Psychedelic Turk: A Platform for People on Altered States of Consciousness

An interesting variable is how much external noise is optimal for peak processing. Some, like Kafka, insisted that “I need solitude for my writing; not ‘like a hermit’ – that wouldn’t be enough – but like a dead man.” Others, like von Neumann, insisted on noisy settings: von Neumann would usually work with the TV on in the background, and when his wife moved his office to a secluded room on the third floor, he reportedly stormed downstairs and demanded “What are you trying to do, keep me away from what’s going on?” Apparently, some brains can function with (and even require!) high amounts of sensory entropy, whereas others need essentially zero. One might look for different metastable thresholds and/or convergent cybernetic targets in this case.

– Mike Johnson, A future for neuroscience

My drunk or high Tweets are my best work.

– Joe Rogan, Vlog#18

Introduction

Mechanical Turk is a service that makes outsourcing simple tasks to a large number of people extremely easy. The only constraint is that the tasks outsourced ought to be the sort of thing that can be explained and performed within a browser in less than 10 minutes, which in practice is not a strong constraint for most tasks you would outsource anyway. This service is in fact a remarkably effective way to accelerate the testing of digital prototypes at a reasonable price.

I think the core idea has incredible potential in the field of interest we explore in this blog. Namely, consciousness research and the creation of consciousness technologies. Mechanical Turk is already widely used in psychology, but its usefulness could be improved further. Here is an example: Imagine an extension to Mechanical Turk in which one could choose to have the tasks completed (or attempted) by people in non-ordinary states of consciousness.

Demographic Breakdown

With Mechanical Turk you can already ask for people who belong to specific demographic categories to do your task. For example, some academics are interested in the livelihoods of people within certain ages, NLP researchers might need native speakers of a particular language, and people who want to proof-read a text may request users who have completed an undergraduate degree. The demographic categories are helpful but also coarse. In practice they tend to be used as noisy proxies for more subtle attributes. If we could multiply the categories, which ones would give the highest bang for the buck? I suspect there is a lot of interesting information to be gained from adding categories like personality, cognitive organization, and emotional temperament. What else?

States of Consciousness as Points of View

One thing to consider is that the value of a service like Mechanical Turk comes in part from the range of “points of view” that the participants bring. After all, ensemble models that incorporate diverse types of modeling approaches and datasets usually dominate in real-world machine learning competitions (e.g. Kaggle). Analogously, for a number of applications, getting feedback from someone who thinks differently than everyone already consulted is much more valuable than consulting hundreds of people similar to those already queried. Human minds, insofar as they are prediction machines, can be used as diverse models. A wide range of points of view expands the perspectives used to draw inferences, and in many real-world conditions this will be beneficial for the accuracy of an aggregated prediction. So what would a radical approach to multiplying such “points of view” entail? Arguably a very efficient way of doing so would involve people who inhabit extraordinarily different states of consciousness outside the “typical everyday” mode of being.

Jokingly, I’d very much like to see the “wisdom of the crowds enhanced with psychedelic points of view” expressed in mainstream media. I can imagine an anchorwoman on CNN saying: “according to recent polls 30% of people agree that X, now let’s break this down by state of consciousness… let’s see what the people on acid have to say… ” I would personally be very curious to hear how “the people on acid” are thinking about certain issues relative to e.g. a breakdown of points of view by political affiliation. Leaving jokes aside, why would this be a good idea? Why would anyone actually build this?

I posit that a “Mechanical Turk for People on Psychedelics” would benefit the requesters, the workers, and outsiders. Let’s start with the top three benefits for requesters: better art and marketing, enhanced problem solving, and accelerating the science of consciousness. For workers, the top reason would be making work more interesting, stimulating, and enjoyable. And from the point of view of outsiders, we could anticipate some positive externalities such as improved foundational science, accelerated commercial technology development, and better prediction markets. Let’s dive in:

Benefits to Requesters

Art and Marketing

A reason why a service like this might succeed commercially comes from the importance of understanding one’s audience in art and marketing. For example, if one is developing a product targeted to people who have a hangover (e.g. “hangover remedies”), one’s best bet would be to see how people who actually are hungover resonate with the message. Asking people who are drunk, high on weed, on empathogenic states, on psychedelics, specific psychiatric medications, etc. could certainly find its use in marketing research for sports, comedy, music shows, etc.

Basically, when the product is consumed in the sort of events in which people frequently avoid being sober for the occasion, doing market research on the same people sober might produce misleading results. What percent of concert-goers are sober the entire night? Or people watching the World Cup final? Clearly, a Mechanical Turk service with diverse states of consciousness has the potential to improve marketing epistemology.

On the art side, people who might want to be the next Alex Grey or Android Jones would benefit from prototyping new visual styles on crowds of people who are on psychedelics (i.e. the main consumers of such artistic styles).

As an aside, I would like to point out that in my opinion, artists who create audio or images that are expected to be consumed by people in altered states of consciousness have some degree of responsibility in ensuring that they are not particularly upsetting to people in such states. Indeed, some relatively innocent sounds and images might cause a lot of anxiety or trigger negative states in people on psychedelics due to the way they are processed in such states. With a Mechanical Turk for psychedelics, artists could reduce the risk of upsetting festival/concert goers who partake in psychedelic perception by screening out offending stimuli.

Problem Solving

On a more exciting note, there are a number of indications that states of consciousness as alien as those induced by major psychedelics are at times computationally suited to solve information processing tasks in competitive ways. Here are two concrete examples: First, in the sixties there was some amount of research performed on psychedelics for problem solving. A notorious example would be the 1966 study conducted by Willis Harman & James Fadiman in which mescaline was used to aid scientists, engineers, and designers in solving concrete technical problems with very positive outcomes. And second, in How to Secretly Communicate with People on LSD we delved into ways that messages could be encoded in audio-visual stimuli in such a way that only people high on psychedelics could decode them. We called this type of information concealment Psychedelic Cryptography:

These examples are just proofs of concept that there probably are a multitude of tasks for which minds under various degrees of psychedelic alteration outperform those minds in sober states. In turn, it may end up being profitable to recruit people on such states to complete your tasks when they are genuinely better at them than the sober competition. How to know when to use which state of consciousness? The system could include an algorithm that samples people from various states of consciousness to identify the most promising states to solve your particular problem and then assign the bulk of the task to them.

All of this said, the application I find the most exciting is…

Accelerating the Science of Consciousness

The psychedelic renaissance is finally getting into the territory of performance enhancement in altered states. For example, there is an ongoing study that evaluates how microdosing impacts how one plays Go, and another one that uses a self-blinding protocol to assess how microdosing influences cognitive abilities and general wellbeing.

A whole lot of information about psychedelic states can be gained by doing browser experiments with people high on them. From sensory-focused studies such as visual psychophysics and auditory hedonics to experiments involving higher-order cognition and creativity, internet-based studies of people on altered states can shed a lot of light on how the mind works. I, for one, would love to estimate the base-rate of various wallpaper symmetry groups in psychedelic visuals (cf. Algorithmic Reduction of Psychedelic States), and to study the way psychedelic states influence the pleasantness of sound. There may be no need to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars in experiments that study those questions when the cost of asking people who are on psychedelics to do tasks can be amortized by having them participate in hundreds of studies on e.g. a single LSD session.

Quantifying Bliss (36)

17 wallpaper symmetry groups

This kind of research platform would also shed light on how experiences of mental illness compare with altered states of consciousness and allow us to place the effects of common psychiatric medications on a common “map of mental states”. Let me explain. While recreational materials tend to produce the largest changes to people’s conscious experience, it should go without saying that a whole lot of psychiatric medications have unusual effects on one’s state of consciousness. For example: Most people have a hard time pin-pointing the effect of beta blockers on their experience, but it is undeniable that such compounds influence brain activity and there are suggestions that they may have long-term mood effects. Many people do report specific changes to their experience related to beta blockers, and experienced psychonauts can often compare their effects to other drugs that they may use as benchmarks. By conducting psychophysical experiments on people who are taking various major psychoactives, one would get an objective benchmark for how the mind is altered along a wide range of dimensions by each of these substances. In turn, this generalized Mechanical Turk would enable us to pin-point where much more subtle drugs fall along on this space (cf. State-Space of Drug Effects).

In other words, this platform may be revolutionary when it comes to data collection and bench-marking for psychiatric drugs in general. That said, since these compounds are more often than not used daily for several months rather than briefly or as needed, it would be hard to see how the same individual performs a certain task while on and off the medicine. This could be addressed by implementing a system allowing requesters to ask users for follow up experiments if/when the user changes his or her drug regimen.

Benefit to Users

As claimed earlier on, we believe that this type of platform would make work more enjoyable, stimulating, and interesting for many users. Indeed, there does seem to be a general trend of people wanting to contribute to science and culture by sharing their experiences in non-ordinary states of consciousness. For instance, the wonderful artists at r/replications try to make accurate depiction of various unusual states of consciousness for free. There is even an initiative to document the subjective effects of various compounds by grounding trip reports on a subjective effects index. The point being that if people are willing to share their experience and time on psychedelic states of consciousness for free, chances are that they will not complain if they can also earn money with this unusual hobby.

698okoc

LSD replication (source: r/replications)

We also know from many artists and scientists that normal everyday states of consciousness are not always the best for particular tasks. By expanding the range of states of consciousness with economic advantages, we would be allowing people to perform at their best. You may not be allowed to conduct your job while high at your workplace even if you perform it better that way. But with this kind of platform, you would have the freedom to choose the state of consciousness that optimizes your performance and be paid in kind.

Possible Downsides

It is worth mentioning that there would be challenges and negative aspects too. In general, we can probably all agree that it would suck to have to endure advertisement targeted to your particular state of consciousness. If there is a way to prevent this from happening I would love to hear it. Unfortunately, I assume that marketing will sooner or later catch on to this modus operandi, and that a Mechanical Turk for people on altered states would be used for advertisement before anything else. Making better targeted ads, it turns out, is a commercially viable way of bootstrapping all sorts of novel systems. But better advertisement indeed puts us at higher risk of being taken over by pure replicators in the broader scope, so it is worth being cautious with this application.

In the worst case scenario, we discover that very negative states of consciousness dominate other states in the arena of computational efficiency. In this scenario, the abilities useful to survive in the mental economy of the future happen to be those that employ suffering in one way or another. In that case, the evolutionary incentive gradients would lead to terrible places. For example, future minds might end up employing massive amounts of suffering to “run our servers”, so to speak. Plus, these minds would have no choice because if they don’t then they would be taken over by other minds that do, i.e. this is a race to the bottom. Scenarios like this have been considered before (1, 2, 3), and we should not ignore their warning signs.

Of course this can only happen if there are indeed computational benefits to using consciousness for information processing tasks to begin with. At Qualia Computing we generally assume that the unity of consciousness confers unique computational benefits. Hence, I would expect any outright computational use of states of consciousness is likely to involve a lot of phenomenal binding. Hence, at the evolutionary limit, conscious super-computers would probably be super-sentient. That said, the optimal hedonic tone of the minds with the highest computational efficiency is less certain. This complex matter will be dealt with elsewhere.

Concluding Discussion

Reverse Engineering Systems

A lot of people would probably agree that a video of Elon Musk high on THC may have substantially higher value than many videos of him sober. A lot of this value comes from the information gained about him by having a completely new point of view (or projection) of his mind. Reverse-engineering systems involves doing things to them to change the way they operate in order to try to reconstruct how they are put together. The same is true for the mind and the computational benefits of consciousness more broadly.

The Cost of a State of Consciousness

Another important consideration would be cost assignment for different states of consciousness. I imagine that the going rates for participants on various states would highly depend on the kind of application and profitability of these states. The price would reach a stable point that balances the usability of a state of consciousness for various tasks (demand) and its overall supply.

For problem solving in some specialized applications, for example, I could imagine “mathematician on DMT” to be a high-end sort of state of consciousness priced very highly. For example, foundational consciousness research and phenomenological studies might find such participants to be extremely valuable, as they might be helpful analyzing novel mathematical ideas and using their mathematical expertise to describe the structure of such experiences (cf. Hyperbolic Geometry of DMT Experiences).

Unfortunately, if the demand for high-end rational psychonauts never truly picks up, one might expect that people who could become professional rational psychonauts will instead work for Google or Facebook or some other high-paying company. More so, due to Lemon Markets people who do insist on hiring rational psychonauts will most likely be disappointed. Sasha Shulgin and his successors will probably only participate in such markets if the rewards are high enough to justify using their precious time on novel alien states of consciousness to do your experiment rather than theirs.

In the ideal case this type of platform might function as a spring-board to generate a critical mass of active rational psychonauts who could do each other’s experiments and replicate the results of underground researchers.

Quality Metrics

Accurately matching the task with the state of consciousness would be critical. For example, you might not necessarily want someone who is high on a large dose of acid to take a look at your tax returns*. Perhaps for mundane tasks one would want people who are on states of optimal arousal (e.g. modafinil). As mentioned earlier, a system that identifies the most promising states of consciousness for your task would be a key feature of the platform.

If we draw inspiration from the original service, we could try to make an analogous system to “Mechanical Turk Masters“. Here the service charges a higher price for requesting people who have been vetted as workers who produce high quality output. To be a Master one needs to have a high task-approval rating and have completed an absurd number of them. Perhaps top score boards and public requester prices for best work would go a long way in keeping the quality of psychedelic workers at a high level.

In practice, given the population base of people who would use this service, I would predict that to a large extent the most successful tasks in terms of engagement from the user-base will be those that have nerd-sniping qualities.** That is, make tasks that are especially fun to complete on psychedelics (and other altered states) and you would most likely get a lot of high quality work. In turn, this platform would generate the best outcomes when the tasks submitted are both fun and useful (hence benefiting both workers and requesters alike).

Keeping Consciousness Useful

Finally, we think that this kind of platform would have a lot of long-term positive externalities. In particular, making a wider range of states of consciousness economically useful goes in the general direction of keeping consciousness relevant in the future. In the absence of selection pressures that make consciousness economically useful (and hence useful to stay alive and reproduce), we can anticipate a possible drift from consciousness being somewhat in control (for now) to a point where only pure replicators matter.


Bonus content

If you are concerned with social power in a post-apocalyptic landscape, it is important that you figure out a way to induce psychedelic experiences in such a way that they cannot easily be used as weapons. E.g. it would be key to only have physiologically safe (e.g. not MDMA) and low-potency (e.g. not LSD) materials in a Mad Max scenario. For the love of God, please avoid stockpiling compounds that are both potent and physiologically dangerous (e.g. NBOMes) in your nuclear bunker! Perhaps high-potency materials could still work out if they are blended in hard-to-separate ways with fillers, but why risk it? I assume that becoming a cult leader would not be very hard if one were the only person who can procure reliable mystical experiences for people living in most post-apocalyptic scenarios. For best results make sure that the cause of the post-apocalyptic state of the world is a mystery to its inhabitants, such as in the documentary Gurren Lagann, and the historical monographs written by Philip K. Dick.


*With notable exceptions. For example, some regular cannabis users do seem to concentrate better while on manageable amounts of THC, and if the best tax attorney in your vicinity willing to do your taxes is in this predicament, I’d suggest you don’t worry too much about her highness.

**If I were a philosopher of science I would try to contribute a theory for scientific development based on nerd-sniping. Basically, how science develops is by the dynamic way in which scientists at all points are following the nerd-sniping gradient. Scientists are typically people who have their curiosity lever all the way to the top. It’s not so much that they choose their topics strategically or at random. It’s not so much a decision as it is a compulsion. Hence, the sociological implementation of science involves a collective gradient ascent towards whatever is nerd-sniping given the current knowledge. In turn, the generated knowledge from the intense focus on some area modifies what is known and changes the nerd-sniping landscape, and science moves on to other topics.

Estimated Cost of the DMT Machine Elves Prime Factorization Experiment

“Okay,” I said. “Fine. Let me tell you where I’m coming from. I was reading Scott McGreal’s blog, which has some good articles about so-called DMT entities, and mentions how they seem so real that users of the drug insist they’ve made contact with actual superhuman beings and not just psychedelic hallucinations. You know, the usual Terence McKenna stuff. But in one of them he mentions a paper by Marko Rodriguez called A Methodology For Studying Various Interpretations of the N,N-dimethyltryptamine-Induced Alternate Reality, which suggested among other things that you could prove DMT entities were real by taking the drug and then asking the entities you meet to factor large numbers which you were sure you couldn’t factor yourself. So to that end, could you do me a big favor and tell me the factors of 1,522,605,027, 922,533,360, 535,618,378, 132,637,429, 718,068,114, 961,380,688, 657,908,494, 580,122,963, 258,952,897, 654,000,350, 692,006,139?

Universal Love, Said the Cactus Person, by Scott Alexander

In the comments…

gwern says:
I was a little curious about how such a prime experiment would go and how much it would cost. It looks like one could probably run an experiment with a somewhat OK chance at success for under $1k.
We need to estimate the costs and probabilities of memorizing a suitable composite number, buying DMT, using DMT and getting the requisite machine-elf experience (far from guaranteed), being able to execute a preplanned action like asking about a prime, and remembering the answer.

1. The smallest RSA number not yet factored is 220 digits. The RSA numbers themselves are useless for this experiment because if one did get the right factors, because it’s so extraordinarily unlikely for machine-elves to really be an independent reality, a positive result would only prove that someone had stolen the RSA answers or hacked a computer or something along the lines. RSA-768 was factored in 2009 using ~2000 CPU-years, so we need a number much larger; since Google has several million CPUs we might want something substantially larger, at least 800 digits. We know from mnemonists that numbers that large can be routinely memorized, and an 800 digit decimal can be memorized in an hour. Chao Lu memorized 67k digits of Pi in 1 year. So the actual memorization time is not significant. How much training does it take to memorize 800 digits? I remember a famous example in WM research of how WM training does not necessarily transfer to anything, of a student taught to memorize digits, Ericsson & Chase’s whose digit span went from ~7 to ~80 after 230 hours of training; digit span is much more demanding than a one-off memorization. This does something similar using more like 80 hours of training. Foer’s _Moonwalking With Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything_ doesn’t cover much more than a year or two and fairly undemanding training regimen, and he performed well. So I’m going to guess that to memorize a number which would be truly impressive evidence (and not simply evidence for a prank or misdeeds by a hobbyist, RSA employee, Google, or the NSA) would require ~30h of practice.
2. some browsing of the DMT category on the current leading black-market suggests that 1g of DMT from a reputable seller costs ฿0.56 or ~$130. The linked paper says smoking DMT for a full trip requires 50mg/0.05g so our $130 buys ~19 doses.
3. The linked paper says that 20% of Strassman’s injected-DMT trips give a machine-elf experience; hence the 1g will give an average of ~3-4 machine-elfs and 19 trips almost guarantees at least 1 machine-elf assuming 20% success-rate (1-(1-0.2)^19 = 98%). Since the 20% figure comes from injected DMT and DMT of a controlled high quality, probably this is optimistic for anyone trying out smoking DMT at home, but let’s roll with it.
4. in a machine-elf experience, how often could we be lucid enough to wake up and ask the factoring question? No one’s mentioned trying so there’s no hard data, but we can borrow from a similar set of experiments in verifying altered states of consciousness, Laberge’s lucid dreaming experiments in which subjects had to exert control to wiggle their eyes in a fixed pattern. This study gives several flows from # of nights to # of verifications, which all are roughly 1/3 – 1/4; so given our estimated 3-4 machine-elfs, we might be able to ask 1 time. If the machine-elves are guaranteed to reply correctly, then that’s all we need.
5. at 30 hours of mnemonic labor valued at minimum wage of $8 and $130 for 19 doses, that gives us an estimate of $370 in costs to ask an average of once; if we amortize the memorization costs some more by buying 2g, then we instead spend $250 per factoring request for 2 tries; and so on down to a minimum cost of (130/19)*5 = $34 per factoring request. To get n=10 requests, we’d need to spend a cool ((30*8) + 10*130)=$1540.
6. power analysis for a question like this is tricky, since we only need one response with the *right* factors; probably what will happen is that the machine-elfs will not answer or any answer will be ‘forgotten’. You can estimate other stuff like how likely the elves are to respond given 10 questions and 0 responses (flat prior’s 95% CI: 0-28%), or apply decision-theory to decide when to stop trying (tricky, since any reasonable estimate of the probability of machine-elves will tell you that at $35 a shot, you shouldn’t be trying at all).

Hence, you could get a few attempts at somewhere under $1k, but exactly how much depends sensitively on what fraction of trips you get elves and how often you manage to ask them; the DMT itself doesn’t cost *that* much per dose (like ~$7) but it’s the all the trips where you don’t get elves or you get elves but are too ecstatic to ask them anything which really kill you and drive up the price to $34-$250 per factoring request. Also, there’s a lot of uncertainty in all these estimates (who knows how much any of the quoted rates differ from person to person?).

I thought this might be a fun self-experiment to do, but looking at the numbers and the cost, it seems pretty discouraging.


Related Empirical Paradigms for Psychedelic Research:

  1. LSD and Quantum Measurement (an experiment that was designed, coded up, and conducted to evaluate whether one can experience multiple Everett branches at once while on LSD).
  2. How to Secretly Communicate with People on LSD (a method called Psychedelic Cryptography which uses the slower qualia decay factor induced by psychedelics, aka. “tracers”, in order to encode information in gifs that you can only decode if you are sufficiently high on a psychedelic).
  3. Psychophysics for Psychedelic Research: Textures (an experimental method developed by Benjamin Bala based on the textural mongrel paradigm proposed by Eero Simoncelli and extended to provide insights into psychedelic visual perception. See: analysis).

Thoughts on the ‘Is-Ought Problem’ from a Qualia Realist Point of View

tl;dr If we construct a theory of meaning grounded in qualia and felt-sense, it is possible to congruently arrive at “should” statements on the basis of reason and “is” claims. Meaning grounded in qualia allows us to import the pleasure-pain axis and its phenomenal character to the same plane of discussion as factual and structural observations.

Introduction

The Is-Ought problem (also called “Hume’s guillotine”) is a classical philosophical conundrum. On the one hand people feel that our ethical obligations (at least the uncontroversial ones like “do not torture anyone for no reason”) are facts about reality in some important sense, but on the other hand, rigorously deriving such “moral facts” from facts about the universe appears to be a category error. Is there any physical fact that truly compels us to act in one way or another?

A friend recently asked about my thoughts on this question and I took the time to express them to the best of my knowledge.

Takeaways

I provide seven points of discussion that together can be used to make the case that “ought” judgements often, though not always, are on the same ontological footing as “is” claims. Namely, that they are references to the structure and quality of experience, whose ultimate nature is self-intimating (i.e. it reveals itself) and hence inaccessible to those who lack the physiological apparatus to instantiate it. In turn, we could say that within communities of beings who share the same self-intimating qualities of experience, the is/ought divide may not be completely unbridgeable.


Summaries of Question and Response

Summary of the question:

How does a “should” emerge at all? How can reason and/or principles and/or logic compel us to follow some moral code?

Summary of the response:

  1. If “ought” statements are to be part of our worldview, then they must refer to decisions about experiences: what kinds of experiences are better/worse, what experiences should or should not exist, etc.
  2. A shared sense of personal identity (e.g. Open Individualism – which posits that “we are all one consciousness”) allows us to make parallels between the quality of our experience and the experience of others. Hence if one grounds “oughts” on the self-intimating quality of one’s suffering, then we can also extrapolate that such “oughts” must exist in the experience of other sentient beings and that they are no less real “over there” simply because a different brain is generating them (general relativity shows that every “here and now” is equally real).
  3. Reduction cuts both ways: if the “fire in the equations of physics” can feel a certain way (e.g. bliss/pain) then objective causal descriptions of reality (about e.g. brain states) are implicitly referring to precisely that which has an “ought” quality. Thus physics may be inextricably connected with moral “oughts”.
  4. If one loses sight of the fact that one’s experience is the ultimate referent for meaning, it is possible to end up in nihilistic accounts of meaning (e.g. such as Quine’s Indeterminacy of translation and Dennett’s inclusion of qualia within that framework). But if one grounds meaning in qualia, then suddenly both causality and value are on the same ontological footing (cf. Valence Realism).
  5. To see clearly the nature of value it is best to examine it at its extremes (such as MDMA bliss vs. the pain of kidney stones). Having such experiences illuminates the “ought” aspect of consciousness, in contrast to the typical quasi-anhedonic “normal everyday states of consciousness” that most people (and philosophers!) tend to reason from. It would be interesting to see philosophers discuss e.g. the Is-Ought problem while on MDMA.
  6. Claims that “pleasure and pain, value and disvalue, good and bad, etc.” are an illusion by long-term meditators based on the experience of “dissolving value” in meditative states are no more valid than claims that pain is an illusion by someone doped on morphine. In brief: such claims are made in a state of consciousness that has lost touch with the actual quality of experience that gives (dis)value to consciousness.
  7. Admittedly the idea that one state of consciousness can even refer to (let alone make value judgements about) other states of consciousness is very problematic. In what sense does “reference” even make sense? Every moment of experience only has access to its own content. We posit that this problem is not ultimately unsolvable, and that human concepts are currently mere prototypes of a much better future set of varieties of consciousness optimized for truth-finding. As a thought experiment to illustrate this possible future, consider a full-spectrum superintelligence capable of instantiating arbitrary modes of experience and impartially comparing them side by side in order to build a total order of consciousness.

Full Question and Response

Question:

I realized I don’t share some fundamental assumptions that seemed common amongst the people here [referring to the Qualia Research Institute and friends].

The most basic way I know how to phrase it, is the notion that there’s some appeal to reason and/or principles and/or logic that compels us to follow some type of moral code.

A (possibly straw-man) instance is the notion I associate with effective altruism, namely, that one should choose a career based on its calculable contribution to human welfare. The assumption is that human welfare is what we “should” care about. Why should we? What’s compelling about trying to reconfigure ourselves from whatever we value at the moment to replacing that thing with human welfare (or anything else)? What makes us think we can even truly succeed in reconfiguring ourselves like this? The obvious pitfall seems to be we create some image of “goodness” that we try to live up to without ever being honest with ourselves and owning our authentic desires. IMO this issue is rampant in mainstream Christianity.

More generally, I don’t understand how a “should” emerges within moral philosophy at all. I understand how starting with a want, say happiness, and noting a general tendency, such as I become happy when I help others, that one could deduce that helping others often is likely to result in a happy life. I might even say “I should help others” to myself, knowing it’s a strategy to get what I want. That’s not the type of “should” I’m talking about. What I’m talking about is “should” at the most basic level of one’s value structure. I don’t understand how any amount of reasoning could tell us what our most basic values and desires “should” be.

I would like to read something rigorous on this issue. I appreciate any references, as well as any elucidating replies.

Response:

This is a very important topic. I think it is great that you raise this question, as it stands at the core of many debates and arguments about ethics and morality. I think that one can indeed make a really strong case for the view that “ought” is simply never logically implied by any accurate and objective description of the world (the famous is/ought Humean guillotine). I understand that an objective assessment of all that is will usually be cast as a network of causal and structural relationships. By starting out with a network of causal and structural relationships and using logical inferences to arrive at further high-level facts, one is ultimately bound to arrive at conclusions that themselves are just structural and causal relationships. So where does the “ought” fit in here? Is it really just a manner of speaking? A linguistic spandrel that emerges from evolutionary history? It could really seem like it, and I admit that I do not have a silver bullet argument against this view.

However, I do think that eventually we will arrive at a post-Galilean understanding of consciousness, and that this understanding will itself allow us to point out exactly where- if at all- ethical imperatives are located and how they emerge. For now all I have is a series of observations that I hope can help you develop an intuition for how we are thinking about it, and why our take is original and novel (and not simply a rehashing of previous arguments or appeals to nature/intuition/guilt).

So without further ado I would like to lay out the following points on the table:

  1. I am of the mind that if any kind of “ought” is present in reality it will involve decision-making about the quality of consciousness of subjects of experience. I do not think that it makes sense to talk about an ethical imperative that has anything to do with non-experiential properties of the universe precisely because there would be no one affected by it. If there is an argument for caring about things that have no impact on any state of consciousness, I have yet to encounter it. So I will assume that the question refers to whether certain states of consciousness ought to or ought not to exist (and how to make trade offs between them).
  2. I also think that personal identity is key for this discussion, but why this is the case will make sense in a moment. The short answer is that conscious value is self-intimating/self-revealing, and in order to pass judgement on something that you yourself (as a narrative being) will not get to experience you need some confidence (or reasonable cause) to believe that the same self-intimating quality of experience is present in other narrative orbits that will not interact with you. For the same reasons as (1) above, it makes no sense to care about philosophical zombies (no matter how much they scream at you), but the same is the case for “conscious value p. zombies” (where maybe they experience color qualia but do not experience hedonic tone i.e. they can’t suffer).
  3. A very important concept that comes up again and again in our research is the notion that “reduction cuts both ways”. We take dual aspect monism seriously, and in this view we would consider the mathematical description of an experience and its qualia two sides of the same coin. Now, many people come here and say “the moment you reduce an experience of bliss to a mathematical equation you have removed any fuzzy morality from it and arrived at a purely objective and factual account which does not support an ‘ought ontology'”. But doing this mental move requires you to take the mathematical account as a superior ontology to that of the self-intimating quality of experience. In our view, these are two sides of the same coin. If mystical experiences are just a bunch of chemicals, then a bunch of chemicals can also be a mystical experience. To reiterate: reduction cuts both ways, and this happens with the value of experience to the same extent as it happens with the qualia of e.g. red or cinnamon.
  4. Mike Johnson tends to bring up Wittgenstein and Quine to the “Is-Ought” problem because they are famous for ‘reducing language and meaning’ to games and networks of relationships. But here you should realize that you can apply the concept developed in (3) above just as well to this matter. In our view, a view of language that has “words and objects” at its foundation is not a complete ontology, and nor is one that merely introduces language games to dissolve the mystery of meaning. What’s missing here is “felt sense” – the raw way in which concepts feel and operate on each other whether or not they are verbalized. It is my view that here phenomenal binding becomes critical because a felt sense that corresponds to a word, concept, referent, etc. in itself encapsulates a large amount of information simultaneously, and contains many invariants across a set of possible mental transformations that define what it is and what it is not. More so, felt senses are computationally powerful (rather than merely epiphenomenal). Consider Daniel Tammet‘s mathematical feats achieved by experiencing numbers in complex synesthetic ways that interact with each other in ways that are isomorphic to multiplication, factorization, etc. More so, he does this at competitive speeds. Language, in a sense, could be thought of as the surface of felt sense. Daniel Dennett famously argued that you can “Quine Qualia” (meaning that you can explain it away with a groundless network of relationships and referents). We, on the opposite extreme, would bite the bullet of meaning and say that meaning itself is grounded in felt-sense and qualia. Thus, colors, aromas, emotions, and thoughts, rather than being ultimately semantically groundless as Dennett would have it, turn out to be the very foundation of meaning.
  5. In light of the above, let’s consider some experiences that embody the strongest degree of the felt sense of “ought to be” and “ought not to be” that we know of. On the negative side, we have things like cluster headaches and kidney stones. On the positive side we have things like Samadhi, MDMA, and 5-MEO-DMT states of consciousness. I am personally more certain that the “ought not to be” aspect of experience is more real than the “ought to be” aspect of it, which is why I have a tendency (though no strong commitment) towards negative utilitarianism. When you touch a hot stove you get this involuntary reaction and associated valence qualia of “reality needs you to recoil from this”, and in such cases one has degrees of freedom into which to back off. But when experiencing cluster headaches and kidney stones, this sensation- that self-intimating felt-sense of ‘this ought not to be’- is omnidirectional. The experience is one in which one feels like every direction is negative, and in turn, at its extremes, one feels spiritually violated (“a major ethical emergency” is how a sufferer of cluster headaches recently described it to me). This brings me to…
  6. The apparent illusory nature of value in light of meditative deconstruction of felt-senses. As you put it elsewhere: “Introspectively – Meditators with deep experience typically report all concepts are delusion. This is realized in a very direct experiential way.” Here I am ambivalent, though my default response is to make sense of the meditation-induced feeling that “value is illusory” as itself an operation on one’s conscious topology that makes the value quality of experience get diminished or plugged out. Meditation masters will say things like “if you observe the pain very carefully, if you slice it into 30 tiny fragments per second, you will realize that the suffering you experience from it is an illusory construction”. And this kind of language itself is, IMO, liable to give off the illusion that the pain was illusory to begin with. But here I disagree. We don’t say that people who take a strong opioid to reduce acute pain are “gaining insight into the fundamental nature of pain” and that’s “why they stop experiencing it”. Rather, we understand that the strong opioid changes the neurological conditions in such a way that the quality of the pain itself is modified, which results in a duller, “asymbolic“, non-propagating, well-confined discomfort. In other words, strong opioids reduce the value-quality of pain by locally changing the nature of pain rather than by bringing about a realization of its ultimate nature. The same with meditation. The strongest difference here, I think, would be that opioids are preventing the spatial propagation of pain “symmetry breaking structures” across one’s experience and thus “confine pain to a small spatial location”, whereas meditation does something different that is better described as confining the pain to a small temporal region. This is hard to explain in full, and it will require us to fully formalize how the subjective arrow of time is constructed and how pain qualia can make copies across it. [By noting the pain very quickly one is, I believe, preventing it from building up and then having “secondary pain” which emerges from the cymatic resonance of the various lingering echoes of pain across one’s entire “pseudo-time arrow of experience”.] Sorry if this sounds like word salad, I am happy to unpack these concepts if needed, while also admitting that we are in early stages of the theoretical and empirical development.
  7. Finally, I will concede that the common sense view of “reference” is very deluded on many levels. The very notion that we can refer to an experience with another experience, that we can encode the properties of a different moment of experience in one’s current moment of experience, that we can talk about the “real world” or its “objective ethical values” or “moral duty” is very far from sensical in the final analysis. Reference is very tricky, and I think that a full understanding of consciousness will do some severe violence to our common sense in this area. That, however, is different from the self-disclosing properties of experience such as red qualia and pain qualia. You can do away with all of common sense reference while retaining a grounded understanding that “the constituents of the world are qualia values and their local binding relationships”. In turn, I do think that we can aim to do a decently good job at re-building from the ground up a good approximation of our common sense understanding of the world using “meaning grounded in qualia”, and once we do that we will be in a solid foundation (as opposed to the, admittedly very messy, quasi-delusional character of thoughts as they exist today). Needless to say, this may also need us to change our state of consciousness. “Someday we will have thoughts like sunsets” – David Pearce.

 

David Pearce in SF

David Pearce stayed in SF between the 24th of September and the 4th of October 2018. He departed for the UK a couple days ago. During this time I had the privilege of hanging out with him and helping to organize some of the events he took part in. The presentation he gave was based on his Quora response titled “24 Predictions for the Year 3000” (slides). The picture below was taken yesterday right before his presentation at the Foresight Institute (I believe there was a video taken, so it should be up on Youtube soon).

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@Victoria Manalo Draves Park in SF.


Here are some interesting things he said during his visit that I thought were worth sharing:

If we don’t address the genetic causes of suffering (physical and mental) we will find ourselves in 500 years enjoying material abundance via nanotech, living in a perfect democracy, colonizing space, and still sitting around wondering “Why are we miserable so much of the time? Why can’t we all just get along? Why are we not all happy?”

I wish I could tell you I’ve been busy preparing my own cryptocurrency. “DaveCoin” you see? Unfortunately the domain name davecoin.com is already taken, so all that effort for nothing…

If there were two buttons, one that releases a hedonium shockwave and one that leads to life animated by gradients of bliss and the eradication of suffering, I would press the latter. That said, I wouldn’t be terribly upset if someone presses the former.

People complain that Negative Utilitarians (NU) are dangerous since they prefer non-existence to even a pinprick. But what most don’t realize is that Classical Utilitarians (CU) are no less dangerous to humans. If they were to get their way they’d complain that the matter and energy needed to keep you alive is not a good use of resources relative to the pleasure plasma it could be instead. For some reason the implications of NU are more easily recognizable and talked about than the implications of CU.

If in the year 3000 there is still suffering, that’s not because eliminating it wasn’t possible, but because for whatever reason we chose to preserve it.

Selection pressures make any anti-natalist movement self-limiting, for even the slightest predisposition to not have kids is selected against over time. (*Audience brings up a group-selection argument for why childlessness is adaptive*): Well, group-selection only works in extremely unusual and restricted evolutionary niches. Unless you start using human cloning, we will not be behaving like ants or bees any time soon.

There ought to be a tower in San Francisco called “Institute for Paradise Engineering”!

I feel guilty about talking about my idiosyncratic philosophy of mind so much (i.e. non-materialist physicalism with coherence to bind). On the one hand I think that real theoretical progress can only be done when we all share the same background philosophical assumptions, but on the other hand it distracts from the main message of “Bentham + biotech”. I remain torn by whether to pursue this subject in public.

My philosophy is in agreement with Buddhism (“I Teach Only Suffering and the End of Suffering” – Buddha). If you will, all I’m doing is taking the core message of Buddhism seriously and then figuring out what its realization actually entails (i.e. biotechnology). Alternatively, you can see it as the fulfillment of Biblical prophecy: “The wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat…”. All we are doing is figuring out the implementation details!

Eliminating suffering with modern technology ought to be foot stompingly obvious… but after a while one learns that it’s not wise or productive to stomp on one’s own foot.

“Diogenes’ new tub” (as a concept handle in order to talk about radically new modes of experience with high hedonic tone despite their alien nature).

Although I am not confident we can explain reality, if it is at all possible, I do think we are circling around the correct explanation space (i.e. zero ontology).

If even someone like David Chalmers, who is philosophically literate, insightful, and very bright, had trouble understanding the fact that phenomenal binding is not epiphenomenal, what are the chances that most people will?

I am extremely prude, perhaps the prudest in this room, so forgive my analogy: being animated by gradients of bliss is like the experience of two sensitive lovers making love. If done right, it’s supposed to be pleasant all throughout, but there will still be peaks and troughs.

I do not have a secret agenda here, I promise. I’m a secular rationalist, and I don’t believe in any kind of spirituality. Yet one can imagine future generations identifying, isolating, expressing, and amplifying the molecular substrates of spiritual experiences. Thus perhaps some people might want to add “super-spirituality” to the “3 Ss of transhumanism” (i.e. super-intelligence, super-longevity, and super-happiness).

Although I would like to have a government that doesn’t tell me what I can and can’t take to enrich the quality of my life, I must say that if I had a teenager I would not want them to experiment with anything weird like psychedelics, and I certainly wouldn’t want them to hang out with people who are likely to give them such things. Likewise, most people would agree that preventing people from taking antibiotics when they just have a viral cold is important and that regulation is key here. So I wouldn’t say I’m uniformly libertarian about the use of substances. That said, verifiably informed consenting adults above a certain age should be allowed to do what they please with their inner biochemistry.

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David Pearce and three generations of the Stanford Transhumanist Association leadership