Qualia Formalism in the Water Supply: Reflections on The Science of Consciousness 2018

Two years ago I attended The Science of Consciousness 2016 (in Tucson, AZ.) with David Pearce. Here is my account of that event. This year I went again, but now together with a small contingent representing the Qualia Research Institute (QRI). You can see the videos of our presentations here. Below you will find this year’s writeup:

What Went Great

(1) The Meta-Problem of Consciousness

This time David Chalmers brought the Meta-problem of Consciousness into the overall conversation by making a presentation about his paper on the topic. I think that this was a great addition to the conference, and it played beautifully as a tone-setter.

“The meta-problem of consciousness is (to a first approximation) the problem of explaining why we think that there is a problem of consciousness.”

– Chalmers on the Meta-Problem

David Chalmers is famous for defending the case that there is a problem of consciousness. And not only that, but that indeed, an aspect of it, the hard problem, resists conventional methods of explanation (as they focus on form and structure, but consciousness is anything but). Chalmers’ track record of contributions to the field is impressive. His work includes: formalizing foundational problems of consciousness, steel-manning extended-mind/embodied cognition, progress on classical philosophy of language questions (e.g. sense and reference with regards to modal logic), observations on the unity of consciousness, the case for the possibility of super-intelligence, and even the philosophical implications of Virtual Reality (I often link to his Reddit AMA as one of the best layman’s introductions to his work; see also his views on psychedelics). Plus, his willingness to consider, and even steel-man the opponent’s arguments is admirable.*

And of all of his works, I would argue, discussing the meta-problem of consciousness is perhaps one of the things that will help advance the field of consciousness research the most. In brief, we are in sore need of an agreed-upon explanation for the reasons why consciousness poses a problem at all. Rather than getting caught up in unfruitful arguments at the top of the argumentative tree, it is helpful to sometimes be directed to look at the roots of people’s divergent intuitions. This tends to highlight unexpected differences in people’s philosophical background assumptions.

And the fact that these background assumptions are often not specified leads to problems. For example: talking past each other due to differences in terminology, people attacking a chain of reasoning when in fact their disagreement starts at the level of ontology, and failure to recognize and map useful argumentative isomorphisms from one ontology onto another.

Having the Meta-Problem of Consciousness at the forefront of the discussions, in my appraisal of the event, turned out to be very generative. Asking an epiphenomenalist, an eliminativist, a panprotopsychist, etc. to explain why they think their view is true seemed less helpful in advancing the state of our collective knowledge than asking them about their thoughts on the Meta-Problem of Consciousness.

(2) Qualia Formalism in the Water Supply

At the Qualia Research Institute we explicitly assume that consciousness is not only real, but that it is formalizable. This is not a high-level claim about the fact that we can come up with a precise vocabulary to talk about consciousness. It is a radical take on the degree to which formal mathematical models of experience can be discovered. Qualia Formalism, as we define it, is the claim that for any conscious experience, there exists a mathematical object whose properties are isomorphic to the phenomenology of that experience. Anti-formalists, on the other hand, might say that consciousness is an improper reification.

For formalists, consciousness is akin to electromagnetism: we started out with a series of peculiar disparate phenomena such as lightning, electricity, magnets, static-electricity, etc. After a lot of work, it turned out that all of these diverse phenomena had a crisp unifying mathematical underpinning. More so, this formalism was not merely descriptive. Light, among other phenomena, were hidden in it. That is, finding a mathematical formalism for real phenomena can be generalizable to even more domains, be strongly informative for ontology, and ultimately, also technologically generative (the computer you are using to read this article wouldn’t- and in fact couldn’t -exist if electromagnetism wasn’t formalizable).

For anti-formalists, consciousness is akin to Élan vital. People had formed the incorrect impression that explaining life necessitated a new ontology. That life was, in some sense, (much) more than just the sum of life-less forces in complex arrangements. And in order to account for the diverse (apparently unphysical) behaviors of life, we needed a life force. Yet no matter how hard biologists, chemists, and physicists have tried to look for it, no life force has been found. As of 2018 it is widely agreed by scientists that life can be reduced to complex biochemical interactions. In the same vein, anti-formalists about consciousness would argue that people are making a category error when they try to explain consciousness itself. Consciousness will go the same way as Élan vital: it will turn out to be an improper reification.

In particular, the new concept-handle on the block to refer to anti-formalist views of consciousness is “illusionism”. Chalmers writes on The Meta-Problem of Consciousness:

This strategy [of talking about the meta-problem] typically involves what Keith Frankish has called illusionism about consciousness: the view that consciousness is or involves a sort of introspective illusion. Frankish calls the problem of explaining the illusion of consciousness the illusion problem. The illusion problem is a close relative of the meta-problem: it is the version of the meta-problem that arises if one adds the thesis that consciousness is an illusion. Illusionists (who include philosophers such as Daniel Dennett, Frankish, and Derk Pereboom, and scientists such as Michael Graziano and Nicholas Humphrey) typically hold that a solution to the meta-problem will itself solve or dissolve the hard problem.

The Meta-Problem of Consciousness (pages 2-3)

In the broader academic domain, it seems that most scientists and philosophers are neither explicitly formalists nor anti-formalists. The problem is, this question has not been widely discussed. We at QRI believe that there is a fork in the road ahead of us. That while both formalist and anti-formalist views are defensible, there is very little room in-between for coherent theories of consciousness. The problem of whether qualia formalism is correct or not is what Michael Johnson has coined as The Real Problem of Consciousness. Solving it would lead to radical improvements in our understanding of consciousness.

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What a hypothetical eliminativist about consciousness would say to my colleague Michael Johnson in response to the question – “so you think consciousness is just a bag of tricks?”: No, consciousness is not a bag of tricks. It’s an illusion, Michael. A trick is what a Convolutional Neural Network needs to do to perform well on a text classification task. The illusion of consciousness is the radical ontological obfuscation that your brain performs in order to render its internal attentional dynamics as a helpful user-interface that even a kid can utilize for thinking.

Now, largely thanks to the fact that Integrated Information Theory (IIT) is being discussed openly, qualia formalism is (implicitly) starting to have its turn on the table. While we believe that IIT does not work out as a complete account of consciousness for a variety of reasons (our full critique of it is certainly over-due), we do strongly agree with its formalist take on consciousness. In fact, IIT might be the only mainstream theory of consciousness that assumes anything resembling qualia formalism. So its introduction into the water supply (so to speak) has given a lot of people the chance to ponder whether consciousness has a formal structure.

(3) Great New Psychedelic Research

The conference featured the amazing research of Robin Carhart-Harris, Anil K. Seth, and Selen Atasoy, all of whom are advancing the frontier of consciousness research by virtue of collecting new data, generating computational models to explain it, and developing big-picture accounts of psychedelic action. We’ve already featured Atasoy’s work in here. Her method of decomposing brain activity into harmonics is perhaps one of the most promising avenues for advancing qualia formalist accounts of consciousness (i.e. tentative data-structures in which the information about a given conscious state is encoded). Robin’s entropic brain theory is, we believe, a really good step in the right direction, and we hope to formalize how valence enters the picture in the future (especially as it pertains to being able to explain qualia annealing on psychedelic states). Finally, Anil is steel-manning the case for predictive coding’s role in psychedelic action, and, intriguingly, also advancing the field by trying to find out in exactly what ways the effects of psychedelics can be simulated with VR and strobe lights (cf. Algorithmic Reduction of Psychedelic States, and Getting Closer to Digital LSD).

(4) Superb Aesthetic

The Science of Consciousness brings together a group of people with eclectic takes on reality, extremely high Openness to Experience, uncompromising curiosity about consciousness, and wide-ranging academic backgrounds, and this results in an amazing aesthetic. In 2016 the underlying tone was set by Dorian Electra and Baba Brinkman, who contributed with consciousness-focused music and witty comedy (we need more of that kind of thing in the world). Dorian Electra even released an album titled “Magical Consciousness Conference” which discusses in a musical format classical topics of philosophy of mind such as: the mind-body problem, brains in vats, and the Chinese Room.

aesthetic_dorian

The Science of Consciousness conference carries a timeless aesthetic that is hard to describe. If I were forced to put a label on it, I would say it is qualia-aware paranormal-adjacent psychedelic meta-cognitive futurism, or something along those lines. For instance, see how you can spot philosophers of all ages vigorously dancing to the empiricists vs. rationalists song by Dorian Electra (featuring David Chalmers) at The End of Consciousness Party in this video. Yes, that’s the vibe of this conference. The conference also has a Poetry Slam on Friday in which people read poems about qualia, the binding problem, and psychedelics (this year I performed a philosophy of mind stand-up comedy sketch there). They also play the Zombie Blues that night, in which people take turns to sing about philosophical zombies. Here are some of Chalmers’ verses:

I act like you act

I do what you do

But I don’t know

What it’s like to be you

What consciousness is!

I ain’t got a clue

I got the Zombie Blues!!!

 


I asked Tononi:

“How conscious am I?”

He said “Let’s see…”

“I’ll measure your Phi”

He said “Oh Dear!”

“It’s zero for you!”

And that’s why you’ve got the Zombie Blues!!!

Noteworthy too is the presence of after-parties that end at 3AM, the liberal attitude on cannabis, and the crazy DMT art featured in the lobby. Here are some pictures we took late at night borrowing some awesome signs we found at a Quantum Healing stand.

(5) We found a number of QRI allies and supporters

Finally, we were very pleased to find that Qualia Computing readers and QRI supporters attended the conference. We also made some good new friends along the way, and on the whole we judged the conference to be very much worth our time. For example, we were happy to meet Link Swanson, who recently published his article titled Unifying Theories of Psychedelic Drug Effects. I in fact had read this article a week before the event and thought it was great. I was planning on emailing him after the conference, and I was pleasantly surprised to meet him in person there instead. If you met us at the conference, thanks for coming up and saying hi! Also, thank you to all who organized or ran the conference, and to all who attended it!

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QRI members, friends, and allies

 

What I Would Like to See More Of

(1) Qualia Formalism

We hope and anticipate that in future years the field of consciousness research will experience an interesting process in which theory proponents will come out as either formalists or anti-formalists. In the meantime, we would love to see more people at least taking seriously the vision of qualia formalism. One of the things we asked ourselves during the conference was: “Where can we find other formalists?”. Perhaps the best heuristic we explored was the simple strategy of going to the most relevant concurrent sessions (e.g. physics and consciousness, and fundamental theories of consciousness). Interestingly, the people who had more formalist intuitions also tended to take IIT seriously.

(2) Explicit Talk About Valence (and Reducing Suffering)

To our knowledge, our talks were the only ones in the event that directly addressed valence (i.e. the pleasure-pain axis). I wish there were more, given the paramount importance of affect in the brain’s computational processing, its role in culture, and of course, its ethical relevance. What is the point of meaning and intelligence if one cannot be happy?

(3) Awareness of the Tyranny of the Intentional Object

Related to (2), we think that one of the most important barriers for making progress in valence research is the fact that most people (even neuroscientists and philosophers of mind) think of it as a very personal thing with no underlying reality beyond hearsay or opinion. Some people like ice-cream, some like salads. Some people like Pink Floyd, others like Katy Perry. So why should we think that there is a unifying equation for bliss? Well, in our view, nobody actually likes ice-cream or Pink Floyd. Rather, ice-cream and Pink Floyd trigger high-valence states, and it is the high valence states that are actually liked and valuable. Our minds are constructed in such a way that we project pleasure and pain out into the world and think of them as necessarily connected to the external state of affairs. But this, we argue, is indeed an illusion (unlike qualia, which is as real as it gets).

Even the people in the Artificial Intelligence and Machine Consciousness plenary panel seemed subject to the Tyranny of the Intentional Object. During the Q&A section I asked them: “if you were given a billion dollars to build a brain or machine that could experience super-happiness, how would you go about doing so?” Their response was that happiness/bliss only makes sense in relational terms (i.e. by interacting with others in the real world). Someone even said that “dopamine in the brain is just superficial happiness… authentic happiness requires you to gain meaning from what you do in the world.” This is a common view to take, but I would also point out that if it is possible to generate valence in artificial minds without human interactions, generating high valence could be done more directly. Finding methods to modulate valence would be done more efficiently by seeking out foundational qualia formalist accounts of valence.

(4) Bigger Role for the Combination Problem

The number of people who account for the binding problem (also called the combination or boundary problem) is vanishingly small. How and why consciousness appears as unitary is a deep philosophical problem that cannot be dismissed with simple appeals to illusionism or implicit information processing. In general, my sense has been that many neuroscientists, computer scientists, and philosophers of mind don’t spend much time thinking about the binding problem. I have planned an article that will go in depth about why it might be that people don’t take this problem more seriously. As David Pearce has eloquently argued, any scientific theory of consciousness has to explain the binding problem. Nowadays, almost no one addresses it (and much less compellingly provides any plausible solution to it). The conference did have one concurrent session called “Panpsychism and the Combination Problem” (which I couldn’t attend), and a few more people I interacted with seemed to care about it, but the proportion was very small.

(5) Bumping-up the Effect Size of Psi Phenomena (if they are real)

There is a significant amount of interest in Psi (parapsychology) from people attending this conference. I myself am agnostic about the matter. The Institute of Noetic Science (IONS) conducts interesting research in this area, and there are some studies that argue that publication bias cannot explain the effects observed. I am not convinced that other explanations have been ruled out, but I am sympathetic to people who try to study weird phenomena within a serious scientific framework (as you might tell from this article). What puzzles me is why there aren’t more people advocating for increasing the effect size of these effects in order to study them. Some data suggests that Psi (in the form of telepathy) is stronger with twins, meditators, people on psychedelics, and people who believe in Psi. But even then the effect sizes reported are tiny. Why not go all-in and try to max out the effect size by combining these features? I.e. why not conduct studies with twins who claim to have had psychic experiences, who meditate a lot, and who can handle high doses of LSD and ketamine in sensory deprivation tanks? If we could bump up the effect sizes far enough, maybe we could definitively settle the matter.

(6) And why not… also a lab component?

Finally, I think that trip reports by philosophically-literate cognitive scientists are much more valuable than trip reports by the average Joe. I would love to see a practical component to the conference someday. The sort of thing that would lead to publications like: “The Phenomenology of Candy-Flipping: An Empirical First-Person Investigation with Philosophers of Mind at a Consciousness Conference.”

Additional Observations

The Cards and Deck Types of Consciousness Theories

To make the analogy between Magic decks and theories of consciousness, we need to find a suitable interpretation for a card. In this case, I would posit that cards can be interpreted as either background assumptions, required criteria, emphasized empirical findings, and interpretations of phenomena. Let’s call these, generally, components of a theory.

Like we see in Magic, we will also find that some components support each other while others interact neutrally or mutually exclude each other. For example, if one’s theory of consciousness explicitly rejects the notion that quantum mechanics influences consciousness, then it is irrelevant whether one also postulates that the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics is correct. On the other hand, if one identifies the locus of consciousness to be in the microtubules inside pyramidal cells, then the particular interpretation of quantum mechanics one has is of paramount importance.

– Qualia Computing in Tucson: The Magic Analogy (2016)

In the 2016 writeup of the conference I pointed out that the dominant theories of consciousness (i.e. deck types in the above sense) were:

  1. Integrated Information Theory (IIT)
  2. Orchestrated Objective Reduction (Orch OR)
  3. Prediction Error Minimization (PEM)
  4. Global Neuronal Workspace Theory (GNWS)
  5. Panprotopsychist (not explicitly named)
  6. Nondual Consciousness Monism (not explicitly named)
  7. Consciousness as the Result of Action-Oriented Cognition (not explicitly named)
  8. Higher Order Thought Theory (HOT)

So how has the meta-game changed since then? Based on the plenary presentations, the concurrent sessions, the workshops, the posters, and my conversations with many of the participants, I’d say (without much objective proof) that the new meta-game now looks more or less like this:

  1. Orchestrated Objective Reduction (Orch OR)
  2. Integrated Information Theory (IIT)
  3. Entropic Brain Theory (EBT)
  4. Global Neuronal Workspace Theory (GNWS)
  5. Prediction Error Minimization (PEM)
  6. Panprotopsychist as a General Framework
  7. Harmonic-Resonant Theories of Consciousness

It seems that Higher Order Thought (HOT) theories of consciousness have fallen out of favor. Additionally, we have a new contender on the table: Harmonic-Resonant Theories of Consciousness is now slowly climbing up the list (which, it turns out, had already been in the water supply since 2006 when Steven Lehar attended the conference, but only now is gathering popular support).

Given the general telos of the conference, it is not surprising that deflationary theories of consciousness do not seem to have a strong representation. I found a few people here and there who would identify as illusionists, but there were not enough to deserve their place in a short-list of dominant deck types. I assume it would be rather unpleasant for people with this general view about consciousness to hang out with so many consciousness realists.

A good number of people I talked to admitted that they didn’t understand IIT, but that they nonetheless felt that something along the lines of irreducible causality was probably a big part of the explanation for consciousness. In contrast, we also saw a few interesting reactions to IIT – some people said “I hate IIT” and “don’t get me started on IIT”. It is unclear what is causing such reactions, but they are worth noting. Is this an allergic reaction to qualia formalism? We don’t have enough information at the moment to know.

Ontological Violence

The spiritual side of consciousness research is liable to overfocus on ethics and mood hacks rather than on truth-seeking. The problem is that a lot of people have emotionally load-bearing beliefs and points of view connected to how they see reality’s big plot. This is a generalized phenomenon, but its highest expression is found within spiritually-focused thinkers. Many of them come across as evangelizers rather than philosophers, scientists, explorers, or educators. For example: two years ago, David Pearce and I had an uncomfortable conversation with a lady who had a very negative reaction to Pearce’s take on suffering (i.e. that we should use biotechnology to eradicate it). She insisted suffering was part of life and that bliss can’t exist without it (a common argument for sure, but the problem was the intense emotional reaction and insistence on continuing the conversation until we had changed our minds).

We learned our lesson – if you suspect that a person has emotionally load-bearing beliefs about a grand plan or big spiritual telos, don’t mention you are trying to reduce suffering with biotechnology. It’s a gamble, and the chance for a pleasant interaction and meaningful exchange of ideas is not worth the risk of interpersonal friction, time investment, and the pointlessness of a potential ensuing heated discussion.

This brings me to an important matter…

Who are the people who are providing genuinely new contributions to the conversation?

There is a lot of noise in the field of consciousness research. Understandably, a lot of people react to this state of affairs with generalized skepticism (and even cynicism). In my experience, if you approach a neuroscientist in order to discuss consciousness, she will usually choose to simply listen to her priors rather than to you (no matter how philosophically rigorous and scientifically literate you may be).

And yet, at this conference and many other places, there are indeed a lot of people who have something new and valuable to contribute to our understanding of consciousness. So who are they? What allows a person to make a novel contribution?

I would suggest that people who fall into one of the following four categories have a higher chance of this:

  1. People who have new information
  2. Great synthesizers
  3. Highly creative people with broad knowledge of the field
  4. New paradigm proposers

For (1): This can take one of three forms: (a) New information about phenomenology (i.e. rational psychonauts with strong interpretation and synthesis skills). (b) New third-person data (i.e. as provided by scientists who conduct new research on e.g. neuroimaging). And (c) new information on how to map third-person data to phenomenology, especially about rare states of consciousness (i.e. as obtained from people who have both access to third-person data sources and excellent experienced phenomenologists). (a) Is very hard to come by because most psychonauts and meditators fall for one or more traps (e.g. believing in the tyranny of the intentional object, being direct realists, being dogmatic about a given pre-scientific metaphysic, etc.). (b) Is constrained by the number of labs and the current Kuhnian paradigms within which they work. And (c) is not only rare, but currently nonexistent. Hence, there are necessarily few people who can contribute to the broader conversation about consciousness by bringing new information to the table.

For (2): Great synthesizers are hard to come by. They do not need to generate new paradigms or have new information. What they have is the key ability to find what the novel contribution in a given proposal is. They gather what is similar and different across paradigms, and make effective lossless compressions – saving us all valuable time, reducing confusion, and facilitating the cross-pollination between various disciplines and paradigms. This requires the ability to extract what matters from large volumes of extremely detailed and paradigm-specific literature. Hence, it is also rare to find great synthesizers.

For (3): Being able to pose new questions, and generate weird but not random hypotheses can often be very useful. Likewise, being able to think of completely outrageous outside-the-box views might be key for advancing our understanding of consciousness. That said, non-philosophers tend to underestimate just how weird an observation about consciousness needs to be for it to be new. This in practice constrains the range of people able to contribute in this way to people who are themselves fairly well acquainted with a broad range of theories of consciousness. That said, I suspect that this could be remedied by forming groups of people who bring different talents to the table. In Peaceful Qualia I discussed a potential empirical approach for investigating consciousness which involves having people who specialize in various aspects of the problem (e.g. being great psychonauts, excellent third-person experimentalists, high-quality synthesizers, solid computational modelers, and so on). But until then, I do not anticipate much progress will come from people who are simply very smart and creative – they also need to have either privileged information (such as what you get from combining weird drugs and brain-computer interfaces), or be very knowledgeable about what is going on in the field.

And (4): This is the most difficult and rarest of all, for it requires some degree of the previous three attributes. Their work wouldn’t be possible without the work of many other people in the previous three categories. Yet, of course, they will be the most world-changing of them all. Explicitly, this is the role that we are aiming for at the Qualia Research Institute.

In addition to the above, there are other ways of making highly valuable contributions to the conversation. An example would be those individuals who have become living expressions of current theories of consciousness. That is, people who have deeply understood some paradigm and can propose paradigm-consistent explanations for completely new evidence. E.g. people who can quickly figure out “what would Tononi say about X?” no matter how weird X is. It is my view that one can learn a lot from people in this category. That said… don’t ever expect to change their minds!

A Final Suggestion: Philosophical Speed Dating

To conclude, I would like to make a suggestion in order to increase the value of this and similar conferences: philosophical speed dating. This might be valuable for two reasons. First, I think that a large percentage of people who attend TSC are craving interactions with others who also wonder about consciousness. After all, being intrigued and fascinated by this topic is not very common. Casual interest? Sure. But obsessive curiosity? Pretty uncommon. And most people who attend TCS are in the latter category. At the same time, it is never very pleasant to interact with people who are likely to simply not understand where you are coming from. The diversity of views is so large that finding a person with whom you can have a cogent and fruitful conversation is quite difficult for a lot of people. A Philosophical Speed Dating session in which people quickly state things like their interest in consciousness, take on qualia, preferred approaches, favorite authors, paradigm affinities, etc. would allow philosophical kindred souls to meet at a much higher rate.

And second, in the context of advancing the collective conversation about consciousness, I have found that having people who know where you are coming from (and either share or understand your background assumptions) is the best way to go. The best conversations I’ve had with people usually arise when we have a strong base of shared knowledge and intuitions, but disagree on one or two key points we can identify and meaningfully address. Thus a Philosophical Speed Dating session could lead to valuable collaborations.

And with that, I would like to say: If you do find our approach interesting or worth pursuing, do get in touch.

Till next time, Tucson!


* In Chalmer’s paper about the Meta-Problem of Consciousness he describes his reason for investigating the subject: “Upon hearing about this article, some people have wondered whether I am converting to illusionism, while others have suspected that I am trying to subvert the illusionist program for opposing purposes. Neither reaction is quite correct. I am really interested in the meta-problem as a problem in its own right. But if one wants to place the paper within the framework of old battles, one might think of it as lending opponents a friendly helping hand.” The quality of a philosopher should not be determined only by their ability to make a good case for their views, but also by the capacity to talk convincingly about their opponent’s. And on that metric, David is certainly world-class.

Qualia Research Institute presentations at The Science of Consciousness 2018 (Tucson, AZ)

As promised, here are the presentations Michael Johnson and I gave in Tucson last week to represent the Qualia Research Institute.

Here is Michael’s presentation:

And here is my presentation:


On a related note:

  1. Ziff Davis PCMag published an interview with me in anticipation of the conference.
  2. An ally of QRI, Tomas Frymann, gave a wonderful presentation about Open Individualism titled “Consciousness as Interbeing: Identity on the Other Side of Self-Transcendence
  3. As a bonus, here is the philosophy of mind stand-up comedy sketch I performed at their Poetry Slam, which took place on Friday night (you should likewise check out their classic Zombie Blues).

Modern Accounts of Psychedelic Action

Excerpts from Unifying Theories of Psychedelic Drug Effects (2018) by Link Swanson (these are just key quotes; the full paper is worth reading)

Abstract

How do psychedelic drugs produce their characteristic range of acute effects in perception, emotion, cognition, and sense of self? How do these effects relate to the clinical efficacy of psychedelic-assisted therapies? Efforts to understand psychedelic phenomena date back more than a century in Western science. In this article I review theories of psychedelic drug effects and highlight key concepts which have endured over the last 125 years of psychedelic science. First, I describe the subjective phenomenology of acute psychedelic effects using the best available data. Next, I review late 19th-century and early 20th-century theories—model psychoses theory, filtration theory, and psychoanalytic theory—and highlight their shared features. I then briefly review recent findings on the neuropharmacology and neurophysiology of psychedelic drugs in humans. Finally, I describe recent theories of psychedelic drug effects which leverage 21st-century cognitive neuroscience frameworks—entropic brain theory, integrated information theory, and predictive processing—and point out key shared features that link back to earlier theories. I identify an abstract principle which cuts across many theories past and present: psychedelic drugs perturb universal brain processes that normally serve to constrain neural systems central to perception, emotion, cognition, and sense of self. I conclude that making an explicit effort to investigate the principles and mechanisms of psychedelic drug effects is a uniquely powerful way to iteratively develop and test unifying theories of brain function.


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Subjective rating scale items selected after psilocybin (blue) and placebo (red) (n = 15) (Muthukumaraswamy et al., 2013). “Items were completed using a visual analog scale format, with a bottom anchor of ‘no, not more than usually’ and a top anchor of ‘yes, much more than usually’ for every item, with the exception of ‘I felt entirely normal,’ which had bottom and top anchors of ‘No, I experienced a different state altogether’ and ‘Yes, I felt just as I normally do,’ respectively. Shown are the mean ratings for 15 participants plus the positive SEMs. All items marked with an asterisk were scored significantly higher after psilocybin than placebo infusion at a Bonferroni-corrected significance level of p < 0.0022 (0.5/23 items)” (Muthukumaraswamy et al., 2013, p. 15176).


Neuropharmacology and Neurophysiological Correlates of Psychedelic Drug Effects

Klee recognized that his above hypotheses, inspired by psychoanalytic theory and LSD effects, required neurophysiological evidence. “As far as I am aware, however, adequate neurophysiological evidence is lacking … The long awaited millennium in which biochemical, physiological, and psychological processes can be freely correlated still seems a great distance off” (Klee, 1963, p. 466, 473). What clues have recent investigations uncovered?

A psychedelic drug molecule impacts a neuron by binding to and altering the conformation of receptors on the surface of the neuron (Nichols, 2016). The receptor interaction most implicated in producing classic psychedelic drug effects is agonist or partial agonist activity at serotonin (5-HT) receptor type 2A (5-HT2A) (Nichols, 2016). A molecule’s propensity for 5-HT2A affinity and agonist activity predicts its potential for (and potency of) subjective psychedelic effects (Glennon et al., 1984McKenna et al., 1990Halberstadt, 2015Nichols, 2016Rickli et al., 2016). When a psychedelic drug’s 5-HT2A agonist activity is intentionally blocked using 5-HT2A antagonist drugs (e.g., ketanserin), the subjective effects are blocked or attenuated in humans under psilocybin (Vollenweider et al., 1998Kometer et al., 2013), LSD (Kraehenmann et al., 2017a,bPreller et al., 2017), and ayahuasca (Valle et al., 2016). Importantly, while the above evidence makes it clear that 5-HT2A activation is a necessary (if not sufficient) mediator of the hallmark subjective effects of classic psychedelic drugs, this does not entail that 5-HT2A activation is the sole neurochemical cause of all subjective effects. For example, 5-HT2A activation might trigger neurochemical modulations ‘downstream’ (e.g., changes in glutamate transmission) which could also play causal roles in producing psychedelic effects (Nichols, 2016). Moreover, most psychedelic drug molecules activate other receptors in addition to 5-HT2A (e.g., 5-HT1A, 5-HT2C, dopamine, sigma, etc.) and these activations may importantly contribute to the overall profile of subjective effects even if 5-HT2A activation is required for their effects to occur (Ray, 20102016).

How does psychedelic drug-induced 5-HT2A receptor agonism change the behavior of the host neuron? Generally, 5-HT2A activation has a depolarizing effect on the neuron, making it more excitable (more likely to fire) (Andrade, 2011Nichols, 2016). Importantly, this does not necessarily entail that 5-HT2Aactivation will have an overall excitatory effect throughout the brain, particularly if the excitation occurs in inhibitory neurons (Andrade, 2011). This important consideration (captured by the adage ‘one neuron’s excitation is another neuron’s inhibition’) should be kept in mind when tracing causal links in the pharmaco-neurophysiology of psychedelic drug effects.

In mammalian brains, neurons tend to ‘fire together’ in synchronized rhythms known as temporal oscillations (brain waves). MEG and EEG equipment measure the electromagnetic disturbances produced by the temporal oscillations of large neural populations and these measurements can be quantified according to their amplitude (power) and frequency (timing) (Buzsáki and Draguhn, 2004). Specific combinations of frequency and amplitude can be correlated with distinct brain states, including waking ‘resting’ state, various attentional tasks, anesthesia, REM sleep, and deep sleep (Tononi and Koch, 2008Atasoy et al., 2017a). In what ways do temporal oscillations change under psychedelic drugs? MEG and EEG studies consistently show reductions in oscillatory power across a broad frequency range under ayahuasca (Riba et al., 20022004Schenberg et al., 2015Valle et al., 2016), psilocybin (Muthukumaraswamy et al., 2013Kometer et al., 2015Schartner et al., 2017), and LSD (Carhart-Harris et al., 2016cSchartner et al., 2017). Reductions in the power of alpha-band oscillations, localized mainly to parietal and occipital cortex, have been correlated with intensity of subjective visual effects—e.g., ‘I saw geometric patterns’ or ‘My imagination was extremely vivid’—under psilocybin (Kometer et al., 2013Muthukumaraswamy et al., 2013Schartner et al., 2017) and ayahuasca (Riba et al., 2004Valle et al., 2016). Under LSD, reductions in alpha power still correlated with intensity of subjective visual effects but associated alpha reductions were more widely distributed throughout the brain (Carhart-Harris et al., 2016c). Furthermore, ego-dissolution effects and mystical-type experiences (e.g., ‘I experienced a disintegration of my “self” or “ego”’ or ‘The experience had a supernatural quality’) have been correlated with reductions in alpha power localized to anterior and posterior cingulate cortices and the parahippocampal regions under psilocybin (Muthukumaraswamy et al., 2013Kometer et al., 2015) and throughout the brain under LSD (Carhart-Harris et al., 2016c).

The concept of functional connectivity rests upon fMRI brain imaging observations that reveal temporal correlations of activity occurring in spatially remote regions of the brain which form highly structured patterns (brain networks) (Buckner et al., 2013). Imaging of brains during perceptual or cognitive task performance reveals patterns of functional connectivity known as functional networks; e.g., control network, dorsal attention network, ventral attention network, visual network, auditory network, and so on. Imaging brains in taskless resting conditions reveals resting-state functional connectivity (RSFC) and structured patterns of RSFC known as resting state networks (RSNs; Deco et al., 2011). One particular RSN, the default mode network (DMN; Buckner et al., 2008), increases activity in the absence of tasks and decreases activity during task performance (Fox and Raichle, 2007). DMN activity is strong during internally directed cognition and a variety of other ‘metacognitive’ functions (Buckner et al., 2008). DMN activation in normal waking states exhibits ‘inverse coupling’ or anticorrelation with the activation of task-positive functional networks, meaning that DMN and functional networks are often mutually exclusive; one deactivates as the other activates and vice versa (Fox and Raichle, 2007).

In what ways does brain network connectivity change under psychedelic drugs? First, functional connectivity between key ‘hub’ areas—mPFC and PCC—is reduced. Second, the ‘strength’ or oscillatory power of the DMN is weakened and its intrinsic functional connectivity becomes disintegrated as its component nodes become decoupled under psilocybin (Carhart-Harris et al., 20122013), ayahuasca (Palhano-Fontes et al., 2015), and LSD (Carhart-Harris et al., 2016cSpeth et al., 2016). Third, brain networks that normally show anticorrelation become active simultaneously under psychedelic drugs. This situation, which can be described as increased between-network functional connectivity, occurs under psilocybin (Carhart-Harris et al., 20122013Roseman et al., 2014Tagliazucchi et al., 2014), ayahuasca (Palhano-Fontes et al., 2015) and especially LSD (Carhart-Harris et al., 2016cTagliazucchi et al., 2016). Fourth and finally, the overall repertoire of explored functional connectivity motifs is substantially expanded and its informational dynamics become more diverse and entropic compared with normal waking states (Tagliazucchi et al., 20142016Alonso et al., 2015Lebedev et al., 2016Viol et al., 2016Atasoy et al., 2017bSchartner et al., 2017). Notably, the magnitude of occurrence of the above four neurodynamical themes correlates with subjective intensity of psychedelic effects during the drug session. Furthermore, visual cortex is activated during eyes-closed psychedelic visual imagery (de Araujo et al., 2012Carhart-Harris et al., 2016c) and under LSD “the early visual system behaves ‘as if’ it were receiving spatially localized visual information” as V1-V3 RSFC is activated in a retinotopic fashion (Roseman et al., 2016, p. 3036).

Taken together, the recently discovered neurophysiological correlates of subjective psychedelic effects present an important puzzle for 21st-century neuroscience. A key clue is that 5-HT2A receptor agonism leads to desynchronization of oscillatory activity, disintegration of intrinsic integrity in the DMN and related brain networks, and an overall brain dynamic characterized by increased between-network global functional connectivity, expanded signal diversity, and a larger repertoire of structured neurophysiological activation patterns. Crucially, these characteristic traits of psychedelic brain activity have been correlated with the phenomenological dynamics and intensity of subjective psychedelic effects.


21st-Century Theories of Psychedelic Drug Effects

Entropic Brain Theory

Entropic Brain Theory (EBT; Carhart-Harris et al., 2014) links the phenomenology and neurophysiology of psychedelic effects by characterizing both in terms of the quantitative notions of entropy and uncertainty. Entropy is a quantitative index of a system’s (physical) disorder or randomness which can simultaneously describe its (informational) uncertainty. EBT “proposes that the quality of any conscious state depends on the system’s entropy measured via key parameters of brain function” (Carhart-Harris et al., 2014, p. 1). Their hypothesis states that hallmark psychedelic effects (e.g., perceptual destabilization, cognitive flexibility, ego dissolution) can be mapped directly onto elevated levels of entropy/uncertainty measured in brain activity, e.g., widened repertoire of functional connectivity patterns, reduced anticorrelation of brain networks, and desynchronization of RSN activity. More specifically, EBT characterizes the difference between psychedelic states and normal waking states in terms of how the underlying brain dynamics are positioned on a scale between the two extremes of order and disorder—a concept known as ‘self-organized criticality’ (Beggs and Plenz, 2003). A system with high order (low entropy) exhibits dynamics that resemble ‘petrification’ and are relatively inflexible but more stable, while a system with low order (high entropy) exhibits dynamics that resemble ‘formlessness’ and are more flexible but less stable. The notion of ‘criticality’ describes the transition zone in which the brain remains poised between order and disorder. Physical systems at criticality exhibit increased transient ‘metastable’ states, increased sensitivity to perturbation, and increased propensity for cascading ‘avalanches’ of metastable activity. Importantly, EBT points out that these characteristics are consistent with psychedelic phenomenology, e.g., hypersensitivity to external stimuli, broadened range of experiences, or rapidly shifting perceptual and mental contents. Furthermore, EBT uses the notion of criticality to characterize the difference between psychedelic states and normal waking states as it “describes cognition in adult modern humans as ‘near critical’ but ‘sub-critical’—meaning that its dynamics are poised in a position between the two extremes of formlessness and petrification where there is an optimal balance between order and flexibility” (Carhart-Harris et al., 2014, p. 12). EBT hypothesizes that psychedelic drugs interfere with ‘entropy-suppression’ brain mechanisms which normally sustain sub-critical brain dynamics, thus bringing the brain “closer to criticality in the psychedelic state” (Carhart-Harris et al., 2014, p. 12).


Integrated Information Theory

Integrated Information Theory (IIT) is a general theoretical framework which describes the relationship between consciousness and its physical substrates (Oizumi et al., 2014Tononi, 20042008). While EBT is already loosely consistent with the core principles of IIT, Gallimore (2015) demonstrates how EBT’s hypotheses can be operationalized using the technical concepts of the IIT framework. Using EBT and recent neuroimaging data as a foundation, Gallimore develops an IIT-based model of psychedelic effects. Consistent with EBT, this IIT-based model describes the brain’s continual challenge of minimizing entropy while retaining flexibility. Gallimore formally restates this problem using IIT parameters: brains attempt to optimize the give-and-take dynamic between cause-effect information and cognitive flexibility. In IIT, a (neural) system generates cause-effect information when the mechanisms which make up its current state constrain the set of states which could casually precede or follow the current state. In other words, each mechanistic state of the brain: (1) limits the set of past states which could have causally given rise to it, and (2) limits the set of future states which can causally follow from it. Thus, each current state of the mechanisms within a neural system (or subsystem) has an associated cause-effect repertoire which specifies a certain amount of cause-effect information as a function of how stringently it constrains the unconstrained state repertoire of all possible system states. Increasing the entropy within a cause-effect repertoire will in effect constrain the system less stringently as the causal possibilities are expanded in both temporal directions as the system moves closer to its unconstrained repertoire of all possible states. Moreover, increasing the entropy within a cause-effect repertoire equivalently increases the uncertainty associated with its past (and future) causal interactions. Using this IIT-based framework, Gallimore (2015)argues that, compared with normal waking states, psychedelic brain states exhibit higher entropy, higher cognitive flexibility, but lower cause-effect information.


Predictive Processing

The first modern brain imaging measurements in humans under psilocybin yielded somewhat unexpected results: reductions in oscillatory power (MEG) and cerebral blood flow (fMRI) correlated with the intensity of subjective psychedelic effects (Carhart-Harris et al., 2012Muthukumaraswamy et al., 2013). In their discussion, the authors suggest that their findings, although surprising through the lens of commonly held beliefs about how brain activity maps to subjective phenomenology, may actually be consistent with a theory of brain function known as the free energy principle (FEP; Friston, 2010).

In one model of global brain function based on the free-energy principle (Friston, 2010), activity in deep-layer projection neurons encodes top-down inferences about the world. Speculatively, if deep-layer pyramidal cells were to become hyperexcitable during the psychedelic state, information processing would be biased in the direction of inference—such that implicit models of the world become spontaneously manifest—intruding into consciousness without prior invitation from sensory data. This could explain many of the subjective effects of psychedelics (Muthukumaraswamy et al., 2013, p. 15181).

What is FEP? “In this view, the brain is an inference machine that actively predicts and explains its sensations. Central to this hypothesis is a probabilistic model that can generate predictions, against which sensory samples are tested to update beliefs about their causes” (Friston, 2010). FEP is a formulation of a broader conceptual framework emerging in cognitive neuroscience known as predictive processing (PP; Clark, 2013)10. PP has links to bayesian brain hypothesis (Knill and Pouget, 2004), predictive coding (Rao and Ballard, 1999), and earlier theories of perception and cognition (MacKay, 1956Neisser, 1967Gregory, 1968) dating back to Helmholtz (1925) who was inspired by Kant (1996; see Swanson, 2016). At the turn of the 21st century, the ideas of Helmholtz catalyzed innovations in machine learning (Dayan et al., 1995), new understandings of cortical organization (Mumford, 1992Friston, 2005), and theories of how perception works (Kersten and Yuille, 2003Lee and Mumford, 2003).


Conclusion

The four key features identified in filtration and psychoanalytic accounts from the late 19th and early 20th century continue to operate in 21st-century cognitive neuroscience: (1) psychedelic drugs produce their characteristic diversity of effects because they perturb adaptive mechanisms which normally constrain perception, emotion, cognition, and self-reference, (2) these adaptive mechanisms can develop pathologies rooted in either too much or too little constraint (3) psychedelic effects appear to share elements with psychotic symptoms because both involve weakened constraints (4) psychedelic drugs are therapeutically useful precisely because they offer a way to temporarily inhibit these adaptive constraints. It is on these four points that EBT, IIT, and PP seem consistent with each other and with earlier filtration and psychoanalytic accounts. EBT and IIT describe psychedelic brain dynamics and link them to phenomenological dynamics, while PP describes informational principles and plausible neural information exchanges which might underlie the larger-scale dynamics described by EBT and IIT. Certain descriptions of neural entropy-suppression mechanisms (EBT), cause-effect information constraints (IIT), or prediction-error minimization strategies (PP, FEP) are loosely consistent with Freud’s ego and Huxley’s cerebral reducing valve.


Qualia Computing comment: As you can see above, 21st century theories of psychedelic action have a lot of interesting commonalities. A one-line summary of what they all agree on could be: Psychedelics increase the available state-space of consciousness by removing constraints that are normally imposed by standard brain functioning. That said, they do not make specific predictions about valence. That is, they leave the question of “which alien states of consciousness will feel good and which ones will feel bad” completely unaddressed. In the following posts about the presentations of members of the Qualia Research Institute at The Science of Consciousness 2018 you will see how, unlike other modern accounts, our Qualia Formalist approach to consciousness can elucidate this matter.

What If God Were a Closed Individualist Presentist Hedonistic Utilitarian With an Information-Theoretic Identity of Indiscernibles Ontology?

Extract from “Unsong” (chapter 18):

There’s an old Jewish childrens’ song called Had Gadya. It starts:

A little goat, a little goat
My father bought for two silver coins,
A little goat, a little goat

Then came the cat that ate the goat
My father bought for two silver coins
A little goat, a little goat

Then came that dog that bit the cat…

And so on. A stick hits the dog, a fire burns the stick, water quenches the fire, an ox drinks the water, a butcher slaughters the ox, the Angel of Death takes the butcher, and finally God destroys the Angel of Death. Throughout all of these verses, it is emphasized that it is indeed a little goat, and the father did indeed buy it for two silver coins.

[…]

As far as I know, no one has previously linked this song to the Lurianic Kabbalah. So I will say it: the deepest meaning of Had Gadya is a description of how and why God created the world. As an encore, it also resolves the philosophical problem of evil.

The most prominent Biblical reference to a goat is the scapegoating ritual. Once a year, the High Priest of Israel would get rid of the sins of the Jewish people by mystically transferring all of them onto a goat, then yelling at the goat until it ran off somewhere, presumably taking all the sin with it.

The thing is, at that point the goat contained an entire nation-year worth of sin. That goat was super evil. As a result, many religious and mystical traditions have associated unholy forces with goats ever since, from the goat demon Baphomet to the classical rather goat-like appearance of Satan.

So the goat represents evil. I’ll go along with everyone else saying the father represents God here. So God buys evil with two silver coins. What’s up?

The most famous question in theology is “Why did God create a universe filled with so much that is evil?” The classical answers tend to be kind of weaselly, and center around something like free will or necessary principles or mysterious ways. Something along the lines of “Even though God’s omnipotent, creating a universe without evil just isn’t possible.”

But here we have God buying evil with two silver coins. Buying to me represents an intentional action. Let’s go further – buying represents a sacrifice. Buying is when you sacrifice something dear to you to get something you want even more. Evil isn’t something God couldn’t figure out how to avoid, it’s something He covets.

What did God sacrifice for the sake of evil? Two silver coins. We immediately notice the number “two”. Two is not typically associated with God. God is One. Two is right out. The kabbalists identify the worst demon, the nadir of all demons, as Thamiel, whose name means “duality in God”. Two is dissonance, divorce, division, dilemmas, distance, discrimination, diabolism.

This, then, was God’s sacrifice. In order to create evil, He took up duality.

“Why would God want to create evil? God is pure Good!”

Exactly. The creation of anything at all other than God requires evil. God is perfect. Everything else is imperfect. Imperfection contains evil by definition. Two scoops of evil is the first ingredient in the recipe for creating universes. Finitude is evil. Form is evil. Without evil all you have is God, who, as the kabbalists tell us, is pure Nothing. If you want something, evil is part of the deal.

Now count the number of creatures in the song. God, angel, butcher, ox, water, fire, stick, dog, cat, goat. Ten steps from God to goat. This is the same description of the ten sephirot we’ve found elsewhere, the ten levels by which God’s ineffability connects to the sinful material world without destroying it. This is not a coincidence because nothing is ever a coincidence. Had Gadya isn’t just a silly children’s song about the stages of advancement of the human soul, the appropriate rituals for celebrating Passover in the Temple, the ancient Sumerian pantheon, and the historical conquests of King Tiglath-Pileser III. It’s also a blueprint for the creation of the universe. Just like everything else.


(see also: ANSWER TO JOB)

Every Qualia Computing Article Ever

 The three main goals of Qualia Computing are to:

  1. Catalogue the entire state-space of consciousness
  2. Identify the computational properties of experience, and
  3. Reverse engineer valence (i.e. discover the function that maps formal descriptions of states of consciousness to values along the pleasure-pain axis)

Core Philosophy (2016)

2018

Qualia Formalism in the Water Supply: Reflections on The Science of Consciousness 2018 (long)

Qualia Research Institute presentations at The Science of Consciousness 2018 (Tucson, AZ)

Modern Accounts of Psychedelic Action (quote)

From Point-of-View Fragmentation to Global Visual Coherence: Harmony, Symmetry, and Resonance on LSD (mostly quote/long)

What If God Were a Closed Individualist Presentist Hedonistic Utilitarian With an Information-Theoretic Identity of Indiscernibles Ontology? (quote)

Every Qualia Computing Article Ever

Qualia Computing Attending The Science of Consciousness 2018

Everything in a Nutshell (quote)

2017

Would Maximally Efficient Work Be Fun? (quote)

The Universal Plot: Part I – Consciousness vs. Pure Replicators (long)

No-Self vs. True Self (quote)

Qualia Manifesto (quote)

What Makes Tinnitus, Depression, and the Sound of the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) so Awful: Dissonance

Traps of the God Realm (quote)

Avoid Runaway Signaling in Effective Altruism (transcript)

Burning Man (long)

Mental Health as an EA Cause: Key Questions

24 Predictions for the Year 3000 by David Pearce (quote)

Why I think the Foundational Research Institute should rethink its approach (quote/long)

Quantifying Bliss: Talk Summary (long)

Connectome-Specific Harmonic Waves on LSD (transcript)

ELI5 “The Hyperbolic Geometry of DMT Experiences”

Qualia Computing at Consciousness Hacking (June 7th 2017)

Principia Qualia: Part II – Valence(quote)

The Penfield Mood Organ (quote)

The Most Important Philosophical Question

The Forces At Work (quote)

Psychedelic Science 2017: Take-aways, impressions, and what’s next (long)

How Every Fairy Tale Should End

Political Peacocks (quote)

OTC remedies for RLS (quote)

Their Scientific Significance is Hard to Overstate (quote)

Memetic Vaccine Against Interdimensional Aliens Infestation (quote)

Raising the Table Stakes for Successful Theories of Consciousness

Qualia Computing Attending the 2017 Psychedelic Science Conference

GHB vs. MDMA (quote)

Hedonium

2016

The Binding Problem (quote)

The Hyperbolic Geometry of DMT Experiences: Symmetries, Sheets, and Saddled Scenes (long)

Thinking in Numbers (quote)

Praise and Blame are Instrumental (quote)

The Tyranny of the Intentional Object

Schrödinger’s Neurons: David Pearce at the “2016 Science of Consciousness” conference in Tucson

Beyond Turing: A Solution to the Problem of Other Minds Using Mindmelding and Phenomenal Puzzles

Core Philosophy

David Pearce on the “Schrodinger’s Neurons Conjecture” (quote)

Samadhi (quote)

Panpsychism and Compositionality: A solution to the hard problem (quote)

LSD and Quantum Measurements: Can you see Schrödinger’s cat both dead and alive on acid? (long)

Empathetic Super-Intelligence

Wireheading Done Right: Stay Positive Without Going Insane (long)

Just the fate of our forward light-cone

Information-Sensitive Gradients of Bliss (quote)

A Single 3N-Dimensional Universe: Splitting vs. Decoherence (quote)

Algorithmic Reduction of Psychedelic States (long)

So Why Can’t My Boyfriend Communicate? (quote)

The Mating Mind

Psychedelic alignment cascades (quote)

36 Textures of Confusion

Work Religion (quote)

Qualia Computing in Tucson: The Magic Analogy

In Praise of Systematic Empathy

David Pearce on “Making Sentience Great” (quote)

Philosophy of Mind Diagrams

Ontological Runaway Scenario

Peaceful Qualia: The Manhattan Project of Consciousness (long)

Qualia Computing So Far

You are not a zombie (quote)

What’s the matter? It’s Schrödinger, Heisenberg and Dirac’s (quote)

The Biointelligence Explosion (quote)

A (Very) Unexpected Argument Against General Relativity As A Complete Account Of The Cosmos

Status Quo Bias

The Super-Shulgin Academy: A Singularity I Can Believe In (long)

The effect of background assumptions on psychedelic research

2015

An ethically disastrous cognitive dissonance…

Some Definitions (quote)

Who should know about suffering?

Ontological Qualia: The Future of Personal Identity (long)

Google Hedonics

Solutions to World Problems

Why does anything exist? (quote)

State-Space of Background Assumptions

Personal Identity Joke

Getting closer to digital LSD

Psychedelic Perception of Visual Textures 2: Going Meta

On Triviality (quote)

State-Space of Drug Effects: Results

How to secretly communicate with people on LSD

Generalized Wada Test and the Total Order of Consciousness

State-space of drug effects

Psychophysics for Psychedelic Research: Textures (long)

I only vote for politicians who have used psychedelics. EOM.

Why not computing qualia?

David Pearce’s daily morning cocktail (2015) (quote)

Psychedelic Perception of Visual Textures

Should humans wipe out all carnivorous animals so the succeeding generations of herbivores can live in peace? (quote)

A workable solution to the problem of other minds

The fire that breathes reality into the equations of physics (quote)

Phenomenal Binding is incompatible with the Computational Theory of Mind

David Hamilton’s conversation with Alf Bruce about the nature of the mind (quote)

Manifolds of Consciousness: The emerging geometries of iterated local binding

The Real Tree of Life

Phenomenal puzzles – CIELAB

The psychedelic future of consciousness

Not zero-sum

Discussion of Fanaticism (quote)

What does comparatively matter in 2015?

Suffering: Not what your sober mind tells you (quote)

Reconciling memetics and religion.

The Reality of Basement Reality

The future of love

2014

And that’s why we can and cannot have nice things

Breaking the Thought Barrier: Ethics of Brain Computer Interfaces in the workplace

How bad does it get? (quote)

God in Buddhism

Practical metaphysics

Little known fun fact

Crossing borders (quote)

A simple mystical explanation

 


Bolded titles mean that the linked article is foundational: it introduces new concepts, vocabulary, heuristics, research methods, frameworks, and/or thought experiments that are important for the overall project of consciousness research. These tend to be articles that also discuss concepts in much greater depth than other articles.

The “long” tag means that the post has at least 4,000 words. Most of these long articles are in the 6,000 to 10,000 word range. The longest Qualia Computing article is the one about Burning Man which is about 13,500 words long (and also happens to be foundational as it introduces many new frameworks and concepts).

Quotes and transcripts are usually about: evolutionary psychology, philosophy of mind, ethics, neuroscience, physics, meditation, and/or psychedelic phenomenology. By far, David Pearce is the most quoted person on Qualia Computing.


Fast stats:

  • Total number of posts: 118
  • Foundational articles: 27
  • Articles over 4,000 words: 15
  • Original content: 73
  • Quotes and transcripts: 45

 

Qualia Computing Attending The Science of Consciousness 2018

It is my pleasure to announce that the two abstracts we submitted on behalf of the Qualia Research Institute were accepted to The Science of Consciousness 2018. I attended this conference with David Pearce two years ago, had a really good time, and made a lot of great connections. I wrote a summary of the experience here: Qualia Computing in Tucson: The Magic Analogy. I also uploaded David Pearce’s presentation (see David’s comments). If you are interested in scientific approaches to consciousness I would highly recommend you check it out.

This year we will be focusing on scientific theories of valence. If you follow Qualia Computing you will know that we have been exploring what we call the Symmetry Theory of Valence. More so, we have been developing ways of testing this theory, such as using Selen Atasoy’s brain-harmonic decomposition of brain activity and a generalization of the concept of dissonance to quantify this symmetry and see if it (empirically) correlates with self-reported valence. For a detailed discussion about this prediction read: Quantifying Bliss.

This year I will be going with Michael Johnson (see picture below). If you are going to the conference and happen to see us around, don’t be afraid to say hi. We are always happy to get to know our readers and to discuss collaboration opportunities.

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Michael E. Johnson & Andrés Gómez Emilsson

Below you can find the two abstracts that we submitted:


Title: Heuristics For Interpreting The Output Of Formal Panpsychist Theories Of Consciousness

Author: Michael E. Johnson

Primary Topic Area: Ontology of consciousness

Secondary Topic Area: Panpsychism, neutral monism, and idealism

Abstract: IIT, Orch-OR, Perceptronium, and other panpsychist approaches to formalizing consciousness have been gaining traction in recent years (Oizumi, Albantakis & Tononi 2014; Hameroff & Penrose 1996, 2014; Penrose & Hameroff 2011; Tegmark 2014; Barrett 2014). However, relatively little effort has been spent on interpreting the formal output of such theories. We briefly outline the problem, suggest four heuristics for addressing it, and offer the preliminary fruits of these heuristics, the Symmetry Theory of Valence. First, we offer that a theory of consciousness is “formal” insofar as it acts as an objective translation function, wherein one feeds in facts about a system, with the output result being a mathematical object isomorphic to the phenomenology of that system (Oizumi et al. 2014; Tsuchiya, Taguchi & Saigo 2016). As such, we can consider theoretical formality on a continuum, with IIT and Orch-OR on the ‘more formal’ end, and theories such as Global Workspace Theory on the ‘less formal’ end. However, even if progress continues apace and we settle on the correct method by which to objectively derive mathematical objects isomorphic to any system’s qualia, we’ll still be faced with the challenge of interpreting what such a formalism means: which features of this mathematical object correspond to which specific qualia (Balduzzi & Tononi 2009). To address this challenge, we take advantage of the bidirectional nature of the isomorphism and note that distinctions about the mathematical output of (e.g.) IIT or Orch-OR also apply to the qualia it represents and vice-versa; this gives us a framework for combining intuition and formal methods in order to reverse-engineer specific qualia. As a first pass, we offer that a quale (and its mathematical representation) can be (1) local vs global; (2) simple vs complex; (3) atomic vs composite; (4) intuitively important vs intuitively trivial. And so if we can determine that a given quale is e.g. global, simple, atomic, and intuitively important, so too is its mathematical representation, and vice-versa. Based on this analysis, we identify emotional valence, or the ‘hedonic gloss’ of experience (Frijda 2006, 2009; Aldridge & Berridge 2009; Ryle 1954) as a plausible first candidate for reverse-engineering (“the c. elegans of qualia”), and suggest the Symmetry Theory of Valence: given a mathematical object isomorphic to the phenomenology of a system, the property of that object which corresponds with how pleasant it is to be that system will be the object’s symmetry. Lastly, we extend this to empirical predictions and implications for the further development of Orch-OR and IIT.


Title: Quantifying Bliss With Microtubules And Brain Connectome Harmonics: Empirically Testable Hypotheses For Valence

Author: Andres Gomez Emilsson

Primary Topic Area: Emotion

Secondary Topic Area: Qualia

Abstract: What makes an experience blissful? Can bliss ever be quantified? Emotion is usually factored along two main axes: arousal (energy level) and valence (the pleasure-pain axis). High valence (i.e. highly blissful) states of consciousness include: orgasm, romantic love, deep sleep, concentration meditation (so-called “Jhana states”), psychedelic ecstasy, and so on. Low valence states include: depression, anxiety, bodily discomfort, and the experiential quality of listening to dissonance. Confusingly, we also experience neutral as well as mixed states of consciousness. An explanatory framework that ties together these disparate experiences in a coherent way is needed, such that valence becomes objectively quantifiable. Affective neuroscience classically addresses the question of “what makes an experience blissful” in terms of things such as neuroanatomical correlates (“pleasure center activation”), neurotransmitter and receptor function (“Mu-opioid activation”), and computational concepts (“reinforcement learning”). It is important to note that positive valence is associated with these features, but that does not, on its own, constitute a satisfying explanation. More so, counterexamples to such associations abound (unpleasant opioidergic states, reinforcement without pleasure, etc.) A scientific account of valence should be able to explain these associations and their exceptions, provide clear quantitative metrics for valence in arbitrary brain states, and, above all, make precise and testable (hopefully surprising) predictions. We advance a framework for studying consciousness that can deliver just that. We introduce the concepts of: Qualia Formalism (for any given conscious experience, there exists a mathematical object isomorphic to its phenomenology), Qualia Structuralism (this mathematical object has a rich set of formal structures), and Valence Realism (valence is a crisp phenomenon of conscious states upon which we can apply a measure). Based on this framework we propose the “Symmetry Theory of Valence” (STV): Given a mathematical object isomorphic to the qualia of a system, the mathematical property which corresponds to how pleasant it is to be that system is that object’s symmetry. We pair up the STV to various accounts of “the structural level at which valence takes place” and generate empirically testable predictions for each. Namely, we generate predictions for: (1) the protein and microtubule account introduced by Hameroff & Penrose (1996), (2) the “mental organs” account of states of consciousness proposed by Ray (2012), and (3) the connectome-specific harmonic account of brain states by Atasoy et al. (2016). In particular for (3), we arrive at an equation that transforms fMRI data into Consonance-Dissonance-Noise Signatures (CDNS) which, according to the STV, ought to account for a large fraction of the variance associated with valence. If experimentally verified, this equation would be the first fully quantitative account of valence derived from first principles capable of tying together the myriad kinds of bliss into a coherent framework.


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Testable theories of the fundamental nature of pleasure? I’m in!

Everything in a Nutshell

David Pearce at Quora in response to the question: “What are your philosophical positions in one paragraph?“:

“Everyone takes the limits of his own vision for the limits of the world.”
(Schopenhauer)

All that matters is the pleasure-pain axis. Pain and pleasure disclose the world’s inbuilt metric of (dis)value. Our overriding ethical obligation is to minimise suffering. After we have reprogrammed the biosphere to wipe out experience below “hedonic zero”, we should build a “triple S” civilisation based on gradients of superhuman bliss. The nature of ultimate reality baffles me. But intelligent moral agents will need to understand the multiverse if we are to grasp the nature and scope of our wider cosmological responsibilities. My working assumption is non-materialist physicalism. Formally, the world is completely described by the equation(s) of physics, presumably a relativistic analogue of the universal Schrödinger equation. Tentatively, I’m a wavefunction monist who believes we are patterns of qualia in a high-dimensional complex Hilbert space. Experience discloses the intrinsic nature of the physical: the “fire” in the equations. The solutions to the equations of QFT or its generalisation yield the values of qualia. What makes biological minds distinctive, in my view, isn’t subjective experience per se, but rather non-psychotic binding. Phenomenal binding is what consciousness is evolutionarily “for”. Without the superposition principle of QM, our minds wouldn’t be able to simulate fitness-relevant patterns in the local environment. When awake, we are quantum minds running subjectively classical world-simulations. I am an inferential realist about perception. Metaphysically, I explore a zero ontology: the total information content of reality must be zero on pain of a miraculous creation of information ex nihilo. Epistemologically, I incline to a radical scepticism that would be sterile to articulate. Alas, the history of philosophy twinned with the principle of mediocrity suggests I burble as much nonsense as everyone else.

The Universal Plot: Part I – Consciousness vs. Pure Replicators

“It seems plain and self-evident, yet it needs to be said: the isolated knowledge obtained by a group of specialists in a narrow field has in itself no value whatsoever, but only in its synthesis with all the rest of knowledge and only inasmuch as it really contributes in this synthesis toward answering the demand, ‘Who are we?'”

– Erwin Schrödinger in Science and Humanism (1951)

 

“Should you or not commit suicide? This is a good question. Why go on? And you only go on if the game is worth the candle. Now, the universe is been going on for an incredibly long time. Really, a satisfying theory of the universe should be one that’s worth betting on. That seems to me to be absolutely elementary common sense. If you make a theory of the universe which isn’t worth betting on… why bother? Just commit suicide. But if you want to go on playing the game, you’ve got to have an optimal theory for playing the game. Otherwise there’s no point in it.”

Alan Watts, talking about Camu’s claim that suicide is the most important question (cf. The Most Important Philosophical Question)

In this article we provide a novel framework for ethics which focuses on the perennial battle between wellbeing-oriented consciousness-centric values and valueless patterns who happen to be great at making copies of themselves (aka. Consciousness vs. Pure Replicators). This framework extends and generalizes modern accounts of ethics and intuitive wisdom, making intelligible numerous paradigms that previously lived in entirely different worlds (e.g. incongruous aesthetics and cultures). We place this worldview within a novel scale of ethical development with the following levels: (a) The Battle Between Good and Evil, (b) The Balance Between Good and Evil, (c) Gradients of Wisdom, and finally, the view that we advocate: (d) Consciousness vs. Pure Replicators. More so, we analyze each of these worldviews in light of our philosophical background assumptions and posit that (a), (b), and (c) are, at least in spirit, approximations to (d), except that they are less lucid, more confused, and liable to exploitation by pure replicators. Finally, we provide a mathematical formalization of the problem at hand, and discuss the ways in which different theories of consciousness may affect our calculations. We conclude with a few ideas for how to avoid particularly negative scenarios.

Introduction

Throughout human history, the big picture account of the nature, purpose, and limits of reality has evolved dramatically. All religions, ideologies, scientific paradigms, and even aesthetics have background philosophical assumptions that inform their worldviews. One’s answers to the questions “what exists?” and “what is good?” determine the way in which one evaluates the merit of beings, ideas, states of mind, algorithms, and abstract patterns.

Kuhn’s claim that different scientific paradigms are mutually unintelligible (e.g. consciousness realism vs. reductive eliminativism) can be extended to worldviews in a more general sense. It is unlikely that we’ll be able to convey the Consciousness vs. Pure Replicators paradigm by justifying each of the assumptions used to arrive to it one by one starting from current ways of thinking about reality. This is because these background assumptions support each other and are, individually, not derivable from current worldviews. They need to appear together as a unit to hang together tight. Hence, we now make the jump and show you, without further due, all of the background assumptions we need:

  1. Consciousness Realism
  2. Qualia Formalism
  3. Valence Structuralism
  4. The Pleasure Principle (and its corollary The Tyranny of the Intentional Object)
  5. Physicalism (in the causal sense)
  6. Open Individualism (also compatible with Empty Individualism)
  7. Universal Darwinism

These assumptions have been discussed in previous articles. In the meantime, here is a brief description: (1) is the claim that consciousness is an element of reality rather than simply the improper reification of illusory phenomena, such that your conscious experience right now is as much a factual and determinate aspect of reality as, say, the rest mass of an electron. In turn, (2) qualia formalism is the notion that consciousness is in principle quantifiable. Assumption (3) states that valence (i.e. the pleasure/pain axis, how good an experience feels) depends of the structure of such experience (more formally, on the properties of the mathematical object isomorphic to its phenomenology).

(4) is the assumption that people’s behavior is motivated by the pleasure-pain axis even when they think that’s not the case. For instance, people may explicitly represent the reason for doing things in terms of concrete facts about the circumstance, and the pleasure principle does not deny that such reasons are important. Rather, it merely says that such reasons are motivating because one expects/anticipates less negative valence or more positive valence. The Tyranny of the Intentional Object describes the fact that we attribute changes in our valence to external events and objects, and believe that such events and objects are intrinsically good (e.g. we think “icecream is great” rather than “I feel good when I eat icecream”).

Physicalism (5) in this context refers to the notion that the equations of physics fully describe the causal behavior of reality. In other words, the universe behaves according to physical laws and even consciousness has to abide by this fact.

Open Individualism (6) is the claim that we are all one consciousness, in some sense. Even though it sounds crazy at first, there are rigorous philosophical arguments in favor of this view. Whether this is true or not is, for the purpose of this article, less relevant than the fact that we can experience it as true, which happens to have both practical and ethical implications for how society might evolve.

Finally, (7) Universal Darwinism refers to the claim that natural selection works at every level of organization. The explanatory power of evolution and fitness landscapes generated by selection pressures is not confined to the realm of biology. Rather, it is applicable all the way from the quantum foam to, possibly, an ecosystem of universes.

The power of a given worldview is not only its capacity to explain our observations about the inanimate world and the quality of our experience, but also in its capacity to explain *in its own terms* the reasons for why other worldviews are popular as well. In what follows we will utilize these background assumptions to evaluate other worldviews.

 

The Four Worldviews About Ethics

The following four stages describe a plausible progression of thoughts about ethics and the question “what is valuable?” as one learns more about the universe and philosophy. Despite the similarity of the first three levels to the levels of other scales of moral development (e.g. this, this, this, etc.), we believe that the fourth level is novel, understudied, and very, very important.

1. The “Battle Between Good and Evil” Worldview

“Every distinction wants to become the distinction between good and evil.” – Michael Vassar (source)

Common-sensical notions of essential good and evil are pre-scientific. For reasons too complicated to elaborate on for the time being, the human mind is capable of evoking an agentive sense of ultimate goodness (and of ultimate evil).

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Good vs. Evil? God vs. the Devil?

Children are often taught that there are good people and bad people. That evil beings exist objectively, and that it is righteous to punish them and see them with scorn. On this level people reify anti-social behaviors as sins.

Essentializing good and evil, and tying it up to entities seems to be an early developmental stage of people’s conception of ethics, and many people end up perpetually stuck in here. Several religions (specially the Abrahamic ones) are often practiced in such a way so as to reinforce this worldview. That said, many ideologies take advantage of the fact that a large part of the population is at this level to recruit adherents by redefining “what good and bad is” according to the needs of such ideologies. As a psychological attitude (rather than as a theory of the universe), reactionary and fanatical social movements often rely implicitly on this way of seeing the world, where there are bad people (jews, traitors, infidels, over-eaters, etc.) who are seen as corrupting the soul of society and who deserve to have their fundamental badness exposed and exorcised with punishment in front of everyone else.

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Traditional notions of God vs. the Devil can be interpreted as the personification of positive and negative valence

Implicitly, this view tends to gain psychological strength from the background assumptions of Closed Individualism (which allows you to imagine that people can be essentially bad). Likewise, this view tends to be naïve about the importance of valence in ethics. Good feelings are often interpreted as the result of being aligned with fundamental goodness, rather than as positive states of consciousness that happen to be triggered by a mix of innate and programmable things (including cultural identifications). More so, good feelings that don’t come in response to the preconceived universal order are seen as demonic and aberrant.

From our point of view (the 7 background assumptions above) we interpret this particular worldview as something that we might be biologically predisposed to buy into. Believing in the battle between good and evil was probably evolutionarily adaptive in our ancestral environment, and might reduce many frictional costs that arise from having a more subtle view of reality (e.g. “The cheaper people are to model, the larger the groups that can be modeled well enough to cooperate with them.” – Michale Vassar). Thus, there are often pragmatic reasons to adopt this view, specially when the social environment does not have enough resources to sustain a more sophisticated worldview. Additionally, at an individual level, creating strong boundaries around what is or not permissible can be helpful when one has low levels of impulse control (though it may come at the cost of reduced creativity).

On this level, explicit wireheading (whether done right or not) is perceived as either sinful (defying God’s punishment) or as a sort of treason (disengaging from the world). Whether one feels good or not should be left to the whims of the higher order. On the flipside, based on the pleasure principle it is possible to interpret the desire to be righteous as being motivated by high valence states, and reinforced by social approval, all the while the tyranny of the intentional object cloaks this dynamic.

It’s worth noting that cultural conservativism, low levels of the psychological constructs of Openness to Experience and Tolerance of Ambiguity , and high levels of Need for Closure, all predict getting stuck in this worldview for one’s entire life.

2. The “Balance Between Good and Evil” Worldview

TVTropes has a great summary of the sorts of narratives that express this particular worldview and I highly recommend reading that article to gain insight into the moral attitudes compatible with this view. For example, here are some reasons why Good cannot or should not win:

Good winning includes: the universe becoming boring, society stagnating or collapsing from within in the absence of something to struggle against or giving people a chance to show real nobility and virtue by risking their lives to defend each other. Other times, it’s enforced by depicting ultimate good as repressive (often Lawful Stupid), or by declaring concepts such as free will or ambition as evil. In other words “too much of a good thing”.

Balance Between Good and Evil by tvtropes

Now, the stated reasons why people might buy into this view are rarely their true reasons. Deep down, the Balance Between Good and Evil is adopted because: people want to differentiate themselves from those who believe in (1) to signal intellectual sophistication, they experience learned helplessness after trying to defeat evil without success (often in the form of resilient personal failings or societal flaws), they find the view compelling at an intuitive emotional level (i.e. they have internalized the hedonic treadmill and project it onto the rest of reality).

In all of these cases, though, there is something somewhat paradoxical about holding this view. And that is that people report that coming to terms with the fact that not everything can be good is itself a cause of relief, self-acceptance, and happiness. In other words, holding this belief is often mood-enhancing. One can also confirm the fact that this view is emotionally load-bearing by observing the psychological reaction that such people have to, for example, bringing up the Hedonistic Imperative (which asserts that eliminating suffering without sacrificing anything of value is scientifically possible), indefinite life extension, or the prospect of super-intelligence. Rarely are people at this level intellectually curious about these ideas, and they come up with excuses to avoid looking at the evidence, however compelling it may be.

For example, some people are lucky enough to be born with a predisposition to being hyperthymic (which, contrary to preconceptions, does the opposite of making you a couch potato). People’s hedonic set-point is at least partly genetically determined, and simply avoiding some variants of the SCN9A gene with preimplantation genetic diagnosis would greatly reduce the number of people who needlessly suffer from chronic pain.

But this is not seen with curious eyes by people who hold this or the previous worldview. Why? Partly this is because it would be painful to admit that both oneself and others are stuck in a local maxima of wellbeing and that examining alternatives might yield very positive outcomes (i.e. omission bias). But at its core, this willful ignorance can be explained as a consequence of the fact that people at this level get a lot of positive valence from interpreting present and past suffering in such a way that it becomes tied to their core identity. Pride in having overcome their past sufferings, and personal attachment to their current struggles and anxieties binds them to this worldview.

If it wasn’t clear from the previous paragraph, this worldview often requires a special sort of chronic lack of self-insight. It ultimately relies on a psychological trick. One never sees people who hold this view voluntarily breaking their legs, taking poison, or burning their assets to increase the goodness elsewhere as an act of altruism. Instead, one uses this worldview as a mood-booster, and in practice, it is also susceptible to the same sort of fanaticism as the first one (although somewhat less so). “There can be no light without the dark. And so it is with magic. Myself, I always try to live within the light.” – Horace Slughorn.

315eab27545ea96c67953c54358fe600Additionally, this view helps people rationalize the negative aspects of one’s community and culture. For example, it not uncommon for people to say that buying factory farmed meat is acceptable on the grounds that “some things have to die/suffer for others to live/enjoy life.” Balance Between Good and Evil is a close friend of status quo bias.

Hinduism, Daoism, and quite a few interpretations of Buddhism work best within this framework. Getting closer to God and ultimate reality is not done by abolishing evil, but by embracing the unity of all and fostering a healthy balance between health and sickness.

It’s also worth noting that the balance between good and evil tends to be recursively applied, so that one is not able to “re-define our utility function from ‘optimizing the good’ to optimizing ‘the balance of good and evil’ with a hard-headed evidence-based consequentialist approach.” Indeed, trying to do this is then perceived as yet another incarnation of good (or evil) which needs to also be balanced with its opposite (willful ignorance and fuzzy thinking). One comes to the conclusion that it is the fuzzy thinking itself that people at this level are after: to blur reality just enough to make it seem good, and to feel like one is not responsible for the suffering in the world (specially by inaction and lack of thinking clearly about how one could help). “Reality is only a Rorschach ink-blot, you know” – Alan Watts. So this becomes a justification for thinking less than one really has to about the suffering in the world. Then again, it’s hard to blame people for trying to keep the collective standards of rigor lax, given the high proportion of fanatics who adhere to the “battle between good and evil” worldview, and who will jump the gun to demonize anyone who is slacking off and not stressed out all the time, constantly worrying about the question “could I do more?”

(Note: if one is actually trying to improve the world as much as possible, being stressed out about it all the time is not the right policy).

3. The “Gradients of Wisdom” Worldview

David Chapman’s HTML book Meaningness might describe both of the previous worldviews as variants of eternalism. In the context of his work, eternalism refers to the notion that there is an absolute order and meaning to existence. When applied to codes of conduct, this turns into “ethical eternalism”, which he defines as: “the stance that there is a fixed ethical code according to which we should live. The eternal ordering principle is usually seen as the source of the code.” Chapman eloquently argues that eternalism has many side effects, including: deliberate stupidity, attachment to abusive dynamics, constant disappointment and self-punishment, and so on. By realizing that, in some sense, no one knows what the hell is going on (and those who do are just pretending) one takes the first step towards the “Gradients of Wisdom” worldview.

At this level people realize that there is no evil essence. Some might talk about this in terms of there “not being good or bad people”, but rather just degrees of impulse control, knowledge about the world, beliefs about reality, emotional stability, and so on. A villain’s soul is not connected to some kind of evil reality. Rather, his or her actions can be explained by the causes and conditions that led to his or her psychological make-up.

Sam Harris’ ideas as expressed in The Moral Landscape evoke this stage very clearly. Sam explains that just as health is a fuzzy but important concept, so is psychological wellbeing, and that for such a reason we can objectively assess cultures as more or less in agreement with human flourishing. the-science-of-morality-7-728

Indeed, many people who are at this level do believe in valence structuralism, where they recognize that there are states of consciousness that are inherently better in some intrinsic subjective value sense than others.

However, there is usually no principled framework to assess whether a certain future is indeed optimal or not. There is little hard-headed discussion of population ethics for fear of sounding unwise or insensitive. And when push comes to shove, they lack good arguments to decisively rule out why particular situations might be bad. In other words, there is room for improvement, and such improvement might eventually come from more rigor and bullet-bitting.  In particular, a more direct examination of the implications of: Open Individualism, the Tyranny of the Intentional Object, and Universal Darwinism can allow someone on this level to make a breakthrough. Here is where we come to:

4. The “Consciousness vs. Pure Replicators” Worldview

In Wireheading Done Right we introduced the concept of a pure replicator:

I will define a pure replicator, in the context of agents and minds, to be an intelligence that is indifferent towards the valence of its conscious states and those of others. A pure replicator invests all of its energy and resources into surviving and reproducing, even at the cost of continuous suffering to themselves or others. Its main evolutionary advantage is that it does not need to spend any resources making the world a better place.

Presumably our genes are pure replicators. But we, as sentient minds who recognize the intrinsic value (both positive and negative) of conscious experiences, are not pure replicators. Thanks to a myriad of fascinating dynamics, it so happened that making minds who love, appreciate, think creatively, and philosophize was a side effect of the process of refining the selfishness of our genes. We must not take for granted that we are more than pure replicators ourselves, and that we care both about our wellbeing and the wellbeing of others. The problem now is that the particular selection pressures that led to this may not be present in the future. After all, digital and genetic technologies are drastically changing the fitness landscape for patterns that are good at making copies of themselves.

In an optimistic scenario, future selection pressures will make us all naturally gravitate towards super-happiness. This is what David Pearce posits in his essay “The Biointelligence Explosion”:

As the reproductive revolution of “designer babies” gathers pace, prospective parents will pre-select alleles and allelic combinations for a new child in anticipation of their behavioural effects – a novel kind of selection pressure to replace the “blind” genetic roulette of natural selection. In time, routine embryo screening via preimplantation genetic diagnosis will be complemented by gene therapy, genetic enhancement and then true designer zygotes. In consequence, life on Earth will also become progressively happier as the hedonic treadmill is recalibrated. In the new reproductive era, hedonic set-points and intelligence alike will be ratcheted upwards in virtue of selection pressure. For what parent-to-be wants to give birth to a low-status depressive “loser”? Future parents can enjoy raising a normal transhuman supergenius who grows up to be faster than Usain Bolt, more beautiful than Marilyn Monroe, more saintly than Nelson Mandela, more creative than Shakespeare – and smarter than Einstein.

– David Pearce in The Biointelligence Explosion

In a pessimistic scenario, the selection pressures lead to the opposite direction, where negative experiences are the only states of consciousness that happen to be evolutionarily adaptive, and so they become universally used.

There is a number of thinkers and groups who can be squarely placed on this level, and relative to the general population, they are extremely rare (see: The Future of Human Evolution,  A Few Dystopic Future Scenarios,  Book Review: Age of EM, Nick Land’s Gnon, Spreading Happiness to the Stars Seems Little Harder than Just Spreading, etc.). See also**. What is much needed now, is formalizing the situation and working out what we could do about it. But first, some thoughts about the current state of affairs.

There is at least some encouraging facts that suggest it is not too late to prevent a pure replicator takeover. There are memes, states of consciousness, and resources that can be used in order to steer evolution in a positive directions. In particular, as of 2017:

  1. A very big proportion of the economy is dedicated to trading positive experiences for money, rather than just survival or power tools. Thus an economy of information about states of consciousness is still feasible.
  2. There is a large fraction of the population who is altruistic and would be willing to cooperate with the rest of the world to avoid catastrophic scenarios.
  3. Happy people are more motivated, productive, engaged, and ultimately, economically useful (see hyperthimic temperament).
  4. Many people have explored Open Individualism and are interested (or at least curious) about the idea that we are all one.
  5. A lot of people are fascinated by psychedelics and the non-ordinary states of consciousness that they induce.
  6. MDMA-like consciousness is both very positive in terms of its valence, but also, amazingly, extremely pro-social, and future sustainable versions of it could be recruited to stabilize societies where the highest value is the collective wellbeing.

It is important to not underestimate the power of the facts laid out above. If we get our act together and create a Manhattan Project of Consciousness we might be able to find sustainable, reliable, and powerful methods that stabilize a hyper-motivated, smart, super-happy and super-prosocial state of consciousness in a large fraction of the population. In the future, we may all by default identify with consciousness itself rather than with our bodies (or our genes), and be intrinsically (and rationally) motivated to collaborate with everyone else to create as much happiness as possible as well as to eradicate suffering with technology. And if we are smart enough, we might also be able to solidify this state of affairs, or at least shield it against pure replicator takeovers.

The beginnings of that kind of society may already be underway. Consider for example the contrast between Burning Man and Las Vegas. Burning Man is a place that works as a playground for exploring post-Darwinean social dynamics, in which people help each other overcome addictions and affirm their commitment to helping all of humanity. Las Vegas, on the other hand, might be described as a place that is filled to the top with pure replicators in the forms of memes, addictions, and denial. The present world has the potential for both kind of environments, and we do not yet know which one will outlive the other in the long run.

Formalizing the Problem

We want to specify the problem in a way that will make it mathematically intelligible. In brief, in this section we focus on specifying what it means to be a pure replicator in formal terms. Per the definition, we know that pure replicators will use resources as efficiently as possible to make copies of themselves, and will not care about the negative consequences of their actions. And in the context of using brains, computers, and other systems whose states might have moral significance (i.e. they can suffer), they will simply care about the overall utility of such systems for whatever purpose they may require. Such utility will be a function of both the accuracy with which the system performs it’s task, as well as its overall efficiency in terms of resources like time, space, and energy.

Simply phrased, we want to be able to answer the question: Given a certain set of constraints such as energy, matter, and physical conditions (temperature, radiation, etc.), what is the amount of pleasure and pain involved in the most efficient implementation of a given predefined input-output mapping?

system_specifications

The image above represents the relevant components of a system that might be used for some purpose by an intelligence. We have the inputs, the outputs, the constraints (such as temperature, materials, etc.) and the efficiency metrics. Let’s unpack this. In the general case, an intelligence will try to find a system with the appropriate trade-off between efficiency and accuracy. We can wrap up this as an “efficiency metric function”, e(o|i, s, c) which encodes the following meaning: “e(o|i, s, c) = the efficiency with which a given output is generated given the input, the system being used, and the physical constraints in place.”

basic_system

Now, we introduce the notion of the “valence for the system given a particular input” (i.e. the valence for the system’s state in response to such an input). Let’s call this v(s|i). It is worth pointing out that whether valence can be computed, and whether it is even a meaningfully objective property of a system is highly controversial (e.g. “Measuring Happiness and Suffering“). Our particular take (at QRI) is that valence is a mathematical property that can be decoded from the mathematical object whose properties are isomorphic to a system’s phenomenology (see: Principia Qualia: Part II – Valence, and also Quantifying Bliss). If so, then there is a matter of fact about just how good/bad an experience is. For the time being we will assume that valence is indeed quantifiable, given that we are working under the premise of valence structuralism (as stated in our list of assumptions). We thus define the overall utility for a given output as U(e(o|i, s, c), v(s|i)), where the valence of the system may or may not be taken into account. In turn, an intelligence is said to be altruistic if it cares about the valence of the system in addition to its efficiency, so that it’s utility function penalizes negative valence (and rewards positive valence).

valence_altruism

Now, the intelligence (altruistic or not) utilizing the system will also have to take into account the overall range of inputs the system will be used to process in order to determine how valuable the system is overall. For this reason, we define the expected value of the system as the utility of each input multiplied by its probability.

input_probabilities

(Note: a more complete formalization would also weight in the importance of each input-output transformation, in addition to their frequency). Moving on, we can now define the overall expected utility for the system given the distribution of inputs it’s used for, its valence, its efficiency metrics, and its constraints as E[U(s|v, e, c, P(I))]:

chosen_system

The last equation shows that the intelligence would choose the system that maximizes E[U(s|v, e, c, P(I))].

Pure replicators will be better at surviving as long as the chances of reproducing do not depend on their altruism. If altruism does not reduce such reproductive fitness, then:

Given two intelligences that are competing for existence and/or resources to make copies of themselves and fight against other intelligences, there is going to be a strong incentive to choose a system that maximizes the efficiency metrics regardless of the valence of the system.

In the long run, then, we’d expect to see only non-altruistic intelligences (i.e. intelligences with utility functions that are indifferent to the valence of the systems it uses to process information). In other words, as evolution pushes intelligences to optimize the efficiency metrics of the systems they employ, it also pushes them to stop caring about the wellbeing of such systems. In other words, evolution pushes intelligences to become pure replicators in the long run.

Hence we should ask: How can altruism increase the chances of reproduction? A possibility would be for the environment to reward entities that are altruistic. Unfortunately, in the long run we might see that environments that reward altruistic entities produce less efficient entities than environments that don’t. If there are two very similar environments, one which rewards altruism and one which doesn’t, the efficiency of the entities in the latter might become so much higher than in the former that they become able to takeover and destroy whatever mechanism is implementing such reward for altruism in the former. Thus, we suggest to find environments in which rewarding altruism is baked into their very nature, such that similar environments without such reward either don’t exist or are too unstable to exist for the amount of time it takes to evolve non-altruistic entities. This and other similar approaches will be explored further in Part II.

Behaviorism, Functionalism, Non-Materialist Physicalism

A key insight is that the formalization presented above is agnostic about one’s theory of consciousness. We are simply assuming that it’s possible to compute the valence of the system in terms of its state. How one goes about computing such valence, though, will depend on how one maps physical systems to experiences. Getting into the weeds of the countless theories of consciousness out there would not be very productive at this stage, but there is still value in defining the rough outline of kinds of theories of consciousness. In particular, we categorize (physicalist) theories of consciousness in terms of the level of abstraction they identify as the place in which to look for consciousness.

Behaviorism and similar accounts simply associate consciousness to input-output mappings, which can be described, in Marr’s terms, as the computational level of abstraction. In this case, v(s|i) would not depend on the details of the system as much as in what it does from a third person point of view. Behaviorists don’t care what’s in the Chinese Room; all they care about is if the Chinese Room can scribble “I’m in pain” as an output. How we can formalize a mathematical equation to infer whether a system is suffering from a behaviorist point of view is beyond me, but maybe someone might want to give it a shot. As a side note, behaviorists historically were not very concerned about pain or pleasure, and there cause to believe that behaviorism itself might be anti-depressant for people for whom introspection results in more pain than pleasure.

Functionalism (along with computational theories of mind) defines consciousness as the sum-total of the functional properties of systems. In turn, this means that consciousness arises at the algorithmic level of abstraction. Contrary to common misconception, functionalists do care about how the Chinese Room is implemented: contra behaviorists, they do not usually agree that a Chinese Room implemented with a look-up table is conscious.*

As such v(s|i) will depend on the algorithms that the system is implementing. Thus, as an intermediary step, one would need a function that takes the system as an input and returns the algorithms that the system is implementing as an output, A(s). Only once we have A(s) we would then be able to infer the valence of the system. Which algorithms, and for what reason, are in fact hedonically-charged has yet to be clarified. Committed functionalists often associate reinforcement learning with pleasure and pain, and one could imagine that as philosophy of mind gets more rigorous and takes into account more advancements in neuroscience and AI, we will see more hypothesis being made about what kinds of algorithms result in phenomenal pain (and pleasure). There are many (still fuzzy) problems to be solved for this account to work even in principle. Indeed, there is a reason to believe that the question “what algorithms is this system performing?” has no definite answer, and it surely isn’t frame-invariant in the same way that a physical state might be. The fact that algorithms do not carve nature at its joints would imply that consciousness is not really a well-defined element of reality either. But rather than this working as a reductio-ad-absurdum of functionalism, many of its proponents have instead turned around to conclude that consciousness itself is not a natural kind. This does represent an important challenge in order to define the valence of the system, and makes the problem of detecting and avoiding pure replicators extra challenging. Admirably so, this is not stopping some from trying anyway.

We also should note that there are further problems with functionalism in general, including the fact that qualia, the binding problem, and the causal role of consciousness seem underivable from its premises. For a detailed discussion about this, read this article.

Finally, Non-Materialist Physicalism locates consciousness at the implementation level of abstraction. This general account of consciousness refers to the notion that the intrinsic nature of the physical is qualia. There are many related views that for the purpose of this article should be good enough approximations: panpsychism, panexperientialism, neutral monism, Russellian monism, etc. Basically, this view takes seriously both the equations of physics and the idea that what they describe is the behavior of qualia. A big advantage of this view is that there is a matter-of-fact about what a system is composed of. Indeed, both in relativity and quantum mechanics, the underlying nature of a system is frame-invariant, such that its fundamental (intrinsic and causal) properties do not depend on one’s frame of reference. In order to obtain v(s|i) we will need to obtain this frame-invariant description of what the system is in a given state. Thus, we need a function that takes as input physical measurements of the system and returns the best possible approximation to what is actually going on under the hood, Ph(s). And only with this function Ph(s) we would be ready to compute the valence of the system. Now, in practice we might not need a plank-length description of the system, since the mathematical property that describes it’s valence might turn out to be well-approximated with high-level features of it.

The main problem with Non-Materialist Physicalism comes when one considers systems that have similar efficiency metrics, are performing the same algorithms, and look the same in all of the relevant respects from a third-person point, and yet do not have the same experience. In brief: if physical rather than functional aspects of systems map to conscious experiences, it seems likely that we could find two systems that do the same (input-output mapping), do it in the same way (algorithms), and yet one is conscious and the other isn’t.

This kind of scenario is what has pushed many to conclude that functionalism is the only viable alternative, since at this point consciousness would seem epiphenomenal (e.g. Zombies Redacted). And indeed, if this was the case, it would seem to be a mere matter of chance that our brains are implemented with the right stuff to be conscious, since the nature of such stuff is not essential to the algorithms that actually end up processing the information. You cannot speak to stuff, but you can speak to an algorithm. So how do we even know we have the right stuff to be conscious?

The way to respond to this very valid criticism is for Non-Materialist Physicalism to postulate that bound states of consciousness have computational properties. In brief, epiphenomenalism cannot be true. But this does not rule out Non-Materialist Physicalism for the simple reason that the quality of states of consciousness might be involved in processing information. Enter…

The Computational Properties of Consciousness

Let’s leave behaviorism behind for the time being. In what ways do functionalism and non-materialist physicalism differ in the context of information processing? In the former, consciousness is nothing other than certain kinds of information processing, whereas in the latter conscious states can be used for information processing. An example of this falls out of taking David Pearce’s theory of consciousness seriously. In his account, the phenomenal binding problem (i.e. “if we are made of atoms, how come our experience contains many pieces of information at once?”, see: The Combination Problem for Panpsychism) is solved via quantum coherence. Thus, a given moment of consciousness is a definite physical system that works as a unit. Conscious states are ontologically unitary, and not merely functionally unitary.

If this is the case, there would be a good reason for evolution to recruit conscious states to process information. Simply put, given a set of constraints, using quantum coherence might be the most efficient way to solve some computational problems. Thus, evolution might have stumbled upon a computational jackpot by creating neurons whose (extremely) fleeting quantum coherence could be used to solve constraint satisfaction problems in ways that would be more energetically expensive to do otherwise. In turn, over many millions of years, brains got really good at using consciousness in order to efficiently process information. It is thus not an accident that we are conscious, that our conscious experiences are unitary, that our world-simulations use a wide range of qualia varieties, and so on. All of these seemingly random, seemingly epiphenomenal, aspects of our existence happen to be computationally advantageous. Just as using quantum computing for factorizing prime numbers, or for solving problems amenable to annealing might give quantum computers a computational edge over their non-quantum counterparts, so is using bound conscious experiences helpful to outcompete non-sentient animals.

Of course, there is yet no evidence of macroscopic decoherence and the brain is too hot anyway, so on the face of it Pearce’s theory seems exceedingly unlikely. But its explanatory power should not be dismissed out of hand, and the fact that it makes empirically testable predictions is noteworthy (how often do consciousness theorists make precise predictions to falsify their theories?).

Whether it is via quantum coherence, entanglement, invariants of the gauge field, or any other deep physical property of reality, non-materialist physicalism can avert the spectre of epiphenomenalism by postulating that the relevant properties of matter that make us conscious are precisely those that give our brains a computational edge (relative to what evolution was able to find in the vicinity of the fitness landscape explored in our history).

Will Pure Replicators Use Valence Gradients at All?

Whether we work under the assumption of functionalism or non-materialist physicalism, we already know that our genes found happiness and suffering to be evolutionary advantageous. So we know that there is at least a set of constraints, efficiency metrics, and input-output mappings that make both phenomenal pleasure and pain very good algorithms (functionalism) or physical implementations (non-materialist physicalism). But will the parameters necessitated by replicators in the long-term future have these properties? Remember that evolution was only able to explore a restricted state-space of possible brain implementations delimited by the pre-existing gene pool (and the behavioral requirements provided by the environment). So, in one extreme case, it may be the case that a fully optimized brain simply does not need consciousness to solve problems. And in another extreme, it may turn out that consciousness is extraordinarily more powerful when used in an optimal way. Would this be good or bad?

What’s the best case scenario? Well, the absolute best possible case is a case so optimistic and incredibly lucky that if it turned out to be true, it would probably make me believe in a benevolent God (or Simulation). This is the case where it turns out that only positive valence gradients are computationally superior to every other alternative given a set of constraints, input-output mappings, and arbitrary efficiency functions. In this case, the most powerful pure replicators, despite their lack of altruism, will nonetheless be pumping out massive amounts of systems that produce unspeakable levels of bliss. It’s as if the very nature of this universe is blissful… we simply happen to suffer because we are stuck in a tiny wrinkle at the foothills of the optimization process of evolution.

In the extreme opposite case, it turns out that only negative valence gradients offer strict computational benefits under heavy optimization. This would be Hell. Or at least, it would tend towards Hell in the long run. If this happens to be the universe we live in, let’s all agree to either conspire to prevent evolution from moving on, or figure out the way to turn it off. In the long term, we’d expect every being alive (or AI, upload, etc.) to be a zombie or a piece of dolorium. Not a fun idea.

In practice, it’s much more likely that both positive and negative valence gradients will be of some use in some contexts. Figuring out exactly which contexts these are might be both extremely important, and also extremely dangerous. In particular, finding out in advance which computational tasks make positive valence gradients a superior alternative to other methods of doing the relevant computations would inform us about the sorts of cultures, societies, religions, and technologies that we should be promoting in order to give this a push in the right direction (and hopefully out-run the environments that would make negative valence gradients adaptive).

Unless we create a Singleton early on, it’s likely that by default all future entities in the long-term future will be non-altruistic pure replicators. But it is also possible that there are multiple attractors (i.e. evolutionarily stable ecosystems) in which different computational properties of consciousness are adaptive. Thus the case for pushing our evolutionary history in the right direction right now before we give up.

 Coming Next: The Hierarchy of Cooperators

Now that we covered the four worldviews, formalized what it means to be a pure replicator, and analyzed the possible future outcomes based on the computational properties of consciousness (and of valence gradients in particular), we are ready to face the game of reality in its own terms.

Team Consciousness, we need to to get our act together. We need a systematic worldview, availability of states of consciousness, set of beliefs and practices to help us prevent pure replicator takeovers.

But we cannot do this as long as we are in the dark about the sorts of entities, both consciousness-focused and pure replicators, who are likely to arise in the future in response to the selection pressures that cultural and technological change are likely to produce. In Part II of The Universal Plot we will address this and more. Stay tuned…

 



* Rather, they usually claim that, given that a Chinese Room is implemented with physical material from this universe and subject to the typical constraints of this world, it is extremely unlikely that a universe-sized look-up table would be producing the output. Hence, the algorithms that are producing the output are probably highly complex and using information processing with human-like linguistic representations, which means that, by all means, the Chinese Room it very likely understanding what it is outputting.


** Related Work:

Here is a list of literature that points in the direction of Consciousness vs. Pure Replicators. There are countless more worthwhile references, but I think that these ones are about the best:

The Biointelligence Explosion (David Pearce), Meditations on Moloch (Scott Alexander), What is a Singleton? (Nick Bostrom), Coherent Extrapolated Volition (Eliezer Yudkowsky), Simulations of God (John Lilly), Meaningness (David Chapman), The Selfish Gene (Richard Dawkins), Darwin’s Dangerous Idea (Daniel Dennett), Prometheus Rising (R. A. Wilson).

Additionally, here are some further references that address important aspects of this worlview, although they are not explicitly trying to arrive at a big picture view of the whole thing:

Neurons Gone Wild (Kevin Simler), The Age of EM (Robin Hanson), The Mating Mind (Geoffrey Miller), Joyous Cosmology (Alan Watts), The Ego Tunnel (Thomas Metzinger), The Orthogonality Thesis (Stuart Armstrong)

 

What Makes Tinnitus, Depression, and the Sound of the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) so Awful: Dissonance

The Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) is often criticized for its loudness. According to measurements made in 2010, the noise reaches up to 100 decibels, enough to cause permanent hearing loss in the long term. This is why you should always wear earplugs on the BART, which can decrease the volume by up to 30 or so decibels, making it tolerable and harmless.

And while pointing out that BART gets really loud is indeed important, I would claim that there is something even more important to note. Namely, that BART is not merely loud, but it is also distinctly dissonant. Talking only about the stretch that goes from Millbrae to Embarcadero, an analysis I conducted reveals that the single worst period of dissonance happens on the ride from Glen Park to Balboa Park (at around the 20 second mark after one starts). If you are curious to hear it, you can check it out for yourself here. That said, I do not recommend listening to that track on repeat for any length of time, as it may have a strong mood-diminishing effect.

Too bad that some of the beautiful patterns found at the entrance of the Balboa Park BART station are not equally matched by beautiful sounds in the actual ride:

12091469_917234378368720_6131694264447421239_o.jpg

Balboa Park has some beautiful visual patterns (useful for psychophysics).

Ultimately, dissonance might be much more important than loudness, insofar as it tracks the degree to which environmental sound directly impacts quality of life. Thus, in addition to metrics that track how loud cities are, it might be a good addition to our sound contamination measurements to incorporate a sort of “dissonance index” into our calculations.

A General Framework for Valence

At the Qualia Research Institute we have pointed that the connection between dissonance and valence may not be incidental. In particular, we suggest that it falls out as a possible implication of the Symmetry Theory of Valence (STV). The STV is itself a special case of the general principle we call Valence Structuralism, which claims that the degree to which an experience feels good or bad is a consequence of the structures of the object whose mathematical properties are isomorphic to a system’s phenomenology. The STV goes one step further and suggests that the relevant mathematical property that denotes valence is the symmetry of this object.

valence_structuralism

In Quantifying Bliss, we postulated that a general framework for describing the valence of an experience could be constructed in terms of Consonance-Dissonance-Noise Signatures (“CDNS” for short). That is, the degree to which the given states have consonance, dissonance, and noise in them. As an implication of the Symmetry Theory of Valence we postulate that consonance will directly track positive valence, dissonance negative valence, and noise neutral valence. But wait, there is more! Each of these “channels” themselves have a spectrum. That is to say, one could be experiencing high degrees of low-frequency-dissonance at the same time as high-frequency-consonance and maybe a general full-spectrum background noise. Any combination is possible.

The Quantifying Bliss article describes how recent advancements in neuroscience might be useful to quantify people’s CDNS (namely, using the pair-wise interactions between people’s connectome-specific harmonics).

Many Heads But Just One Body

Richard Wu has a good article on his experience with tinnitus. One of the things that stands out about it is the level of detail used to describe his tinnitus. At its worst, he says, he does not only experience a single sound, but several kinds at once:

By the way, its getting louder isn’t even the worst. Sometimes I develop an entirely new tinnitus. […] Today, I have three:

  1. A very high-pitched CRT monitor / TV-like screech (similar to the one in the video).
  2. A deep, low, powerful rumbling.
  3. A mid-tone that adjusts its volume based on external sounds. If my environment is loud, it will be loud; if my environment is quiet, it will ring more softly.

As in the case of the BART and how people complain about how loud it is while missing the most important piece (its dissonance), tinnitus may have a similar reporting problem. What makes tinnitus so unbearable might not be so much the fact that there is always a hallucinated sound present, but rather, that such a sound (or clusters of sounds) is so unpleasant, distracting, and oppressive. The actual texture of tinnitus may be just as, if not more, important than its mere presence.

We believe that Valence Structuralism and in particular the Symmetry Theory of Valence are powerful explanatory frameworks that can tie together a wide range of disparate phenomena concerning good and bad feelings. And if true, then for every unpleasant experience we may have, a reasonable thing to ask might be: in what way is this dissonant? For example: Depression may be a sort of whole-body low-frequency dissonance (similar to, but different in texture, to nausea). Anxiety, on the other hand, along with irritation and anger, might be a manifestation of high-frequency dissonance.

Likewise, whenever a good or pleasant feeling is found, a reasonable question to ask is: in what ways is this consonant? Let’s think about the three kinds of euphoria uncovered in State-Space of Drug Effects. Fast euphoria (stimulants, exercise, anticipation, etc.) might be what high-frequency consonance feels like. Slow euphoria (relaxation, opioids, etc.) might be what low-frequency consonance feels like. And what about spiritual euphoria (what you get by thinking about philosophy, tripping, and taking dissociatives)? Well, however trippy this may sound, it might well be that this is a sort of fractal consonance, in which multiple representations of various spatio-temporal resolutions become interlocked in a pleasant dance (which may, or may not, allow you to process information more efficiently).

Now what about noise? Here is where we place all of the blunting agents. The general explanation for why anti-depressants of the SSRI variety tend to blunt feelings might be because their very mechanism of action is to increase neuronal noise and thus reduce the signal-to-noise ratio. Crying, orgasm, joy, and ragegasms all share the quality of being highly symmetric harmonic states, and SSRIs having a generalized effect of adding noise to one’s neuronal environment would be expected to diminish the intensity (and textural orderliness) of each of these states. We also know that SSRIs are often capable of reducing the subjective intensity of tinnitus (and presumably the awfulness of BART sounds), which makes sense in this framework.

The STV would also explain MDMA’s effects as a generalized reduction in both dissonance and noise across the full spectrum, and a generalized increase in consonance, also across the full spectrum. This would clarify the missing link to explain why MDMA would be a potential tool to reduce tinnitus, not just emotional pain. The trick is that both perceptual dissonance and negative affect may have a common underlying quality: anti-symmetry. And MDMA being a chief symmetrifying agent takes it all away.

Many further questions remain: what makes meaningful experiences so emotionally rich? Why do some people enjoy weird sounds? Why is emo music so noisy? What kind of valence can be experienced when one’s consciousness has acquired a hyperbolic geometry? I will address these and many other interesting questions in future posts. Stay tuned!

Traps of the God Realm

From Opening the Heart of Compassion by Martin Lowenthal and Lar Short (pages 132-136).

Seeking Oneness

In this realm we want to be “one with the universe.” We are trying to return to a time when we felt no separation, when the world of our experience seemed to be the only world. We want to recover the experience and comfort of the womb. In the universe of the womb, everything was ours without qualification and was designed to support our existence and growth. Now we want the cosmos to be our womb, as if it were designed specifically for our benefit.

We want satisfaction to flow more easily, naturally and automatically. This seems less likely when we are enmeshed in the everyday affairs of the world. Therefore, we withdraw to the familiar world of what is ours, of what we can control, and of our domain of influence. We may even withdraw to a domain in the mind. Everything seems to come so much easier in the realm of thought, once we have achieved some modest control over our minds. Insulating ourselves from the troubles of others and of life, we get further seduced by the seeming limitlessness of this mental world. 

In this process of trance formation, we try to make every sound musical, every image a work of art, and every feeling pleasant. Blocking out all sources of irritation, we retreat to a self-proclaimed “higher” plane of being. We cultivate the “higher qualities of life,” not settling for a “mundane” life.

Masquerade of Higher Consciousness

The danger for those of us on a spiritual path is that the practices and the teachings can be enlisted to serve the realm rather than to dissolve our fixations and open us to truth. We discover that we can go beyond sensual pleasure and material beauty to refined states of consciousness. We achieve purely mental pleasures of increasing subtlety and learn how to maintain them for extended periods. We think we can maintain our new vanity and even expand it to include the entire cosmos, thus vanquishing change, old age, and death. Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche called this process “spiritual materialism.”

For example, we use a sense of spaciousness to expand our consciousness by imposing our preconception of limitlessness on the cosmos. We see everything that we have created and “it is good.” Our vanity in the god realm elevates our self-image to the level of the divine–we feel capable of comprehending the universe and the nature of reality.

We move beyond our contemplation of limitless space, expanding our consciousness to include the very forces that create vast space. As the creator of vast space, we imagine that we have no boundaries, no limits, and no position. Our mind can now include everything. We find that we do not have concepts for such images and possibilities, so we think that the Divine or Essence must be not any particular thing we can conceive of, must be empty of conceptual characteristics.

Thus our vain consciousness, as the Divine, conceives that it has no particular location, is not anything in particular, and is itself beyond imagination. We arrive at the conclusion that even this attempt to comprehend emptiness is itself a concept, and that emptiness is devoid of inherent meaning. We shift our attention to the idea of being not not any particular thing. We then come to the glorious position that nothing can be truly stated, that nothing has inherent value. This mental understanding becomes our ultimate vanity. We take pride in it, identify as someone who “knows”, and adopt a posture in the world as someone who has journeyed into the ultimate nature of the unknown.

In this way we create more and more chains that bind us and limit our growth as we move ever inward. When we think we are becoming one with the universe, we are only achieving greater oneness with our own self-image. Instead of illuminating our ignorance, we expand its domain. We become ever more disconnected from others, from communication and true sharing, and from compassion. We subtly bind ourselves ever more tightly, even to the point of suffocation, under the guise of freedom in spaciousness.

Spiritual Masquerades of Teachers and Devoted Students

As we acquire some understanding and feel expansive, we may think we are God’s special gift to humanity, here to teach the truth. Although we may not acknowledge that we have something to prove, at some level we are trying to prove how supremely unique and important we are. Our spiritual life-style is our expression of that uniqueness and significance.

Spiritual teachers run a great danger of falling into the traps of the god realm. If a teacher has charisma and the ability to channel and radiate intense energy, this power may be misused to engender hope in students and to bind them in a dependent relationship. The true teacher undermines hope, teaches by the example of wisdom and compassion, and encourages students to be autonomous by investigating truth themselves, checking their own experience, and trusting their own results more than faith.

The teacher is not a god but a bridge to the unknown, a guide to the awareness qualities and energy capacities we want for our spiritual growth. The teacher, who is the same as we are, demonstrates what is possible in terms of aliveness and how to use the path of compassion to become free. In a sense, the teacher touches both aspects of our being: our everyday life of habits and feelings on the one hand and our awakened aliveness and wisdom on the other. While respect for and openness to the teacher are important for our growth and freedom, blind devotion fixates us on the person of the teacher. We then become confined by the limitations of the teacher’s personality rather than liberated by the teachings.

False Transcendence

Many characteristics of this realm–creative imagination, the tendency to go beyond assumed reality and individual perspectives, and the sense of expansiveness–are close to the underlying dynamic of wonderment. In wonder, we find the wisdom qualities of openness, true bliss, the realization of spaciousness within which all things arise, and alignment with universal principles. The god realm attitude results in superficial experiences that fit our preconceptions of realization but that lack the authenticity of wonder and the grounding in compassion and freedom.

Because the realm itself seems to offer transcendence, this is one of the most difficult realms to transcend. The heart posture of the realm propels us to transcend conflict and problems until we are comfortable. The desire for inner comfort, rather than for an authentic openness to the unknown, governs our quest. But many feelings arise during the true process of realization. At certain stages there is pain and disorientation, and at others a kind of bliss that may make us feel like we are going to burst (if there was something or someone to burst). When we settle for comfort we settle for the counterfeit of realization–the relief and pride we feel when we think we understand something.

Because we think that whatever makes us feel good is correct, we ignore disturbing events, information, and people and anything else that does not fit into our view of the world. We elevate ignorance to a form of bliss by excluding from our attention everything that is non-supportive.

Preoccupied with self, with grandiosity, and with the power and radiance of our own being, we resist the mystery of the unknown. When we are threatened by the unknown, we stifle the natural dynamic of wonder that arises in relation to all that is beyond our self-intoxication. We must either include vast space and the unknown within our sense of ourselves or ignore it because we do not want to feel insignificant and small. Our sense of awe before the forces of grace cannot be acknowledged for fear of invalidating our self-image.

Above the Law

According to our self-serving point of view, we are above the laws of nature and of humankind. We think that, as long as what we do seems reasonable to us, it is appropriate. We are accountable to ourselves and not to other people, the environment, or society. Human history is filled with examples of people in politics, business, and religion who demonstrated this attitude and caused enormous suffering.

Unlike the titans who struggle with death, we, as gods, know that death is not really real. We take comfort in the thought that “death is an illusion.” The only people who die are those who are stuck and have not come to the true inner place beyond time, change, and death. We may even believe that we have the potential to develop our bodies and minds to such a degree that we can reverse the aging process and become one of the “immortals.”

A man, walking on a beach, reaches down and picks up a pebble. Looking at the small stone in his hand, he feels very powerful and thinks of how with one stroke he has taken control of the stone. “How many years have you been here, and now I place you in my hand.” The pebble speaks to him, “Though to you, I am only a grain of sand in your hand, you, to me, are but a passing breeze.”