David Pearce on Longtermism

In answer to the Quora question “What does David Pearce think of Longtermism in the Effective Altruist movement?”


Future generations matter, but they can’t vote, they can’t buy things, they can’t stand up for their interests.”
(80,000 Hours)

In its short history, the Effective Altruist (EA) movement has passed from focus on maximally effective ways to tackle (1) existing sources of human and nonhuman animal suffering (“Giving What We Can”, etc) to (2) AI safety (the spectre of an imminent machine “Intelligence Explosion” that might turn us into the equivalent of paperclips) to (3) Longtermism: the key measure of the (dis)value of our actions today isn’t their effect on existing sentient beings, but rather how our actions affect the very long-run future. According to Longtermism, first-wave EA was myopic. Intelligent moral agents shouldn’t be unduly influenced by emotional salience either in space or in time. On various plausible assumptions, there will be vastly more sentient beings in the far future. Granted mastery of the pleasure-pain axis, their lives – or at least their potential lives – will be overwhelmingly if not exclusively positive. Failure to create such astronomical amounts of positive value would be an ethical catastrophe. So defeating existential risk trumps all else. Contemporary humanity is living at the “hinge of history”; human extinction or civilisational collapse would be the ultimate evil. Therefore, today’s effective altruists should aspire to act impartially to safeguard the potential interests of far future generations, even at the expense of our own.

To be fair, this potted history of effective altruism is simplistic. Some first-wave EAs are unconvinced by the Longtermist turn. Yet on a Longtermist analysis, what should today’s aspiring EAs specifically do? The EA policy ramifications of this proposed prioritization are murky. For an introduction to Longtermism, see 80,000 Hours’ Benjamin Todd’s “Future Generations and their Moral Significance” and Dylan Balfour’s “Longtermism: How Much Should We Care About the Far Future?” For a defence of “strong” longtermism, see William MacAskill and Hilary Greaves: “The case for strong longtermism”.

For a more sceptical perspective, see e.g. Vaden Masrani’s “A Case Against Strong Longtermism” or Phil Torres’ polemical “The Dangerous Ideas of ‘Longtermism’ and ‘Existential Risk’”.

My view?
Longtermist – in a sense. Just as science aspires to the view from nowhere, “the point of view of the universe”, aspiring effective altruists should in theory aim to do likewise. An absence of arbitrary spatio-temporal bias is built into a systematising utilitarian ethic – conceived as a theory of (dis)value. For sure, speculating about life even in the Year 3000 feels faintly absurd, let alone the far future. Yet I believe we can map out an ethical blueprint to safeguard the long-term future of sentience. Whether one is a secular Buddhist or a classical utilitarian, germline engineering can make life in our entire forward light-cone inherently blissful. Crudely, genes, not organisms, have evolutionary longevity, i.e. replicators rather than their vehicles. Genome-editing promises a biohappiness revolution, a momentous discontinuity in the evolution of life. The biosphere can be reprogrammed: future life can be animated entirely by information-sensitive gradients of well-being. Therefore both pain-eradication and hedonic recalibration via germline engineering are longtermist – indeed ultra-longtermist – policy options: proponents and bioconservative critics agree on the fateful nature of our choices. If editing our genetic source code is done wisely, then a transhumanist civilisation of superintelligence, superlongevity and superhappiness can underpin the well-being of all sentience indefinitely.
So let’s get it right.

However, some aspects of EA Longtermism in its current guise do concern me.

(1)
 Science does not understand reality. From cosmology to the foundations of quantum mechanics to digital (in)sentience to the Hard Problem of consciousness to the binding problem to normative ethics and meta-ethics, the smartest minds of our civilisation disagree. The conceptual framework of transhumans and posthumans may be unimaginably alien to archaic humans – although in the absence of (at least one end of) a pleasure-pain axis, posthuman life could scarcely matter. Either way, it would be a terrible irony if Longtermists were to influence humanity to make big sacrifices, or just neglect contemporary evils, for a pipedream. After all, Longtermism has unhappy historical precedents. Consider, say, fifteenth-century Spain and the Holy Inquisition. If Grand Inquisitor Tomás de Torquemada’s moral and metaphysical framework were correct, then neglecting worldly ills in favour of saving souls from an eternity of torment in Hell – and from missing out on eternal bliss in Heaven – by inflicting intense short-term suffering would be defensible, maybe even ethically mandatory. Planning for all eternity is as longtermist as it gets. Yet such anguish was all for nothing: scientific rationalists recognise that religious belief in Heaven and Hell rests on spurious metaphysics. Analogously, influential AI researchers, transhumanists and effective altruists today assume that digital computers will somehow “wake up” and support unified subjects of experience, digital “mind uploads” and eventually quintillions of blissful digital supercivilisations. However, IMO the metaphysics of digital sentience is no better supported than an ontology of immortal souls. Conscious Turing machines are a fantasy. If physicalism is true, i.e. no spooky “strong” emergence, then the number of digital supercivilisations with blissful sentient beings will be zero.

Disbelief in the digital sentience assumed by a lot of Longtermist literature doesn’t reflect an arbitrary substrate-chauvinism. If physicalism is true, then a classical Turing machine that’s physically constituted from carbon rather than silicon couldn’t support unified subjects of experience either, regardless of its speed of execution or the complexity of its code. Programmable classical computers and classically parallel connectionist systems promise “narrow” superintelligence, but they can’t solve the phenomenal binding problem. Phenomenal binding is non-classical and non-algorithmic. Even if consciousness is fundamental to the world, as constitutive panpsychists propose, digital computers are zombies – technically, microexperiential zombies – that are no more sentient than a toaster. So it would be tragic if contemporary humans made sacrifices for a future digital paradise that never comes to pass. By the same token, it would be tragic if Longtermist EAs neglected existing evils in the notional interests of a transgalactic civilisation that never materializes because other solar systems are too distant for sentient biological interstellar travel.

Of course, any extended parallel between religious ideologues and ill-judged Longtermism would be unfair. Longtermist EAs have no intention of tormenting anyone to create a digital paradise or colonize the Virgo Supercluster any more than to save their souls. Rather, I think the risk of some versions of Longtermism is distraction: neglect of the interests of real suffering beings and their offspring on Earth today. From ending the horrors of factory farming and wild-animal suffering to genetically phasing out the biology of pain and depression, there are urgent evils that EAs need to tackle now. With effort, imagination and resources, the biology of mental and physical pain can be banished not just in the long-term, but for ever. Compare getting rid of smallpox. For sure, vegan lobbying to end the obscene cruelties of animal agriculture might not sound Longtermist. But humanity isn’t going to reprogram genomes and engineer compassionate ecosystems while we are still systematically harming sentient beings in factory-farms and slaughterhouses. Veganizing the biosphere and a relatively near-term focus on creating a civilisation with a genetically-encoded hedonic range of, say, +10 to +20 doesn’t neglect the interests of a vaster far-future civilisation with a hedonic range of, say, +90 to +100. Rather, engineering the hedonic foothills of post-Darwinian life is a precondition for future glories. Moreover, talk of far-future “generations” may mislead. This millennium, our Darwinian biology of aging is likely to vanish into evolutionary history – and with it, the nature of procreative freedom, sexual reproduction and generational turnover as we understand these concepts today. Indeed, transhumanist focus on defeating the biology of aging – with stopgap cryonics and cryothanasia as a fallback option – will promote long-term thinking if not Longtermism; contemporary humans will care much more about safeguarding the far future if they think they might be around to enjoy it.

(2) Longtermism” means something different within the conceptual scheme of classical and negative utilitarianism. The policy prescriptions of pleasure-maximisers and pain-minimisers may vary accordingly. Likewise with long-term planning in general: background assumptions differ. Irrespective of timescales, if you believe that our overriding moral obligation is to mitigate, minimise and prevent suffering – crudely, LT(NU) – then you will have a different metric of (dis)value than if you give equal moral weight to maximising pleasure – crudely, LT(CU). Effective altruist discussion of Longtermism needs to spell out these differing ethical frameworks – regardless how self-evident such core assumptions may seem to their respective protagonists. For instance, within some neo-Buddhist LT(NU) ethical frameworks, engineering a vacuum phase transition painlessly to end suffering with a “nirvana shockwave” can be conceived as Longtermist (“I teach one thing and one thing only…suffering and the end of suffering” – Gautama Buddha, attrib.) no less than LT(CU) planning for zillions of Omelas. Alternatively, some NUs can (and do!) favour engineering a world of superhuman bliss, just as other things being equal, CUs can (and do) favour the abolition of suffering. But NUs will always “walk away from Omelas”, i.e. avoid pleasure obtained at anyone else’s expense, whereas CUs will permit or inflict suffering – even astronomical amounts of suffering – if the payoff is sufficiently huge. Also, the CU-versus-NU dichotomy I’ve drawn here is an oversimplification. Many passionate life-affirmers are not classical utilitarians. Many suffering-focused ethicists are not negative utilitarians. However, I am a negative utilitarian – a negative utilitarian who favours practical policy prescriptions promoting a world based entirely on gradients of superhuman bliss. So my conception of Longtermism and long-term planning varies accordingly.

Why NU? Doesn’t a NU ethic have disturbingly counterintuitive implications? Forgive me for here just hotlinking why I am a negative utilitarian. I want to add that if you even glimpsed how atrocious suffering can be, then you too would destroy yourself and the world to end it – permanently. And in so doing, you wouldn’t be guilty of somehow overestimating the ghastliness of intense suffering; I’m not going to link specific examples, though perhaps I should do so if anyone here disagrees. Modern physics tells us that reality is a seamless whole: in my view, the universal wavefunction is inconceivably evil. Hundreds of thousands of people do take the path of self-deliverance each year. Millions more try and fail. If humanity opts to conserve the biology of suffering, then with advanced technology maybe some of their pain-ridden twenty-second century counterparts will take the rest of their world down too. And it’s not just suicidal depressives who want to end their nightmarish existence. Insofar as twentieth-first century humanity really stands on the edge of a Precipice, I know morally serious agents willing to administer a vigorous shove.

Most classical utilitarians are unmoved by such pleas to prioritise ending suffering. Life is a marvellous gift to be perpetuated at any price. CUs respond that if you understood how inexpressibly wonderful pleasure could be, then you’d endure – and inflict – fiendish torments to access the sublime (“I would give my whole life for this one instant“, said Prince Myshkin, protagonist of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s 1869 novel “The Idiot”; Dostoevsky had ecstatic seizures.) A similar effect can be induced by speedballing or mainlining heroin (“it’s like kissing God” – Lenny Bruce). Therefore, CUs and NUs have different conceptions of information hazards – and their suppression. EA funders have different conceptions of info-hazards too, although CU backers are immensely wealthier. Sadly, Phil Torres is correct to speak of EAs who have been ”intimidated, silenced, or ‘canceled.‘” But rather than reflecting the moral turpitude of the cancellers or their sponsors, or even the corrupting influence of power and money, such cancellation is reflective of their differing ethical frameworks.
That said, publicity and suppression alike can be morally hazardous.

So what is the best way forward for the effective altruist movement?
I’m not sure. Just as the transhumanist movement has mutated over the past quarter-century, likewise the overlapping effective altruist movement is rapidly changing with the ascendancy of LT(CU). Funding and social-primate power-dynamics play a big role too. But traditional fault-lines aren’t going away. Can the gulf between suffering-focused ethicists and classical utilitarians be bridged in the realm of concrete policy?

Well, on an (very) optimistic note, I wonder if both longtermist and near-termist effective altruists who are NUs and CUs could unite on a “traditional” EA agenda of effectively tackling existing sources of suffering. My reasoning is as follows. Combining socio-economic reform, poverty-reduction, effective giving and so forth with a biological-genetic strategy of germline engineering melds short-, medium- and long-term EA. This concordance is highly suspect – I don’t trust my judgement or motivations here. Yet if, counterfactually, my primary concern were existential risk (“x-risk”) rather [something worse] and suffering-reduction, then reducing existing sources of suffering would still loom large, if not foremost. For one of the most effective ways to reduce x-risk will be to phase out the biology of involuntary suffering and turn everybody into fanatical life-lovers. In a world based entirely on gradients of intelligent well-being, NU and its offshoots could be turned into an affective psychosis of a bygone era – unthinkable pathologies. What’s more, archaic humans who might potentially destroy the world aren’t just depressive NUs, “strong” antinatalistsefilists and Benatarians (etc) – most of whom are marginal figures far removed from the levers of power. From Cold War warriors (cf. “Better Dead Than Red!”) to defeated despots (cf. Hitler’s March 1945 “Nero Decree” which called for the systematic destruction of Germany) many powerful and competitive non-depressive people have a conditionally-activated predisposition to want to bring the world down with them if they fail. Such historical examples could be multiplied; humans now have weapons of mass-destruction to express their apocalyptic impulses. Crudely, uncontrollable suffering is bound up with nihilism, just as happiness is bound up with life-affirmation. X-risk worriers and CU Longtermists should take the biology of suffering very seriously.

What’s more, the organisational vehicle to deliver a stunningly life-affirming vision of global happiness already exists. In its founding constitution, the World Health Organization defines health as complete well-being (“Health is a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being”). The ambition of such a commitment is jaw-dropping. Can the WHO be effectively lobbied by EAs to live up its obligations? I don’t think transhumanists and EAs should be quite so ambitious as the WHO in our conception of health: conserving information-sensitivity is vital. We should aim merely for an architecture of mind based entirely on gradients of well-being. Complete well-being can wait. But if humanity embraces genome reform, then we can come arbitrarily close to the WHO vision of universal well-being via germline editing under a banner of good health for all. Indeed, universal health as defined by the WHO is possible only via genetic engineering. Genome reform is the only longterm(ist) solution to the problem of suffering – short of retiring biological life altogether. Further, the elegance of genetically recalibrating the hedonic treadmill is that hedonic recalibration can potentially be value- and preference-conserving – a critical consideration in winning popular consent. A global health strategy of raising pain-thresholds, hedonic range and hedonic set-points world-wide doesn’t involve adjudicating between logically irreconcilable values and preferences. Recalibration of the hedonic treadmill – as distinct from uniform happiness-maximization or ending suffering via world-annihilation – reflects epistemic humility. Hedonic recalibration can minimise suffering and enhance flourishing while simultaneously keeping all our options open for the future – maybe for a period of long reflection, maybe for an odyssey of psychedelic exploration, who knows? If humanity embraces the abolitionist project – presumably under the auspices of the WHO – then a world without experience below hedonic zero will be safer by the lights of NUs and CUs alike.

Superhuman bliss will be the icing on the cake. Future life may be beautiful, even sublime. But in my view, our greatest obligation to future generations is to ensure they aren’t genetically predestined to suffer like us.


Comment: Here is a serious (and long?) reflection on longtermism by David Pearce of HI fame. My view? I am neither a classical utilitarian (CU) nor a negative utilitarian (NU). Instead, I am waiting for a full mathematically formalized theory of valence (the pleasure-pain axis) before I make up my mind. Indeed, I’m hoping (and to some extent expecting!) that the answer will simply “pop out of the math” (as Michael Johnson likes to say). Then we will probably know. Who knows, perhaps the largest hedonic catastrophes and hedonic glories in the universe might have nothing to do with life.

But, I do also think that the current discourse on longtermism is *overwhelmingly* dominated by CU-style thinking. So this piece is a very important “balancing act”.


Featured image credit: @TilingBot

One for All and All for One

By David Pearce (response to Quora question: “What does David Pearce think of closed, empty, and open individualism?“)


Vedanta teaches that consciousness is singular, all happenings are played out in one universal consciousness and there is no multiplicity of selves.

 

– Erwin Schrödinger, ‘My View of the World’, 1951

Enlightenment came to me suddenly and unexpectedly one afternoon in March [1939] when I was walking up to the school notice board to see whether my name was on the list for tomorrow’s football game. I was not on the list. And in a blinding flash of inner light I saw the answer to both my problems, the problem of war and the problem of injustice. The answer was amazingly simple. I called it Cosmic Unity. Cosmic Unity said: There is only one of us. We are all the same person. I am you and I am Winston Churchill and Hitler and Gandhi and everybody. There is no problem of injustice because your sufferings are also mine. There will be no problem of war as soon as you understand that in killing me you are only killing yourself.

 

– Freeman Dyson, ‘Disturbing the Universe’, 1979

Common sense assumes “closed” individualism: we are born, live awhile, and then die. Common sense is wrong about most things, and the assumption of enduring metaphysical egos is true to form. Philosophers sometimes speak of the “indiscernibility of identicals”. If a = b, then everything true of a is true of b. This basic principle of logic is trivially true. Our legal system, economy, politics, academic institutions and personal relationships assume it’s false. Violation of elementary logic is a precondition of everyday social life. It’s hard to imagine any human society that wasn’t founded on such a fiction. The myth of enduring metaphysical egos and “closed” individualism also leads to a justice system based on scapegoating. If we were accurately individuated, then such scapegoating would seem absurd.

Among the world’s major belief-systems, Buddhism comes closest to acknowledging “empty” individualism: enduring egos are a myth (cf. “non-self” or Anatta – Wikipedia). But Buddhism isn’t consistent. All our woes are supposedly the product of bad “karma”, the sum of our actions in this and previous states of existence. Karma as understood by Buddhists isn’t the deterministic cause and effect of classical physics, but rather the contribution of bad intent and bad deeds to bad rebirths.

Among secular philosophers, the best-known defender of (what we would now call) empty individualism minus the metaphysical accretions is often reckoned David Hume. Yet Hume was also a “bundle theorist”, sceptical of the diachronic and the synchronic unity of the self. At any given moment, you aren’t a unified subject (“For my part, when I enter most intimately into what I call myself, I always stumble on some particular perception or other, of heat, cold, light or shade, love or hatred, pain or pleasure. I can never catch myself at any time without a perception, and can never observe anything but the perception” (‘On Personal Identity’, A Treatise of Human Nature, 1739)). So strictly, Hume wasn’t even an empty individualist. Contrast Kant’s “transcendental unity of apperception”, aka the unity of the self.

An advocate of common-sense closed individualism might object that critics are abusing language. Thus “Winston Churchill”, say, is just the name given to an extended person born in 1874 who died in 1965. But adhering to this usage would mean abandoning the concept of agency. When you raise your hand, a temporally extended entity born decades ago doesn’t raise its collective hand. Raising your hand is a specific, spatio-temporally located event. In order to make sense of agency, only a “thin” sense of personal identity can work.

According to “open” individualism, there exists only one numerically identical subject who is everyone at all times. Open individualism was christened by philosopher Daniel Kolak, author of I Am You (2004). The roots of open individualism are ancient, stretching back at least to the Upanishads. The older name is monopsychism. I am Jesus, Moses and Einstein, but also Hitler, Stalin and Genghis Khan. And I am also all pigs, dinosaurs and ants: subjects of experience date to the late Pre-Cambrian, if not earlier.

My view?
My ethical sympathies lie with open individualism; but as it stands, I don’t see how a monopsychist theory of identity can be true. Open or closed individualism might (tenuously) be defensible if we were electrons (cfOne-electron universe – Wikipedia). However, sentient beings are qualitatively and numerically different. For example, the half-life of a typical protein in the brain is an estimated 12–14 days. Identity over time is a genetically adaptive fiction for the fleetingly unified subjects of experience generated by the CNS of animals evolved under pressure of natural selection (cfWas Parfit correct we’re not the same person that we were when we were born?). Even memory is a mode of present experience. Both open and closed individualism are false.

By contrast, the fleeting synchronic unity of the self is real, scientifically unexplained (cfthe binding problem) and genetically adaptive. How a pack of supposedly decohered membrane-bound neurons achieves a classically impossible feat of virtual world-making leads us into deep philosophical waters. But whatever the explanation, I think empty individualism is true. Thus I share with my namesakes – the authors of The Hedonistic Imperative (1995) – the view that we ought to abolish the biology of suffering in favour of genetically-programmed gradients of superhuman bliss. Yet my namesakes elsewhere in tenselessly existing space-time (or Hilbert space) physically differ from the multiple David Pearces (DPs) responding to your question. Using numerical superscripts, e.g. DP^564356, DP^54346 (etc), might be less inappropriate than using a single name. But even “DP” here is misleading because such usage suggests an enduring carrier of identity. No such enduring carrier exists, merely modestly dynamically stable patterns of fundamental quantum fields. Primitive primate minds were not designed to “carve Nature at the joints”.

However, just because a theory is true doesn’t mean humans ought to believe in it. What matters are its ethical consequences. Will the world be a better or worse place if most of us are closed, empty or open individualists? Psychologically, empty individualism is probably the least emotionally satisfying account of personal identity – convenient when informing an importunate debt-collection company they are confusing you with someone else, but otherwise a recipe for fecklessness, irresponsibility and overly-demanding feats of altruism. Humans would be more civilised if most people believed in open individualism. The factory-farmed pig destined to be turned into a bacon sandwich is really youthe conventional distinction between selfishness and altruism collapses. Selfish behaviour is actually self-harming. Not just moral decency, but decision-theoretic rationality dictates choosing a veggie burger rather than a meat burger. Contrast the metaphysical closed individualism assumed by, say, the Less Wrong Decision Theory FAQ. And indeed, all first-person facts, not least the distress of a horribly abused pig, are equally real. None are ontologically privileged. More speculatively, if non-materialist physicalism is true, then fields of subjectivity are what the mathematical formalism of quantum field theory describes. The intrinsic nature argument proposes that only experience is physically real. On this story, the mathematical machinery of modern physics is transposed to an idealist ontology. This conjecture is hard to swallow; I’m agnostic.

Bern, 20. 5. 2003 Copyright Peter Mosimann: Kuppel

One for all, all for one” – unofficial motto of Switzerland.

Speculative solutions to the Hard Problem of consciousness aside, the egocentric delusion of Darwinian life is too strong for most people to embrace open individualism with conviction. Closed individualism is massively fitness-enhancing (cfAre you the center of the universe?). Moreover, temperamentally happy people tend to have a strong sense of enduring personal identity and agency; depressives have a weaker sense of personhood. Most of the worthwhile things in this world (as well as its biggest horrors) are accomplished by narcissistic closed individualists with towering egos. Consider the transhumanist agenda. Working on a cure for the terrible disorder we know as aging might in theory be undertaken by empty individualists or open individualists; but in practice, the impetus for defeating death and aging comes from strong-minded and “selfish” closed individualists who don’t want their enduring metaphysical egos to perish. Likewise, the well-being of all sentience in our forward light-cone – the primary focus of most DPs – will probably be delivered by closed individualists. Benevolent egomaniacs will most likely save the world.

One for all, all for one”, as Alexandre Dumas put it in The Three Musketeers?
Maybe one day: full-spectrum superintelligence won’t have a false theory of personal identity. “Unus pro omnibus, omnes pro uno” is the unofficial motto of Switzerland. It deserves to be the ethos of the universe.

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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

Titans Anonymous

Excerpt from Opening the Heart of Compassion: Transform Suffering Through Buddhist Psychology and Practice by Martin Lowenthal and Lar Short (pgs. 101-107, 112-113)

Beyond Struggle and the Quest for Power: From Titan Realm to Skillful Means

Sure winning isn’t everything. It’s the only thing.” – “Red” Sanders

Fanaticism consists in redoubling your efforts when you have forgotten your aim.” – George Santayana, Life of Reason, Volume 1

Only where love and need are one – And the work is play for mortal stakes – Is the deed ever really done – For Heaven and the future’s sakes.” – Robert Frost, “Two Tramps in Mud Time”

The Titans, dressed in full armor, are beings inflamed by jealousy. They see everything in terms of struggle, feel attacked by the gods, and seek the power to become gods. A giant tree grows on the border between the titan realm and the god realm and bears wish-granting fruit. While the tree grows in the territory of the titans, the fruit falls in the land of the gods. The gods, oblivious of where the blessings come from, eat the fruit and toss the pits over the wall between the two realms, which the titans take to be arrows of assault. They fire arrows and spears toward the gods, which magically turn to blossoms as they descend into their neighbor’s realm.

Avalokiteshvara appears to the titans as the Spiritual Father Amogasiddhi, realizer of the aim and of all-accomplishing wisdom, and as the Divine Mother Tara, the All-Merciful. Amogasiddhi is an impeccably skilled warrior who remains cool and fearless in the face of attacks by all the titans, and who radiates a luminous green light. Unable to defeat him, the titans attempt to learn his skill. As they learn to separate their actions from their emotions, and to develop the qualities of skillful means — stillness and quietude, freshness of being, cool unfettered mind, productive activity, harmony with both comrades and opponents, precision, and selfless volition — their original desire to conquer the kingdom of the gods is undermined by their realization that there is nothing to be gained by the struggle.

Tara, as a “savior”, invites the titans, particularly the female titans, to look into the pool of tears they have shed for their husbands, brothers, and sons lost in battle. They reflect on the suffering that flows from their sense of entitlement, their tendency to be aggressive, and their orientation towards struggle. From this reflection comes a pause, a realization of the dangers of fixation, and a sense of grace and gratitude.


When we live in the titan realm, we want to prove that we deserve to be respected, to be honored, to be loved, to be secure, and to be treated justly. We furiously engage in one activity after another, and often in many activities simultaneously, in an effort to show the world that we are worthy. We strive to avoid being criticized or attacked for some failure. We have an enormous fear of failure because it would leave us vulnerable to those who would destroy us with criticism and shame.

In our struggle to prove our worth and prevent failures, we feel compelled toward greater accomplishments and ever grander goals. If only we could control situations, we could use our intelligence, our energy, and our hard work to make things turn out as they should.

Shame and the Fear of Violation

As titans, we feel shame, envy, and fear of attack. All are rooted in the feeling that our basic integrity — who we are and what we feel — can and will be violated. We fear what others think of us, and we are convinced that they think we are not good enough. Shame is specifically this feeling of being unworthy and inadequate as human beings.

Robert Bly points out that, when our inner sovereignty is not respected by our parents, our teachers, or our society, we not only develop shame, but also become confused about boundaries. When we live as titans, we live with paranoia. We think our boss is setting us up to fail. We are sure that the driver passing us on the right is defeating us in an imaginary race. Or we sense that our lover is holding back from acknowledging our achievements out of jealousy.

As titans we are haunted by the feeling that our friends, bosses, lovers, and powerful people are competing with us. They attack us, seeking to destroy our sense of worth and to steal what we have. Those who have more than we have are shaming us by example; they are revealing our failings. Those who help us must have ulterior motives such as domination and dependency. Those who do not help us are selfish and untrustworthy. Those who desire our friendship want the riches we have to offer. Those who give us gifts expect more in return. We know that we work hard and diligently, yet the fruits of our labor seem to benefit others more than ourselves.

So we frequently feel that we are being cheated, that others are reaping the rewards of our efforts. We become protective of our accomplishments. Rather than sharing the joy of our victories, we erect protective walls to secure our gains. This realm is characterized by the illusion of scarcity, the conviction that there is not enough to go around. Therefore, we must fight not only for our fair share now but also for control, so that we can get ours in the future.

Envy and Entitlement

In this realm we are preoccupied with our desire for what other people have. Our territory is extended beyond simply what we own to include those things that we deserve. If we are unable to obtain what we want, we experience not only frustration, but the pain of undeserved loss. We justify what we want as entitlement, and feel that we have a rightful claim not only to what we have but to what we think we need.

This sense of righteous entitlement shapes our attitude toward others: those who support our activities are friends, and all others are enemies. For the titan, even friends and allies are regarded with suspicion because they might shift positions, becoming enemies. This means that we are continually gauging relative positions, not only with foes, but also with friends. We cannot afford to let our friends become too good, too famous, too successful. Instead of rejoicing in their triumphs we feel alienated from them. We feel envy and shame at not having accomplished all that they have accomplished.

This frame of suspicion and threat means that we mistrust information from other people and cut ourselves off from learning from them. We think that only we can judge what is useful and true. We are preoccupied with the way information is manipulated for competitive ends. We think that one of the few things that we can control is the information that we give other people, and we not only use this to advance our own position but assume that others are doing the same. In fact, we believe that everyone is the same, with the same desires and motives and combative spirit. To us people act out of self-interest and are motivated by the desire for accomplishment, acquisition, status, and power. We distrust protestations to the contrary and demonstrations of alternative motives.

Torn by Desire and Distrust

We are torn between our desire for approval and our distrust of others and their motives. We seek peaceful relationships and secure sense of belonging, but feel constant distrust and competition. We want to relax and are often exhausted by our constant struggles; yet we fear the consequences of lowering our guard.

We long to fit into the world, but we are convinced that we have to fight for our place and defend it. This means perpetual alienation from other people. We often decide to settle for their respect rather than seeking their love, as this appears safer in the world of competition.

Competing for Esteem

Competition, as such, is neither good nor bad. Competition can support us by giving feedback on our performance, by providing examples of what is possible, by engendering appreciation for the abilities of others, and by creating side-by-side intimacy through fellowship with our competitors. If, however, it is viewed simply in terms of winning and losing and of proving self-worth, it cuts us off from our aliveness. Our competitive urge drives us to be better, smarter and richer than other people. Even religious leaders and spiritual seekers work to become greater, more devout, more skilled and even more humble than anyone else. Yet, when we are concerned with surpassing others, we cut ourselves off from our own best qualities and energies.

This type of competition distances us from other people, making it easy to ignore the feelings and situations of those around us. The desire to win leads us to concentrate on weaknesses of others so that we will look better. We point out their failings as part of our campaign to appear superior. One paradox of competition is that we want to validate our inherent self-worth beyond all comparison by using comparison with others.

The preoccupation with winning distorts our natural inclination for meaningful action. We search for our arena, our field of competitive advantage. Then we specialize, narrowing the ground of competition to increase our chance of winning. We share less and less with others and lose interest in things outside our sphere of endeavor. Win/lose competitiveness not only alienates us from others but also from our own openness.

To make a virtue of our struggle, we elevate winning to an ideal, excellence to the greatest expression of human nature, and competitiveness to an innate human quality. […] The pressure to succeed, however, breeds the fear of failure and shame, which undermines our self-confidence and keeps us trapped in issues of self-esteem.

We use our continual comparisons with others and with our ideals to judge our progress and to map out strategies for the competitive struggle. The success of others is not an indication of our impoverishment, as in the preta realm, but a basis for shame and a target for achievement. We do not want to be less than others, and so we struggle to be superior to them. Comparisons spur us into action. Whereas in the preta realm we internalize the sense of comparison and evaluation, in the realm of the titans we externalize it and try to change our position. We often treat others as obstacles to be moved out of the way, or as data to be manipulated.

We feel shamed by the accomplishments of other people, as though they succeeded in order to spite us. We try to dismiss their sharing as “showing off” — another insult added to the injury of our relative failure.

In our titan frame of mind, we may come to feel that we must be the best at almost any cost. If we cannot exceed everyone else, then we will diminish their successes. If we cannot be taller naturally, we can at least lop off the heads of those around us.

Conceits of Superiority, Inferiority, and Equality

When we inhabit this realm we are prone to three conceits: superiority, inferiority, and equality. The superiority conceit argues, “I am better than you,” or “You are worse than me.” The inferiority conceit says, “I am worse than you,” or “You are better than me.” The equality conceits suggests that “I am as good as you,” or “I am as bad as you are.”

This last conceit can be the most insidious because it seems virtuous. As titans, we are trying to make everyone at least as bad as we are. If we are angry with our partners and they are calm, we will try to make them upset to show that they are no different and certainly no better than we are. If we confess our failings, we want everyone else to confess theirs to demonstrate that they are no better than us. We want to bring them down to a common level where we can feel equal and can thereby validate ourselves. We enlist the political virtue of equality in the cause of proving that everyone is the same as we are.

[…]

Appealing to the Public

In our drive for respect and approval, we may be seduced by superficial judgments. People will encourage us to show only our most appealing behaviors and to say what they want to hear. We pander to an audience and take public attention as validation, even though it is dependent on outward appearances and manipulated impressions.

This habit of superficiality minimizes the threat to our constructed identity and therefore feels comfortable. We befriend people who are engaged in the same game because there is an implicit agreement that “I won’t call you on your game, if you won’t reveal mine.” With most people we attempt to manipulate their feelings, saying what will maintain their esteem for us and prevent their honest feedback. This further obscures both our feelings and our capacity for insight into our own habits.

When we equate manipulation with success, genuine honesty appears naive and unproductive. Our lives seem to be functioning in high gear, our work resulting in material rewards and fame. Yet underneath this superficial progress, we sense that our integrity has been violated, thus aggravating our insecurity and agitation.

Our dissatisfaction and striving prevents us from finding any natural balance in the world and experiencing harmony within ourselves. Our heart posture of struggle also prevents us from greeting new situations freshly. We become jaded in relating to ourselves and other people. Everything appears to be the same old thing, as we cloak our innate freshness with habitual perceptions and unconscious assumptions.

Spiritual Masquerade of the Warrior

As titans we may enter the spiritual path to improve our personal power and to enhance our self-image and public image. We become warriors in our struggle for perfection. We want to mobilize the energy body in our pursuit of success and excellence. We are preoccupied with the psychic powers and impeccability of the warrior, and view other spiritual aspirants — and even our own teachers — as competitors. We also sense the power of harmony, spontaneity, and authenticity and want these for ourselves to serve our titan goals.


Commentary

(with 120 mg [of MDMA]) “I feel absolutely clean inside, and there is nothing but pure euphoria. I have never felt so great, or believed this to be possible. The cleanliness, clarity, and marvelous feeling of solid inner strength continued throughout the rest of the day, and evening, and through the next day. I am overcome by the profundity of the experience, and how much more powerful it was than previous experiences, for no apparent reason, other than a continually improving state of being. All the next day I felt like ‘a citizen of the universe’ rather than a citizen of the planet, completely disconnecting time and flowing easily from one activity to the next.” – PIHKAL entry on MDMA

The abolitionist project, i.e. the goal of preventing all future suffering, is tremendously ambitious and grandiose. It is not surprising, then, that one would assume that the demographic that it will tend to attract consists of people who inhabit the titan realm first and foremost. Likewise, when we talk about ending suffering, the grandiosity of this aspiration can likely trigger in the listener precisely the defense mechanisms of the titan realm. How many of the counterarguments against ending suffering are really coming from a place of equanimity and balance, and how many of them are just habitual titan realm reactions to a perceived threat to one’s status in the hierarchies we are invested in?

One may say: “I had to suffer to be great! To be meaningful, to be useful, to be respected, all of that has cost me a sea of sweat and tears. Without great sacrifice there is no great reward! Do you want to take that away from me?”

The Bingo of responses to the Hedonistic Imperative

Compare such pained responses to the mindset that MDMA instills in us. Because on MDMA one often experiences one’s sense of self-worth as inherent rather than conditional, one is able to see our motivations with complete self-honesty. More so, one does not get entangled in the status competitions of others, as the unshakable sense of inner worth is not diminished by one’s relative position in these consensus realities.

One may surely worry that our natural low self-worth is perhaps necessary to achieve great things. That if we could actually emotionally get by with feeling better than well — in a state of compassion, bliss, and wholesomeness — we would have evolved to be that way already. Alas, evolution does not care about our wellbeing; only the inclusive fitness of our genes. And it surely was the case that back in the African Savannah being driven by titan realm energies was highly adaptive. But today, I suspect, we will gain a lot of value by examining all the ways in which titan realm energies, in fact, get in the way of great achievements. Indeed, the very meaning of greatness as seen from the point of view of the titan realm is highly impoverished, narrow, and one-sided. For greatness of an even higher kind is to be found in the wonder and majesty of working towards a world of beautiful feelings for everyone.

It is surely the case that a lot of human accomplishments come straight out of the titan realm. However, I would like to challenge the notion that titan realm feelings are necessary, desirable, or perhaps inevitable in high-achievers. In particular, we should recall that group selection has limits: while every cell of your liver is indeed “in it to win it” with you, this is not quite true for each “cell” of a human group. The reason is simple: we are not all genetic twins, so human colonies are generally bound to be unstable, filled with internal competition, and sabotage. I would posit that one can indeed work towards ambitious and beautiful goals without invoking titan realm energies. In particular, we should be frank about all the ways in which titan motivations are in fact detrimental to our very goals. The low mood and self-loathing caused by internalized low-status is undoubtedly a huge cause of low productivity (see: rank theory of depression); office politics a massive waste of internal resources; and the paranoia overhead of the realm a derailment of effective and coherent group action. Thus, while MDMA-like states of consciousness may not have been the optimally adaptive mindsets from the point of view of our selfish genes, I think that a strong case can be made that they might in fact be extremely adaptive at the group level in modern times. This can be empirically tested. Looking ahead, this maybe is especially so post-reproductive revolution, as we will get to decide the gene distribution of our offspring in anticipation of their expected benefits at the individual and group level.

Much has been said about how we are, by nature, status-seeking monkeys. But an important thing to point out here is that the objective of our actions can be disentangled from the way in which their underlying motivations are implemented. We are not utility maximizers as much as we are adaptation executors. Sure we may nominally act in a way that maximizes our inclusive fitness, but the way we do so is by executing adaptations rather than having a “gene copying maximizing brain module” or anything of the sort. More so, that such adaptations result in the maximization of our genetic inclusive fitness is only guaranteed to be the case in our ancestral environment of adaptiveness. The connection between the (largely male-dominated) titan realm temperament and constant warfare is undeniable in communities largely untouched by modern civilization like Yanomami tribes in South America. And I would argue, it also explains inter- and intra-group aggression in modern times. Today in modern society a lot of (most?) groups indeed run on the fumes of the titan realm. And the fact that this causes huge misery inside these groups is only one reason to want to change it. Even more importantly, the titan realm paranoia, attachment to group identity, and its desire to win at all costs are especially dangerous in an era of drones and nuclear weapons. The maintenance of group pride no matter the consequences is threatening the survival of our species. But modern environments can in principle be designed so that this temperament becomes thoroughly maladaptive.

Thankfully, there is a sliver of a chance that we will soon find ways to motivate large groups of people by entirely wholesome energies. How far-fetched is this? Well, research into MDMA is just starting. We are at the foot of a hockey stick figure of “studies per year” of MDMA and related empathogenic/entactogenic drugs and interventions. This research has the potential to bootstrap a new modus operandi for human groups in a way that is sustainable and adaptive at the personal and group level, such that it effectively makes everyone in them happy, wholesome, and productive. If we manage to do this, we may in fact experience a complete overhaul of the old world energies of pride and domination, in lieu of an adaptive sense that “I love the world and the world loves me”.

(source)


Featured image: source.

10 Ways Perception Distorts Reality

by David Pearce (Quora response)


If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is, Infinite.

– William Blake

1. You don’t perceive the environment. There is no public world. Instead, your local environment partially selects your brain states, some of which are experienced as your external surroundings. Mind-independent reality is a speculative metaphysical inference (sadly a strong one, IMO). Contra William Blake (and Aldous Huxley), there are no see-through doors of perception in need of a good wash, just cranial prisons.

2. Whether you are awake or dreaming, your world-simulation is populated by zombies. When you are awake, these zombies are the avatars of sentient beings, but the imposters loom larger than their hypothetical real-world counterparts.

3. Your egocentric world-simulation resembles a grotesque cartoon. Within the cartoon, you are the hub of reality, the most important being in the universe, followed by your close genetic relatives, lovers, friends and allies. On theoretical grounds, you may wonder if this fitness-enhancing hallucination can be trusted. After all, trillions of other sentient beings apparently share an analogous illusion. In practice, the idea of your playing a humble role in the great scheme of things can be hard to take seriously, unless the hub of the universe is psychologically depressed. Wikipedia’s List of Messiah Claimants could be enlarged.

4. Perceptual direct realism spawns a “magical” theory of reference. If direct realism is delusional, then what is the mysterious relationship between thought-episodes internal to your world-simulation and the external world? (cf. What is the current state of affairs in philosophy concerning the symbol grounding problem?).

5. A realistic interpretation of the formalism of quantum physics confirms that not just the Lockean “secondary” properties of material objects are mind-dependent, but also their “primary” properties (cf. Primary/secondary quality distinction). Shades of Bishop Berkeley? (“Esse est percipi” – “to be is to be perceived”) Kant? Not exactly, but classical physics and Copenhagen-style positivism alike are false theories of reality.

6. According to “no-collapse” quantum mechanics (Everett), you have no unique future, and no unique past. You are not the same person as your countless ancestral namesakes nor the countless folk who wake up tomorrow with an approximation of your memories (cf. Was Parfit correct about consciousness and how we’re not the same person that we were when we were born?).

7. You experience the illusion of embodiment. “In-the-body” hallucinations in biological minds pervade the animal kingdom. As out-of-body experiences on dissociative anaesthetics like ketamine reveal, physical bodies as normally conceived are cross-modally-matched illusions generated by the CNS. Or alternatively, dualism is true. Actually, not everyone has the chronic illusion of embodiment. People with negative autoscopy can stare into a virtual mirror in their phenomenal world-simulation and not see themselves. For evolutionary reasons, negative autoscopy is rare.

8. You experience the illusion of four-dimensional space-time, not high-dimensional Hilbert space. This idea is more controversial. Hilbert space is a generalisation of ordinary Euclidian space to an intuitively huge number of dimensions – conventionally infinite, though the holographic entropy bound suggests the dimensionality of what naïve realists call the observable universe is finite. Quantum mechanics may be understood via the mathematical structure of Hilbert space (cf. Nothing happens in the Universe of the Everett Interpretation). Typically, Hilbert space is treated instrumentally as a mere mathematical abstraction, even by Everettians. As David Wallace, a critic, puts it: “Very few people are willing to defend Hilbert-space realism in print.” In the interests of mental health, such self-censorship may be wise.

9. Experienced psychonauts would echo William James, “…our normal waking consciousness, rational consciousness as we call it, is but one special type of consciousness, whilst all about it, parted from it by the flimsiest of screens, there lie potential forms of consciousness entirely different.” Quite so. Our posthuman successors may regard everyday Darwinian consciousness as delusive in ways that transcend the expressive power of a human conceptual scheme.

10. We do not understand reality. Any account of our misperceptions must pass over the unknown unknowns. I fear we’re missing not only details, but the key to the plot.

QRI’s FAQ

These are the answers to the most Frequently Asked Questions about the Qualia Research Institute. (See also: the glossary).


(Organizational) Questions About the Qualia Research Institute

  • What type of organization is QRI?

    • QRI is a nonprofit research group studying consciousness based in San Francisco, California. We are a registered 501(c)(3) organization.

  • What is the relationship between QRI, Qualia Computing, and Opentheory?

    • Qualia Computing and Opentheory are the personal blogs of QRI co-founders Andrés Gómez Emilsson and Michael Johnson, respectively. While QRI was in its early stages, all original QRI research was initially published on these two platforms. However, from August 2020 onward, this is shifting to a unified pipeline centered on QRI’s website.

  • Is QRI affiliated with an academic institution or university?

    • Although QRI does collaborate regularly with university researchers and laboratories, we are an independent research organization. Put simply, QRI is independent because we didn’t believe we could build the organization we wanted and needed to build within the very real constraints of academia. These constraints include institutional pressure to work on conventional projects, to optimize for publication metrics, and to clear various byzantine bureaucratic hurdles. It also includes professional and social pressure to maintain continuity with old research paradigms, to do research within an academic silo, and to pretend to be personally ignorant of altered states of consciousness. It’s not that good research cannot happen under these conditions, but we believe good consciousness research happens despite the conditions in academia, not because of them, and the best use of resources is to build something better outside of them.

  • How does QRI align with the values of EA?

    • Effective Altruism (EA) is a movement that uses evidence and reason to figure out how to do the most good. QRI believes this aesthetic is necessary and important for creating a good future. We also believe that if we want to do the most good, foundational research on the nature of the good is of critical importance. Two frames we offer are Qualia Formalism and Sentientism. Qualia Formalism is the claim that experience has a precise mathematical description, that a formal account of experience should be the goal of consciousness research. Sentientism is the claim that value and disvalue are entirely expressed in the nature and quality of conscious experiences. We believe EA is enriched by both Qualia Formalism and Sentientism.

  • What would QRI do with $10 billion?

    • Currently, QRI is a geographically distributed organization with access to commercial-grade neuroimaging equipment. The first thing we’d do with $10 billion is set up a physical headquarters for QRI and buy professional-grade neuroimaging devices (fMRI, MEG, PET, etc.) and neurostimulation equipment. We’d also hire teams of full-time physicists, mathematicians, electrical engineers, computer scientists, neuroscientists, chemists, philosophers, and artists. We’ve accomplished a great deal on a shoestring budget, but it would be hard to overestimate how significant being able to build deep technical teams and related infrastructure around core research threads would be for us (and, we believe, for the growing field of consciousness research). Scaling is always a process and we estimate our ‘room for funding’ over the next year is roughly ~$10 million. However, if we had sufficiently deep long-term commitments, we believe we could successfully scale both our organization and research paradigm into a first-principles approach for decisively diagnosing and curing most forms of mental illness. We would continue to run studies and experiments, collect interesting data about exotic and altered states of consciousness, pioneer new technologies that help eliminate involuntary suffering, and develop novel ways to enable conscious beings to safely explore the state-space of consciousness.

Questions About Our Research Approach

  • What differentiates QRI from other research groups studying consciousness?

    • The first major difference is that QRI breaks down “solving consciousness” into discrete subtasks; we’re clear about what we’re trying to do, which ontologies are relevant for this task, and what a proper solution will look like. This may sound like a small thing, but an enormous amount of energy is wasted in philosophy by not being clear about these things. This lets us “actually get to work.”

    • Second, our focus on valence is rare in the field of consciousness studies. A core bottleneck in understanding consciousness is determining what its ‘natural kinds’ are: terms which carve reality at the joints. We believe emotional valence (the pleasantness/unpleasantness of an experience) is one such natural kind, and this gives us a huge amount of information about phenomenology. It also offers a clean bridge for interfacing with (and improving upon) the best neuroscience.

    • Third, QRI takes exotic states of consciousness extremely seriously whereas most research groups do not. An analogy we make here is that ignoring exotic states of consciousness is similar to people before the scientific enlightenment thinking that they can understand the nature of energy, matter, and the physical world just by studying it at room temperature while completely ignoring extreme states such as what’s happening in the sun, black holes, plasma, or superfluid helium. QRI considers exotic states of consciousness as extremely important datapoints for reverse-engineering the underlying formalism for consciousness.

    • Lastly, we have a focus on precise, empirically testable predictions, which is rare in philosophy of mind. Any good theory of consciousness should also contribute to advancements in neuroscience. Likewise, any good theory of neuroscience should contribute to novel, bold, falsifiable predictions, and blueprints for useful things, such as new forms of therapy. Having such a full-stack approach to consciousness which does each of those two things is thus an important marker that “something interesting is going on here” and is simply very useful for testing and improving theory.

  • What methodologies are you using? How do you actually do research? 

    • QRI has three core areas of research: philosophy, neuroscience, and neurotechnology 

      • Philosophy: Our philosophy research is grounded in the eight problems of consciousness. This divide-and-conquer approach lets us explore each subproblem independently, while being confident that when all piecemeal solutions are added back together, they will constitute a full solution to consciousness.

      • Neuroscience: We’ve done original synthesis work on combining several cutting-edge theories of neuroscience (the free energy principle, the entropic brain, and connectome-specific harmonic waves) into a unified theory of Bayesian emotional updating; we’ve also built the world’s first first-principles method for quantifying emotional valence from fMRI. More generally, we focus on collecting high valence neuroimaging datasets and developing algorithms to analyze, quantify, and visualize them. We also do extensive psychophysics research, focusing on both the fine-grained cognitive-emotional effects of altered states, and how different types of sounds, pictures, body vibrations, and forms of stimulation correspond with low and high valence states of consciousness.

      • Neurotechnology: We engage in both experimentation-driven exploration, tracking the phenomenological effects of various interventions, as well as theory-driven development. In particular, we’re prototyping a line of neurofeedback tools to help treat mental health disorders.

  • What does QRI hope to do over the next 5 years? Next 20 years?

    • Over the next five years, we intend to further our neurotechnology to the point that we can treat PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), especially treatment-resistant PTSD. We intend to empirically verify or falsify the symmetry theory of valence. If it is falsified, we will search for a new theory that ties together all of the empirical evidence we have discovered. We aim to create an Effective Altruist cause area regarding the reduction of intense suffering as well as the study of very high valence states of consciousness.

    • Over the next 20 years, we intend to become a world-class research center where we can put the discipline of “paradise engineering” (as described by philosopher David Pearce) on firm academic grounds.

Questions About Our Mission

  • How can understanding the science of consciousness make the world a better place?

    • Understanding consciousness would improve the world in a tremendous number of ways. One obvious outcome would be the ability to better predict what types of beings are conscious—from locked-in patients to animals to pre-linguistic humans—and what their experiences might be like.

    • We also think it’s useful to break down the benefits of understanding consciousness in three ways: reducing the amount of extreme suffering in the world, increasing the baseline well-being of conscious beings, and achieving new heights for what conscious states are possible to experience.

    • Without a good theory of valence, many neurological disorders will remain completely intractable. Disorders such as fibromyalgia, complex regional pain syndrome (CRPS), migraines, and cluster headaches are all currently medical puzzles and yet have incredibly negative effects on people’s livelihoods. We think that a mathematical theory of valence will explain why these things feel so bad and what the shortest path for getting rid of them looks like. Besides valence-related disorders, nearly all mental health disorders, from clinical depression and PTSD to schizophrenia and anxiety disorders, will become better understood as we discover the structure of conscious experience.

    • We also believe that many (though not all) of the zero-sum games people play are the products of inner states of dissatisfaction and suffering. Broadly speaking, people who have a surplus of cognitive and emotional energy tend to play more positive sum games, are more interested in cooperation, and are very motivated to do so. We think that studying states such as those induced by MDMA that combine both high valence and a prosocial behavior mindset can radically alter the game theoretical landscape of the world for the better.

  • What is the end goal of QRI? What does QRI’s perfect world look like?

    • In QRI’s perfect future:

      • There is no involuntary suffering and all sentient beings are animated by gradients of bliss,

      • Research on qualia and consciousness is done at a very large scale for the purpose of mapping out the state-space of consciousness and understanding its computational and intrinsic properties (we think that we’ve barely scratched the surface of knowledge about consciousness),

      • We have figured out the game-theoretical subtleties in order to make that world dynamic yet stable: radically positive, without just making it fully homogeneous and stuck in a local maxima.

Questions About Getting Involved

  • How can I follow QRI’s work?

    • You can start by signing up for our newsletter! This is by far our most important communication channel. We also have a Facebook page, Twitter account, and Linkedin page. Lastly, we share some exclusive tidbits of ideas and thoughts with our supporters on Patreon.

  • How can I get involved with QRI?

    • The best ways to help QRI are to:

      • Donate to help support our work.

      • Read and engage with our research. We love critical responses to our ideas and encourage you to reach out if you have an interesting thought!

      • Spread the word to friends, potential donors, and people that you think would make great collaborators with QRI.

      • Check out our volunteer page to find more detailed ways that you can contribute to our mission, from independent research projects to QRI content creation.

Questions About Consciousness

  • What assumptions about consciousness does QRI have? What theory of consciousness does QRI support?

    • The most important assumption that QRI is committed to is Qualia Formalism, the hypothesis that the internal structure of our subjective experience can be represented precisely by mathematics. We are also Valence Realists: we believe valence (how good or bad an experience feels) is a real and well-defined property of conscious states. Besides these positions, we are fairly agnostic and everything else is an educated guess useful for pragmatic purposes.

  • What does QRI think of functionalism?

    • QRI thinks that functionalism takes many high-quality insights about how systems work and combines them in such a way that both creates confusion and denies the possibility of progress. In its raw, unvarnished form, functionalism is simply skepticism about the possibility of Qualia Formalism. It is simply a statement that “there is nothing here to be formalized; consciousness is like élan vital, confusion to be explained away.” It’s not actually a theory of consciousness; it’s an anti-theory. This is problematic in at least two ways:

      • 1. By assuming consciousness has formal structure, we’re able to make novel predictions that functionalism cannot (see e.g. QRI’s Symmetry Theory of Valence, and Quantifying Bliss). A few hundred years ago, there were many people who doubted that electromagnetism had a unified, elegant, formal structure, and this was a reasonable position at the time. However, in the age of the iPhone, skepticism that electricity is a “real thing” that can be formalized is no longer reasonable. Likewise, everything interesting and useful QRI builds using the foundation of Qualia Formalism stretches functionalism’s credibility thinner and thinner.

      • 2. Insofar as functionalism is skeptical about the formal existence of consciousness, it’s skeptical about the formal existence of suffering and all sentience-based morality. In other words, functionalism is a deeply amoral theory, which if taken seriously dissolves all sentience-based ethical claims. This is due to there being an infinite number of functional interpretations of a system: there’s no ground-truth fact of the matter about what algorithm a physical system is performing, about what information-processing it’s doing. And if there’s no ground-truth about which computations or functions are present, but consciousness arises from these computations or functions, then there’s no ground-truth about consciousness, or things associated with consciousness, like suffering. This is a strange and subtle point, but it’s very important. This point alone is not sufficient to reject functionalism: if the universe is amoral, we shouldn’t hold a false theory of consciousness in order to try to force reality into some ethical framework. But in debates about consciousness, functionalists should be up-front that functionalism and radical moral anti-realism is a package deal, that inherent in functionalism is the counter-intuitive claim that just as we can reinterpret which functions a physical system is instantiating, we can reinterpret what qualia it’s experiencing and whether it’s suffering.

    • For an extended argument, see Against Functionalism.

  • What does QRI think of panpsychism?

    • At QRI, we hold a position that is close to dual-aspect monism or neutral monism, which states that the universe is composed of one kind of thing that is neutral, and that both the mental and physical are two features of this same substance. One of the motivating factors for holding this view is that if there is deep structure in the physical, then there should be a corresponding deep structure to phenomenal experience. And we can tie this together with physicalism in the sense that the laws of physics ultimately describe fields of qualia. While there are some minor disagreements between dual-aspect monism and panpsychism, we believe that our position mostly fits well with a panpsychist view—that phenomenal properties are a fundamental feature of the world and aren’t spontaneously created only when a certain computation is being performed.

    • However, even with this view, there still are very important questions, such as: what makes a unified conscious experience? Where does one experience end and another begin? Without considering these problems in the light of Qualia Formalism, it is easy to tie animism into panpsychism and believe that inanimate objects like rocks, sculptures, and pieces of wood have spirits or complex subjective experiences. At QRI, we disagree with this and think that these types of objects might have extremely small pockets of unified conscious experience, but will mostly be masses of micro-qualia that are not phenomenally bound into some larger experience.

  • What does QRI think of IIT (Integrated Information Theory)?

    • QRI is very grateful for IIT because it is the first mainstream theory of consciousness that satisfies a Qualia Formalist account of experience. IIT says (and introduced the idea!) that for every conscious experience, there is a corresponding mathematical object such that the mathematical features of that object are isomorphic to the properties of the experience. QRI believes that without this idea, we cannot solve consciousness in a meaningful way, and we consider the work of Giulio Tononi to be one of our core research lineages. That said, we are not in complete agreement with the specific mathematical and ontological choices of IIT, and we think it may be trying to ‘have its cake and eat it too’ with regard to functionalism vs physicalism. For more, see Sections III-V of Principia Qualia.

    • We make no claim that some future version of IIT, particularly something more directly compatible with physics, couldn’t cleanly address our objections, and see a lot of plausible directions and promise in this space.

  • What does QRI think of the free energy principle and predictive coding?

    • On our research lineages page, we list the work of Karl Friston as one of QRI’s core research lineages. We consider the free energy principle (FEP), as well as related research such as predictive coding, active inference, the Bayesian brain, and cybernetic regulation, as an incredibly elegant and predictive story of how brains work. Friston’s idea also forms a key part of the foundation for QRI’s theory of brain self-organization and emotional updating, Neural Annealing.

    • However, we don’t think that the free energy principle is itself a theory of consciousness, as it suffers from many of the shortcomings of functionalism: we can tell the story about how the brain minimizes free energy, but we don’t have a way of pointing at the brain and saying *there* is the free energy! The FEP is an amazing logical model, but it’s not directly connected to any physical mechanism. It is a story that “this sort of abstract thing is going on in the brain” without a clear method of mapping this abstract story to reality.

    • Friston has supported this functionalist interpretation of his work, noting that he sees consciousness as a process of inference, not a thing. That said, we are very interested in his work on calculating the information geometry of Markov blankets, as this could provide a tacit foundation for a formalist account of qualia under the FEP. Regardless of this, though, we believe Friston’s work will play a significant role in a future science of mind.

  • What does QRI think of global workspace theory?

    • The global workspace theory (GWT) is a cluster of empirical observations that seem to be very important for understanding what systems in the brain contribute to a reportable experience at a given point in time. The global workspace theory is a very important clue for answering questions of what philosophers call Access Consciousness, or the aspects of our experience on which we can report.

    • However, QRI does not consider the global workspace theory to be a full theory of consciousness. Parts of the brain that are not immediately contributing to the global workspace may be composed of micro qualia, or tiny clusters of experience. They’re obviously impossible to report on, but they are still relevant to the study of consciousness. In other words, just because a part of your brain wasn’t included in the instantaneous global workspace, doesn’t mean that it can’t suffer or it can’t experience happiness. We value global workspace research because questions of Access Consciousness are still very critical for a full theory of consciousness.

  • What does QRI think of higher-order theories of consciousness?

    • QRI is generally opposed to theories of consciousness that equate consciousness with higher order reflective thought and cognition. Some of the most intense conscious experiences are pre-reflective or unreflective such as blind panic, religious ecstasy, experiences of 5-MeO-DMT, and cluster headaches. In these examples, there is not much reflectivity nor cognition going on, yet they are intensely conscious. Therefore, we largely reject any attempt to define consciousness with a higher-order theory.

  • What is the relationship between evolution and consciousness?

    • The relationship between evolution and consciousness is very intricate and subtle. An eliminativist approach arrives at the simple idea that information processing of a certain type is evolutionarily advantageous, and perhaps we can call this consciousness. However, with a Qualia Formalist approach, it seems instead that the very properties of the mathematical object isomorphic to consciousness can play key roles (either causal or in terms of information processing) that make it advantageous for organisms to recruit consciousness.

    • If you don’t realize that consciousness maps onto a mathematical object with properties, you may think that you understand why consciousness was recruited by natural selection, but your understanding of the topic would be incomplete. In other words, to have a full understanding of why evolution recruited consciousness, you need to understand what advantages the mathematical object has. One very important feature of consciousness is its capacity for binding. For example, the unitary nature of experience—the fact that we can experience a lot of qualia simultaneously—may be a key feature of consciousness that accelerates the process of finding solutions to constraint satisfaction problems. In turn, evolution would hence have a reason to recruit states of consciousness for computation. So rather than thinking of consciousness as identical with the computation that is going on in the brain, we can think of it as a resource with unique computational benefits that are powerful and dynamic enough to make organisms that use it more adaptable to their environments.

  • Does QRI think that animals are conscious?

    • QRI thinks there is a very high probability that every animal with a nervous system is conscious. We are agnostic about unified consciousness in insects, but we consider it very likely. We believe research on animal consciousness has relevance when it comes to treating animals ethically. Additionally, we do think that the ethical importance of consciousness has more to do with the pleasure-pain axis (valence), rather than cognitive ability. In that sense, the suffering of non-human animals may be just as morally relevant, if not more relevant than humans. The cortex seems to play a largely inhibitory role for emotions, such that the larger the cortex is, the better we’re able to manage and suppress our emotions. Consequently, animals whose cortices are less developed than ours may experience pleasure and pain in a more intense and uncontrollable way, like a pre-linguistic toddler.

  • Does QRI think that plants are conscious?

    • We think it’s very unlikely that plants are conscious. The main reason is that they lack an evolutionary reason to recruit consciousness. Large-scale phenomenally bound experience may be very energetically expensive, and plants don’t have much energy to spare. Additionally, plants have thick cellulose walls that separate individual cells, making it very unlikely that plants can solve the binding problem and therefore create unified moments of experience.

  • Why do some people seek out pain?

    • This is a very multifaceted question. As a whole, we postulate that in the vast majority of cases, when somebody may be nominally pursuing pain or suffering, they’re actually trying to reduce internal dissonance in pursuit of consonance or they’re failing to predict how pain will actually feel. For example, when a person hears very harsh music, or enjoys extremely spicy food, this can be explained in terms of either masking other unpleasant sensations or raising the energy parameter of experience, the latter of which can lead to neural annealing: a very pleasant experience that manifests as consonance in the moment.

  • I sometimes like being sad. Is QRI trying to take that away from me?

    • Before we try to ‘fix’ something, it’s important to understand what it’s trying to do for us. Sometimes suffering leads to growth; sometimes creating valuable things involves suffering. Sometimes, ‘being sad’ feels strangely good. Insofar as suffering is doing good things for us, or for the world, QRI advocates a light touch (see Chesterton’s fence). However, we also suggest two things:

      • 1. Most kinds of melancholic or mixed states of sadness usually are pursued for reasons that cash out as some sort of pleasure. Bittersweet experiences are far more preferable than intense agony or deep depression. If you enjoy sadness, it’s probably because there’s an aspect of your experience that is enjoyable. If it were possible to remove the sad part of your experience while maintaining the enjoyable part of it, you might be surprised to find that you prefer this modified experience more than the original one.

      • 2. There are kinds of sadness and suffering that are just bad, that degrade us as humans, and would be better to never feel. QRI doesn’t believe in forcibly taking away voluntary suffering, or pushing bliss on people. But we would like to live in a world where people can choose to avoid such negative states, and on the margin, we believe it would be better for humanity for more people to be joyful, filled with a deep sense of well-being.

  • If dissonance is so negative, why is dissonance so important in music?

    • When you listen to very consonant music or consonant tones, you will quickly adapt to these sounds and get bored of them. This has nothing to do with consonance itself being unpleasant and everything to do with learning in the brain. Whenever you experience the same stimuli repeatedly, most brains will trigger a boredom mechanism and add dissonance of its own in order to make you enjoy the stimuli less or simply inhibit it, not allowing you to experience it at all. Semantic satiation is a classic example of this where repeating the same word over and over will make it lose its meaning. For this reason, to trigger many high valence states of consciousness consecutively, you need contrast. In particular, music works with gradients of consonance and dissonance, and in most cases, moving towards consonance is what feels good rather than the absolute value of consonance. Music tends to feel the best when you mix a high absolute value of consonance together with a very strong sense of moving towards an even higher absolute value of consonance. Playing some levels of dissonance during a song will later enhance the enjoyment of the more consonant parts such as the chorus of songs, which are reported to be the most euphoric parts of song and typically are extremely consonant.

  • What is QRI’s perspective on AI and AI safety research?

    • QRI thinks that consciousness research is critical for addressing AI safety. Without a precise way of quantifying an action’s impact on conscious experiences, we won’t be able to guarantee that an AI system has been programmed to act benevolently. Also, certain types of physical systems that perform computational tasks may be experiencing negative valence without any outside observer being aware of it. We need a theory of what produces unpleasant experiences to avoid inadvertently creating superintelligences that suffer intensely in the process of solving important problems or accidentally inflict large-scale suffering.

    • Additionally, we think that a very large percentage of what will make powerful AI dangerous is that the humans programming these machines and using these machines may be reasoning from states of loneliness, resentment, envy, or anger. By discovering ways to help humans transition away from these states, we can reduce the risks of AI by creating humans that are more ethical and aligned with consciousness more broadly. In short: an antidote for nihilism could lead to a substantial reduction in existential risk.

    • One way to think about QRI and AI safety is that the world is building AI, but doesn’t really have a clear, positive vision of what to do with AI. Lacking this, the default objective becomes “take over the world.” We think a good theory of consciousness could and will offer new visions of what kind of futures are worth building—new Schelling points that humanity (and AI researchers) could self-organize around.

  • Can digital computers implementing AI algorithms be conscious?

    • QRI is agnostic about this question. We have reasons to believe that digital computers in their current form cannot solve the phenomenal binding problem. Most of the activity in digital computers can be explained in a stepwise fashion in terms of localized processing of bits of information. Because of this, we believe that current digital computers could be creating fragments of qualia, but are unlikely to be creating strongly globally bound experiences. So, we consider the consciousness of digital computers unlikely, although given our current uncertainty over the Binding Problem (or alternatively framed, the Boundary Problem), this assumption is lightly held. In the previous question, when we write that “certain types of physical systems that perform computational tasks may be experiencing negative valence”, we assume that these hypothetical computers have some type of unified conscious experience as a result of having solved the phenomenal binding problem. For more on this topic, see: “What’s Out There?

  • How much mainstream recognition has QRI’s work received, either for this line of research or others? Has it published in peer-reviewed journals, received any grants, or garnered positive reviews from other academics?

    • We are collaborating with researchers from Johns Hopkins University and Stanford University on several studies involving the analysis of neuroimaging data of high-valence states of consciousness. Additionally, we are currently preparing two publications for peer-reviewed journals on topics from our core research areas. Michael Johnson will be presenting at this year’s MCS seminar series, along with Karl Friston, Anil Seth, Selen Atasoy, Nao Tsuchiya, and others; Michael Johnson, Andrés Gómez Emilsson, and Quintin Frerichs have also given invited talks at various east-coast colleges (Harvard, MIT, Princeton, and Dartmouth).

    • Some well-known researchers and intellectuals that are familiar and think positively about our work include: Robin Carhart-Harris, Scott Alexander, David Pearce, Steven Lehar, Daniel Ingram, and more. Scott Alexander acknowledged that QRI put together the paradigms that contributed to Friston’s integrative model of how psychedelics work before his research was published. Our track record so far has been to foreshadow (by several years in advance) key discoveries later proposed and accepted in mainstream academia. Given our current research findings, we expect this trend to continue in the years to come.

Miscellaneous

  • How does QRI know what is best for other people/animals? What about cultural relativism?

    • We think that, to a large extent, people and animals work under the illusion that they are pursuing intentional objects, states of the external environment, or relationships that they may have with the external environment. However, when you examine these situations closely, you realize that what we actually pursue are states of high valence triggered by external circumstances. There may be evolutionary and cultural selection pressures that push us toward self-deception as to how we actually function. And we consider it negative to have these selection pressures makes us less self-aware because it often focuses our energy on unpleasant, destructive, or fruitless strategies. QRI hopes to support people in fostering more self-awareness, which can come through experiments with one’s own consciousness, like meditation, as well as through the deeper theoretical understanding of what it is that we actually want.

  • How central is David Pearce’s work to the work of the QRI?

    • We consider David Pearce to be one of our core lineages. We particularly value his contribution to valence realism, the insistence that states of consciousness come with an overall valence, and that this is very morally relevant. We also consider David Pearce to be very influential in philosophy of mind; Pearce, for instance, coined the phrase ‘tyranny of the intentional object’, the title of a core QRI piece of the same name. We have been inspired by Pearce’s descriptions for what any scientific theory of consciousness should be able to explain, as well as his particular emphasis on the binding problem. David’s vision of a world animated by ‘gradients of bliss’ has also been very generative as a normative thought experiment which integrates human and non-human well-being. We do not necessarily agree with all of David Pearce’s work, but we respect him as an insightful and vivid thinker who has been brave enough to actually take a swing at describing utopia and who we believe is far ahead of his time.

  • What does QRI think of negative utilitarianism?

    • There’s general agreement within QRI that intense suffering is an extreme moral priority, and we’ve done substantial work on finding simple ways of getting rid of extreme suffering (with our research inspiring at least one unaffiliated startup to date). However, we find it premature to strongly endorse any pre-packaged ethical theory, especially because none of them are based on any formalism, but rather an ungrounded concept of ‘utility’. The value of information here seems enormous, and we hope that we can get to a point where the ‘correct’ ethical theory may simply ‘pop out of the equations’ of reality. It’s also important to highlight the fact that common versions and academic formulations of utilitarianism seem to be blind to many subtleties concerning valence. For example, they do not distinguish between mixed states of consciousness where you have extreme pleasure combined with extreme suffering in such a way that you judge the experience to be neither entirely suffering nor entirely happiness and states of complete neutrality, such as extreme white noise. Because most formulations of utilitarianism do not distinguish between them, we are generally suspicious of the idea that philosophers of ethics have considered all of the relevant attributes of consciousness in order to make accurate judgments about morality.

  • What does QRI think of philosophy of mind departments?

    • We believe that the problems that philosophy of mind departments address tend to be very disconnected from what truly matters from an ethical, moral, and philosophical point of view. For example, there is little appreciation of the value of bringing mathematical formalisms into discussions about the mind, or what that might look like in practice. Likewise there is close to no interest in preventing extreme suffering nor understanding its nature. Additionally, there is usually a disregard for extreme states of positive valence, and strange or exotic experiences in general. It may be the case that there are worthwhile things happening in departments and classes creating and studying this literature, but we find them characterized by processes which are unlikely to produce progress on their nominal purpose, creating a science of mind.

    • In particular, in academic philosophy of mind, we’ve seen very little regard for producing empirically testable predictions. There are millions of pages written about philosophy of mind, but the number of pages that provide precise, empirically testable predictions is quite thin.

  • What therapies does QRI recommend for depression, anxiety, and chronic pain?

    • At QRI, we do not make specific recommendations to individuals, but rather point to areas of research that we consider to be extremely important, tractable, and neglected, such as anti-tolerance drugs, neural annealing techniques, frequency specific microcurrent for kidney stone pain, and N,N-DMT and other tryptamines for cluster headaches and migraines.

  • Why does QRI think it’s so important to focus on ending extreme suffering? 

    • QRI thinks ending extreme suffering is important, tractable, and neglected. It’s important because of the logarithmic scales of pleasure and pain—the fact that extreme suffering is far worse by orders of magnitude than what people intuitively believe. It’s tractable because there are many types of extreme suffering that have existing solutions that are fairly trivial or at least have a viable path for being solved with moderately funded research programs. And it’s neglected mostly because people are unaware of the existence of these states, though not necessarily because of their rarity. For example, 10% of the population experiences kidney stones at some point in their life, but for reasons having to do with trauma, PTSD, and the state-dependence of memory, even people who have suffered from kidney stones do not typically end up dedicating their time or resources toward eradicating them.

    • It’s also likely that if we can meaningfully improve the absolute worst experiences, much of the knowledge we’ll gain in that process will translate into other contexts. In particular, we should expect to figure out how to make moderately depressed people happier, fix more mild forms of pain, improve the human hedonic baseline, and safely reach extremely great peak states. Mood research is not a zero-sum game. It’s a web of synergies.



Many thanks to Andrew Zuckerman, Mackenzie Dion, and Mike Johnson for their collaboration in putting this together. Featured image is QRI’s logo – animated by Hunter Meyer.

Types of Binding

Excerpt from “Mindmelding: Consciousness, Neuroscience, and the Mind’s Privacy” (2012) by William Hirstein (pgs. 57-58 and 64-65)

The Neuroscience of Binding

When you experience an orchestra playing, you see them and hear them at the same time. The sights and sounds are co-conscious (Hurley, 2003; de Vignemont, 2004). The brain has an amazing ability to make everything in consciousness co-conscious with everything else, so that the co-conscious relation is transitive: That means, if x is co-conscious with y, and y is co-conscious with z, then x is co-conscious with z. Brain researchers hypothesized that the brain’s method of achieving co-consciousness is to link the different areas embodying each portion of the brain state by a synchronizing electrical pulse. In 1993, Linás and Ribary proposed that these temporal binding processes are responsible for unifying information from the different sensory modalities. Electrical activity, “manifested as variations in the minute voltage across the cell’s enveloping membrane,” is able to spread, like “ripples in calm water” according to Linás (2002, pp.9-10). This sort of binding has been found not only in the visual system, but also in other modalities (Engel et al., 2003). Bachmann makes the important point that the binding processes need to be “general and lacking any sensory specificity. This may be understood via a comparison: A mirror that is expected to reflect equally well everything” (2006, 32).

Roelfsema et al. (1997) implanted electrodes in the brain of cats and found binding across parietal and motor areas. Desmedt and Tomberg (1994) found binding between a parietal area and a prefrontal area nine centimeters apart in their subjects, who had to respond with one hand, to signal which finger on another hand had been stimulated – a conscious response to a conscious perception. Binding can occur across great distances in the brain. Engel et al. (1991) also found binding across the two hemispheres. Apparently binding processes can produce unified conscious states out of cortical areas widely separated. Notice, however, that even if there is a single area in the brain where all the sensory modalities, memory, and emotion, and anything else that can be in a conscious state were known to feed into, binding would still be needed. As long as there is any spatial extent at all to the merging area, binding is needed. In addition to its ability to unify spatially separate areas, binding has a temporal dimension. When we engage in certain behaviors, binding unifies different areas that are cooperating to produce a perception-action cycle. When laboratory animals were trained to perform sensory-motor tasks, the synchronized oscillations were seen to increase both within the areas involved in performing the task and across those areas, according to Singer (1997).

Several different levels of binding are needed to produce a full conscious mental state:

  1. Binding of information from many sensory neurons into object features
  2. Binding of features into unimodal representations of objects
  3. Binding of different modalities, e.g., the sound and movement made by a single object
  4. Binding of multimodal object representations into a full surrounding environment
  5. Binding of representations, emotions, and memories, into full conscious states.

So is there one basic type of binding, or many? The issue is still debated. On the side of there being a single basic process, Koch says that he is content to make “the tentative assumption that all the different aspects of consciousness (smell, pain, vision, self-consciousness, the feeling of willing an action, of being angry and so on) employ one or perhaps a few common mechanisms” (2004, p15). On the other hand, O’Reilly et al. argue that “instead of one simple and generic solution to the binding problem, the brain has developed a number of specialized mechanisms that build on the strengths of existing neural hardware in different brain areas” (2003, p.168).

[…]

What is the function of binding?

We saw just above that Crick and Koch suggest a function for binding, to assist a coalition of neurons in getting the “attention” of prefrontal executive processes when there are other competitors for this attention. Crick and Koch also claim that only bound states can enter short-term memory and be available for consciousness (Crick and Koch, 1990). Engel et al. mention a possible function of binding: “In sensory systems, temporal binding may serve for perceptual grouping and, thus, constitute an important prerequisite for scene segmentation and object recognition” (2003, 140). One effect of malfunctions in the binding process may be a perceptual disorder in which the parts of objects cannot be integrated into a perception of the whole object. Riddoch and Humphreys (2003) describe a disorder called ‘integrative agnosia’ in which the patient cannot integrate the parts of an object into a whole. They mention a patient who is given a photograph of a paintbrush but sees the handle and the bristles as two separate objects. Breitmeyer and Stoerig (2006, p.43) say that:

[P]atients can have what are called “apperceptive agnosia,” resulting from damage to object-specific extrastriate cortical areas such as the fusiform face area and the parahippocampal place area. While these patients are aware of qualia, they are unable to segment the primitive unity into foreground or background or to fuse its spatially distributed elements into coherent shapes and objects.

A second possible function of binding is a kind of bridging function, it makes high-level perception-action cycles go through. Engel et al. say that, “temporal binding may be involved in sensorimotor integration, that is, in establishing selective links between sensory and motor aspects of behavior” (2003, p.140).

Here is another hypothesis we might call the scale model theory of binding. For example, in order to test a new airplane design in a wind tunnel, one needs a complete model of it. The reason for this is that a change in one area, say the wing, will alter the aerodynamics of the entire plane, especially those areas behind the wing. The world itself is quite holistic. […] Binding allows the executive processes to operate on a large, holistic model of the world in a way that allows the model to simulate the same holistic effects found in the world. The holism of the represented realm is mirrored by a type of brain holism in the form of binding.


See also these articles about (phenomenal) binding:

On the Medium of Thought

Contemplate the following three quotes together:


Excerpt from Amusing Ourselves to Death (1985) by Neil Postman (pgs. 17-23)

Chapter 2: Media as Epistemology

In the hope of simplifying what I mean by the title of this chapter, media as epistemology, I find it helpful to borrow a word from Northrop Frye, who has made use of a principle he calls resonance. “Through resonance,” he writes, “a particular statement in a particular context acquires a universal significance.” Frye offers as an opening example the phrase “the grapes of wrath,” which first appears in Isaiah in the context of a celebration of a prospective massacre of Edomites. But the phrase, Frye continues, “has long ago flown away from this context into many new contexts, contexts that give dignity to the human situation instead of merely reflecting its bigotries.” Having said this, Frye extends the idea of resonance so that it goes beyond phrases and sentences. A character in a play or story—Hamlet, for example, or Lewis Carroll’s Alice—may have resonance. Objects may have resonance, and so may countries: “The smallest details of the geography of two tiny chopped-up countries, Greece and Israel, have imposed themselves on our consciousness until they have become part of the map of our own imaginative world, whether we have ever seen these countries or not.”

In addressing the question of the source of resonance, Frye concludes that metaphor is the generative force—that is, the power of a phrase, a book, a character, or a history to unify and invest with meaning a variety of attitudes or experiences. Thus, Athens becomes a metaphor of intellectual excellence, wherever we find it; Hamlet, a metaphor of brooding indecisiveness; Alice’s wanderings, a metaphor of a search for order in a world of semantic nonsense.

I now depart from Frye (who, I am certain, would raise no objection) but I take his word along with me. Every medium of communication, I am claiming, has resonance, for resonance is metaphor writ large. Whatever the original and limited context of its use may have been, a medium has the power to fly far beyond that context into new and unexpected ones. Because of the way it directs us to organize our minds and integrate our experience of the world, it imposes itself on our consciousness and social institutions in myriad forms. It sometimes has the power to become implicated in our concepts of piety, or goodness, or beauty. And it is always implicated in the ways we define and regulate our ideas of truth.

To explain how this happens—how the bias of a medium sits heavy, felt but unseen, over a culture—I offer three cases of truth-telling.

The first is drawn from a tribe in western Africa that has no writing system but whose rich oral tradition has given form to its ideas of civil law. When a dispute arises, the complainants come before the chief of the tribe and state their grievances. With no written law to guide him, the task of the chief is to search through his vast repertoire of proverbs and sayings to find one that suits the situation and is equally satisfying to both complainants. That accomplished, all parties are agreed that justice has been done, that the truth has been served. You will recognize, of course, that this was largely the method of Jesus and other Biblical figures who, living in an essentially oral culture, drew upon all of the resources of speech, including mnemonic devices, formulaic expressions and parables, as a means of discovering and revealing truth. As Walter Ong points out, in oral cultures proverbs and sayings are not occasional devices: “They are incessant. They form the substance of thought itself. Thought in any extended form is impossible without them, for it consists in them.”

To people like ourselves any reliance on proverbs and sayings is reserved largely for resolving disputes among or with children. “Possession is nine-tenths of the law.” “First come, first served.” “Haste makes waste.” These are forms of speech we pull out in small crises with our young but would think ridiculous to produce in a courtroom where “serious” matters are to be decided. Can you imagine a bailiff asking a jury if it has reached a decision and receiving the reply that “to err is human but to forgive is divine”? Or even better, “Let us render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s and to God that which is God’s”? For the briefest moment, the judge might be charmed but if a “serious” language form is not immediately forthcoming, the jury may end up with a longer sentence than most guilty defendants.

Judges, lawyers and defendants do not regard proverbs or sayings as a relevant response to legal disputes. In this, they are separated from the tribal chief by a media-metaphor. For in a print-based courtroom, where law books, briefs, citations and other written materials define and organize the method of finding the truth, the oral tradition has lost much of its resonance—but not all of it. Testimony is expected to be given orally, on the
assumption that the spoken, not the written, word is a truer reflection of the state of mind of a witness. Indeed, in many courtrooms jurors are not permitted to take notes, nor are they given written copies of the judge’s explanation of the law. Jurors are expected to hear the truth, or its opposite, not to read it. Thus, we may say that there is a clash of resonances in our concept of legal truth. On the one hand, there is a residual belief in the power of speech, and speech alone, to carry the truth; on the other hand, there is a much stronger belief in the authenticity of writing and, in particular, printing. This second belief has little tolerance for poetry, proverbs, sayings, parables or any other expressions of oral wisdom. The law is what legislators and judges have written. In our culture, lawyers do not have to be wise; they need to be well briefed.

A similar paradox exists in universities, and with roughly the same distribution of resonances; that is to say, there are a few residual traditions based on the notion that speech is the primary carrier of truth. But for the most part, university conceptions of truth are tightly bound to the structure and logic of the printed word. To exemplify this point, I draw here on a personal experience that occurred during a still widely practiced medieval ritual known as a “doctoral oral.” I use the word medieval literally, for in the Middle Ages students were always examined orally, and the tradition is carried forward in the assumption that a candidate must be able to talk competently about his written work. But, of course, the written work matters most.

In the case I have in mind, the issue of what is a legitimate form of truth-telling was raised to a level of consciousness rarely achieved. The candidate had included in his thesis a footnote, intended as documentation of a quotation, which read: “Told to the investigator at the Roosevelt Hotel on January 18, 1981, in the presence of Arthur Lingeman and Jerrold Gross.” This citation drew the attention of no fewer than four of the five oral examiners, all of whom observed that it was hardly suitable as a form of documentation and that it ought to be replaced by a citation from a book or article. “You are not a journalist,” one professor remarked. “You are supposed to be a scholar.” Perhaps because the candidate knew of no published statement of what he was told at the Roosevelt Hotel, he defended himself vigorously on the grounds that there were witnesses to what he was told, that they were available to attest to the accuracy of the quotation, and that the form in which an idea is conveyed is irrelevant to its truth. Carried away on the wings of his eloquence, the candidate argued further that there were more than three hundred references to published works in his thesis and that it was extremely unlikely that any of them would be checked for accuracy by the examiners, by which he meant to raise the question, Why do you assume the accuracy of a print-referenced citation but not a speech-referenced one?

The answer he received took the following line: You are mistaken in believing that the form in which an idea is conveyed is irrelevant to its truth. In the academic world, the published word is invested with greater prestige and authenticity than the spoken word. What people say is assumed to be more casually uttered than what they write. The written word is assumed to have been reflected upon and revised by its author, reviewed by authorities and editors. It is easier to verify or refute, and it is invested with an impersonal and objective character, which is why, no doubt, you have referred to yourself in your thesis as “the investigator” and not by your name; that is to say, the written word is, by its nature, addressed to the world, not an individual. The written word endures, the spoken word disappears; and that is why writing is closer to the truth than speaking. Moreover, we are sure you would prefer that this commission produce a written statement that you have passed your examination (should you do so) than for us merely to tell you that you have, and leave it at that. Our written statement would represent the “truth.” Our oral agreement would be only a rumor.

The candidate wisely said no more on the matter except to indicate that he would make whatever changes the commission suggested and that he profoundly wished that should he pass the “oral,” a written document would attest to that fact. He did pass, and in time the proper words were written.

A third example of the influence of media on our epistemologies can be drawn from the trial of the great Socrates. At the opening of Socrates’ defense, addressing a jury of five hundred, he apologizes for not having a well-prepared speech. He tells his Athenian brothers that he will falter, begs that they not interrupt him on that account, asks that they regard him as they would a stranger from another city, and promises that he will tell them the truth, without adornment or eloquence. Beginning this way was, of course, characteristic of Socrates, but it was not characteristic of the age in which he lived. For, as Socrates knew full well, his Athenian brothers did not regard the principles of rhetoric and the expression of truth to be independent of each other. People like ourselves find great appeal in Socrates’ plea because we are accustomed to thinking of rhetoric as an ornament of speech—most often pretentious, superficial and unnecessary. But to the people who invented it, the Sophists of fifth-century B.C. Greece and their heirs, rhetoric was not merely an opportunity for dramatic performance but a near indispensable means of organizing evidence and proofs, and therefore of communicating truth.

It was not only a key element in the education of Athenians (far more important than philosophy) but a preeminent art form. To the Greeks, rhetoric was a form of spoken writing. Though it always implied oral performance, its power to reveal the truth resided in the written word’s power to display arguments in orderly progression. Although Plato himself disputed this conception of truth (as we might guess from Socrates’ plea), his contemporaries believed that rhetoric was the proper means through which “right opinion” was to be both discovered and articulated. To disdain rhetorical rules, to speak one’s thoughts in a random manner, without proper emphasis or appropriate passion, was considered demeaning to the audience’s intelligence and suggestive of falsehood. Thus, we can assume that many of the 280 jurors who cast a guilty ballot against Socrates did so because his manner was not consistent with truthful matter, as they understood the connection.

The point I am leading to by this and the previous examples is that the concept of truth is intimately linked to the biases of forms of expression. Truth does not, and never has, come unadorned. It must appear in its proper clothing or it is not acknowledged, which is a way of saying that the “truth” is a kind of cultural prejudice. Each culture conceives of it as being most authentically expressed in certain symbolic forms that another culture may regard as trivial or irrelevant.


Excerpt from Mastering the Core Teachings of the Buddha by Daniel Ingram (pg. 24)

It is absolutely essential to try to figure out how you experience thoughts, otherwise you will simply flounder in content. What do thoughts feel like? Where do they occur? How big are they? What do they look like, smell like, taste like, sound like? How long do they last? Where are their edges? Only take on this practice if you are willing to try to work on this level, the level that tries to figure out what thoughts actually are rather than what they mean or imply. If my thoughts are somewhat auditory, I begin by trying to perceive each syllable of the current thought and then each syllable’s beginning and ending. If they are somewhat visual, I try to perceive every instant in which a mental image presents itself.

If they seem somewhat physical, such as the memory of a movement or feeling, I try to perceive exactly how long each little sensation of this memory lasts. This sort of investigation can actually be fairly easy to do and yet is quite powerful. Things can also get a bit odd quickly when doing this sort of practice, but I don’t worry about that. Sometimes thoughts can begin to sound like the auditory strobing section of the song “Crimson and Clover,” where it sounds like they are standing at a spinning microphone. Sometimes the images in our head can begin to flash and flicker. Sometimes our very sense of attention can begin to strobe. This is the point! The sensations that imply a mind and mental processes are discontinuous, impermanent.


One of David Pearce‘s comments in his Reddit AMA (2012)

Just as one can only imperfectly understand the nature of dreaming “from the inside” – even in a lucid dream – likewise the nature of the ordinary waking consciousness may yield only state-specific knowledge that can only imperfectly be understood “from the inside” too. How much does the medium of expression of propositional thought infect that propositional content itself? (cf. Nicholas Rescher’s “Conceptual Idealism“)


Analysis

What are your thoughts like? No, not “what are they about?” But their texture, what is it like? The medium of thought is not explicitly represented in the content of thought, at least not by default. The medium of thought adds constraints to imagination – what is and is not imaginable is state-dependent (perhaps not unlike our faculty of episodic reconstruction!). Your imagination is a reflection of the medium of your thought.

Restricted to the sober “everyday” (non-psychedelic, non-meditative) medium of thought, we are in a sense confined to only accept ideas as having the ring of truth when they appear in the right format, not unlike how legal proceedings are based on oral tradition proverbs in the West African tribe Neil Postman wrote about in the first of the three quotes above. For the most part, we have a culture and a language whose communication assumes a sober medium of thought, and in turn we reject as cognitively and epistemologically illegitimate anything that deviates from it. Sober thought is the arbiter of truth. But are we not perhaps missing out on valuable knowledge if we don’t investigate alternate mediums of thought?

Of course mastery over the medium of thought is only acquired through years of practice, tuning, and critical feedback. Consider how the sophistication of one’s thinking evolves over time; compare how a third grader thinks relative to a graduate student. There is no reason to expect this mastery over our sober medium of thought will translate into competence over exotic patterns of thought! When you take LSD for the first time and experience “LSD-like thinking patterns” you are like a newborn, faced with a completely new and exotic mode of self-reflective expression. No wonder “LSD thoughts”, when put into sober words, have a tendency of sounding like gibberish! But that is not to say that the medium of LSD-like thought patterns is doomed to be irrational, insane, or helplessly disconnected from reality. Far from it, as attested by the numerous anecdotes concerning genuine (and later verifiable) problem solving breakthroughs enabled by the psychedelic state (see: Harman’s and Fadiman’s research on psychedelic problem solving).

Source: Selective Enhancement of Specific Capacities
Through Psychedelic Training

Here I must agree with Steven Lehar: drugs are wasted on the young. In his book “The Grand Illusion” Lehar narrates how when he tried LSD as a teenager he thought it was interesting but couldn’t make any sense of his experience. After not taking it for more than a decade, he tried it again in his thirties while studying for a PhD in cognitive sciences. He was then much more capable of saying intelligent and insightful things about the nature of the state. I very much expect a Cambrian explosion of insights about the psychedelic state (and not only psychedelic insights!) if and when we bring together groups of seasoned neuroscientists and AI researchers together to trip in a systematic and grounded way. Perhaps we could organize a retreat in Jamaica? Importantly, I would suggest that we should approach the development of a scientific culture based on a psychedelic medium of thought with as few preconceptions as possible, yet allow it to be grounded in our modern scientific world-picture whenever possible.

Once we get past the prejudice against exotic mediums of thought (but without at the same time opening the floodgates to insanity either), we will actually get many new perspectives on consciousness, reality, and the very nature of semantics. Studying this on a large scale will entail using tools like Psychedelic Turk, Generalized Wada Tests, and Free-Wheeling Hallucinations. And further into the future, designer synesthesia may allow anyone to think in numbers. Dedicated linguists (or meta-linguists?) would be put to the task of identifying the isomorphisms between each medium of thought in order to create a state-neutral meta-language of thought (aka. the language of Harmonic Society).

Because the “work” needed to arrive at a culture based in exotic mediums of thought has yet to be done, across the globe we currently have a huge backlog of never-written insights from psychedelic users. You should perhaps think of this collective as a baby intelligence that is not yet verbally competent but which can think of the world in a completely different way than us. How many trips do you need to undergo before the psychedelic medium of thought acquires a verbal competence equivalent to that of our sober thinking? Considering the number of hours it takes for a toddler to learn language, probably quite a few! LSD and the Mind of the Universe by Christopher M. Bache is based on 70+ extremely well documented high-dose (~500 microgram) LSD trips. It is a book that I recommend reading for its phenomenological richness and clarity of “thought”. Despite the insanity that would typically be associated with anyone who has spent that much time in such radically altered states, Bache sounds completely cogent and grounded. His metaphysical conclusions are bizarre, yet familiar to anyone who has spent some time researching spiritual tropes. Yet the manner of presentation is exotic and fascinating. Who knows what hundreds if not thousands of rational psychonauts doing this kind of work could work out if they put their minds to the task of developing a language to talk about those states. To truly develop a community for such an exotic medium of thought, one will need to find ways to receive critical feedback from others. One needs critical feedback to learn and grow, so we may need to invent modes of communication for people experiencing exotic modes of thinking to fruitfully interact with one another.

What would be an example of a quality of the medium of thought of the psychedelic state? Based on countless trip reports, it seems that LSD and related compounds allow you to “think about infinity” in a way that sober thought simply lacks. That said, when someone says that they “experienced infinity” or even “became infinite” on LSD I do not take their word at face value. At least not in the sense of the term which sober thinking imagines. I do, however, believe people when they say that such phrases are pointing at something meaningful, something they experienced. “Becoming infinite on LSD” does not literally mean that on LSD you experienced an infinite amount of qualia (for is it even intelligible or logically cogent to have realized arbitrarily large numbers?). We have to realize that infinity as a term is very different than infinity as a concept: when you say infinity while on a high dose of LSD you are referring to an aspect of your experience rather than a formally defined mathematical or common sense conception of infinity. And if I were to guess, I would say that the quality of experience that is being pointed at is related to the symmetry of both phenomenal space or time: time-looping has a seemingly endless quality and symmetrical texture repetition gives you a sense of infinite space not unlike that of seeing the never-ending reflections of parallel mirrors. Given our normal habits of thought and only available cultural references, one is pressed to communicate this quality of experience in ways that invariably distort their meaning. Some things have to be experienced to be understood.

Are infinite reflections between two mirrors really infinite? - Physics  Stack Exchange

Another property of the psychedelic medium of thought is that DMT-like cognition may be very well suited to reason about and indeed experience non-Euclidean high-dimensional geometry. And, incredibly, there are reports that the medium of thought triggered by 5-MeO-DMT is well suited to contemplate the question of “Why is there something rather than nothing?”. Getting into the weeds of why I think this happens will take us very far afield, but just to hint at it without further comment: I think this is because in states of extreme symmetry Zero Ontology is much more intuitive. A topic to be revisited in another post.

Ultimately, full-spectrum supersentient superintelligence will entail having access to all of these exotic mediums of thought and many more. Our descendants may some day have the ability to seamlessly switch between radically alien modes of cognition to tackle conceptual problems we haven’t even conceived of. In fact, that we currently can’t even conceive of, lacking the semantic primitives needed to do so.

To end on an observation that is closer to home: you do not have to go as far into exotica as the outlandish states of consciousness induced by DMT to notice how our state of mind influences the medium of our thought. Subtle, but real, are the ways in which emotions texturize our thinking. Next time you have an intense emotion, introspect on the ways it influences your imagination. In a great mood, do you not have, perhaps, much more access to soft, regular, and manageable textures of thought you can use as building blocks for your field of imagination? And when in a depressive mood, aren’t thoughts, perhaps, more likely to be built out of nauseous, gloomy, starved, or self-loathing building blocks? It is thus why in a sense it is so hard, for the most part, to “think yourself out” of a depression. This is because the thoughts themselves are the ways the depression expresses itself! (“The world of the happy is a different one from that of the unhappy.” – Ludwig Wittgenstein). On a happier note, I would like to end by encouraging you to introspect on the way music genres influence the medium of your thoughts. How, for example, the repetitive strobing of the synthesizer sounds of psytrance gives your thoughts an energized, motivated, loopy, meta, repetitive, echoey quality. Or how the signal diversity, harmonic cleanliness, and fractal organization of classical music may give rise to highly narrative, interwoven, and coherent patterns of thought. Indeed, I believe that a focused exploration of music for thinking (and music for thinking specific kinds of thoughts rather than thinking in general) has a lot of promise. I would not be surprised to find out that there exists music that is highly beneficial for learning Einstein’s theory of general relativity, or quantum field theory. And perhaps just as important, if not more so, I wonder if there is music that allows us to learn directly, intuitively, and memorably the intricacies of the nature of phenomenal love. Wouldn’t that be lovely?


Featured image source: @fractjack

Posthuman Art: Towards Full-Spectrum Positive Valence Amplification

Everyone says love hurts, but that is not true. Loneliness hurts. Rejection hurts. Losing someone hurts. Envy hurts. Everyone gets these things confused with love, but in reality love is the only thing in this world that covers up all pain and makes someone feel wonderful again. Love is the only thing in this world that does not hurt.

 

― Meša Selimović


Excerpt from the wonderful conversation between Lucas Perry, Sam Barker, and David Pearce posted on June 24 (2020) at the Future of Life Institute Podcast (where Mike Johnson and I have previously participated). [Emphasis mine].


Lucas Perry: For this first section, I’m basically interested in probing the releases that you already have done, Sam, and exploring them and your inspiration for the track titles and the soundscapes that you’ve produced. Some of the background and context for this is that much of this seems to be inspired by and related to David’s work, in particular the Hedonistic Imperative. I’m at first curious to know, Sam, how did you encounter David’s work, and what does it mean for you?

Sam Barker: David’s work was sort of arriving in the middle of a series of realizations, and kind of coming from a starting point of being quite disillusioned with music, and a little bit disenchanted with the vagueness, and the terminology, and the imprecision of the whole thing. I think part of me has always wanted to be some kind of scientist, but I’ve ended up at perhaps not the opposite end, but quite far away from it.

Lucas Perry: Could explain what you mean by vagueness and imprecision?

Sam Barker: I suppose the classical idea of what making music is about has a lot to do with the sort of western idea of individualism and about self-expression. I don’t know. There’s this romantic idea of artists having these frenzied creative bursts that give birth to the wonderful things, that it’s some kind of struggle. I just was feeling super disillusioned with all of that. Around that time, 2014 or 15, I was also reading a lot about social media, reading about behavioral science, trying to figure what was going on in this arena and how people are being pushed in different directions by this algorithmic system of information distribution. That kind of got me into this sort of behavioral science side of things, like the addictive part of the variable-ratio reward schedule with likes. It’s a free dopamine dispenser kind of thing. This was kind of getting me into reading about behavioral science and cognitive science. It was giving me a lot of clarity, but not much more sort of inspiration. It was basically like music.

Dance music especially is a sort of complex behavioral science. You do this and people do that. It’s all deeply ingrained. I sort of imagine the DJ as a sort Skinner box operator pulling puppet strings and making people behave in different ways. Music producers are kind of designing clever programs using punishment and reward, or suspense and release, and controlling people’s behavior. The whole thing felt super pushy and not a very inspiring conclusion. Looking at the problem from a cognitive science point of view is just the framework that helped me to understand what the problem was in the first place, so this kind of problem of being manipulative. Behavioral science is kind of saying what we can make people do. Cognitive psychology is sort of figuring out why people do that. That was my entry point into cognitive psychology, and that was kind of the basis for Debiasing.

There’s always been sort of a parallel for me between what I make and my state of mind. When I’m in a more positive state, I tend to make things I’m happier with, and so on. Getting to the bottom of what tricks were, I suppose, with dance music. I kind of understood implicitly, but I just wanted to figure out why things worked. I sort of came to the conclusion it was to do with a collection of biases we have, like the confirmation bias, and the illusion of truth effect, and the mere exposure effect. These things are like the guardians of four/four supremacy. Dance music can be pretty repetitive, and we describe it sometimes in really aggressive terminology. It’s a psychological kind of interaction.

Cognitive psychology was leading me to Kaplan’s law of the instrument. The law of the instrument says that if you give a small boy a hammer, he’ll find that everything he encounters requires pounding. I thought that was a good metaphor. The idea is that we get so used to using tools in a certain way that we lose sight of what it is we’re trying to do. We act in the way that the tool instructs us to do. I thought, what if you take away the hammer? That became a metaphor for me, in a sense, that David clarified in terms of pain reduction. We sort of put these painful elements into music in a way to give this kind of hedonic contrast, but we don’t really consider that that might not be necessary. What happens when we abolish these sort of negative elements? Are the results somehow released from this process? That was sort of the point, up until discovering the Hedonistic Imperative.

I think what I was needing at the time was a sort of framework, so I had the idea that music was decision making. To improve the results, you have to ask better questions, make better decisions. You can make some progress looking at the mechanics of that from a psychology point of view. What I was sort of lacking was a purpose to frame my decisions around. I sort of had the idea that music was a sort of a valence carrier, if you like, and that it could be tooled towards a sort of a greater purpose than just making people dance, which was for Debiasing the goal, really. It was to make people dance, but don’t use the sort of deeply ingrained cues that people used to, and see if that works.

What was interesting was how broadly it was accepted, this first EP. There were all kinds of DJs playing it in techno, ambient, electro, all sorts of different styles. It reached a lot of people. It was as if taking out the most functional element made it more functional and more broadly appealing. That was the entry point to utilitarianism. There was sort of an accidentally utilitarian act, in a way, to sort of try and maximize the pleasure and minimize the pain. I suppose after landing in utilitarianism and searching for some kind of a framework for a sense of purpose in my work, the Hedonistic Imperative was probably the most radical, optimistic take on the system. Firstly, it put me in a sort of mindset where it granted permission to explore sort of utopian ideals, because I think the idea of pleasure is a little bit frowned upon in the art world. I think the art world turns its nose up at such direct cause and effect. The idea that producers could be paradise engineers of sorts, or the precursors to paradise engineers, that we almost certainly would have a role in a kind of sensory utopia of the future.

There was this kind of permission granted. You can be optimistic. You can enter into your work with good intentions. It’s okay to see music as a tool to increase overall wellbeing, in a way. That was kind of the guiding idea for my work in the studio. I’m trying, these days, to put more things into the system to make decisions in a more conscious way, at least where it’s appropriate to. This sort of notion of reducing pain and increasing pleasure was the sort of question I would ask at any stage of decision making. Did this thing that I did serve those ends? If not, take a step back and try a different approach.

There’s something else to be said about the way you sort of explore this utopian world without really being bogged down. You handle the objections in such a confident way. I called it a zero gravity world of ideas. I wanted to bring that zero gravity feeling to my work, and to see that technology can solve any problem in this sphere. Anything’s possible. All the obstacles are just imagined, because we fabricate these worlds ourselves. These are things that were really instructive for me, as an artist.

Lucas Perry: That’s quite an interesting journey. From the lens of understanding cognitive psychology and human biases, was it that you were seeing those biases in dance music itself? If so, what were those biases in particular?

Sam Barker: On both sides, on the way it’s produced and in the way it’s received. There’s sort of an unspoken acceptance. You’re playing a set and you take a kick drum out. That signals to people to perhaps be alert. The lighting engineer, they’ll maybe raise the lights a little bit, and everybody knows that the music is going into sort of a breakdown, which is going to end in some sort of climax. Then, at that point, the kick drum comes back in. We all know this pattern. It’s really difficult to understand why that works without referring to things like cognitive psychology or behavioral science.

Lucas Perry: What does the act of debiasing the reception and production of music look like and do to the music and its reception?

Sam Barker: The first part that I could control was what I put into it. The experiment was whether a debiased piece of dance music could perform the same functionality, or whether it really relies on these deeply ingrained cues. Without wanting to sort of pat myself on the back, it kind of succeeded in its purpose. It was sort of proof that this was a worthy concept.

Lucas Perry: You used the phrase, earlier, four/four. For people who are not into dance music, that just means a kick on each beat, which is ubiquitous in much of house and techno music. You’ve removed that, for example, in your album Debiasing. What are other things that you changed from your end, in the production of Debiasing, to debias the music from normal dance music structure?

Sam Barker: It was informing the structure of what I was doing so much that I wasn’t so much on a grid where you have predictable things happening. It’s a very highly formulaic and structured thing, and that all keys into the expectation and this confirmation bias that people, I think, get some kind of kick from when the predictable happens. They say, yep. There you go. I knew that was going to happen. That’s a little dopamine rush, but I think it’s sort of a cheap trick. I guess I was trying to get the tricks out of it, in a way, so figuring out what they were, and trying to reduce or eliminate them was the process for Debiasing.

Lucas Perry: That’s quite interesting and meaningful, I think. Let’s just take trap music. I know exactly how trap music is going to go. It has this buildup and drop structure. It’s basically universal across all dance music. Progressive house in the 2010s was also exactly like this. What else? Dubstep, of course, same exact structure. Everything is totally predictable. I feel like I know exactly what’s going to happen, having listened to electronic music for over a decade.

Sam Barker: It works, I think. It’s a tried and tested formula, and it does the job, but when you’re trying to imagine states beyond just getting a little kick from knowing what was going to happen, that’s the place that I was trying to get to, really.

Lucas Perry: After the release of Debiasing in 2018, which was a successful attempt at serving this goal and mission, you then discovered the Hedonistic Imperative by David Pearce, and kind of leaned into consequentialism, it seems. Then, in 2019, you had two releases. You had BARKER 001 and you had Utility. Now, Utility is the album which most explicitly adopts David Pearce’s work, specifically in the Hedonistic Imperative. You mentioned electronic dance producers and artists in general can be sort of the first wave of, or can perhaps assist in paradise engineering, insofar as that will be possible in the near to short terms future, given advancements in technology. Is that sort of the explicit motivation and framing around those two releases of BARKER 001 and Utility?

Sam Barker: BARKER 001 was a few tracks that were taken out of the running for the album, because they didn’t sort of fit the concept. Really, I knew the last track was kind of alluding to the album. Otherwise, it was perhaps not sort of thematically linked. Hopefully, if people are interested in looking more into what’s behind the music, you can lead people into topics with the concept. With Utility, I didn’t want to just keep exploring cognitive biases and unpicking dance music structurally. It’s sort of a paradox, because I guess the Hedonistic Imperative argues that pleasure can exist without purpose, but I really was striving for some kind of purpose with the pleasure that I was getting from music. That sort of emerged from reading the Hedonistic Imperative, really, that you can apply music to this problem of raising the general level of happiness up a notch. I did sort of worry that by trying to please, it wouldn’t work, that it would be something that’s too sickly sweet. I mean, I’m pretty turned off by pop music, and there was this sort of risk that it would end up somewhere like that. That’s it, really. Just looking for a higher purpose with my work in music.

Lucas Perry: David, do you have any reactions?

David Pearce: Well, when I encountered Utility, yes, I was thrilled. As you know, essentially I’m a writer writing in quite heavy sub-academic prose. Sam’s work, I felt, helps give people a glimpse of our glorious future, paradise engineering. As you know, the reviews were extremely favorable. I’m not an expert critic or anything like that. I was just essentially happy and thrilled at the thought. It deserves to be mainstream. It’s really difficult, I think, to actually evoke the glorious future we are talking about. I mean, I can write prose, but in some sense music can evoke paradise better, at least for many people, than prose.

And it continues on. I highly recommend listening to the whole podcast: it is wonderfully edited and musical pieces referenced in the interview are brought up in real time for you to listen to. Barker also made a playlist of songs specifically for this podcast, which are played during the second half of the recording. It is delightful to listen to music that you know was produced with the explicit purpose of increasing your wellbeing. A wholesome message at last! Amazing art inspired by the ideology of Paradise Engineering, arriving near you… very soon.



As an aside, I think that shared visions of paradise are really essential for solving coordination problems. So…

Please join me in putting on Barker’s track Paradise Engineering, closing your eyes, and imagining- in detail- what the creation of an Institute for Paradise Engineering on a grand scale would look like. What would a positive Manhattan Project of Consciousness entail? What is the shortest path for us to create such a large-scale initiative?

By the way: the song is only 4 minutes long. So its duration is perfect for you to use as a guiding and grounding piece of media for a positive DMT trip. Press “play” immediately after you vaporize the DMT, sit back, relax, and try to render in your mind a posthuman paradise in which Full-Spectrum Supersentient Superintelligence has won and the threat of Pure Replicators has been averted. If you do this, please let me know what you experience as a result.


Ps. It’s worth noting that Barker’s conception of art is highly aligned with QRI’s view of what art could be like. See, in particular, models 4 through 8 in our article titled Harmonic Society.


Featured image by Michael Aaron Coleman

The QRI Ecosystem: Friends, Collaborators, Blogs, Media, and Adjacent Communities

The Qualia Research Institute has the vision of a world free from involuntary suffering in which conscious agents are empowered to have full control over their lived experiences. Its mission tackles this objective by combining foundational research on consciousness with a focus on explaining the mathematical properties of pleasure and pain for a full, formal account of valence.

By relating our mission to existing memeplexes, we could perhaps accurately describe the ethos of QRI as “Qualia Formalist Sentientist Effective Altruism“. That’s a mouthful. Let’s break it down:

  • Qualia Formalism refers to the notion that experience has a precise mathematical description that ties it with physics (for a more detailed breakdown see the Formalism section of the glossary).
  • Sentientism refers to the claim that value and disvalue are entirely expressed in the nature and quality of conscious experiences. In other words, that the only reason why states of affairs matter is because of the way in which they impact experiences.
  • Effective Altruism refers to the view that we can aspire to do the most good we can rather than settle for less. If you examine the actual extent to which different interventions cash out in terms of reduction in suffering throughout the world, you will notice that they follow a long-tail distribution. Thus, research on how to prioritize interventions really pays off. Focusing on the top interventions (and being willing to spend extra time digging for even better ones) can multiply your positive impact by orders of magnitude.

We could thus say that people and organizations are more or less aligned with QRI to the extent that they are aligned with each of these notions and their combinations thereof. More so, QRI also values the practice of rational psychonautics and the study of one’s own mind with meditation – hence we also include lists of rational psychonauts and great dharma teachers.

Find below the list of people and organizations that have a significant degree of alignment with QRI on each front. We also include a list of blogs and websites from readers of our work, which is meant to incentivize community-building around the aforementioned core ideas.

Format:

Name of Person/Organization – Blog/Website/Media [if any] (Representative Post of the Author- Sometimes Not from Their Primary Site [if any])


QRI Canon

Qualia Research Institute – QRI (Glossary)

Michael Edward Johnson – Open Theory (Neural Annealing)

Andrés Gómez Emilsson – Qualia Computing (Wireheading Done Right)

Current and Former QRI Employees and Collaborators Who Write About QRI Topics

Romeo Stevens – Neurotic Gradient Descent (Core Transformation)

Quintin Frerichs – The Youtopia Project (Wada Test + Phenomenal Puzzles)

Andrew “Zuck” Zuckerman – andzuck.com (Super Free Will)

Kenneth Shinozuka – Blank Horizons (A Future for Humanity)

Wendi Yan – wendiyan.com (The Psychedelic Club)

Jeremy Hadfield – jeremyhadfield.com (How to Steal a Vibe)

Elin Ahlstrand – Mind Nomad (Floating Through First Fears)

Margareta Wassinge and Anders Amelin – Qualia Productions (When AI Means Advanced Incompetence)

List of current and former QRI collaborators and volunteers not listed above (in no particular order): Patrick Taylor, Hunter Meyer, Sean McGowan, Alex Zhao, Boian Etropolski, Robin Goins, Bence Vass, Brian Westerman, Jacob Shwartz-Lucas.


People and Organizations that Advocate for Sentientism and the Elimination of Suffering

David Pearce – Hedweb.com (The Hedonistic Imperative)

Manu Herrán – manuherran.com (Psychological Biases that Impede the Success in the Reduction of Intense Suffering Movement)

Jonathan Leighton – jonathanleighton.org (Why Access to Morphine is a Human Right)

Magnus Vinding – magnusvinding.com (Suffering-Focused Ethics: Defense and Implications)

Robert Daoust – robert.algosphere.org (Review of Precursor Works)

Jacob Shwartz-Lucas – Invincible Wellbeing (Pleasure in the Brain)

Algosphere Alliance – algosphere.org (Vision)

Organization for the Prevention of Intense Suffering (OPIS) – preventsuffering.org (Cluster Headaches and Potential Therapies)

Sentience Research – sentience-research.org (Algonomy)

People and Organizations Aligned with Qualia Formalism

Giulio Tononi – integratedinformationtheory.org (Phi: A Voyage from the Brain to the Soul)

Steven Lehar – slehar.com (Harmonic Resonance Theory)

Jonathan W. D. Mason – jwmason.net (Quasi-Conscious Multivariate System)

Johannes Kleiner – jkleiner.de (Mathematical Consciousness Science)

Dan Lloyd – Labyrinth of Consciousness (The Music of Consciousness)

Luca Turin – A Spectroscopic Mechanism for Primary Olfactory Reception (The Science of Scent)

William Marshall – Google Scholar (PyPhi)

Larissa Albantakis – Google Scholar (Causal Composition)

Models of Consciousness Conference – models-of-consciousness.org (YouTube channel)

People and Organizations Aligned with Effective Altruism

Nick Bostrom – nickbostrom.com (What is a Singleton?)

Anders Sandberg – aleph.se (Uriel’s Stacking Problem)

Toby Ord – tobyord.com (The Precipice)

80000 Hours – 80000hours.org (We Could Feed All 8 Billion People Through a Nuclear Winter)

Future of Humanity Institute – fhi.ox.ac.uk (Publications)

Future of Life Institute – futureoflife.org (AI Alignment Podcast: Identity and the AI Revolution with David Pearce and Andrés Gómez Emilsson)

Center on Long-Term Risk – longtermrisk.org (The Case for Suffering-Focused Ethics)

Rethink Priorities – rethinkpriorities.org (Invertebrate Welfare Cause Profile)

Happier Lives Institute – happierlivesinstitute.org (Cause Profile: Mental Health)

Effective Altruism Forum – forum.effectivealtruism.org (Logarithmic Scales of Pleasure and Pain)


Rational Psychonautics

Steven Lehar – slehar.com (The Grand Illusion)

James Kent – psychedelic-information-theory.com (The Control Interrupt Model of Psychedelic Action)

Alexander Shulgin – Shulgin Research Institute (Phenethylamines I Have Known And Loved)

Thomas S. Ray – Breadth and Depth (Psychedelics and the Human Receptorome)

Matthew Baggott – Beyond Fear: MDMA and Emotion (MDA and Contour Integration)

Psychonaut Wiki – psychonautwiki.org (Visual Effects)

Psychedelic Replications – reddit.com/r/replications (Best of All Times Replicationsspecific floor tile example)

Great Dharma Teachers

Daniel M. Ingram – Integrated Daniel (No-Self vs. True Self)

Leigh Brasington – leighb.com (Right Concentration)

Shinzen Young – shinzen.org (The Science of Enlightenment)

Culadasa – culadasa.com (Joy and Meditation)


QRI Friends and Supporters

Ryan Ferris and James Ormrod – The Good Timeline  (5-MeO-DMT, Paradise Engineering)

Adrian Nelson – Origins of Consciousness (Consciousness Blindness in Science Fiction)

Alex K. Chen – Quora (What are the long term effects of Adderall, Dexedrine, or Ritalin use?)

Andy Vargas – Neologos (Praxis for Open Individualism; Purpose Statement)

Tyger Gruber – tygergruber.com (The Show)

Jacob Lyles – Jacob ex machina (Building a Better Anti-Capitalism)

Adjacent Communities, Organizations, and Allies

Scott Alexander – Slate Start Codex (Relaxed Beliefs Under Psychedelics and the Anarchic Brain)

Geoffrey Miller – Primal Poly (The Mating Mind: How sexual choice shaped the evolution of human nature)

Zvi Mowshowitz – Don’t Worry About the Vase (More Dakka)

Sarah Constantin – Multiple websites: 12, 3 (More Dakka in Medicine)

Scott Aaronson – scottaaronson.com/blog/ (Why I Am Not An Integrated Information Theorist)

Gwern – gwern.net (Iodine and IQ Meta-Analysis)

Venkatesh Rao – Ribbonfarm (Why We Slouch)

David Chapman – meaningness.com (Romantic Rebellion)

Atman Retreat – atmanretreat.com (FAQ)

Foresight Institute – foresight.org (YouTube Channel)

Convergence Analysis – convergenceanalysis.org (List of Works)

Simulation Series – About (YouTube Channel)

Consciousness Hacking – cohack.org (blog posts)

HeartMath Institute – heartmath.org (Chapter on Coherence)

The Wider World of People Who are Friends and Acquaintances of the QRI Ecosystem

Note: I asked (on social media) our readers to share their blogs and personal sites with us. Some of these links are very aligned with QRI and some are not. That said, together they represent a good sample of the memetic ecosystem that surrounds QRI. Namely, these links can be taken as a whole to be suggestive of “the memetic ground upon which QRI is founded”. Please feel free to share your blog or personal site in the comment section of this post.

Jack Foust – Welcome to the Symbolic Domain

Scott Jackisch – Oakland Futurist (Art as a Superweapon)

Maurits Luyben – Energy and Structure

Anonymous – deluks917 (What does ‘Actually Trying’ look like?)

Sameer Halai – sameerhalai.com (Toilet Paper Shortage is Not Caused by Hoarding)

Yohan John – neurologism.com (Some Wild Speculation On Goodhart’s Law And Its Manifestations In The Brain)

Jamie Joyce – The Society Library (Deconstructing the Logic of “Plandemic”)

João Mirage – YouTube Channel (The Mirror of the Spirit)

Natália Mendonça – Axiomatic Doubts (What Truths are Worth Seeking?)

Dustin Ali Francis Janatpour – Tales From Samarkand (The Inspector and the Crow)

Zarathustra Amadeus Goertzel – zarathustra.gitlab.io (Garden of Minds)

Duncan Sabien – Human Parts (In Defense of Punch Bug)

Brenda Esquivel – Abanico de Historias (La Reina Tamar y el Pájaro Condenado)

Vishnu Bachani – vishnubachani.com (Latent Possibilities of the Tonal System)

Martin Utheraptor Duřt – utheraptor.art (Psychedelic Series)

Qiaochu Yuan – Thicket Forte (Monist Nihilism)

Jedediah Logan – Medium Account (Coping with Death During the COVID-19 Crisis)

Eliezer da Silva – eliezersilva.blog (Prior Specification via Prior Predictive Matching)

Cassandra McClure – Lexicaldoll (On Save States)

Gaige Clark – mad.science.blog / Querky Science (The Phoenix Effect)

Ben Finn – optima.blog (Too much to do? Plan your day with Hopscotch [longer])

Michael Dello-Iacovo – michaeldello.com (How I Renounced Christianity and Became Atheist)

Robin Hanson – Overcoming Bias (What Can Money Buy Directly?)

Katja Grace – meteuphoric.com, Worldly Positions, AI Impacts

Mundy Otto Reimer – mundyreimer.github.io (On Thermodynamics, Agency, and Living Systems)

Khuyen Bui – Medium Account (Beyond Ambition)

Jessica Watson Miller – Autotranslucence (Art as the Starting Point; Becoming a Magician)

Aella – knowingless.com (The Trauma Narrative)

Jacob Falkovich – Put a Number on It (The Scent of Bad Psychology)

Javi Otero – iawaketechnologies.com (Fractal Entrainment: A New Psychoacoustic Technology Inspired by Nature)

José Luis Ricón – Nintil

Eliot Redelman – BearLamp

Tee Barnett – teebarnett.com (Are you a job search drone?)

Juan Fernandez Zaragoza – filosofiadelfuturo.com (Pandemia de Ideas)

Eric Layne – (The Antidote to a Global Crisis)

Kazi Adi Shakti – holo-poiesis.com (Beyond Affirmation and Negation)

Pushan Kumar Datta – kaiserpush1 (Ramayana and Cognition of Self)

Yan Liu – Inflection Point (Seeing a World Unshackled from Neoclassical Economics)

Joseph Kelly – (Entrepreneurship is Metaphysical Labor)

Logan Thrasher Collins – logancollinsblog.com

Malcolm Ocean – malcolmocean.com (Transcending Regrets, Problems, and Mistakes)

Jesse Parent – (Why ‘Be Yourself’ is Still Excellent Relationship Advice)

Milan Griffes – Flight From Perfection (Contemplative Practices, Optimal Stopping, Explore/Exploit)

Cody Kuiack – cosmeffect.com (The Holomorphic Self – Meditations)

Daniel Eth – thinkingofutils.com (Quantum Computing for Morons)

Brian P. Ellis – brianpellis.net (Refuting Dr. Erickson and Dr. Massihi)

John Greer – johncgreer.com (The Three Buckets)


Finally: List of Other Relevant Lists

Effective Altruism Blogs – eablogs.net

LessWrong Wiki – List of Rationalist Diaspora Blogs

Effective Altruism Hub – effectivealtruism.org (Resources)

Open Individualism Readings – r/OpenIndividualism (Wiki Reading List)

Phenomenal Binding Resources – binding-problem.com

Physicalist Hotlinks – physicalism.com/physicalist-hotlinks