Just Look At The Thing! – How The Science of Consciousness Informs Ethics

It is very easy to answer many of these fundamental biological questions; you just look at the thing! 


From Richard Feyman’s talk There’s Plenty of Room at the Bottom (1959)

Introduction

The quote above comes from a lecture Richard Feynman gave in which he talks about the challenges and opportunities of studying and interacting with the world at a very small scale. Among other things, he touches upon how gaining access to e.g. a good-enough electron microscopes would allow us to answer long-standing questions in biology by just looking at the thing (cf. Seeing Cell Division Like Never Before). Once you start to directly engage with the phenomenon at a high-enough resolution, tackling these questions at the theoretical level would turn out, in retrospect, to be idle arm chair speculation.

I think that we can make the case that philosophy of ethics at the moment might be doing something like this. In other words, it speculates about the nature of value at a theoretical level without engaging with the phenomenon of value at a high resolution. Utilitarianism (whether classical or negative), at least as it is usually formulated, may turn out to have background assumptions about the nature of consciousness, personal identity, and valence that a close examination would show to be false (or at least very incomplete). Many criticisms of wireheading, for instance, seem to conflate pleasure and reward (more on this soon), and yet we now know that these are quite different. Likewise, the repugnant conclusion or the question between total vs. mean utilitarianism are usually discussed using implicit background assumptions about the nature of valence and personal identity. This must stop. We have to look at the thing!

Without further ado, here are some of the key ways in which an enriched understanding of consciousness can inform our ethical theories:

Mixed Valence

One ubiquitous phenomenon that I find is largely neglected in discussions about utilitarianism is that of mixed valence states. Not only is it the case that there are many flavors of pleasure and pain, but it is also the case that most states of consciousness blend both pleasurable and painful sensations in complex ways.

In Principia Qualia (Michael Johnson) the valence triangle was introduced. This describes the valence of a state of consciousness in terms of its loadings on the three dimensions of negative, positive, and neutral valence. This idea was extended in Quantifying Bliss, which further enriched it by adding a spectral component to each of these dimensions. Let’s work with this valence triangle to reason about mixed valence.

In order to illustrate the relevance of mixed valence states we can see how it influences policies within the context of negative utilitarianism. Let us say that we agree that there is a ground truth to the total amount of pain and pleasure a system produces. A naïve conception of negative utilitarianism could then be “we should minimize pain”. But pain that exists within an experience that also contains pleasure may matter a lot less than pain that exists in an experience without pleasure that “balances it out”!

The naïve conception, would thus, not be able to distinguish between the following two scenarios. In Scenario A we have two persons, one suffering from both an intense headache and an intense stomach ache and the other enjoying both a very pleasant sensation in the head and a very pleasant sensation in the stomach. In Scenario B, we switch it up: one person experiences an intense headache while also a very pleasant sensation in the stomach, and the other way around for the other person.

But if you have ever experienced a very pleasant sensation arise in the midst of an otherwise unpleasant experience you will know how much of a difference it makes. Such a pleasant sensation does not need to directly blunt the painful sensation; the mere presence of enough pleasure makes the overall nature of the experience far more tolerable. How and why this happens is still, of course, a mystery (in a future post we shall share our speculations) but it seems to be an empirical fact. This can have extraordinary implications, where for example a sufficiently advanced meditator might be able to dilute very painful sensations with enough equanimity (itself a high-valence state) or by e.g. generating jhanic sensations (see below). Have you ever seen this discussed in an academic journal on ethics? I didn’t think so.

We don’t need to invoke such fancy scenarios to see the reality and importance of mixed valence states. The canonical example that I use to illustrate this phenomenon is where: you just broke up with someone (-), are at a concert enjoying really good music (+), are coming up on weed and alcohol (+), but also need to pee really bad (-). We’ve all been there, haven’t we? If you get sufficiently absorbed into the cathartic pleasure of the music and the drugs, the negative feelings temporarily recede into the background and thus might tilt the experience towards the net positive for a while.

Once you consider the reality of mixed valence states, there is a veritable Cambrian Explosion of possible variants of utilitarianism. For example, if you do accept that pleasure can somehow dilute pain within a given moment of experience, then you could posit that there is a “line of hedonic zero” on the valence triangle and anything on one side of it is net positive:

A version of negative utilitarianism we could call within-subject-aggregated-valence negative utilitarianism recognizes any experience in the “Net Positive” region to be perfectly acceptable even though it contains painful sensations.

Alternatively, another version we may call strict negative valence utilitarianism might say that pain, whether or not it is found within an experience with a lot of pleasure, is still nonetheless unacceptable. Here, however, we may still have a lot of room for a civilization animated by information-sensitive gradients of bliss: we can use the gradients that have a mixture of positive and neutral Vedanā for information signaling:

Yet another view, perhaps called within-subject-majoritarian negative valence utilitarianism might say that what makes an experience worth-living and unproblematic is for it to be at least 50% pleasant, regardless of the composition of the other 50%:

Now, I am not going to adjudicate between these views today. All I am pointing for the time being is that actually engaging with the phenomenon at hand (i.e. how valence manifests in reality) radically enriches our conceptions, and allows us to notice that most of ethics has an impoverished understanding of the phenomenon it comments on. We can change that.

Logarithmic Scales

As argued in Logarithmic Scales of Pleasure and Pain (summary) we think that there is a wide range of evidence that suggests that the intensity of both pleasure and pain follows a long-tail distribution. I am not going to repeat the arguments here, since I’ve written and presented about them extensively already. I will merely mention that I am deeply suspicious of the intellectual seriousness of any ethicist who somehow fails to notice the enormous moral significance of the following states of consciousness, among others:

On the positive side:

  • Temporal lobe epilepsy
  • MDMA
  • Jhanas
  • Good high-dose 5-MeO-DMT trip

On the negative side:

  • Cluster Headaches
  • Kidney Stones
  • Bad high-dose 5-MeO-DMT trip

Valence and Self-Models

One of the claims of QRI is that every experience, no matter how outlandish and unlike our normal everyday human experience, has valence characteristics. An analogy can be made with the notion of physical temperature: every physical object has a temperature, no matter what it is made out of or what its shape is.

Most human experiences have a lot of shared structure, with things like a central “phenomenal self” that works as an organizing principle for arranging sensations. Many meditators and psychedelic enthusiasts point out that suffering seems to have something to do with our sense of self. That feelings matter only to the extent that they are happening to someone. But experiences without a phenomenal self (or with radically altered phenomenal selves) will nonetheless still have valence characteristics. Ego deaths can be dysphoric or euphoric.

We argue that what matter is actually the overall structure of the experience (cf. valence structuralism). It just so happens that above a certain level of valence, the phenomenal self starts to become an impediment to further bliss. Ultra-pleasant experiences, thus, tend to be selfless! But this does not make them worthless. On the contrary, their intrinsic worth, coming from their positive valence, can go through the roof.

That said, reporting the valence of very exotic experiences can be remarkably difficult. This doesn’t mean that we should give up; rather, we ought to develop new methods, vocabulary, and culture to be able to place these experiences on the same moral footing as our normal everyday life.

For example, the so-called “toroidal state” (on DMT) or during a meditative cessation can have profound valence effects, to the point of making you reconsider the very nature and scope of what matters.

From The Three Doors chapter in Mastering the Core Teachings of the Buddha (Daniel Ingram):

Regardless of the way a specific door manifests, it reveals something completely extraordinary about the relationship between “the watcher” and “the watched” that it would take a very warped, non-Euclidean view of the universe to explain, though I will try shortly. One way or another, these fleeting experiences cannot easily be explained in terms of our normal, four-dimensional experience of space-time, or within our ordinary subject/object experience. […] When the no-self door predominates with suffering as its second aspect, then a very strange thing happens. There may be an image on one side staring back, but even if there isn’t, the universe becomes a toroid (doughnut-shaped), or occasionally a sphere, and the image and this side of the toroid switch places as the toroid universe spins. It may spin sideways (horizontally), or it may spin vertically (like head over heels), and may also feel like a hood of darkness suddenly being pulled over our heads as the whole thing synchronizes and disappears, or like everything twisting out of existence. The rarest no-self/suffering variant is hard to describe, and involves reality becoming like a doughnut whose whole outer edge rotates inwards such as to trade places with its inner edge (the edge that made the hole in the middle) that rotates to the outer edge position, and when they trade places reality vanishes. The spinning includes the whole background of space in all directions. Fruition occurs when the two have switched places and the whole thing vanishes.

I recommend reading the whole chapter for what I consider to be some ultra-trippy phenomenology of surprising ethical relevance (see also: No-Self vs. True Self).

In summary: this all indicates that states of consciousness have valence characteristics independently of the presence, absence, shape, or dynamic of a phenomenal self within them. If your ethicist isn’t considering the moral worth of Nirvana… perhaps consider switching to one who does.

Valence and Personal Identity

The solution to the phenomenal binding problem has implications for both personal identity and ethics. If, as I posit, each moment of experience is in fact a topological pocket in the fields of physics, then Closed Individualism would seem to be ruled out. Meaning, the standard conception of identity where you start existing when you are born and stop existing when you die would turn out to be a strange evolutionarily adaptive fiction. What really exists is a gigantic field of consciousness subdivided into countless topological pockets. Empty Individualism (“you are just a moment of experience”) and Open Individualism (“we are all the same universal consciousness”) would both be consistent with the facts, and it might be impossible to decide between them. Yet, I argue that the vast majority of ethical theories have as an implicit background assumption Closed Individualism. So realizing that it is false has major implications.

In particular, if we take the Empty Individualist perspective, it might be easier to defend negative utilitarianism: since each snapshot of experience is a completely separate being, you simply cannot “make it up” to someone who is currently suffering by giving him/her enough happiness in the future. Simply put, that suffering will never be redeemed.

Alternatively, if we take the Open Individualist perspective, we now might have actual grounds to decide between, say, average vs. total utilitarianism. Ultimately, you will be forced to experience everyone and everything. This line of reasoning becomes particularly interesting if you also take seriously something like Feynman and Wheeler’s One-electron Universe. Here we might possibly even objectively determine the moral worth of an experience in terms of “how long the one electron stays trapped inside it”. An experience with a huge spatial breadth and one with enormous temporal depth may be equivalent according to this metric: they’re just structured differently (cf. Pseudo-Time Arrow). In this account, you are bouncing backwards and forwards in time interfering with yourself forever. The multiverse is the structure emergent from this pattern of self-interference, and it is eternal and immutable in a certain sense. Relative to a small experience, a large experience would be one that keeps the one electron trapped for longer. Thus, there would be a strong case to care more about bigger and brighter experiences: you’ll be there for ages!

If indeed you are bouncing backwards and forwards forever in this structure, then perhaps average utilitarianism can be defended. In brief, since you are always somewhere, what matters is not how large the structure is, but the shape of its distribution of states.

Valence Structuralism

Finally, if you pay attention to the nature of highly valenced states of consciousness you will notice that they have structural features. The Symmetry Theory of Valence (overview; CDNS) can be experientially verified for oneself by introspecting on the structural features of one’s experience when enjoying intense bliss or enduring intense suffering. Rob Burbea’s meditation instructions are very well worth reading to get a sense of what I’m talking about. This would seem to matter a lot when it comes e.g. deciding what kind of artificial sentient minds we might want to create. Much more on this in the future.


Putting It All together

High-dose DMT experiences are an excellent example of the sort of state of consciousness that is part of reality, is generally not taken seriously in philosophy (despite its enormous significance), and has many elements that challenge preconceptions about pleasure and pain and inform our understanding of valence. These experiences:

For a theory of physics to be true it needs to be able to explain physical phenomena outside of room temperature. Likewise, for an ethical theory to be in any way true, it ought to be able to account for states of consciousness outside of the range of normal human everyday life experience. DMT states, among others, are examples of non-room-temperature states of consciousness that you can use to test if your theory of ethics actually generalizes. How do you make sense of experiences that have more qualia, have mixed valence, have exotic phenomenal selves, and have valence effects up there in the logarithmic scale? That’s what we need to answer if we are serious about ethics.

The future holds much crazier trade-offs than that between Human Flourishing vs Potatoes with Muzak. Already today, I would argue, the facts suggest that we ought to begin recognizing the reality of Hell and the ethical imperative to destroy it. And beyond, our theory of ethics ought to be powerful enough to contend with the outlandish realities of consciousness we are soon bound to encounter.


See also:

Ecstasy and Honesty

by David Pearce (2004; reprinted with permission, link/arx)

A society based on E-like consciousness would be an honest society of honest people.

        Today, most of us lie and dissemble. We tell white lies and, on occasion, total whoppers. Most of us lie many times in the course of a day, whether to friends, family, colleagues or – as necessity or convenience dictates – to total strangers. Hiding one’s true thoughts and feelings as the occasion demands is second nature to outwardly civilised Darwinians. The few formal studies conducted into the prevalence of lying in everyday life suggest we tend to underestimate just how often (almost) all of us are guilty of outright fabrications, not to mention innumerable half-truths and evasions.

        On a wider scale, deceit is institutionalized in political life. The record of human history to date supports the powerful intuition that deception will persist indefinitely in public and private life alike. For the evolved capacity to lie and deceive in ever more sophisticated ways has been genetically adaptive. Indeed, if the controversial Machiavellian ape hypothesis is correct, then a progressively refined capacity to lie and deceive – and conversely, a fine-tuned capacity to spot lies and deceit in others – may have driven the evolution of human intelligence.

        It is sometimes said that life would be better if only we were honest with each other. More often, this value judgement is simply assumed. Life might be better, too, if we were more honest with ourselves. But given today’s corrupt genome, all such scenarios are impossibly unrealistic. Moreover, the effects of public openness about private feelings would frequently be catastrophic. This is because Darwinian humans entertain so many negative thoughts about each other that complete candour would wreck most contemporary human relationships. In a grim Darwinian world, one [E-less] person may, for instance, find another person boring and ugly. Yet there is commonly no advantage to either party in saying so. So the civilities are (sometimes) preserved.

        Not all lying is self-serving. Very often, we lie to spare the feelings of others, as well as our own.

        On MDMA/Ecstasy, however, subjects tend to become extraordinarily honest. People trust each other: MDMA indirectly triggers the release of oxytocin. Critically, MDMA-induced emotional honesty is matched by a subtle yet profound shift in perception: when “loved up” on MDMA, we all tend to seem fascinating and beautiful, both to each other and to ourselves. On MDMA, it seems natural to express these feelings spontaneously and demonstratively too.

        Alas this marvellous state of being doesn’t last for more than a few hours. Potentially, the benefits of MDMA (and MDA)-assisted therapy can be much longer-lasting. But the peak experience of soul-baring empathetic bliss soon fades. Looking to the future, however, enhancements of E-like consciousness can in principle be indefinitely prolonged. By opting via gene-therapy to hardwire a neurobiology of E-like consciousness into our offspring, we could even lock in this perceptual and behavioural shift for good. If implemented species-wide, an enhanced E-like set of perceptual filters would make heavenly love for each other as natural as breathing.

         This post-millennial vision is implausible. Right now, the notion of global E-like consciousness seems fantastical, especially if one isn’t loved up on MDMA. Yet the capacity to love everybody, and in extreme forms, to be in love with everybody, will be a technical if not sociological possibility in the age of mature biotechnology. In future, if we ever opt – pharmacologically or genetically – to implement E-like consciousness as one facet of world-wide mental health, then it may be psychologically safe to be totally honest. In the meantime, barring such enrichment of our troubled minds, it’s sometimes safer to lie through one’s teeth. Thus today the MDMA user is probably well advised to take a conscious decision, prior to dropping an E, not to disclose anything s/he would not wish to be known in the E-less state. Reticence on E can be maintained; but one can be reliably tight-lipped on E only with a fair degree of forethought.

        Yet discretion is prudent not because an E-catalysed outpouring of the heart and soul is itself pathological. Selective reticence about (some of) one’s innermost feelings is wise simply because the repercussions of honesty back in the E-less world to which the user must return can be cruel; and because the elevated sentiments felt while on E often cannot be sustained in the cold light of day.

         Of course, the prospect of worldwide E-like candour strikes the harsh Darwinian eye as grotesque – no less than the prospect of us all loving each other. More specifically, the option of becoming permanently loved-up invites the charge that E-like perception is systematically distorted. A notional society of loved-up E-heads, it may be alleged, would be in the grip of a collective psychosis. Sure, runs the cynic’s critique, loved-up Ecstatics intoxicated on MDMA may find everyone beautiful and fascinating. But so what? Even though MDMA is not a classic “hallucinogen” or psychedelic, the drug-induced perception of loveliness that MDMA creates is (often) false. For lots of people are really boring and ugly. A perpetually E-enchanted world would be a fool’s paradise populated by intellectually and aesthetically undiscerning simpletons. In an E-like world, we might indeed be open and honest; but we’d have nothing worth hiding.

        This dismissive judgement doesn’t follow. If being boring or ugly were intrinsic properties of (some of) our fellow humans, rather than our emotional responses to the vicious (mis-)representations of Darwinian minds, then the charge of false consciousness, as it were, might be easier to sustain. But there’s no evidence that this is so. Our perceptual experiences have been shaped by natural selection, not to be veridical, but to help our genes leave more copies of themselves. Sometimes this (lack of) veridicality is fitness-enhancing; and sometimes it isn’t; and sometimes – as is arguably the case in the realm of attitudes expressing pure value judgements – there’s no fact of the matter either way. In any event, under the primordial Darwinian regime of natural selection, there has been great advantage in seeing genetic rivals, and indeed seeing anyone with whom one is not genetically identical, in a (sometimes) cruelly negative light. On the other hand, if it had helped our genes leave more copies of themselves, then men would typically represent women of, say, 80 years old as more sexy and fascinating than women aged 21; and this perception would be neither more nor less “correct” than the aesthetic consensus-reality of today.

         Analogously, the enraptured mystic who can “see a world in a grain of sand, And a heaven in a wild flower” is not deluded; such perceptions are uncommon at present merely because it has been genetically maladaptive to occupy states of sustained mystical bliss. For in the ancestral environment of adaptation, it was typically more adaptive to see grains of sand as boring and neglect them. But today’s parochial (virtual) worlds are only one small set of mind-dependent creations in a vaster state-space of possibilities, not a timeless feature of the human predicament. Tantalisingly, thanks to biotechnology a wide range of life-enriching options will soon be on offer instead.

         A tough-minded sceptic may respond: yes, beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but not all social perception is relative. Some people really are nasty and ill-natured by (almost) any criterion at all. And seeing them as anything else would be delusive. Granted, viewing each other in an often jaundiced light may be a product of our nasty little Darwinian minds, but surely that’s the point: commonly we just aren’t very lovable. If we are to be honest, then we should admit this – not gush effusively at each other like drugged-up hippies.

         Herein lies the beauty of MDMA – and perhaps safer, sexier lovedrugs and more distant gene-therapies in the pipeline. MDMA doesn’t just make us honest. E-like consciousness makes us sweeter-natured. Even better, the idealised self activated by MDMA does not take the form of alien impostor, so to speak, but feels utterly authentic, constructed from elements of an idealised persona that we can’t live up to in drug-naïve life. If, in a hypothetical E-based society, everyone were constitutionally sweet-natured, then enriching our cognitive architecture would entail capturing this sweet-naturedness in our interpersonal perceptions. With E-like consciousness, emotional honesty and intellectual integrity can, in principle, go hand in hand. It is possible, but unproven, that ugly representations of ourselves and each other belong to a dark Darwinian world that we will shortly leave behind.

        This prospect again invites scepticism. It can be argued that genetically engineering an entire population primed for indiscriminate honesty is not an evolutionarily stable outcome. An unfailingly honest population might seem prone to genetic invasion by mutant, quasi-sociopathic “defectors”. This game-theoretic argument may continue to hold in the future, as it has done in the past. Even with advanced biotechnology, runs this line of argument, perhaps only substantially egoistic well-being is feasible in any biologically realistic model of a globally superhappy society.

        But once again, this overly quick reply neglects how ostensibly altruistic thoughts and behaviour evolved in the first instance i.e. for (genetically) selfish reasons; and how they are likely to proliferate explosively in the new reproductive era of designer babies. The proliferation of such admirable traits will accelerate not because our genes stop being any less selfish in the technical sense. For unselfish genes are impossible. Instead, an (E-like?) nobility of character may flourish in the impending era of so-called unnatural selection because when selection is no longer “blind” or [effectively] random, the [selfish] genetic payoff of promoting such “altruistic” traits can be higher. In the new reproductive era ahead, when genes/allelic combinations are chosen by (partially) rational agents in anticipation of their likely behavioural consequences, parents will plausibly exhibit a strong preference for offspring with genotypes that promote such (partially) heritable traits as honesty and “lovability”. These nicer traits may then flourish at the expense of alleles that predispose to a nastier disposition. After all, who wants to devote their life to raising nasty kids?

        Unfortunately there are no shortcuts. Any transition to a truly honest post-Darwinian society can’t happen simply though acts of individual initiative or all-night Paradise-engineering certainly won’t come about just via individual acts of drug-taking – even after safe and distributed via the Net.

        Needless to say, we don’t know whether our genetically enhanced descendants will ever have E-like perceptual filters to their consciousness. We don’t know if posterity will lie and cheat as much as we do. We don’t even know whether they will be fundamentally happy, or assuming they are indeed innately so blessed, whether their well-being will take an egocentric or empathetic guise, or express modes of flourishing unimaginably different from anything accessible to conscious mind today. So perhaps the enticing scenarios for our transhuman descendants touted here are all just wishful thinking masquerading as futurology. But whatever the future holds, by taking MDMA we can already, fleetingly, access states of consciousness richer than our brutish Darwinian mindset normally permits. A fundamentally honest society, prefigured (perhaps) in a communal MDMA love-in, is not self-evidently ethically inferior to a society founded on never-ending lies and deceit – or a society driven by competitive displays of consumer consumption. So at least as an intellectual exercise, it’s worth investigating the policy-option of locking in the biochemical substrates of E-like honesty for good.

Digital Computers Will Remain Unconscious Until They Recruit Physical Fields for Holistic Computing Using Well-Defined Topological Boundaries

[Epistemic Status: written off the top of my head, thought about it for over a decade]

What do we desire for a theory of consciousness?

We want it to explain why and how the structure of our experience is computationally relevant. Why would nature bother to wire, not only information per se, but our experiences in richly structured ways that seem to track task-relevant computation (though at times in elusive ways)?

I think we can derive an explanation here. It is both very theoretically satisfying and literally mind-bending. This allows us to rule out vast classes of computing systems as having no more than computationally trivial conscious experiences.

TL;DR: We have richly textured bound experiences precisely because the boundaries that individuate us also allow us to act as individuals in many ways. This individual behavior can reflect features of the state of the entire organism in energy-efficient ways. Evolution can recruit this individual, yet holistic, behavior due to its computational advantages. We think that the boundary might be the result of topological segmentation in physical fields.


Marr’s Levels of Analysis and the Being/Form Boundary

One lens we can use to analyze the possibility of sentience in systems is this conceptual boundary between “being” and “form”. Here “being” refers to the interiority of things- their intrinsic likeness. “Form” on the other hand refers to how they appear from the outside. Where you place the being/form boundary influences how you make sense of the world around you. One factor that seems to be at play for where you place the being/form boundary is your implicit background assumptions about consciousness. In particular, how you think of consciousness in relation to Marr’s levels of analysis:

  • If you locate consciousness at the computational (or behavioral) level, then the being/form boundary might be computation/behavior. In other words, sentience simply is the performance of certain functions in certain contexts.
  • If you locate it at the algorithmic level, then the being/form boundary might become algorithm/computation. Meaning that what matters for the inside is the algorithm, whereas the outside (the form) is the function the algorithm produces.
  • And if you locate it at the implementation level, you will find that you identify being with specific physical situations (such as phases of matter and energy) and form as the algorithms that they can instantiate. In turn, the being/form boundary looks like crystals & bubbles & knots of matter and energy vs. how they can be used from the outside to perform functions for each other.

How you approach the question of whether a given chatbot is sentient will drastically depend on where you place the being/form boundary.


Many arguments against the sentience of particular computer systems are based on algorithmic inadequacy. This, for example, takes the form of choosing a current computational theory of mind (e.g. global workspace theory) and checking if the algorithm at play has the bare bones you’d expect a mind to have. This is a meaningful kind of analysis. And if you locate the being/form boundary at the algorithmic level then this is the only kind of analysis that seems to make sense.

What stops people from making successful arguments concerning the implementation level of analysis is confusion about the function for consciousness. So which physical systems are or aren’t conscious seems to be inevitably an epiphenomenalist construct. Meaning that drawing boundaries around systems with specific functions is an inherently fuzzy activity and any criteria we choose for whether a system is performing a certain function will be at best a matter of degree (and opinion).

The way of thinking about phenomenal boundaries I’m presenting in this post will escape this trap.

But before we get there, it’s important to point out the usefulness of reasoning about the algorithmic layer:

Algorithmic Structuring as a Constraint

I think that most people who believe that digital sentience is possible will concede that at least in some situations The Chinese Room is not conscious. The extreme example is when the content of the Chinese Room turns out to be literally a lookup table. Here a simple algorithmic concern is sufficient to rule out its sentience: a lookup table does not have an inner state! And what you do, from the point of view of its inner workings, is the same no matter if you relabel which input goes with what output. Whatever is inscribed in the lookup table (with however many replies and responses as part of the next query) is not something that the lookup table structurally has access to! The lookup table is, in an algorithmic sense, blind to what it is and what it does*. It has no mirror into itself.

Algorithmic considerations are important. To not be a lookup table, we must have at least some internal representations. We must consider constraints on “meaningful experience”, such as probably having at least some of, or something analogous to: a decent number of working memory slots (and types), a good size of visual field, resolution of color in terms of Just Noticeable Differences, and so on. If your algorithm doesn’t even try to “render” its knowledge in some information-rich format, then it may lack the internal representations needed to really “understand”. Put another way: imagine that your experience is like a Holodeck. Ask the question of what is the lower bound on the computational throughput of each sensory modality and their interrelationships. Then see if the algorithm you think can “understand” has internal representations of that kind at all.

Steel-manning algorithmic concerns involves taking a hard look at the number of degrees of freedom of our inner world-simulation (in e.g. free-wheeling hallucinations) and making sure that there are implicit or explicit internal representations with roughly similar computational horsepower as those sensory channels.

I think that this is actually an easy constraint to meet relative to the challenge of actually creating sentient machines. But it’s a bare minimum. You can’t let yourself be fooled by a lookup table.

In practice, the AI researchers will just care about metrics like accuracy, meaning that they will use algorithmic systems with complex internal representations like ours only if it computationally pays off to do so! (Hanson in Age of EM makes the bet it that it is worth simulating a whole high-performing human’s experience; Scott points out we’d all be on super-amphetamines). Me? I’m extremely skeptical that our current mindstates are algorithmically (or even thermodynamically!) optimal for maximally efficient work. But even if normal human consciousness or anything remotely like it was such a global optimum that any other big computational task routes around to it as an instrumental goal, I still think we would need to check if the algorithm does in fact create adequate internal representations before we assign sentience to it.

Thankfully I don’t think we need to go there. I think that the most crucial consideration is that we can rule out a huge class of computing systems ever being conscious by identifying implementation-level constraints for bound experiences. Forget about the algorithmic level altogether for a moment. If your computing system cannot build a bound experience from the bottom up in such a way that it has meaningful holistic behavior, then no matter what you program into it, you will only have “mind dust” at best.

What We Want: Meaningful Boundaries

In order to solve the boundary problem we want to find “natural” boundaries in the world to scaffold off of those. We take on the starting assumption that the universe is a gigantic “field of consciousness” and the question of how atoms come together to form experiences becomes how this field becomes individuated into experiences like ours. So we need to find out how boundaries arise in this field. But these are not just any boundary, but boundaries that are objective, frame-invariant, causally-significant, and computationally-useful. That is, boundaries you can do things with. Boundaries that explain why we are individuals and why creating individual bound experiences was evolutionarily adaptive; not only why it is merely possible but also advantageous.

My claim is that boundaries with such properties are possible, and indeed might explain a wide range of puzzles in psychology and neuroscience. The full conceptually satisfying explanation results from considering two interrelated claims and understanding what they entail together. The two interrelated claims are:

(1) Topological boundaries are frame-invariant and objective features of physics

(2) Such boundaries are causally significant and offer potential computational benefits

I think that these two claims combined have the potential to explain the phenomenal binding/boundary problem (of course assuming you are on board with the universe being a field of consciousness). They also explain why evolution was even capable of recruiting bound experiences for anything. Namely, that the same mechanism that logically entails individuation (topological boundaries) also has mathematical features useful for computation (examples given below). Our individual perspectives on the cosmos are the result of such individuality being a wrinkle in consciousness (so to speak) having non-trivial computational power.

In technical terms, I argue that a satisfactory solution to the boundary problem (1) avoids strong emergence, (2) sidesteps the hard problem of consciousness, (3) prevents the complication of epiphenomenalism, and (4) is compatible with the modern scientific world picture.

And the technical reason why topological segmentation provides the solution is that with it: (1) no strong emergence is required because behavioral holism is only weakly emergent on the laws of physics, (2) we sidestep the hard problem via panpsychism, (3) phenomenal binding is not epiphenomenal because the topological segments have holistic causal effects (such that evolution would have a reason to select for them), and (4) we build on top of the laws of physics rather than introduce new clauses to account for what happens in the nervous system. In this post you’ll get a general walkthrough of the solution. The fully rigorous, step by step, line of argumentation will be presented elsewhere. Please see the video for the detailed breakdown of alternative solutions to the binding/boundary problem and why they don’t work.

Holistic (Field) Computing

A very important move that we can make in order to explore this space is to ask ourselves if the way we think about a concept is overly restrictive. In the case of computation, I would claim that the concept is either applied extremely vaguely or that making it rigorous makes its application so narrow that it loses relevance. In the former case we have the tendency for people to equate consciousness with computation in a very abstract level (such as “resource gathering” and “making predictions” and “learning from mistakes”). In the latter we have cases where computation is defined in terms of computable functions. The conceptual mistake to avoid is to think that just because you can compute a function with a Turing machine, that therefore you are creating the same inner (bound or not) physical states along the way. And while yes, it would be possible to approximate the field behavior we will discuss below with a Turing machine, it would be computationally inefficient (as it would need to simulate a massively parallel system) and lack the bound inner states (and their computational speedups) needed for sentience.

The (conceptual engineering) move I’m suggesting we make is to first of all enrich our conception of computation. To notice that we’ve lived with an impoverished notion all along.

I suggest that our conception of computation needs to be broad enough to include bound states as possible meaningful inputs, internal steps and representations, and outputs. This enriched conception of computation would be capable of making sense of computing systems that work with very unusual inputs and outputs. For instance, it has no problem thinking of a computer that takes as input chaotic superfluid helium and returns soap bubble clusters as outputs. The reason to use such exotic medium is not to add extra steps, but in fact to remove extra steps by letting physics do the hard work for you.

(source)

To illustrate just one example of what you can do with this enriched paradigm of computing I am trying to present to you, let’s now consider the hidden computational power of soap films. Say that you want to connect three poles with a wire. And you want to minimize how much wire you use. One option is to use trigonometry and linear algebra, another one is to use numerical simulations. But an elegant alternative is to create a model of the poles between two parallel planes and then submerge the structure in soapy water.

Letting the natural energy-minimizing property of soap bubbles find the shortest connection between three poles is an interesting way of performing a computation. It is uniquely adapted to the problem without needing tweaks or adjustments – the self-organizing principle will work the same (within reason) wherever you place the poles. You are deriving computational power from physics in a very customized way that nonetheless requires no tuning or external memory. And it’s all done simply by each point of the surface wanting to minimize its tension. Any non-minimal configuration will have potential energy, which then gets transformed into kinetic energy and makes it wobble, and as it wobbles it radiates out its excess energy until it reaches a configuration where it doesn’t wobble anymore. So you have to make the solution of your problem precisely a non-wobbly state!

In this way of thinking about computation, an intrinsic part of the question about what kind of thing a computation is will depend on what physical processes were utilized to implement it. In essence, we can (and I think should) enrich our very conception of computation to include what kind of internal bound states the system is utilizing, and the extent to which the holistic physical effects of such inner states are computationally trivial or significant.

We can call this paradigm of computing “Holistic Computing”.

From Soap Bubbles to ISING-Solvers Meeting Schedulers Implemented with Lasers

Let’s make a huge jump from soap water-based computation. A much more general case that is nonetheless in the same family as using soap bubbles for compute, is having a way to efficiently solve the ISING problem. In particular, having an analog physics-based annealing method in this case comes with unique computational benefits: it turns out that non-linear optics can do this very efficiently. You are in a certain way using the universe’s very frustration with the problem (don’t worry I don’t think it suffers) to get it solved. Here is an amazing recent example: Ising Machines: Non-Von Neumann Computing with Nonlinear Optics – Alireza Marandi – 6/7/2019 (presented at Caltech).

The person who introduces Marandi in the video above is Kwabena Boahen, with whom I had the honor to take his course at Stanford (and play with the neurogrid!). Back in 2012 something like the neurogrid seemed like the obvious path to AGI. Today, ironically, people imagine scaling transformers is all you need. Tomorrow, we’ll recognize the importance of holistic field behavior and the boundary problem.

One way to get there on the computer science front will be by first demonstrating a niche set of applications where e.g. non-linear optics ISING solvers vastly outperform GPUs for energy minimization tasks in random graphs. But as the unique computational benefits become better understood, we will sooner or later switch from thinking about how to solve our particular problem, to thinking about how we can cast our particular problem as an ISING/energy minima problem so that physics solves the problem for us. It’s like having a powerful computer but it only speaks a very specific alien language. If you can translate your problem into its own terms, it’ll solve it at lightning speed. If you can’t, it will be completely useless.

Intelligence: Collecting and Applying Self-Organizing Principles

This takes us to the question of whether general intelligence is possible without switching to a Holistic Computing paradigm. Can you have generally intelligent (digital) chatbots? In some senses, yes. In perhaps the most significant sense, no.

Intelligence is a contentious topic (see here David Pearce’s helpful breakdown of 6 of its facets). One particular facet of intelligence that I find enormously fascinating and largely under-explored is the ability to make sense of new modes of consciousness and then recruit them for computational and aesthetic purposes. THC and music production have a long history of synergy, for instance. A composer who successfully uses THC to generate musical ideas others find novel and meaningful is applying this sort of intelligence. THC-induced states of consciousness are largely dysfunctional for a lot of tasks. But someone who utilizes the sort of intelligence (or meta-intelligence) I’m pointing to will pay attention to the features of experience that do have some novel use and lean on those. THC might impair working memory, but it also expands and stretches musical space. Intensifies reverb, softens rough edges in heart notes, increases emotional range, and adds synesthetic brown noise (which can enhance stochastic resonance). With wit and determination (and co-morbid THC/music addiction), musical artists exploit the oddities of THC musicality to great effect, arguably some much more successfully than others.

The kind of reframe that I’d like you to consider is that we are all in fact something akin to these stoner musicians. We were born with this qualia resonator with lots of cavities, kinds of waves, levels of coupling, and so on. And it took years for us to train it to make adaptive representations of the environment. Along the way, we all (typically) develop a huge repertoire of self-organizing principles we deploy to render what we believe is happing out there in the world. The reason why an experience of “meditation on the wetness of water” can be incredibly powerful is not because you are literally tuning into the resonant frequency of the water around you and in you. No, it’s something very different. You are creating the conditions for the self-organizing principle that we already use to render our experiences with water to take over as the primary organizer of our experience. Since this self-organizing principle does not, by its nature, generate a center, full absorption into “water consciousness” also has a no-self quality to it. Same with the other elements. Excitingly, this way of thinking also opens up our mind about how to craft meditations from first principles. Namely, by creating a periodic table of self-organizing principles and then systematically trying combinations until we identify the laws of qualia chemistry.

You have to come to realize that your brain’s relationship with self-organizing principles is like that of a Pokémon trainer and his Pokémon (ideally in a situation where Pokémon play the Glass Bead Game with each other rather than try to hurt each other– more on that later). Or perhaps like that of a mathematician and clever tricks for proofs, or a musician and rhythmic patterns, and so on. Your brain is a highly tamed inner space qualia warp drive usually working at 1% or less. It has stores of finely balanced and calibrated self-organizing principles that will generate the right atmospheric change to your experience at the drop of a hat. We are usually unaware of how many moods, personalities, contexts, and feelings of the passage of time there are – your brain tries to learn them all so it has them in store for whenever needed. All of a sudden: haze and rain, unfathomable wind, mercury resting motionless. What kind of qualia chemistry did your brain just use to try to render those concepts?

We are using features of consciousness -and the self-organizing principles it affords- to solve problems all the time without explicitly modeling this fact. In my conception of sentient intelligence, being able to recruit self-organizing principles of consciousness for meaningful computation is a pillar of any meaningfully intelligent mind. I think that largely this is what we are doing when humans become extremely good at something (from balancing discs to playing chess and empathizing with each other). We are creating very specialized qualia by finding the right self-organizing principles and then purifying/increasing their quality. To do an excellent modern day job that demands constraint satisfaction at multiple levels of analysis at once likely requires us to form something akin to High-Entropy Alloys of Consciousness. That is, we are usually a judiciously chosen mixture of many self-organizing principles balanced just right to produce a particular niche effect.

Meta-Intelligence

David Pearce’s conception of Full-spectrum Superintelligence is inspiring because it takes into account the state-space of consciousness (and what matters) in judging the quality of a certain intelligence in addition to more traditional metrics. Indeed, as another key conceptual engineering move, I suggest that we can and need to enrich our conception of intelligence in addition to our conception of computation.

So here is my attempt at enriching it further and adding another perspective. One way we can think of intelligence is as the ability to map a problem to a self-organizing principle that will “solve it for you” and having the capacity to instantiate that self-organizing principle. In other words, intelligence is, at least partly, about efficiency: you are successful to the extent that you can take a task that would generally require a large number of manual operations (which take time, effort, and are error-prone) and solve it in an “embodied” way.

Ultimately, a complex system like the one we use for empathy mixes both serial and parallel self-organizing principles for computation. Empathy is enormously cognitively demanding rather than merely a personality trait (e.g. agreeableness), as it requires a complex mirroring capacity that stores and processes information in efficient ways. Exploring exotic states of consciousness is even more computationally demanding. Both are error-prone.

Succinctly, I suggest we consider:

One key facet of intelligence is the capacity to solve problems by breaking them down into two distinct subproblems: (1) find a suitable self-organizing principle you can instantiate reliably, and (2) find out how to translate your problem to a format that our self-organizing principle can be pointed at so that it solves it for us.

Here is a concrete example. If you want to disentangle a wire, you can try to first put it into a discrete datastructure like a graph, and then get the skeleton of the knot in a way that allows you to simplify it with Reidemeister moves (and get lost in the algorithmic complexity of the task). Or you could simply follow the lead of Yu et al. 2021 and make the surfaces repulsive and let this principle solve the problem for you

(source)

These repulsion-based disentanglement algorithm are explained in this video. Importantly, how to do this effectively still needs fine tuning. The method they ended up using was much faster than the (many) other ones tried (a Full-Spectrum Superintellligence would be able to “wiggle” the wires a bit if they got stuck, of course):

(source)

This is hopefully giving you new ways of thinking about computation and intelligence. The key point to realize is that these concepts are not set in stone, and to a large extent may limit our thinking about sentience and intelligence. 

Now, I don’t believe that if you simulate a self-organizing principle of this sort you will get a conscious mind. The whole point of using physics to solve your problem is that in some cases you get better performance than algorithmically representing a physical system and then using that simulation to instantiate self-organizing principles. Moreover physics simulations, to the extent they are implemented in classical computers, will fail to generate the same field boundaries that would be happening in the physical system. To note, physics-inspired simulations like [Yu et al 2021] are nonetheless enormously helpful to illustrate how to think of problem-solving with a massively parallel analog system.

Are Neural Cellular Automata Conscious?

The computational success of Neural Cellular Automata is primarily algorithmic. In essence, digitally implemented NCA are exploring a paradigm of selection and amplification of self-organizing principles, which is indeed a very different way of thinking about computation. But critically any NCA will still lack sentience. The main reasons are that they (a) don’t use physical fields with weak downward causation, and (b) don’t have a mechanism for binding/boundary making. Digitally-implemented cellular automata may have complex emergent behavior, but they generate no meaningful boundaries (i.e. objective, frame-invariant, causally-significant, and computationally-useful). That said, the computational aesthetic of NCA can be fruitfully imported to the study of Holistic Field Computing, in that the techniques for selecting and amplifying self-organizing principles already solved for NCAs may have analogues in how the brain recruits physical self-organizing principles for computation.

Exotic States of Consciousness

Perhaps one of the most compelling demonstrations of the possible zoo (or jungle) of self-organizing principles out of which your brain is recruiting but a tiny narrow range is to pay close attention to a DMT trip.

DMT states of consciousness are computationally non-trivial on many fronts. It is difficult to emphasize how enriched the set of experiential building blocks becomes in such states. Their scientific significance is hard to overstate. Importantly, the bulk of the computational power on DMT is dedicated to trying to make the experience feel good and not feel bad. The complexity involved in this task is often overwhelming. But one could envision a DMT-like state in which some parameters have been stabilized in order to recruit standardized self-organizing principles available only in a specific region of the energy-information landscape. I think that cataloguing the precise mathematical properties of the dynamics of attention and awareness on DMT will turn out to have enormous _computational_ value. And a lot of this computational value will generally be pointed towards aesthetic goals.

To give you a hint of what I’m talking about: A useful QRI model (indeed, algorithmic reduction) of the phenomenology of DMT is that it (a) activates high-frequency metronomes that shake your experience and energize it with a high-frequency vibe, and (b) a new medium of wave propagation gets generated that allows very disparate parts of one’s experience to interact with one another.

3D Space Group (CEV on low dose DMT)

At a sufficient dose, DMT’s secondary effect also makes your experience feel sort of “wet” and “saturated”. Your whole being can feel mercurial and liquidy (cf: Plasmatis and Jim Jam). A friend speculates that’s what it’s like for an experience to be one where everything is touching everything else (all at once).

There are many Indra’s Net-type experiences in this space. In brief, experiences where “each part reflects every other part” are an energy minimum that also reduces prediction errors. And there is a fascinating non-trivial connection with the Free Energy Principle, where experiences that minimize internal prediction errors may display a lot of self-similarity.

To a first approximation, I posit that the complex geometry of DMT experiences are indeed the non-linearities of the DMT-induced wave propagation medium that appear when it is sufficiently energized (so that it transitions from the linear to the non-linear regime). In other words, the complex hallucinations are energized patterns of non-linear resonance trying to radiate out their excess energy. Indeed, as you come down you experience the phenomenon of condensation of shapes of qualia.

Now, we currently don’t know what computational problems this uncharted cornucopia of self-organizing principles could solve efficiently. The situation is analogous to that of the ISING Solver discussed above: we have an incredibly powerful alien computer that will do wonders if we can speak its language, and nothing useful otherwise. Yes, DMT’s computational power is an alien computer in search of a problem that will fit its technical requirements.

Vibe-To-Shape-And-Back

Michael Johnson, Selen Atasoy, and Steven Lehar all have shaped my thinking about resonance in the nervous system. Steven Lehar in particular brought to my attention non-linear resonance as a principle of computation. In essays like The Constructive Aspect of Visual Perception he presents a lot of visual illusions for which non-linear resonance works as a general explanatory principle (and then in The Grand Illusion he reveals how his insights were informed by psychonautic exploration).

One of the cool phenomenological observations Lehar made based on his exploration with DXM was that each phenomenal object has its own resonant frequency. In particular, each object is constructed with waves interfering with each other at a high-enough energy that they bounce off each other (i.e. are non-linear). The relative vibration of the phenomenal objects is a function of the frequencies of resonance of the waves of energy bouncing off each other that are constructing the objects.

In this way, we can start to see how a “vibe” can be attributed to a particular phenomenal object. In essence, long intervals will create lower resonant frequencies. And if you combine this insight with QRI paradigms, you see how the vibe of an experience can modulate the valence (e.g. soft ADSR envelopes and consonance feeling pleasant, for instance). Indeed, on DMT you get to experience the high-dimensional version of music theory, where the valence of a scene is a function of the crazy-complex network of pairwise interactions between phenomenal objects with specific vibratory characteristics. Give thanks to annealing because tuning this manually would be a nightmare.

But then there is the “global” vibe…

Topological Pockets

So far I’ve provided examples of how Holistic Computing enriches our conception of intelligence, computing, and how it even shows up in our experience. But what I’ve yet to do is connect this with meaningful boundaries, as we set ourselves to do. In particular, I haven’t explained why Holistic Computing would arise out of topological boundaries.

For the purpose of this essay I’m defining a topological segment (or pocket) to be a region that can’t be expanded further without this becoming false: every point in the region locally belongs to the same connected space.

The Balloons’ Case

In the case of balloons this cashes out as: a topological segment is one where each point can go to any other point without having to go through connector points/lines/planes. It’s essentially the set of contiguous surfaces.

Now, each of these pockets can have both a rich set of connections to other pockets as well as intricate internal boundaries. The way we could justify Computational Holism being relevant here is that the topological pockets trap energy, and thus allow the pocket to vibrate in ways that express a lot of holistic information. Each contiguous surface makes a sound that represents its entire shape, and thus behaves as a unit in at least this way.

The General Case

An important note here is that I am not claiming that (a) all topological boundaries can be used for Holistic Computing, or (b) to have Holistic Computing you need to have topological boundaries. Rather, I’m claiming that the topological segmentation responsible for individuating experiences does have applications for Holistic Computing and that this conceptually makes sense and is why evolution bothered to make us conscious. But for the general case, you probably do get quite a bit of both Holistic Computing without topological segmentation and vice versa. For example an LC circuit can be used for Holistic Computing on the basis of its steady analog resonance, but I’m not sure if it creates a topological pocket in the EM fields per se.

At this stage of the research we don’t have a leading candidate for the precise topological feature of fields responsible for this. But the explanation space is promising based on being able to satisfy theoretical constraints that no other theory we know of can.

But I can nonetheless provide a proof of concept for how a topological pocket does come with really impactful holism. Let’s dive in!

Getting Holistic Behavior Out of a Topological Pocket

Creating a topological pocket may be consequential in one of several ways. One option for getting holistic behavior arises if you can “trap” energy in the pocket. As a consequence, you will energize its harmonics. The particular way the whole thing vibrates is a function of the entire shape at once. So from the inside, every patch now has information about the whole (namely, by the vibration it feels!).**

(image source)

One possible overarching self-organizing principle that the entire pocket may implement is valence-gradient ascent. In particular, some configurations of the field are more pleasant than others and this has to do with the complexity of the global vibe. Essentially, the reason no part of it wants to be in a pocket with certain asymmetries, is because those asymmetries actually make themselves known everywhere within the pocket by how the whole thing vibrates. Therefore, for the same reason a soap bubble can become spherical by each point on the surface trying to locally minimize tension, our experiences can become symmetrical and harmonious by having each “point” in them trying to maximize its local valence.

Self Mirroring

From Lehar’s Cartoon Epistemology

And here we arrive at perhaps one of the craziest but coolest aspects of Holistic Computing I’ve encountered. Essentially, if we go to the non-linear regime, then the whole vibe is not merely just the weighted sum of the harmonics of the system. Rather, you might have waves interfere with each other in a concentrated fashion in the various cores/clusters, and in turn these become non-linear structures that will try to radiate out their energy. And to maximize valence there needs to be a harmony between the energy coming in and out of these dense non-linearities. In our phenomenology this may perhaps point to our typical self-consciousness. In brief, we have an internal avatar that “reflects” the state of the whole! We are self-mirroring machines! Now this is really non-trivial (and non-linear) Holistic Computing.

Cut From the Same Fabric

So here is where we get to the crux of the insight. Namely, that weakly emergent topological changes can simultaneously have non-trivial causal/computational effects while also solving the boundary problem. We avoid strong emergence but still get a kind of ontological emergence: since consciousness is being cut out of one huge fabric of consciousness, we don’t ever need strong emergence in the form of “consciousness out of the blue all of a sudden”. What you have instead is a kind of ontological birth of an individual. The boundary legitimately created a new being, even if in a way the total amount of consciousness is the same. This is of course an outrageous claim (that you can get “individuals” by e.g. twisting the electric field in just the right way). But I believe the alternatives are far crazier once you understand what they entail.

In a Nutshell

To summarize, we can rule out any of the current computational systems implementing AI algorithms to have anything but trivial consciousness. If there are topological pockets created by e.g. GPUs/TPUs, they are epiphenomenal – the system is designed so that only the local influences it has hardcoded can affect the behavior at each step.

The reason the brain is different is that it has open avenues for solving the boundary problem. In particular, a topological segmentation of the EM field would be a satisfying option, as it would simultaneously give us both holistic field behavior (computationally useful) and a genuine natural boundary. It extends the kind of model explored by Johnjoe McFadden (Conscious Electromagnetic Information Field) and Susan Pockett (Consciousness Is a Thing, Not a Process). They (rightfully) point out that the EM field can solve the binding problem. The boundary problem, in turn, emerges. With topological boundaries, finally, you can get meaningful boundaries (objective, frame-invariant, causally-significant, and computationally-useful).

This conceptual framework both clarifies what kind of system is at minimum required for sentience, and also opens up a research paradigm for systematically exploring topological features of the fields of physics and their plausible use by the nervous system.


* See the “Self Mirroring” section to contrast the self-blindness of a lookup table and the self-awareness of sentient beings.

** More symmetrical shapes will tend to have more clean resonant modes. So to the extent that symmetry tracks fitness on some level (e.g. ability to shed off entropy), then quickly estimating the spectral complexity of an experience can tell you how far it is from global symmetry and possibly health (explanation inspired by: Johnson’s Symmetry Theory of Homeostatic Regulation).


See also:


Many thanks to Michael Johnson, David Pearce, Anders & Maggie, and Steven Lehar for many discussions about the boundary/binding problem. Thanks to Anders & Maggie and to Mike for discussions about valence in this context. And thanks to Mike for offering a steel-man of epiphenomenalism. Many thank yous to all our supporters! Much love!

Infinite bliss!

Review of Log Scales


This is my 2022 review of Logarithmic Scales of Pleasure and Pain: Rating, Ranking, and Comparing Peak Experiences Suggest the Existence of Long Tails for Bliss and Suffering (2019; QRI link; forum link), written for the EA Forum First Decade Review; permalink of the review; read all reviews and vote for submissions here.



I would like to suggest that Logarithmic Scales of Pleasure and Pain (“Log Scales” from here on out) presents a novel, meaningful, and non-trivial contribution to the field of Effective Altruism. It is novel because even though the terribleness of extreme suffering has been discussed multiple times before, such discussions have not presented a method or conceptual scheme with which to compare extreme suffering relative to less extreme varieties. It is meaningful because it articulates the essence of an intuition of an aspect of life that deeply matters to most people, even if they cannot easily put it into words. And it is non-trivial because the inference that pain (and pleasure) scales are better understood as logarithmic in nature does require one to consider the problem from multiple points of view at once that are rarely, if ever, brought up together (e.g. combining empirical deference graphs, descriptions of pain scales by their creators, latent-trait analysis, neural recordings, and psychophysics). 

Fundamentally, we could characterize this article as a conceptual reframe that changes how one assesses magnitudes of suffering in the world. To really grasp the significance of this reframe, let’s look back into how Effective Altruism itself was an incredibly powerful conceptual reframe that did something similar. In particular, a core insight that establishes the raison d’etre of Effective Altruism is that the good that you can do in the world with a given set of resources varies enormously depending on how you choose to allocate it: by most criteria that you may choose (whether it’s QALYs or people saved from homelessness), the cost-effectiveness of causes seem to follow much more closely (at least qualitatively) a long-tail rather than a normal distribution (see: Which world problems are the most pressing to solve? by Benjamin Todd; the long-tail on the left below). In turn, this strongly suggests that researching carefully how to invest one’s altruistic efforts is likely to pay off in very large ways: choosing a random charity versus a top 1% charity will lead to benefits whose scale differs by orders of magnitude.

Log Scales suggests that pain and pleasure themselves follow a long-tail distribution. In what way, exactly? Well, to a first approximation, across the entire board! The article (and perhaps more eloquently the subsequent video presentation at the NYC EA Meetup on the same topic) argues that when it comes to the distribution of the intensity of hedonic states, we are likely to find long-tails almost independently of the way in which we choose to slice or dice the data. This is analogous to, for example, how all of the following quantities follow long-tail distributions: avalanches per country, avalanches per mountain, amount of snow in mountains, number of avalanche-producing mountains per country, size of avalanches, number of avalanches per day, etc. Likewise, in the case of the distribution of pain, the arguments presented suggest we will find that all of the following distributions are long-tails: average pain level per medical condition, number of intensely painful episodes per person per year, intensity of pain per painful episode, total pain per person during life, etc. Thus, that such a small percentage of cluster headache patients accounts for the majority of episodes per year would be expected (see: Cluster Headache Frequency Follows a Long-Tail Distribution; the long-tail on the right above), and along with it, the intensity of such episodes themselves would likely follow a long-tail distribution.

This would all be natural, indeed, if we consider neurological phenomena such as pain to be akin to weather phenomena. Log Scales allows us to conceptualize the state of a nervous system and what it gives rise to as akin to how various weather conditions give rise to natural disasters: a number of factors multiply each other resulting in relatively rare, but surprisingly powerful, black swan events. Nervous systems such as those of people suffering from CRPS, fibromyalgia, and cluster headaches are like the Swiss Alps of neurological weather conditions… uniquely suited for ridiculously large avalanches of suffering.

Log Scales are not just of academic interest. In the context of Effective Altruism, they are a powerful generator for identifying new important, neglected, and tractable cause areas to focus on. For instance, DMT for cluster headaches, microdose ibogaine for augmentation of painkillers in sufferers of chronic pain, and chanca piedra for kidney stones (writeup in progress) are all what we believe to be highly promising interventions (of the significant, neglected, and tractable variety) that might arguably reduce suffering in enormous ways and that would not have been highlighted as EA-worthy were it not for Log Scales. (See also: Get-Out-Of-Hell-Free Necklace). On a personal note, I’ve received numerous thank you notes by sufferers of extreme pain for this research. But the work has barely begun: with Log Scales as a lens, we are poised to tackle the world’s reserves of suffering with laser-focus, assured in the knowledge that preventing a small fraction of all painful conditions is all that we need to abolish the bulk of experiential suffering.

But does Log Scales make accurate claims? Does it carve reality at the joints? How do we know?

The core arguments presented were based on (a) the characteristic distribution of neural activity, (b) phenomenological accounts of extreme pleasure and pain, (c) the way in which the creators of pain scales have explicitly described their meaning, and (d) the results of a statistical analysis of a pilot study we conducted where people ranked, rated, and assigned relative proportions to their most extreme experiences. We further framed this in terms of comparing qualitative predictions from what we called the ​​Normal World vs. Lognormal World. In particular, we stated that: “If we lived in the ‘Lognormal World’, we would expect: (1) That people will typically say that their top #1 best/worst experience is not only a bit better/worse than their #2 experience, but a lot better/worse. Like, perhaps, even multiple times better/worse. (2) That there will be a long-tail in the number of appearances of different categories (i.e. that a large amount, such as 80%, of top experiences will belong to the same narrow set of categories, and that there will be many different kinds of experiences capturing the remaining 20%). And (3) that for most pairs of experiences x and y, people who have had both instances of x and y, will usually agree about which one is better/worse. We call such a relationship a ‘deference’. More so, we would expect to see that deference, in general, will be transitive (a > b and b > c implying that a > c).” And then we went ahead and showed that the data was vastly more consistent with Lognormal World than Normal World. I think it holds up.

An additional argument that since has been effective at explaining the paradigm to newcomers has been in terms of exploring the very meaning of Just-Noticeable Differences (JNDs) in the context of the intensity of aspects of one’s experience. Indeed, for (b), the depths of intensity of experience simply make no sense if we were to take a “Just-Noticeable Pinprick” as the unit of measurement and expect a multiple of it to work as the measuring rod between pain levels in the 1-10 pain scale. The upper ends of pain are just so bright, so immensely violent, so as to leave lesser pains as mere rounding errors. But if on each step of a JND of pain intensity we multiply the feeling by a constant, sooner or later (as Zvi might put it) “the rice grains on the chessboard suddenly get fully out of hand” and we enter hellish territory (for a helpful visual aid of this concept: start at 6:06 of our talk at the 2020 EAGxVirtual Unconference on this topic).

From my point of view, we can now justifiably work under the assumption that the qualitative picture painted by Log Scales is roughly correct. It is the more precise quantitative analysis which is a work in progress that ought to be iterated over in the coming years. This will entail broadening the range of people interviewed, developing better techniques to precisely capture and parametrize phenomenology (e.g. see our tool to measure visual tracers), use more appropriate and principled statistical methods (e.g. see the comment in the original piece about the Bradley-Terry model and extreme value theory), experimental work in psychophysics labs, neuroimaging research of peak experiences, and the search for cost-effective pragmatic solutions to deal with the worst suffering. I believe that future research in this area will show conclusively the qualitative claims, and perhaps there will be strong consilience on the more precise quantitative claims (but in the absence of a true Qualiascope, the quantitative claims will continue to have a non-negligible margin of error).

Ok, you may say, but if I disagree about the importance of preventing pain, and I care more about e.g. human flourishing, why should I care about this? Here I would like to briefly address a key point that people in the EA sphere have raised in light of our work. The core complaint, if we choose to see it that way, is that one must be a valence utilitarian in order to care about this analysis. That only if you think of ethics in terms of classical Benthamite pain-minimization and pleasure-maximization should we be so keen on mapping the true distribution of valence across the globe. 

But is that really so?

Three key points stand out: First, that imperfect metrics that are proxies for aspects of what you care about (even when not all that you care about) can nonetheless be important. Second, that if you cared a little about suffering already, then the post-hoc discovery that suffering is actually that freaking skewed really ought to be a major update. And third, there really are reasons other than valence maximization as a terminal goal to care about extreme suffering: intense suffering is antithetical to flourishing since it has long-term sequelae. More so, even if confined to non-utilitarian ethical theories, one can make the case that there is something especially terrible about letting one’s fellow humans (and non-humans) suffer so intensely without doing anything about it. And perhaps especially so if stopping such horrors turn out to be rather easy, as is indeed the case.

Let’s tackle these points each in turn.

(1) Perhaps here we should bring a simple analogy: GDP. Admittedly, there are very few conceptions of the good in which it makes sense for GDP to be the metric to maximize. But there are also few conceptions of the good where you should disregard it altogether. You can certainly be skeptical of the degree to which GDP captures all that is meaningful, but in nearly all views of economic flourishing, GDP will likely have a non-zero weight. Especially if we find that, e.g. some interventions we can do to the economy would cause a 99.9% reduction in a country’s GDP, one should probably not ignore that information (even if the value one assigns to GDP is relatively small compared to what other economists and social scientists assign it). Likewise for extreme suffering. There might be only a few conceptions of the good where that is the only thing we ought to work on. But avoiding hellish states is a rather universally desired state for oneself. Why not take it at least somewhat into account?

In truth, this is not something that classical questions in Effective Altruism pre-Log Scales couldn’t overcome either. For instance, as far as I am aware, in practice QALYs are used more as a guide than as an absolute; their value within EA comes from the fact that in practice interventions are orders of magnitude different when it comes to their cost-effectiveness when assessed with QALYs. So even though the vast majority of EAs are not QALY absolutists, the differences in QALYs saved between interventions are large enough that as an approximate guide, the metric still generates huge amounts of consilience.

(2) In turn, the post-hoc finding that hellish states are much, much worse than one would intuitively believe really should at least rebalance one’s priorities somewhat. Is there really no amount of suffering that would do so? Unless one has a utility function akin to a ReLu activation function, going far enough down into the depths of hell ought to count for something. And…

(3) Speaking candidly, fully articulating the true significance of this finding will take us to philosophically polemical territory: philosophy of personal identity where person-affecting views will see the situation quite differently than person-moment-affecting views, philosophy of mind where the ontological status of pleasure and pain might be questioned, and intricate questions that arise at the interface between the views of virtue ethicists, deontologists, negative and classical utilitarians. Of course a negative utilitarian who believes in Empty Individualism and Eternalism at the same time will likely be especially horrified by this information. But, with that said, I would suggest that there are good reasons to care about Log Scales no matter how antithetical one’s views are to philosophical hedonism

In particular, I would argue that deontologists and virtue ethicists should still take note. The cultivation of virtue requires a minimum of wellbeing in order to maintain motivation to live. And perhaps deontologists might find extreme suffering particularly egregious from the point of view of “things so horrible that ought not to be”. Really, the people we interviewed for the cluster headache writeup told us that experiencing such levels of hellish suffering causes profound psychological transformations (e.g. one interviewee told us that experiencing the higher ends of pain in a cluster headache feels like a profound “spiritual violation” from which you may never recover – a feeling most certainly aggravated by the seeming indifference of people at large about their plight). Virtue ethicists and deontologists might as well recognize this cause area as work that is unconscionable not to perform, regardless of arguments based on the precise mathematical optimization of the prevention of negative valence.

And finally, in all seriousness, as the cognitive intelligentsia of the world begins to see clearly the nature of the distribution of pleasure and pain, we can expect there to be a big social benefit to being the one who destroys hell. Right now there isn’t a huge social reward to be obtained by working on this cause, but I predict this will change. And, pragmatically, it is sensible to present this cause in a motivating rather than depressing light: indeed, let’s give honor, glory, and endless admiration to whoever makes tangible progress in tearing hell down. And to all of the millionaires and billionaires reading this: this could be you! You could be the one who took on the mantle of preventing all future cluster headaches, established the field of anti-tolerance drugs for severe chronic pain, or got rid of kidney stones (and you did it before it was cool!). Let’s get to work!


The Supreme State of Unconsciousness: Classical Enlightenment from the Point of View of Valence Structuralism

The following is an exchange of text messages with Roger Thisdell, a 26 year old accomplished meditator. He claims that this year he finally broke through into abiding in what he describes as an entirely new category of experience that matches the descriptions of classical Buddhist 4th path.


For context, Daniel Ingram of Mastering the Core Teachings of the Buddha fame describes 4th path as:

1) Utter centerlessness: no watcher, no sense of a watcher, no subtle watcher, no possibility of a watcher. This is immediately obvious just as color is to a man with good eyesight as the old saying goes. Thus, anything and everything simply and obviously manifests just where they are. No phenomena observe any others and never did or could.

2) Utter agencylessness: meaning no agency, no sense of doing, no sense of doer, no sense that there could be any agent or doer, no way to find anything that seems to be in control at all. Whatever effort or intent or anything like that that arises does so naturally, causally, inevitably, as it always actually did. This is immediately obvious, though not always the forefront of attention.

3) No cycles change or stages or states or anything else like that do anything to this direct comprehension of simple truths at all.

4) There is no deepening in it to do. The understanding stands on its own and holds up over cycles, moods, years, etc and doesn’t change at all. I have nothing to add to my initial assessment of it from 9 years ago.

5) There is nothing subtle about it: anything and everything that arises exhibits these same qualities directly, clearly. When I was on the third path, particularly late in it, those things that didn’t exhibit these qualities were exceedingly subtle, and trying to find the gaps in the thing was exceedingly difficult and took years and many cycles. I had periods from weeks to months where it felt done and then some subtle exception would show up and I would realize I was wrong yet again, so this is natural and understandable, and if someone claims 4th as I define it here and later says they got it wrong, have sympathy for them, as this territory is not easy and can easily fool people, as it did me many, many times over about 5 years or so. However, 4th, as I term it, ended that and 9 years later that same thing holds, which is a very long time in this business.

There are other aspects that may be of value to discuss at some other time, but those are a great place to start for those who wish to claim this. If you truly have those, then perhaps we can talk about a few other points that are less central and essential.


[Links added to aid reader’s comprehension – lightly edited for clarity]

In the beginning… Roger joined a private group where we discuss consciousness and started to get familiar with the vocabulary of the Qualia Research Institute (e.g. discussing meditation in terms of valence). He then posted this video, which caught my attention:

Pleasure does not exist how you think it does (positive valence explained as an anti-phenomenon)

Where he claims that “Pleasure as a positive, as an actual added experience, does not exist. It certainly does not exist how a lot of us think it does … [whereas] negative valence experiences do exist as contractions.

Based on that very interesting video, I decided to invite him to Phenomenology Club (a private gathering where we discuss exotic states of consciousness and try to make sense of them in a think-tank fashion – see Healing Trauma with Neural Annealing).

Conversation

Roger: 

Andrés! This is Roger Thisdell […]. Thanks for giving me your number.

Do add me to the Phenomenology Club. That sounds like my jam! Cheers!

Andrés:

Excellent! Will do! 🙂

[…time…]

Roger

Hey Andrés, it was great to hang out online last night and hear your explanations. A bunch of you are really elite thinkers. I’m inspired to learn how to speak more of your qualia language.

I would love to get into the topic of paradises with you. You seem to really sing their praise.

I said yesterday that I hold the view that actually what is most desirable is just the elimination of negative valence. As someone who frequently has cessations (when consciousness blanks out for a moment) where there is no subjective experience (no negative, no positive valence) in my book this is good enough. My thinking is also informed via complete ego death experiences in which there is still consciousness but no judgement on any part of experience (bad or good). At a local individual level these are the most desirable states. Out of all the states I have experienced (including bliss trips, jhanas, 5-MeO, MDMA, staring into the eyes of a lover without insecurities, laughing fits 🤣) if I had to choose a state to be in permanently it would either be cessation or ego death. I may have curated my brain too much to a Buddhist view and my level of emptiness insight is well entrenched, so that it is hard for me to really believe the ultimate good is to keep the cosmic consciousness party going and fueling it with positive valence.

I think that while consciousness is online we better make the best out of it and try to exist in as few low negative valence states as possible and help all sentient beings with this as well; all the while the positive valence that comes along is merely instrumentally valuable, like a compliment or added bonus.

For example if you are hungry it is nice to eat something tasty. But if you were never hungry in the first place then who cares how tasty something is – don’t need it 💁‍♂️ (this may be my strongly consolidated non-attachment showing).

I guess what I’m really asking is: can you convince me to intrinsically care for paradise states? I do believe I have experienced what you are referring to as paradise states, but maybe I just have too much non-attachment for them to think they are the goal/prize.

(apologies for being long-winded 🙏)

Andrés:

Perhaps:

  1. You lost the ability to get excited about future experiences. You learned this because you were taught and you practiced techniques that associate being excited about the future with dukkha. Alas, the hedonic theories around the time of Buddha were incomplete and as a consequence a lot of the claims and teachings underfit reality (meaning that they generalize too much). In contrast, it turns out that there are a manifold of ways of experiencing excitement about the future in an epistemologically clear way and no delusions. More so, with that orientation one can see more clearly larger parts of the state-space of consciousness as one is not inhibiting them. I know you have experience with high valence states. But I suspect you have deconstructed a lot of the microcognitive apparatus that allow the insights coming from the reality of their existence from propagating across the entire nervous system.
  2. Just as lack of awareness about e.g. cluster headaches phenomenology can give you the impression that reality has no stakes, so does acute lack of access to the ultra-positive realms. I think for many, Buddhism has a certain effect in how one conceptualizes such experiential realms after the fact that perhaps is not quite in tune with how they truly were. Interestingly, one could here examine Buddhism as an aesthetic itself, and renunciation as a kind of Soulmaking, where under the hood one is still pursuing a kind of high-dimensional meaning qualia of positive valence. Which takes me to:
  3. Rob Burbea’s Soulmaking talking about how exploring not exhaustively breaking down dukkha always but letting a bit of e.g. Eros/passion for reality opens up new ways of seeing that recontextualize Buddhism. Not that we shouldn’t get rid of dukkha, of course. But it’s good to see the underlying aesthetic influences on how one generalizes about reality based on one’s experience.

What do you think? 😄

Thank you for joining! And also for sharing your thoughts. 🤠👌

See: Soulmaking part 1, part 2.

Roger:

Ah Andrés, so many thoughts 🙈

First of all, I am so impressed with Burbea. His lectures were incredibly useful for me while learning the jhanas. And now I’m picking through his book ‘Seeing That Frees’.

I think his ontology and how he builds on Buddhism is sophisticated and gorgeous.

Reminds me of a remark about Hemingway, by his grandson – he quit journalism to dedicate himself to fiction because he was more interested in truth than facts. I relate this to Soulmaking in a way.

I love his notion of skillful fabrication. But it seems like it’s a compromise in a way. We can’t fully live without self, and thoughtforms, and conceptual frameworks, and so, while we are alive and have them, let’s learn to use them skillfully/beautifully. I’m on board! 🚂

Re your 2nd point: I would add that a lack of awareness of the existence of cessations, or Nirodha, or ego death experiences is another topographical blind spot which prevents people from making a more comprehensive assessment of what is most desirable. (I know that many people who say they’ve experienced ego death, when I enquire about it, it turns out to be more of just a partial ego loss experience, and not the full annihilation). I suppose we really need those who have deep expertise in bliss states and dukkha-less/unfabricated states to compare and contrast.

For what it’s worth, and to give you more a sense of my bias, I would claim to be someone who has explored a wide range of state-spaces: from suicidal depression, to psychosis-like damnation bad trips, to K-holes, to peak experiences, and now as of 21st of May [2021] I’m claiming Frank Yang-style MCTB [see: Scott Alexander’s book review] 4th path permanent abiding in centreless consciousness (IDK what that says about my nervous system and fully propagating insights as you mentioned).

Hands down 🙌, this is the best shift in my life that has ever taken place without a doubt (I thought stream entry was good, but this is another magnitude). My hedonic set tone is persistently so high. I’m often walking around smiling for no apparent reason. 11/10 I recommend this.

And 4th path gets you an ability to adopt a new perspective where you simultaneously see the Yin and the Yang and vice sera (emptiness is form and samsara is nirvana). It’s all one place, there is not out. All the while, still we quite obviously make value judgements between states. I know you speak of hellish corners of consciousness that shouldn’t be touched. And so, although we can/should adopt flexibility of perspectives on aesthetic frames (as Rob speaks about, which is helpful) and see value in many different views as best as we can… must we still do the hard job of really judging what is best? What is most desirable? (to talk from a metamodern perspective).

Ultimately, I still come down on: lights out unconsciousness tops everything 🤷‍♂️ [emphasis mine]. Getting all beings to Parinirvana would objectively be preferable for all beings rather than keeping the play going – if such a plan is possible or sensible or sensical even.

It’s funny though, at some point I think it may just come down to some split difference in intuition among people (perhaps that difference can be reconciled somehow). For me this was apparent when I hear from Kenneth Folk vs. Culadasa. Kenneth holds antinatalist sentiments (or he did when I emailed him a couple of years ago and actually asked him) which speaks to a siding with a belief that there is an asymmetry of weighted value between negative and positive valence. While Culadasa seems to emphasize the joyous journey and adventure of life, which may speak to an opposite weighting in favor of the positive valence being worth the negative valence that comes along with it. Certainly not all spiritual roads lead to Rome.

I am very open to the idea that I am missing something though, and I may just need to be led by the hand like a child to these heaven realms for me to change perspective 😇😂

Thanks for engaging, this is fun!

Andrés

Thank you for engaging! This is super interesting! Let me think about what else I can say 🙂

[…time…]

Total valence vs. pureness of valence: see Principia Qualia pg. 41. It could be that during cessations consciousness disappears and the state literally does not exist in any way. But the states immediately before and immediately after do and have at least a tiny bit of information so they are mixed valence states. Yet, perhaps they are massively positive valence on net.

An alternative view is that unconsciousness is still ‘real’ in a way, in which case we could think of it as consciousness but with no content whatsoever. But it’s still there. The analogy would be like combing a vector field in a torus. Most states have the vector field collide with itself and therefore feel less than perfect valence (due to [the Symmetry Theory of Valence, aka.] STV). Only when the field is completely combed without any self-collisions (which would not be possible in a sphere) you get perfect positive valence. And although there is no information encoded in the field, it still exists just as it did before. There’s just nothing to report.

In that case paradise could actually still exist. Meaning, higher and more refined versions of this kind of experience. In particular, we could look for other mathematical objects where the field can also be combed perfectly. They would then be strangely a different kind of ‘unconsciousness’ perhaps capable of fitting more energy and higher dimensions. Still, they would have maximum positive valence.

What do you think?

Oh, I also forgot if I’ve asked you whether you’ve tried 5-MeO-DMT and how it compares to your new baseline.

Images from Michael E. Johnson’s Principia Qualia

Roger

Ah, yes, I see the kind of framework you’re thinking from now – anti-symmetry, symmetry, and asymmetry.

From Principia Qualia pg. 39: [paraphrasing] “…if we take our hypothesis and apply it to IIT, and then we attempt to maximize pleasure/symmetry, consciousness/[phi] drops very rapidly.”

All the way to the point that maximum pleasure entails no consciousness??? [emphasis mine]

I don’t have a lot of experience with 5-MeO. I only did it once at about a 6mg range.

My impression of 5-MeO was that it had a visual brightening effect somewhat similar to the 4th Jhana. And there was that psychedelic mirroring effect with eyes open. It also had the reduction of conceptual understanding that comes when you get into 8th [Jhana]. I interpret that as a significant down-regulation in top-down information processing??

5-MeO has the sense that it’s going somewhere, moving towards something, while the effects build and then dissipate. Like it’s growing into something (I guess this is before a peak breakthrough – which I didn’t have).

My current consciousness abode isn’t going anywhere. There isn’t a sense that things are building towards something. It has a forever ‘this is it’, locked-in quality. Like a somewhat superposition of emptiness and fullness simultaneously. (Before 4th path I always felt like I was flickering between form and emptiness, now the two cohabitate the experiential space at the same time).

5-MeO also seemed very hedonically volatile; like any subtle thought or movement could disrupt the peace.

Meanwhile my current state is super unperturbable. In the past 2.5 months I haven’t found something that has rocked my well-being.

A couple of weeks ago I listened to an interview of a North Korean defector tell her story of starvation and human trafficking and for a good 30 minutes I was crying at this tragedy. But it was crying from a place of still really high well-being. I didn’t feel like I was suffering and I didn’t mind that crying state at all. (Which is quite weird, I suppose).

In my normal state now, there are no more papañca attacks. Thoughts don’t capture the mind like they used to.

And another thing I love about this new state is that I still have all my cognitive functions intact and I can operate in the world totally normally – which can’t be said about being on 5-MeO.

I feel super sober; while on 5-MeO I don’t believe you do (if I remember correctly).

I would say I prefer my new baseline to what I experienced on 5-MeO because of the lack of volatility and practicality of still having my intellect on hand, all the while with the constant sense of ‘this is it’ and high, high well-being.

[…time…]

Roger and Andrés have a video call

We discussed a number of things: his meditation journey, his thoughts on various philosophies, exploring QRI frameworks, and his interest in music. Curiously, Roger said that unlike other people who spend a lot of time in meditation healing traumas and processing past experiences, he was able to largely just focus on progress on the path. This, along with a very rigorous and consistent practice, is why he got to where he is at so early in life (26 years old).

One of my main interests in the discussion was to flesh out how 4th path states/traits and the Symmetry Theory of Valence (STV) were connected. If I recall correctly, there were three main ideas connected to this topic I shared with him:

  1. Discussing the “levels of consciousness” experienced on a psilocybin trip and the way they might mirror some of Frank Yang’s descriptions of the levels of consciousness on the path to awakening, 
  2. A model of equanimity I’ve been developing where impedance matching is a key ingredient, and
  3. The difference between a “recipe” of a state or transformation of consciousness and its “review”

Let’s briefly elaborate on these topics.

(1) Frank Yang talks about undergoing a meditative process with the following stages: (a) standard sense of self, (b) awareness of awareness, (c) God/Oneness/Being/Non-Duality/Self, (d) Emptiness/Non-Beng/Uni-Locality, (e) Neither Being Nor Non-Being, and finally (f) Enlightenment.

(source)

What makes his descriptions so incredible is that he provides very raw and unfiltered phenomenological accounts of the process without really trying to force them into any pre-existing framework. From the point of view of the mission of QRI this is very valuable. In particular, it allows us to examine his process of transformation with the framework of Qualia Formalism: we ought to ask, not what kind of spiritual/mystical/transcendent process is going on here (which will certainly take us nowhere), but rather, wonder if we can cast his descriptions in terms of *structural changes to the field of awareness*. For example, Frank talks about “the screen of God” that becomes apparent in (c), where waves of energy seem to travel without resistance across one’s experiential field. He also talks about phase transitions (similarly to Shinzen Young, he talks about a process of liquefaction and gasification of the field of awareness). If, as we believe at QRI, valence is a structural property of experience, these transformations would have profound effects on one’s sense of wellbeing. So, the reason why “the screen of God” is a profound experience is not because you literally merge with a divine being (which might not be possible if we assume indirect realism about perception), but because the field of awareness is now in a phase that allows an entirely new level of efficient stress dissipation.

I shared with Roger some details from a particularly interesting psilocybin trip report that described rapid phase transitions between (what appears to be) several of the levels Frank describes. In particular, “the screen of God” state seems to have the capacity to stresslessly locate sensations without generating reverbarions with a represented “small self to which those sensations belong”.

(2) In turn, this led to discussing a new model (we haven’t really touched upon in QRI publications yet, but which is coming) of equanimity based on experiences I had during a two-week retreat earlier this year (see: Buddhist Annealing). This model has at its core the idea that equanimity is a mental tool that increases impedance matching between nervous system harmonics. Ask yourself: why is it that when you pluck a guitar string it sounds louder if it is connected to a guitar? It is not, as many would think, that the “resonance box amplifies the sound” (for where would the extra energy come from?). Rather, the energy is the same; what changes is the speed at which it is discharged! The resonance box vibrates and dissipates the energy of the string much faster than the string could on its own (as an aside, this is exactly why you can sustain a note for so much longer in an electric guitar). We could thus postulate that a lot of inner dissonance comes from resonance in the nervous system that has no means of dissipating its stored stress. To an extent, this is because involuntary subliminal contractions in our nervous system compartmentalize and modularize its components. Equanimity is the practice of relaxing those contractions, and thus slowly allowing the nervous system to undergo a search process where it finds structures that can resonate with the stored stress, and in turn allow it to dissipate faster. More so, over time, you entrain (and rewire!) the nervous system to become highly efficient at stress-dissipation. Dissonance is still there, but it “unfolds” and gets “metabolized” so fast that it barely counts as suffering. Highly annealed nervous systems are powerful stress-dissipation engines!

(3) Finally, we also discussed the idea that there is a distinction between the “recipe” of a state of consciousness and its “review”. A recipe is the steps you take in order to achieve a certain state (or transformation) of consciousness. A review is instead an account of what the resulting state feels like. Just as the instructions for baking a cake are quite different from a Chef’s review of what the resulting cake tastes like, we can expect that meditation instructions (e.g. focusing on the three characteristics) will not necessarily reflect the nature of the transformations of consciousness that result from them. Thus, while a lot of the meditative path is nominally about “renouncing” the pursuit of high-valence states of consciousness (and thus avoid the pleasure paradox), the result is nonetheless a state of consciousness that is high-valence in nature! Paradoxical? I don’t think so. The confusion is merely the result of conflating recipe and review.

Thus, we can still apply valence theories to states of consciousness that are allegedly beyond valence. Frank Yang, for example, seems to resonate a lot with STV. See his December 2020 interview at The Stoa. There (and in other videos) he describes “God mind” consciousness as a very positive experience, which is very symmetrical but not perfect. But his true awakening is perfectly symmetrical (in the realm of space, observer, and sense of time, even if not in content). His experience became like a “hologram that has no center”. Quote:

“Have you seen those illustrations of a sphere or a circle, where one point connects to all of the other points? […] if you wanted me to describe my day to day, moment to moment, experience, well, it’s pretty symmetrical. As in, there is no center to experience. There is hearing but no hearer; there is just the seeing, there is no seer; on thinking there is just thinking and no thinker. It’s not, like, processed or filtered through a subject in the center. And it’s very immediate in the sense that all of the sensations, all 360 degrees, are synched up to themselves, without any delay, 24/7. And all the sensations, where there is body, you know sight, sound, thoughts, emotions… they are all on equal footing to each other […inaudible…] in symmetry, and that is for me an aesthetic experience. I would say a suffering mind is a mind that isn’t symmetrical. If your mind is asymmetrical, it means it’s defiled somewhere. So for me aesthetics runs in all different kinds of domains, not only on the perceptual domain, not only on the visual aesthetics domain, but even on the emotional and how you think.”

Yes, God Mind (left) is good, but have you tried no-self (right)? It is so much more symmetrical!

As we’ve discussed before, the homogeneity of phenomenal space and time might be a very large component of what accounts for positive valence. And what Frank is describing here suggests that’s the case. Disturbances in the attention field lines and the saliency of specific components of a mind can break the underlying symmetry of the phenomenal space and time of the resulting experience. Anxiety, for example, in this paradigm is described as unpleasant because it involves the bubbling up of low-level prediction errors causing “attention pinches” across your experience, and thus disturbing the free-flow of energy that would exist in a homogeneous field. Prediction errors are not inherently unpleasant; they are unpleasant only to the extent that they cause asymmetries in your field of awareness!

Frank Yang also says that his big awakening felt like a “quantum jump”. It makes sense that a strong anti-fragile attractor for a new network topology would be self-reinforcing (a new lowest-energy state, metaphorically speaking, perhaps akin to a false vacuum collapse inside one’s mind!). Again, this is all very compatible with valence structuralism, if not STV.

Roger said that he will have to think about all of this. In the meantime, he shared with me some (amazing!) pictures he made to illustrate how his field of awareness has been transformed with meditation over time. Like Frank Yang, he identifies several discrete phase transitions. These are: (a) standard perception, (b) The Witness, (c) Big Mind, (d) No Self, and finally (e) No Self & Centreless Awareness (4th path!):

[…time…]

Roger

[uploads this video – Jhanas 1-9 Experienced and Described In Real Time]

[…time…]

Roger

Considering more what you said about impedance matching and adding resonance to experience:

Perhaps this is merely an analogy, but still: consider the tautness of a spider’s web. If a fly lands on it, at one part, the whole web will shake and the energy will transfer throughout in such a way that the spider can locate where on the web the fly landed. If the web is too taut then the energy of the fly landing won’t dissipate far enough for the spider to receive the information. However, if the web is too slack the fly could just break the structure of the web.

It might be interesting to consider why spiders build webs with a centre point and not as a straight or criss-crossing lattice.

So to relate this to consciousness and metabolizing stress… I would say my consciousness now feels like it’s more taut and lattice-woven rather than spider web-shaped with a middle [emphasis mine]. So this means when a stress point is activated somewhere in the experiential space, its energy doesn’t ripple as far out as it would have before, thus not being as disruptive.

And if we aliken the spider on the web to the epistemic agent, if he is situated on one spot and for all goings-on on the web to be known their information must travel to him, then the web must be not too taut so that all the ripples can reach him and he knows what’s going on. The problem with this set-up is that it means that knowing requires instability.

However, if we do away with the spider (a single point considered the epistemic agent) and make it so that the knowledge is attributed to the web itself, then the web can afford to be much more taut/less shaky/more robust, causing less negative valence.

So in some way I could say my experience (centerless consciousness) is more taut in this way, but this tautness doesn’t feel rigid or stiff, but rather very airy.

Indra’s net can have too much slack in it, if it’s not sewn together tightly and uniformly.

Pre-Awakening: The mind uses a fictitious “self-as-epistemic-agent” in a field of awareness that has slack and vibrates in unpleasant ways in the process of integrating information. The field of awareness relies on a network topology that is suboptimal for efficient stress dissipation.

Post-Awakening: The mind lacks any kind of center or self-as-epistemic-agent. The field of awareness is tout and extremely efficient at stress dissipation. The network topology has permanently changed to a far more symmetrical and regular configuration.

[…time…]

Roger:

Roger talks with Brendan Graham Dempsey: watch video here. He explains in more detail the spider web metaphor at 34:44.

[…and then in an email later…]

Roger:

Just for interest’s sake, and I don’t know if this bears any significance, but I’m ambidextrous by the way.

I know symmetry plays a major role in your hypotheses of valence and such.

In some way, I have thought that not having such a prioritization and weightiness to just one side of the body has balanced out my experience and perception (perhaps more than others), I’m not sure.

R


(As of the 23rd of November 2021, Roger states that he continues to be in the blissful state of centreless consciousness)


Commentary by Andrés, after the fact:

This conversation (and further exchanges I may share in the future) has reinvigorated my quest to describe states (and transformations) of consciousness in terms of changes to the network topology that underlies our field of awareness. Enlightenment might be described in “mystical” ways, but this could be simply due to lack of an adequate formal conceptual framework to make sense of it. But perhaps STV, impedance matching, and efficient stress dissipation through radical network topology reorganization without compromising self-epistemics could take us much further than before in this quest.

Also, if Roger was able to achieve these transformations at the tender age of 26, what is stopping the rest of us from doing the same?

Perhaps, what Marcin Kowrygo says is true: “Techno-boosted Arhatship: The rest is commentary”. (See also this fun story about enlightenment in Slate Star Codex). 

If I were to add one thing to the wish-list, I’d say (in unison with people like Nick Cammarata and David Pearce): if we could have access to MDMA-like states of emotional wellbeing and empathy on tap, that would be fantastic (for many reasons). Plus, non-addictive real pain relief might very well be right behind the corner. So to revise our (admittedly cartoonish and partial) wish-list for the medium-term future of sentience: “MDMA-like emotional palette, non-addictive pain relief, and physiological Arhatship: The rest is commentary”. See you there, my friends!

Happy Thanksgiving Everyone (including the Turkeys, of course)!

David Pearce on Longtermism

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


Featured image credit: @TilingBot

On Dark Rooms, Jhanas, Ecstasy, and the Symmetry Theory of Valence

I recently had a chance to talk with Scott Alexander of SSC and ACX fame at a Berkeley meetup this past summer. He’d been watching my videos and had some questions for me. In particular, he had questions about how literally we took the Symmetry Theory of Valence (STV), and whether the counter-examples he had in mind really went against the theory, or were perhaps also explained by it in non-obvious ways. Afterwards, he sent me a draft of his Jhanas and the Dark Room Problem post for me to preview before he published it. I had a look and offered some clarifications in case he wanted to discuss these ideas more deeply. Just a couple days ago he published it. Seeing that the topic could be explored much more deeply, I then asked him if he was ok with me posting (a lightly edited version of) the email I sent him. He said, “of course”. Thus, you can find it below, which I recommend reading after you read his post in ACX.

Note: For people mostly curious about how STV deals with harsh artforms e.g. death metal and Japanoise, we recommend reading Harmonic Society, an article we published in Art Against Art which explains how all kinds of exotic artforms ultimately cash out in (often counter-intuitive) valence effects via messing with the energy parameter and kick-starting cycles of neural annealing (see also “worldview annealing” to make sense of the often outsized effect of transformative festivals in people’s conception of the world). For those extra-curious about psychedelics and the free energy principle, I recommend watching our video specifically on that topic.

Without further ado….


Hi Scott!

Thank you for reaching out! And thank you for the conversation on Saturday. […] Please feel free to post your excerpt, but also I am sharing below information that you can use to edit it so that it is a more accurate portrayal of what we are up to (feel free to quote me below or quote any article or video we have online).

I’ll structure this email in the following way: (1) general clarifications about STV, (2) addressing your excerpt specifically, and (3) some of the meeting notes from our conversation in case you find it valuable to remember what we discussed (or what I can remember of it anyhow).

(1) General Clarifications

The first thing to mention is that the Symmetry Theory of Valence (STV) is really easy to strawman. It really is the case that there are many near enemies of STV that sound exactly like what a naïve researcher who is missing developmental stages (e.g. is a naïve realist about perception) would say. That we like pretty symmetrical shapes of course does not mean that symmetry is at the root of valence; that we enjoy symphonic music does not mean harmony is “inherently pleasant”; that we enjoy nice repeating patterns of tactile stimulation does not mean, well, you get the idea…

The truth of course is that at QRI we really are meta-contrarian intellectual hipsters (you know this link of course). So the weird and often dumb-sounding things we say are already taking into account the criticisms people in our people-cluster would make and are taking the conversation one step further. For instance, we think digital computers cannot be conscious, but this belief comes from entirely different arguments than those that justify such beliefs out there. We think that the “energy body” is real and important, except that we interpret it within a physicalist paradigm of dynamic systems. We take seriously the possible positive-sum game-theoretical implications of MDMA, but not out of a naïve “why can’t we all love each other?” impression, but rather, based on deep evolutionary arguments. And we take seriously non-standard views of identity, not because “we are all Krishna”, but because the common-sense view of identity turns out to, in retrospect, be based on illusion (cf. Parfit, Kolak, “The Future of Personal Identity“) and a true physicalist theory of consciousness (e.g. Pearce’s theory) has no room for enduring metaphysical egos. This is all to say that strawmanning the paradigms explored at QRI is easy; steelmanning them is what’s hard. I trust you can make a Titanium Man out of them! 🙂

Now, I am indeed happy to address any mischaracterization of STV. Sadly, to my knowledge very few people outside of QRI really “get it”, so I don’t think there is anyone other than us (and possibly you!) who can make a steelman of STV. My promise is that “there is something here” and that to “get it” is not merely to buy into the theory blindly, but rather, it is what happens when you give it enough benefit of the doubt, share a sufficient number of background assumptions, and have a wide enough experience base that it actually becomes a rather obvious “good fit” for all of the data available.

For a bit of history (and properly giving due credit), I should clarify that Michael Johnson is the one who came up with the hypothesis in Principia Qualia (for a brief history see: STV Primer). I started out very skeptical of STV myself, and in fact it took about three years of thinking it through in light of many meditation and high-energy/high-valence experiences to be viscerally convinced that it’s pointing in the right direction. I’m talking about a process of elimination where, for instance, I checked if what feels good is at the computational level of abstraction (such as prediction error minimization) or if it’s at the implementation level (i.e. dissonance). I then developed a number of technical paradigms for how to translate STV into something we could actually study in neuroscience and ultimately try out empirically with non-invasive neurotech (in our case, light-sound-vibration systems that produce multi-modally coherent high-valence states of consciousness). […]

For clarification, I should point out that what is brilliant (IMO) about Mike’s Principia Qualia is that he breaks down the problem of consciousness in such a way that it allows us to divide and conquer the hard problem of consciousness. Indeed, once broken down into his 8 subproblems, calling it the “hard problem of consciousness” sounds as bizarre as it would sound to us to hear about “the hard problem of matter”. We do claim that if we are able to solve each of these subproblems, that indeed the hard problem will dissolve. Not the way illusionists would have it (where the very concept of consciousness is problematic), but rather, in the way that electricity and lightning and magnets all turned out to be explained by just 4 simple equations of electromagnetism. Of course the further question of why do those equations exist and why consciousness follows such laws remains, but even that could IMO be fully explained with the appropriate paradigm (cf. Zero Ontology).

The main point to consider here w.r.t. STV is that symmetry is posited to be connected with valence at the implementation level of analysis. This squarely and clearly distinguishes STV from behaviorist accounts of valence (e.g. “behavioral reinforcement”) and also from algorithmic accounts (e.g. compression drive or prediction error minimization). Indeed, with STV you can have a brain (perhaps a damaged brain, or one in an exotic state of consciousness) where prediction errors are not in fact connected to valence. Rather, the brain evolved to recruit valence gradients in order to make better predictions. Similarly, STV predicts that what makes activation of the pleasure centers feel good is precisely that doing so gives rise to large-scale harmony in brain activity. This is exciting because it means the theory predicts we can actually observe a double dissociation: if we inhibit the pleasure centers while exogenously stimulating large-scale harmonic patterns we expect that to feel good, and we likewise expect that even if you activate the pleasure centers you will not feel good if something inhibits the large-scale harmony that would typically result. Same with prediction errors, behavior, etc.: we predict we can doubly-dissociate valence from those features if we conduct the right experiment. But we won’t be able to dissociate valence from symmetry in the formalism of consciousness.

Now, of course we currently can’t see consciousness directly, but we can infer a lot of invariants about it with different “projections”, and so far all are consistent with STV:

Of special note, I’d point you to one of the studies discussed in the 2020 STV talkThe Human Default Consciousness and Its Disruption: Insights From an EEG Study of Buddhist Jhāna Meditation. It shows a very tight correspondence between jhanas and various smoothly-repeating EEG patterns (including a seizure-like activity that unlike normal seizures (of typically bad valence) shows up as having a harmonic structure, but does not seem to have a direct conscious correlate – still worth mentioning in this context). Here we find a beautiful correspondence between (a) sense of peace/jhanic bliss, (b) phenomenological descriptions of simplicity and smoothness, (c) valence, and (d) actual neurophysiological data mirroring these phenomenological accounts. At QRI we have observed something quite similar studying the EEG patterns of other ultra-high-valence meditation states […]. I expect this pattern to hold for other exotic high-valence states in one way or another, ranging from quality of orgasm to exogenous opioids. 

Phenomenologically speaking, STV is not only capable of describing and explaining why certain meditation or psychedelic states of consciousness feel good or bad, but in fact it can be used as a navigation aid! You can introspect on the ways energy does not flow smoothly, or how the presence of blockages and pinch points make it reflect in discordant ways, or zone in on areas of the “energy body” that are out of sync with one another and then specifically use attention in order to “comb the field of experience”. This approach – the purely secular climbing of the harmony gradient – leads all on its own to amazing high-valence states of consciousness (cf. Buddhist Annealing). I’ll probably make a video series with meditation instructions for people to actually experience this by themselves first hand. It doesn’t take very long, actually. Also, apparently STV as a paradigm can be used in order to experience more pleasant trajectories along the “Energy X Complexity landscape” of a DMT trip (something I even talked about at the SSC meetup online!). In a simple quip, I’d say “there are good and bad ways of vibing on DMT, and STV gives you the key to the realms of the good vibes” 🙂

Another angle: we can find subtle ways of dissociating valence from e.g. chemicals: if you take stimulants but don’t feel the nice buzz that provides a “working frame” for your mental activity, they will not feel good. At the same time, without stimulants you can get that pleasant productivity-enhancing buzz with the right tactile patterns of stimulation. Indeed this “buzz” that characterizes the effects of many euphoric drugs (and the quality of e.g. metta meditation) is precisely a valence effect, one that provides a metronome to self-organize around and which can feel bad when you don’t follow where it takes you. Literally, one of the core reasons why MDMA feels better than LSD, which feels better than DOB, is precisely because the “quality of the buzz” of each of these highs is different. MDMA’s buzz is beautiful and harmonious; DOB’s buzz is harsh and dissonant. More so, such a buzz can work as task-specific dissonance guide-rails, if you will. Meaning that when you do buzz-congruent behaviors you feel a sense of inner harmony, whereas when you do buzz-incongruent behaviors you feel a sense of inner turmoil. Hence what kind of buzz one experiences is deeply consequential! All of this falls rather nicely within STV – IMO other theories need to keep adding epicycles to keep up.

Hopefully this all worked as useful clarifications. Now let me address your excerpt more specifically:

(2) The Excerpt

The Dark Room Problem in neuroscience goes something like this: suppose the brain is minimizing prediction error, or free energy, or whatever. You can minimize lots of things by sitting quietly in a dark room. Everything will be very, very predictable. So how come people do other things?

The usual workaround is inbuilt biological drives, considered as “set points”. You “predict” that you will be well-fed, so getting hungry registers as prediction error and brings you out of your dark room to eat. Et cetera.

Andrés Gómez Emilsson recently shared a perspective I hadn’t considered before, which is: actually, sitting quietly in a dark room is really great.

Indeed usually the Dark Room causes massive prediction errors (since our model of the world is one where being in a Dark Room is truly not expected!). But these prediction errors feel bad because of the dissonance they induce in our experience (which you can get rid of with drugs or meditation!). If you make the Dark Room an “expected” thing, then eventually it will start feeling great. In fact, something like this happens when you meditate a lot in a dark room and settle in. Alternatively, taking 5-MeO-DMT for the first 10 times can be very disconcerting, as it takes you to “the ultimate void of reality”. It’s surprising and dissonant to “find out” that the void is the ultimate truth (I’m not saying that’s true, just that it feels that way in that state!). But once you’ve done it enough times that you know what to expect, you can in fact receive with two open arms the void of ultimate reality. You learn to expect it and not code it as a prediction error, and then you can deeply, deeply “align” to it, which results in unfathomably positive valence that discharges tons of stored internal stress, the very source of low-level dissonance before the trip (again, STV here fits the data rather nicely). 

The Buddha discussed states of extreme bliss attainable through meditation:

> Secluded from sensual pleasures, secluded from unwholesome states, a bhikkhu enters and dwells in the first jhāna, which is accompanied by thought and examination, with rapture and happiness born of seclusion (Samyutta Nikaya)

I had always figured that “sensual pleasures” here meant things like sex. But I think maybe he just means stimuli, full stop. The meditator cuts themselves from all sensory stimuli, eg by meditating really hard on a single object like the breath and ignoring everything else, and as a result gets “rapture and happiness born of seclusion”.

The serious meditators I know say this is real, meaningful, and you can experience it after a few months of careful practice. You become really good at concentrating on one stimulus and ignoring all other stimuli, and eventually your brain kind of gets “in tune” with that stimulus and it’s really blissful. They say this seems to have something to do with the regularity or predictability of the stimulus; if you’re concentrating really hard on something, regularity/predictability/symmetry is just viscerally very good, better than anything you’ve felt before.

[….]

Something like regularity/predictability/symmetry is really good. So why doesn’t a metronome make you bliss out? Andrés says it’s because you can’t concentrate on it hard enough. It’s not engaging enough to occupy your whole brain / entire sensorium /whatever.

Exactly, this is true. The one twist I’ll add is that the regularity that matters is not, as I explained above, the regularity of the stimuli, but rather, the regularity of the inner state. In fact, I currently think that we can get a glimpse of the true shape of our consciousness precisely by studying how different meditation objects work better or worse for the purpose of meditative absorption! Indeed, more symmetrical objects are easier meditation objects (cf. QRI can steelman “sacred geometry” ). Likewise, the hallucinations one gets near or close to states of high-absorption are also reflections of our inner shape! (cf. Fire Kasina qualia). 

Symphonies are beautiful, and we intuitively feel like it’s because they have some kind of deep regularity or complicated pattern. But they’re less regular/predictable/symmetrical than a metronome. Andrés thinks this is because they hit a sweet spot: regular/symmetrical/predictable enough to be beautiful, but complex/unpredictable enough to draw and hold our attention. Compare to eg games, which are most fun when they’re hard enough to be challenging but easy enough to be winnable.

Indeed! We need unpredictability in order to disable the boredom mechanism, which prevents us from fully absorbing into patterns (or rather, prevents our experience from shaping itself in a way that perfectly predicts the stimuli – in a way when you reach absorption with a stimuli, you are in fact becoming its “complement” – a shape that can predict it perfectly). An important twist is that prediction errors give rise to energy spikes, and high-energy states of consciousness can give rise to pleasant resonance (think about the bodily euphoria that comes from eating spicy enough hot peppers). Plus, cooling down from high-energy states can lead to euphoric neural annealing (as explained here). In all cases, however, the thing that is the most closely related to valence is the regularity/smoothness of the internal (instantaneous) state, even though there might be other complex dynamics guiding the state from one configuration to another. 

But this sweet spot is the fault of your own inattentiveness. If you could really concentrate on the metronome, it would be even more blissful than the symphony. Emilsson says he’s achieved these levels of concentration and can confirm. I talked to another meditator who agrees metronomes can be pretty blissful with the right amount of (superhuman) focus, although – as per the Buddha quote above – total silence is best of all.

Agreed! An interesting note is that the first time this happened to me, it was not in meditation, but during a sleep paralysis! See: Dream Music where I discuss how a simple tone can sound amazing if you are in the right reverb-filled state of mind. See also: people with anhedonia often report feeling “back to normal” in dreams, and IMO that’s precisely because the neuroacoustic profile of dreams can be very reverb-filled and thus have significant valence effects (see below).

I find this to be an elegant explanation of what the heck is going on with jhanas, more convincing than my previous theory. It’s also a strong contender as a theory of beauty – a little different in emphasis from Schmidhuber’s theory, but eventually arriving at the same place: beauty is that which is compressible but has not already been compressed.

A brief comment here: your “going loopy” theory foreshadows our tracer tool and psychedelic cryptography, where psychedelics seem to activate a “delay overlay” of recent experiences on top of the current one. DMT gives rise to ~30hz loops, LSD to around ~18hz loops, and 2C-B closer to ~10hz loops. We hypothesize that there are a discrete number of serotonin-mediated metronomes that precisely modulate the degree to which experience is fed back to itself with a specific delay. Antidepressants may flatten affect by disrupting these loops, and thus eliminating sources of symmetry for the inner state. People describe the sense of “missing an echo”; quite literally having a more “flat” experience as a result!

Enhanced neuroacoustics (as with psychedelics) generally increase the range of valence because more loopy experiences are more intense and also more capable of pure dissonance or pure consonance. Dissociatives (nmda antagonism more generally) seem to instead do a low-frequency looping (around 8hz) together with a generalized reverb effect. Much as in music, adding reverb to almost literally anything makes it sound less harsh (like the baby crying vs. baby crying + reverb sounds I referenced in the presentation). And also much as in music, *compounding* delay and reverb effects gives rise to synergistic outcomes, often with crazy standing wave attractors (e.g. exactly what you see on LSD + nitrous or LSD + ketamine).

Importantly, STV is *not* a theory that lives at the computational or algorithmic level of analysis, which is unlike Schmidhuber’s theory. If I recall correctly, Schmidhuber’s theory doesn’t even care about phenomenal valence or consciousness. And it has no mechanism of binding or any sense of how the “reward” is implemented or who or what receives such reward. Its flavor is functionalist and concludes that beauty is to be found in the act of compression. But STV instead says that compression is merely correlated with valence: our brains are set up in such a way that making excellent compressions reduces dissonance! This is because there is (a) an inherent dissonance cost to complexity, and (b) there is a dissonance cost to prediction errors. But again, take the right drug, and all of a sudden you can experience high-valence while making tons of prediction errors or having models that are much more complex than the sensory data would suggest is necessary.

In particular, what makes good compressions feel good beyond reducing prediction errors is that they select for internal states that have simple sets of symmetries as the best generators which anticipate the stimuli. This is highly related to the concept of Harmonic Entropy (i.e. the entropy of the inner state, not of the stimuli). And here is where we find a stark and amazing difference between STV and compression drive: we in fact expect there to be a sort of “minimal construction” path where you get specific “complexity scores” for phenomenal objects based on the number of operations of the sort the brain can do that are needed to construct such phenomenal objects. The brain needs to explicitly render phenomenal objects, rather than merely encode them. So there is a harmonic entropy associated with each experience, which more-or-less correlates with Kolmogorov complexity but is different in that it uses resonance as the building block rather than arbitrary operations. We also predict that the valence associated with specific patterns of stimulation will be best correlated with a sort of “perceptual harmonic entropy” than with complexity in general: how well you can compress an input depends on what building blocks you have to reconstruct it. In the case of the brain, the building blocks seem to be patterns of resonance. So even if something is “highly compressible” but cannot be compressed with resonance (e.g. the prime numbers), you will not experience it as beautiful or “easy on the eye”.

Importantly, free energy minimization is a computational level analysis and we would say at QRI that it therefore is mistaken on “where to look”. Consequence: compressing information feels good *because* it often (but not always) reduces dissonance. But if your brain is set up in the wrong way, minimizing dissonance may not lead to good compressions, or doing good compressions may not in fact feel good. But reducing dissonance will always feel better, and having high-energy high-harmony patterns internally will always feel good. What this does at the algorithmic and computational level is tricky, but it generally implies that we can see “artifacts” of our resonance-based compression system all over the place when in exotic states of consciousness, which is what we observe (and at the end of the day this may explain why psychedelic fractals and Indra’s Net type experiences are so hedonically loaded! See: psychedelics and the free energy principle).

To sum it up: STV claims that what matters is the regularity of the conscious experience and not of the stimuli – the stimuli is only in a certain sense a “projection” of the inner state, but it can deviate from it in many ways. Prediction errors feel bad because our brain is set up in such a way that they cause dissonance. And compressions only feel good to the extent that they avoid prediction errors *and* minimize the internal dissonance cost of the internal representations used for prediction. In other words, STV explains the other theories, but not the other way around.

Finally…

(3) Meeting notes, in case you find them useful…

  • You asked if I knew whether taking a lot of 5-MeO-DMT is compatible with sanity for most people: the answer is probably not. That said, we do know of some notable exceptions of very smart and sane individuals who have experimented heavily with the drug with no obvious cost to their sanity (e.g. see conversation with Ingram, Yang, McMullen, and Taft which touches upon the effects of daily use of 5-MeO-DMT).
  • I brought up anti-tolerance drugs, of which black seed oil is promising (but a low-tier player). Most promising of all are ibogaine and proglumide. Opioids + anti-tolerance drugs are IMO the most promising long-term therapy for severe chronic pain. 
  • Brought up Chanca Piedra as a promising highly cost-effective intervention to prevent kidney stones in the context of “hell must be destroyed” (other interventions we are fairly confident are in the category of “enormous if true, seem true, yet nobody is trying”: flumazenil for benzoscooling gloves for MDMA neurotoxicityDMT for cluster headaches, etc.)
  • I shared that the three goals/pillars of QRI are to (1) reduce negative extremes, (2) increase baseline, and (3) achieve new heights.
  • I gifted you a High-Entropy Alloy with unique material properties: much like looking for names of God, or amazing new perfumes, or indeed finding gems hidden in the state-space of consciousness, we must figure out clever ways of exploring large combinatorial spaces without going insane. You obviously have thought a lot about this 🙂
  • We talked about “nausea annealing” (pro-tip: drinking ginger juice right when you take a psychedelic seems to drastically reduce how much nausea and body-load it causes).
  • Overfitting.
  • Information is in the coupling between harmonics; de-couple them and you can experience the “zero state” while still being awake.
  • Meaning of the QRI logo (i.e. having a clear view of the entire state-space of consciousness; bridging quality/color and quantity/lines as a symbol for qualia formalism).
  • You asked “can you tell me what are brainwaves in simple terms a child could understand?” (I answered with “they are the signature of resonance in the holistic field behavior of experience” and immediately realized I had miserably failed to “explain in simple terms”). 
  • “Would listening to a pure tone be blissful?” Yes, you can absorb yourself into it. Second half of an orchestral song repeated could be better if it allows you to go deeper into absorption. Touched upon: Boredom mechanism. Harmonic entropy. Controlling for energy.
  • 3D harmonics, STV presentation, symmetry of the mathematical object is what truly matters.
  • Encoding vs. rendering.

Ok, that was rather long; I hope that you found it useful and clarifying! Please feel free to ask any questions and I promise I won’t send you another equally long email 🙂 Again, feel free to write about any and all of this.

Best of luck in your travels! 🙂

Infinite Bliss!

7 Recent Videos: Buddhist Annealing, Is This a Simulation?, The Purple Pill, DMT vs. 5-MeO-DMT, Digital Sentience, Psychedelics and the Free Energy Principle, and Advanced Visions of Paradise

[Context: 3rd in a series of 7-video packages. See the previous two packages: 1st and 2nd]

[Featured image by Wendi Yan.]

Buddhist Annealing: Wireheading Done Right with the Seven Factors of Awakening (link)

This video discusses the connections between meditative flow (any feeling of change) and the two QRI paradigms of “Wireheading Done Right” and “Neural Annealing”. To do so, I explore how each of the “seven factors of awakening” can be interpreted as operations that you do to flow. In a nutshell: the factors are “energy management techniques”, which when used in the right sequences and dosages, tend to result in wholesome neural annealing.

I then go on to discuss two fascinating dualities: (1) The dual relationship between standing wave patterns and vibratory frequencies. And (2) the dual correspondence between annealing at the computational level (REBUS) and annealing in resonance networks.

(1) Describes how the crazy patterns that come out of meditation and psychedelics are not irrelevant. They are, in a way, the dual counterpart to the emotional processing that you are undergoing. Hence why ugly emotions manifest as discordant structures whereas blissful feelings come together with beautiful geometries.

(2) Articulates how simulated annealing methods in probabilistic graphical models such as those that underlie the synthesis of entropic disintegration and the free energy principle (Friston’s and Carhart-Harris’ REBUS model) describe belief updating. Whereas annealing at the implementation level refers to a dissonance-minimization technique in resonance networks. In turn, if these are “two sides of the same coin”, we can expect to find that operations in one domain will translate to operations in the other domain. In particular, I discuss how resisting information (“denial”, “cognitive dissonance”) has a corresponding subjective texture associated with muscle tension, “resistance”, viscosity, and hardness. Equanimity, in turn, allows the propagation of both waves of dissonance, consonance, and noise as well as bundles of information. This has major implications for how to maximize the therapeutic benefit of psychedelics.

Finally, I explain how we could start formalizing Shinzen Young’s observation that you can, not only “read the contents of your subconscious”, but indeed also “heal your subconscious by greeting it with enough concentration, clarity, and equanimity”. Negentropy in the resonance network (patches of highly-ordered “combed” coherent resonance across levels of the hierarchy) can be used to heal patches of dissonance. This is why clean high-valence meditative objects (e.g. metta) can absorb and dissipate the internal dissonance stored in patterns of habitual responses. In turn, this might ultimately allow us to explain why, speaking poetically, it is true that love can heal all wounds. 🙂

~Qualia of the Day: Nirvana Rose~

(Skip to ~10:00 if you don’t need a recap of Wireheading Done Right and Neural Annealing)

[ps. correction – I wrote a 30 page document about my retreat, not a 50 word document]

Relevant Links:


Is This a Simulation? (link)

Will You Take the Simulation Pill?

Warning: Once You Take It There Is No Going Back.

Apologies for the Clickbait. I Can’t Say More Unless You Take the Pill With Me. 🙂

~Qualia of the Day: The Red Pill – With Your Consent, We Will Take It Together~

Relevant Links:


The Purple Pill: What Happens When You Take the Blue and the Red Pill at the Same Time? (link)

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.” – The Purple Pill (Qualia Computing)

In this talk I explain that the “Blue vs. Red Pill” trope relies on a false dichotomy. You don’t need to choose between depressive realism and comforting illusions. Put differently, you don’t need to choose between truth and happiness. High hedonic tone is not incompatible with one’s representational accuracy of causal structures. The world, and the existence of experiential heaven and hell, can be understood without curling into a ball and crying your way to sleep. More so, effective and persistent action towards the good requires that you don’t believe in this false dichotomy, for sustainable altruistic productivity necessitates both accurate models and positive motivations. Thus, the aspiring paradise engineer ought to be willing to take the Purple Pill to move onwards.

I advocate having a balanced portfolio of (1) efforts to minimize experiential hell, (2) techniques to increase the hedonic baseline sustainably, and (3) methods to reliably experience peak states of consciousness in a sane way.

I do not think that spending 100% of one’s time in “destroying hell” is a sustainable approach to life because it does not allow you to “reinvest” in the conditions that gave rise to one’s goodness to begin with (otherwise you become more of a martyr than an effective player in the field!). More so, the relationship between suffering and productivity is non-trivial, which means that to just helping people who suffer extremely does not generally pay off in terms of productive action towards the cause in the future. Hence, improving baseline is just as important: it is precisely what allows people to go from near zero productivity to a high level of productivity. Finally, the benefits of having access to reliable, pro-social ultra-blissful states of consciousness should not be underestimated. They are an important piece of the puzzle because they motivate the “animal self” and are deeply reassuring. Thus, as a “package”, I see a lot of potential in simultaneously reducing negative extremes, improving the baseline, and achieving new heights of bliss. This, to me, is what I see as the path forward.

Topics I cover span: Trungpa’s “Spiritual Materialism” (the attitude of using exalted states of consciousness to “decorate our ego”), optimization problems/reinvesting in the good, sane in-group/out-group dynamics, the game theory of virtue signaling, and the importance of having an explicit commitment to the wellbeing of all sentient beings (to prevent value drift).

~Qualia of the Day: Spiritual Materialism~

Relevant Links:

Thanks Mike Johnson and David Pearce for many conversations on this topic.


DMT vs. 5-MeO-DMT: 12 Key Differences (link)

What are the differences between DMT and 5-MeO-DMT? And what gives rise to those differences? In this video we discuss 12 different ways to analyze the strange and unique effects of these substances. We go over the 9 lenses already discussed in Qualia Computing* and add three more.

Starting with three new lenses (5-MeO-DMT left/DMT right):

A) Global Coherence vs. Competing Clusters of Coherence: 5-MeO-DMT gives rise to a global coherent state (the so-called “unified energy field”), whereas DMT gives rise to an ecosystem of time-loops, each trying to capture as much of your attention as possible, which in turn results in coalition-building and evolution of patterns in the direction of being very “attention grabbing” (cf. reddit.com/r/place).

B) Really Positive or Really Negative Valence vs. Highly-Mixed Valence: 5-MeO-DMT gives rise to either a globally coherent state (high-valence) or two competing coherent states (negative-valence), whereas DMT tends to generate complex consonance/dissonance relationships between the clusters of coherence.

C) How they are different according the the Free Energy Principle: On 5-MeO-DMT the entire experience has to reinforce itself, whereas each cluster of coherence needs to model the rest of the experience in order to be reinforced by it on DMT. Thus 5-MeO-DMT makes experiences that express “the whole as the whole” whereas DMT makes each part of the experience represent the whole yet remains distinct.

And the original 9 lenses:

1) Space vs. Form: 5-MeO is more space-like than DMT.
2) Crystals vs. Quasi-Crystals: 5-MeO generates more perfectly repeating rhythms and hallucinations than DMT.
3) Non-Attachment vs. Attachment: 5-MeO seems to enable detachment from the craving of both existence and non-existence, whereas DMT enhances the craving.
4) Underfitting vs. Overfitting: 5-MeO reduces one’s model complexity whereas DMT radically increases it.
5) Fixed Points and Limit Cycles vs. Chaotic Attractors: 5-MeO’s effect on feedback leads to stable and predictable attractors while DMT’s attractors are inherently chaotic.
6) Modulation of Lateral Inhibition: 5-MeO may reduce lateral inhibition while DMT may enhance it.
7) Diffuse Attention vs. Focused Attention: 5-MeO diffuses attention uniformly over large regions of one’s experiential field, while DMT seems to focus it.
8) Big Chunks and Tiny Chunks vs. A Power Law of Chunks: 5-MeO creates a few huge phases of experience (as in phases of matter) with a few remaining specks, while DMT produces a more organic power law distribution of chunk sizes.
9) Integration vs. Fragmentation: 5-MeO seems to give rise to “neural integration” involving the entrainment of any two arbitrary subnetworks (even when they usually do not talk to each other), while DMT fragments communication between most networks but massively enhances it between some specific kinds of networks.

I also explain what is going on with the “Megaminx DMT worlds” and when DMT entities bully you into believing in their independent existence.

~Qualia of the Day: Rheoscopic Fluid~

Relevant Links:


Digital Sentience: Can Digital Computers Ever “Wake Up”? (link)

I start by acknowledging that most smart and well-informed people today believe that digital computers can be conscious. More so, they believe this for good reasons.

In general, 99.99% of the times when someone says that digital computers cannot be conscious they do so equipped with very bad arguments. This, of course, does not mean that all of these smart people who believe in digital sentience are right. In fact, I argue that they are making a critical yet entirely non-obvious mistake: they are not taking into account a sufficiently detailed set of constraints that any scientific theory of consciousness must satisfy. In this video I go over what those constraints are, and in what way they actually entail that digital sentience is literally impossible.

The talk is divided into three parts: (1) my philosophical journey, which I share in order to establish credibility, (2) classic issues in philosophy of mind, and (3) how we can solve all those issues with QRI’s theory of consciousness.

(Skip to 31:00 if you are not interested in my philosophical journey and you want to jump into the philosophy of mind right away).

(1) I’ve been hyper-philosophical all my life and have dedicated thousands of hours working on this topic: having discussions with people in the field, writings essays, studying qualia in all manners of exotic states of consciousness, and working through the implications of different philosophical background assumptions. I claim that QRI’s views here are indeed much more informed than anyone would assume if they just heard that we think digital computers cannot be conscious. In fact, most of us started out as hard-core computationalists and only switched sides once we fully grokked the limitations of that view! Until the age of 20 I was a huge proponent of digital sentience, and I planned my life around that very issue. So it was a big blow to find out that I was neglecting key pieces of the puzzle that David Pearce, and later Mike Johnson, brought up when I met them in person. In particular, they made me aware of the importance of the “phenomenal binding/boundary problem”; once I finally understood it, everything unraveled from there.

(2) We go over: Marr’s levels of analysis (and “interactions between levels”). The difference between functionalism, computationalism, causal structure, and physicalist theories of consciousness. The Chinese Room. Multiple Realizability. Epiphenomenalism. Why synchrony is not enough for binding. Multiple Drafts Theory of consciousness. And the difference between awareness and attention.

(3) We solve the boundary problem with topological segmentation: this allows us to also provide an explanation for what the causal properties of experience are. The integrated nature of fields can be recruited for computation. Topological boundaries are neither epiphenomenal nor frame-dependent. Thus, evolution stumbling upon holistic field behavior of topological pockets of the fields of physics would solve a lot of puzzles in philosophy of mind. In turn, since digital computers don’t use fields of physics for computation, they will never be unified subjects of experience no matter how you program them.

I also discuss issues with IIT’s solution to the binding problem (despite IIT’s whole aesthetic of irreducible causality, their solution makes binding epiphenomenal! The devil’s in the details: IIT says the Minimum Information Partition has “the highest claim of existence” but this leaves all non-minimal partitions untouched. It’s epiphenomenal and thus not actually useful for computation).

Thanks also to Andrew Zuckerman and other QRI folks for great recent discussions on this topic.

~Qualia of the Day: Dennett’s Intentional Stance~


Relevant Links/References:


Psychedelics and the Free Energy Principle: From REBUS to Indra’s Net (link)

Friston’s Free Energy Principle (FEP) is one of those ideas that seem to offer new perspectives on almost anything you point it at.

It seems to synthesize already very high-level ideas into an incredibly general and flexible conceptual framework. It brings together thermodynamics, probabilistic graphical models, information theory, evolution, and psychology. We could say that trying to apply the FEP to literally everything is not a bad idea: it may not explain it all, but we are bound to learn a lot from seeing when it fails.

So what is the FEP? In the words of Friston: “In short, the long-term (distal) imperative — of maintaining states within physiological bounds — translates into a short-term (proximal) avoidance of surprise. Surprise here relates not just to the current state, which cannot be changed, but also to movement from one state to another, which can change. This motion can be complicated and itinerant (wandering) provided that it revisits a small set of states, called a global random attractor, that are compatible with survival (for example, driving a car within a small margin of error). It is this motion that the free-energy principle optimizes.

Organisms that survive over time must minimize entropy injections from their environment, which means they need to minimize surprise, which unfortunately is computationally intractable, but the information theoretic construct of variational free-energy provides an upper bound on this ground truth surprise, meaning that minimizing it will indirectly minimize surprise. This cashes out in the need to maximize “accuracy – complexity” which prevents both overfitting and underfitting. In the video we go over some of the classical ideas surrounding the FEP: the dark room, active inference, explicit vs. implicit representations, and whether real dynamic systems can be decomposed into Markov blankets. Finally, we cover how the FEP naturally gives rise to predictive coding via hierarchical Bayesian models.

We then talk about Reduced BEliefs Under pSychedelics (REBUS) and explain how Carhart-Harris and Friston interpret psychedelics and the Anarchic Brain in light of the FEP. We then discuss Safron’s countermodel of Strengthened BEliefs Under pSychedelics (SEBUS) and the work coming out of Seth’s lab.

So, that’s how the FEP shows up in the literature today. But what about explaining not only belief changes and perceptual effects, but perhaps also getting into the actual weeds of the ultra bizarre things that happen on psychedelics?

I provide three novel ideas for how the FEP can explain features of exotic experiences:

(1) Dissonance-minimizing resonance networks would naturally balance model complexity due to an inherent “complexity cost” that shows up as dissonance and prediction error minimization when prediction errors give rise to out-of-phase interactions between the layers.

(2) Bayesian Energy Sinks: What you can recognize lowers the (physical) energy of one’s world-sheet. I then blend this with an analysis of symmetrical psychedelic thought-forms as energy-minimizing configurations. On net, we thus experience hybrid “semantic + symmetric” hallucinations.

(3) Indra’s Net: Each “competing cluster of coherence” needs to model its environment in order to synch up with it in a reinforcing way. This leads to attractor states where “everything reflects everything else”.

~Qualia of the Day: Indra’s Net~

Relevant Links:


Advanced Visions of Paradise: From Basic Hedonism to Paradise Engineering (link)

This video was recorded as a way for me to prepare for the speech I gave at the “QRI Summer Party 2021: Advanced Visions of Paradise” (see livestream here). You can think of it as the significantly more in-depth (and higher audio quality!) version of that speech.

The core message of this video is: thinking wholesome, genuinely useful, and novel thoughts about how to build paradise is hard. Doing so without getting caught up in low-dimensional aesthetics and pre-conceptions is very challenging. Most of the “visions of paradise” we find in our culture, media, and art are projections of implicit aesthetics used for human coordination, rather than deeply thought-out and high-dimensional perspectives truly meant to elevate our understanding and inspire us to investigate the Mystery of reality. Aesthetics tend to put the cart before the horse: they tacitly come with a sense of what is good and what is real. Aesthetics are fast, parallel, and collective ways of judging the goodness or badness of images, ideas, and archetypes. They give rise to internal dissonance when you present to them things that don’t fit well with their previous judgements. And due to naïve realism about perception, these judgements are often experienced as “divine revelations”.

To disentangle ourselves from tacit low-dimensional aesthetics, and inspired by the work of Rob Burbea (cf. Soulmaking), I go over what aesthetics consist of: Eros, Psyche, and Logos. Then, to explore high-quality aesthetics relevant to paradise engineering, I go over 7 camps of a hypothetical “Superhappiness Festival”, each representing a different advanced aesthetic: Hedonism, Psychiatry, Wholesome, Paleo, Energy, Self-Organization, and Paradise Engineering. For didactic purposes I also assign a Buddhist Realm (cf. “Opening the Heart of Compassion” by Short & Lowenthal) to each of the camps.

Note: the Buddhist realms are a very general lens, so a more detailed exposition would point out how each of the camps manifests in each of the Buddhist realms. Don’t put too much stock on the precise mapping I present in this video.

~Qualia of the Day: Pure Lands~

Picture by Wendi Yan (wendiyan.com) “The Tower of Paradise Engineering” (also the featured image of this post / image to appear in the forthcoming QRI Book)

For context, here is the party invite/description:

Dear Everyone!

Science fiction and futurism have failed us. Simply put, there is a remarkable lack of exploration when it comes to the role that consciousness (and its exotic states) will play in the unfolding of intelligent agency on Earth. This, of course, is largely understandable: we simply lack adequate conceptual frameworks to make sense of the state-space of consciousness and its myriad properties. Alas, any vision of the future that neglects what we already know about the state-space of consciousness and its potential is, in the final analysis, “missing the point” entirely.

Exotic states of consciousness are consequential for two reasons: (1) they may provide unique computational benefits, and (2) they may have orders of magnitude more bliss, love, and feelings of inherent value.
As Nick Bostrom puts it in Letter From Utopia:

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

(2) “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.”

In light of the above, let us for once try to be serious consciousness-aware futurists. Then, we must ask, what does paradise look like? What does it feel like? What kinds of exotic synesthetic thought-forms and hyper-dimensional gems populate and imbue the spacetime of awareness that makes up paradise?

Come and join us for an evening of qualia delights and great company: experience and make curious smells, try multi-sensory art installations, and listen to a presentation about what we call “Advanced Visions of Paradise”. Equipped with an enriched experience base and a novel conceptual toolkit, we look forward to have you share your own visions of paradise and discuss ways to bring them into reality.

Infinite Bliss!

Ps. If you are being invited to this event, that means that we value you as a friend of QRI ❤

Pss. Only come if you are fully vaccinated, please!

Key Links:

~Music: People were asking me about the playlist of yesterday’s party. The core idea behind this playlist was to emulate the sequence of aesthetics I talked about in the speech. Namely, the songs are ordered roughly so that each of the 7 camps gets about 1 hour, starting in camp Hedonism and going all the way to camp Paradise Engineering: QRI Summer Party 2021: Advanced Visions of Paradise~


And that’s it for now!

Thank you for tuning in!

Infinite Bliss For All!

7 Recent Videos: Consciousness vs. Replicators, High Entropy Alloys of Experience, Sleep Paralysis Stories, Free-Wheeling Hallucinations, Zero Ontology, The Tyranny of the Intentional Object, And A Language for Psychedelic Experiences

[See: Previous 7-video package]

A Universal Plot – Consciousness vs. Pure Replicators: Gene Servants or Blissful Autopoietic Beings? (link)

What is the point of it all? What does it all mean?

In this talk I explain how we can meaningfully address these questions with the frame of “consciousness vs. pure replicators”. This framework allows us to re-interpret and unify all previous “scales of moral/conceptual development”. In turn, it makes solving disagreements in a principled way possible.

“Consciousness vs. Pure Replicators” is what I call “the universal plot of reality”; it is the highest level of narrative that determines what is “relevant to the plot” at any given point in time.

Whether consciousness succeeds at gaining control of its destiny and embarks on a collective journey of self-authorship, or whether we all end up being subservient cogs to a self-replicating mega-system whose one and only utility function is to self-perpetuate, is truly up in the air right now. So what can we do to support the interests of consciousness, then?

To aid consciousness we need more than good intentions (though those are still a key ingredient): I discuss how game theoretical considerations entail that in order for consciousness to succeed we will need to judiciously ally with specific replicator strategies. Being a “cooperatebot” towards anyone who claims to care about consciousness makes you liable to being resource-pumped. You need to verify that something makes sense also from the point of view of game theory; without a way to verify the ultimate values of others, coordinating with them at this level becomes extremely challenging. I suggest that a mature technology of intelligent bliss with objectively verifiable effects would be a game-changer. Once you’ve seen “it” (i.e. optimized bliss consciousness) you join everyone else in self-organizing around it.

If the world is to be taken over by something that cares about the wellbeing of consciousness, how this taking over process looks like may blindside us all. The power of “universal love” conquering all obstacles and creating a paradise for all may not be a New Age fantasy after all. Given the appropriate technology, it may turn out to be a live option…

Topics Covered: Kegan Levels of Development, Spiral Dynamics, Model of Hierarchical Complexity, Meta-Modernism, Qualia Formalism, Valence Structuralism, Pleasure Principle, Open Individualism, Universal Darwinism, Battle Between Good and Evil, Balance Between Good and Evil, Gradients of Wisdom, Consciousness vs. Pure Replicators, Wild Animal Suffering, Mistrusting DMT Entities, Super-Cooperator Cluster, Metta/Lovingkindness, State-Dependent Sexuality, Wireheading, Cooperation Technology, Game-Changing as a Strategy.

~Qualia of the Day: Kala Namak~

Further Readings:


High Entropy Alloys of Experience (link)

~Suggestion: Play a music album you like in the background while listening to this talk.~

How do we find the “gems” hidden in the state-space of consciousness?

In this talk I articulate why it is very likely that there is a huge number of undiscovered states of consciousness that are completely unique, irreducible, and wholistically “special”.

In metallurgy, a high-entropy alloy (HEA) is a mixture of five or more metals in high proportions, often giving rise to a single phase. Some HEAs have been found to have extremely desirable properties from the point of view of material science (such as being the best at both yield-strength and ultimate tensile strength at the same time). Given the huge space of possible mixtures of metals, finding these carefully balanced mixtures with unique emergent properties is both a science and an art. It calls for intelligent strategies to explore the state-space of possible alloys!

I suggest that in the realm of consciousness there are also states that would be appropriate to describe as “high entropy alloys of experience”. I go into how this framework can help us understand unique scents*. We then explore how the receptor affinity profiles of drugs, drug cocktails, and drug schedules can give rise to unique HEA-like states of mind. I then also discuss how memeplexes have various degrees of total complexity, and how this makes some more receptive to dealing with complexity in the world than others. I offer that I really appreciate the HEA-like memeplexes that get expressed in places like EAGlobal, The Science of Consciousness, and Psychedelic Science conferences. I conclude by reflecting on how a “productive mindset” or mood optimized for a specific intellectual job is likely to be HEA-like because it requires the careful balance between many different facets of the mind.

Topics you will master after seeing this talk for even just one time**: High Entropy Alloys, Bronze and Iron Age, Equiatomic Alloys, People Clusters in Parties, Scents, Sexual Orientation, Gay Fragrances, Memeplexes and Mindsets, Vibe of Groups, Energy Parameter, Frozen Food, Crystallites, Space Groups, The Science of Consciousness, EAGlobal, Psychedelic Science, Search Heuristics, DMT as “Competing Clusters of Synchrony”, Birthday Cake Flavor, Cellular Automata, Optimal Mood for Productivity.

*(HEAs: Le Male by JPG, Bleu de Chanel, Mitsouko by Guerlain. Non-HEAs: Tommy Girl by Tommy Hilfiger, Habit Rouge by Guerlain, Amazing Grace Ballet Rose by Philosophy)

**More like “topics barely touched upon”.

Further Readings:

Heterosexual males and females preferred odours from heterosexual males relative to gay males; gay males preferred odours from other gay males.

Source: Sense of smell is linked to sexual orientation, study reveals

If the goal is to avoid the formation of such phases, simply mixing together five or more elements in near-equiatomic concentrations is unlikely to be a useful approach. Even multi-component alloys that are initially single phase after solidification tend to separate into multiple metallic and intermetallic phases when annealed at intermediate temperatures.

Source: High-entropy Alloys (literature review)

Featured image source: @fractjack


6 Spooky Sleep Paralysis Stories (link)

I estimate that I have experienced between 100 and 200 sleep paralysis, many of which were lucid (meaning that I knew I was experiencing a sleep paralysis). In this video I articulate what I have learned from all of these experiences, share some particularly strange stories, and give you tips for how to get out of a sleep paralysis if you find yourself trapped in one.

Topics Covered: Hyperbolic curvature in pasta, dream music, phenomenal viscosity, DXM, imperfect sensory gating, “radio is playing” hallucinations, Dredg – Album: El Cielo · Song: Scissor Lock, taking psychedelics while dreaming, lucid dreams, dopaminergics, controlling the powerful vibrations of sleep paralysis, recursive depth, false awakenings, whimpering, noting meditation, and techniques for escaping a sleep paralysis.

~Qualia of the Day: Gigli/Campanelle Pasta~

Further Readings:

Niacinamide helps in sleep enhancement as evidenced in a 3-week study of six subjects with normal sleep patterns and two with insomnia using electroencephalograms, electromyograms, and electrooculograms to evaluate sleep patterns at baseline and after niacinamide treatment. There was a significant increase in REM sleep in all normal-sleeping subjects, but the two subjects with moderate to severe insomnia experienced significant increases in REM sleep by the third week; awake time was also significantly decreased (Robinson et al., 1977).

(source)

Free-Wheeling Hallucinations: Be the Free-Willed God of Your Inner World-Simulation (link)

Once you realize that you inhabit a world-simulation sustained by your neuronal soil it is natural to ask: why can’t I control its contents? Why can’t I make myself hallucinate whatever I want?

It can be frustrating to realize one lacks control over something that should be truly “ours” – our raw unmediated experience! We could, and perhaps should, be the rightful masters of our very own conscious experience, yet for the most part we remain powerless to explore its possible states at will.

In this video I discuss the existence of some states of consciousness in which you do own and control the contents of your experience. Think of it as acquiring an “experience editor”: an interface with your experience that enables you to modify it at will while keeping the modifications stable.

A lucid dream would be an example of a somewhat fluid and unreliable free-wheeling hallucination. The free-wheeling hallucinations I describe here are much more general, stable, reliable, intense, and hedonic than lucid dreams. More so, to spin up free-wheeling hallucinations could amount to far more than being just a fun activity. Doing so may come to be an extremely valuable tool for a new paradigm of consciousness research! All of the parameters of experience that remain outside of our control under normal circumstances can be studied (both from a first and third person point of view) while in a free-wheeling hallucination! One can conduct a sort of “qualia chemistry” and repeat experiments to get reliable accounts of the behavior of consciousness under exotic (yet controlled) circumstances. Artifacts such as the valence-symmetry correspondance can be inspected in detail. Ultimately, this paradigm may allow us to chart the state-space of consciousness in terms of “edit distances” or “sequence of symmetry breaking operations” away from “formless consciousness”.

I then go on to explain that “knowing everything about your world-simulation” does not entail that the experience will be boring. Hedonic tone can be dissociated from novelty, but we don’t even need to go that far. It suffices to point out that you can set up the parameters of your world-simulation so that it unfolds in a chaotic way, and thus is impossible to predict. Additionally, you cannot really predict what you yourself will think in the future, so the whole setup can continue to generate novelty almost indefinitely (up to one’s storage capacity/size of the state-space/heat death of the universe).

I conclude by exercising my free will.

Topics Covered: Energy Parameter, Predictive Coding, Free Energy Principle, Kolmogorov Complexity of Experience, Principia Qualia, Super Free Will, Quality Trip Reports, DXM + THC Combo, LSD + Ketamine + THC Combo, “Experience Editors”, Qualia Critters, Fire Kasina, Color Control, Qualia Chemistry, Agenthood, Coumarin, Chamomile Tea.

~Qualia of the Day: You Have to Watch the Video~

Further Readings:

Chamomile consists of several ingredients including coumarin, glycoside, herniarin, flavonoid, farnesol, nerolidol and germacranolide. Despite the presence of coumarin, as chamomile’s effect on the coagulation system has not yet been studied, it is unknown if a clinically significant drug-herb interaction exists with antiplatelet/anticoagulant drugs. However, until more information is available, it is not recommended to use these substances concurrently.

Source: Herbal medication: potential for adverse interactions with analgesic drugs

Why Does Anything Exist? Zero Ontology, Physical Information, and Pure Awareness (link)

Why is there something rather than nothing? In this video I take this question very seriously and approach it with optimism. I say (a) this is a meaningful and valid question, and (b) it has a real and satisfying answer. The overall explanation space I explore is that of David Pearce’s Zero Ontology, which postulates that the multiverse is implied by the preservation of “zero information”.

In order to understand Zero Ontology we need to do some conceptual groundwork. So I walk the listener (you, were you to accept this journey) through several concepts that make the question go from “impossible to answer” or even “meaningless” to something that at least conceivably seems possible to solve.

First, we need to sidesteps the common tropes of our habitual modes of thinking, such as expecting answers to come in the form of “causal explanations”. No matter how you look at it, whether the universe extends back forever or not, a causal explanation for the origin of the universe is logically impossible to derive. Instead, we have to think in a radically different way, which is by way of frameworks for implication rather than causation. This opens us up to the possibility that exotic modes of thinking capable of representing what is entailed by “nothing” will show in turn that “something” follows from it. This helps us make sense of Pearce’s argument: the “nothing” we are looking for is not the “common sense” view of the term, but rather a more refined post-theoretical concept that is ill-fitted to the human mind for the time being.

In particular, Pearce focuses on how “no information” may be “what nothing is”. Thus, Zero Ontology attempts to formalize the “fact of inexistence” by reconceptualizing information as “ruling out possibilities”. Based on this alternate concept we see that math, physics, and phenomenology share the common thread of being possible to “construct out of nothing”. In math, the empty set can be used to derive all of arithmetic. In physics the Standard Model is a surprisingly simple theory that can be derived from first principles by imposing the “need for symmetry”. The total energy, charge, momentum, etc. of the universe is zero! And in phenomenology, we encounter a lot of cases where apparently all of the possible flavors of a qualia variety seem to “cancel out” into “pure being” or “raw awareness”. The simplest example is how experiencing “all phenomenal colors at once” (a kind of rainbow effect, but including magenta) seems to be interchangeable with “colorless phenomenal light”.

I tie all of this together and talk about how Zero Ontology allows us to reconceptualize “God/Being” as “unconstrained reality” or “boundarylessness”. I discuss how we could perhaps even probe Zero Ontology empirically in a direct way if we were to train enough physicists, mathematicians, philosophers, computer scientists, etc. to go into high Jhana or 5-MeO-DMT states and then quantify the properties of the fundamental fields implementing these experiences.

I conclude with an analogy to Borges’ Library of Babel (or a quantum version thereof) and why we may be in it. In fact, “be it”.

David Pearce: “A theory that explains everything explains nothing”, protests the critic of Everettian QM. To which we may reply, rather tentatively: yes, precisely.

Topics Covered: The Concept of Nothing, Three Characteristics, Illusion, Limitations of the Medium of Thought, Amusing Ourselves to Death, Redefining Information, Empty Set Arithmetic, Preserved Quantities of Physics, Symmetry and Noether’s Theorem, QFT, Path Integrals, Jhanas, 5-MeO-DMT, Symmetries in Qualia, Quantum Library of Babel, Black Hole Information Paradox.

~Qualia of the Day: Thinking About Nothing~

Further Readings:


The Tyranny of the Intentional Object: Universal Addictions, Meaning Abuse, and Denied Self-Insights (link)

What is it that we truly want? Why do so many people believe that meaning is better than happiness?

In this talk I discuss what we call “the tyranny of the intentional object”, which refers to the tendency for the mind to believe that “what it wants” is semantically meaningful experiences. In reality, what we want under the surface is to avoid negative valence and achieve sustainable positive valence states of consciousness.

I explain that evolution has “hooked us” on particular sources of pleasure in such a way that this is not introspectively accessible to us. We often need specific semantic content to work as a “key” for the “lock” of high-valence states of consciousness. I explain how we are all born chronic (endogenous) opioid addicts, and how our reward architecture is so coercive that we often fail to recognize this because thinking about it makes us feel bad (and thus ironically confirming the situation we are trying to be in denial about!).

I go on to provide my current thoughts on the nature of meaning. Beyond “sense and reference” we find that “felt-sense” is actually what meaning is “made of”. But not any kind of felt-sense. I posit that the felt-senses that we describe as richly meaningful tend to have the following properties: high levels of intention, coherence of attention field lines, a “field syntax”, and a high level of “potential to affect valence”. Valence and meaning are deeply connected but are not identical: we can find corner cases of high-valence but meaningless states of mind and vice versa (though they rare).

Meaning is no less liable to be “abused” than hard drugs: we often find ourselves scratching the bottom of the barrel of our meaning-making structures when things go wrong. I advise against doing this, and instead endorse the use of equanimity when faced with the absurd and Chapman’s “Meaningness” approach: to think of meaning as a gradient rather than in black and white terms. Do take advantage of opportunities for high levels of meaning, but do not rely on them and think they are universal. Indeed “meaning abuse” is a recipe for broken hearts and misguided idealistic solutions to problems that can be easily addressed pragmatically.

Finally, I steelman the importance of “high-dimensional valence” and explain why in turn usually pursuing meaning is indeed much better than shallow pleasure.

~Qualia of the Day: Clean Air~

Further Readings:

[T]he heroin addict will do anything to get another fix: lie, cheat, steal and worse. Natural selection has stumbled on and harnessed Nature’s own version of heroin. Our endogenous opioid system ensures that biological life behaves in callous but genetically adaptive ways. […] All complex animal life is “paid” in junk: the addictive dribble of opioids in our hedonic hotspots released when we act in ways that tend to maximise the inclusive fitness of our genes in the environment of evolutionary adaptedness (EEA). The pleasure-pain axis is coercive. Barring self-deliverance, we can’t opt out. Our “reward” circuitry hardwires opioid addiction and the complex rationalisations it spawns. Human history confirms we’ll do anything to obtain more opioids to feed our habit. The mesolimbic dopamine system enables us to anticipate our next fix and act accordingly: an insidious interplay of “wanting” and “liking”. We enslave and kill billions of sentient beings from other species to gratify our cravings. We feed the corpses of our victims to our offspring. So the vicious cycle of abuse continues.

David Pearce: Quora Responses

A Language for Psychedelic Experiences: Algorithmic Reductions, Field Operators, and Dimensionality (link)

Psychedelic experiences are notoriously difficult to describe. But are they truly ineffable, or do we simply lack the words, syntax, and grammar to articulate them? Optimistically, groups who take seriously the exploration of exotic states of consciousness could create a common ground of semantic primitives to be independently verified and used as the building blocks of a language for the “psychedelic medium of thought”.

In this video I present some ideas for a possible “psychedelic language” based on QRI paradigms and recent experience reports. I go over the article “Algorithmic Reduction of Psychedelic States” and the value of breaking the psychedelic experience in terms of a minimal set of “basic effects” whose stacking and composition gives rise to the wild zoo of effects one observes. I point out that algorithmic reductions can have explanatory power even if they do not provide a clear answer about the nature of the substrate of experience. Importantly, since I wrote that article we have developed a far higher-resolution understanding of exotic states of consciousness:

We suggest that a remarkably fruitful strategy for pointing at a whole family of psychedelic effects comes in the form of “field operators” that change the qualitative properties of our experiential fields. I provide a detailed description of what we call the “world-sheet” of experience and how it encodes emotional and semantic content in its very structure. The world-sheet can have tension, relaxation, different types of resonance and buzzing entrainment, twisting, curling, divergence (with vortices and anti-vortices in the attention field-lines), dissonance, consonance, noise, release, curvature, holographic properties, and dimensionality. I explain that in a psychedelic state, you explore higher up regions in the “Hamiltonian of the field”, meaning that you instantiate field configurations with higher levels of energy. There, we observer interesting trade-offs between the hyperbolicity of the field and its dimensionality. It can instantiate fractals of many sorts (in polar, cartesian, and other coordinate systems) by multi-scale entrainment. Time loops and moments of eternity result from this process iterated over all sensory modalities. The field contains meta-data implicitly encoded in its periphery which you can use for tacit information processing. Semantic content and preferences are encoded in terms of the patterns of attraction and repulsion of the attention-field lines. And so much more (watch the whole video for the entire story).

I conclude by saying that a steady meditation practice can be highly synergistic with psychedelics. Metta/loving-kindness can manifest in the form of smooth, coherent, high-dimensional, and consonant regions of the world-sheet and make the experience way more manageable, wholesome, and enriching. Equanimity, concentration, and sensory clarity are all synergistic with the state, and I posit that using “high-dimensionality” as the annealing target may accelerate the development of these traits in everyday life.

Please consider donating to QRI if you want to see this line of research make waves in academia and expand the Overtone Window for the science of consciousness. Funds will allow us to carry out key scientific experiments to validate models and develop technologies to reduce suffering at scale: https://www.qualiaresearchinstitute.org/donate

~Qualia of the Day: The Phenomenal Silence of Each Field Modality~

Further Readings:


That’s it for now!

Until next time!

Infinite bliss!

– Andrés

7 Recent Videos: Rational Analysis of 5-MeO-DMT, Utility Monsters, Neroli, Phenomenal Time, Benzo Withdrawal, Scale-Specific Network Geometry, and Why DMT Feels So Real

5-MeO-DMT: A Rational Analysis at Last (link)

Topics covered: Non-Duality, Symmetry, Valence, Neural Annealing, and Topological Segmentation.

See also:


Befriending Utility Monsters: Being the Adult in the Room When Talking About the Hedonic Extremes (link)

In this episode I connect a broad variety of topics with the following common thread: “What does it mean to be the adult in the room when dealing with extremely valenced states of consciousness?” Essentially, a talk on Utility Monsters.

Concretely, what does it mean to be responsible and sensible when confronted with the fact that pain and pleasure follow a long tail distribution? When discussing ultra-painful or ultra-blissful experiences one needs to take off the glasses we use to reason about “room temperature consciousness” and put on glasses that actually take these states with the seriousness they deserve.

Topics discussed include: The partial 5HT3 antagonism of ginger juice, kidney stones from vitamin C supplementation, 2C-E nausea, phenibut withdrawal, akathisia as a remarkably common side effect of psychiatric medication (neuroleptics, benzos, and SSRIs), negative 5-MeO-DMT trips, the book “LSD and the Mind of the Universe”, turbulence and laminar flow in the “energy body”, being a “mom” at a festival, and more.

Further readings on these topics:


Mapping State-Spaces of Consciousness: The Neroli Neighborhood (link)

What would it be like to have a scent-based medium of thought, with grammar, generative syntax, clauses, subordinate clauses, field geometry, and intentionality? How do we go about exploring the full state-space of scents (or any other qualia variety)?

Topics Covered in this Video: The State-space of Consciousness, Mapping State-Spaces, David Pearce at Oxford, Qualia Enrichment Kits, Character Impact vs. Flavors, Linalool Variants, Clusters of Neroli Scents, Neroli in Perfumes, Neroli vs. Orange Blossom vs. Petigrain vs. Orange/Mandarin/Lemon/Lime, High-Entropy Alloys of Scent, Musks as Reverb and Brown Noise, “Neroli Reconstructions” (synthetic), Semi-synthetic Mixtures, Winner-Takes-All Dynamics in Qualia Spaces, Multi-Phasic Scents, and Non-Euclidean State-Spaces.

Neroli Reconstruction Example:

4 – Linalool
3 – Linalyl Acetate
3 – Valencene
3 – Beta Pinene
2 – Nerolione
2 – Nerolidol
2 – Geraniol Coeur
2 – Hedione
2 – Farnesene
1 – D-Limonene
1 – Nerol
1 – Ambercore
1 – Linalool Oxyde
70 – Ethanol

Further readings:


What is Time? Explaining Time-Loops, Moments of Eternity, Time Branching, Time Reversal, and More… (link)

What is (phenomenal) time?

The feeling of time passing is not the same as physical time.

Albert Einstein discovered that “Newtonian time” was a special case of physical time, since gravity, relativity, and the constancy of the speed of light entails that space, time, mass, and gravity are intimately connected. He, in a sense, discovered a generalization of our common-sense notion of physical time; a generalization which accounts for the effects of moving and accelerating frames of reference on the relative passage of time between observers. Physical time, it turns out, could manifest in many more (exotic) ways than was previously thought.

Likewise, we find that our everyday phenomenal time (i.e. the feeling of time passing) is a special case of a far more general set of possible time-like qualities of experience. In particular, in this video I discuss “exotic phenomenal time” experiences, which include oddities such as time-loops, moments of eternity, time branching, and time reversal. I then go on to explain these exotic phenomenal time experiences with a model we call the “pseudo-time arrow”, which involves implicit causality in the network of sensations we experience on each “moment of experience”. Thus we realize that phenomenal time is an incredibly general property! It turns out that we haven’t even scratched the surface of what’s possible here… it’s about time we do so.

Further readings on this topic:


Benzos: Why the Withdrawal is Worse than the High is Good (+ Flumazenil/NAD+ Anti-Tolerance Action) (link)

Most people have low-resolution models of how drug tolerance works. Folk theories that “what goes up must come down” and theories in the medical establishment about how you can “stabilize a patient on a dose” and expect optimal effects long term get in the way of actually looking at how tolerance works.

In this video I explain why benzo withdrawal is far worse than the high they give you is good.

Core arguments presented:

  1. Benzos can treat anxiety, insomnia, palpitations, seizures, hallucinations, etc. If you use them to treat one of these symptoms, the rebound will nonetheless involve all of them.
  2. Kindling – How long-term use leads to neural annealing of the “withdrawal neural patterns”.
  3. Amnesia effects prevent you from remembering the good parts/only remembering the bad parts.
  4. Neurotoxicity from long-term benzo use makes it harder for your brain to heal.
  5. Arousal as a multiplier of consciousness: on benzos the “high” is low arousal and the withdrawal is high arousal (compared to stimulants where you at least will “sleep through the withdrawal”).
  6. Tolerance still builds up even when you don’t have a “psychoactive dose” in your body – meaning that the extremely long half-life of clonazepam and diazepam and their metabolites (50h+) entails that you still develop long-term tolerance even with weekly or biweekly use!

I then go into how the (empirically false) common-sense view of drug tolerance is delaying promising research avenues, such as “anti-tolerance drugs” (see links below). In particular, NAD+ IV and Flumazenil seem to have large effect sizes for treating benzo withdrawals. I AM NOT CONFIDENT THAT THEY WORK, but I think it is silly to not look into them with our best science at this point. Clinical trials for NAD+ IV therapy for drug withdrawal are underway, and the research to date on flumazenil seems extremely promising. Please let me know if you have any experience using either of these two tools and whether you had success with them or not.

Note: These treatments may also generalize to other GABAergic drugs like gabapentin, alcohol, and phenibut (which also have horrible withdrawals, but are far shorter than benzo withdrawal).

Further readings:

Epileptic patients who have become tolerant to the anti-seizure effects of the benzodiazepine clonazepam became seizure-free for several days after treatment with 1.5 mg of flumazenil.[14] Similarly, patients who were dependent on high doses of benzodiazepines […] were able to be stabilised on a low dose of clonazepam after 7–8 days of treatment with flumazenil.[15]”

Flumazenil has been tested against placebo in benzo-dependent subjects. Results showed that typical benzodiazepine withdrawal effects were reversed with few to no symptoms.[16] Flumazenil was also shown to produce significantly fewer withdrawal symptoms than saline in a randomized, placebo-controlled study with benzodiazepine-dependent subjects. Additionally, relapse rates were much lower during subsequent follow-up.[17]

Source: Flumazenil: Treatment for benzodiazepine dependence & tolerance

Scale-Specific Network Geometry (link)

Is it possible for the “natural growth” of a pandemic to be slower than exponential no matter where it starts? What are ways in which we can leverage the graphical properties of the “contact network” of humanity in order to control contagious diseases? In this video I offer a novel way of analyzing and designing networks that may allow us to easily prevent the exponential growth of future pandemics.

Topics covered: The difference between the aesthetic of pure math vs. applied statistics when it comes to making sense of graphs. Applications of graph analysis. Identifying people with a high centrality in social networks. Klout scores. Graphlets. Kinds of graphs: geometric, small world, scale-free, empirical (galactic core + “whiskers”). Pandemics being difficult to control due to exponential growth. Using a sort of “pandemic Klout score” to prioritize who to quarantine, who to vaccinate first. The network properties that made the plague spread so slowly in the Middle Ages. Toroidal planets as having linear pandemic growth after a certain threshold number of infections. Non-integer graph dimensionality. Dimensional chokes. And… kitchen sponges.

Readings either referenced in the video or useful to learn more about this topic:

Leskovec’s paper (the last link above):

Main Empirical Findings: Our results suggest a rather detailed and somewhat counterintuitive picture of the community structure in large networks. Several qualitative properties of community structure are nearly universal:

• Up to a size scale, which empirically is roughly 100 nodes, there not only exist well-separated communities, but also the slope of the network community profile plot is generally sloping downward. (See Fig. 1(a).) This latter point suggests, and empirically we often observe, that smaller communities can be combined into meaningful larger communities.

• At size scale of 100 nodes, we often observe the global minimum of the network community profile plot. (Although these are the “best” communities in the entire graph, they are usually connected to the remainder of the network by just a single edge.)

• Above the size scale of roughly 100 nodes, the network community profile plot gradually increases, and thus there is a nearly inverse relationship between community size and community quality. This upward slope suggests, and empirically we often observe, that as a function of increasing size, the best possible communities as they grow become more and more “blended into” the remainder of the network.

We have also examined in detail the structure of our social and information networks. We have observed that an ‘jellyfish’ or ‘octopus’ model [33, 7] provides a rough first approximation to structure of many of the networks we have examined.

Ps. Forgot to explain the sponge’s relevance: the scale-specific network geometry of a sponge is roughly hyperbolic at a small scale. Then the material is cubic at medium scale. And at the scale where you look at it as flat (being a sheet with finite thickness) it is two dimensional.


Why Does DMT Feel So Real? Multi-modal Coherence, High Temperature Parameter, Tactile Hallucinations (link)

Why does DMT feel so “real”? Why does it feel like you experience genuine mind-independent realities on DMT?

In this video I explain that we all implicitly rely on a model of which signals are trustworthy and which ones are not. In particular, in order to avoid losing one’s mind during an intense exotic experience (such as those catalyzed by psychedelics, dissociatives, or meditation) one needs to (a) know that you are altered, (b) have a good model of what that alteration entails, and (c) that the alteration is not strong enough that it breaks down either (a) or (b). So drugs that make you forget you are under the influence, or that you don’t know how to model (or have a mistaken model of) can deeply disrupt your “web of trusted beliefs”.

I argue that one cannot really import the models that one learned from other psychedelics about “what psychedelics do” to DMT; DMT alters you in a far broader way. For example, most people on LSD may mistrust what they see, but they will not mistrust what they touch (touch stays a “trusted signal” on LSD). But on DMT you can experience tactile hallucinations that are coherent with one’s visions! “Crossing the veil” on DMT is not a visual experience: it’s a multi-modal experience, like entering a cave hiding behind a waterfall.

Some of the signals that DMT messes with that often convince people that what they experienced was mind-independent include:

  1. Hyperbolic geometry and mathematical complexity; experiencing “impossible objects”.
  2. Incredibly high-resolution multi-modal integration: hallucinations are “coherent” across senses.
  3. Philosophical qualia enhancement: it alters not only your senses and emotions, but also “the way you organize models of reality”.
  4. More “energized” experiences feel inherently more real, and DMT can increase the energy parameter to an extreme degree.
  5. Highly valenced experiences also feel more real – the bliss and the horror are interpreted as “belonging to the vibe of a reality” rather than being just a property of your experience.
  6. DMT can give you powerful hallucinations in every modality: not only visual hallucinations, but also tactile, auditory, scent, taste, and proprioception.
  7. Novel and exotic feelings of “electromagnetism”.
  8. Sense of “wisdom”.
  9. Knowledge of your feelings: the entities know more about you than you yourself know about yourself.

With all of these signals being liable to chaotic alterations on DMT it makes sense that even very bright and rational people may experience a “shift” in their beliefs about reality. The trusted signals will have altered their consilience point. And since each point of consilience between trusted signals entails a worldview, people who believe in the independent reality of the realms disclosed by DMT share trust in some signals most people don’t even know exist. We can expect some pushback for this analysis by people who trust any of the signals altered by DMT listed above. Which is fine! But… if we want to create a rational Super-Shulgin Academy to really make some serious progress in mapping-out the state-space of consciousness, we will need to prevent epistemological mishaps. I.e. We have to model insanity so that we ourselves can stay sane.

[Skip to 4:20 if you don’t care about the scent of rose – the Qualia of the Day today]

Further readings:

“The most common descriptive labels for the entity were being, guide, spirit, alien, and helper. […] Most respondents endorsed that the entity had the attributes of being conscious, intelligent, and benevolent, existed in some real but different dimension of reality, and continued to exist after the encounter.”

Source: Survey of entity encounter experiences occasioned by inhaled N,N-dimethyltryptamine: Phenomenology, interpretation, and enduring effects

That’s it for now!

Please feel free to suggest topics for future videos!

Infinite bliss!

– Andrés