Utilitronium Shockwaves vs. Gradients of Bliss

Excerpt from On utilitronium shockwaves versus gradients of bliss by David Pearce


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Utilitronium Shockwave: Turn your local Galaxy Super-Cluster into a Full-Spectrum Orgasm in 9 easy civilizational steps.

Why is the idea of life animated by gradients of intelligent bliss attractive, at least to some of us, whereas the prospect of utilitronium leaves almost everyone cold? One reason is the anticipated loss of self: if one’s matter and energy were converted into utilitronium, then intuitively the intense undifferentiated bliss wouldn’t be me. By contrast, even a radical recalibration of one’s hedonic set-point intuitively preserves the greater part of one’s values, memories and existing preference architecture: in short, personal identity. Whether such preservation of self would really obtain if life were animated by gradients of bliss, and whether such notional continuity is ethically significant, and whether the notion of an enduring metaphysical ego is even intellectually coherent, is another matter. Regardless of our answers to such questions, there is a tension between our divergent response to the prospect of cosmos-wide utilitronium and intelligent bliss. People rarely complain that e.g. orgasmic sexual ecstasy lasts too long, and that regrettably they lose their sense of personal identity while orgasm lasts. On the contrary: behavioural evidence strongly suggests that most men in particular reckon sexual bliss is too short-lived and infrequent. Indeed if such sexual bliss were available indefinitely, and if it were characterised by an intensity orders of magnitude greater than the best human orgasms, then would anyone – should anyone – wish such ecstasy to stop? Subjectively, utilitronium presumably feels more sublime than sexual bliss, or even whole-body orgasm. Granted the feasibility of such heavenly bliss, is viewing the history of life on Earth to date as mere stepping-stones to cosmic nirvana really so outrageous?

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Is attachment to your sense of self keeping you from embracing hedonium? Stop ‘Selfing’ with these 3 buddhist-approved Techniques!

For the foreseeable future, however, even strict classical utilitarians must work for information-sensitive gradients of intelligent bliss rather than raw undifferentiated pleasure. Classical hedonistic utilitarianism was originally formulated as an ethic for legislators, not biologists or computer scientists. Conceived in this light, the felicific calculus has been treated as infeasible. Yet a disguised implication of a classical utilitarian ethic in an era of mature biotechnology may be that we should be seeking to convert the world into utilitronium, generally assumed to be relatively homogenous matter and energy optimised for raw bliss. The “shockwave” in utilitronium shockwave alludes to our hypothetical obligation to launch von Neumann probes propagating this hyper-valuable state of matter and energy at, or nearly at, the velocity of light across our Galaxy, then our Local Cluster, and then our Local Supercluster. And beyond? Well, politics is the art of the possible. The accelerating expansion of the universe would seem to make further utilitronium propagation infeasible even with utopian technologies. Such pessimism assumes our existing understanding of theoretical physics is correct; but theoretical cosmology is currently in a state of flux.

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Utilitronium Shockwave? (cf. Hedonium)

Naively, the theoretical feasibility of utilitronium shockwave is too remote to sorry about. This question might seem a mere philosophical curiosity. But not so. Complications of uncertain outcome aside, any rate of time discounting indistinguishable from zero is ethically unacceptable for the ethical utilitarian. So on the face of it, the technical feasibility of a utilitronium shockwave makes working for its adoption ethically mandatory even if the prospect is centuries or millennia distant.

Existential Risk? Utilitarian ethics and speculative cosmology might seem far removed. But perhaps the only credible candidate naturalising value has seemingly apocalyptic implications that have never (to my knowledge) been explored in the scholarly literature. And can we seriously hope to be effective altruists in the absence of serviceable model of Reality?

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All-New “Life”! – Now animated by gradients of bliss. Pain-free!

Should existential risk reduction be the primary goal of: a) negative utilitarians? b) classical hedonistic utilitarians? c) preference utilitarians? All, or none, of the above? The answer is far from obvious. For example, one might naively suppose that a negative utilitarian would welcome human extinction. But only (trans)humans – or our potential superintelligent successors – are technically capable of phasing out the cruelties of the rest of the living world on Earth. And only (trans)humans – or rather our potential superintelligent successors – are technically capable of assuming stewardship of our entire Hubble volume. Conceptions of the meaning of the term “existential risk” differ. Compare David Benatar’s “Better Never To Have Been” with Nick Bostrom’s “Astronomical Waste“. Here at least, we will use the life-affirming sense of the term. Does negative utilitarianism or classical utilitarianism represent the greater threat to intelligent life in the cosmos? Arguably, we have our long-term existential risk-assessment back-to-front. A negative utilitarian believes that once intelligent agents have phased out the biology of suffering, all our ethical duties have been discharged. But the classical utilitarian seems ethically committed to converting all accessible matter and energy – not least human and nonhuman animals – into relatively homogeneous matter optimised for maximum bliss: “utilitronium”.

Ramifications? Severe curtailment of personal liberties in the name of Existential Risk Reduction is certainly conceivable. Assume, for example, that the technical knowledge of how to create and deploy readily transmissible, 100% lethal, delayed-action weaponised pathogens leaks into the public domain. Only the most Orwellian measures – a perpetual global totalitarianism – could hope to prevent their use, whether by a misanthrope or an idealist. Such measures would most likely fail. By contrast, constitutively happy people would be incapable of envisaging the development and use of such a doomsday agent. The biology of suffering in intelligent agents is a deep underlying source of existential risk – and one that can potentially be overcome.

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Gradients of Bliss world in a Hedonium Universe? – “Central Realm of the Densely-Packed.”

A theoretically inelegant but pragmatically effective compromise solution might be to initiate a utilitronium shockwave that propagates outside the biosphere – or realm of posthuman civilisation. The world within our cosmological horizon could then be tiled with utilitronium with the exception of a negligible island (or archipelago) of minds animated “merely” by gradients of intelligent bliss. One advantage of this hybrid option is that most refusniks would (presumably) be indifferent to the fate of inert matter and energy outside their lifeworld. Ask someone today whether they’d mind if some anonymous rock on the far side of the moon were converted into utilitronium and they’d most likely shrug.

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Shrugging at the prospect of hedonium rocks on the moon.

In future, gradients of intelligent bliss orders of magnitude richer than today’s peak experiences could well be a design feature of the post-human mind. However, I don’t think intracranial self-stimulation is consistent with intelligence or critical insight. This is because it is uniformly rewarding. Intelligence depends on informational sensitivity to positive and negative stimuli – even if “negative” posthuman hedonic dips are richer and higher than the human hedonic ceiling.

In contrast to life animated by gradients of bliss, the prospect of utilitronium cannot motivate. Or rather the prospect can motivate only a rare kind of hyper-systematiser drawn to its simplicity and elegance. The dips of intelligent bliss need not be deep […] Everyday hedonic tone could be orders of magnitude richer than anything physiologically feasible now. But will such well-being be orgasmic? Orgasmic bliss lacks – in the jargon of academic philosophy – an “intentional object”. So presumably there will be selection pressure against any predisposition to enjoy 24/7 orgasms. By contrast, information-sensitive gradients of intelligent bliss can be adaptive – and hence sustainable indefinitely, allowing universe maintenance: responsible stewardship of Hubble volume.

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Can Life and Hedonium get Married? Express your eternal love with Hedonium Jewelry! Made of 99.99% Pure Bliss! (Guaranteed by Hilbert Space Hamiltonian Assay – Lab Tested Hedonium!)

At any rate, posthumans may regard even human “peak experiences” as indescribably dull by comparison.

On Hitting the Actual Target of Hedonic Tone

Practically speaking, I think that our single best psychopharmacological bet for tackling depression, anxiety, and above all chronic pain worldwide in the next decade is to:

1) Identify great, non-toxic, partial mu-opioid agonists with extremely high therapeutic index (e.g. tianepetine, 7-hydroxymitragynine, etc.), and

2) Prescribe them in conjunction with anti-tolerance drugs (such as proglumide, agmatine, black seed oil, small dose ibogaine, etc.).

I think that whomever manages to patent a mixture of partial opioid agonist + anti-tolerance drug that works in the long term will be a multi-billionaire within a couple of years while actually reducing/preventing massive amounts of untold suffering.

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Proglumide: A Promising Anti-Tolerance Agent (proof of concept of what is to come)


Ps. My core research at QRI is not pharmacological but rather phenomenological and “patternceutical“. So I am not pursuing the above line of research myself as the core objective of the next few years. But if I was looking into pharmacological options, that’s where I’d shine some light on. If you are in the field, I urge you to look into this option. For more info: “Anti-Tolerance Drugs“.

“Letter from Utopia” and Other Triple-S Transhumanist Media

by Nick Bostrom (2010)

Dear Human,

Greetings, and may this letter find you at peace and in prosperity! Forgive
my writing to you out of the blue. Though you and I have never met, we are
not strangers. We are, in a certain sense, the closest of kin. I am one of your
possible futures.

I hope you will become me. Should fortune grant this wish, then I am not
just a possible future of yours, but your actual future: a coming phase of you,
like the full moon that follows a waxing crescent, or like the flower that
follows a seed.

I am writing to tell you about my life – how good it is – that you may choose
it for yourself.

Although this letter uses the singular, I am really writing on behalf of all
my contemporaries, and we are addressing ourselves to all of your
contemporaries. Amongst us are many who are possible futures of your
people. Some of us are possible futures of children you have not yet given
birth to. Still others are possible artificial persons that you might one day
create. What unites us is that we are all dependent on you to make us real.
You can think of this note as if it were an invitation to a ball that will take
place only if folks turn up.

We call the lives we lead here “Utopia”.

*

How can I tell you about Utopia and not leave you mystified? What words
could convey the wonder? What inflections express our happiness? What
points overcome your skepticism? My pen, I fear, is as unequal to the task as
if I had tried to use it against a charging elephant.

But the matter is so important that we must try even against long odds.
Maybe you will see through the inadequacies of my exposition.

Have you ever known a moment of bliss? On the rapids of inspiration,
maybe, where your hands were guided by a greater force to trace the shapes
of truth and beauty? Or perhaps you found such a moment in the ecstasy of
love? Or in a glorious success achieved with good friends? Or in splendid
conversation on a vine-overhung terrace one star-appointed night? Or
perhaps there was a song or a melody that smuggled itself into your heart,
setting it alight with kaleidoscopic emotion? Or during worship?

If you have experienced such a moment, experienced the best type of such a
moment, then a certain idle but sincere thought may have presented itself to
you: “Oh Heaven! I didn’t realize it could feel like this. This is on a
different level, so very much more real and worthwhile. Why can’t it be like
this always? Why must good times end? I was sleeping; now I am awake.”

Yet behold, only a little later, scarcely an hour gone by, and the softly-falling
soot of ordinary life is already piling up. The silver and gold of exuberance
lose their shine. The marble becomes dirty.

Every way you turn it’s the same: soot, casting its veil over all glamours and
revelries, despoiling your epiphany, sodding up your white pressed collar and
shirt. And once again that familiar beat is audible, the beat of numbing
routine rolling along its tracks. The commuter trains loading and unloading
their passengers… sleepwalkers, shoppers, solicitors, the ambitious and the
hopeless, the contented and the wretched… like human electrons shuffling
through the circuitry of civilization.

We do so easily forget how good life can be at its best – and how bad at its
worst. The most outstanding occasion: barely is it over before the sweepers
move in to clean up the rice. Yellowing photos remain.

And this is as it should be. We are in the business of living, and life must go
on. Special moments are out-of-equilibrium experiences in which our
puddles are stirred up and splashed about; yet when normalcy returns we are
usually relieved. We are built for mundane functionality, not lasting bliss.

So the door that was ajar begins to close, disappearing hope’s sliver behind
an insensate scab.

Quick, stop that door! Look again at your yellowing photos, search for a
clue. Do you not see it? Do you not feel it, the touch of the possible? You
have witnessed the potential for a higher life, and you hold the fading proof
in your hands. Don’t throw it away. In the attic of your mind, reserve a
drawer for the notion of a higher state of being. In the furnace of your heart,
keep an aspiring ember alive.

I am summoning this memory of your best experience – to what end? In the
hope of kindling in you a desire to share my happiness.

And yet, what you had in your best moment is not close to what I have now
– a beckoning scintilla at most. If the distance between base and apex for
you is eight kilometers, then to reach my dwellings requires a million lightyear ascent. The altitude is outside moon and planets and all the stars your
eyes can see. Beyond dreams. Beyond imagination.

My consciousness is wide and deep, my life long. I have read all your
authors – and much more. I have experienced life in many forms and from
many angles: jungle and desert, gutter and palace, heath and suburban creek
and city back alley. I have sailed the high seas of cultures, and swum, and
dived. Quite some marvelous edifice builds up over a million years by the
efforts of homunculi, just as the humble polyps amass a reef in time. And
I’ve seen the shoals of colored biography fishes, each one a life story,
scintillate under heaving ocean waters.

The whole exceeds the sum of its parts. What I have is not merely more of
what is available to you now. It isn’t just the particular things, the paintings
and toothpaste-tube designs, the record covers and books, the epochs, lives,
leaves, rivers, and random encounters, the satellite images and the hadron
collider data – it is also the complex relationships between these particulars
that make up my mind. There are ideas that can be formed only on top of
such a wide experience base. There are depths that can be fathomed only
with such ideas.

You could say I am happy, that I feel good. You could say that I feel
surpassing bliss. But these are words invented to describe human
experience. What I feel is as far beyond human feeling as my thoughts are
beyond human thought. I wish I could show you what I have in mind. If
only I could share one second of my conscious life with you!

But you don’t have to understand what I think and feel. If only you bear in
mind what is possible within the present human realm, you will have enough
to get started in the right direction, one step at a time. At no point will you
encounter a wall of blinding light. At no point will you have to jettison
yourself over an end-of-the-world precipice. As you advance, the horizon
will recede. The transformation is profound, but it can be as gradual as the
growth that made the baby you were into the adult you think you are.

You will not achieve this through any magic trick or hokum, nor by the
power of wishful thinking, nor by semantic acrobatics, meditation,
affirmation, or incantation. And I do not presume to advise you on matters
theological. I urge on you nothing more, nothing less, than reconfigured
physical situation.

*

The challenge before you: to become fully what you are now only in hope
and potential. New capacities are needed if you wish to live and play on my
level.

To reach Utopia, you must first discover the means to three fundamental
transformations.

The First Transformation: Secure life!

Your body is a deathtrap. This vital machine and mortal vehicle, unless it
jams first or crashes, is sure to rust anon. You are lucky to get seven decades
of mobility; eight if you be Fortuna’s darling. That is not sufficient to get
started in a serious way, much less to complete the journey. Maturity of the
soul takes longer. Why, even a tree-life takes longer!

Death is not one but a multitude of assassins. Do you not see them? They
are coming at you from every angle. Take aim at the causes of early death –
infection, violence, malnutrition, heart attack, cancer. Turn your biggest
gun on aging, and fire. You must seize control of the biochemical processes
in your body in order to vanquish, by and by, illness and senescence. In
time, you will discover ways to move your mind to more durable media.
Then continue to improve the system, so that the risk of death and disease
continues to decline. Any death prior to the heat death of the universe is
premature if your life is good.

Oh, it is not well to live in a self-combusting paper hut! Keep the flames at
bay and be prepared with liquid nitrogen, while you construct yourself a
better habitation. One day you or your children should have a secure home.
Research, build, redouble your effort!

The Second Transformation: Upgrade cognition!

Your brain’s special faculties: music, humor, spirituality, mathematics,
eroticism, art, nurturing, narration, gossip! These are fine spirits to pour
into the cup of life. Blessed you are if you have a vintage bottle of any of
these. Better yet, a cask! Better yet, a vineyard!

Be not afraid to grow. The mind’s cellars have no ceilings!

What other capacities are possible? Imagine a world with all the music dried
up: what poverty, what loss. Give your thanks, not to the lyre, but to your
ears for the music. And ask yourself, what other harmonies are there in the
air, that you lack the ears to hear? What vaults of value are you witlessly
debarred from, lacking the key sensibility?

Had you but an inkling, your nails would be clawing at the padlock in sacred
frenzy.

Your brain must grow beyond the bounds of any genius of humankind, in its
special faculties as well as its general intelligence, so that you may better
learn, remember, and understand, and so that you may apprehend your own
beatitude.

Mind is a means: for without insight you will get bogged down or lose your
way, and your journey will fail.

Mind is also an end: for it is in the spacetime of awareness that Utopia will
exist. May the measure of your mind be vast and expanding.

Oh, stupidity is a loathsome corral! Gnaw and tug at the posts, and you will
slowly loosen them up. One day you’ll break the fence that held your
forebears captive. Gnaw and tug, redouble your effort!

The Third Transformation: Elevate well-being!

What is the difference between indifference and interest, boredom and thrill,
despair and bliss?

Pleasure! A few grains of this magic ingredient are dearer than a king’s
treasure, and we have it aplenty here in Utopia. It pervades into everything
we do and everything we experience. We sprinkle it in our tea.

The universe is cold. Fun is the fire that melts the blocks of hardship and
creates a bubbling celebration of life.

It is the birth right of every creature, a right no less sacred for having been
trampled upon since the beginning of time.

There is a beauty and joy here that you cannot fathom. It feels so good that
if the sensation were translated into tears of gratitude, rivers would overflow.

I reach in vain for words to convey to you what it all amounts to… It’s like a
rain of the most wonderful feeling, where every raindrop has its own unique
and indescribable meaning – or rather a scent or essence that evokes a whole
world… And each such evoked world is subtler, richer, deeper, more
palpable than the totality of what you have experienced in your entire life.

I will not speak of the worst pain and misery that is to be got rid of; it is too
horrible to dwell upon, and you are already aware of the urgency of
palliation. My point is that in addition to the removal of the negative, there
is also an upside imperative: to enable the full flourishing of enjoyments that
are currently out of reach.

The roots of suffering are planted deep in your brain. Weeding them out
and replacing them with nutritious crops of well-being will require advanced
skills and instruments for the cultivation of your neuronal soil. But take
heed, the problem is multiplex! All emotions have a natural function. Prune
carefully lest you reduce the fertility of your plot.

Sustainable yields are possible. Yet fools will build fools’ paradises. I
recommend you go easy on your paradise-engineering until you have the
wisdom to do it right.

Oh, what a gruesome knot suffering is! Pull and tug on those loops, and you
will gradually loosen them up. One day the coils will fall, and you will
stretch out in delight. Pull and tug, and be patient in your effort!

May there come a time when rising suns are greeted with joy by all the living
creatures they shine upon.

*

How do you find this place? How long will it take to get here?

I can pass you no blueprint for Utopia, no timetable, no roadmap. All I can
give you is my assurance that there is something here, the potential for a
better life.

If you could visit me here for but a day, you would henceforth call this place
your home. This is the place where you belong. Ever since one hairy
creature picked up two flints and began knocking them together to make a
tool, this has been the direction of your unknown aspiration. Like Odysseus
you must journey, and never cease journeying, until you arrive upon this
shore.

“Arrive?” you say; “But isn’t the journey the destination? Isn’t Utopia a
place that doesn’t exist? And isn’t the quest for Utopia, as witnessed
historically, a dangerous folly and an incitement to mischief?”

Friend, that is not such a bad way for you to think about it. To be sure,
Utopia is not a location or a form of social organization.

The blush of health on a convalescent’s cheek. The twinkling of the eye in a
moment of wit. The smile of a loving thought… Utopia is the hope that the
scattered fragments of good that we come across from time to time in our
lives can be put together, one day, to reveal the shape of a new kind of life.
The kind of life that yours should have been.

I fear that the pursuit of Utopia will bring out the worst in you. Many a
moth has been incinerated in its pursuit of a brighter future.

Seek the light! But approach with care – swerve if you smell your wingtips
singeing. Light is for seeing, not dying.

When you embark on this quest, you will encounter rough seas and hard
problems. To prevail will take your best science, your best technology, and
your best politics. Yet each problem has a solution. My existence breaks no
law of nature. The materials are all there. Your people must become
master builders, and then you must use these skills to build yourselves up
without crushing your cores.

*

What is Suffering in Utopia? Suffering is the salt trace left on the cheeks of those
who were around before.

What is Tragedy in Utopia? There is tragedy in Snowman’s melting. Mass
murders are not required.

What is Imperfection in Utopia? Imperfection is the measure of our respect for
things as they are and for their history.

What is Body in Utopia? Body is a pair of legs, a pair of arms, a trunk and a
head, all made of flesh. Or not, as the case may be.

What is Society in Utopia? Society is a never-finished tapestry, its weavers equal
to its threads – the parts and patterns an inexhaustible bourne of beauty.

What is Death in Utopia? Death is the darkness that ultimately surrounds all
life.

What is Guilt in Utopia? Guilt is our knowledge that we could have created
Utopia sooner.

*

We love life here every instant. Every second is so good that it would blow
our minds had their amperage not been previously increased. My
contemporaries and I bear witness, and we request your aid. Please, help us
come into existence! Please, join us! Whether this tremendous possibility
becomes reality depends on your actions. If your empathy can perceive at
least the outlines of the vision I am describing, then your ingenuity will find a
way to make it real.

Human life, at its best, is fantastic. I’m asking you to create something even
greater. Life that is truly humane.

Yours sincerely,
Your Possible Future Self


See also a musicalized video rendition of this piece by Mario Montano: Letter From Utopia


Analysis

Nick Bostrom is a prominent transhumanist philosopher and academic who works at Oxford’s Future of Humanity Institute. An incredibly prolific writer, Nick has a very wide and comprehensive worldview. I find his work extremely valuable and worth diving into. Letter From Utopia is one of my favorite works of his, as it encompasses what David Pearce called “The Three Supers of Transhumanism“: Super-Intelligence, Super-Longevity, and Super-Happiness (cf. Triple-S Genetic Counseling). Bostrom also has other amazing stories and essays (such as The Fable of the Dragon-Tyrant, cf. story video rendition by CGP Grey: video), but Letter From Utopia takes the cake for not leaving behind anything of crucial importance.

Alas, despite Bostrom’s far-reaching contributions, many argue that Nick’s most important impact has been in the field of AI Alignment (cf. Superintelligence: Paths, Dangers, Strategies). In 2009 AI safety research was perceived to be a fringe concern of sci-fi aficionados and weirdos. Today, partly thanks to Bostrom (along with Yudkowsky, Chalmers, and others), many top journals publish serious work in this area.

I worry that this is not as good as it may seem. Nick Bostrom’s name is first and foremost associated with AI safety, followed by the Simulation Argument and Existential Risk, and only later by his extensive work on all other areas of transhumanism. For example, if you search Youtube for his name, you will see that of the top 20 results, 15 concern AI safety/digital superintelligence. Of the remaining 5, 3 are about the Simulation Argument, 1 is about agnosticism, and 1 is CGP Grey’s Dragon-Tyrant video. Where are the Triple-S videos?

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I remembered that I encountered the work of both David and Nick when I was 16, googling terms like consciousness, AI, psychedelics, and far future. I was drawn to both of them, though I particularly liked David’s focus on ending suffering as a priority and his acknowledgment of the scientific significance of altered states of consciousness. I thought that their work was complementary rather than redundant. Alas, Bostrom is far more well known than Pearce, perhaps due to his success as both a fringe philosopher and a mainstream academic. In contrast, David dropped out of Oxford out of frustration with the academic community; the analytic philosophy of the time was not empirical, and it focused on language use rather than real philosophical questions, including the nature of suffering, psychedelics, and physical causality (e.g. “Philosophy may in no way interfere with the actual use of language, it can in the end only describe it. For it cannot give it any foundation either. It leaves everything as it is. It also leaves mathematics as it is, and no mathematical discovery can advance it.” – Wittgenstein). Bostrom, unlike Pearce, has the blessing of Ra, the God of optionality, superlativity, status legibility, and groundless prestige. And yet, it was David’s conversation with Nick that gave rise to the creation of the World Transhumanist Association, and provided one of the most important memetic Schelling points of the early 2000s. Alas, David is not focused on AI Safety. Why?

People in the transhumanist community accuse David of not getting it. David, after all, is not a mathematician, computer scientist, or physicist; he is merely a philosopher. I must confess that the very first time I met David Pearce in person I got the sense that (1) he was an incredibly well-read and creative genius in most areas of philosophy, and yet (2) naïve and unenlightened in the field of AI. As a fan of his work, and having co-founded the Stanford Transhumanist Association a couple of months earlier, I thought to invite him to give a talk at Stanford (see: David Pearce at Stanford – 2011).

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David Pearce and the officers of the Stanford Transhumanist Association (December 1st 2011) at Palo Alto’s Chinese Vegan restaurant Garden Fresh, before David’s talk.

We had a lively conversation while eating dinner at a Chinese vegan restaurant before the event along with other members of the Association. I recall that he checked all of the right boxes when it came to personal identity (Open/Empty Individualism), ethics (consequentialism), physics (Everettian multiverse), psychedelia (they disclose new varieties of qualia), evolution (modern synthesis; selfish gene), social signaling theory (Mating Mind and sexual selection theory), and more (see his Reddit AMA). And yet, how could he dare to say that a digital computer would never be conscious? Meeting a brilliant thinker who had a better grasp of my favorite topics than I did and yet would try to hit on one of my core load-bearing beliefs was uncomfortable and unexpected. I dismissed his take on AI as that of a fuzzy thinker (at least in this area); I reassured myself by recalling that it was me who was studying AI academically at a top US institution and not him. Little did I know that over the next few years, and after hanging out with him in person for over 20 cumulative hours, he would finally change my mind- and worldview- concerning this whole field. If it wasn’t for him, I suspect I would have jumped on the bandwagon of AI-as-the-top-priority (cf. Altruists Should Prioritize Artificial Intelligence). Thankfully, I was already extremely interested in consciousness and didn’t have it in me to dismiss it. Additionally, my interest in personal identity reduced my (relative) interest in longevity research (at least as the top priority), for if we are all one consciousness, dying is more akin to forgetting a timeline than a true ontological death. The instrumental value of intelligence, however, ought not to be taken for granted, which is why I now advocate for a twin approach of improving subjective wellbeing while retaining critical insight. Figuring out that consciousness required more than digital computation utterly transformed my approach to transhumanism, and I largely credit this change to my conversations with David.

 

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Later on I met Mike Johnson, Romeo Stevens, and a number of other top thinkers in the field of consciousness who could both understand the genuine problems consciousness poses and at the same time grasp the broader transhumanist meme-plex, transcend it, and include it (cf. Why I think the Foundational Research Institute should rethink its approach). Thus we founded the Qualia Research Institute, in order to bring a new full-stack meme-plex where consciousness – and valence – are front and center. Alas, we have experienced some resistance…

AI safety is sexy. If you are a smart, industrious, open-minded, and systematizing undergraduate, studying AI gives you access to a wide circle of really fun people to hang out in. It also signals intelligence, sober-mindedness, and stoicism. It gives you both an in into smart cool kid circles, and a profitable career in Silicon Valley. It allows you to straddle the world of normies and cutting-edge thinkers.

But, crucially, you have to consider the opportunity cost that comes from directing such a large fraction of hyper-intelligent young altruistic systematizers to this problem. The field is plagued with misconceptions about pleasure and value; Eliezer Yudkowsky’s Fun Theory suffers from the severe delusion that value comes from the intentional object of experience, rather than from its phenomenal character. Brian Tomasik’s (admittedly tongue-in-cheek) People for the Ethical Treatment of Reinforcement Learners is seemingly unaware of the fact that neuroscience has found that pleasure/suffering and reinforcement learning are doubly dissociated. Pleasure is not reinforcement, and until you grasp this, your ethical models will output nonsense.

Tongue-in-cheek, perhaps AI risk is a real threat. Not because of the usual reasons, but because it siphons out top brain power into a relatively sterile field, leaving vast amounts of unclaimed marginal value in the fields of rejuvenation research and valence technologies by the wayside.

In light of all of this, I would want to advocate for the reinvigoration of the broader transhumanist meme-plex, now updated with a post-Galilean understanding of consciousness. Writers, animators, Youtubers, and philosophers ought to collaborate in creating more balanced Triple-S Transhumanist outreach in the form of widely consumable media. This, I think, is the path forward.

Burning Man Theme-Camps of the Year 2029: From Replicator to Rainbow God (1/2)

[Epistemic Status: Fiction; see related non-fiction Burning Man articles – 1, 2, 3]

Preface

What follows is the result of an exercise in considering the questions: “Which novel memes, and meme-plexes, will be alive 10 years from now? And, what new worldviews will have a ‘full-stack’ account of where humanity is at, and where it is headed?” Hope this sparks interesting thoughts.


The interdependent nature of knowledge is such that for you to truly understand anything, you must understand everything first.

– Alex Alamy, founder of Camp State-Space of Consciousness

The year is 2029 and Burning Man season is upon us. You’ve been there once before, but you feel like you gravitated a lot towards the art in deep playa and neglected the theme-camps that surrounded you. For instance, you didn’t even visit your neighbors despite the fact that they had giant marble statues hung up from a transparent dome visible from the street, and a picture of Shiva having sex with a rhino at the entrance. In retrospect you wonder “why didn’t I at least come by and say hi? The place looked so inviting!” This year you are determined to change that by investigating in detail one theme-camp every day, in addition to enjoying the company of your campmates and exploring the deep playa the rest of the time.

Sunday: Arrival

You arrive on Sunday evening after a 16-hour drive. Eight of those hours involved being in the line. And of those, you spent four of them manually pushing your car while a dust storm was in full force (your car’s battery died because you used it to power up speakers to blast the latest Lady Gaga album, but forgot that doing this could drain it completely if you left your engine off). After the dust cleared, the first neighbor in the line without an electric car helped you jump-start the car, which worked fine from then on. After that rough start, you are now settling in your little pod, keeping hydrated, and eating the left-over fried rice that one of your campmates cooked for everyone who helped build the shade structures. You decide to call it a night and rest. After all, you have seven full days of Burning Man ahead of you…

Monday: Camp Microlife

You wake up slightly groggy and disoriented. Like last year- you are now aware- the first day of the Burn is usually a little slow and difficult on the body as it acclimatizes to the new environment. You take it easy and wake up at 11AM, help campmates with their tents and structures, attend the camp meeting, eat bunches of fruit mixed in with Soylent Cereal®, and take a nap. At 6PM you feel rested and ready to start exploring. Your first stop is right next door, a place called Camp Microlife (formerly known as Longevity Camp).

Burning Man is said to be dangerous. Indeed, a well-known piece of advice people like to throw at each other is to only do one stupid thing at a time. If you take shrooms, don’t try to climb a giant sculpture. If you are drunk, don’t go for a walk without a camelback. If you are going to oversee the safety of a fire, don’t do so while being heavily sleep deprived. And if you go to the Orgy Dome, don’t do so while on MDMA. Just common sense things, right? You would be surprised how people tend to stack dangerous activities on top of each other at Burning Man. And you’d be even more surprised how despite this, the number of serious accidents is incredibly low. In fact, it is a marvel why more people don’t die at Burning Man, given the expectations that you can realistically place on 80,000 Homo Sapiens in the desert for an entire week. It takes a lot of effort distributed across many people to reach this level of relative safety.

The low injury statistic at Burning Man is something to applaud. That said, before 2020 there wasn’t much awareness about the fact that the environmental hazards of Burning Man had measurable effects on the rate of aging of the body. Camp Longevity was thus founded in order to help people minimize this effect by focusing on interventions that would give you the largest bang for your buck. Their welcoming sign at the entrance reads:

This camp is dedicated to the task of identifying the most cost-effective way of reducing the number of micromorts (cf. microlives) that you are expending at Burning Man. We will take a picture of your skin in controlled lighting conditions in order to determine the amount of melanin in your skin, and measure your height, BMI, and lung capacity. Then based on actuarial tables we will give you custom harm-reduction help, ranging from gifting you optimal sunscreen, to magnesium supplements & earplugs, to providing free high-quality masks and even nose-filters as part of a pilot program (did I mention that you are encouraged to enroll in a study to see whether nose-filters are as effective as dust masks at preventing lung aging from the dust?).

They have both a no-nonsense set of recommendations and a more creative “R&D” side, in which they are piloting wacky solutions to “microlife loss prevention.” For instance, they had nose-filters they could give you if you participated in a study (well, they would give them to you regardless but they would encourage you to sign up). They also had an instant-cooling system in their camp that you could use if you were over-heating (or felt like it, anyhow). Under the assumption that MDMA neurotoxicity and body strain is partly caused by hyperthemia, they hoped to incorporate this device as a harm reduction strategy at Zendos around the world. On your way out they handed you UV-protecting arm sleeves, which they had in bulk quantities, and were giving out to passersby.

At night, you visit some of the core attractions in Esplanade, and take a ride to deep playa on the Mayan Warrior, which is still going strong after 17 years of Burning Man. On your way back you stop at a space cowboy-themed bar, and have two drinks- Mr. Walker on Glowing Rocks– before calling it a night.

Tuesday: Camp State-Space of Consciousness

On Tuesday you wake up at 9AM, stretch, shower, and socialize for half an hour while eating a handful of bananas with copious amounts of almond butter. You check out the Man, the Temple, and random artwork you find on the way to and from. You eat quesadillas at Mexican Grill, and by 5PM, you return to camp and rest for ninety minutes before going out at 7PM with two friends. Tonight is a “trip night”.

Camp State-Space of Consciousness (formerly known as Rainbow God) is devoted to a made-up religion called Divine Spectralism. This religion postulates that the maximum expression of divinity is in its full-spectrum (aka. rainbow) form. God may have infinite faces, but some of them display its glory more fully, clearly, and lucidly. In their theology, God realized is tasteless and flavorless. But that’s an asymptote that’s impossible to talk about. Around it, approaching the event horizon, we see God diffractions that express all of the possible flavors, colors, thought-forms, space and time qualities, etc. of consciousness. That is, God Realized is surrounded by a full-spectrum of all varieties of experience. This region of the multiverse corresponds to the highest heavens, the rainbow worlds; these are the closest you can get to the fullest expression of God while being able to support sapience and self-awareness.

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In order to transcend our world- grey and dull relative to rainbow worlds-, we must move towards the universal gradient of synthesis, which incorporates, in each successive moment of experience, more diversity of experiential qualities (aka. qualia). Up there in the upper heavens everyone has a full-spectrum enjoyment body, which allows them to create-imagine-animate massive worlds of experience populated with maximally-encompassing narratives. They pack tremendous amounts of smell, taste, warmth, music, echolocation, and uncountably many other flavors of experience we humans don’t have words for in highly energetic forms. The result is not just an impressive “painting of experience”; there is something special and magical that happens when you start piecing together all of the varieties of experience in a giant thought-form. The whole is much more than the sum of its parts. One unlocks the ability to recombine the complementary parts of experience and get purified God consciousness. They even claim that you don’t really understand a given qualia (e.g. cinnamon scent) until you can put it in the context of all of the values of its variety (in this case all scents). And you don’t really understand a given variety (e.g. scents) until you see it in the context of all varieties (e.g. scents, colors, tactile sensations, etc.). So we don’t truly understand anything until we understand everything. That is not to say that ignorance doesn’t come in gradients, though.

Buddhists came across this phenomenon long time ago. They encountered states of consciousness where they had an intensified divine connection in conjunction with full-spectrum experiences. They called it the rainbow body. It is interesting that they knew about it but they didn’t develop techniques specifically aimed at it. Instead, they merely thought of it as a side-effect of good and deliberate practice, or maybe a gift liable to become a distraction. The Divine Spectralists, in contrast, claim to investigate this phenomenon scientifically. They will tell you that they have found a causal connection between full-spectrum practices and increased spirituality.

 

The camp is organized along the lines of a hexagon, with a large central rectangular tarp. This shape defines seven regions: one corner for each of the “top 6 senses” (sight, hearing, touch, taste, scent, and proprioception) and a central space called the “global workspace.”*

You, being the intrepid scientific psychonaut that you are, of course decide to visit this camp while on acid. You take 150 micrograms before heading out. This camp has been around for five years, and it has grown into a core Burning Man attraction. Your friends tell you that if you took acid you should definitely go check it out. So you and two of your friends- Galaxy Fox and Astro Burrito– make the walk towards it, which takes long enough for the acid to start kicking in.

As you approach the entrance you notice people playing with LED-illuminated hula hoops. That is not unexpected, since after all, Burning Man is the DIY LED Mecca of the world (cf. Ring Theory). But there is something particularly unusual about these hula hoops. The tracers left by the bright LEDs given your psychedelic state are not only stunning, they are also somehow encoding words and images. “Are you seeing what I’m seeing?” – you ask Galaxy Fox, who is sitting you during this 12 hour trip. “You mean the hula hoops? They are cool, aren’t they?” – she responds. “Yes, but you see the things they are saying? It’s saying:

You are the Chosen One, The One who will deliver the message. A message of hope for those who choose to hear it. And a warning for those who do not.

Are you not seeing that?” – you say. “Nah, man, you trippin’, I see no message there, dude.” – she says. But for you this is undeniable. As it turns out, these hula hoops were programmed to encode messages only readable by people on psychedelics; they use a technique called psychedelic cryptography. To illustrate how these hula hoops look, see the video below (tracer effect applied to LED hula hoops). In brief, they take advantage of the longer-than-normal decay of qualia on psychedelics. This way they can “paint over time” pictures that only people with pronounced persistence of vision can really detect. Shocked and intrigued, you start exploring the camp.

You learn about the made-up religion with a video they play and a few girls who answer questions about it. From your point of view this feels extremely cultish, but you are not sure whether it is your state or the actual camp. So you ask your friends if they also feel the same as you, considering they are sober judges of what’s going on. One of them says yes, and one of them says no, which isn’t very helpful. You decide to stop worrying about whether they will brainwash you and take it on good faith that they are at least doing their best at pointing you towards interesting ideas to consider.

You are fascinated by the made-up religion, and thinking about it in your state activates in you very intense feelings that are hard to put into words. At times you get convinced that you can perform psi feats and feel like you are connecting to the minds and feelings of the people around you… that God’s light is being reflected and refracted throughout everyone in the camp. Then again, you realize this is exactly what the environment is meant to suggest and exalt as much as possible, not to speak of the suggestibility of LSD states.

The camp’s center has a large rectangular tent, and when you come in you see that one of the walls is completely covered with LEDs stacked along three layers (each of the layers is capable of 7 bright primary colors, and their combinations). This artwork is called “The Fourth Wall”, and it is a large LED display optimized for psychedelic cryptography. The “hidden messages” cycle over several minutes. It displays messages written by people walking by who draw them on a tablet connected to the lights. It also shows bizarre super trippy patterns of all kinds, along with what looks like psychophysics experiments. Every once in a while it displays a live video of yourself from a corner (it takes you a moment, but you manage to locate the camera, which is behind you). The symbolism startles, as you realize that only on psychedelics you are able to realize that you are being secretly watched. Sober people passing by just see pretty lights, and a few local features of the pictures, but unlike people on a couple blotters of acid, they don’t see the entire pictures there. Interestingly, this way people on psychedelics can coordinate with each other in surprising ways. The message sometimes says “all move to the blue corner” and from the point of view of someone sober it’s like suddenly half of the room makes the telepathic decision to move together towards one corner. Doing fun things with psychedelic cryptography is an art-form. Making an analogy to a county fair, the whole range of games and prototypes in this section could accurately be described as being of the type that says “you have to be at least this high to play this game”.

You now decide to take a look at the music corner. The place is a dome shaped in a peculiar way that increases both the resonance and reverb of the space. That on its own would make it a cool experience, but the fact that those effects are massively amplified with a network of microphones and speakers that subtly generate feedback without blowing up makes it an over-the-top experience. The auditory effect is confusing and mentally scrambling to an exaggerated degree. The 3D sound effects can generate the impression of entire worlds in movement. These music and sound geeks have been working for years on being able to represent events in a sort of musical-ray-tracing engine with custom software. They can generate the illusion of the reverb fingerprint of arbitrary spaces, and hence create for you the illusion that you are inside a car, or inside a church, or inside an infinite tunnel. In addition, they use doppler effects to change the impression of how fast things are moving, and in particular, to create the illusion that the shape of the universe is changing and that information is propagating relativistically. Did I mention one of the people involved in this installation is a famous physicist? And did I mention the sound booth is managed by a robotic dog?

 

This place plays weird music. You know of weird music, but this music here is weird music. In fact the thing these guys have been working on for a while is a computational approach to figuring out which combinations of sounds will weird you out as much as possible. It learns over the course of 15 minutes or so using eye-tracking and biosignals it gets from a headband you put on when you enter their sound dome. The music tries to drive you towards the edge between chaos and predictability. It parametrically identifies how quickly to change its degree of predictability in order to assault your attention with hyper-dopaminergic attention-grabbing mood-setting sounds. The music is so mesmerizing that it has developed a sort of fame for being able to halt fights in the Playa. Taking an angry campmate there is certainly going to distract them for no less than 30 minutes, and give them a chance to approach whatever problem they are dealing with from a different angle.

You move on to the camp’s “scented room”, which has a large repertoire of scented objects and essential oils. Starting with the stereotypically obligatory patchouli (as in, if you don’t have patchouli in your kit of scent qualia, what are you even doing?)  – more seriously, the repertoire of scents is enormous, with a box with more than 5,000 scents collected over the years, including uncommon scents like cypress, palmarosa, ylang ylang, durian, acetone, cork, jojoba, and boutique scents like digestive enzymes and a synthesized “old book smell”-mimicking mixture. You didn’t even know that old books smell could be chemically identified, but now you do. You notice that some of the scents resonate with your state, and others almost, kind of, sober you up to an extent.

Perhaps the most interesting, and daring, of all of the scents there is the LSD-scent vial. “Do not get confused”-the attendant tells you- “this vial is LSD-free, but it smells like LSD.” You reply: “I thought LSD was odorless.” She says: “Most people have no idea it has a smell because there is so little LSD, weight-wise, in blotters that there is not enough of it to build enough scent for you to smell it… but dogs can smell it. What this vial contains is what is used to train dogs to detect LSD.” You smell the vial: “Uh, it’s a bit tangy?” She says: “Yeah, some say that. Others mention it reminds them of the smell of DMT to an extent, and others point out its metallic tones.” You ask her – “wait, wouldn’t search dogs get crazy about this, then? Isn’t this a liability for the camp?”. To which she replies: “There’s a funny story here. The first year we brought this scent to the playa we were stopped by a cop for a random search during the trip from Reno. A dog sniffed out the vial right away. It took literally about 5 seconds for the dogs to find it. We were careful not to have anything illegal on us, though, so that’s the only thing they found. They wanted to press charges for the vial even though we claimed it was not LSD. Later they got from the lab the result that the vial had actual LSD in it. This, of course, majorly surprised us. By having the paper trail of how we got the vial, and it having a serial number, and us hiring an independent lab to test it which confirmed it had no LSD, we and the Burner community at large discovered that lab tests were being forged. This revealed that the rumors were true, that there really were some people faking lab results, and they were making a lot of money off of this. This is currently unraveling, and the courts are now going back, historically, and dropping the charges from people harmed by faked lab results over the years. A number of burners we know are getting their charges dropped for this reason.” You think about it, for a moment, and reply: “I guess I didn’t realize there was so much power in having something that is genuinely, provably, fake, since it can be used to expose people who claim to be able to recognize the authentic ones.”

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State-space of scent qualia (adapted from: Categorical Dimensions of Human Odor Descriptor Space Revealed by Non-Negative Matrix Factorization; Castro, Ramanathan, Chennubhotla. 2013; link)

The camp has a corner dedicated to conducting perception experiments. The experiments are not just idle fun and games, they tell you. Three peer-reviewed papers have been published so far testing hypotheses about psychedelic visual and auditory perception with the data gathered here. You got excited by the prospect of helping science, and confided with the person there that you were currently on 150 micrograms of LSD. Unfortunately how the system works is that you have to go there sober first and sign an anonymous consent form in which you agree to be shown images and audio (some of it possibly R-rated) both today and in the future, so that you could then go back another day and re-do the tests while high on psychedelics. They still allowed you to try the experiments, though, but they said that in cases like yours they would not collect the data gathered.

The experiments were strange and most didn’t make much intuitive sense. For example, in some tests you had to guess “which of the 3 textures is the odd-one-out”, which they told you was used to identify which summary statistics your visual field becomes more or less capable of differentiating on psychedelics. Another experiment would show you ambiguous images and you had to guess what was in them. Interestingly, this was another way in which psychedelic cryptography was being developed, but rather than being based on tracers, it was based on semantics. That is, someone on acid might look at the picture and say “that’s clearly a banana” while someone sober would say “that’s obviously the back of a Jeep”, and if you get creative, you can send secret messages this way.

Your favorite experiment felt very much like a video-game. It was engaging and fun; it had a pleasing effect on your mood for some reason. The task involved looking at the screen of a tablet that displays patterns with wallpaper symmetries shifting along a symmetry element (see below) and identify “the region that is moving at a different rate.”** They told you that this was one of the tasks that exhibited the strongest difference between people sober and on psychedelics; the reduced symmetry detection threshold in combination with increased entrainment potential made this particularly easy for people tripping.

 

 

 

After playing the symmetry detection game for 10 minutes, you decide to move on. The last section you check out at the camp invites you to go into a “world of tactile textures” by entering a large air-conditioned hexayurt with an airlock separating the inside from the windy exterior. The textures, of course, were selected for their experiential richness, but one additional important constraint had to be applied: they had to be MOOP-free. Or at least generate MOOP that is heavy and easy to pick up (hence the airlock). The people inside talk of having “alien cuddles” which is where a handful of people in underwear make a cuddle puddle with all of the pillows, and pretend to be a single alien being with unusual skin having sex with itself. They invite you to join in, and you do. The boundary-dissolving aspect of the LSD experience makes this an incredibly confusing and compelling scenario; you don’t really know where your body starts and where it begins, and gosh, you had no idea synthetic reptile scales and cellophane-wrapped cotton could feel so sexy on your bare skin.

 

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There, in the middle of the cuddle puddle with strangers, you come to an interesting realization. From their point of view of Divine Spectralism, Burning Man is wonderful because it functions as an efficient and intelligent search algorithm for exploring new regions of the state-space of consciousness. It feeds the bottom line of the Camp’s religion and its core prescriptions: to put on the map even the most outlandish of experiences.

Exhausted but satisfied, you reconvene with your friends and start heading back to camp. On your way out, you see the secret hula hoop messages are now saying:

PEACE & LOVE & HARMONY

PEACE & LOVE & HARMONY

You ask one of the hula hoopers why the message changed. She tells you “a prankster got a hold of our controls earlier today, and was feeding them Tool lyrics, but we found it and we are back to the regular programming.”

When you arrive to your camp, you eat a couple MealCubes, drink electrolytes, and force yourself to take a power nap to recharge, but fail due to the still-ongoing acid stimulation. You give up trying to sleep and give in to the music that is blasting next door. You dance to the soundtrack of The Wandering Earth; the neighboring camp is a smallish sound-camp specializing in retro songs and soundtracks of the 2010s. At 2AM you go out and see the Man with your friends, as you hadn’t seen it at night yet. When you come back, at 3AM, you come by a little tea house offering herbal drinks. You see a friend from a different camp there and decide to talk to him about the nature of phenomenal time. It feels like this day has lasted for ages. You also try to process your experience in Camp State-Space of Consciousness. You keep talking with your friend until the sun is about to rise. You don’t go to sleep until 6AM, but then you sleep all day until roughly 6PM.

Wednesday: Camp Valence

Thankfully this was the only day that it rained. There was some rain on and off while you were asleep, and it remained cloudy throughout the day. You figure that you rested so well in part because the temperature didn’t go up as high as it usually does. Due to global warming, now each Burn is, statistically speaking, a little hotter than the previous one. Interestingly, this hasn’t dissuaded people from attending. That said, a serious discussion is underway about the possibility of re-locating Burning Man, and where to do it after it is actually inhospitable to humans. By then, people say, all humans will have more important problems to deal with, and with this, they rationalize not thinking about how to answer the question of where to move Burning Man. Either way, you want to make sure you can squeeze this experience for learning, growth, and fun as much as you can, and you appreciate the time you have in here. You think about the far future. You think about the State-Space of Consciousness, Divine Spectralism, the way textures feel and how to even go about making a language for them, and you think about holograms… something tells you holograms hold some kind of key to “the puzzle of reality”. Perhaps the acid is still in some ways making your thought-patterns less ego-oriented, and so “early” today (7PM) it feels like your mental clarity and sense of spiritual relaxation is something you can take from your trip to Burning Man back home. This alone would have made the visit to Black Rock City worthwhile- you think to yourself. But there is still a lot of the week left for you. There are so many options, so what should you explore next?

You decide that today you are going to take MDMA and ketamine. Both of these substances are things you do not take more than once every two years, and you only ever take them in moderate doses. You decided ahead of time that if there was a particularly cold day at Burning Man this year you would take MDMA that evening since, presumably, that day would have been less taxing to your body. In addition, you had been wondering what MDMA plus ketamine felt like for ages. Tonight you will take reasonable doses for both of these drugs. 85mg of MDMA and about 100mg for ketamine (two 50mg doses spread out over the course of an hour). Together with the ecstasy powder, you swallow the latest neuroscience-backed anti-“MDMA neurotoxicity” tablets, dissolved in your electrolyte water. You ask Astro Burrito for suggestions about where to go. You tell him you took an empathogen and you want something peaceful and relaxed. Another campmate overhears your conversation and says: “If you are taking MDMA, I might recommend Camp Valence, because those Burners are trying to optimize your pleasure in all sorts of ways.” So that’s where you’ll head next. Once you are finished eating a Tasty Bite you just heated up in a communal pan.

Whereas the previous Camp felt “orgiastic” and pagan (in retrospect), this one feels like a much more curated display of experiences. The Camp State-Space of Consciousness would have you be exposed to the wilderness of all possible experiences and have you make sense of it all for yourself. But Camp Valence seems to have a different overall aesthetic, and philosophy. They seem to be optimizing for softness, intimacy, centeredness, homeliness, and emotional availability.

They have a large enclosed space covered with blankets, and small tables with candles and soft pastel-colored LEDs. Some people are sitting and talking calmly. Others are resting on the floor and cuddling with blankets with each other. Some people are meditating with headphones. Yet others in an adjacent room are doing naked yoga. There is also a pod that fits four people lying down which is sound-proof, presumably to experience sensory deprivation. There is plentiful cucumber water, and lavender cookies.

Someone approaches you in a friendly, non-threatening way, and asks you if you want to hear about the place. He gives you the option to just see it for yourself and chill undisturbed. You allow yourself the option to say yes, and he takes you to an adjacent room separated by a curtain. He is dressed with a long-sleeved tie-dye shirt, a green velvety vest, and comfy pajama pants. He also has a little bit of make-up on, which gives his face a kind of cute bird-like quality. You are not gay or bi, but you somehow feel like you are hanging out with a really cool and cute guy. Well, it’s hard to separate the way the MDMA is making you feel from the environment, but you could swear there is something super friendly about this guy. He tells you that the camp was founded three years ago by a serial entrepreneur disappointed with the economic incentives of modern society. You ask if he could share more about it, but he is interrupted when a girl dressed in a black and blue (or is it white and gold?) dress made of silk and pvc comes in. She is wearing a “cloud hat” (which looks like cotton candy but is actually just cotton), and you feel the urge to touch it. She says yes, but to be careful not to pull too hard – “we don’t want cotton MOOP, like last year with the cotton incident.”

The two people you are hanging out with say that there is a joke that is making its rounds in Camp Valence. It goes like this: “What is the most fun you can have in Las Vegas legally?” Intuitively it would be something along the lines of: “Wake up early, go to the casinos, eat fancy food, get drunk, go to a show, admire the giant buildings and statues, go shopping, and sleep late in the night after a nightcap cocktail.” In contrast, the real, objective, answer goes like this: “You check-in into a fancy and quiet hotel (e.g. the Wynn or the Four Seasons), leave your stuff there, then go to the closest weed dispensary and get at least 10mg of THC in edible form, then go to the closest pharmacy and buy 2 bottles of DXM hydrobromide pills (typically 20X15mg each) for a total of 600mg of DXM. Also buy some earplugs and an eye mask there. Then go back to your hotel, put the do-not-disturb sign on the door, get yourself comfortable, take all of the DXM, and 45 minutes later eat the edible. Close the curtains, and put your earplugs and eye mask on. Over the course of the next several hours you will fall into an intense free-wheeling hallucination where you can learn a lot of fascinating properties about your mind and disclose new varieties of experience. That should keep you entertained for the next 10 hours, and then you will think about it and be amazed for the rest of your vacation. Welcome to Las Vegas, hope you have a fun stay!”

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You ask bird-boy if he could continue describing the origin story of the camp. The cloud girl also knows about it, so they take turns filling you in: The person who started the camp founded a few startups in Silicon Valley, made a lot of money, and then opened an establishment in Las Vegas called “Valence Palace.” This place would somehow manage to get permits to use things like rapid thermal exchange devices to literally cool people off (and possibly prevent neurotoxicity in party-goers, as Camp Microlife would remind you), host algorithmically designed sound baths, provide God Helmet therapy, and organize overpriced nootropics tastings. This last one turned out to be all the rage in 2023-2025, and several other establishments around the world started copying the idea. This guy, they explain, somehow masterminded his way into marketing coluracetam in an upper-class status-signaling kind of way (rather than the drug nerd niche kind of way which everyone assumed was the only market for the thing). He marketed it as a high-end product in the form of a subtle experience. For a lot of rich youngsters and people courting each other it was exciting to go out to an official-looking place in Las Vegas and pay large amounts of money to sip water laced with coluracetam (of all things). Turns out this compound had very few side-effects in the vast majority of people, and temporarily increased people’s memory, visual signal-to-noise ratio, and appreciation (but not enjoyment) of music. It is the sort of thing that only refined minds could really notice and pick up an interest in (or at least that’s how this gentleman would market it). People were dying to show off to their friends how they, too, could have an opinion about what it felt like to go to the nootropics tasting at the Valence Palace. It didn’t signal the same sort of defiance of authority that on some level psychedelics tend to evoke. Nootropics tastings served a market of people with high openness to experience but not quite the intellectual disagreeableness to take psychedelics or seek experiences outside of mainstream channels. Curiously, thanks to the competitive dynamics between dopamine and acetylcholine, taking coluracetam would kill your urge to gamble and drink. Indeed, it worked as a sort of anti-addictive drug, protecting you from all the vices on offer in other Las Vegas establishments.

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Coluracetam

Anyhow, he claimed that this and his other Valence Palace experiences were genuinely valuable from a hedonic point of view. That unlike typical Las Vegas entertainment, they did not leave you dissatisfied. They had a positive area under the curve effect, rather than illusory front-loaded pleasure followed by long streaks of mundane disappointment. And Yelp reviews of the place showed it was far better, in terms of customer satisfaction, than what casinos and even oxygen bars could offer.

Of course Las Vegas would have none of this. What he called the Dopaminergic Cartel- which profits from short-term illusory and addictive pleasures- couldn’t tolerate the presence of an organization whose actual goal was the maximization of pleasure and satisfaction in the customer. As a result of the increased popularity of nootropics tastings, and the anti-addictive effects of coluracetam, large casinos detected a significant drop in earnings from high rollers. They saw the Valence Palace as a defector against their craving-based business model. So they had to kick his establishment out of the Strip, manufacture claims on him, cancel him, and destroy his future. The poor guy ended up five million dollars in personal debt. He took them to court for defamation, and thanks to legal discovery uncovered an underground collusion between casinos and aripiprazole manufacturers, which soon became national news. The casinos counter-sued, also for defamation, but dropped their charges once the media had quieted down about the aripiprazole scandal. A couple years later he managed to get his money back with the help of an LED company. It’s a long story, they tell you, and you can find it all on Youtube Blue when you are bored and back in civilization. For now all you need to know is that the founder said that Burning Man is a safe haven which the Dopaminergic Cartel hasn’t yet touched. This is all thanks to the decommodification principle, and the persistent efforts to enforce it in every way possible.

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Aripiprazole

Camp Valence has an underlying philosophy that traces its roots back to David Pearce, Effective Altruism, and further back to Bentham, and even Buddha. The universe has an in-built utility function, and to follow the path of goodness is to (1) recognize that value is not relative, (2) that human values are provincial and distorted versions of ultimate value, and (3) to start listening, really listening, to what the universe prefers. Intrinsic value is encoded in the shape of a state of consciousness. What mystics, meditators, and hippies have all been saying for ages is true – the point of life is to live in harmony. But what is harmony, exactly? How does it manifest in precise, empirically measurable ways in terms of brain states and, more generally, configurations of matter and energy? Deep down, they claim, value is grounded in the nature of quantum fields, and the way the universal wavefunction interferes with itself. The highest expression of God, as it were, is not the one that incorporates the most diverse range of qualia, but rather, the one that incorporates the largest amount of coherent energy in a state of harmony. It so happens, they tell you, that the full-spectrum experiences that are catalyzed at places like Camp State-Space of Consciousness have as a side-effect large-scale harmonious coherence. Alas, there are far more direct and effective ways of achieving this. Thus, Divine Spectralism is not entirely true, but it is also not entirely wrong; it holds a kernel of truth… a piece of the puzzle. The full puzzle, though, can only be solved if you put your ear to the ground and listen carefully for what the universe really wants.

Mythologically, Camp Valence posits that someday in the future there will be something like Effective Altruism, but rather than focused on suffering- because there will be none of it left- it will focus on creating large projects with huge positive hedonic payoffs for the largest number of sentient beings possible. They don’t call it hedonium, because they want to retain individualized motivational architectures. They agree with David Pearce in “creating a universal welfare world where beings are animated by gradients of bliss” rather than aiming for raw undifferentiated bliss.

In a future where suffering is made physiologically impossible via gene editing, and the game-theory is taken care of such that cooperating is the evolutionarily stable equilibrium, what remains to be done competitively is to try to discover new ways to create glory and awe and delight and open-ended infinite games.

You thank them for the explanation, and you wish you could have recorded the conversation as it seemed of general interest. Alas, this is Burning Man, and as a friend once suggested, whatever happens here gets uploaded to the collective human unconscious anyway.

You walk to another room and notice a stand with many vials and powders. Like Camp State-Space of Consciousness, Camp Valence also has scents. But unlike the multi-faceted and comprehensive repertoire of Rainbow God, the scents in Camp Valence are not selected to catalyze a full-spectrum experience; they concentrate on the scents that generate the most palpable changes in one’s sense of wellbeing. They have blends of hedonically-charged scents that are made to specifically either calm you or make you hyper in a good way. You ask for the relaxing one, and you get something that fits perfectly with your empathogenic state. “Gosh, whoever designed this smell must have been rolling, too.” The attendant mentions that the most interesting thing you could do at the camp is to try out their God Helmet device. She points at one of the corners where you see two people wearing eye-masks and helmets full of wires. The attendant says that they will be done in about five minutes and you can be next. You mention that you took MDMA about two hours ago, and ask if it’s ok to mix the God Helmet with it. She winks and says “well, didn’t you notice the synergy between your state and the scent you just tried? The God Helmet is that way, too. We have many configurations that are designed specifically for a given state of consciousness. My favorite by far is the empathogenic one.”

Indeed many people show up to Camp Valence while on some empathogen or another. The people who set up the camp only take psychedelics at Burning Man due to concerns over the deleterious long-term effects of molly. Of course they are acquainted with the state, or otherwise they wouldn’t have found a way to tune the God helmet to perfectly synergize with your mind. You see the girl push a button that says “Ambrosia” and right after that you get lost into a literal world of bliss. You’ve taken larger doses of MDMA before, and you estimate that the combination of your moderate dose (85mg) with the helmet is making you feel what 200mg of MDMA feels like at its hedonic peak before palpitations and other side-effects start to set in. An all-around feeling of wellbeing and maximum enjoyment. The shape of your attention field-lines experiences interesting changes; you feel like your awareness field is a smooth toroidal powerhouse of pleasure energy. You spontaneously think of your deceased maternal grandfather, and realize you can only have good thoughts about him. Even if you were to try, you couldn’t have a single negative thing to say about him on this state. You feel his love and unconditional acceptance from afar, as if beamed through an etheric field. You yourself feel like a star of happiness– perhaps your dead relatives are seeing you from heaven due to how bright you are shining? This thought seems compelling in your state. Soon enough, your turn is over, and you take the helmet off. You still feel better than how you felt before you put it on; it’s as if this thing energized your mind, whose electromagnetic nature is now evident to you. The device did something that “boosted” your state. It now rests at a pleasant level that you associate with taking ~130mg of MDMA. They say this will also extend your state, and to drink a shot of vodka if you want your state to quiet down (e.g. in order to sleep).

You thank everyone you talked to, you tell them you love them (“we get that often”- they say- “but we know it’s true, thank you, we love you too!”), give everyone a big hug, and part ways.

You go back to your camp, hydrate, eat a couple oranges and mixed nuts, go to your tent and take a large ketamine bump, followed by another one 10 minutes later. You are propelled upwards in a tunnel of light that guides you throughout the known universe until you arrive at a giant ball of life energy. The experience is overwhelming, and hard to decipher. You think about what makes Camp Valence and Rainbow God different. What are the differences and similarities? Are you stealing fire from the Gods by having these experiences and remembering the insights that unfold from them? The giant ball of life energy feels like it is calling you, and approaches you roaring with incredible loudness- yet the sound comes out muffled, as if going through a low-pass filter. You intuitively sense that if you were to approach it too closely, you would cease to be a separate being, as it would absorb you into universal consciousness. Scared for your ego-narrative, you hesitate and hover around it, trying to make sense of it. After twenty five minutes you come down. Exhausted, you fall asleep.


Stay tuned for part 2/2.


*Pun credit: Christian Lains

**Credit for psychophysics symmetry experiment stimuli creation to Nick Xu. He generated images that I used to conduct a psychophysics experiment at Burning Man in 2017. He made images where wallpaper symmetry groups would flip along their symmetry elements. All except a single symmetry element would change at the same rate, while one of them would be moving either slightly faster or slower. People on psychedelics seemed to be faster at pointing out the “defect” in the animation. More research is needed to replicate this effect and explain how it works.

Featured Image: source. Rainbow DJ Dog GIF: source.

Cause X – What Will the New Shiny Effective Altruist Cause Be?

The Qualia Research Institute hosted an interesting event a couple of weeks ago. Here is how the event was advertised:

Description

Event NameQRI & Friends: “Cause X” – what will the new shiny EA cause be?
Time: Saturday, January 19, 2019 at 4 PM – 1 AM
Description: This event will consist of 4-minute presentations from attendees about what the “new EA cause area should be” (from 4pm to 6pm) followed by a casual and chill hangout for the rest of the evening.
There are 10 slots for the presentations, and we encourage you to sign up for one before they run out. If you want to give a presentation please fill out this form: [deleted link]
If you want to see people’s presentations please show up before 4:15pm (we will start the presentations at 4:30 sharp). Each participant will be given 4 minutes to present and 1 minute for Q&A. We will be strict on time. You should come prepared to defend your cause with logic, data, etc.
Everyone who sees the presentations will get to vote* at the end for the following three categories:
  1. Most likely to prevent as much suffering as possible with 1 million dollars of funding
  2. Most fun to think about
  3. Most likely to be the plan of a super-villain
There will be real prizes for each of these three categories!!!**
If you just want to come and hang out for the evening please show up from 6:30pm onwards. Vegetarian/vegan food and drinks will be served at around 7:30pm. Feel free to bring vegan/vegetarian food/drinks too.
As usual, feel free to invite people who are curious about consciousness and EA (but please let me know in advance so I can make a head-count for the event).

*Voting was carried out with Approval Voting (where every person can vote for as many presentations as they want and the ones with the highest number of votes win). This was chosen based on the assumption that some presentations might be similar, which would lead to an unfair penalty on similar presentations based on the spoiler effect. Additionally, voters who are undecided between more than one presentation can communicate their uncertainty via this type of voting rather than having that useful information be discarded.
**Prizes were announced the day of the event. For category (1) the prizes were “a fully-equipped first-aid kit plus a 16-bottle essential oils kit”. The winner of category (2) received a prize consisting of “a 3D Mirascope and an Ivy Cube“. And category (3) had as its prize an “Apollo Tools 39 piece general tool set (DT9706)“. These prizes were, of course, highly symbolic of their respective categories.

Winners

With the permission of the participants, here is what each of the winners presented:

For (1) two presenters tied in first place:

– Natália Mendonça presented about “Using smartphones to improve well-being measures in order to aid cause prioritization research” (link to presentation). She argued that the experience sampling paradigms that made waves in the 2000s and early 2010s happened at a time when relatively few people had smartphones. Since today smartphone adoption in developing countries has exploded we could use an experience sampling app to determine the major causes of suffering throughout the world in a way that wasn’t possible before. She specifically mentioned “comparing how bad different illnesses feel” in order to help us guide policy decision for cause prioritization.
– An anonymous attendee presented about “Psychedelic Drug Decriminalization“. Some of the core ideas involved taking a look at the effect sizes of the benefits of MDMA, LSD, psilocybin, etc. on various mental illnesses and comparing them against current alternatives. Also looking at the potential downsides they estimated that these only account for about 10% of the benefit, so cost-benefit wise it is very positive. They didn’t cover the entire presentation due to time – more details and a contact email can be found at https://enthea.net.

For (2) the winner was:

– Matthew Barnet who presented about “Timeloop Concept as Cause X” (link – slides don’t have much content; they were used just to keep the presentation on track). Matthew looked at the recent Qualia Computing article about the “Pseudo-Time Arrow” and wondered whether the importance of agents from an ethical point of view should be weighted at least in part based on their subjective time-structure. It’s true that 99% of experiences are experienced as having a linear causal time arrow, but this is not the case for the general space of possible experiences (e.g. including “moments of eternity”, “time loops”, “atemporal states”, etc. common on altered states of consciousness). He posited that perhaps time loop experiences have a much bigger moral importance because from the inside it feels like they never end. A discussion about infinite ethics and the quantification of consciousness ensued.

For (3) the winner was:

– Yev Barkalov, who proposed that rather than trying to endlessly battle in favor of digital privacy… how about we “just give up” and instead refocus the absence of digital privacy for social good. He mentioned China’s social credit score as a possible bad implementation of what he had in mind (“they have poisoned the well of the no-privacy camp by doing it so poorly”). Part of his argument was that technologies such as adblockers, crypto tokens, and the dark net further arms races in which advertisers, financial institutions, and governments become more clever at displaying ads, making you sign up for credit cards, and forcing citizens to abide by the law. Since arms races are dangerous and may lead to draconian systems while also being a waste of resources (due to their zero-sum nature), he suggested that we at least consider the alternative of seeing how a privacy-less world could work in practice. He posited that this could allow people to find quality collaborators more easily thanks to enhanced “people search” capabilities made available to the general population.

For completeness, the remaining presentations included:
Open Individualism as a new foundation for ethics
– Collective internet identities to replace countries
– The researching of possible Cause Xs as itself Cause X
– Automatic Truth Discovery neo-Wikipedia: like the current Wikipedia but with meta-analytic tools embedded into it, which provide confidence intervals for each claim based on the statistical robustness of the empirical findings that support it. And…
– A critique of utilitarianism that was more of a rant than a specific proposal (???)

Finally, I would like to add here some additional possible Causes X that I have thought about. These did not participate in the event because the organizers were not allowed to present (due to fairness and also because I didn’t want to “win a prize” that I bought myself):

  1. Subsidizing/sponsoring the use of HEPA filters in every house
  2. Distributing DMT vape pens that dispense in 4mg doses to deal with unexpected cluster headaches (this deserves an article of its own; cf. “Hell Must Be Destroyed“)
  3. Building a model that takes in genetic data and returns hedonic set point (and/or tells you which recreational drugs you are most likely to respond positively to).

In brief, (1) above might be a highly effective way of improving the health-span of a country’s population in a cost-effective fashion. As Robin Hanson has argued over the years, if we truly cared about the health of people, we would be spending more resources on the top 4 drivers of health (diet, exercise, sleep, and clean air) rather than on extravagant medical interventions designed to convince us that “an attempt was made.” Clean air, in particular, seems easy to influence at a rather minimal cost. HEPA filters capable of providing clean air to entire apartments (reducing by 10X the PM2.5 concentrations in the apartment) can cost as little as $70, with an upkeep of about $30 a year for renewing filters, and about $20 a year for electricity. Fermi calculation would indicate this would cut the average person’s daily PM2.5 exposure by half. I haven’t worked out the math concerning the amount of micromorts prevented per dollar this way, but the numbers seem extremely promising.

For (2) the rationale is that inhaling tiny doses of DMT aborts a cluster headache within about 3 seconds. Given the fact that about 0.1% of people will suffer from a cluster headache at least once in their lifetimes, and the fact that they are considered one of the most painful experiences possible, having a DMT vape pen within reach at all times as an insurance against spontaneous hellish levels of pain might be perfectly justified. A dedicated article about this specific topic will be posted soon.

And finally, (3) was recently argued in a Qualia Computing article: Triple S Genetic Counseling: Predicting Hedonic-Set Point with Commercial-Grade DNA Testing as an Effective Altruist Project. This may very well be a defensible Cause X on the basis that building such a model is already possible with the data available to commercial DNA testing companies like 23andMe, and that it might course-correct the reproductive strategy of millions of prospective parents within a few years, preventing untold amounts of suffering at a relatively small cost.

Triple S Genetic Counseling: Predicting Hedonic-Set Point with Commercial-Grade DNA Testing as an Effective Altruist Project

The term “Transhumanism” has many senses. It is a social movement, a philosophy, a set of technologies, and a conceptual rallying flag. David Pearce pins down the core sentiment behind the term like this:

If we get things right, the future of life in the universe can be wonderful beyond the bounds of human imagination: a “triple S” civilisation of superlongevity, superintelligence and superhappiness.

– David Pearce, in The 3 Supers

The concept of a “triple S” civilization is very widely applicable. For example, one can imagine future smart homes designed with it in mind. Such smart homes would have features to increase your longevity (HEPA filters, humidity control, mold detectors, etc.), increase your intelligence (adaptive noise-canceling, optimal lighting, smart foods), and happiness (mood-congruent lighting, music, aromas, etc.). Since there are trade-offs between these dimensions, one could specify how much one values each of them in advance, and the smart home would be tasked with maximizing a utility function based on a weighted average between the three S’s.

Likewise, one could apply the “triple S” concept to medical care, lifestyle choices, career development, governance, education, etc. In particular, one could argue that a key driver for the realization of a triple S civilization would be what I’d like to call “triple S genetic counseling.” In brief, this is counseling for prospective parents in order to minimize the risks of harming one’s children by being oblivious to the possible genetic risk for having a reduced longevity, intelligence, or happiness. Likewise, in the more forward-looking transhumanist side of the equation, triple S genetic counseling would allow parents to load the genetic dice in their kid’s favor in order to make them as happy, long-lived, and smart as possible.

Genetic counseling, as an industry, is indeed about to explode (cf. Nature’s recent article: Prospective parents should be prepared for a surge in genetic data). Predictably, there will be a significant fraction of society that will question the ethics of e.g. preimplantation genetic diagnosis for psychological traits. In practice, parents who are able to afford it will power ahead, for few prospective parents truly don’t care about the (probabilistic) well-being of their future offspring. My personal worry is not so much that this won’t happen, but that the emphasis will be narrow and misguided. In particular, both predicting health and intelligence based on sequenced genomes are very active areas of research. I worry that happiness will be (relatively) neglected. Hence the importance of emphasizing all three S’s.

In truth, I think that predicting the hedonic set-point of one’s potential future kids (i.e. the average level of genetically-determined happiness) is a relatively more important project than predicting IQ (cf. A genome-wide association study for extremely high intelligenceBGI). In addition, I anticipate that genetic-based models that predict a person’s hedonic set-point will be much more accurate than those that predict IQ. As it turns out, IQ is extremely polygenetic, with predictors diffused across the entire genome, and it is a very evolutionary recent axis of variance across the population. Predictors of hedonic-set point (such as the “pain-knob gene” SCN9A and it’s variants), on the other hand, are ancient and evolutionarily preserved across the phylogenetic tree. This makes baseline happiness a likely candidate for having a straight-forward universal physiological implementation throughout the human population. Hence my prediction that polygenetic scores of hedonic-set point will be much more precise than those for IQ (or even longevity).

Given all of the above, I would posit that a great place to start would be to develop a model that predicts hedonic set-point using all of the relevant SNPs offered by 23andMe*.  Not only would this be “low-hanging fruit” in the field of genetic counseling, it may also be a project that is way up there, close to the top of the “to do” list in Effective Altruism (cf. Cause X; Google Hedonics).

I thought about this because I saw that 23andMe reports on health predispositions based on single SNPs. From a utilitarian point of view, of particular interest are SNPs related to the SCN9A gene. For example, I found that 23andMe has the rs6746030 SNP, which some studies show can account for a percentage of the variance associated with pain in Parkinson’s and other degenerative diseases. The allele combination A/A is bad, making you more prone to experience pain intensely. This is just one SNP, though, and there ought to be a lot of other relevant SNPs, not only of the SCN9A gene but elsewhere too (e.g. involved in MAO enzymes, neuroplasticity, and pleasure centers innervation).

Concretely, the task would involve making two models and then combining them:

The first model uses people’s responses to 23andMe surveys to come up with a good estimate of a person’s hedonic set-point. Looking at some of the questions they ask, I would argue that there are more than enough dimensions to model how people vary in their hedonic set-point. They ask about things such as perception of pain, perception of spiciness, difficulty sleeping, stress levels, whether exercise is pleasant, etc. From a data science point of view, the challenge here is that number of responses provided by each participant is very variable; some power users respond to every question (and there are hundreds and hundreds), while most people respond to a few questions only, and a substantial minority respond to no questions at all. Most likely, the distribution of responses per participant follows a power law. So the model to build here has to be resilient against absent data. This is not an insurmountable problem, though, considering the existence of Bayesian Networks, PGMs, and statistical paradigms like Item Response Theory. For this reason, the model would need to both predict the most likely hedonic set-point of each participant, and provide confidence intervals specific to the participant based on the quality and relevance of the questions answered.

The second model would involve clustering and dimensionality reduction applied to the SNPs that are likely to be relevant for hedonic set-point. For example, one dimension would likely be a cluster of SNPs that are associated with “maximum intensity of pain”, another might be “how quickly pain subsides once it’s stimulated”, another “how much does pleasure counter-balance pain”, and so on. Each of these dimensions is likely to be determined by different neural circuits, and interact in non-linear ways, so they deserve their own separate dimension.

And finally, one would make a third model that combines the two models above, which predicts the hedonic set-point of a person derived from the first model using the genetic dimensions found by the second model. If you are an up-and-coming geneticist, I would like to nudge you in the direction of looking into this. As a side effect, you might as well get filthy rich in the process, as the genetic counseling field explodes in the next decade.


Bonus Content: What About Us?

Admittedly, many people will note that predicting a fraction of the variance of people’s hedonic set point with commercial DNA testing products will only really alleviate suffering in the medium to long term. The people who will benefit from this technology haven’t been born yet. In the meantime, what do we do about the people who currently have low hedonic set-points? Here is a creative, politically incorrect, and enticing idea:

Let’s predict which recreational drugs have the best cost-benefit profile for individuals based on their genetic makeup.

It is no secret that people react differently to drugs. 23andMe, among others, is currently doing research to predict your particular reaction to a drug based on your genetic makeup (cf. 23andMe can now tell you how you’ll react to 50+ common drugs). Unfortunately for people with anxiety, depression, chronic pain, and other hedonic tone illnesses, most psychiatric drugs are rather subtle and relatively ineffective. No wonder, compared to heroin, an SSRI is not likely to make you feel particularly great. As David Pearce argued in his essay Future Opioids, there is substantial evidence that many people who become addicts are driven to take recreational substances due to the fact that their endogenous opioid system is dysfunctional (e.g. they may have bad variants of opioid receptors, too many endorphin-degrading enzymes, etc.). The problem with giving people hard drugs is not that they don’t work in the short term; it is that they tend to backfire in the long-term and have cumulative negative health effects. As an aside, from the pharmaceutical angle, my main interest is the development of Anti-tolerance Drugs, which would allow hard drugs to work as mood-enhancers indefinitely.

This is not to say that there aren’t lucky people for whom the cost-benefit ratio of taking hard drugs is, in fact, rather beneficial. In what admittedly must have been a tongue-in-cheek marketing move, in the year 2010 the genetic interpretation company Knome (now part of Tute Genomics) studied Ozzy Osbourne‘s entire genome in order to determine how on earth he has been able to stay alive despite the gobs and gobs of drugs he’s taken throughout his life. Ozzy himself:

“I was curious, [g]iven the swimming pools of booze I’ve guzzled over the years—not to mention all of the cocaine, morphine, sleeping pills, cough syrup, LSD, Rohypnol…you name it—there’s really no plausible medical reason why I should still be alive. Maybe my DNA could say why.”

Ozzy Osbourne’s Genome (Scientific American, 2010)

Tentatively, Knome scientists said, Ozzy’s capacity to drink entire bottles of Whisky and Gin combined with bowlfuls of cocaine and multiple packs of cigarettes over the course of… breakfast… without ending up in the hospital may be due to novel mutations in his alcohol dehydrogenase gene (ADH4), as well as, potentially, the gene that codes for CLTCL1, a protein responsible for the intake of extra-cellular material into the cell’s inside. These are wild speculations, to be clear, but the general idea is brilliant.

Indeed, not everyone reacts in the same way to recreational drugs. A recent massive study on the health effects of alcohol funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (cf. No amount of alcohol is good for your overall health) suggests that alcohol is bad for one’s health at every dosage. This goes against the common wisdom backed up with numerous studies that light-drinkers (~1 alcohol unit a day) live longer and healthier lives than teetotalers. The new study suggests that this is not a causal effect of alcohol. Rather, it so happens that a large fraction of teetotalers are precisely the kind of people who react very badly to alcohol as a matter of poor metabolism. Hence, teetotalers are not unhealthy because they avoid alcohol; they avoid alcohol because they are unhealthy, which explains their shorter life expectancy on average. That said, the study did show that 1 alcohol unit a day is, although damaging, very minimally so:

Anyhow, the world’s cultural fascination with alcohol is bizarre to me, considering the existence of drugs that have a much better hedonic and cost-benefit profile (cf. State-Space of Drug Effects). Perhaps finding out with genetic testing that you are likely to be an above-average alcohol metabolizer might be good to lessen your worry about having a couple of drinks now and then. But the much bigger opportunity here would be to allow you to find drugs that you are particularly compatible with. For example, a genetic test might determine based on a polygenetic score that you might benefit a whole lot from taking small amounts of e.g. Khat  (or some such obscure and relatively benign euphoriant). That is, that your genetic make-up is such that Khat will be motivation enhancing, empathy-increasing, good for your heart and lungs, reduce the rate of dopamine neuron death, etc. while at the same time producing little to no hangovers, no irritability, no sleep issues, or social dysfunction. Even though you may have thought that you are “not an uppers person”, perhaps that’s because, genetically, every other upper you have ever tried is objectively terrible for your health. But Khat wouldn’t be. Wouldn’t this information be useful? Indeed, I would posit, this might be a great step in the right direction in order to achieve the goal of  Wireheading Done Right.


*23andMe is here used as a shorthand for services in general like this (including Ancestry, Counsyl, Natera, etc.)

Featured image credit: source.

The Purple Pill

It finally arrived. I had to appeal it’s denial a couple times, but it finally came through. It arrived in the mail today. It’s laminated with rounded corners, a holographic mark, and a pinch of glitter. I finally got my Poetic License. They said if I wanted permission to use metaphors I would need to apply for an allegorical diploma, but what is a poetic license without metaphor? In practice most licensed professionals in the field ignore this rule. It’s not like the reader ever asks you for your credentials whenever symbolism is used. They said my trope copyright agreement is on the way. They gave me a tracking number. But I’m not going to be waiting around any longer…

The most insidious thing about taking the blue pill is that it is usually followed by an immediate amnesia of having done so. Soon after one is presented with the same decision, but now with an incredible -unbelievable- literary feeling of empowerment and bravery that makes you decide to take the red pill in an heroic act of self-effacement. Alas, this is of course all a fantasy induced by the original blue pill.

There are various grades of pseudo-red pills. You have the standard sedatives that put you to sleep; a dreamless coma – “Life is an unprofitable episode disturbing the blessed calm of non-existence” (Schopenhauer). You have the one that makes you forget -in fact achieve a state of convenient social neglect- of the intensely bad experiences that exist out there in Hell branches of the multiverse. There is the one that makes you believe that nonhuman animals lack souls and are unable to suffer (despite their, it turns out, much greater capacity for suffering than humans). There are those that by virtue of making you believe that you took the red pill give your life a tremendous sense of mission and moral superiority. There is the pill of sentimentalism, the pill of fanaticism, the pill of scientism, the pill of mainstream sports, the pill of social media rage, the pill of analytic philosophy fandom, and the pill of pop psychopharmachology (SSRIs increase your serotonin levels, and serotonin is the happy molecule, or so the scientists are saying *wink*). Alas, naming the most common ones, those that zombify the people who claim to be the most awake would feel like a personal attack (even if far from it). So the most common blue pills shall remain unmentioned lest I’m lynched.

The true red pill is not just DXM with red 2. It isn’t just eugenics, international conspiracies, evolutionary psychopathology, or Hansonian signaling theory. The real red pill is made of 4000°C bright red luminous magma that destroys not only your esophagus, but cuts through your body and falls directly on the ground below passing right through, only barely cooled down by your body due to its incredibly high specific heat capacity.

No. That’s still another blue pill fantasy designed to make you feel brave and morally superior for taking it. The real red pill is agape. The communion with the Godhead in its infinite compassion for all Beings large and small.

But you guessed it right, that’s also another type of coating for the blue fellow (iridescent, yes, but still synthetic and bad for your liver).

What did you think, that there is any real closure? It is not like nature is going to be kind to us humans who suffer from high levels of neuroticism and psychological need for closure.

There is no red pill. But there are decent approximations. There is the unprejudiced pursuit of truth – the high AQ high IQ depressive realism that is an evolutionary spandrel. The state of metta and LSD ego death are close seconds, though they lack the critical clarity of mind needed to be willing to stare at the raw truth of suffering and its causes for too long before craving social validation for doing so.

Is there an alternative? Yes.

The purple pill is the pill that gives you both high hedonic tone and an unprejudiced open ended approach to the pursuit of truth. For losing truth is to lose it all, but to lose it all is only bad because it makes you and others suffer in the wider universe. Yes, here is where I am abusing my poetic license. I am a licensed wordsmith, don’t you know? I carry with me the approval of RA, I have the blessing of poetic authority so don’t you dare question my use of vagueness to drive a point home. The purple pill is what will redeem us all. The recognition that though truth is painful in our current, evolutionarily adaptive mind-frame, it is not in and of itself a cause of seething pain. Recognizing that true evil is not a person or a mythical archetype but the mere existence of states of consciousness as pornographically unethical as kidney stones or cluster headaches does not need to induce (at least not logically, not physically) a nihilistic depression. It does not need to make you speak in tongues, to scream at strangers in the street “AHH don’t you see how bad it is that we live in an eternalist empty individualist universe that does not care about the welfare of moments of experience!?!?” – It is still possible to do something productive instead. You can still, it turns out, choose to take eros and agape and reforge them into a laser sword that produces hyperdopaminergic loving-kindness in those who are hit by it, and mindfulness in those who wield it.

The purple pill is the true red pill; at least the best approximation there is. For if the truth is that the world is tenselessly (timelessly) littered with hellish states of consciousness implicated by the universal wavefunction satisfying the principles of zero ontology, this still does not imply that accurately representing the causal structure of such facts *has* to come along with a hellish hedonic tone of itself. This is the truth we all long for.

Take the purple pill and join us in the battle to destroy hell. You will, much to everyone’s incredulous amazement, be happy while doing so.


Photo credit: The HyperSpace

Hell Must Be Destroyed

Singer called the movement that grew up around him “effective altruism”, and its rallying cry was that one ought to spend every ounce of one’s energy doing whatever most relieves human suffering, most likely either feeding the poor or curing various tropical diseases. Again, something his opponents rejected as impossible, unworkable, another example of liberal fanaticism. Really? Every ounce of your energy? Again, they could have just read their Bibles. Deuteronomy 6:5: “And you must love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength.”
 
Then Singer changed his tune. In the 1970s, after the sky cracked and the world changed, he announced that charity was useless, that feeding the poor was useless, that curing tropical diseases was useless. There was only one cause to which a truly rational, truly good human being could devote his or her life.
 
Hell must be destroyed.
 
The idea of billions of human beings suffering unbearable pain for all eternity so outweighed our little earthly problems that the latter didn’t even register. He began meeting with his disciples in secret, teaching them hidden Names he said had been vouchsafed to him by angels. Thamiel put a price on his life – quite a high price actually. Heedless of his own safety, Singer traveled what remained of the civilized world, making converts wherever he went, telling them to be perfect as God was perfect, and every speech ended the same way. Hell must be destroyed.

An angel appears on Earth. This genderless being connected to God shows up on every screen on Earth at once and asks us if we are interested in drastically improving life on Earth. A large enough portion of those who hear the message (which gets a coverage of 80%+ of people worldwide) see into their souls and find the willingness to make life better, and then they see into their hearts and see the warmth of hope, and so they resolve to agree to do whatever is necessary to help the angel improve life on Earth. And thus the angel says “thanks to the collective desire to make it so, I shall change some things about how the planet is programed, and you will see a 99% reduction in suffering and a 20% increase in overall happiness.”
And so the angel gets to work.
A year passes, and nobody can really tell the difference from before. Most people’s day to day experience is perhaps even slightly more tedious and slightly more boring. What happened? After a few years it is clear that no major change has happened, and indeed affective psychologists report a mild but very generalized decrease in people’s engagement with their day to day activities and increases in feelings of being a bit disoriented. Did the angel scam us? Or did people fail to do their part? Or why are there no improvements? A large enough mass of people asked this question that the angel felt the need to provide an update. He comes back down and appears in all of the planet’s screens and says:
“Everything went according to plan. It is just that your society hasn’t reached the point of scientific development where you are able to measure the quality of experience of sentient beings. You aren’t quantifying pain very well.”
“Here is what I did. Above of all, I focused my energies on trying to prevent some of the worst experiences, which in aggregate happened to be an ethical catastrophe. I managed to reduce how bad these experiences were by about 99.99%.”
“I started by reducing how bad cluster headaches feel. They are now only about 44,000 dolors per second (d/s). They used to be around 450,000,000 d/s. You see, when most people get a fleeting headache, we are talking about headaches that range from 0.5 to 1d/s. You know, the type of headache that people are willing to wait out, and perhaps some people will ask for a little aspirin or some placebo of some sort and then get on with it. Most headaches are of this kind. But even if you bundle all of them together we are talking about a rounding error relative to the suffering caused by other types of headaches, the bad ones. Migraine, for example, tends to get to about 1,000 dolors per second, and sufferers have a hard time communicating the fact that it is not just a lot worse, it is a thousand times more painful than the “normal” ones. But even then that does not register relative to one of the really really bad ones, like cluster headaches, which as I said can spiral up to values close to a billion d/s. As it happens, on your planet there are simple chemical tricks to reduce that particular type of pain (e.g. LSD), so I just went ahead and got rid of the bulk of it very easily. It’s still super painful by human standards, but not by my standards, like it was before. To have a cluster headache now is just as “indescribably bad” as before, meaning it goes beyond people’s ability to imagine and make sense of. But that doesn’t challenge the fact that the 99.99% improvement I did is an ethical victory of civilizational magnitude.”
“Next I went on to reducing how bad it feels to have kidney stones, bone pain, and various kinds of particularly bad neuropathies in people with schizophrenia. By the time I had taken care of about the dozen or so worst kinds of pain, I had already overdelivered by an order of magnitude and was starting to run into diminishing returns. So I decided to go on to helping other planets in my quest to prevent as much suffering as possible.”
“I apologize I used about 0.13 hedons per second (h/s) from mundane experiences to implement one of those cosmic pain diminishing plans. In order to increase the amount of happiness in the world as I promised I made the experience of showering about 50% more enjoyable and the experience of listening to music about twice as good. As you can see, the bathing industry did take off, but not many thought much of it. And the musicians were able to tell that music was awesome again and wondered why, but most people seem to have attributed their increased musical enjoyment to what they imagined had been their own hidden musical talents all along.”
“Thank you, and keep enjoying your drastically improved planet.”

 

Thus, people realized that the world was indeed a lot better. Well, some did. And others complained, but it was ok.

Thanks to Michael Aaron Coleman and Jonathan Leighton for inspiring this piece. Michael suffers from cluster headaches and has described their phenomenology in gruesome detail. He says that in a 0 to 10 scale, cluster headaches are solid 10/10. But he also says you really need a different scale to make sense of this monster. He once used the phrase “minus one million hedonic tone”. He says that morphine makes the pain go from 10/10 to 9/10, if at all, maybe more like 9.5/10. Thankfully, LSD in small doses (~25 micrograms) makes it go to 1/10. DMT also works, but 5-MeO-DMT does not (and yet it still expands time, so not a good idea). Jonathan is the Executive Director of the Organization for the Prevention of Intense Suffering (OPIS). He works on identifying cases where intense suffering can be prevented on a massive scale and doing what has to be done. I recommend getting in touch with him if this is a particular interest of yours.

Anti-Tolerance Drugs

It would indeed be extraordinary if – alone among the neurotransmitter systems of the brain – the endogenous opioid families were immune from dysfunction. Enkephalins are critical to “basal hedonic tone” i.e. whether we naturally feel happy or sad. Yet the therapeutic implications of a recognition that dysfunctional endogenous opioid systems underlie a spectrum of anxiety-disorders and depression are too radical – at present – for the medical establishment to contemplate. In consequence, the use of opioid-based pharmacotherapies for “psychological” pain is officially taboo. The unique efficacy of opioids in banishing mental distress is neglected. Their unrivalled efficacy in treating “physical” nociceptive pain is grudgingly accepted.

 

Future Opioids, by David Pearce

Albert Camus wrote that the only serious question is whether to kill yourself or not. Tom Robbins wrote that the only serious question is whether time has a beginning and an end. Camus clearly got up on the wrong side of bed, and Robbins must have forgotten to set the alarm. There is only one serious question. And that is: Who knows how to make love stay? [emphasis mine] Answer me that and I will tell you whether or not to kill yourself.

 

– Still Life with Woodpecker by Tom Robbins

As eloquently argued by David Pearce in Future Opioids, the problem with opioids and other euphoriant drugs is not that they make you feel good, but that the positive feelings are short lived. In their stead, tolerance, withdrawal, and dependence ultimately set in after repeated use. We take the position that these negatives are not a necessary outcome of feeling free from physical or psychological malaise, for the brain has clever negative feedback mechanisms that prevent us from wireheading chemically. Rather, we believe that tackling these negative feedback mechanisms directly might be they key that unlocks never-ending bliss. Note that even if excellent anti-tolerance drugs were to be developed and commercialized for therapeutic use, we would still need to find solutions to the problems posed by wireheading. Specifically, disabling the negative feedback mechanisms in place that prevent us from feeling well all the time still leaves unsolved the problem of avoiding getting stuck in counterproductive patterns of behavior and becoming at risk of turning into a pure replicator (for proposed solutions to these problems see: Wireheading Done Right). Still, we strongly believe that finding safe and effective anti-tolerance drugs is a step in the right direction in the battle against suffering throughout the living world.

We thus provide the following list of promising anti-tolerance drugs in the hopes of: (1) piquing the interest of budding psychopharmacologists who may be weighting-in on promising research leads, (2) show a proof of concept against the fake and fatalistic truism that “what goes up has to go down” (cf. The Hedonistic Imperative), and last but not least, (3) provide hope to people suffering from physical or psychological distress who would benefit from anti-tolerance drugs, such as those who experience treatment-resistant anxiety, depression, chronic pain, or chemical dependence.

It is worth noting that this list is just a draft, and we will continue to revise it as the science progresses. Please let us know in the comment section if you are aware of compounds not included in this list (of special interest are tier 1 and tier 2 compounds).

Tier System

The list is organized by tiers. Tier 1 includes compounds for which there is evidence that they can reverse tolerance. Tier 2 deals with compounds that seem to either block or attenuate the development of tolerance, meaning that co-administering them with a euphoric agonist reduces the speed at which this euphoriant creates tolerance. Tier 3 includes potentiators. That is, compounds that enhance the effects of other substances without at the same time increasing tolerance to the extent that would be expected given the intensity of the subjective effects. Tier 4 lists compounds that, while not exactly tolerance-related, are still worth mentioning by virtue of reducing the intensity of drug withdrawals. And finally, Tier 5 includes euphoriants that have a favorable pharmacological profile relative to their alternatives, although will still produce tolerance long-term. Typically, a substance belonging to Tier X will also belong to Tier X + 1 and above (except for Tier 5) but we omit repetitions to avoid redundancy (e.g. proglumide not only reverses tolerance, but prevents tolerance, is a potentiatior, and reduces withdrawals).

Opioid System

Tier 1

  1. Ibogaine (see: Low dose treatment)
  2. Proglumide
  3. Naltrexone (specifically in Ultra Low Doses)
  4. Ibudilast (AV-411)

Tier 2

  1. Agmatine (may also help with chronic pain on its own)
  2. Curcumin (found in Turmeric; only works in high-availability forms)
  3. Thymoquinone (found in Nigella Sativa/black seed oil)

Tier 3

  1. DXM (specially potentiates the analgesia, which may be of use for chronic pain sufferers)
  2. Hydroxyzine (beware of its effects on sufferers of Akathisia/Restless Legs Syndrome; also bad in the long term for one’s cognitive capacity)
  3. L-Tyrosine
  4. Magnesium (possibly tier 2 but only weakly so)

Tier 4

  1. L-Aspartic Acid
  2. Ashwagandha
  3. JDTic
  4. Gabapentin
  5. Clonidine

Tier 5

  1. Tianeptine (its effects on the delta opioid receptor attenuates its tolerance when used in therapeutic doses)
  2. Mitragynine (thanks to its partial agonism rather than full agonism it is less dangerous in high doses relative to alternatives; specifically, mitragyne does not have dangerous respiratory depression properties on its own, so switching heroin addicts to it would arguably save countless lives)

 

GABA System

Tier 1

  1. Flumazenil (note: very dose-dependent)

Tier 2

  1. Tranylcypromine
  2. Ginsenosides
  3. Homotaurine
  4. Fasoracetam

Tier 3

  1. Dihydromyricetin

See also.

Dopamine System

Insufficient datapoints for a tier system. Here are the few promising leads:

  1. D-serin
  2. D-cycloserine
  3. Sulbutamine
  4. Bromantane
  5. Memantine

See also.


Tanks to Adam Karlovsky for help compiling these lists.

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

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

Introduction

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

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

Takeaways

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


Summaries of Question and Response

Summary of the question:

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

Summary of the response:

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

Full Question and Response

Question:

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

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

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

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

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

Response:

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

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

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

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