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

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

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

Alexander Shulgin in his lab. #1

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

Alexander Shulgin in his lab. #2

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

New neuron types for new neurotypes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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One comment

  1. Robert · October 30

    Amazing content. Thank you for pushing and connecting the limits as always in a fun optimistic way.

    Rainbow Zero State.

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