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


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  4. FeepingCreature · November 9, 2019

    Unitary Individualism is a much better term than Empty Individualism – the set has a magnitude of one, not zero! Empty Individualism would be the belief that I don’t exist *at all*, not even in the moment.

    Personally I subscribe to what I’d call “Functional Individualism”, the belief that “selfness” is a binary and non-commutative real function indicating the degree to which you both/either control and should anticipate that person’s experience. This theory takes the view that the closed individualism described is merely a discrete approximation of a continuous reality, and allows for forks without existential distress.

    Also, point of order: creatures suffering in EI/UI do not face an eternity of suffering, since rather by definition their experience is timeless. In fact, since the experience of suffering is inherently equivalent to corrosion, they can only conceivably face a limited amount of it. (If I stab you, then heal you, then stab you again, gradually your experience of the event becomes more and more circular – resulting in a functionally finite amount of suffering even over an infinite timespan. To model this, consider yourself being hit in the face vs 10000 identical clones being identically hit in the face. A proper theory of self should not assign that scenario 10000 times the badness of the first, because the experience is equal and hence identical.

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  16. waltonmath · July 25, 2018

    I’ve only read a bit of this so far, but noticed something while talking to a friend: the website is designed such that, on my browser and monitor, if I press the space bar, it skips past the content warning, so that I never noticed it while reading. I’m having only a good philosophical experience so far, and expect this to continue with the post, but thought this seemed relevant.

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  22. Sam · January 23, 2018

    Thank you for a great introduction to OI.

    I believe I have a mathematical case against the Splitting / Fusion thought experiment. My argument is based on Smooth functions. Without going into detail too much here (unless you would like it) I summarize by saying the instant of merging/splitting would be experienced as a discontinuous (well, non-smooth) event – something that is impossible. Our subjective experience is always a smooth procession of experiences each building on the previous. Splitting/Fusion violates this smooth procession. Have you considered this argument?

    The Splitting/Fusion is a philosophical sleight of hand that immediately fails if one tried to model it mathematically.

    Therefore the ONLY mathematically consistent OI would have to be based off the single “time-travelling” soul that reincarnates into every being at some point. I.e. I am you, but either your past self or future self. The only other place I’ve really seen this written down is here: http://www.galactanet.com/oneoff/theegg_mod.html, though I also think Alan Watt’s entertains this idea too.

    Personally, on a day to day basis I reject EI, but try to avoid assuming either OI nor CI. I do assume reincarnation into the same universe (rather than a causally disconnected universe). Then it is in our best interests to “make the world a better place” since we may reincarnate back into it – we have a framework for universe-global ethics.

    Under OI we also have to worry about reincarnating into our current neighbours, so it’s perhaps a stronger ethical framework. Nevertheless perhaps a negligibly stronger framework given that a single generation is a tiny fraction of all generations per universe. Put another way, being an arse to the dozens of people we meet in this life, is negligible when compared to the billions of future generations (of course being an arse to our colleagues might be counter productive to making the world a better place in future too).

    I call this ethical view Probabilistic Forward Anthropically Selected Teleological Evolution (please suggest a punchier name?), i.e. that our “next life” will be better than our previous life on average provided we always aim to “make the world a better place”. If it’s the case that we reach https://www.superhappiness.com/ relatively early in the universes lifetime, say in the next few billion years, this will mean our current relatively unhappy war ridden suffering society only amounts for an astronomically small amount of time that our consciousness needs to endure. This final thought I find quite comforting.

    • algekalipso · January 23, 2018

      These are good points. I like your argument about the discontinuity in fusion/fission. That said, we already know that “single particles” can experience discontinuities (e.g. the topological bifurcations that occur in the double-slit experiment when a particle interferes with itself).

      In Feynman diagrams, we observe that a particle moving backwards in time is equivalent to the anti-matter version of that same particle. One view of OI that I find compelling is the notion that we are all this “one universal particle” or Singularity (of sorts) that moves backwards and forwards in time interweaving our universe in a pattern of self-interference (cf. Path Integral model of Quantum Mechanics). Due to the nature of the process, there is an emergent geometry of non-classical ensambles thanks to topological bifurcations that result in “pocket superpositions”. Arguably those could correspond to the various moments of our experience. Yet, it’s still just one particle, and the apparent subdivisions/units that come out of it are due to the interference of that one particle with itself.

      • Sam · January 24, 2018

        Thanks again Algekalipso, indeed the quantum experiments where particles go backwards in time provides some sort of physical basis for our conjectured (external) time travelling consciousness.

        > we already know that “single particles” can experience discontinuities

        I don’t think so, that line of reasoning only works if we assume (newtonian-point-like) particles and motion exist, but under quantum field theory, there is just fields. The only thing in physics that is discontinuous is the stable state space of possible configurations of quantum systems, from which the notion of a particle emerges. Put another way, reality is smooth, and evolves in a smooth way, but it’s possible (stable) states form a discrete set.

        > emergent geometry of non-classical ensembles thanks to topological bifurcations that result in “pocket superpositions”

        I’m not familiar with this, sounds interesting, can you provide a paper?

        Your theory regarding backward in (external) time uber-superposition is similar to my own, and I believe exploring it we can get a feel for how recall actually works, and even to some degree a better idea of what is time.

        A word of advice from personal experience – please don’t try to go too deep into understanding consciousness/metaphysics with the intellectual mind. The eastern religions/philosophies really do have a point here – simply observing, experiencing and feeling consciousness/reality feel a lot better than trying to pack it into a finite set of words.

        The energy used up by the intellectual mind is best spent only on practical technological progression.

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  25. M · September 27, 2017

    Open Individualism is not the right view.
    Neither is Closed Individualism.
    Neither is Empty Individualism.

    All of them together as a view is not correct either.
    Neither is the negation of them all as a view correct.

    This is the Buddhist view. I suggest you read more about Buddhism and correct your putting it into the Empty Individualism category.

    That said, I recommend you get into meditation and find out yourself. Drugs can only take you so far. And right now you look like someone looking at a closed box. Moving around it in a circle, looking at it from different angles and trying to guess what is inside. Dancing around, changing views. But not opening the lid. Opening the lid is easier said than done, but no amount of looking at it from the outside will give you the answer you are looking for.

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  38. maha · June 14, 2016

    Please concentrete your story! It’ to painfully to long! Edit it , thanks

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  40. visage · February 29, 2016

    It’s good to find terminology that’s useful for making sense of the world. I am familiar with most of the ontological qualia described. They are of course often referred to as mystical experiences.

    The experience described under “A Deep and Dark Realization” is particularity interesting to me as I’ve had a very similar experience and this is the first time I’ve seen anyone else describe it. I have, though, come across it in Kaballah – it seems to correspond with the Vision of Sorrow that is the vision of the Sephiroth of Binah. See http://hermetic.com/caduceus/qabalah/047_kab.html

  41. renovatio06 · February 23, 2016

    Oops. The truncated clause should read “…when arriving at this – albeit temporary – conviction that empty nihilism […] must be accurate.” Sorry.

  42. renovatio06 · February 23, 2016

    I will admit that I was barely familiar with a fraction of the philosophical views and approaches you so effortlessly quote and elaborate on in your article (and did as much reading up as I had to in order to get to follow your thought processes). However, what immediately struck me was “I felt that I was stuck in space-time forever” upon your experience of bad ontological qualia when arriving at this – albeit temporary – conviction that empi. Since fairly early – I guess, I was around 9 years of age then – I’d awake from severe panic attacks at night, where the last – or first – thing I remember and which gave me so much distress was precisely what you experienced, too. (Until reading your article, I was led to believe I have been the only one ever and consequently stopped talking about it).

    Coming back to your article and subsequent discussion, in my experience hedonic tone pretty much governs most of our behaviours and reflects back on our consciousness, though mostly reduced to pragmatic aspects, where the prime incentive will always be survival for as long as possible (although this is in direct opposition to the empty nihilistic view. And one “marker” for this being the observable fact that not every proponent of empty nihilism kills herself right on spot when arriving at the conclusion that this world view is the most accurate. IMHO and strictly “logically” speaking they would almost have to do this as there is no point in perpetuating the suffering one split second longer unless they’re driven by a somewhat masochistic curiosity). I am still somewhat puzzled, not to mention distressed for large stretches of time, by the observable fact that humans are conscious at all as I don’t see any evolutional advantage over other (sentient) beings who are said to lack a conscious awareness of themselves (where I believe the latter to be a required presupposition for the phenomenon of an identity to begin with). In other words: For the life of me I can’t see what evolutional – as in: survival – advantage a, say, shark has over a human being (other than the obvious, like a gruelling set of teeth and the mere fact that a human swimming or snorkelling or diving are out their waters in a very literate, ironic sense of the word. In addition, we’re assuming that sharks don’t have conscious awareness of themselves although we lack the data for most other species than some primates and ourselves [as another species of primates], which would back this assumption). To paraphrase again and allude to Stuart Hameroff’s research on (human) consciousness: We might as well all be zombies and we would have still reproduced and come up with all these technological advances we see today. Again: Why conscious awareness at all? It doesn’t seem necessary for the proliferation of our species and/or life at large. And for people like you and me, it certainly messes with hedonic tone… 3:) 😛

    On the other hand, we can see today that “simples” as used in Mereological Nihilism HAVE produced – or “created” – an “object” – rather: phenomenon – that has parts, which I see reflected in human awareness (and where the notion of “parts” would equal different states of consciousness to begin with instead of just one immutable experience of “I-ness”, although the very nature of this “I-ness” seems to make a strong point for this immutable quality associated with it….; for comparison and example see reports from elderly people whose inner selves still feels young, which is in contradiction to their ages bodies). From this perspective – but that’s not a thoroughly detailed viewpoint just yet and probably merits further investigation – Mereological Nihilism must be false as one of its cornerstone claims doesn’t really hold in light of this discussion, doesn’t it?

    As for myself: I try to make peace in the same way you initially did and by way of coming to terms with the status quo ante of my birth. Or as a former friend once put it: “It never bothered you before. Why would you be bothered now or later?” 😉

    Interesting thread and I very much enjoyed learning quite a bit of new stuff. Thanks for sharing!

  43. Ethan May · February 23, 2016

    It’s interesting that I came across this post today. Just yesterday I found myself wondering about the diversity of states of human consciousness that has evolved over time, and what kind of effects it might have on the overall consciousness of Earthly beings. Many people are beginning to adopt, or at least understand, the OI viewpoint. But at the same time, there is equally compelling evidence that EI is not only being adopted on a mass scale but being marketed to the general populace. The common thread that ties all this together are the constructs of Everything and Nothing. The ultimate paradox: As conscious entities we are Everything and we are Nothing. Our power is the ability to choose between the two. Both are equally valid and dangerous. This dualistic paradox gives birth to the Universe. My personal opinion is that OIs and IEs alike will push the boundaries of consciousness in order to fully experience and identify with Everything/Nothing respectively. And if the hundredth monkey effect has taught us anything – once a certain percentage of the human populace experiences (consciously becomes) Everything/Nothing, the rest of humanity will follow suit whether they are ready or not. This is how I’ve rationalized biblical descriptions of the rapture. Consciousness that identifies with nothing will cease to exist, and those that identify with everything will unify. Thank you for writing this thought provoking article!

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  45. Fang Ke · February 22, 2016

    I don’t quite understand why open individualism is any different than empty individualism. EI means I’m dying all the time. But since there seems to be no oblivion for me I should also expect continued experience beyond my bodily death — I’ll probably become another sentient being human or nonhuman — although I won’t know this after the fact, and to say “become” may not be quite accurate — but the implications are like that.

    The worst nightmare seems to be eternalism, not empty individualism — unless the whole existence in samsara is merely a game, and from a higher perspective (if there is one), everything will turn out OK: suffering is temporary, and redeemable. But still if it’s a game it’s quite sadistic for a lot of people. And to my eyes it doesn’t seem like a game, it’s dead serious.

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  47. science · December 28, 2015
    • algekalipso · December 29, 2015

      What would you say is not clear in this essay? Philosophy does has jargon, and admittedly, without familiarity with a specific field in philosophy, it is possible to confuse deliberate obfuscation with uncommon ideas.

  48. Nick Sweeting · December 23, 2015

    Here’s a classic short story about Open Individualism (OI), I’m surprised you didn’t link to it :).
    The Egg by Andy Weir: http://galactanet.com/oneoff/theegg_mod.html

    • algekalipso · February 13, 2016

      I like that OI story a lot. It helps people develop an intuition for OI by finding a way to make (at least partly) consistent both *linear time* and a collective identity. The answer is to come back again and again at different points in time. In some sense, all of the events are happening simultaneously, but in a meta-time timeline.

      That said, OI certainly does not require to be consistent with individual linear time. It precisely negates the intuition that you can only exist in one place on a given time… and it tells you to just accept it and feel ok about it, in spite of how crazy it is.

      Thanks for the reference.

  49. Benjamin · December 22, 2015

    Sorry for what might come across as a disorganized comment, I´ve written an exam today on barely 3 hours of sleep.

  50. Benjamin · December 21, 2015

    Interesting post, although I believe that proposing that people with different philosophical viewpoints with regard to personal identity will wage war against each other seems a bit far-fetched. Most people don´t think about this stuff enough to care deeply about it, and those that do are usually academics. Academics are not known for their tendency to be violent and aggressive, unless you mean “war” in a more metaphorical sense.

    • algekalipso · December 21, 2015

      Yes, I mean war in a metaphorical sense.

      Also, the current psychological makeup of people is certainly not very conducive to caring about personal identity very deeply. But then again, I anticipate a profound revolution in the kinds of qualia that we will experience in the future. Once meditation technologies, genetic engineering and general consciousness hacking is widespread, I anticipate that a lot of new subcultures dedicated to specific state-spaces of consciousness will emerge.

      Realists about personal identity will have an intense intrinsic motivation to continue to exist, so without any pushback the world is likely to end up being entirely populated by diehard Closed Individualists. The second-order effects are the real game changer, where the various memes can be aware of each other and anticipate their decisions using a generalization of game/decision theory (where, for instance, the notion of what constitutes an agent is not unique, but has multiple instantiations).

      • Benjamin · December 22, 2015

        You have som interesting thoughts, hope you continue keeping this blog update. One of the guys in my association visited you when he was i San Fran, and mentioned you in a post about his trip there, where he visited maps. He´s swedish, and both him and I are members of “Psychedelic Science” here in Sweden. I study to become a clinical psychologist here in Sweden.

        Have you read Thomas Metzinger´s “Being No One”?

        And also, It would be great if you could write about good books to read, on various subjects(Philosophy of Mind, Neuroscience, Computational Psychology, Sci-Fi etc.), either directly to me or as a blogpost. You seem to be well-versed in the literature.

        Best Regards.


        • algekalipso · December 22, 2015

          Ah, of course I remember him 🙂 You guys are doing some excellent work over there. Keep it up! I am convinced that we are right on the edge of a cliff… and there is boundless space ahead of us: Psychedelic research will take off in the next couple of decades, and a scientific understanding of non-ordinary states of consciousness will drastically affect philosophy.

          I did not read “Being No One” in its entirety, but I read several chapters. I did read “The Ego Tunnel” and I thought it was brilliant at the time. I still think it is a great book, and Metzinger is in the right space. There are some key background assumptions that are different between me and him, though, which happen to be key for artificial consciousness. Namely, he is a macro-functionalist and believes that consciousness is tied to self-models. I, on the other hand, am a panpsychist and I think consciousness is the fundamental makeup of reality. Likewise, I do not think that self-models are necessary nor sufficient for consciousness. You can have non-representational states of consciousness that entirely lack awareness of the existence of “a self.” Thus self-models are, I think, a red-hearing for consciousness.

          But I still recommend The Ego Tunnel… it is a great book to read.

          A book I’d love you to take a look at is “In Search of Myself” by Daniel Kolak. It is a short novel that deals with personal identity, and it is one of the best books ever (IMO).

          And, more directly, physicalism.com is my go-to source for philosophical clarity regarding qualia 🙂


        • Benjamin · December 22, 2015

          Yeah, I´ve read the Ego Tunnel, and I really liked it. I especially endorse his views on Psychedelics and predictions about the social implications of what Cognitive Science might tell us about ourselves (“Vulgar Nihilism”).

          I see, I think the panpsychist view of the universe sounds beautiful and elegant. But as David Chalmers has mentioned, it doesn´t really solve the binding-problem, does it? What I mean is; how is it that these proto-conscious units (atoms, quarks, strings etc) get bound in a way so a unified consciousness emerges? Still, it seems like both Christof Koch and Giulili Tononi endorse the panpsychist view (Integrated Information Theory). It also seems like a cop-out in some ways; “lets just put consciousness right up there as a fundamental aspect aspect of the universe, and we don´t have to explain the mechanism by which the brain produces consciousness.”

          Have you heard about Donald Hoffmans theory of “Conscious Realism”? I´ve read his paper and watched some videos with him… still can´t decide if he´s legit or if it´s all just pseudo-science. His apparently funded by the “Deepak Chopra” foundation, which makes me very suspicious.

          I will definitely try to read Daniel Kolaks book, hope I can find it for free somewhere on the internet. 😉

          Peace, dude.

        • algekalipso · December 23, 2015

          Hey Benjamin,

          You bring up a really key point! The combination problem arises in panpsychism. And it is a severe problem. That’s what drives Chalmers to Dualism. But the thing to note is that the sort of panpsychism I endorse does not use a “particle and space” ontology. But rather, the field ontology of quantum mechanics. In it, you *do* have quantum wavefunctions that are (1) ontologically unitary, and (2) full of non-trivial amounts of information. Our consciousness, in this view, would be a quantum wavefunction that contains within it all of the qualia, and the interrelationships between it, that you experience in a given moment.

          David Pearce responded to a similar question this way:

          “Chris, IMO any credible non-materialist physicalist story will need the field-based ontology of quantum field theory rather than a particle-based ontology of classical physics and elementary quantum mechanics. Otherwise the problem of microphysical simplicity (“the palette problem”) is insoluble. The palette problem is one of the main reasons David Chalmers feels driven to dualism.

          I hope you’ll forgive me for just cutting-and-pasting, first, the relevant section of Chalmers and, second, my response from physicalism.com
          First, Chalmers:

          “An especially pressing aspect of the quality combination problem is what we might call the palette problem. There is a vast array of macroqualities, including many different phenomenal colors, shapes, sounds, smells, and tastes. There is presumably only a limited palette of microqualities.Especially if Russellian panpsychism is true, we can expect only a handful of microqualities, corresponding to the handful of fundamental microphysical properties. How can this limited palette of microqualities combine to yield the vast array of macroqualities?”


          My response from

          a) The argument that if physicalistic idealism is true, then “we can expect only a handful of microqualities, corresponding to the handful of fundamental microphysical properties” is intuitively appealing. After all, runs this line of argument, every electron in the world is type-identical to every other electron. Electrons are exceedingly simple. After we’ve specified the mass, charge and spin of an electron, what else is there to say? An electron “has no hair”. Or more technically, after we have given the four quantum numbers that completely describe the electron, namely its principal quantum number(n), azimuthal quantum number(l), magnetic quantum number(m), and spin quantum number(s), what else is there left to add?

          However, in quantum field theory rather than basic quantum mechanics, there are no particles, only fields and field quanta. What we call “particles” by cosy analogy with classical physics are emergent entities supervenient on the underlying quantum fields. So if instead of a particle-based ontology, the monistic idealist assumes a quantum field-theoretic ontology, then the diverse values of the world’s fundamental fields yield the diverse subjective textures of micro-qualia – a vast palette of different qualia-field values. All physical systems, including macroscopic neural networks, are quantum fields. To be sure, in our present ignorance we don’t know how to “read off” the diverse values of micro-qualia from superpositions of the diverse values of the different fundamental fields. We lack any kind of cosmic Rosetta stone. But on this physicalistic idealist conjecture, there is no “element of reality” lacking in the quantum field-theoretic formalism that encodes the world’s fundamental micro-experiences. Algorithmically compressed into mathematical equations, the information encoding the exact textures of qualia-field values just awaits extraction. For in contemporary physics, fields (or indeed superstrings or branes are defined purely mathematically, even though their experimentally manipulable effects show that the fields are physically real. These fields take a vast range of values (“numbers in space”) – with a (conventionally) infinite number of degrees of freedom. And crudely, “more is different” – micro-experientially different, on this account at any rate. Critically to overcoming Chalmers’ second challenge to physicalistic idealism (b), i.e. the argument from structural mismatch, fields in quantum field theory exist in quantum superpositions of states. These quantum superpositions may be microscopic, mesoscopic or macroscopic: all are subject to the laws of quantum physics….”

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