We have recently seen some incredible “rogue AI behavior” in Microsoft’s Bing.
While reading some of these outputs I was reminded of… rogue DMT entities. Indeed, sometimes people have DMT experiences and encounter beautiful angelic beings that want to help and heal you (and sometimes do so!), but other times people encounter demonic beings that want to harm and hurt you (and sometimes do so!).
Just as it is unwise to roll-out a technology like Bing that is full of potential misaligned subagents, I also reckon that it’s unwise to deliver DMT therapy to the masses *before* fixing this bug. While I think that responsible consenting adults *should* be allowed to experiment with DMT as they wish, the bar for “safety and effectiveness” should be much higher when we think of it as a possible mental health intervention.
Ok, so both Bing and DMT experiences can create insane rogue subagents. How are these two things more than merely superficially connected?
Someone I talked to recently was actually worried that DMT entities are perhaps controlling these AI technologies to infiltrate our world. I don’t think that’s a very likely explanation. Rather, I think there is a much more parsimonious explanation for this similarity. Namely that both involve having a predictive system spun up misaligned agents in order to fit narratives that appear in the training data. Let’s dig in!
A very large fraction of our nervous system is dedicated to minimizing surprise (cf. free energy principle, predictive processing). Now, I don’t think that this is all that the nervous system is doing, nor do I think it is a theory of consciousness. But it is a very important piece of the puzzle nonetheless.
The bit that is relevant from Psychedelic Thermodynamics here is that there is a process by which psychedelics intensify the background noise that, together with sensory stimuli, stimulate internal representations (via a process of stochastic resonance). Importantly, internal representations function as energy sinks from the point of view of the background noise, whereas they are energy sources from the point of view of other representations.
The two key features that work as energy sinks of this background energy are symmetry and “recognition”. This was first discussed in The Hyperbolic Geometry of DMT Experiences, but it also shows up elsewhere. In particular, when you can interpret an ambiguous input as “expected given the context” then that sucks energy out of the background noise in order to energize a gestalt that binds together low-level features into a coherent high-level percept (e.g. Necker Cube). When this “clicks” it will radiate out its excess energy to the rest of the field, and also *constraint* the shape of the field such that it functions as new context that changes the probability for other ambiguous sensations to collapse into representations consistent with the new gestalt. In other words, on DMT you can go from what feels like “pure undifferentiated non dual consciousness” to “this specific carnival with harlequins doing acrobatics” by collapsing how you interpret slight imperfections in the field, which then snowball into instantiating an entire realm of experience where each shape resonates with every other shape (a “vibe lock”, as we call it).
Now, once you interpret a sufficient number of features as high-level gestalts, then they will start interacting with each other and further constraining the possible interpretations of the rest of the field. This, I believe, is somewhat similar to GPT, except on a full spatiotemporal context rather than a sequence of tokens context (cf. probabilistic graphical models).
If this model is correct, as soon as you start collapsing the energized field into interpretations, then a particular narrative structure may start dominating and “making sense” of what is happening. This can indeed snowball into getting into tricky and sometimes really unpleasant situations.
In parallel, it’s important to briefly mention the role that subagents typically have in us. Namely, what Romeo Stevens calls the “Mr. Meeseeks interpretation of subagents”. The subagents are created to achieve a goal, they don’t really like existing, but will continue to hang in there until they’re convinced the goal has been met. The subagents are spun up in order to accomplish goals that would normally require you to spend a lot of attention but that cannot be simply offloaded to muscle memory (e.g. like driving a car). Typical examples are things like the response one may have to living in an environment with very negative people (say, dark triad personalities) where you need to spin up subagents that behave like them so that you can predict their next move. In cases of PTSD, it may be that part of the problem is that one created a lot of rather negative subagents (of people, situations, dynamics, actual physical hazards, etc.) and that as a collective they reinforce each other.
Hi I’m Mr. Meeseeks! I see your grandmother is emotionally abusive. I’ll pretend to be her inside your mind so that you can predict what she will do next and thus avoid getting harmed. Let me know when she’s gone so I can go *PUFF*.
The Return to Goodness
Here loving-kindness meditation can be enormously helpful. I refer you to Anders & Maggie’s meditative exercise to heal negative internal subagents (see Letter XI: Douglas Adams). Essentially what you do is visualize a container of very positive benevolent and high-valence feelings (call it unconditional love, God, primordial goodness, Buddhamind, etc. – or whatever really resonates in your inner world simulation). You then tell the story that subagents come out of that container and once they achieve their goals they go back to it in order to “merge with love” once again. You can even explain this to the subagents, and they can feel the sense of relief that comes when they finally achieve union with this primordial love. Gently guide them towards it. And if you do this over and over, you will in fact be cleaning up a lot of subagents lingering implicit in the field, until you achieve a smooth field with high-valence and a non-dual feel.
Ok, so taking stock: our field of experience can “collapse” into familiar representations when they start predicting each other, sub-agents cease to exist once they have achieved their goal, and loving-kindness exercises can help you steer lost and lingering subagents towards their re-unification with primordial love (or, again, whatever resonates with you!). More so, these subagents are embedded in the predictive processing hierarchy and will try to do exactly what you find them most likely to do. So given these conditions, how do you align DMT entities?
Aligning DMT Entities
Here are some suggestions:
* First, the simplest and most straightforward intervention is to simply get good and prosocial training data. This is highlighted by the Waluigi Effect, in which Bing sort of turns nasty *because* character trait inversion is a *trope* in human stories, and there are plenty of such stories online. This could in principle be fixed by having an AI that classifies tropes and narrative structures and filters texts that contain any hint of Waluigi tropes or character trait switching narrative structures before feeding them as training data to GPT. Similarly, in the case of DMT entities, you can go to an environment with vetted inputs that are always really wholesome. Recall: the influence that the last couple of weeks have on what comes up in a psychedelic experience is vastly larger than what you experienced a year or a decade ago. The recent inputs matter a lot, so don’t worry about the fact that you’ve seen horror movies in the past. If you’ve been consuming really wholesome media for the last three months, that will matter enormously more.
* Second, add really highly-weighted good training data that makes it so that aligned outcomes are always the most likely. In our case, this would be indeed things like exercising the “gently guide subagents to the pool of love” move so that it’s a very likely outcome and they predict that that’s what’s going to happen. Train on visualizing the Buddha with a hand up saying “don’t fear”. Internalize that “love is always stronger than fear” (which is something I actually believe in, based on many incredible experiences). And so on.
* Third, use good vibes as the base. Essentially, negative entities feed off of negatively valanced patterns. Literally, feeling somatic sensations of pinching, pressure, twisting, etc. can become the building blocks of gestalts that end up becoming negative entities. Starting out with a very positive and smooth field reduces the fuel that negative entities have to construct themselves in resonance with patterns of dissonance. We’ve heard about good outcomes from Wim Hof and chanting metta meditation before trips (YMMV!).
* Fourth, More Dakka on equanimity. Remember the teachings of Rob Burbea (“what you resist persists”) and Shinzen Young (“suffering equals pain times resistance”). Essentially, resisting negative energies makes them stronger. This is doubly so on psychedelic states of consciousness. Instead, remember that high enough equanimity, where you don’t let positive or negative vibes “move you”, maximizes the rate of stress dissipation within your nervous system, and this accelerates the rate at which negative vibes flow through you and exit your system via some kind of radiative cooling process currently not understood by science. Practice taking cold showers without stalling or flinching, or eating relatively hot peppers without resisting or letting the pain get to you. At least for DMT realms up to Magic Eye-level the physical discomfort of the state is not stronger than a cold shower… that is, if you don’t resist it! If you do resits it, the discomfort can be drastically amplified, and you can turn some waves in a glass of water into a storm.
* Fifth, going back to the Waluigi Effect: the article explains why Reinforcement Learning via Human Feedback (RLHF) doesn’t really work for it (it encourages Waluigies to hide and pretend, rather than really getting rid of them). So instead of simply “rewarding good behavior” I suggest you reward “clean subagentic structures”. There is a “vibe” to the “intentions” of subagents. And you will soon realize that Waluigies have an “ambiguous intention” vibe. Use metta to reward sub-agents that have collapsed and clean intentions instead. Importantly, this takes priority over rewarding subagents that are really good at flattering you, for example. Because you’ve been fed enough narratives where flattery turns to betrayal that this is not a guarantee of alignment.
* Sixth, I think the principles of Shard Theory might be really useful here. In particular, really notice how not only is it that you can reward sub-agents with your attention and your top-down vibes, but once they are sufficiently “alive” they can actually start to *reward each other*. This, I believe, is how you get things like “egregore possessions” and other uncanny related phenomena. More on this below. You want to have a clean and smooth field of awareness so that subagent conspiracies can be easily spotted and addressed before they snowball.
Finally, let me ground this with some of the common categories of DMT entities:
Shoggoths: These are entities that seem to emerge out of the resonance of interpersonal representations of preferences at the cultural level. The things that you can “recognize the field as” in this case are “people doing what they want” where what they want may be different than what you want. If you have an adversarial relationship with a particular culture or subculture and you resist these wants, they will get reinforced by you disliking them and in some cases can start to locally bind with each other until you get what some psychonauts call “an amalgam” of cultural preferences. This is also what I think people are talking about when they say they have met an “egregore” of a culture of ideology on DMT. These are hard or perhaps impossible to align: cultures are in fact self-contradictory. So the amalgam will typically hold a lot of internal contradictions, which it will then externalize. The way to deal with a Shoggoth involves re-annealing, in addition to the suggestions above. DMT Shoggoths are sort of a symptom of failed clean annealing, in that they “coagulate” rather than “click”, and are amalgams of lots of incompatible preferences loosely held by a political coalition. This could perhaps be predicted from first principles with non-linear wave computing and Shard Theory, so the fact that it does happen to people makes it a salient case for this field of study.
Demons: these are sub-agents that come up in “hell realms” which are states of consciousness where you believe that you are a bad person and deserve some kind of punishment. The demons here are just, in my opinion, doing exactly what you expect them to do, namely, punishing you. I think that in addition to equanimity and metta, these entities also respond to boosting narratives of redemption that are wholesome in nature. For example, there is this spiritual belief that demons ultimately are all on the path towards God… they are just in a more extreme version of the Parable of the Prodigal Son, and they might take thousands of years to redeem themselves. But they will do so. In this case, you sending them metta and telling them that they are actually intrinsically good, can slowly, but surely, help them unwind their dissonant configurations.
Harlequins: these are entities from what feels like some kind of “clown dimension”. They are extremely common on DMT. Because we have so many tropes of negative clowns, this can often turn ugly. I suggest you reinforce the narrative of “harlequins as tricksters who are child-like in their curiosity about consciousness”. In fact, prompted properly and softened with enough metta, harlequins can be extremely helpful for consciousness research. You can play positive sum games with them in which you give them a really good time, and in exchange they help you explore the most surprising features of the space you are inhabiting. They can become “consciousness research assistants” with a flair for the weird and wondrous.
There is of course a zoo of possible entities, and in fact many possible entities currently exist merely in potential. As we imagine new healthy and wholesome tropes in our sense-making attempts for DMT realms, I predict that we will “unlock” new and more helpful DMT beings. In particular, I think that Team Consciousness tropes can give us a really good aesthetic to use as the primary energy sink for “recognizing” entities in this space. If you ever meet Rainbow God, say hi for me. It *always* gives you a mind-blowing revelation about reality and consciousness that enriches your life for the better 😉
How does this help AI Alignment?
I will conclude by saying that studying DMT entities might actually be a way to make headway in AI alignment in two ways. First, because they genuinely can be really smart entities you can interact with, on a bounded timeframe, and who seem to share a lot of features with AI technologies. They are human-level or higher in their intelligence (because they have access to new geometries of phenomenal space and hence to novel qualia computing, and because they lack the ego defenses that make you incapable of having certain thoughts!). And second, because all of the above may actually also transpose to discussions in AI alignment. In particular, I think the above suggestions are helpful for researchers. AI alignment can expose you to a lot of mental health risks (from the belief that “we’re doomed”, to creating strong tulpas that don’t align with your own values!). The recommendations I provide above may transpose to that domain: realize that even AI alignment research makes you spin up subagents inside you! The tools I shared may be helpful to increase the mental health of anyone studying this field who is now suffering from an infestation of negative subagents. Bring them back to Love!
 Not to be confused with simulationism (the belief that we actually live in a computer simulation) or indirect realism about perception (the philosophical realization that all we ever have access to are the features of an internal world simulation and we don’t perceive the world “directly”)
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.