being dead and being non-existent are both the same state. I have already experienced non-existence, and it was a totally natural state… death cannot be worse than that. Its the most common state for everyone! We only live for a blink of an eye. Thus, to be alive is to be weird. To not exist, is to be in the natural state.” I knew these were rationalizations, but the need to reduce my bad existential feelings (i.e. bad ontological qualia) was rather severe. I was a Closed Individualist.

At 16 I had a mystical experience. An instance of what is usually talked about as “an oceanic dissolution of one’s identity into the ground of being.” It was very Hindu-like. Well before I had learned anything about any religion besides Christianity, I experienced something that can only be described as “realizing I’m the universal mind”. What happened is that I felt that my consciousness was giving life to my body: It was as if there was this endless ocean of being that was both inside and outside my body. My mind would make it seem as if “I was this body” but that was an illusion. In reality, I was the very ocean of being, and that was everywhere, in everything and in everyone, eternal and immortal.

I experienced a profound sense of relief when I had that experience. It completely transformed my experiential understanding of myself and others. I knew that no experience could be a “proof” for the reality of a particular philosophical view. But I now had at least a proof of concept for how things could be differently. I thought very deeply about the question of personal identity, and how it could be answered philosophically. I considered many thought experiments such as fission, fusion, split-brain, and so on. I realized that, if I am willing to accept that I do exist from one moment after another, then I would have to conclude that I was all of consciousness. I became an Open Individualist.

This experience, and the subsequent change in my beliefs (and thus the modification of my propositional and ontological qualia) drastically reduced, and even eliminated, my fear of death. In retrospect, I am amazed at the depth of my fear of death as a kid. I am not sure if this is common, or whether one needs to also have some sort of hyper-philosophilia in addition (the personality trait of being deeply concerned about philosophical matters at least a large fraction of every single day). I could imagine that, even though I would die and my body would be destroyed along with my memories, what really -fundamentally- mattered about me would never cease to exist. This was profoundly comforting.

Over the years, however, this view has lost some of its appeal. At 21 I started talking with David Pearce, and I realized that there was a somewhat stronger case for Empty Individualism than there was for Open Individualism. OI could be described as a poetic interpretation of reality, but the truth about it was that each unitary element of reality (whether trivial quantum wave-functions or fully developed conscious experiences such as mine) stands on its own, trapped in the Everett multiverse. I have since been in a rather ambiguous state: I experience ontological qualia related to Empty Individualism, Open Individualism, and even Closed Individualism, depending on my mood, my level of empathy, my brain chemistry, and my state of consciousness.

A Deep and Dark Realization

Recently I had one of the worst experiences of my life: After intense contemplation upon the problem of personal identity, and the nature of suffering, my mind temporarily settled with 100% certainty (subjective certainty, that is) into an Empty Individualist interpretation. I realized (in the sense of “experiencing as if true”) a state of consciousness that believes without any doubt in the following notions: Mereological Nihilism, Empty Individualism, Eternalism, Hedonic tone realism (that suffering is, truly, bad), Negative Utilitarianism, and a few others I can’t remember now. This was awful. I felt that I was stuck in space-time forever. And worse, that reality was incredibly sadistic and unfair: There are countless beings who exist in a state of suffering forever. Whereas with a Closed Individualist or Open Individualist viewpoint one can rationalize suffering as being temporary and “not the whole of the truth,” a fully realized Empty Individualist viewpoint does not allow you to make this rationalization. There are beings who, well, exist entirely below hedonic zero. Their whole existence is eternal suffering. Experiencing compassion towards suffering time-slices was painful beyond my usual range of hedonic tone.

Hedonic Tone and Ontological Qualia

The fact that this experience was so bad for me is a strong hint that there is indeed some kind of deep connection between hedonic tone and ontological qualia. But what is the nature of this connection? One hypothesis is that hedonic tone is like a color that “paints ontological qualia.” In other words, ontological qualia does not have an intrinsic hedonic tone. Instead, it is due to our particular brain makeup that certain beliefs are felt as good or bad. Thus, positive hedonic tone locally binds (in the phenomenal binding sense) to ontological qualia that suggests that one will survive in a good way, and vice versa. In other words, survival programs may be hijacking one’s hedonic coloring of philosophical notions. Since I experienced a fully fleshed out realization of Empty Individualism, my self-model was one of “being in a state of suffering forever without any possible escape, just as a lot of other beings in the multiverse.”

If this is so, then we can predict that artificial brains wired differently (either our descendants, or genetically engineered brains) may not necessarily experience the same hedonic tone associated to ontological qualia in the way that we do.

Alternatively, it may be the case that hedonic tone is intrinsic to ontological qualia: Some beliefs about “the nature of reality” may have an intrinsic positive or negative feel.

Moving On Beyond Ontological Distress

I have been fortunate to move on from the very bad state of “absolute belief in Empty Individualism.” Recently I had a mind-expanding session in which I focused on feeling intently how different ontological qualia are experienced. The trick was to allow myself to negate some background assumptions that were leaving me stuck in a particularly negative configuration of propositional and ontological qualia. What did I do? I assumed that Mereological Nihilism is false. This is a very bizarre thing to do. To start, most people are not Mereological Nihilists to begin with. But I suspect that once they have carefully explored this philosophical view, they will generally settle on it being true. It is self-evident once you contemplate it carefully. So negating Mereological Nihilism is a very strange philosophical move. Doable nonetheless. Doable, that is, if one is willing to experience some degree of depersonalization.

There are four ways Mereological Nihilism could be false. The first one is to embrace “Strong Emergence” (the view that collections of simples can somehow make another simple that simultaneously also is a bunch of simples). The second possibility is to negate the boundaries between oneself and the rest of reality. Discreet quantum wave functions will always be able to interfere with each other (even if very, very little), and thus one may be able to conceive of them as one whole being. It may be that our individuality is not ontological; it is an illusion caused by extremely thin, extremely sharp pseudo-boundries between minds. In this Open Individualist view, there are no vertical walls between you and other conscious experiences… only very steep walls that give rise to the illusion of separation. This embodies the very essence of Open Individualism. The third way is to contemplate the possibility of Gunk. Infinitely divisible beings with no ontological unity besides the whole of reality. These three methods require normally-inaccessible ontological qualia. The fourth method requires ontological qualia that is even further away from consensus reality:

Imagine that both “being” and “non-being” are both illusory concepts. In reality, the truth exists beyond being and beyond non-being… beyond logic. Thus, identification with one’s “present conscious experience” could be a simple mistake; dualistic ontological qualia, in which things either are or aren’t, could be just a very special case of a non-dualistic state-space of possible experiences. This is far out, I know. But the experience of this being the case is actually possible. It requires intense concentration, dedication, and perhaps some brain chemistry modifications.

Experiencing ontological qualia that negates Mereological Nihilism and thus renders Empty Individualism imposible, allowed me to be freed from my case of bad ontological qualia (will psychiatrists ever be able to diagnose this problem?). This was the result of contemplating Empty Individualism, and the cure was to contemplate the negation of Mereological Nihilism. I would recommend it to anyone who is suffering as a consequence of that very specific set of beliefs.

Is it possible that what freed me from bad ontological qualia was not, ultimately, the result of simply changing ontological qualia itself? It could also be related, again, to how one’s survival programs are implemented with a variety of positive and negative hedonic tones depending on one’s beliefs about survival. As we are currently implemented, though, it may be prudent to find ways of experiencing Open Individualistic ontological qualia in a reliable way. If for no other reason than to use it as an anti-depressant.

Reducing Spirituality to Hedonic Tone – and Hedonic Tone to Spirituality

Do we all just seek what feels good at every point in time? This view is called the pleasure principle (though I prefer calling it hedonic tone determinism). Belief in this view is, paradoxically, strangely dysphoric (at least in my case). At the same time, if this is true, then taking it into account is an important step in order to engage in paradise engineering. People tend to reject this possibility out of hand by coming up with striking counter-examples. For instance, how do we explain arduous and disciplined spiritual practice? Isn’t a Hindu or Buddhist monk’s first year of practice filled with a lot of loneliness and bodily dysphoria? This can certainly be true. But then again, the strongest source of hedonic tone may be ontological qualia. A person who experiences life as meaningful (say, a self-proclaimed Stoic) can face negative feelings and bodily discomfort. The feelings of meaningfulness compensate for the surface-level negativity. Having a persistent feeling of existential emptiness, on the other hand, is rarely cured by engaging in superficially pleasurable activities.

Remaining agnostic about the ultimate nature of reality, though, leaves me open to alternative interpretations of the nature of hedonic tone. As some mystics have argued, it may be the case that one’s degree of pleasure –specially existential spiritual euphoria– is related to one’s connection to one’s higher self, one’s soul or even to God. In this case, hedonic tone would be reduced to spirituality, rather than the other way around. I wouldn’t hold my breath, though.

What’s the Future of Personal Identity?

As we develop technologies to modify the quality of our consciousness by modifying our genetic source code, gene expression, brain protein composition (the distribution of secondary, tertiary and quaternary protein structures in neurons) and so on, we will begin to explore and catalogue the state-space of possible qualia.

We may be able to disentangle hedonic tone from ontological qualia. If so, then beliefs about personal identity may be just a matter of aesthetics: People with any particular view about reality might be just as unfathomably happy. On the other hand, if ontological qualia has an intrinsic hedonic tone, then we can predict that people in the future will experience the ontological qualia that is the most pleasant. For example, people may end up adopting an Open Individualist viewpoint and rejoice in the extremely long life of the universal collective being (or collective meta-being, which incorporates all views about itself within).

However, personal identity is not only consequential to hedonic tone. The functional and evolutionary consequences of various propositional and ontological qualia cannot be dismissed…

Personal Identity Wars

Beliefs about personal identity have fascinating evolutionary implications. The selection pressures for particular views on personal identity are widely different depending on the details. It is probable that in the future we will experience some sort of memetic warfare: As people begin to explore, induce and recruit exotic varieties of ontological qualia, we will see a lot of new motivations behind the replication of specific varieties of consciousness.

Closed Individualists will arguably continue to be afraid of death. Afraid may not necessarily be the right way of putting it. If the Hedonistic Imperative comes to fruition, even Closed Individualists may experience bliss so profound that defies human description. But, they may still not want to come to terms with their mortality. Who cares if the entire world is a great place to live when you are not going to be there to experience it?

Empty Individualists will not care very much about who gets to experience what. They will probably lack the motivation to ensure their own “personal” survival. They may, however, have strong aesthetic preferences. And, strikingly, people who have the specific variety of Empty Individualism I call “Type Empty Individualism” (namely, they exist and “are” in perfect copies of themselves rather than just in their unique spatio-temporal instantiation) may want to transform all matter and energy in the universe into perfect copies of themselves. That is, of course, if they value their own existence.

Now, Open Individualists would have a key strategical advantage. Their decision theory would be novel and fascinating: A God’s eye view of ethics. They would not care whether their own bodies happen to survive in the future, as long as sentient beings as a whole inhabit blissful, wise and/or novel states of consciousness. Additionally, OIsts would accept radically changing their state of consciousness. Closed Individualists of the psychological criterion type (who believe they exist as long as they share a threshold amount of memories with their future selves) would not be interested in radically changing their states of consciousness. For all they know, that is the same as death. OIsts would do a lot of consciousness research with no worries about death.

Given their strategic advantage, it would then seem that OIsts would win right away. They would quickly become universal allies and do intesne consciousness research. But then we also have to consider second-order effects: Closed Individualists, if sufficiently smart, would be able to anticipate the coming Open Individualist collective super-intelligence that results from their systematic experimentation with consciousness.

Would they wage a preventive war in advance? And would Empty Individualists become allies with Closed Individualists, or would they call for a total annihilation of reality?

Tune in next week, and read: “Personal Identity Wars II: The Menace of the Utilitronium Shockwave