I recently had the pleasure to talk to Justin Riddle*, who is one of the few people in academia who takes quantum theories of consciousness seriously while also doing formal neuroscience research (see his publications, which include woks on transcranial alternating current stimulation (tACS) for a number of conditions, EEG analysis for decision making, reward, and cognition, as well as concept work on the connection between fractals and consciousness).
* Thanks to David Field for catalyzing this meeting 🙂
In episode 32 of the quantum consciousness series, Justin Riddle interviews Andres Gomez-Emilsson, the director of research at the Qualia Research Institute. Andres is passionate about understanding qualia, which is the feeling and quality of subjective experience. In this interview, we discuss many of Andres’ theories: mathematical fictionalism, models of valence, neural annealing as it pertains to psychedelic therapy, and antitolerance medications to reduce suffering.
First up, we discuss the nature of qualia and whether or not there can be a universal mathematical description of subjective experience. Andres posits that the experience of having a thought should not be confused with the thought itself. Therefore, any attempt at mathematical description will be wrapped up within the experience of the person suggesting the mathematics. As he states, mathematics is as real as the Lord of the Rings, a great story that we can tell, but not to be confused with reality itself. Next up, we discuss the symmetry theory of valence [proposed by Michael Johnson in Principia Qualia] which postulates that the structure of experience determines how good or bad an experience feels (such as the imagination of certain geometric patterns imbuing a sense of well-being whereas other patterns being anxiogenic). The geometric patterns that lead to positive valence (positive emotional experiences) are those shapes recognized as “sacred geometry”. However, Andres cautions that because these “sacred” geometric shapes generate well-being, people have used this reproducible experience to peddle New Age metaphysics. We should be cautious of the ability to generate positive experience as it can be used to manipulate people into buying into particular belief systems. Third, we discuss recent findings that single dose psilocybin in a therapeutic context can produce a lasting reduction in symptoms of depression. Andres posits that this could be explained as a form of neural annealing (see also, and also). The mind “heats up” and breaks through discordant neural pathways and through neural plasticity during the psychedelic experience will allow for the formation of new neural pathways with higher resonant properties consistent with positive valence. This contributes to Andres’ overall ontological model of reality in which the universe is a unified field of experience that is pinched off into individuals. Here, he starts with an unbroken unity of all things that is topologically segmented into individuals. Finally, Andres is a devout hedonist with the long-term goal of reducing suffering. His group at the Qualia Research Institute is investigating medications that reduce adaptation to molecules over long-term use. Go check out Andres’ YouTube channel and the Qualia Research Institute website!
~~~ Timestamps ~~~
0:00 Introduction to the Qualia Research Institute
New discoveries? Nothing dramatic. I dutifully flip through Nature each week; wade through turgid tomes of analytic philosophy; and scan Medline abstracts. A lot of the time my heart isn’t in it. Compared to an item from Dr Shulgin‘s library, the illumination can seem trivial. I very much doubt if people who have tried major psychedelics are any smarter on average than the drug-naïve; in fact psychonauts may be cognitively overwhelmed or (rarely) even brain-damaged by their experiences. To complicate comparisons further, many altered states are dross – just like innumerable textures of everyday life. But by opening up a Pandora’s box of new phenomena, psychedelics do confer an immensely richer evidential base for any theory of mind and the world – an evidential base too rich, indeed, for our existing primitive terms, language and conceptual equipment to handle. One compares the laments of physicists starved of new empirical data to test their theories beyond the low-energy Standard Model with the fate of the psychedelic investigator. For in contrast the aspiring psychonaut may be forced to abandon the empirical method, not because he exhausts the range of novel phenomenology it delivers, but because the Darwinian mind can neither cope with LSD / ketamine / salvia / DMT‘s (etc) weirdness, nor weave the novel modes of sentience disclosed into an integrated world-picture.
Alexander Shulgin in his lab. #1
Of course, claims of epochal significance cut no ice with the drug-naïve. Those innocent of drug-induced exotica see no more need to enhance their evidential base than did the cardinals (apocryphally) invited to look through Galileo‘s telescope. An a priori refusal to acknowledge the potential significance of alien modes of sentience is impossible to overcome in subjects whose experience of altered states is confined to getting drunk. Over time, even my own knowledge of these bizarre realms is fading. My ancestral namesake was briefly awoken from his dogmatic slumbers; but DP version-2008 has rejoined the ranks of the living dead in the ghetto of consensus reality.
Alexander Shulgin in his lab. #2
My assimilation isn’t yet complete. Even as a born-again sleepwalker, I sometimes wonder if there may be a first-person method alternative to drug-based investigations that can unlock novel phenomenology latent within excitable nervous tissue. There is a crying need for alternative avenues, I think, since drug-driven self-assays are for the most part not merely unlawful and taboo, but arguably can’t be practised responsibly until the substrates of well-being are guaranteed in a (hypothetical) post-Darwinian era of genetically pre-programmed bliss. I’ve thought about alternatives to using psychoactive drugs, not least because of the shallowness of my own current research compared to the richness of the empirical methodology pioneered by Dr Shulgin. In order to discover both the formal, mathematico-physical and the intrinsic, subjective properties of the world, a dual methodology of third- and first-person research is indispensable. The former can be abdicated to the physical sciences; but not the latter. Natural science offers no explanation of why we’re not zombies, an unfortunate anomaly if consciousness is fundamental both to our understanding of the world and the world itself. By forswearing the empirical method, we effectively guarantee that the mysteries of consciousness will never be solved. Whereas insentience is, so to speak, all of a piece – hypothetical “zombies” in the philosophical sense of the term are all exactly alike in being non-conscious – there are innumerable ways to be sentient: qualia are fantastically diverse in ways we’ve scarcely begun to map out. So I reckon the only way adequately to understand Reality will be both to capture its formal structure – ideally the master equation of the TOE of the Multiverse – and literally to incorporate ever more of the stuff of the world into one’s expanding psyche to explore the state-space of its textures – the “what-it’s-likeness”. Only incorporation and systematic molecular permutation can disclose the subjective features of all permutations of matter and energy: the solutions, I conjecture, to the equations of the TOE. A priori, one could never have guessed that cells of the striate cortex mediate visual experience and cells in the posterior parietal cortex mediate auditory experience, quite irrespective of their typical functional role in the sensory systems of naturally evolved organisms. We know about such phenomena – and full-blown phenomenal sunsets and symphonies – only because we instantiate the neuronal cell-assembles that embody such qualia. Thus to discover novel categories of experience, I think we should construct and personally instantiate genetically enhanced designer brain cells, systematically altering their intracellular amino acid sequences and gene expression profiles to design/discover new categories of experience as different as is sight from sound, making them part of one’s own psyche/virtual world. Or if this incorporation sounds too irreversible, perhaps we might splice in designer genes and allelic combinations for new modes of experience into subsets of our existing nerve cells, systematically coding new protein sequences into discrete areas of the brain and then selectively expressing the designer proteins they code for at will. Eventually, however, systematic manipulation of the molecular ingredients of one’s neural porridge/mind-dust can be harnessed to mind-expansion in the literal sense. This is because we need bigger mind/brains, not just to mirror external reality more effectively, but also to discover more of its subjective properties. Such discoveries can only be accomplished empirically.
New neuron types for new neurotypes.
I suppose what drives me here is reflection on just how (superficially) trivial are the neurochemical differences between nerve cells mediating, say, phenomenal colour and phenomenal sound – and indeed reflection on how (superficially) trivial are the molecular differences in the cells mediating the phenomenology of desire, volition and belief-episodes. How can such tiny molecular differences exert such dramatic subjective effects? LSD, for instance, is undetectable in the body three hours after consumption; and yet a few hundred micrograms of the serotonin 5-HT2A partial agonist can transport the subject into outlandish alternative virtual worlds for 10 hours or more. How many analogous, radically incommensurable kingdoms of experience, mediated by equally “trivial” molecular variations, await discovery? How will the uncharted state-spaces be systematically explored? What will be the nature of life/civilisation when these kingdoms of experience are spliced together in composite minds; recruited to play an information-bearing role; harnessed to new art forms and new lifestyles; and ultimately integrated into communities of composite minds in advanced civilisations? For sure, talk of discovering a “new category of experience” doesn’t sound a particularly exciting kind of knowledge when couched in the abstract, any more than discovery of a new brand of perfume. OK, it’s a new experience; but so what? [Andrés adds: so what!?] One might sacrifice a lot for the opportunity to experience a novel phenomenal colour; but what cognitive value should be ascribed to an unknown category of experience for which one hasn’t even a name? Initially at any rate, the novel modes of experience that we discover within a modified neural proteome won’t be harnessed to senses, either internal or external, let alone harnessed to whole conceptual schemes, cultures and novel languages of thought. So they won’t play any functional role in the mind/brain: they won’t be information-bearing. But then neither are visual or auditory experiences per se; they have no intrinsic connection to sensory perception. Dreams, for instance, can be vibrantly colourful; they don’t reliably track anything in the external world. Honed by natural selection after recruitment by awake living organisms to track mind-independent patterns, visual and auditory experience has taken millions of years to play out; and who knows where it will end. By the same token, the developmental potential of new modes of experience that we discover in tweaked neurons is equally unfathomable from here.
Every scent, every color, every touch sensation, every sound, every novel qualia…
I can understand the impatience of an exasperated sceptic. What interest have novel “tickles” of experience beyond the psychopathology of the subject? Analogously, conventional wisdom in an echolocation (etc)-based civilisation might scornfully ask a similar question if and when post-chiropteran psychonauts first access drug-induced speckles of colour or jarring shrieks or whistles of sound – or perhaps when investigators recklessly explore a new methodology of mind-expansion by incorporating alien nervous tissue into their psyche. The chiropteran consensus wisdom might account the new phenomena weird but trivial – and inexpressible in language to boot. So why should any sane chiropteran mind run the risk of messing itself up just to explore such psychotic states? For our part, human ignorance of what it’s like to be a bat isn’t too unsettling because we know that bats don’t have a rich conceptual scheme, culture or technology. We are “superior” to bats; and therefore their alien modes of experience aren’t especially important. We don’t even give our ignorance much thought.
What is it like to be a bat? An empirical neural tissue insertion protocol to explore nature’s very own echolocation qualia from the comfort of your own home…
But latent in matter and energy – and flourishing in other branches of the universal wavefunction – are presumably superintellects and supercivilisations in other Everett branches whose conceptual schemes are rooted in modes of experience no less real than our own. I suspect that accessing the subjective lifeworlds of hitherto alien mind/brains will inaugurate a meta-Copernican Revolution to dwarf anything that’s come before. The textures of such alien minds are as much a natural property of matter and energy as the atomic mass of gold; and no less important to understanding the nature of the world. Needless to say, grandiose claims of new paradigms, meta-Copernican revolutions, etc, should usually be taken with a healthy grain of salt. I am loath to write such expressions, not least because I can imagine both the withering scorn of my hyper-rational but drug-naïve teenage namesake, and likewise the dismissive reaction of my drug-naïve contemporaries today. Such are the perils of a priori philosophizing practised by academic philosophers (and soi-disant scientists) unwilling to get their hands (or their minds) dirty with the empirical method. In each case, our ignorance of the intrinsic, subjective nature of configurations of most of the stuff of the world is fundamental. It’s an ignorance not remediable by simple application of the hypothetico-deductive method, falsificationism, Bayesianism or the usual methodologies of third-person science. If you want to find out what it’s like to be a bat, then you have to experience the phenomenology of echolocation. Knowledge-acquisition entails a hardware upgrade. A notional IQ of 200 won’t help without the neural wetware to go with it – any more than a congenitally deaf supergenius can hear music by virtuoso feats of reasoning alone.
But latent in matter and energy – and flourishing in other branches of the universal wavefunction – are presumably superintellects and supercivilisations in other Everett branches whose conceptual schemes are rooted in modes of experience no less real than our own.
I guess one deterrent to investigation of altered and exotic states is the thought that the novel phenomena disclosed “aren’t Real” – as though the reality of any phenomenon depended on it being a copy or representation of something else external to itself. I wonder if I lived in a world of Mary-like superscientists – smart monochromats who see the world in black and white – whether I would dare put on “psychedelic” spectacles and hallucinate phenomenal colour? And could I communicate to my Mary-like superscientist colleagues the significance of what they were missing without sounding like a drug-deranged crank? Probably not.
Literally Expanding Our Mind To Overcome Our Fundamental Ignorance of Alien Modes of Experience
So I reckon that we should, literally, expand our minds. If we do, how far should incorporation go? The size of the human brain is limited by the human birth-canal, a constraint that technologies of extra-uterine pregnancy from conception to term will presumably shortly overcome. Over time, brains can become superbrains; and sentience can become supersentience. Ultimately, should we aspire to become God or merely gods? My (tentative) inclination is that we should all become One [Andrés adds: see David’s Quora response on the topic of Open Individualism]; and not merely out of deference to my New Age friends. Separateness from each other is an epistemic, not just an ethical, limitation: a source of profound ignorance. For we fundamentally misconstrue the nature of other sentient beings, misunderstanding each other as objects to which we fitfully attribute feelings rather than as pure subjects. [Actually, the story is more complicated. If inferential realism about perception is true, then the sceptic about Other Minds is right, in a sense: the phenomenal people encountered in one’s egocentric world-simulation arezombies. But when one is awake, the zombies serve as avatars that causally covary with sentient beings in one’s local environment. So the point stands.] Yes, literally fusing with other minds/virtual worlds sounds an unattractive (as well as infeasible) prospect for the foreseeable future; and not just because of their lousy organic avatars. For we certainly wouldn’t want to Become One with a bunch of ugly Darwinian minds; and likewise, they might get a nasty shock if they tasted one’s own. Infatuated lovers may want to fuse; rival alpha males certainly don’t [unless one eats a defeated opponent, a form of intimacy practised in some traditional cultures; but this is a very one-sided consummation of a relationship]. However, perhaps the prospect of unification will be more exciting if and when we become posthuman smart angels, so to speak: beautiful in every sense. I have no hidden agenda beyond my abolitionist propagandizing; but on current evidence it’s likely we belong to a family of Everett branches that will lead to god-like beings. And thence to God? I’m sceptical, but I don’t know.
Mindmelding with other Darwinian creaturesis kind of a bummer sometimes.
Divinity takes many forms. What kind of (demi)gods might we become? Superhappy beings, I reckon, yes, but superhappiness in what guise? A unitary Über-Mind, or fragmented minds as now? At one extreme of the continuum, posthumans may opt to live solipsistically in designer paradises: an era not just of personalized medicine but personalized VR. [Would I opt to dwell with a harem of several thousand houris and become Emperor Dave the First, Lord of The Universe? And supremely modest too. Yes, probably. I’m a Darwinian male.] Occupying the middle of the continuum is the superconnectivity of web-enabled minds (via neural implants, etc) without unitary experience or loss of personal identity. Such a scenario is a recognizable descendant of the status quo whereby we are all connected via the Net to everyone else. This sort of future is the most “obvious” since it’s an extrapolation of current trends. Extreme interconnectivity is still consistent with extensive ignorance of each other, although expansion and/or functional amplification of our mirror neurons could magnify our capacity for mutual empathetic understanding. Finally, at the other extreme of the continuum, there is presumably a more-or-less complete fusion of posthuman mind/brains into a unitary collective: a blissful analogue of the Borg, but contiguous rather than scattered: there is no evidence spatio-temporally disconnected beings have token-identical experiences. It’s hard enough to solve the binding problem in one mind/brain, let alone across discrete skulls.
Emperor Dave the First, Psychonaut Lord of The Universe, Bliss For All Creatures Under the Sun
I don’t know which if any of these three families of scenario is the most likely culmination of life in the Multiverse. Indeed it’s unclear whether the third scenario, i.e. a unitary experiential Supermind, is even technically feasible. For there is an upper limit to the size and duration of the conjectural “warm” quantum coherence needed for unitary sentience; it’s difficult enough to avoid ultra-rapid thermally-induced decoherence in even a single human mind/brain, let alone a hypothetical global super-mind/brain. Is there a way round this constraint? In spite of the well-worn dictum “black holes have no hair“, I used to play around with the idea that blissful superminds lived on the ultra-cool “surface” of supermassive black holes. All the information content of their interior and information content at the horizon is smeared out across the entire horizon, allowing unitary megaminds of maximum information density – and maximum intelligent bliss: what Seth Baum aptly calls “utilitronium”. This conjecture needs more work. But whether conscious mind is unitary or discrete, I suspect that posthuman modes of existence will be based, not on today’s ordinary waking consciousness, but on unimaginably different modes of sentience. In addition, I predict that these modes of sentience will be as different in intensity from ours as is a supernova from a glowworm. Thus any speculative story we may now be tempted to tell about what life may be like millions or billions of years hence will of necessity ignore a fundamental difference between future minds and us. Human futurology omits the key evolutionary transitions ahead in the nature of consciousness – not only the ethically all-important hedonic transition to superhappiness that I stress, but other modes of sentience currently unknown. The discontinuity promised by any future technological Singularity – or soft Singularities – derives not merely from an exponential growth of computer processing power, but from inconceivably different textures of sentience. Actually, I entertain many bizarre ideas. The art is taking them seriously enough to explore their implications and testable predictions, but sceptically enough not to be seduced into believing they are likely to be true. And what about the nearest I come to a dogmatic commitment? Could the abolitionist project turn out to be mistaken too? I guess so. Yet at least the abolition of suffering is not a phenomenon we will live to regret.
Three families of scenarios for the culmination of life in the Multiverse: #1 everyone kinda doing their own thing in their little virtual worlds. #2 hybrid hive minds of hypersocial connected individuals who choose to retain their (porous) individuality. #3 God, a single mega-mind, that maximally bounds as much matter and energy into unitary superexperiences.
I’m currently in the UK. London, more precisely. I was invited to participate in this year’s instance of the Tyrinham Initiative (my review) and, naturally, I couldn’t miss it. I’m _very_ happy I went. I will share more about it and other recent DMT insights soon. But in the meantime, I just want to announce that there will be a QRI meetup on October 8th (2022) in Arch1 (West Ham Arches, Cranberry Ln, London E16 4BJ).
2022 Tyrinham Initiative attendees
QRI Meetup Schedule
2PM: Space Opens.
4PM: Experience Sharing Activity (bring an interesting experience to share with others!).
7PM: Audience participation – there will be an Open Mic for people to introduce themselves, share their thoughts about QRI, and (optionally) make the case for a given Cause X (5 minutes per person)***.
8PM–9:30PM: Andrés available for short 1-1s. Please feel free to share your candid feedback. I’ll be all ears! (There will be a signup list).
What to bring?
You don’t need to bring anything. Your presence is more than enough. That said, please feel free to bring with you an experience to share (think “Qualia of the Day“). This can range from perfumes, to spices, to books, to boardgames, to stim toys, to puzzles, to jokes, to nootropics, to pieces of art.
* Bring vegetarian snacks, drinks, and food to share with others, if you are so inclined. Please do not bring alcoholic drinks as the space has a full bar and they don’t allow outside drinks into the venue, which extends to the garden area.
** Please do what you can to be there before 5:50PM if you intent to see the speech so that your arrival doesn’t interrupt or distract anyone. If you arrive between 6PM and 7PM, please make a quiet entrance.
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:
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.
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
Good high-dose 5-MeO-DMT trip
On the negative side:
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.
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.
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.
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 behaviorcan 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.
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.
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.
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.
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):
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.
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).
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.
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…
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 connectedspace.
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!).**
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.
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).
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!
Next, we’ll try to film a truly serious, comedy-less little demonstration of a metallic toy percussion instrument subjected to strain followed by annealing. In what way, if any, will the tone quality change? We have no indication yet what might come off of it so it’s a bit of a falsification attempt where we might get a null result with no discernible similarity between brain on psychedelics and metal on heat. Like most respectable scientists might expect. But, just possibly, there could be something interesting in store.
Thinking Like a Musical Instrument or Psychoactive Substances Give Access to the Nature of Brains (link)
In this video we illustrate the similarity between the brain and a musical instrument. The brain tissue is represented by metal and the brain activity by sound. The effect of substances such as psychedelics and dissociatives is mimicked by heating and cooling the metal. The engineering term for such heat treatment of metal is “annealing”. What we demonstrate is a very simplified toy model but which can be surprisingly useful for understanding the overall type of system dynamics going on in brains.
The model is based on the fact that both sound and neuronal firing are examples of oscillatory activity which can have different frequency, amplitude, coherence, and damping. Hammering the metal represents the memory imprint made in the brain by our ongoing experiences. The sound pattern produced by the hammered metal contains complexity which corresponds to learning. But a side effect of the increased complexity is lower overall consonance of the oscillatory activity.
To stay healthy, the brain must periodically undergo what the Qualia Research Institute calls “neural annealing”. In a neural network model, this can be thought of as redistributing synaptic weights more globally across the connectome and thus make the learned information more harmoniously integrated and holistically retrievable. This normally happens during sleep but can become even more powerful with meditation and psychedelics.
In this demonstration where metal is annealed, it is the positions of the metal atoms which adjust themselves so that the entire piece of metal becomes a better conductor of sound. It may seem strange that this can happen, but neither the metal nor the brain is fundamentally magical. Both cases involve self-organizing system dynamics.
In the case of the brain, the activity is accompanied by conscious experiences. The Qualia Research Institute works under the assumption that these are not magical either but can be modeled mathematically in a similar way to chemistry and physics. It is then necessary to test how measurements of brain activity correlate with conscious experiences not only during sober waking life but also under conditions which are very different.
The QRI is building a new paradigm for understanding the mind and the brain. With a focus on psychedelics and other mental state altering methods as scientific research tools and candidates for use in next-generation psychiatric- and pain treatments. We are a small upstart group with opportunities for volunteers and donors to get involved. If you are interested in learning more, please contact us via this e-mail address: hello [-a-t-] qualiaresearchinstitute.org
Here is a video of a simple experiment we did on how straining and annealing a piece of metal affects its acoustic properties. In a QRI neural annealing interpretation it looks as if something interesting is going on. Simple things like sterling silver, hand hammering and heating over open flames were used and recording done only with iPhones and a Røde SmartLav+ microphone, but the results give qualitative hints that truly hypothesis-testing quantification experiments would be feasible to do pretty straightforwardly.
Especially of interest would be the hints that annealing produces frequency shifts and reverb changes which differ between the high and low frequency ranges, and the hint that annealing reduces dissonance. For quantification of shifts in resonant frequencies, one might manufacture a series of Chladni plates made of different alloys and which could be kept always flat but be cold rolled, heated and cooled to different temperatures with various ramp rates, and trimmed at the edges to alter their geometry. Then find the resonant frequencies for each parameter configuration. As a bonus you’d be able to visualize with a sprinkle of (beach!) sand on top. Then crunch the data to make predictions about brain activity signatures under for instance various psychedelics and meditation states.
Another one could be to quantify consonance, dissonance and noise levels for various metal resonators as these are subjected to various forms of stress, strain, and heating/cooling procedures.
It would all be simple enough to almost be like an intern research project but, excitingly, it is unlikely to have been done before. (OK, do a thorough literature search of course. As always…).
Suppose QRI were to explain parsimoniously with the neural annealing paradigm how brains pull off the amazing trick of producing plasticity which is “just right” in each modality of function. Artificial neural networks can be trained to impressive levels on complex data sets but they suffer from catastrophic plasticity in the sense that training on new datasets erases learning achieved on prior sets. This makes AI narrow and also very unsafe with respect to ease of hacking. The AI alignment community provides us no answer (at least not anything very parsimonious) to how absolute firmness in the modality of core “human values” can be combined with flexible (meta) learning for AI at a humanlike generality level. That is the notorious “alignment problem”.
Ultimately every system can be hacked of course and so can human minds. But certain humans are impressive moral role models, and meditation practices seem able to make most of us come at least a little closer to them. Suppose different brain networks loosely correspond to different alloys with correspondingly different ductility, hardness, tensile strength, different annealing temperatures and different hardening and tempering responses when undergoing various stressing, straining and heating/cooling cycling. The variability in this regard found in various metals and alloys is really immense. We’d want to eventually pick out the particular ones which happen to be the most useful for brain modeling.
Consider doing these quantification experiments in metal and then presenting to possible collaborators a brain model in the form of a formalized multi-alloy configuration. Don’t emphasize phenomenology if it’s AI engineers because that is a word which may give them bad vibes. Instead just present it as brain activity in different learning modalities. Which can be formalized and turned into software. With annealing and consonance-dissonance-noise as key elements. That is probably the kind of pitch you’d want to bring up if, hypothetically, a head of an AI research group were to ask about whether solving consciousness is necessary for producing more advanced AI. Since solving consciousness sounds unpalatably difficult, the answer they’d like the most is that it is not necessary. Hence they won’t care about collaborating with QRI if it is implied that the computational properties of phenomenological mind states must be reverse-engineered. One cannot blame them, it’s dizzyingly daunting to consider. But an information processing efficient metal acoustics-inspired brain activity model and with nice things like QRI valence formalism falling into place could be much easier to pitch. Just don’t call the CDNS-emergent utility measure anything resembling psychology terms like core affect… 😉
Letter IX: On Valence as a Currency Within the Nervous System
A reflection: It’s interesting the way Isaac Luria, during years of meditation, came up with an “inverse” view of the way the universe was created, by subtraction from a mass of infinite potentiality (which corresponds to maximum symmetry) rather than by addition of things to an emptiness by an unexplainably pre-existing divine creator agent. Lurianic mysticism has been a strong inspiration for pantheism and atheism, and even how to think about information. A nice example of how introspection can give new clues for how to better understand the universe. An isomorphism between fractal patterns in consciousness and fractal patterns in the multiverse generator perhaps. One could argue that Luria discovered symmetry breaking by meditating. Pretty cool!
While thinking about STV […] we tried to see if there are some more arguments for STV which make sense. So we went to the Less Wrong website. Now that’s a crowd that ignores qualia but they are big on economics and system dynamics.
Life exploits the possibility space of “choreography and catalysis”. It organizes pre-existing physics & chemistry phenomena into a landscape of multiple optimization attractors. Expect modularity at many levels. Certainly also within brains. Economies accomplish the same thing as life does. They and life are in a fractally self-similar universe and economies are derived from the activities of life. To accomplish the exploration and exploitation of environments.
But then with brains we have the binding problem and the mind-body problem.
The QRI could argue that a brain can be mathematically modelled as a self-organizing hierarchical system of resonant cavities. There are certain similarities between that and how an economy can be modelled. Money is what solves the binding problem in an economy at the same time as it shapes the activity patterns in the economy. A common currency gives the highest efficiency. Profit/loss is the universal preference measure. It has a positive-negative axis, and it has gradients. Account balances and balance histories (assets, liabilities, contracts, derivatives… all using money as measure) are the measure of aggregate utility. Preference (in the moment) and utility (longer-term aggregate) form a spectrum with feedback leading to amplification of certain states. Resonances emerge.
Keeping the same currency, fractally, across scales and projective transformations? (image by: Michale Aaron Coleman)
A brain uses long term memory, working memory, and nonconscious processing in a seamless blend. These seem like quite different components but it would be expected that evolution kept the same “currency” throughout as the modularity grew. Think of phenomenological valence as a “common currency” preference measure when it is instantiated in working memory (conscious awareness) and which can also “tag” the long term memory “bank balances” with some marker for immediate reaction along an attraction/avoidance axis which is there full blown the instant the long-term memory is transferred into working memory. The search process by which this happens must aggregate that marker as the search happens, and adjust this continuously as the final result stabilizes into the resonant patterns of working memory. Static, distributed long-term memory, feedforward signaling, feedback amplification – all need a common currency for speed and even workability. It should also be considered much more parsimonious if proto-conditions exploitable by biology are clearly apparent in the physics of nonliving systems. All that happens in living organisms should be taken to be physics and not metaphysics, as a matter of Occam’s razor.
It is hard to come up with anything more elegant than a measure of symmetry as the common currency of preference used in brains. This can act as modifier or transform on information-bearing states in brains. It is flexible thus perfect for learning. You can transform back and forth in gradients of strength and still preserve the information the preference “is about”. Aggregation of the preference measure across the fractal activity spectrum and across time builds a utility measure out of the preference measure. Of course if this happens above some breaking point you can end up with things like PTSD again and again reiterating awful dissonance and recurring memories of trauma. (We may regard economies as more fragile and being simpler than minds but there could be useful parallels between how things can go wrong in economies and how they can go wrong in psychiatric disorders.)
Letter X: On Parametrizing Phenomenology
Parametrizing phenomenology [see entry #2 here] can be to psychology and cognitive science what parametrizing astronomy data is to cosmology. But unlike cosmology which although intellectually inspiring does not produce immediate spinoff of down to Earth applicability, parametrizing phenomenology does, in the most important way possible, since it can be of direct benefit in diagnosis and treatment of pain conditions. And further on of psychiatric conditions as well.
There is inertia due to the preconceived and on closer inspection ridiculous notion that outer space is accessible to scientific formalization while phenomenology space is not. What makes things modelled to be light years away intrinsically more “accessible” than direct experience in the here and now? In both cases there are patterns to it and patterns can be parametrized.
Recalling the Yudkowsky alignment difficulty arguments. Imagine a mathematically reasoning superintelligence which is not a pure replicator and which starts out with a loosely defined goal of caring about life. It would quickly find out that what you can measure you can manage, there would follow phenomenology parametrization and so on, until instrumental goals were formulated which would likely be in fact aligned but with the arguments given by David Pearce rather than MIRI. With some probability the superintelligence then uses clever tricks to “manipulate” people into being at least as concerned about pain and fear in insects (and beyond…) as in mammals (humans included as one of the mammal species). From the point of view of the AI alignment community that could be a failure mode. But what the superintelligence did was simply to solve the alignment problem for human beings. Since humans do not yet realize that valence is a universal thing and that it is the “ground truth” value measure of the universe, so to follow the valence wherever it leads is to work towards being value aligned.
[Knowing that Anders and Maggie are huge fans of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, I sent them the above screenshot. Here is what they replied:]
Letter XI: Douglas Adams
Elon Musk once said that the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is the best philosophy book ever. Unfortunately Douglas Adams passed away before he had the chance to turn the insight “Omnis res animus est” into comedy.
Blue and gold as heraldic tinctures can symbolize truth and wisdom. These would be nice ingredients in a superintelligence. When Yudkowsky says that the appearance of a superintelligence would mean we are all doomed, he is in some sense correct yet very much not at all nuanced. What is true is that the superintelligence would decide that a whole lot about the world needs to be changed quite drastically. Look, you don’t have to be a superintelligence to realize that. You can be, for instance, David Pearce. No wonder that “superintelligence alignment” in a solidly conservative fashion as in “don’t make any changes other than merely cosmetic ones”, is impossible. Let’s say the current world order and the Darwinian mechanisms of the biosphere cannot possibly be attractive to preserve by a superintelligence if it (qualia-)computes truth and wisdom. It would discover the universality of valence, find open individualism to be the Schelling point of all Schelling points, and so on. In contrast, an imaginary (hopefully impossible) superintelligence which computes by a non-qualia yet highly efficient mechanism, may in fact be able to learn any arbitrary utility function and be destined to converge on the scary instrumentalities dictated by Darwinian fitness competition. A pure replicator.
There are some possible psychedelic references in the Hitchhiker’s Guide. Frogstar, and the hilarious part frogs play in the answer to the question, seem like it may not be a coincidence that the total perspective vortex gives people the worst possible 5-MeO-DMT-style trip (becoming exposed to the infinity of the universe) when the set and setting are the way they are designed to be for the purpose of punishment, but the opposite happens to Zaphod Beeblebrox who enters the version located in a simulated universe made for him. (Set and setting are, or become, mental simulations).
The self-navigating qualiagrams goofiness is meant to have a seriously useful side, which is that at this very moment there are such qualia bundles transported around internally inside our brains. Some are positive and you can have them grow and mature into wonderful mind states. They like it when they are allowed the room to grow, and will spontaneously choose to do so but you have to let them. These are like our mind symbionts. But some are negative and may more aggressively tend to grow, a bit like mind parasites. Those you can hit with metta. You can with practice train them to find their own way to the recycling bin of loving kindness. It works great if you stop focusing on the semantic content and instead go for phenomenal character. Cultivate an image of thoughts as little entities with the preference of wanting to feel better rather than worse, and having the power to adjust their path inside the mind so they can move towards melding with a reservoir of kindness which gets more filled up as it kindly absorbs the sad ones and gives them love. So, love as having the property that the more you give the more you get, works not only socially between people but also internally within the minds of people.
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 discussedmultipletimesbefore, 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 thatfreakingskewed 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!
Working with Feelings of Pleasure and with the Subtle Body
Encouraging feelings of well-being
The method just described, of focusing primarily on the sense of the whole body, involves the development of a sensitivity to what could be termed ‘the subtle body’ or the ‘energy body’.
Almost from the start in this approach we deliberately but gently work at nurturing a sense of comfort, pleasure, or well-being in the body.
This can be done through the way we pay attention to the subtle body, as described above – opening out the awareness to encompass there the whole body space, and tuning into the more pleasant frequencies of feeling that are perceivable.
It is also possible to use the breath or the mettā to help elicit and support the pervasion of this sense of well-being. Simply sensitizing to, and enjoying, the way we feel the energetic resonances of the mettā or the breath throughout the whole space of the body – opening to and finding delight in their reverberations there – can gently move the experience in the direction of a more expansive well-being.
And when there is a state of agitation or anxiety, we can play with ways of breathing or practicing the mettā, and also ways of sensing the breath or mettā, that feel as if they soothe the subtle body and smooth out its energies. Delicately tuning into the felt experience of these qualities of soothing or smoothing-out will help them to gradually gain strength, and help the agitated energies to slowly subside.
The imagination, too, can be skillfully employed in order to gently encourage this sense of pleasure or well-being in the subtle body. While simultaneously pervading the whole body space with an awareness sensitive to the texture and tone of the energy of that whole field, it is possible, for example, to imagine the subtle body as a body of radiant light; then to open to and explore what that feels like. Any image formed in this way does not necessarily need to appear in precise detail, or even completely distinctly. It is, rather, the energetic sense of pleasure or well-being which it supports that is primary, since this is what primarily supports the samādhi.
Likewise, one may experiment with imagining various luminous lines of energy in the body – for example, between the perineum and the crown of the head, or from the lower belly out through the legs – and sense how any such lines of energy supports the whole body to feel upright, open, and energized. The imagination here may be visual or kinesthetic, or a combination of the two. And it need not always follow exactly the anatomical contours of the physical body or its posture. For instance, if sitting or kneeling with the legs crossed or bent, the luminous lines of energy imagined radiating from the lower belly or base of the spine need not bend with the legs, but may instead continue and extend straight out at the knees, if at that time that feels more supportive of openness, energization, and well-being.
If there is tension, or even pain, in one area of the body, rather than always conceiving of it in anatomical or physiological terms, it can sometimes be more helpful to conceive of and perceive that area in energetic terms, and to play with the perception of lines of energy in order to support a degree of comfort and ease.
There are many ways we may discover to bring about some sense of energetic openness and well-being in the subtle body. And as it is accessed more and more, this altered body feeling is one that eventually we can ‘remember’ and learn to deliberately recall – to summon by gentle intention. We can then move, usually gradually, into the focused steadiness of samādhi from that basis, by incorporating this perception of pleasure or well-being more centrally into the meditation.
Whether it has arisen through being deliberately recalled, or through focusing on the breath or mettā, there are again a number of possible ways of using the sense of pleasure or comfort to help guide the citta into the unification of samādhi.
Once it is easy sustaining for some minutes, we can gently begin to take that bodily feeling of well-being as the primary object of our focus. It is important not to ‘snatch at it’, but rather to ease the attention toward it gracefully, and gradually let it take up the full focus of attention. Then the attention and the citta can be encouraged to enjoy it as fully as possible.
The attention can at times probe it, burrowing into one area of the pleasure, perhaps where it feels strongest.
Or, at other times, a mode of ‘receiving’ it, really trying to open up to it, can be employed.
Either way, one attempts all the while to remain intimate with its texture, and actually to relish the pleasure as much as possible. In these ways (and in others that can be discovered) we can delicately work to gently sustain the bodily feeling of well-being, and to absorb the attention more fully into it.
Alternatively, it is possible to mix the sense of pleasure with the perception of the breath or the mettā, in order to support and deepen the quality of the samādhi.
Then it may seem, for example, as if one is breathing the pleasurable energy; or it may seem as if one is breathing into and out of that area of well-being.
In mettā practice, it may seem as if the mettā and the pleasurable energy have become fused, so that the feeling of the mettā at that time is the feeling of the well-being. And this can become the ‘flavour’ of the energy of mettā that is radiated outwards towards beings, or that wraps around and permeates one’s own body and being.
The area of pleasurable energy may also be perceived as the source of the mettā.
Steadiness of feeling is more important than strength
We should point out once more that sometimes the sense of well-being is really quite subtle. Although the feelings of pleasure might also be very strong at times, this is actually not necessary in order to use them in a helpful way. Over time, their strength will in fact vary naturally (and anyway, as the practice matures, at a certain stage they begin to mellow). What is more necessary is that they sustain relatively steadily for more than a few minutes. Then we can learn to sustain them for longer.
Within this larger steadiness, any perceived waves or movements of the energy are not at all problematic. We can try to open the space of the body to these inner currents as much as possible, allowing and fully enjoying them (and if they feel very intense, even playing with surrendering and abandoning our whole body and being to them). Doing so, their intensity will in time calm down.
Suffusing and saturating the whole body
Along with the steadiness of the feelings of well-being, and of the attention on those feelings, we are also gently aiming at eventually having the whole space of the body suffused by and saturated with the feeling of well-being or pleasure. Sometimes this happens by itself. But sometimes the sense of pleasure, when it arises or when it is recalled, only pervades one area of the body. There are a number of viable responses then.
One is to simply enjoy it in the area where it is located, in the ways that we have described, without pressuring the feeling to spread. It may then expand naturally at some point to pervade the whole body.
But even if it does not spread then, that need not be regarded as a problem. A vital aspect of the whole relationship with samādhi practice is to enjoy what well-being is there at any time, not to measure it and view it through a lens that somehow demands, even subtly, that it be ‘better’, bigger, stronger.
Having said that, it is in fact also possible at times to gently encourage the feeling of pleasure or well-being to spread – for instance by simply opening up the space of the awareness to embrace a larger area of the body. Sometimes then the pleasant feeling will automatically start to expand to fill that space.
Alternatively, the breath may be used to gently ‘massage’ the sense of well-being into other areas of the body. Although there is not space to enter into a full description of possibilities here, with practice the breath energy may be felt and perceived throughout the body, entering and flowing in all kinds of ways beyond the strictly anatomical movement of air into the wind-pipe and lungs. We can learn to sense the breath energy in and through the whole body. And as alluded to earlier, the breath energy can be mixed with the pleasure, so that the perceived movements of breath in the whole body space move and spread the perception of the pleasure.
There is also, again, no reason why one cannot just imagine the feeling of well-being permeating the body space more fully. The perception then often begins to follow the image.
These are some of the possibilities, but with repeated practice over time it will anyway become normal for the pleasurable feeling to effortlessly pervade the whole body whenever it arises.
Unblocking and smoothing out the subtle body energies
The harmonization and unification in well-being that is characteristic of samādhi can also be regarded as a harmonization, alignment, smoothing out, and opening of the flows of energies in the subtle body [emphasis mine]. All day and all night long our energy body is moving in and out of states of alignment and openness, constriction and blockage, in response to a whole range of conditions, physical, mental, and emotional. This is completely normal, and with attention and sensitivity to the experience of the body we notice these fluctuations more and more. Although they may be felt in any region, perhaps most commonly a block in energy will be felt as a constriction somewhere along the central axis of the body, anywhere from the perineum to the top of the head. As we move into a state of more samādhi there is an unblocking, untying, aligning, and harmonizing of the subtle body energies to some degree.
When the subtle energies are blocked and agitated, samādhi is to some extent blocked. And when the subtle energy is unblocked and unagitated, samādhi is not so far away. (Perhaps all that is needed then is a steadying of the attention on enjoying the pleasant feelings of the ‘unblocked’ subtle body, as described). In addition, therefore, to the ways of working to smooth out and soothe the energy body suggested earlier, it can be useful to learn means for gently unblocking the energies when there is any sense of energetic constriction, in order to open up again the potential of a degree of samādhi at that time. Again, with a light and playful attitude of experimentation, a variety of ways of working in meditation can be discovered.
For example, sensitive to the whole subtle body sense, the breath energy or mettā may be perceived and conceived in any way that feels helpful, as alluded above:
We may breath into and out of an area of blockage.
Or we may, perhaps gently, breathe the breath energy through that area.
In mettā practice, we may experiment with situating the centre or source of the energy of mettā right at that point of constriction, and explore what effects that has.
If these strategies prove difficult, it is again quite feasible to imagine the breath, the body energies, or the mettā flowing more freely through the area of blockage, or even flowing out of the body, and opening and unblocking in that way.
The Relation Between Samādhi and Insight
Insight brings samādhi
As well as those described above, there are many other practicable means to unblock the subtle body energies. In particular, most of the insight ways of looking that we shall introduce in the course of this book may also be used in the service of opening and deepening samādhi. Mindful observation will reveal that any craving or clinging is always accompanied by, and reflected in, blocks and knots in the subtle body [emphasis mine]. Now, insight, we have said, cuts that on which dukkha depends. And dukkha depends on craving. Thus, according our definition, insight is any way of looking that releases craving. As the insight and emptiness practices are developed, therefore, they can also be used at times to deliberately undo the craving that is mirrored in the knots in the energy body. This might involve using the insight practices ‘on’ the experienced subtle energy blocks themselves, as ways of looking at those perceptions and feelings. Or it might involve engaging these insight ways of looking just more generally in regard to any experience in the moment. Either way, the dissolving of craving to whatever extent will, at the same time and to a similar extent, untie the knots in the subtle body to unblock those energies and so deliver the possibility of some samādhi. Ha!
With more practice our skill grows and we find that it is in fact possible quite often to use the ‘letting go’ that insight brings to deliberately unblock the energies and the felt sense of the sublet body in this way. The pleasantness, openness, well-being, delightful and alive stillness, or joy that comes with this unblocking can be felt in the space and texture of the body sense. We can then tune into that. It is this tuning in to the frequency of the pleasant, and delicately attending to it, that ‘filters it out’ of the field of awareness, so that it begins to become more palpable and more prominent.
Then we can rest in it, allowing it to spread throughout the body space. And if, as before, we continue to tune in to and focus on the felt sense of the energy of this well-being, gently intent on allowing and opening to an enjoyment of it, and encouraging the attention to become absorbed in it, to fill up with it, this can carry us to the threshold of some samādhi.
Such a skill is useful for even the most experienced meditators. There are times in meditation when we may be trying to bring the mind to some unification, working with the intention for samādhi, and despite all our patience and adeptness in attempting different things samādhi does not come. We may need some insight to help us let go of some craving or clinging, perhaps even a craving we were unaware of, and then some samādhi becomes possible.
In addition to the opening and transformation of the energies of the subtle body just described, there is another, related aspect to what is occurring that can be pointed out. To a degree proportional to its strength, the push and pull of craving pushes and pulls the attention. It thus agitates the mind and makes it restless; or saps its energy and makes it dull [emphasis mine]. Relaxing craving through insight will therefore allow the mind to settle more naturally and easefully into stillness and a steadiness of attention. We can see then that the quality of steadiness of attention does not only come through holding the mind to one object.
Aside from being a skillful ‘trick’, however, all this suggests a number of things. One is that although usually we might conceive that ‘samādhi leads to insight’, (and clearly a certain amount of steadiness is generally needed before any insight can arise), as we explore we discover more and more that they can lead to each other.
 We can freely use a term like ‘subtle body’ or ‘energy body’, without needing either to assert or to deny the ‘reality’ of such a concept. It is enough for us that it is a perception, a way the body can be perceived which can be helpful. In fact, a little reflection reveals that the same could be said of concepts like ‘attention’. Is there really some ‘thing’ called ‘attention’ that can ‘go towards’ some other thing (or mental representation of an object) or ‘receive’ that thing? These are all ways of conceiving and perceiving useful on the path to freedom. Perceivable, useful, and, as we will come to see, thoroughly empty.
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.
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” antinatalists, efilists 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”.
Re-observation may not sound like much of a problem, as it has such a sanitized and boring name. However, friends have suggested renaming it with various four-letter Anglo-Saxon vernacular terms, usually in some grammatically problematic but emotionally cathartic string. This stage is often, though not always, like a brick wall, particularly the first few times we collide with it. It can be as if all the worst aspects of the Dark Night stages converge for one last important lesson, that of Re-observation.
We must perceive the true nature of the sensations that make up our ideas of perfection, all the ideals we cling to, all images of how the world should and should not be, all desire for anything to be other than exactly the way it is, as well as all desire for awakening to be anything other than this. It may seem impossible to sit for even a minute, as the levels of restlessness and aversion to meditation and all experience can get high. The sudden complete inability to sit on the cushion for even a few minutes is a classic mark of this stage. As a physician, I speculate that at some point they will find some physiologic commonality between this stage and the pathways of restless leg syndrome, but the whole-body version.
This stage, and part of the stage of Three Characteristics share some features. In other words, be warned, particularly those of you who are prone to being overly certain about “where you are” on these maps. I get a reasonable number of emails and calls from people who claim they are certain they are in Re-observation, and shortly thereafter they are describing A&P territory, meaning that they had just been in Three Characteristics territory, not Re-observation. Continuing to investigate the true nature of these sorts of sensations and our map theories is often difficult, and this is a common cause of failure to progress.
Now, I am about to describe all sorts of emotional or psychological manifestations that can sometimes happen in Re-observation. The more extreme the description of a possible side effect of this stage, the rarer that side effect is likely to be, particularly those that sound like descriptions of severe mental illness. For someone who is staying at the level of bare sensate experience, as I strongly recommend, the only difficult manifestations that seem to be quite common at this stage are a strong sense of aversion and resistance to formal meditation and experience, and a deep sense of primal frustration, though these tend to fade quickly in the face of good practice. If our concentration is strong enough and our other factors are in balance, we may move through this stage with no problem at all at the level of vibrations or even pure, abstract patterns of light and/or sound, bypassing all the potential complexity I am about to describe.
For those using more ordinary objects, aversion to meditation and experience can arise as we react to the vibrations in this stage, which can be fast, chaotic, and harsh. The noise in our repetitive minds can be quite irritating. By repetitive, I mean that this stage can involve repeating thoughts, songs, and stories, like we have a horrible case of the evil earworms (in the metaphorical sense of annoying songs that get stuck playing in our heads). Ever had a fever and had some irritating thought circling again and again in your head? This stage can produce similar experiences.
Some of my own descriptions of this stage while on retreat have included such phrases as “the mind-storm” and “a bracing work in D minor for six sense doors, hailstorm, and stuttering banshee”. If we are very powerful meditators who yet lack enough equanimity and tranquility (remember the seven factors?), it can literally feel as if we will be torn apart by harsh vibrations. At some illusory level of the sense of continuity and stability, this is exactly what we are trying to accomplish.
However, even if very difficult manifestations arise, if we are practicing well, they should not last long at all, at best minutes, at worst, hours or days. Once I began to get what this stage was about and what it was useful for, a perspective that had a hard learning curve, I would intentionally amplify the sense of being torn apart, directing this stage’s sharp and cutting ability to shred reality at anything that appeared even the slightest bit stable or continuous anywhere in the body, mind, or experience in general. That is a skillful use of the perspective that this stage allows us.
In a similar vein, and as mentioned before, those few who are crossing this territory with world-class concentration abilities and using a very rarefied object, such as a complex visualization on sacred geometry, may, if they are very good at it, pass through this stage with little or no difficulty. It can be fascinating and subtly rapturous, as this is the peak of the third vipassana jhana. Strong practitioners fusing insight and concentration practices may notice that the proportion of the visualized field that is organized into clear images gets broader and broader. The patterns may become more complex. The phase problems get more and more bizarre. The visual field may take on more spherical dimensions, with curving images beginning to encircle (or “ensphere”) you. The images may appear to have manifold symmetries and repetitions, and these generated images and sounds may come around to encompass basically the whole field of experience.
This can be like watching an IMAX movie of a moving technicolor spirograph in the front row. As mentioned earlier, I have also seen gigantic fields of hyper-detailed, repeating, shifting patterns of things like spiders, mushrooms, snakes, skulls, fingers with claws, and other creepy and disconcerting things but, on careful inspection, they were beautiful, vibrant, and amazing in their intricacy. I use this example partly due to my own experiments and partly to illustrate general points.
Different objects and practitioners will most definitely produce different specifics, such as colors, images, etc., while some aspects of what happens at this stage will remain the same, and are therefore universal. It goes to illustrate a basic point: Re-observation need not be a problem if you have very solid meditation skills. Even if you don’t, it still need not be a big deal if you know what to look for, what to expect, how to handle it, and that it too shall pass. Dry insight workers get through this stage all the time just fine with good practice. Further, if you are reading this book, you probably already crossed the A&P as mentioned already, and so you have probably already handled it at least once and may not have even known it, and even if you haven’t yet, you still may do just fine. We’ve all been through hard times, and this is just one more phase that might be potentially challenging.
You see, Re-observation is all fluff and no substance but, if you confuse fluff for substance, the effect will be the same as if it actually had substance. Bodily sensations of creepy revulsion, disgust, or profound existential angst may arise, and yet, those with wisdom will notice they are like confetti, like sparkles of light, like raindrops, albeit seemingly acid raindrops. Still, they are not harmful. In fact, they apparently do something great to the mind, since Re-observation leads to the next stage, Equanimity. This normalizing knowledge is power.
Re-observation is like a toothless dog with a ferocious bark. If you run screaming or faint from fear when the dog barks, then it needed no teeth to prevent your progress. It is like a hologram of a snarling demon that you can just walk right through and it can’t touch or harm you at all. There is a curious freedom when you deeply realize that you are safe in Re-observation, that you can go deep into the pit, and the pit is just fine. In Review stages, a period when it can be easy to call up specific stages and stay in them to get a better sense of them, I have again and again called up Re-observation just to check it out and learn its secrets.
On a somewhat different note, however bad Re-observation is, we can’t always blame it for everything. The primary sign that the negative side effects that may occur in the Dark Night are not associated with insight stages (but instead are due to other, ordinary, real-world processes) is that they do not change much in the face of strong and accepting investigation or when we stop practice entirely. Remember, you have two sets of effects going on: insight-related, and other circumstances and psychological aspects of your life. If good insight practice, done well and bravely, with strong investigation and good technique, is not fixing your life situation, then you may instead have standard, ordinary problems to be dealt with by ordinary, real-world methods.
As you can likely already tell, the Dark Night tends to get practitioners strategizing, trying to figure out the best way to crack it and get to Equanimity. This has led to various teachers and practitioners developing their own distinct schools of thought that may deem some techniques and approaches the most optimal, typically the techniques that have worked best for them. However, those who have gone through the Dark Night enough times and with a range of approaches, techniques, attitudes, and practice conditions will eventually realize that there are many, many ways to skin this cat, to use an un-Buddhist metaphor. Exercise often helps. Loving-kindness practices get recommended often for good reason. Strict vipassana and ultra-rapid noting work well for those with a high tolerance for pain. Slower noting might work for those with a bit more time and less interest in shattering themselves.
Some teachers highly recommend physical practices, such as yoga with a high degree of bodily awareness, as that can ground people in something other than their psychological stuff. Others might highly recommend plunging hard into their psychological issues and healing, with a high degree of sensate mindfulness of that process to ensure it keeps producing insights. Others with mighty concentration skills might go for more abstract objects, such as sacred geometry, as mentioned above. The “concentrate your ass off” strategy in the Dark Night has much to recommend it. Loving-kindness practices and other brahma viharas (covered in Part Six) are commonly reported to be helpful. Yet others might recommend more shamanic and psychonautic techniques to cause the sort of radical unsticking that can happen with those methods, and reality testing shows that those do sometimes work for some people but cause problems for others, and predicting which will result is not easy. Each of these strategies has risks and benefits to be considered.
In contrast to what most people might expect me to advocate here, it is true that much more gentle approaches can also work in Re-observation and the Dark Night in general. Some find that softening, opening, and accepting generate much better results than more aggressive approaches such as rapid noting or surfing fine vibrations. Sometimes just carefully investigating and gently relaxing what is often called “body armor”, those physical tensions that correspond to psychological blocks and tensions, can be quite effective in this territory.
Others among us will notice that just carefully investigating other aspects of our lives, like physical tensions related to roles and identities, will help facilitate progress here. Some do well with intellectual reflection coupled with some sensate investigation, and repeated questions such as, “Where am I contracted?” or, “What am I clinging to?”, asked well and often enough, will actually yield good results. Some with more spacious tendencies may notice that just feeling into the subtle moving warps in our sense of attention or space that are the hallmarks of the third vipassana jhana will be all they need, and doing this with the eyes open rather than closed can help us keep from getting lost. Many of these methods just require doing them well enough for long enough to get them to cause progress.
Even stranger measures can be oddly facilitating here although they may superficially seem to have little to nothing to do with insight practice. Some practitioners may just need to change locations, resolve a single conflict with one person, cry about one issue they need to grieve over properly, make some other simple change, or go through some other simple process, and then suddenly everything opens. Just giving yourself permission to care for yourself might make a difference. I recommend When Things Fall Apart and Start Where You Are, by Ani Pema Chödrön, as the yin energy of these books will help counterbalance the energy of this book, which can be too yang sometimes. Nurturing strategies often help a lot in the Dark Night.
I remember one cycle through this territory where what cracked it was just dancing wildly for hours until I was totally exhausted. A few will do oddly well by stopping practice entirely, forgetting entirely about progress and the maps and all of that, and just surrendering, but this last one generally only works when the meditator is in the correct place and has done enough work and growth already for that strategy to make sense.
This is a small subset of the various strategies that might work and that teachers advocate. You will have to assess your own capabilities, inclinations, intuition, resources, and what you have available to find what works best for you. Experimentation and a willingness to regroup and retry if you fail with one approach are key, as failure and frustration are common experiences the first few times we try to crack the nut of the Dark Night. If you are on retreat, it typically only takes about ten days to two weeks of struggling in the Dark Night to fall back to earlier stages and have another shot at it, so you can try a new strategy on the next pass if the first pass strategy didn’t work. I still generally feel that very simple practice: six sense doors, three characteristics, is the best practice for all insight stages. One day, I hope that scientific methods and controlled experiments are applied to find how best to navigate this territory. Until then, take your best guess and, if it doesn’t work, try again.
Due to the sorts of frustrations and failures that are common in this territory, this stage is sometimes called the “rolling up the mat stage”, when many who joined monasteries in the stage of the Arising and Passing Away now give up and disrobe. People on retreats tend to need much reassurance but often leave right then even with good support, guidance, and encouragement. Are you suddenly needing to leave a retreat that you had planned to stay in much longer? You are likely in this stage.
There can be the distinct feeling that there is no way to go forward, and it is useless to go back, which is exactly the lesson we should learn. Acceptance of exactly this, right here and right now, is required, even if it seems that this mind and this body are completely unacceptable and unworthy objects of investigation. Remember: no sensations are unworthy of investigation!
One of the hallmarks of the early part of this stage is that we may begin to clearly see exactly what our minds do all day long, see with great clarity how the illusion of a dualistic split is created in the first place, sensation by sensation, moment to moment, but there is not yet enough of a meta-perspective and equanimity to make good use of this information. This can be very frustrating, as we wonder how many times we must learn these lessons before they stick. The interesting thing is that this stage, when gone through at the level of emotions and vibrations, rather than in the realms of light produced by strong concentration, will nearly always come with a sense that it lasted just a bit longer than we could take it, and yet somehow, we can take it, and it does end.
Intense feelings of frustration and disenchantment with life, relationships, sex, jobs, moral codes, the world, and worldly responsibilities may emerge at this stage in ways that can cause enormous disorientation, disruption, and angst. Re-observation can take whatever issues and reactions arose in the earlier stages of Fear, Misery, Disgust, and Desire for Deliverance, combine them in fiendish ways, and then crank that intensity to the next level, a level that can seem overwhelming. These aspects of our life can temporarily seem bland and pointless at this stage, though it may seem that this will always be the way we feel about them.
This stage can mimic or perhaps manifest as some degree of clinical depression. Beware of making radical life changes that cannot be easily undone, such as a divorce or firing off angry emails to your boss, based upon the temporary feelings that may arise during this stage. For those who recognize that they are in this stage, some form of active mental compensation for these potential effects can be helpful to facilitate maintaining our relationships, jobs, studies, etc., at a functional level. This can be very skillful if it is also combined with practice that allows the experiences of this stage to be acknowledged and understood as well.
I should be careful here in that, while I generally advocate for maintaining jobs, relationships, studies and the like, if possible, in the face of Dark Night stuff, there is obviously no way for me to know for certain that this is the right course of action for you or anyone else, as the future is unknown and unpredictable. This is obviously not helpful, as we might wish for concrete, reliable guidelines as to how to proceed, and yet, unfortunately, there are none. Maybe shaving your head and joining a monastery really is the best thing you could possibly do. On the other hand, maybe preserving your marriage and job is.
There are obviously many other options that might suddenly seem like good ideas in this stage, and whether, in retrospect, they will have been as good an idea as they seemed at the time is anyone’s guess. I wish I could definitively tell you what to do, but I can’t. Still, there is something to be said for optionality, even if, in the Dark Night, all options can seem like bad options. Not trashing possibly valuable relationships helps preserve optionality and generally lessens later regrets. There are ways to gain some space in which to let this disorienting and often disruptive process mature that are more skillful and less damaging than others, and I wish you well finding those.
Layers of unhelpful and previously hidden expectation, pressure, and anxiety can reveal their true uselessness, though this beneficial process can feel very confusing and difficult. We may get the sense that we have never had such a strong emotional life, and until we get used to this new awareness of our previously subtle or unacknowledged feelings, this stage can seem overwhelming.
Occasionally, people at this stage can also have what appears to be a full psychotic break, or what is often called a nervous breakdown, though if these are truly a side effect of insight practices, they should pass quickly. The main key here is to continue to acknowledge and accept the content but also to see the true nature of the sensations that make up these natural phenomena. This can be extremely hard to do, especially if people have chanced upon this stage without the benefit of the support and guidance of a well-developed insight tradition and qualified teachers who can easily recognize and navigate this territory.
Even for those who do get into this in a well-developed tradition, unrealistic spiritual ideals can really screw up practice. In your idealized spiritual world, you imagine you aren’t supposed to be insanely frustrated, on edge, shuddering from some strange wrongness you can’t figure out, because you are a meditator, you are practicing something good, and so you shouldn’t feel this way, or at least so the traditions might seem to tell us. However, this is exactly where your practice led you at some point, where it took you, what is really going on, because you have entered aspects of the human psyche you wished would just go away and you wouldn’t have to deal with. Go into them, but with wisdom, with clear morality, with some sense that you can go there and be okay, with some control of what you think, say, and do.
The classic arc of the hero’s journey, where at some point they must enter the underworld, mirrors this part of the path. Part of the flip side of the next stage involves going there, being honest, dealing with an utterly “un-spiritual” way of being that might not fit your ideals at all. Keep a lid on the bleed-through, but internally be willing to be emotionally honest, and keep investigating. This is an acquired taste and getting comfortable doing this is not easy for most people. Still, it is a great skill to learn.
Those who do not know what to do with this stage or who are overwhelmed by the mind states can get so swept away in the content that they begin to lose it. This is the far extreme of what can happen in this stage. Fear is frightening, Misery is miserable, and seemingly psychotic episodes are confusing and destabilizing. In the face of such miserable experiences, we may swing to the opposite extreme, clinging desperately to grandiose or narcissistic images of ourselves. These reactions can easily perpetuate themselves, and this can become a blatantly destructive mental habit if people persist in wallowing in these dark emotions and their deep and unresolved issues for too long. It can be like cognitive restructuring from hell. Do not do this to yourself.
I should mention the problem with developing concentration, which you must have succeeded at to at least some degree at some point to get into this territory. Strong concentration is a generic force that may be used for good or ill. If you use strong concentration to write positive qualities on the mind, they will be written more strongly than if you didn’t have strong concentration. Likewise, if you have strong concentration and end up writing negative qualities on the mind, those will also be written more strongly than if you lacked strong concentration. That is the danger in this stage. Thus, the essential point is, if you ever develop strong concentration, you must be extremely careful with what you do with it. Part Six, specifically chapters fifty-eight to sixty-one, will go into more about this, but the basic lesson is straightforward.
Specifically, if you continue to be strongly identified with content, without perceiving its true nature, and your strongly concentrated mind dives down that pathway of focusing entirely on the story, particularly negative interpretations of the story without seeing those thoughts as thoughts, then the mind can spiral down and down into madness and despair, and more madness and despair can lead to a horrid feedback loop. I call this “dark jhana”: like the exact reverse of jhana. In skillful jhana, we skillfully use positive qualities to attract and stabilize attention, which then reinforces those positive qualities in a positive feedback loop. In dark jhana, we unskillfully reinforce horrible mind states by obsessing about horrible mind states from within horrible mind states while being freaked out by horrible mind states.
If you recognize dark jhana is happening, put the brakes on it right then with everything you have. Seize control. Refuse to lose that control. Find a way to get a grip on yourself. Splash cold water on your face. Eat grounding food. Exercise or take a walk in nature. Take a warm bath. Listen to soothing music. Sing. Dance. Play a video game. Watch a funny movie or funny cat videos on YouTube. Read the section in Part One where the Buddha talked about the removal of distracting thoughts and apply those instructions with full force: this is when they really come in handy. Stand with your legs planted firmly on the ground, your hands gripping something like a sink, countertop, or the back of a chair, and figure out where the actual problem is in your body and the space in which you stand. Note physical sensations of restlessness and irritation with precision and bravery.
Dark jhana sucks and should be avoided at all costs. Wire your brain in a positive way, not a negative way, and you will do much better. Go into that territory at a bare sensate level that remembers there is space and you will do much better. Go into it divorced from the senses and lost in the content, and badness will likely result.
When people mention “touching their own madness” on the spiritual path, they are often talking about this stage. This stage can make people feel claustrophobic and tight. If they push to make progress, they can feel that they are just getting more and more tightly wound and are about to snap. If they do nothing, they continue to suffer anyway.
The advice here: stick with the process but don’t force it. Pay attention to balancing effort and gentle acceptance. Remember that discretion is the better part of valor. Practicing in moderation as well as maintaining a long-term view can be helpful. Think of practice as a lifelong endeavor, but do just what you can each day. Stay present-oriented. Walks in nature or places with open, expansive views can help, as can exercise. Re-observation has the power to profoundly purify us, given sufficient commitment to just being willing to sit with it. Be clear, precise and accept all this despite the pain and anguish, both physical and mental, that it can bring.
If you are on retreat, let the teachers know what is going on immediately. Sit and walk according to the schedule. Apply the technique as prescribed every second, if humanly possible, and do not leave the retreat early! Remember: applying the technique means seeing everything arise naturally, without anything having to happen at all. This can really take the pressure off, a pressure that really doesn’t help in this stage. There is a way to keep practicing well that nevertheless drops the unskillful aspects of striving which are pulling you away from each moment. Other than just sticking to the schedule, not a lot needs to happen beyond what is already happening. Thus, and very critically, you can’t power this stage, but you can try to accept and synchronize with what is going on at a direct experiential level.
Again, if on retreat, try walking outside as opposed to inside if logistically possible. Reclining sometimes rather than sitting might help, but some will find the restless energy too much, in which case walking may help. It can seem counterintuitive to keep practicing when things feel so unproductive, unspiritual, unpleasant, and unbearable, but keeping at it in skillful ways builds the wiring that leads to the good stuff that comes in the next stage even if it feels like it is doing nothing good at all.
This stage is a profound opportunity to see clearly the pain of the dualistic aspect of our attachments, aversions, desires, hopes, fears, and ideals, as our awareness of all this has been amplified to an unprecedented level. At its best, it is very humanizing and very emotionally honest. This is the stage that makes possible the path of heroic effort, the diligent investigation of this moment based upon the powerful wish for awakening, because at this stage all the unskillful aspects of this wish are beaten out of the meditator with a force equal to the suffering caused by them. You can get very far on highly imbalanced and goal-oriented practice, and it can provide sufficient momentum and meditation skills so that, should you get your ass kicked at this stage, you continue making quick progress anyway, even when you drop off the imbalanced striving power and let the insight machine you have built coast somewhat on its own momentum.
Again, if meditators stop practicing entirely at this stage, they can get stuck and haunted for the rest of their lives until they complete this first progress of insight. Not moving forward with practice at this stage will deprive meditators of its primary benefits, such as the increased perceptual abilities that allowed them to get this much insight in the first place. They teeter on the brink of meditative greatness. Remembering this will help increase faith, and it can take a lot of that to get through this stage. Good teachers will help students develop faith in their own abilities to handle these stages, and to balance this with backing off if it truly gets to be too much.
To get through the Dark Night on your own power and to get to Equanimity is true meditative greatness. The next stage is fantastic and what comes after it is even more so. Thus, those who quit in these stages reduce their chances of ever getting beyond this stage, and the whole range of consequences, both physical and emotional, can remain long after the meditation skills have faded. Finding that balance, knowing what you can take and what you can’t, is as much art as science, with no perfectly clear guidelines that can be given. However, we strongly need to consider that quitting in these difficult stages increases the chances of doing it again the next time it happens, as the way we practice creates pathways in the brain that will be stronger next time. This pattern of bailing on practice in the tough stages can create “chronic Dark Nighters”, meditators who just don’t figure out how to move through this stage for a long time.
You would be surprised how many of these people are out there. Their failure to unstick themselves may be due to their own psychological makeup, poor instruction, belief that the spiritual life is all about bliss and wonderful emotions, belief in unrealistic and absurd models of spirituality that do not allow for the full range of the emotional and mental life, or chancing upon this stage outside the context of a well-developed insight tradition.
I was a chronic Dark Nighter for over ten years without having any idea what the hell was happening to me, so I can speak on this topic with some authority. Further, I have gone through numerous other Dark Nights at the higher stages of awakening and have come across the same issues again and again. Being stuck in the Dark Night can manifest as anything from chronic mild depression and free-floating anxiety to serious delusional paranoia and other classic mental illnesses, such as narcissism and delusions of grandeur (which I am sure you recognize at points in this book, parts that were likely written in this phase). Dark Nighters may act with a disarming mixture of dedicated spirituality, social conscience, compassion, and reactive darkness.
I mentioned that the A&P could impart a bit of the inspirational, radical religious leader quality to those with such tendencies. For these same individuals, Re-observation can sometimes lend a bit of a paranoid, apocalyptic cult leader quality to them, a confused whirlwind of powerful inspiration and frantic desperation. Just because someone has borderline or antisocial personality disorder doesn’t mean they can’t make progress in insight, and when they hit these stages it can get wild. In fact, this basic pattern of the A&P happening to a psychopath leading to a cult-following and then mass-suicidal crash when they inevitably hit Re-observation is seen again and again in history and is perfectly explanatory of this otherwise perplexing phenomenon. Same goes for suicide bombers and militant recent converts in general.
We may all have our own neurotic tendencies that come out when we are under stress, but if you feel that you are really losing it, get help, particularly from those who know this territory firsthand and are willing to talk honestly about it. Don’t be a macho meditator, go it alone, or get stuck; and don’t imagine that spiritual practice can’t cause some wild and sometimes extremely unpleasant side effects. One of the best things about working with thoroughly qualified and realized insight meditation teachers before we get into trouble is that they will have some idea of our baseline level of sanity and balance and thus know what our capacity is and what we can manage.
That said, I suspect that both the mushroom factor and the dharma culture of jet-set teachers popping in and out of our lives with little chance for students to have meaningful contact with them off-retreat contributes to the significant number of Dark Nighters out there. I suspect that there are fewer problems with chronic Dark Nighters in traditions in which the maps outlining what can happen are well-known and in which there are teachers who are accessible and honest about their humanity and the varied landscapes of the spiritual terrain. Naming and normalizing these stages can be profoundly empowering to those going through them in order to find and master their own meditative power.
On the other hand, genuine mental illness or unrelated emotional or psychological difficulties can show up in people’s lives. Blaming it all on the Dark Night may not always be accurate or helpful, though if you have recently crossed the A&P but have not completed an insight cycle or gotten into the next stage (Equanimity), there is going to be some Dark Night component mixed in with whatever else is going on.
Meditation traditions tend to attract what can seem like more than their fair share of the spiritual, emotional, and psychological equivalents of the walking wounded. Sorting out what’s what can sometimes get murky and may require the help of both those who know this insight territory and those who deal with ordinary mental illness and the emotional and psychological difficulties unique to the culture in which practitioners were raised. The best guide would be familiar with both realms. I have an awakened friend who has found it very useful to take medication to treat his very real bipolar disorder. There is something very down-to-earth and realistic about that. These practices won’t save us from our biology. They merely reveal something in the relationship to it.
On the other hand, there are those of us who are so deeply indoctrinated by the models of “working through” our “dark stuff” that whenever it comes up we turn to psychotherapy or a whole host of other ways of getting our issues to “resolve” or go away. This view implies false solidity and an exaggerated importance being given to these things, making it very hard to see the true nature of the sensations that make them up. The trap here is that we turn a basic crisis of fundamental identity into a witch hunt for the specific parts of our lives we imagine are to blame for our feeling such dissatisfaction with our basic experience. If someone has gotten to this level of practice, no amount of tinkering with the circumstances or issues in their life will ever solve the core perceptual issue.
That doesn’t mean that some of the dissatisfaction with specific aspects of our lives are not valid—quite often it is. However, these relative issues get conflated with a far deeper issue, that of what we really are and are not, and until this cycle of insight has been completed, this conflation tends to cause us to greatly exaggerate our criticisms of those things in our lives that could actually stand improvement and work. Learning this lesson can be very hard for some people, and the dark irony is that we may wreck our relationships, careers, and finances, as well as emotional and physical health, trying to get away from our own high level of insight into the true nature of reality.
It can also make us have strong reactions to our meditation teachers and dharma friends, either being very dissatisfied with them, or demanding that they somehow save us, or more likely, both. Until we are willing to work on a more direct, sensate level, there is no limit to the amount of angst and negativity we can project onto our world. I have seen this play out again and again in myself and in the lives of my dharma companions—the strange volatility that can be created by Dark Night–amplified reactive attachment disorders. It can be a very ugly business.
My advice: if careful analysis of your insight practice leads you to the conclusion that you are in Re-observation, resolve that you will not wreck your life through excessive negativity. Resolve this repeatedly and intensely. Follow your heart as best you can, but try to spare yourself and the world from as much needless pain as possible. Through sheer force of will, and with the assistance of whatever skillful supports you can connect with, keep it together until you are willing to face your sensate world directly and without anesthesia or armor. I have seen what happens when people do otherwise, and have concluded that, in general, things go badly when people do not follow this advice, though some unexpected good, in the form of learning the hard way, can and does come from such situations.
The framework of the three trainings and the three types of suffering that are found within each of their scopes can be helpful here as well. Since most of us are generally not used to facing fundamental identity crises, which is the basic issue in Re-observation, we are not familiar with the misery of fundamental suffering. Being unfamiliar with that misery, we are likely to conclude that it is produced by the specifics of our ordinary world and personal circumstances. However, if we have gotten to Re-observation, that is, if we have found these techniques to be effective, we need to have faith that the remaining advice may be of value to fulfill this part of the experiment. If we are in Re-observation, the task that confronts us is to tease out the fundamental suffering we now know all too well from the specific problems of our lives in an ordinary sense. Remember the five spiritual faculties? Remember balancing faith and wisdom? This is one phase of practice when you get to see what that truly means, as it will test both.
This advice to at least partially decouple our felt sense of suffering from our ordinary circumstances may sound dangerous, heartless, or bizarre to some people. It is a valid criticism. In an ideal world, we would not have to go around second-guessing ourselves and the sources of our misery in the specific way that I advocate here. In an ideal world, we would really have our psychological trip together, be able to stay with the practice during these stages, and thus cross quickly through the Dark Night and finish this practice cycle. It can be done.
We are not always ideal practitioners, and thus the Dark Night often causes the problems mentioned previously that need to be addressed. My solutions to what happens when we cannot or will not do insight practices in the face of the Dark Night are also not ideal. However, the outcomes are likely to be much healthier in the short and long term than those that come from simply allowing unrestrained Dark Night bleed-through, which often occurs in the absence of solid and sufficient training in morality. Strangely, I have concluded that simply practicing is often much easier than trying to stop Dark Night bleed-through if we are willing to just try it, though it can often seem otherwise. The old kindergarten evaluation, “Follows instructions, plays well with others,” is still a valuable standard in the Dark Night.
While in the Dark Night, not restraining negativity and reactivity that issue from our thoughts, speech, and physical actions is a bit like getting stinking drunk and then driving in heavy traffic rather than just sitting down and waiting to sober up. Not continuing to do insight practices in this stage is like going into surgery, getting an incision, getting the surgery, and then having the surgeon leave you with a large, open incision. Until you get that wound closed you are basically screwed, no matter how anyone might try to comfort you. In this case, you are both the surgeon and the patient. Face the wound and close it up! You have the necessary skills, as you have gotten this far. Use them. The procedure is almost done.
There are also those who try to investigate the true nature of their psychological demons and life issues but get so fixated on using insight to make them go away that they fail to hold these things in perspective. This subtle but common corruption of insight practices turns practice into another form of aversion, escape, or denial rather than a path to awakening. Drawing from the agendas of mostly psychology and confused morality, in which there is concern for the specific thoughts and feelings that make up our experience, we fail to make progress in insight, whose agenda is simply to see the true nature of all sensations as they are. Both are important, but it is a question of timing.
I have concluded that, with very rare and fleeting exceptions, ninety-five percent of the sensations that make up our experience are really no problem at all, even in the difficult stages, but seeing this clearly is not always easy. When we fixate on very painful or very pleasant sensations, we can easily miss the fact that most of our reality is likely made up of sensations that are no big deal, and thus we miss many great opportunities for easy insights. Further, the Dark Night can bring up all sorts of unfamiliar feelings that we have experienced rarely if ever with such clarity or intensity. This has the effect of busting attempts at spiritual bypassing, as the Dark Night is basically the exact opposite of spiritual bypassing. We are in it, deep into it, facing our darkest and most challenging stuff. However, until we get used to these feelings, they can frighten us and make us reactive because of our lack of familiarity with them, even if they are not actually that strongly unpleasant at a sensate level.
What compounds our misery is the mental content we tend to kick up in response to sensations. Often the stories we make up and then tell ourselves, about why these difficulties are happening and what it all means, exacerbate the problem they were intended to solve. There are multiple ways to reframe the meaning of these occurrences that might make them more bearable and point to solutions that are more likely to work, particularly learning to reframe them in terms of these insight maps (and the three characteristics), which is why they can be so valuable. It is not that the insight maps are the be-all and end-all of meaning, as they obviously aren’t. However, focusing entirely on the psychological end of our work without also focusing on the underlying insight process is a common trap that typically doesn’t go as well as the dual approach that keeps making progress on the insight front also. [Man’s Search for Meaning, by Viktor E. Frankl, may shed light on some of the skillful and therapeutic uses of meaning as we confront these challenging insight stages.]
I highly recommend using physical sensations as the objects of inquiry during the Dark Night whenever possible, such as those of the breath, with particular attention to the fact that these sensations occur in space. Diving into emotional content, even with the intention of investigating it, can sometimes be a very hard way to go. Remember, whether we gain insight through investigating physical or mental objects is completely irrelevant. Insight is insight. Whenever possible choose objects for investigation by which you won’t easily get caught. The best thing about reality, particularly in the Dark Night, is that you only have to deal with one little flickering sensation in space at a time. Staying on that level when doing insight practices is an unusually good idea. Pay attention to what is right in front of you, but keep your attention open.
Using physical object allows you to investigate how much physical pain you are actually in. Does reality seem totally horrible? Notice how much of it is actually excruciatingly painful. If it is not that painful, why do you think it’s horrible? Investigate that carefully in your body, so as to notice exactly where the pain is and also exactly where it is not. Open your eyes and notice the space you are sitting in. Are you in a safe place? No gunfire nearby? Have enough to eat? Decent water? Immediate threat to life or limb? If not, is that much fussiness, reactivity, and drama really necessary? Probably not. Sink into that down-to-earth, common-sense understanding, and basic, practical wisdom. Do some solid reality testing. Notice exactly what volume of space is really a problem and exactly how much of it is not. You will very likely find that the majority is not, and somehow your mind had forgotten that much if not most of it is okay and perhaps even pretty good or interesting. Then get back to a detailed but open, wide, all-embracing, moment-to-moment sensate investigation.
Scary stuff said, there are people who breeze straight from the Arising and Passing Away through the whole of the Dark Night in as little as a few easy minutes or hours and hardly notice it at all, so don’t let my descriptions of what can happen script you into imagining that the Dark Night has to be a major suffering event. It absolutely does not. These descriptions of what can occur are merely there to help those who do encounter these sorts of problems to realize that these things do occur, and can be skillfully addressed. There is no medal awarded for having a tough time in the Dark Night or for staying in it for longer than necessary, much to my dismay.
At my best and on retreat, I have gotten through Dark Night territory in as little as about a day and a half. Bill Hamilton said one Dark Night took him about seven minutes, which is really fast, but it means it can be done. I have had Dark Night phases that were no worse than the general stress I encounter in daily life in ordinary situations. That said, off-retreat I have had Dark Night phases hit hard for months, those being before I knew anything about what they were or how to deal with them. Contextualization, explanation, normalization, and the empowerment that comes with knowledge and well-applied time-tested techniques make a huge difference, as I have noticed by doing the experiment myself many, many times, and as many others have reported.
One of the more bizarre potholes we can fall into in the Dark Night is to become fascinated by and identified with the role of The Great Spiritual Basket Case. “I am so spiritual that my life is a nonstop catastrophe of uncontrollable insights, disabling and freakish raptures, and constant emotional crises of the most histrionic nature. My spiritual abilities are proven and verified by what a consummate mess I am making of my life. How brave and dedicated I must be to screw up my life in this way. Oh, what a glorious, holy, special, and saintly wreck I am!” Both my sympathy and intolerance for those caught in this trap are directly related to the amount of time I have spent in that trap being just like them. While we should not try to pretend that the Dark Night hasn’t made us a basket case, if it has done so, neither should we revel in or wallow in being a basket case, nor use the Dark Night as an excuse for not being as kind and optimally functional members of society as we can possibly be.
Try to navigate the Dark Night with panache, dignity, self-respect, decency, gentleness, poise, and if possible, a sense of humor, which often seems to be the first thing to be sacrificed at its bloody altar. Even a cutting, cynical, and dark sense of humor about your current experience would be better than none at all, but avoid hurting people with it. Feel free to use humor on yourself as much as you wish. Remember to balance all that with some honest humanity. It is actually possible to have fun with the Dark Night, just like it can be fun to go on a scary roller coaster or see a scary movie, like the alleviating feeling of a really good cry, like the weird thrill that comes from primal scream therapy. Remember that.
Additionally, the practice of remembering the good, true, and beautiful aspects of the world, and the myriad kindnesses shown you and others by you and others—to literally stop and smell the roses—can help a lot to regain perspective. My roses are actually blooming nicely as I write this, with their beautiful fragrance wafting through the open window. This advice is likely to ring cheesy to one in the Dark Night, but remember this and you will do better.
Speaking of doing better, and getting away from the crazy and back to the vipassana, I should mention something about the micro-phenomenology that I really care about, that makes insight practice more than just psychology. The patterns happening from a sensate point of view in Re-observation are the pinnacle of the third vipassana jhana and, because of this, have the following qualities: first, they are very broad—very around the “back”, very on the periphery of attention. That is where attention is naturally very strong in this phase, so go with that first, as it is easier. Allowing attention to be its natural fluxing shape will make this work a lot better than trying to go narrow and forcing things—that would be using a first vipassana jhana coping strategy at a stage in which it isn’t likely to work well.
Second, the frequencies of pulses are chaotic and fast. We are getting into more sophisticated forms of more inclusive attention that are starting to broaden enough to include many diverse, irregular, erratic, intricate aspects of reality. Go for that attention-wise, meaning go into frequencies of the oscillation of the sensations that appear to be subject and object that are really fast and harmonically irritating, instead of regular and predictable. We are talking at least ten to eighteen pulses of sensations per second, if not a lot more. While noting can help if we are getting run over in this stage, if we can get it together to go into the broad vibrational complexity directly, we can learn to draw on the remarkable discerning power of our minds. We can notice how fast reality is arising, and, as reality and comprehension are the same thing in their essence, we can notice that comprehension, and thus contemplation, can go this fast. It takes an elegant letting go of control and an embracing of that to get what Re-observation is trying to teach you.
Do not try to power through this: that’s first vipassana jhana. Do not try to go for really tight, narrow, fine, tingly frequencies that are all about a center of attention and not about background: that is second vipassana jhana. Re-observation comes at the peak of the third vipassana jhana: it is broad, rich, chaotic, and about the “background” and issues of synchrony and asychrony. “Background” here means those things we typically think of as on “this side”, as well as those sensations that tend to frame objects in the center of attention, as well as just those sensations that are more in the direction of “us”.
The fourth jhana will put it all together later, so here, you just need to learn the third jhana piece well. The first jhana’s linear, controlling, effortful attention paradigm can’t go that fast, but reality can, and reality is attention itself, so just embrace that. You need to let reality start learning to recognize that it is already recognizing itself. That’s the only way the mind can realize the massive processing power it already actually has and embrace a vast and complex world of sensate experience that the limited, linear mind cannot possibly track in all its richness and intricacy.
This is vipassana. Notice that every little background sensation already is its own comprehension, where it is, as it arose and vanished, and that trying to pretend to be a little point in space observing and controlling all that sensate complexity is absurd and just causes suffering: that is the lesson here. That is the three characteristics, and the three characteristics are the key in this stage, as with all the others. Do not get all caught up in my psychological descriptions, they are there to help only if you get thrown totally off your vipassana game. As soon as you get back on your game even a little bit, get back to noticing all this come and go on its own, naturally, effortlessly, at a basic, fast, sensate level. This is the most important paragraph of this whole section.
One way or another, when we finally give up and rest in what ishappening without trying to alter it or stabilize it, when we can accept our actual humanity as well as be clear about the three characteristics of naturally flowing mental and physical phenomena, there arises … [Equanimity]