Why I think the Foundational Research Institute should rethink its approach

by Mike Johnson

The following is my considered evaluation of the Foundational Research Institute, circa July 2017. I discuss its goal, where I foresee things going wrong with how it defines suffering, and what it could do to avoid these problems.

TL;DR version: functionalism (“consciousness is the sum-total of the functional properties of our brains”) sounds a lot better than it actually turns out to be in practice. In particular, functionalism makes it impossible to define ethics & suffering in a way that can mediate disagreements.

I. What is the Foundational Research Institute?

The Foundational Research Institute (FRI) is a Berlin-based group that “conducts research on how to best reduce the suffering of sentient beings in the near and far future.” Executive Director Max Daniel introduced them at EA Global Boston as “the only EA organization which at an organizational level has the mission of focusing on reducing s-risk.” S-risks are, according to Daniel, “risks where an adverse outcome would bring about suffering on an astronomical scale, vastly exceeding all suffering that has existed on Earth so far.”

Essentially, FRI wants to become the research arm of suffering-focused ethics, and help prevent artificial general intelligence (AGI) failure-modes which might produce suffering on a cosmic scale.

What I like about FRI:

While I have serious qualms about FRI’s research framework, I think the people behind FRI deserve a lot of credit- they seem to be serious people, working hard to build something good. In particular, I want to give them a shoutout for three things:

  • First, FRI takes suffering seriously, and I think that’s important. When times are good, we tend to forget how tongue-chewingly horrific suffering can be. S-risks seem particularly horrifying.
  • Second, FRI isn’t afraid of being weird. FRI has been working on s-risk research for a few years now, and if people are starting to come around to the idea that s-risks are worth thinking about, much of the credit goes to FRI.
  • Third, I have great personal respect for Brian Tomasik, one of FRI’s co-founders. I’ve found him highly thoughtful, generous in debates, and unfailingly principled. In particular, he’s always willing to bite the bullet and work ideas out to their logical end, even if it involves repugnant conclusions.

What is FRI’s research framework?

FRI believes in analytic functionalism, or what David Chalmers calls “Type-A materialism”. Essentially, what this means is there’s no ’theoretical essence’ to consciousness; rather, consciousness is the sum-total of the functional properties of our brains. Since ‘functional properties’ are rather vague, this means consciousness itself is rather vague, in the same way words like “life,” “justice,” and “virtue” are messy and vague.

Brian suggests that this vagueness means there’s an inherently subjective, perhaps arbitrary element to how we define consciousness:

Analytic functionalism looks for functional processes in the brain that roughly capture what we mean by words like “awareness”, “happy”, etc., in a similar way as a biologist may look for precise properties of replicators that roughly capture what we mean by “life”. Just as there can be room for fuzziness about where exactly to draw the boundaries around “life”, different analytic functionalists may have different opinions about where to define the boundaries of “consciousness” and other mental states. This is why consciousness is “up to us to define”. There’s no hard problem of consciousness for the same reason there’s no hard problem of life: consciousness is just a high-level word that we use to refer to lots of detailed processes, and it doesn’t mean anything in addition to those processes.

Finally, Brian argues that the phenomenology of consciousness is identical with the phenomenology of computation:

I know that I’m conscious. I also know, from neuroscience combined with Occam’s razor, that my consciousness consists only of material operations in my brain — probably mostly patterns of neuronal firing that help process inputs, compute intermediate ideas, and produce behavioral outputs. Thus, I can see that consciousness is just the first-person view of certain kinds of computations — as Eliezer Yudkowsky puts it, “How An Algorithm Feels From Inside“. Consciousness is not something separate from or epiphenomenal to these computations. It is these computations, just from their own perspective of trying to think about themselves.

In other words, consciousness is what minds compute. Consciousness is the collection of input operations, intermediate processing, and output behaviors that an entity performs.

And if consciousness is all these things, so too is suffering. Which means suffering is computational, yet also inherently fuzzy, and at least a bit arbitrary; a leaky high-level reification impossible to speak about accurately, since there’s no formal, objective “ground truth”.

II. Why do I worry about FRI’s research framework?

In short, I think FRI has a worthy goal and good people, but its metaphysics actively prevent making progress toward that goal. The following describes why I think that, drawing heavily on Brian’s writings (of FRI’s researchers, Brian seems the most focused on metaphysics):

Note: FRI is not the only EA organization which holds functionalist views on consciousness; much of the following critique would also apply to e.g. MIRI, FHI, and OpenPhil. I focus on FRI because (1) Brian’s writings on consciousness & functionalism have been hugely influential in the community, and are clear enough *to* criticize; (2) the fact that FRI is particularly clear about what it cares about- suffering- allows a particularly clear critique about what problems it will run into with functionalism; (3) I believe FRI is at the forefront of an important cause area which has not crystallized yet, and I think it’s critically important to get these objections bouncing around this subcommunity.

Objection 1: Motte-and-bailey

Brian: “Consciousness is not a thing which exists ‘out there’ or even a separate property of matter; it’s a definitional category into which we classify minds. ‘Is this digital mind really conscious?’ is analogous to ‘Is a rock that people use to eat on really a table?’ [However,] That consciousness is a cluster in thingspace rather than a concrete property of the world does not make reducing suffering less important.”

The FRI model seems to imply that suffering is ineffable enough such that we can’t have an objective definition, yet sufficiently effable that we can coherently talk and care about it. This attempt to have it both ways seems contradictory, or at least in deep tension.

Indeed, I’d argue that the degree to which you can care about something is proportional to the degree to which you can define it objectively. E.g., If I say that “gnireffus” is literally the most terrible thing in the cosmos, that we should spread gnireffus-focused ethics, and that minimizing g-risks (far-future scenarios which involve large amounts of gnireffus) is a moral imperative, but also that what is and what and isn’t gnireffus is rather subjective with no privileged definition, and it’s impossible to objectively tell if a physical system exhibits gnireffus, you might raise any number of objections. This is not an exact metaphor for FRI’s position, but I worry that FRI’s work leans on the intuition that suffering is real and we can speak coherently about it, to a degree greater than its metaphysics formally allow.

Max Daniel (personal communication) suggests that we’re comfortable with a degree of ineffability in other contexts; “Brian claims that the concept of suffering shares the allegedly problematic properties with the concept of a table. But it seems a stretch to say that the alleged tension is problematic when talking about tables. So why would it be problematic when talking about suffering?” However, if we take the anti-realist view that suffering is ‘merely’ a node in the network of language, we have to live with the consequences of this: that ‘suffering’ will lose meaning as we take it away from the network in which it’s embedded (Wittgenstein). But FRI wants to do exactly this, to speak about suffering in the context of AGIs, simulated brains, even video game characters.

We can be anti-realists about suffering (suffering-is-a-node-in-the-network-of-language), or we can argue that we can talk coherently about suffering in novel contexts (AGIs, mind crime, aliens, and so on), but it seems inherently troublesome to claim we can do both at the same time.

Objection 2: Intuition duels

Two people can agree on FRI’s position that there is no objective fact of the matter about what suffering is (no privileged definition), but this also means they have no way of coming to any consensus on the object-level question of whether something can suffer. This isn’t just an academic point: Brian has written extensively about how he believes non-human animals can and do suffer extensively, whereas Yudkowsky (who holds computationalist views, like Brian) has written about how he’s confident that animals are not conscious and cannot suffer, due to their lack of higher-order reasoning.

And if functionalism is having trouble adjudicating the easy cases of suffering–whether monkeys can suffer, or whether dogs can— it doesn’t have a sliver of a chance at dealing with the upcoming hard cases of suffering: whether a given AGI is suffering, or engaging in mind crime; whether a whole-brain emulation (WBE) or synthetic organism or emergent intelligence that doesn’t have the capacity to tell us how it feels (or that we don’t have the capacity to understand) is suffering; if any aliens that we meet in the future can suffer; whether changing the internal architecture of our qualia reports means we’re also changing our qualia; and so on.

In short, FRI’s theory of consciousness isn’t actually a theory of consciousness at all, since it doesn’t do the thing we need a theory of consciousness to do: adjudicate disagreements in a principled way. Instead, it gives up any claim on the sorts of objective facts which could in principle adjudicate disagreements.

This is a source of friction in EA today, but it’s mitigated by the sense that

(1) The EA pie is growing, so it’s better to ignore disagreements than pick fights;

(2) Disagreements over the definition of suffering don’t really matter yet, since we haven’t gotten into the business of making morally-relevant synthetic beings (that we know of) that might be unable to vocalize their suffering.

If the perception of one or both of these conditions change, the lack of some disagreement-adjudicating theory of suffering will matter quite a lot.

Objection 3: Convergence requires common truth

Mike: “[W]hat makes one definition of consciousness better than another? How should we evaluate them?”

Brian: “Consilience among our feelings of empathy, principles of non-discrimination, understandings of cognitive science, etc. It’s similar to the question of what makes one definition of justice or virtue better than another.”

Brian is hoping that affective neuroscience will slowly converge to accurate views on suffering as more and better data about sentience and pain accumulates. But convergence to truth implies something (objective) driving the convergence- in this way, Brian’s framework still seems to require an objective truth of the matter, even though he disclaims most of the benefits of assuming this.

Objection 4: Assuming that consciousness is a reification produces more confusion, not less

Brian: “Consciousness is not a reified thing; it’s not a physical property of the universe that just exists intrinsically. Rather, instances of consciousness are algorithms that are implemented in specific steps. … Consciousness involves specific things that brains do.”

Brian argues that we treat conscious/phenomenology as more ‘real’ than it is. Traditionally, whenever we’ve discovered something is a leaky reification and shouldn’t be treated as ‘too real’, we’ve been able to break it down into more coherent constituent pieces we can treat as real. Life, for instance, wasn’t due to élan vital but a bundle of self-organizing properties & dynamics which generally co-occur. But carrying out this “de-reification” process on consciousness– enumerating its coherent constituent pieces– has proven difficult, especially if we want to preserve some way to speak cogently about suffering.

Speaking for myself, the more I stared into the depths of functionalism, the less certain everything about moral value became– and arguably, I see the same trajectory in Brian’s work and Luke Muehlhauser’s report. Their model uncertainty has seemingly become larger as they’ve looked into techniques for how to “de-reify” consciousness while preserving some flavor of moral value, not smaller. Brian and Luke seem to interpret this as evidence that moral value is intractably complicated, but this is also consistent with consciousness not being a reification, and instead being a real thing. Trying to “de-reify” something that’s not a reification will produce deep confusion, just as surely trying to treat a reification as ‘more real’ than it actually is will.

Edsger W. Dijkstra famously noted that “The purpose of abstraction is not to be vague, but to create a new semantic level in which one can be absolutely precise.” And so if our ways of talking about moral value fail to ‘carve reality at the joints’- then by all means let’s build better ones, rather than giving up on precision.

Objection 5: The Hard Problem of Consciousness is a red herring

Brian spends a lot of time discussing Chalmers’ “Hard Problem of Consciousness”, i.e. the question of why we’re subjectively conscious, and seems to base at least part of his conclusion on not finding this question compelling— he suggests “There’s no hard problem of consciousness for the same reason there’s no hard problem of life: consciousness is just a high-level word that we use to refer to lots of detailed processes, and it doesn’t mean anything in addition to those processes.” I.e., no ‘why’ is necessary; when we take consciousness and subtract out the details of the brain, we’re left with an empty set.

But I think the “Hard Problem” isn’t helpful as a contrastive centerpiece, since it’s unclear what the problem is, and whether it’s analytic or empirical, a statement about cognition or about physics. At the Qualia Research Institute (QRI), we don’t talk much about the Hard Problem; instead, we talk about Qualia Formalism, or the idea that any phenomenological state can be crisply and precisely represented by some mathematical object. I suspect this would be a better foil for Brian’s work than the Hard Problem.

Objection 6: Mapping to reality

Brian argues that consciousness should be defined at the functional/computational level: given a Turing machine, or neural network, the right ‘code’ will produce consciousness. But the problem is that this doesn’t lead to a theory which can ‘compile’ to physics. Consider the following:

Imagine you have a bag of popcorn. Now shake it. There will exist a certain ad-hoc interpretation of bag-of-popcorn-as-computational-system where you just simulated someone getting tortured, and other interpretations that don’t imply that. Did you torture anyone? If you’re a computationalist, no clear answer exists- you both did, and did not, torture someone. This sounds like a ridiculous edge-case that would never come up in real life, but in reality it comes up all the time, since there is no principled way to *objectively derive* what computation(s) any physical system is performing.

I don’t think this is an outlandish view of functionalism; Brian suggests much the same in How to Interpret a Physical System as a Mind“Physicalist views that directly map from physics to moral value are relatively simple to understand. Functionalism is more complex, because it maps from physics to computations to moral value. Moreover, while physics is real and objective, computations are fictional and ‘observer-relative’ (to use John Searle’s terminology). There’s no objective meaning to ‘the computation that this physical system is implementing’ (unless you’re referring to the specific equations of physics that the system is playing out).”

Gordon McCabe (McCabe 2004) provides a more formal argument to this effect— that precisely mapping between physical processes and (Turing-level) computational processes is inherently impossible— in the context of simulations. First, McCabe notes that:

[T]here is a one-[to-]many correspondence between the logical states [of a computer] and the exact electronic states of computer memory. Although there are bijective mappings between numbers and the logical states of computer memory, there are no bijective mappings between numbers and the exact electronic states of memory.

This lack of an exact bijective mapping means that subjective interpretation necessarily creeps in, and so a computational simulation of a physical system can’t be ‘about’ that system in any rigorous way:

In a computer simulation, the values of the physical quantities possessed by the simulated system are represented by the combined states of multiple bits in computer memory. However, the combined states of multiple bits in computer memory only represent numbers because they are deemed to do so under a numeric interpretation. There are many different interpretations of the combined states of multiple bits in computer memory. If the numbers represented by a digital computer are interpretation-dependent, they cannot be objective physical properties. Hence, there can be no objective relationship between the changing pattern of multiple bit-states in computer memory, and the changing pattern of quantity-values of a simulated physical system.

McCabe concludes that, metaphysically speaking,

A digital computer simulation of a physical system cannot exist as, (does not possess the properties and relationships of), anything else other than a physical process occurring upon the components of a computer. In the contemporary case of an electronic digital computer, a simulation cannot exist as anything else other than an electronic physical process occurring upon the components and circuitry of a computer.

Where does this leave ethics? In Flavors of Computation Are Flavors of Consciousness, Brian notes that “In some sense all I’ve proposed here is to think of different flavors of computation as being various flavors of consciousness. But this still leaves the question: Which flavors of computation matter most? Clearly whatever computations happen when a person is in pain are vastly more important than what’s happening in a brain on a lazy afternoon. How can we capture that difference?”

But if Brian grants the former point- that “There’s no objective meaning to ‘the computation that this physical system is implementing’”– then this latter task of figuring out “which flavors of computation matter most” is provably impossible. There will always be multiple computational (and thus ethical) interpretations of a physical system, with no way to figure out what’s “really” happening. No way to figure out if something is suffering or not. No consilience; not now, not ever.

Note: despite apparently granting the point above, Brian also remarks that:

I should add a note on terminology: All computations occur within physics, so any computation is a physical process. Conversely, any physical process proceeds from input conditions to output conditions in a regular manner and so is a computation. Hence, the set of computations equals the set of physical processes, and where I say “computations” in this piece, one could just as well substitute “physical processes” instead.

This seems to be (1) incorrect, for the reasons I give above, or (2) taking substantial poetic license with these terms, or (3) referring to hypercomputation (which might be able to salvage the metaphor, but would invalidate many of FRI’s conclusions dealing with the computability of suffering on conventional hardware).

This objection may seem esoteric or pedantic, but I think it’s important, and that it ripples through FRI’s theoretical framework with disastrous effects.

 

Objection 7: FRI doesn’t fully bite the bullet on computationalism

Brian suggests that “flavors of computation are flavors of consciousness” and that some computations ‘code’ for suffering. But if we do in fact bite the bullet on this metaphor and place suffering within the realm of computational theory, we need to think in “near mode” and accept all the paradoxes that brings. Scott Aaronson, a noted expert on quantum computing, raises the following objections to functionalism:

I’m guessing that many people in this room side with Dennett, and (not coincidentally, I’d say) also with Everett. I certainly have sympathies in that direction too. In fact, I spent seven or eight years of my life as a Dennett/Everett hardcore believer. But, while I don’t want to talk anyone out of the Dennett/Everett view, I’d like to take you on a tour of what I see as some of the extremely interesting questions that that view leaves unanswered. I’m not talking about “deep questions of meaning,” but about something much more straightforward: what exactly does a computational process have to do to qualify as “conscious”?

There’s this old chestnut, what if each person on earth simulated one neuron of your brain, by passing pieces of paper around. It took them several years just to simulate a single second of your thought processes. Would that bring your subjectivity into being? Would you accept it as a replacement for your current body? If so, then what if your brain were simulated, not neuron-by-neuron, but by a gigantic lookup table? That is, what if there were a huge database, much larger than the observable universe (but let’s not worry about that), that hardwired what your brain’s response was to every sequence of stimuli that your sense-organs could possibly receive. Would that bring about your consciousness? Let’s keep pushing: if it would, would it make a difference if anyone actually consulted the lookup table? Why can’t it bring about your consciousness just by sitting there doing nothing?

To these standard thought experiments, we can add more. Let’s suppose that, purely for error-correction purposes, the computer that’s simulating your brain runs the code three times, and takes the majority vote of the outcomes. Would that bring three “copies” of your consciousness into being? Does it make a difference if the three copies are widely separated in space or time—say, on different planets, or in different centuries? Is it possible that the massive redundancy taking place in your brain right now is bringing multiple copies of you into being?

Maybe my favorite thought experiment along these lines was invented by my former student Andy Drucker.  In the past five years, there’s been a revolution in theoretical cryptography, around something called Fully Homomorphic Encryption (FHE), which was first discovered by Craig Gentry.  What FHE lets you do is to perform arbitrary computations on encrypted data, without ever decrypting the data at any point.  So, to someone with the decryption key, you could be proving theorems, simulating planetary motions, etc.  But to someone without the key, it looks for all the world like you’re just shuffling random strings and producing other random strings as output.

You can probably see where this is going.  What if we homomorphically encrypted a simulation of your brain?  And what if we hid the only copy of the decryption key, let’s say in another galaxy?  Would this computation—which looks to anyone in our galaxy like a reshuffling of gobbledygook—be silently producing your consciousness?

When we consider the possibility of a conscious quantum computer, in some sense we inherit all the previous puzzles about conscious classical computers, but then also add a few new ones.  So, let’s say I run a quantum subroutine that simulates your brain, by applying some unitary transformation U.  But then, of course, I want to “uncompute” to get rid of garbage (and thereby enable interference between different branches), so I apply U-1.  Question: when I apply U-1, does your simulated brain experience the same thoughts and feelings a second time?  Is the second experience “the same as” the first, or does it differ somehow, by virtue of being reversed in time? Or, since U-1U is just a convoluted implementation of the identity function, are there no experiences at all here?

Here’s a better one: many of you have heard of the Vaidman bomb.  This is a famous thought experiment in quantum mechanics where there’s a package, and we’d like to “query” it to find out whether it contains a bomb—but if we query it and there is a bomb, it will explode, killing everyone in the room.  What’s the solution?  Well, suppose we could go into a superposition of querying the bomb and not querying it, with only ε amplitude on querying the bomb, and √(1-ε2) amplitude on not querying it.  And suppose we repeat this over and over—each time, moving ε amplitude onto the “query the bomb” state if there’s no bomb there, but moving ε2 probability onto the “query the bomb” state if there is a bomb (since the explosion decoheres the superposition).  Then after 1/ε repetitions, we’ll have order 1 probability of being in the “query the bomb” state if there’s no bomb.  By contrast, if there is a bomb, then the total probability we’ve ever entered that state is (1/ε)×ε2 = ε.  So, either way, we learn whether there’s a bomb, and the probability that we set the bomb off can be made arbitrarily small.  (Incidentally, this is extremely closely related to how Grover’s algorithm works.)

OK, now how about the Vaidman brain?  We’ve got a quantum subroutine simulating your brain, and we want to ask it a yes-or-no question.  We do so by querying that subroutine with ε amplitude 1/ε times, in such a way that if your answer is “yes,” then we’ve only ever activated the subroutine with total probability ε.  Yet you still manage to communicate your “yes” answer to the outside world.  So, should we say that you were conscious only in the ε fraction of the wavefunction where the simulation happened, or that the entire system was conscious?  (The answer could matter a lot for anthropic purposes.)

To sum up: Brian’s notion that consciousness is the same as computation raises more issues than it solves; in particular, the possibility that if suffering is computable, it may also be uncomputable/reversible, would suggest s-risks aren’t as serious as FRI treats them.

Objection 8: Dangerous combination

Three themes which seem to permeate FRI’s research are:

(1) Suffering is the thing that is bad.

(2) It’s critically important to eliminate badness from the universe.

(3) Suffering is impossible to define objectively, and so we each must define what suffering means for ourselves.

Taken individually, each of these seems reasonable. Pick two, and you’re still okay. Pick all three, though, and you get A Fully General Justification For Anything, based on what is ultimately a subjective/aesthetic call.

Much can be said in FRI’s defense here, and it’s unfair to single them out as risky: in my experience they’ve always brought a very thoughtful, measured, cooperative approach to the table. I would just note that ideas are powerful, and I think theme (3) is especially pernicious if incorrect.

III. QRI’s alternative

Analytic functionalism is essentially a negative hypothesis about consciousness: it’s the argument that there’s no order to be found, no rigor to be had. It obscures this with talk of “function”, which is a red herring it not only doesn’t define, but admits is undefinable. It doesn’t make any positive assertion. Functionalism is skepticism- nothing more, nothing less.

But is it right?

Ultimately, I think these a priori arguments are much like people in the middle ages arguing whether one could ever formalize a Proper System of Alchemy. Such arguments may in many cases hold water, but it’s often difficult to tell good arguments apart from arguments where we’re just cleverly fooling ourselves. In retrospect, the best way to *prove* systematized alchemy was possible was to just go out and *do* it, and invent Chemistry. That’s how I see what we’re doing at QRI with Qualia Formalism: we’re assuming it’s possible to build stuff, and we’re working on building the object-level stuff.

What we’ve built with QRI’s framework

Note: this is a brief, surface-level tour of our research; it will probably be confusing for readers who haven’t dug into our stuff before. Consider this a down-payment on a more substantial introduction.

My most notable work is Principia Qualia, in which I lay out my meta-framework for consciousness (a flavor of dual-aspect monism, with a focus on Qualia Formalism) and put forth the Symmetry Theory of Valence (STV). Essentially, the STV is an argument that much of the apparent complexity of emotional valence is evolutionarily contingent, and if we consider a mathematical object isomorphic to a phenomenological experience, the mathematical property which corresponds to how pleasant it is to be that experience is the object’s symmetry. This implies a bunch of testable predictions and reinterpretations of things like what ‘pleasure centers’ do (Section XI; Section XII). Building on this, I offer the Symmetry Theory of Homeostatic Regulation, which suggests understanding the structure of qualia will translate into knowledge about the structure of human intelligence, and I briefly touch on the idea of Neuroacoustics.

Likewise, my colleague Andrés Gómez Emilsson has written about the likely mathematics of phenomenology, includingThe Hyperbolic Geometry of DMT Experiences, Tyranny of the Intentional Object, and Algorithmic Reduction of Psychedelic States. If I had to suggest one thing to read in all of these links, though, it would be the transcript of his recent talk on Quantifying Bliss, which lays out the world’s first method to objectively measure valence from first principles (via fMRI) using Selen Atasoy’s Connectome Harmonics framework, the Symmetry Theory of Valence, and Andrés’s CDNS model of experience.

These are risky predictions and we don’t yet know if they’re right, but we’re confident that if there is some elegant structure intrinsic to consciousness, as there is in many other parts of the natural world, these are the right kind of risks to take.

I mention all this because I think analytic functionalism- which is to say radical skepticism/eliminativism, the metaphysics of last resort- only looks as good as it does because nobody’s been building out any alternatives.

IV. Closing thoughts

FRI is pursuing a certain research agenda, and QRI is pursuing another, and there’s lots of value in independent explorations of the nature of suffering. I’m glad FRI exists, everybody I’ve interacted with at FRI has been great, I’m happy they’re focusing on s-risks, and I look forward to seeing what they produce in the future.

On the other hand, I worry that nobody’s pushing back on FRI’s metaphysics, which seem to unavoidably lead to the intractable problems I describe above. FRI seems to believe these problems are part of the territory, unavoidable messes that we just have to make philosophical peace with. But I think that functionalism is a bad map, that the metaphysical messes it leads to are much worse than most people realize (fatal to FRI’s mission), and there are other options that avoid these problems (which, to be fair, is not to say they have no problems).

Ultimately, FRI doesn’t owe me a defense of their position. But if they’re open to suggestions on what it would take to convince a skeptic like me that their brand of functionalism is viable, or at least rescuable, I’d offer the following:

Re: Objection 1 (motte-and-bailey), I suggest FRI should be as clear and complete as possible in their basic definition of suffering. In which particular ways is it ineffable/fuzzy, and in which particular ways is it precise? What can we definitely say about suffering, and what can we definitely never determine? Preregistering ontological commitments and methodological possibilities would help guard against FRI’s definition of suffering changing based on context.

Re: Objection 2 (intuition duels), FRI may want to internally “war game” various future scenarios involving AGI, WBE, etc, with one side arguing that a given synthetic (or even extraterrestrial) organism is suffering, and the other side arguing that it isn’t. I’d expect this would help diagnose what sorts of disagreements future theories of suffering will need to adjudicate, and perhaps illuminate implicit ethical intuitions. Sharing the results of these simulated disagreements would also be helpful in making FRI’s reasoning less opaque to outsiders, although making everything transparent could lead to certain strategic disadvantages.

Re: Objection 3 (convergence requires common truth), I’d like FRI to explore exactly what might drive consilience/convergence in theories of suffering, and what precisely makes one theory of suffering better than another, and ideally to evaluate a range of example theories of suffering under these criteria.

Re: Objection 4 (assuming that consciousness is a reification produces more confusion, not less), I would love to see a historical treatment of reification: lists of reifications which were later dissolved (e.g., élan vital), vs scattered phenomena that were later unified (e.g., electromagnetism). What patterns do the former have, vs the latter, and why might consciousness fit one of these buckets better than the other?

Re: Objection 5 (the Hard Problem of Consciousness is a red herring), I’d like to see a more detailed treatment of what kinds of problem people have interpreted the Hard Problem as, and also more analysis on the prospects of Qualia Formalism (which I think is the maximally-empirical, maximally-charitable interpretation of the Hard Problem). It would be helpful for us, in particular, if FRI preregistered their expectations about QRI’s predictions, and their view of the relative evidence strength of each of our predictions.

Re: Objection 6 (mapping to reality), this is perhaps the heart of most of our disagreement. From Brian’s quotes, he seems split on this issue; I’d like clarification about whether he believes we can ever precisely/objectively map specific computations to specific physical systems, and vice-versa. And if so— how? If not, this seems to propagate through FRI’s ethical framework in a disastrous way, since anyone can argue that any physical system does, or does not, ‘code’ for massive suffering, and there’s no principled way to derive any ‘ground truth’ or even pick between interpretations in a principled way (e.g. my popcorn example). If this isn’t the case— why not?

Brian has suggested that “certain high-level interpretations of physical systems are more ‘natural’ and useful than others” (personal communication); I agree, and would encourage FRI to explore systematizing this.

It would be non-trivial to port FRI’s theories and computational intuitions to the framework of “hypercomputation”– i.e., the understanding that there’s a formal hierarchy of computational systems, and that Turing machines are only one level of many– but it may have benefits too. Namely, it might be the only way they could avoid Objection 6 (which I think is a fatal objection) while still allowing them to speak about computation & consciousness in the same breath. I think FRI should look at this and see if it makes sense to them.

Re: Objection 7 (FRI doesn’t fully bite the bullet on computationalism), I’d like to see responses to Aaronson’s aforementioned thought experiments.

Re: Objection 8 (dangerous combination), I’d like to see a clarification about why my interpretation is unreasonable (as it very well may be!).

 


In conclusion- I think FRI has a critically important goal- reduction of suffering & s-risk. However, I also think FRI has painted itself into a corner by explicitly disallowing a clear, disagreement-mediating definition for what these things are. I look forward to further work in this field.

 

Mike Johnson

Qualia Research Institute


Acknowledgements: thanks to Andrés Gómez Emilsson, Brian Tomasik, and Max Daniel for reviewing earlier drafts of this.

Sources:

My sources for FRI’s views on consciousness:

Flavors of Computation are Flavors of Consciousness:

https://foundational-research.org/flavors-of-computation-are-flavors-of-consciousness/

 

Is There a Hard Problem of Consciousness?

http://reducing-suffering.org/hard-problem-consciousness/

Consciousness Is a Process, Not a Moment

http://reducing-suffering.org/consciousness-is-a-process-not-a-moment/

 

How to Interpret a Physical System as a Mind

http://reducing-suffering.org/interpret-physical-system-mind/

 

Dissolving Confusion about Consciousness

http://reducing-suffering.org/dissolving-confusion-about-consciousness/

 

Debate between Brian & Mike on consciousness:

https://www.facebook.com/groups/effective.altruists/permalink/1333798200009867/?comment_id=1333823816673972&comment_tracking=%7B%22tn%22%3A%22R9%22%7D

Max Daniel’s EA Global Boston 2017 talk on s-risks:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jiZxEJcFExc
Multipolar debate between Eliezer Yudkowsky and various rationalists about animal suffering:
https://rationalconspiracy.com/2015/12/16/a-debate-on-animal-consciousness/
The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy on functionalism:
http://www.iep.utm.edu/functism/
Gordon McCabe on why computation doesn’t map to physics:
http://philsci-archive.pitt.edu/1891/1/UniverseCreationComputer.pdf
Toby Ord on hypercomputation, and how it differs from Turing’s work:
https://arxiv.org/abs/math/0209332
Luke Muehlhauser’s OpenPhil-funded report on consciousness and moral patienthood:
http://www.openphilanthropy.org/2017-report-consciousness-and-moral-patienthood
Scott Aaronson’s thought experiments on computationalism:
http://www.scottaaronson.com/blog/?p=1951
Selen Atasoy on Connectome Harmonics, a new way to understand brain activity:
https://www.nature.com/articles/ncomms10340
My work on formalizing phenomenology:

My meta-framework for consciousness, including the Symmetry Theory of Valence:

http://opentheory.net/PrincipiaQualia.pdf

 

My hypothesis of homeostatic regulation, which touches on why we seek out pleasure:

http://opentheory.net/2017/05/why-we-seek-out-pleasure-the-symmetry-theory-of-homeostatic-regulation/

 

My exploration & parametrization of the ‘neuroacoustics’ metaphor suggested by Atasoy’s work:

http://opentheory.net/2017/06/taking-brain-waves-seriously-neuroacoustics/

My colleague Andrés’s work on formalizing phenomenology:
A model of DMT-trip-as-hyperbolic-experience:
https://qualiacomputing.com/2017/05/28/eli5-the-hyperbolic-geometry-of-dmt-experiences/
June 2017 talk at Consciousness Hacking, describing a theory and experiment to predict people’s valence from fMRI data:
https://qualiacomputing.com/2017/06/18/quantifying-bliss-talk-summary/
A parametrization of various psychedelic states as operators in qualia space:
https://qualiacomputing.com/2016/06/20/algorithmic-reduction-of-psychedelic-states/
A brief post on valence and the fundamental attribution error:
https://qualiacomputing.com/2016/11/19/the-tyranny-of-the-intentional-object/
A summary of some of Selen Atasoy’s current work on Connectome Harmonics:
https://qualiacomputing.com/2017/06/18/connectome-specific-harmonic-waves-on-lsd/

Quantifying Bliss: Talk Summary

Below I provide a summary of the Quantifying Bliss talk at Consciousness Hacking (video360 degree live feed record), which took place on June 7th 2017. I am currently working on a longer and more precise treatment of the topic, which I will be posting here as well. That said, since the talk already makes clear, empirically testable predictions, I decided to publish this summary as soon as possible. After all, there is only a small window of opportunity to publish one’s testable predictions online before the experiment is run and they turn into “retrodictions”. By writing this out and archiving it on time I’m enabling future-me to say “called it!” (if the results are positive) or “at least I tried” (if the experiment fails to show the predicted effects). Better do this quick, then, for science!

The Purpose of Life

We begin by asking the question “what is the purpose of life?”. In order to give a sense for where I am coming from, I explain that I think that the purpose of life is…

  1. To Understand the Universe
  2. To be Happy, and Make Others Happy

I admit that for the first half of my life I thought that the only purpose of life was to understand the universe. If anything, in light of this exclusive goal, happiness could be seen as a temporary distraction rather than something to pursue for its own sake. Thankfully, as a teenager I was exposed to philosophy of mind, was introduced to meditation, and experimented with psychedelics, all of which pointed me to the fact that (a) we don’t understand consciousness yet, and (b) happiness is really a lot more important than we usually think, even if one is only concerned with the most theoretical and abstract level of understanding possible.

I now regard “to understand the universe” and “to be happy and make others happy” on an equal footing. More so, these two life goals complement each other. On the one hand, understanding the universe will allow you to figure out how to make anyone happy. And on the other hand, being happy and making others happy can allow you to stay motivated in order to figure out the nature of reality. Hence one can think of these two life goals as synergistic rather than as being in opposing camps (of course, at the edges, one will be forced to choose one over the other, but we are nowhere near the point where this is a concern).

By taking these two “purposes of life” seriously we are then faced with a crucial question: What makes an experience valuable? In other words, for someone who is both trying to understand the universe and trying to make its inhabitants as happy as possible, the question “how do you measure the value of an experience?” becomes important.

At Qualia Computing we generally answer that question using the following criteria

  1. Does it feel good? (happy, loving, pleasant)
  2. Does it make you productive (in a good way)?
  3. Does it make you ethical?

That is to say, the value that we assign to an experience is guided by three criteria. In brief, a valuable experience is one that feels good (i.e. has positive hedonic tone), improves your productivity (in the sense of helping you pursue your own values effectively), and makes you more ethical – both towards yourself and others. That said, for the purpose of this talk, I make it explicit that I will only discuss how to measure (1). In other words, we will concern ourselves with what makes an experience feel good; ethics and productivity are discussed elsewhere.*

What is Bliss?

So what makes an experience feel good? The “feel good” quality of an experience is usually called valence in psychology and neuroscience (also described as the “pleasure-pain axis”). This quality is to be distinguished from arousal, which refers to the amount of energy expressed in an experience. Four examples: Excitement is a high-valence, high-arousal state. Serenity is a high-valence, low-arousal state. Anxiety is low-valence, high-arousal. And depression low-valence, low-arousal.

For some people valence and arousal are correlated (either negatively or positively as shown by Peter Kuppens). Likewise, one’s culture can have a large influence on the way one conceptualizes of valence (or ideal affect, as demonstrated in the extensive work of Jeanne Tsai). That said, valence is not a cultural phenomenon; even mice can experience negative and positive valence.

Even though valence and arousal do seem to explain a big chunk of the differences between emotions, we can nonetheless find many cases where the “texture” of two emotions feel very different even though their valence and their arousal are similar. Hence we ask ourselves: How do we explain and characterize the textural differences between such emotions?

And across all of the possible intensely blissful states on offer (encompassing all of the possible inner meanings present), what exactly is shared between them all at their very core?

Some interpret holistic feelings of wellbeing as a sort of spiritual signal. In this interpretation, feeling at a very deep level that the world is good, that things fall into place perfectly, that you don’t owe anything to anyone, etc. is a sign that you are on the right (spiritual) track. Undoubtedly many people use the (often extreme) positive shift in their valence upon religious conversion as evidence of the validity of their choice. Intense positive valence may not throw Bayesian purists off-balance, but for the rest of the world, blissful experiences are often found as cornerstones of worldviews.

Other people say that bliss is “just chemicals in your brain”. Some claim that it’s more a matter of the functional state of your pleasure centers (themselves affected by dopamine, opioids, etc.) rather than the chemicals themselves. Many others are focused on what usually triggers happiness (e.g. learning, relationships, beliefs, etc.) rather than on what, absolutely, needs to happens for bliss to take place in the simplest experiential terms possible. Most who study this closely become mystics.

Could it be that there’s something structural that makes the experiences feel good? Let’s say that there exists a good-fitting mathematical object that translates brain states to experiences. What mathematical property of that object would valence look like? Our proposal is very simple. In some sense it is the simplest possible theory for the important theory of consciousness. We propose the symmetry theory of valence.

(The important theory of consciousness is the question that asks why experience feels good and/or bad, vs. e.g. the hard problem of consciousness, why consciousness exists to begin with).

The Symmetry Theory of Valence

We are pretty confident that consciousness is a real and a measurable phenomenon. That’s why Consciousness Hacking is such a good venue for this kind of discussion. Because here we can talk freely about the properties of consciousness without getting caught up about whether it exists at all. Now, symmetry is a very general term, how is that precise?

Harmony feels good because it’s symmetry over time. In reality, our moments of experience contain a temporal direction. I call this a pseudo-time arrow, since its direction is likely encoded in the patterns of statistical independence between the qualia experienced. And by manipulating the symmetrical connectivity of the micro-structure of one’s consciousness, one can change the perception of time. It’s a change in the way one evaluates when one is and how fast one is going. 

In this model, the pleasure centers would work as “tuning knobs” of harmonic patterns. They are establishing the mood, the underlying tone to which the rest needs to adapt. And the emotional centers, including the amygdala, would be strategically positioned to add anti-symmetry instead. Hence, in this framework we would think of boredom is an “anti-symmetry” mechanism. It prevents us from getting stuck in shallow ponds, but it can be nasty if left unchecked. Cognitive activity may be in part explained by differences in boredom thresholds.

Connectome-Specific Harmonics

I was at the Psychedelic Science 2017 conference when I saw Selen Atasoy presenting about improvisation enhancement with LSD. She used a paradigm previously developed, whose methods and empirical tests were published in Nature in 2016 but now applied to psychedelic research. For a good introduction check out the partial transcript of her talk.

In her talk she shows how one can measure the various “pure harmonics” in a given brain. The core idea is that brain activity can be interpreted as a weighted sum of “natural resonant frequencies” for the entire connectome (white matter tracks together with the grey matter connections). They actually take the physical structure of a mapped brain and simulate the effect of applying the excitation-inhibition differential equations known for collective neural activity propagation. Then they infer the presence and prevalence of these “pure harmonics” in a brain at a given point in time using a probabilistic reconstruction.

Chladni plates here are a wonderful metaphor for these brain harmonics. This is because the way the excitation-inhibition wavefront propagates is very similar in both Chladni plates and human brains. In both cases the system drifts slowly within the attractor basin of natural frequencies, where the wavefront wraps around the medium an integer number of times. I was in awe to see her approach applied to psychedelic research. After all, Qualia Computing has indeed explored harmonic patterns in psychedelic experiences (ex. 1, ex. 2, ex. 3), and the connection was made explicit in Principia Qualia (via the concept of neuroacoustic modulation).

giphy-downsized-large

But how do these harmonics look like in the brain? Show me a brain!

 

Notice the traveling wave wrapping around the brain an integer number of times in each of these numerical solutions (source). The work by these labs is incredible, and they seem to show that the brain’s activity can be decomposed into each of these harmonics.

At the Psychedelic Science 2017 conference, Selen Atasoy explained that very low frequency harmonics were associated with Ego Dissolution in the trials that they studied. She also explained that emotional arousal, here defined as one’s overall level of energy in the emotional component (i.e. anxiety and ecstasy vs. depression and serenity), also correlated with low frequency harmonic states. On the other hand, high valence states were correlated with high frequency brain harmonics.

These empirical results are things that I claim we could have predicted with the symmetry theory of valence. I then thought to myself: let’s try to come up with other predictions. How should we consider the mixture of various harmonics, beyond merely their individual presence? How can we reconstruct valence from this novel data-structure for representing brain-states?

The Algorithm for Quantifying Bliss

Starting my reasoning from first principles (sourced from the Symmetry Theory of Valence), the natural way to take a data-structure that represents states of consciousness and recover its valence (in cases where samples occur across time in addition to space), is to try to isolate the noise, then proceed to quantify the dissonance, and what remains becomes what’s consonant. Basically, one will estimate the rough amount of symmetry (over time), as well as the degree of anti-symmetry, and the level of noise total.

In other words, I prophesize that we can get an “affective signature” of any brain state by applying an algorithm to fMRI brain recordings in order to estimate the degree of (1) consonance, (2) dissonance, and (3) noise within and across the brain’s natural harmonic states. This will result in what I call “Consonance-Dissonance-Noise Signatures” of brain states (“CDNS” for short) consisting of three histograms that describe the spectra of consonance, dissonance, and noise in a given moment of experience. The algorithm to arrive at a CDNS of a brain state is as follows:

Remove some of the noise in the brain state by applying the technique in Atasoy (2016) and recovering the distribution of the best approximation possible for the harmonics present (you may apply some further denoising on the harmonics when taken as a collective). Then estimate the total dissonance of the combination of harmonics by taking each pair of harmonics and quantifying their mutual dissonance. Finally, subtract the dissonance from “all of the interactions that could have existed” and what’s left ends up being the consonance. This way you obtain a Consonance, Dissonance, Noise Signature.

 

Each of these three components will have their associated spectral power distribution. The noise spectrum is obtained during the first denoising step (as whatever cannot be explained by the harmonic decomposition). Then the dissonance spectrum is a function of the minimum power of pairs of harmonics that exist within the critical band of each other (see slides 18; possibly upgraded by 20), as well as the frequencies of the beating patterns.

Quantifying Dissonance?

In order to quantify dissonance we use a method that may end up being simpler than what you need to calculate dissonance for sound! E.g. in Quantifying the Consonance of Complex Tones With Missing Fundamentals (Chon 2008) we learn that the human auditory system may at times detect dissonance even when there is no actual dissonance in the input. That is, there are auditory illusions pertaining to valence and dissonance. Based on the missing fundamental one can create ghost dissonance between tones that are not even present. That said, quantifying dissonance in a brain in terms of its harmonic decomposition may be easier than quantifying dissonance in auditory input, precisely because the auditory input (and any sensory input for that matter) contains many intermediary pre-processing steps. The auditory system is relatively “direct” when compared to, e.g. the visual system, but you will still see some basic signal processing done to the input before it influences brain harmonics. The sensory systems, being adapted to meet the criteria of both interfacing with a functioning valence system and representing the information adequately (in terms of the real-world distribution of inputs) serve the function of translating the inputs into usable signals. I.e. frequency-based descriptions, often log-transformed, in order to arrive at valence gradients. For this reason, the algorithm that describes how to extract valence out of a brain state may turn out to be simpler than what you need to predict the hedonic quality of patterns of sound (or sight, touch, etc).

In brief, we propose that we can compute the approximate amount of dissonance between these harmonics by seeing how close they are in terms of spatial and temporal frequencies. If they are within the critical window then they will be considered as dissonant. There is likely to be a peak dissonance window, and when any pair of harmonic states live within that window, then experiencing both at once may feel really awful (to quantify such dissonance more precisely we would use a dissonance function as shown in Chon 2008). If indeed symmetry is intimately connected to valence, then highly anti-symmetrical states such as what’s produced by overlapping brain harmonics within the critical band may feel terrible. Remember, harmony is symmetry over time. So dissonance is anti-symmetry over time. It’s worth recalling, though, that in the absence of dissonance and noise, by default, what remains is consonance.

Visualizing Emotions as CDNS’s of States of Consciousness

Above you can find two ways of visualizing a CDNS. Before we go on to the predictions, here we illustrate how we think that we will be able to see at a glance the valence of a brain with our method. The big circle shows the dissonance and consonance for each of the brain harmonics (the black dots surrounding the circle represent the weights for each state). If you want the overall dissonance in a given state, you add up the red-yellow arrows, whereas if you want the total consonance, you add the purple-light-blue arrows. The triangles on the right expand upon the valence diagram presented in Principia Qualia. Namely, we have a blue (positive valence/consonant), red (negative valence/dissonant), and grey (neutral valence/noise) component in a state of consciousness. Each of these components has a spectrum; the myriad textures of emotional states are the result of different spectral signatures for hedonically loaded patterns.

Testable Predictions

Quantifying Bliss (27)

We predict that intense emotions/experiences reported on psychedelics will result in states of consciousness whose harmonic decomposition will show a high amount of energy to be found in the pure harmonics (this was already found in 2017 as explained in the presentation, so let’s count that as a retrodiction). People who report being “very high” will have particularly high amounts of energy in their pure harmonics (as opposed to more noisy states).

The predicted valence for their experiences will be a function of the particular patterns (in terms of relative weights) of the various harmonics. Those which generate highly harmonic CDNS will be blessed with high valence experiences. And those who experience high dissonance, as empirically measured, will report negative feelings (e.g. fear, anxiety, nausea, weird and unpleasant body load, etc). In particular, we can explore the shape of highly harmonic states. In this framework, MDMA would be seen as likely to work by increasing the energy expressed by an exceptionally consonant set of harmonics in the brain.

A point to make here is that predicting “pure harmonics” on psychedelics (evidently simple and ordered patterns), would seem to go counter to the recently accrued empirical data concerning entropy in the tripping brain.** But we also know that the psychedelic brain can produce ridiculously self-similar near-informationless yet highly intense moments of experience preceded by a symmetrification process. Indeed, there are several symmetric attractors for the interplay of awareness and attention at various levels of “consciousness energy” and quality of mood. These states, in turn, not only are hedonically charged, but also allow the exploration of high-energy qualia research (since the implicit symmetry provides an energy seal). Highly energetic states of consciousness can be encapsulated in a highly symmetrical network of local binding. More about this in a future article.

On the other hand, we predict that people on SSRIs will show an enhanced amount of noise in their CDNS. A couple of slides back, this was represented as a higher loading of activity in the grey component of the triangular visualization of a CDNS. Likewise, some drugs will have various effects on the CDNS, such as stimulants inducing more consonance in high frequencies, whereas opioids and hypnotics having signatures of inducing high consonance in the low frequencies.

Summary of Predictions About Drug Effects

  1. Psychedelic substances will increase the overall power of the brain’s pure harmonics, and thus result in a CDN Signature characterized by: (a) high consonance of all frequencies, (b) high dissonance of all frequencies, and (c) low noise of all frequencies. Criticality will be observed by way of the CDNS having high variance.
  2. MDMA will produce a very specific range of states that have on the one hand very pure harmonic states of high frequencies, and on the other, very small collective dissonance and noise. In other words: (a) high amounts of high-frequency consonance, (b) low amounts of dissonance of all frequencies, and (c) low noise of all frequencies.
  3. Any “affect blunting” agent such as SSRIs, ibuprofen, aspirin, acetaminophen, and agmatine, will produce CDNS characterized by: (a) reduced consonance of all frequencies, (b) reduced dissonance of all frequencies, and (c) increased noise in either some or all frequencies. We further hypothesize that different antidepressants (e.g. citalopram vs. fuoxetine) will look the same with respect to reducing the C and D components, but may have differences in the way they increase the N spectrum.
  4. Opioids in euphoric doses will be found to (a) increase low frequency consonance, (b) decrease dissonance for all frequencies but especially the high frequencies, and (c) slightly increase noise across the board.
  5. Stimulants will be found to (a) increase medium and high frequency consonance, (b) leave dissonance fairly unaltered, and (c) reduce noise for all frequencies but especially those in the upper end of the spectrum.

Predictions About Emotions

For now, here are the specific predictions concerning emotions that I am making:

  1. The energy of the consonant (C) component of a CDNS will be highly correlated with the amount of euphoria (pleasure, happiness, positive feelings, etc.) a person is experiencing.
  2. The energy of the dissonant (D) component will have a high correlation with the amount of dysphoria (pain, suffering, negative feelings, etc.) a person feels.
  3. The energy of the noise (N) component will be correlated with flattened affect and blunted valence (i.e. feeling neither good nor bad, like there is a fog that masks all feelings).
  4. If one creates a geometric representation of the relationships between various brain states using their respective CDNS similarities as a distance metric for emotional states using Multi-Dimensional Scaling (MDS) techniques, one will be able to recover a really good approximation of the empirically-derived dimensional models of emotions (cf. dimensional models of emotionWire-heading Done Right). In other words, if you ask your participants to tell you how they feel during the fMRI sessions and then associate those emotions to their instantaneous CDNS, and then you apply multidimensional scaling to the resulting CDNS, you will be able to recover a good dimensional picture of the state-space of emotions. I.e. “subjective similarity between emotions” will be closely tracked by the geometric distance between their corresponding CDNS:
    1. Applying MDS scaling to the C component of the CDNS will result in a better characterization of the differences between positive emotions.
    2. Applying MDS to the D component will result in a better characterization of the differences between negative emotions. And,
    3. Applying MDS to the N component will result in a better characterization of the differences between valence-neutral emotions.

The Future of Mental Health

Quantifying Bliss (28)

Sir, your 17th harmonic is really messing up the consonance of your 19th harmonic, and it interrupts the creative morning mood you recently enjoyed. I suggest taking 1mg of Coluracetam, listening to a selection of Diamond songs, and RD23 [stretching exercise]. Here’s your expected CDNS.

Penfield mood organs may not be as terrible as they seem. At least not if you’re given a good combination of personalized settings, and a manual to wire-head in the proper manner. In such a situation, among the options available, you will have the ability to choose an experientially attractive, healthy, and sustainable set of moods indefinitely.

The “clinical phenomenologist” of the year 2050 might look into your brain harmonics, and try to find the shortest paths to nearby state-spaces with less chronic dissonance, fishing for high-consonance attractors with large basins to shoot for. The qualia expert would go on to provide you various options that may improve all sorts of metrics, including valence, the most important of them all. If you ask, your phenomenologist can give you trials for fully reversible treatments. You sample them in your own time, of course, and test them for a day or two before deciding whether to use these moods for longer.

Personalized Harmonic Retuning

I assume that people will be given just about enough retuning to get back to their daily routines as they themselves prefer them, but without any sort of nagging dissonance. Most people will probably continue on with their preference architectures relatively unchanged. Indeed, that will be a valued quality for a personalized harmonic retuning product. Having adequate mood devices that don’t mess up your existing value system might eventually become a highly understood, precision-engineered aspect of mainstream mental health. At least compared to the current (pre-psychedelic re-adoption 2017) paradigms. Arguably, even psychedelic therapy is pretty blunt in a way. Not in the sense of blunting the hedonic quality of your experience (on the contrary). But in the sense of applying the harmonization process indiscriminately.

For the psychonauts (hopefully they are not too rare by then), who still want to investigate consciousness even though human life is already full of love (in the future), we will have a different arrangement. They are free to explore themselves while being part of a research institute. Indeed, pursuing the purpose of understanding the big picture (including consciousness) will require the experimental method. More so, exploring the state-space of consciousness will, for the foreseeable future, be a way to find new ways of making others happy. People will continue to explore alien state-spaces in the search of highly-priced high-valence states. At least for some scores of generations valence engineering is bound to continue to be economically profitable. As we discover new drugs, new treatments, new philosophical trances, new interpretations and expressions of love, and so on, the economy will adapt to these inventions. We already live in an informational economy of states of consciousness, and the future is likely to be like that as well. Except that consciousness technologies will be immensely more powerful.

Barring the unlikely emergence of anti-hedonist Spartan self-punishing transhumanist social movements enabled with genetic technology, I don’t anticipate major obstacles in the eventual widespread use of mood organs. In fact, the wide adoption of SSRIs in some pockets of society shows that the general public is willing and interested in minor self-adjustments to deal with chronic negativity. Hedonic technology is in its early days, but with a root understanding of the nature of valence, the sky is the limit.

Case studies – SSRIs & Psychedelics

Let’s take a closer look at SSRIs and psychedelics in light of the Symmetry Theory of Valence.

SSRIs have an overall effect of blunting one’s experience at pretty much every level imaginable. Usually just a little, enough to help people re-establish a new order between their harmonics, in a more noisy, less intense range of moods. Some people may benefit from this sort of intervention. Now, also it’s worth pointing out the possible side effects, which have the common theme of reducing the structural integrity of the micro-structure of consciousness. Thus, the highly ordered pleasant and unpleasant experiences get softened. Whether this generalized softening is beneficial depends on many factors. Psychonauts usually avoid them as much as possible in order to protect the psychoacoustical potential of their brain, were they to desire to use this potential sometime in the future.

Psychedelics, in this framework, would be interpreted as neuroacoustic enhancers. These agents trigger, via control interruption, a more “echo-ey acoustic environment for one’s consciousness”. Meaning, any qualia experienced under the influence lasts for longer (the decay of intensity of experience as a function of time since presentation of stimuli becomes a lot “slower” or “fatter”). On high doses, the intensity of each component of a cycle of an experience can feel just as intense, and thus one might find oneself unable to locate oneself in time. Sometimes intense feelings return cyclically, and ultimately at strong doses, experiential feedback dominates every aspect of one’s experience, and there isn’t anything other than standing waves of synesthetic psychedelic feelings.

Peak symmetry states with their associated valence would be predicted to be far more accessible on highly harmonic states of consciousness. So psychedelics and the like could be carefully used to explore the positive extreme of valence: Hyper-symmetrical states. That said, for responsible exploration, a euphoriant will be needed to prevent negative psychedelic experiences.

Final Thoughts

A Harmonic Society is a place where everyone recognizes what makes other sentient beings love life. It’s a place in which everyone deeply understands the valence landscapes of other beings. People in such a society would know that a zebra, an owl, and a salamander all share the pursuit of harmonic states of consciousness, albeit in their own, often different-looking, state-spaces of qualia. We would understand each other far more deeply if we saw each other’s valence landscapes as part of a big state-space of possible preference architectures. Ultimately, the pursuit of existential bliss and the ontological question (why being?) would incite us to explore each other through consciousness technologies. We will have an expanded state-space of available possible moods, both individual and collective, increasing our chances of finding a new revolutionary understanding of consciousness, identity, and what’s possible for post-hedonium societies.


*I will note that to define what’s ethical one ultimately relies on beliefs about personal identity; truly frame-independent systems of morality are exceptionally hard to construct.

**The Entropic Brain theory portrays psychedelia in terms of increased entropy, but also, and most importantly, focuses on criticality. Just thinking about entropy would not distinguish between adding white noise and adding interesting patterns. In other words, from the point of view of simple entropy without any spectral (or nonlinear) analysis, SSRIs and psychedelics are doing pretty much the same thing. So the sense of “entropy” that matters will have to be a lot more detailed, showing you in what way the information encoded in normal states of consciousness changes as a function of entropy added in various ways.

On psychedelics one does indeed find highly ordered crystal-like states of consciousness (which I’ve described elsewhere as peak symmetry states), and as far as we know those states are also some of the most positively hedonically charged. Hence, at least in terms of describing the quality of the psychedelic experience, leaving symmetry out would make us miss an important big-picture kind of quality for psychedelics in general and their connection to valence variance.

 

***→ see quote →

My hypothesis strongly implies that ‘hedonic’ brain regions influence mood by virtue of acting as ‘tuning knobs’ for symmetry/harmony in the brain’s consciousness centers. Likewise, nociceptors, and the brain regions which gate & interpret their signals, will be located at critical points in brain networks, able to cause large amounts of salience-inducing antisymmetry very efficiently. We should also expect rhythm to be a powerful tool for modeling brain dynamics involving valence- for instance, we should be able to extend (Safron 2016)’s model of rhythmic entrainment in orgasm to other sorts of pleasure.

– Michael Johnson in Principia Qualia, page 52

Qualia Computing at Consciousness Hacking (June 7th 2017)

I am delighted to announce that I will be presenting at Consciousness Hacking in San Francisco on 2017/6/7 (YMD notation).

Consciousness Hacking (CoHack) is an extremely awesome community that blends a genuine interest in benevolence, scientific rationality, experiential spirituality, self-experimentation, and holistic wellbeing together with an unceasing focus on consciousness. Truth be told, CohHack is one of the reasons why I love living in the Bay Area.

Here are the relevant event links: Eventbrite, FacebookMeetup.

And the event description:


What would happen if a bliss technology capable of inducing a constant MDMA-like state of consciousness with no negative side effects were available? What makes an experience good or bad? Is happiness a spiritual trick, or is spirituality a happiness trick?

At this month’s speaker presentation, Consciousness Hacking invites Data Science Engineer, Andrés Gómez Emilsson to discuss current research, including his own, concerning the measurement of bliss, how blissful brain states can be induced, and what implications this may have on quality of life and our relationship with the world around us.

Emilsson’s research aims to create a mathematical theory of the pleasure-pain axis that can take information about a person’s brain at a given point in time and return the approximate (or even true) level of happiness and suffering for that person. Emilsson will explore two dimensions that have been studied in affective neuroscience for decades:

  • Arousal: how much energy and activation a given emotion has
  • Valence: the “feel good or feel bad” dimension of emotion

If the purpose of life is to feel happy and to make others happy, then figuring out how valence is implemented in the brain may take us a long way in that direction. Current approaches to valence, while helpful, usually don’t address the core of the problem (ie. usually just measuring the symptoms of pleasure such as the neurotransmitters that trigger it, brain regions, positive reinforcement, etc. rather than getting at the experience of pleasure itself).

A real science of valence would not only be able to integrate and explain why the things people report as pleasurable are pleasant, it would also make a precise, empirically falsifiable hypothesis about whether arbitrary brain states will feel good or bad. This is what Emilsson aims to do.

You will take away:

  • An understanding about the current scientific consensus on the nature of happiness in the brain, and why it is incomplete
  • A philosophical case for both the feasibility and desirability of a world devoid of intense suffering
  • A new candidate mathematical formula that can be used to predict the psychological wellbeing of a brain at a given point in time
  • An argument for why bliss technology that puts us in a constant MDMA-like state of consciousness with no negative side effects is likely to become available within the next two to five decades
  • The opportunity to network with other people who are serious about figuring out the meaning of life through introspection and neuroscience

About our speaker:

Andrés Gómez Emilsson was born in México City in 1990. From an early age, he developed an interest in philosophy, mathematics, and science, leading him to compete nationally and internationally in Math and Science Olympiads. At 16, his main interest was mathematics, but after an unexpected “mystical experience”, he turned his attention to consciousness and the philosophical problems that it poses. He studied Symbolic Systems with an Artificial Intelligence concentration at Stanford, and later finished a masters in Computational Psychology at the same university. During his time at Stanford he co-founded the Stanford Transhumanist Association and became good friends with transhumanist philosopher David Pearce, taking on the flag of the Hedonistic Imperative (HI). In order to pursue the long-term goals of HI, his current primary intellectual interest is to reverse-engineer the functional, biochemical and/or quantum signatures of pure bliss.

He is currently working at a Natural Language Processing company in San Francisco, creating quantitative measures of employee happiness, productivity, and ethics at companies, with the long-term intent of creating a consciousness research institute that’s also a great place to work for (i.e. one in which employees are happy, productive, and ethical). In his free time he develops psychophysical tools to study the computational properties of consciousness.

Schedule:

6:30: Check in, snacks

6:45: Structured schmoozing

6:55: Event intro and meditation

7:00: Andrés Gómez Emilsson

7:50: Break

8:00: Break-out Sessions (small group discussion)

9:00: Break-out Recap

9:15: Closing meditation

About our venue:

ECO-SYSTM is a dynamic community of creative professionals, startups, and freelancers, founded on the idea that entertainment, creativity and business can come together to offer a truly unique work experience for Bay Area professionals. Check out membership plans here: http://eco-systm.com/


 

Principia Qualia: Part II – Valence

Extract from Principia Qualia (2016) by my colleague Michael E. Johnson (from Qualia Research Institute). This is intended to summarize the core ideas of chapter 2, which proposes a precise, testable, simple, and so far science-compatible theory of the fundamental nature of valence (also called hedonic tone or the pleasure-pain axis; what makes experiences feel good or bad).

 

VII. Three principles for a mathematical derivation of valence

We’ve covered a lot of ground with the above literature reviews, and synthesizing a new framework for understanding consciousness research. But we haven’t yet fulfilled the promise about valence made in Section II- to offer a rigorous, crisp, and relatively simple hypothesis about valence. This is the goal of Part II.

Drawing from the framework in Section VI, I offer three principles to frame this problem: ​

1. Qualia Formalism: for any given conscious experience, there exists- in principle- a mathematical object isomorphic to its phenomenology. This is a formal way of saying that consciousness is in principle quantifiable- much as electromagnetism, or the square root of nine is quantifiable. I.e. IIT’s goal, to generate such a mathematical object, is a valid one.

2. Qualia Structuralism: this mathematical object has a rich set of formal structures. Based on the regularities & invariances in phenomenology, it seems safe to say that qualia has a non-trivial amount of structure. It likely exhibits connectedness (i.e., it’s a unified whole, not the union of multiple disjoint sets), and compactness, and so we can speak of qualia as having a topology.

More speculatively, based on the following:

(a) IIT’s output format is data in a vector space,

(b) Modern physics models reality as a wave function within Hilbert Space, which has substantial structure,

(c) Components of phenomenology such as color behave as vectors (Feynman 1965), and

(d) Spatial awareness is explicitly geometric,

…I propose that Qualia space also likely satisfies the requirements of being a metric space, and we can speak of qualia as having a geometry.

Mathematical structures are important, since the more formal structures a mathematical object has, the more elegantly we can speak about patterns within it, and the closer our words can get to “carving reality at the joints”. ​

3. Valence Realism: valence is a crisp phenomenon of conscious states upon which we can apply a measure.

–> I.e. some experiences do feel holistically better than others, and (in principle) we can associate a value to this. Furthermore, to combine (2) and (3), this pleasantness could be encoded into the mathematical object isomorphic to the experience in an efficient way (we should look for a concise equation, not an infinitely-large lookup table for valence). […]

valence_structuralism

I believe my three principles are all necessary for a satisfying solution to valence (and the first two are necessary for any satisfying solution to consciousness):

Considering the inverses:

If Qualia Formalism is false, then consciousness is not quantifiable, and there exists no formal knowledge about consciousness to discover. But if the history of science is any guide, we don’t live in a universe where phenomena are intrinsically unquantifiable- rather, we just haven’t been able to crisply quantify consciousness yet.

If Qualia Structuralism is false and Qualia space has no meaningful structure to discover and generalize from, then most sorts of knowledge about qualia (such as which experiences feel better than others) will likely be forever beyond our empirical grasp. I.e., if Qualia space lacks structure, there will exist no elegant heuristics or principles for interpreting what a mathematical object isomorphic to a conscious experience means. But this doesn’t seem to match the story from affective neuroscience, nor from our everyday experience: we have plenty of evidence for patterns, regularities, and invariances in phenomenological experiences. Moreover, our informal, intuitive models for predicting our future qualia are generally very good. This implies our brains have figured out some simple rules-of-thumb for how qualia is structured, and so qualia does have substantial mathematical structure, even if our formal models lag behind.

If Valence Realism is false, then we really can’t say very much about ethics, normativity, or valence with any confidence, ever. But this seems to violate the revealed preferences of the vast majority of people: we sure behave as if some experiences are objectively superior to others, at arbitrarily-fine levels of distinction. It may be very difficult to put an objective valence on a given experience, but in practice we don’t behave as if this valence doesn’t exist.

[…]

VIII. Distinctions in qualia: charting the explanation space for valence

Sections II-III made the claim that we need a bottom-up quantitative theory like IIT in order to successfully reverse-engineer valence, Section VI suggested some core problems & issues theories like IIT will need to address, and Section VII proposed three principles for interpreting IIT-style output:

  1. We should think of qualia as having a mathematical representation,
  2. This mathematical representation has a topology and probably a geometry, and perhaps more structure, and
  3. Valence is real; some things do feel better than others, and we should try to explain why in terms of qualia’s mathematical representation.

But what does this get us? Specifically, how does assuming these three things get us any closer to solving valence if we don’t have an actual, validated dataset (“data structure isomorphic to the phenomenology”) from *any* system, much less a real brain?

It actually helps a surprising amount, since an isomorphism between a structured (e.g., topological, geometric) space and qualia implies that any clean or useful distinction we can make in one realm automatically applies in the other realm as well. And if we can explore what kinds of distinctions in qualia we can make, we can start to chart the explanation space for valence (what ‘kind’ of answer it will be).

I propose the following four distinctions which depend on only a very small amount of mathematical structure inherent in qualia space, which should apply equally to qualia and to qualia’s mathematical representation:

  1. Global vs local
  2. Simple vs complex
  3. Atomic vs composite
  4. Intuitively important vs intuitively trivial

[…]

Takeaways: this section has suggested that we can get surprising mileage out of the hypothesis that there will exist a geometric data structure isomorphic to the phenomenology of a system, since if we can make a distinction in one domain (math or qualia), it will carry over into the other domain ‘for free’. Given this, I put forth the hypothesis that valence may plausibly be a simple, global, atomic, and intuitively important property of both qualia and its mathematical representation.

IX. Summary of heuristics for reverse-engineering the pattern for valence

Reverse-engineering the precise mathematical property that corresponds to valence may seem like finding a needle in a haystack, but I propose that it may be easier than it appears. Broadly speaking, I see six heuristics for zeroing in on valence:

A. Structural distinctions in Qualia space (Section VIII);

B. Empirical hints from affective neuroscience (Section I);

C. A priori hints from phenomenology;

D. Empirical hints from neurocomputational syntax;

E. The Non-adaptedness Principle;

F. Common patterns across physical formalisms (lessons from physics). None of these heuristics determine the answer, but in aggregate they dramatically reduce the search space.

IX.A: Structural distinctions in Qualia space (Section VIII):

In the previous section, we noted that the following distinctions about qualia can be made: Global vs local; Simple vs complex; Atomic vs composite; Intuitively important vs intuitively trivial. Valence plausibly corresponds to a global, simple, atomic, and intuitively important mathematical property.

[…]

Music is surprisingly pleasurable; auditory dissonance is surprisingly unpleasant. Clearly, music has many adaptive signaling & social bonding aspects (Storr 1992; Mcdermott and Hauser 2005)- yet if we subtract everything that could be considered signaling or social bonding (e.g., lyrics, performative aspects, social bonding & enjoyment), we’re still left with something very emotionally powerful. However, this pleasantness can vanish abruptly- and even reverse– if dissonance is added.

Much more could be said here, but a few of the more interesting data points are:

  1. Pleasurable music tends to involve elegant structure when represented geometrically (Tymoczko 2006);
  2. Non-human animals don’t seem to find human music pleasant (with some exceptions), but with knowledge of what pitch range and tempo their auditory systems are optimized to pay attention to, we’ve been able to adapt human music to get animals to prefer it over silence (Snowdon and Teie 2010).
  3. Results suggest that consonance is a primary factor in which sounds are pleasant vs unpleasant in 2- and 4-month-old infants (Trainor, Tsang, and Cheung 2002).
  4. Hearing two of our favorite songs at once doesn’t feel better than just one; instead, it feels significantly worse.

More generally, it feels like music is a particularly interesting case study by which to pick apart the information-theoretic aspects of valence, and it seems plausible that evolution may have piggybacked on some fundamental law of qualia to produce the human preference for music. This should be most obscured with genres of music which focus on lyrics, social proof & social cohesion (e.g., pop music), and performative aspects, and clearest with genres of music which avoid these things (e.g., certain genres of classical music).

[…]

X. A simple hypothesis about valence

To recap, the general heuristic from Section VIII was that valence may plausibly correspond to a simple, atomic, global, and intuitively important geometric property of a data structure isomorphic to phenomenology. The specific heuristics from Section IX surveyed hints from a priori phenomenology, hints from what we know of the brain’s computational syntax, introduced the Non-adaptedness Principle, and noted the unreasonable effectiveness of beautiful mathematics in physics to suggest that the specific geometric property corresponding to pleasure should be something that involves some sort of mathematically-interesting patterning, regularity, efficiency, elegance, and/or harmony.

We don’t have enough information to formally deduce which mathematical property these constraints indicate, yet in aggregate these constraints hugely reduce the search space, and also substantially point toward the following:

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.

[…]

XI. Testing this hypothesis today

In a perfect world, we could plug many peoples’ real-world IIT-style datasets into a symmetry detection algorithm and see if this “Symmetry in the Topology of Phenomenology” (SiToP) theory of valence successfully predicted their self-reported valences.

Unfortunately, we’re a long way from having the theory and data to do that.

But if we make two fairly modest assumptions, I think we should be able to perform some reasonable, simple, and elegant tests on this hypothesis now. The two assumptions are:

  1. We can probably assume that symmetry/pleasure is a more-or-less fractal property: i.e., it’ll be evident on basically all locations and scales of our data structure, and so it should be obvious even with imperfect measurements. Likewise, symmetry in one part of the brain will imply symmetry elsewhere, so we may only need to measure it in a small section that need not be directly contributing to consciousness.
  2. We can probably assume that symmetry in connectome-level brain networks/activity will roughly imply symmetry in the mathematical-object-isomorphic-to-phenomenology (the symmetry that ‘matters’ for valence), and vice-versa. I.e., we need not worry too much about the exact ‘flavor’ of symmetry we’re measuring.

So- given these assumptions, I see three ways to test our hypothesis:

1. More pleasurable brain states should be more compressible (all else being equal).

Symmetry implies compressibility, and so if we can measure the compressibility of a brain state in some sort of broad-stroke fashion while controlling for degree of consciousness, this should be a fairly good proxy for how pleasant that brain state is.

[…]

2. Highly consonant/harmonious/symmetric patterns injected directly into the brain should feel dramatically better than similar but dissonant patterns.

Consonance in audio signals generally produces positive valence; dissonance (e.g., nails-on-a-chalkboard) reliably produces negative valence. This obviously follows from our hypothesis, but it’s also obviously true, so we can’t use it as a novel prediction. But if we take the general idea and apply it to unusual ways of ‘injecting’ a signal into the brain, we should be able to make predictions that are (1) novel, and (2) practically useful.

TMS is generally used to disrupt brain functions by oscillating a strong magnetic field over a specific region to make those neurons fire chaotically. But if we used it on a lower-powered, rhythmic setting to ‘inject’ a symmetric/consonant pattern directly into parts of the brain involved directly with consciousness, the result should produce good feeling- or at least, much better valence than a similar dissonant pattern.

Our specific prediction: direct, low-power, rhythmic stimulation (via TMS) of the thalamus at harmonic frequencies (e.g., @1hz+2hz+4hz+6hz+8hz+12hz+16hz+24hz+36hz+48hz+72hz+96hz+148hz) should feel significantly more pleasant than similar stimulation at dissonant frequencies (e.g., @1.01hz+2.01hz+3.98hz+6.02hz+7.99hz+12.03hz+16.01hz+24.02hz+35.97hz+48.05hz+72.04hz+95.94hz+ 147.93hz).

[…]

3. More consonant vagus nerve stimulation (VNS) should feel better than dissonant VNS.

The above harmonics-based TMS method would be a ‘pure’ test of the ‘Symmetry in the Topology of Phenomenology’ (SiToP) hypothesis. It may rely on developing custom hardware and is also well outside of my research budget.

However, a promising alternative method to test this is with consumer-grade vagus nerve stimulation (VNS) technology. Nervana Systems has an in-ear device which stimulates the Vagus nerve with rhythmic electrical pulses as it winds its way past the left ear canal. The stimulation is synchronized with either user-supplied music or ambient sound. This synchronization is done, according to the company, in order to mask any discomfort associated with the electrical stimulation. The company says their system works by “electronically signal[ing] the Vagus nerve which in turn stimulates the release of neurotransmitters in the brain that enhance mood.”

This explanation isn’t very satisfying, since it merely punts the question of why these neurotransmitters enhance mood, but their approach seems to work– and based on the symmetry/harmony hypothesis we can say at least something about why: effectively, they’ve somewhat accidentally built a synchronized bimodal approach (coordinated combination of music+VNS) for inducing harmony/symmetry in the brain. This is certainly not the only component of how this VNS system functions, since the parasympathetic nervous system is both complex and powerful by itself, but it could be an important component.

Based on our assumptions about what valence is, we can make a hierarchy of predictions:

  1. Harmonious music + synchronized VNS should feel the best;
  2. Harmonious music + placebo VNS (unsynchronized, simple pattern of stimulation) should feel less pleasant than (1);
  3. Harmonious music + non-synchronized VNS (stimulation that is synchronized to a different kind of music) should feel less pleasant than (1);
  4. Harmonious music + dissonant VNS (stimulation with a pattern which scores low on consonance measures such as (Chon 2008) should feel worse than (2) and (3));
  5. Dissonant auditory noise + non-synchronized, dissonant VNS should feel pretty awful.

We can also predict that if a bimodal approach for inducing harmony/symmetry in the brain is better than a single modality, a trimodal or quadrimodal approach may be even more effective. E.g., we should consider testing the addition of synchronized rhythmic tactile stimulation and symmetry-centric music visualizations. A key question here is whether adding stimulation modalities would lead to diminishing or synergistic/accelerating returns.

The Penfield Mood Organ

Extract from Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick (1968)

Chapter 1

A merry little surge of electricity piped by automatic alarm from the mood organ beside his bed awakened Rick Deckard. Surprised — it always surprised him to find himself awake without prior notice — he rose from the bed, stood up in his multicolored pajamas, and stretched. Now, in her bed, his wife Iran opened her gray, unmerry eyes, blinked, then groaned and shut her eyes again.

“You set your Penfield too weak”, he said to her. “I’ll reset it and you’ll be awake and — ”

“Keep your hand off my settings.” Her voice held bitter sharpness. “I don’t want to be awake.”

He seated himself beside her, bent over her, and explained softly. “If you set the surge up high enough, you’ll be glad you’re awake; that’s the whole point. At setting C it overcomes the threshold barring consciousness, as it does for me.” Friendlily, because he felt well-disposed toward the world — his setting had been at D — he patted her bare, pale shoulder.

“Get your crude cop’s hand away,” Iran said.

“I’m not a cop.” He felt irritable, now, although he hadn’t dialed for it.

“You’re worse,” his wife said, her eyes still shut. “You’re a murderer hired by the cops.”

“I’ve never killed a human being in my life.” His irritability had risen, now; had become outright hostility.

Iran said, “Just those poor andys.”

“I notice you’ve never had any hesitation as to spending the bounty money I bring home on whatever momentarily attracts your attention.” He rose, strode to the console of his mood organ. “Instead of saving,” he said, “so we could buy a real sheep, to replace that fake electric one upstairs. A mere electric animal, and me earning all that I’ve worked my way up to through the years.” At his console he hesitated between dialing for a thalamic suppressant (which would abolish his mood of rage) or a thalamic stimulant (which would make him irked enough to win the argument).

“If you dial,” Iran said, eyes open and watching, “for greater venom, then I’ll dial the same. I’ll dial the maximum and you’ll see a fight that makes every argument we’ve had up to now seem like nothing. Dial and see; just try me.” She rose swiftly, loped to the console of her own mood organ, stood glaring at him, waiting.

He sighed, defeated by her threat. “I’ll dial what’s on my schedule for today.” Examining the schedule for January 3, 2021, he saw that a businesslike professional attitude was called for. “If I dial by schedule,” he said warily, “will you agree to also?” He waited, canny enough not to commit himself until his wife had agreed to follow suit.

“My schedule for today lists a six-hour self-accusatory depression,” Iran said.

“What? Why did you schedule that?” It defeated the whole purpose of the mood organ. “I didn’t even know you could set it for that,” he said gloomily.

“I was sitting here one afternoon,” Iran said, “and naturally I had turned on Buster Friendly and His Friendly Friends and he was talking about a big news item he’s about to break and then that awful commercial came on, the one I hate; you know, for Mountibank Lead Codpieces. And so for a minute I shut off the sound. And I heard the building, this building; I heard the — ” She gestured.

“Empty apartments,” Rick said. Sometimes he heard them at night when he was supposed to be asleep. And yet, for this day and age a one-half occupied conapt building rated high in the scheme of population density; out in what had been before the war the suburbs one could find buildings entirely empty… or so he had heard. He had let the information remain secondhand; like most people he did not care to experience it directly.

“At that moment,” Iran said, “when I had the TV sound off, I was in a 382 mood; I had just dialed it. So although I heard the emptiness intellectually, I didn’t feel it. My first reaction consisted of being grateful that we could afford a Penfield mood organ. But then I realized how unhealthy it was, sensing the absence of life, not just in this building but everywhere, and not reacting — do you see? I guess you don’t. But that used to be considered a sign of mental illness; they called it ‘absence of appropriate affect.’ So I left the TV sound off and I sat down at my mood organ and I experimented. And I finally found a setting for despair.” Her dark, pert face showed satisfaction, as if she had achieved something of worth. “So I put it on my schedule for twice a month; I think that’s a reasonable amount of time to feel hopeless about everything, about staying here on Earth after everybody who’s smart has emigrated, don’t you think?”

“But a mood like that,” Rick said, “you’re apt to stay in it, not dial your way out. Despair like that, about total reality, is self-perpetuating.”

“I program an automatic resetting for three hours later,” his wife said sleekly. “A 481. Awareness of the manifold possibilities open to me in the future; new hope that — ”

“I know 481,” he interrupted. He had dialed out the combination many times; he relied on it greatly. “Listen,” he said, seating himself on his bed and taking hold of her hands to draw her down beside him, “even with an automatic cutoff it’s dangerous to undergo a depression, any kind. Forget what you’ve scheduled and I’ll forget what I’ve scheduled; we’ll dial a 104 together and both experience it, and then you stay in it while I reset mine for my usual businesslike attitude. That way I’ll want to hop up to the roof and check out the sheep and then head for the office; meanwhile I’ll know you’re not sitting here brooding with no TV.” He released her slim, long fingers, passed through the spacious apartment to the living room, which smelled faintly of last night’s cigarettes. There he bent to turn on the TV.

From the bedroom Iran’s voice came. “I can’t stand TV before breakfast.”

“Dial 888,” Rick said as the set warmed. “The desire to watch TV, no matter what’s on it.”

“I don’t feel like dialing anything at all now,” Iran said.

“Then dial 3,” he said.

“I can’t dial a setting that stimulates my cerebral cortex into wanting to dial! If I don’t want to dial, I don’t want to dial that most of all, because then I will want to dial, and wanting to dial is right now the most alien drive I can imagine; I just want to sit here on the bed and stare at the floor.” Her voice had become sharp with overtones of bleakness as her soul congealed and she ceased to move, as the instinctive, omnipresent film of great weight, of an almost absolute inertia, settled over her.

He turned up the TV sound, and the voice of Buster Friendly boomed out and filled the room. ” — ho ho, folks. Time now for a brief note on today’s weather. The Mongoose satellite reports that fallout will be especially pronounced toward noon and will then taper off, so all you folks who’ll be venturing out — ”

Appearing beside him, her long nightgown trailing wispily, Iran shut off the TV set. “Okay, I give up; I’ll dial. Anything you want me to be; ecstatic sexual bliss — I feel so bad I’ll even endure that. What the hell. What difference does it make?”

“I’ll dial for both of us,” Rick said, and led her back into the bedroom. There, at her console, he dialed 594: pleased acknowledgment of husband’s superior wisdom in all matters. On his own console he dialed for a creative and fresh attitude toward his job, although this he hardly needed; such was his habitual, innate approach without recourse to Penfield artificial brain stimulation.

 

The Most Important Philosophical Question

Albert Camus famously claimed that the most important philosophical question in existence was whether to commit suicide. I would disagree.

For one, if Open Individualism is true (i.e. that deep down we are all one and the same consciousness) then ending one’s life will not accomplish much. The vast majority of “who you are” will remain intact, and if there are further problems to be solved, and questions to be answered, doing this will simply delay your own progress. So at least from a certain point of view one could argue that the most important question is, instead, the question of personal identity. I.e. Are you, deep down, an individual being who starts existing when you are born and stops existing when you die (Closed Individualism), something that exists only for a single time-slice (Empty Individualism), or maybe something that is one and the same with the rest of the universe (Open Individualism)?

I think that is a very important question. But probably not the most important one. Instead, I’d posit that the most important question is: “What is good, and is there a ground truth about it?”

In the case that we are all one consciousness maybe what’s truly good is whatever one actually truly values from a first-person point of view (being mindful, of course, of the deceptive potential that comes from the Tyranny of the Intentional Object). And in so far as this has been asked, I think that there are two remaining possibilities: Does ultimate value come down to the pleasure-pain axis, or does it come down to spiritual wisdom?

Thus, in this day and age, I’d argue that the most important philosophical (and hence most important, period) question is: “Is happiness a spiritual trick, or is spirituality a happiness trick?”

What would it mean for happiness to be a spiritual trick? Think, for example, of the possibility that the reason why we exist is because we are all God, and God would be awfully bored if It knew that It was all that ever existed. In such a case, maybe bliss and happiness comes down to something akin to “Does this particular set of life experiences make God feel less lonely”? Alternatively, maybe God is “divinely self-sufficient”, as some mystics claim, and all of creation is “merely a plus on top of God”. In this case one could think that God is the ultimate source of all that is good, and thus bliss may be synonymous with “being closer to God”. In turn, as mystics have claimed over the ages, the whole point of life is to “get closer to God”.

Spirituality, though, goes beyond God: Within (atheistic) Buddhism the view that “bliss is a spiritual trick” might take another form: Bliss is either “dirty and a sign of ignorance” (as in the case of karma-generating pleasure) or it is “the results of virtuous merit conducive to true unconditioned enlightenment“. Thus, the whole point of life would be to become free from ignorance and reap the benefits of knowing the ultimate truth.

And what would it mean for spirituality to be a happiness trick? In this case one could imagine that our valence (i.e. our pleasure-pain axis) is a sort of qualia variety that evolution recruited in order to infuse the phenomenal representation of situations that predict either higher or lower chances of making copies of oneself (or spreading one’s genes, in the more general case of “inclusive fitness”). If this is so, it might be tempting to think that bliss is, ultimately, not something that “truly matters”. But this would be to think that bliss is “nothing other than the function that bliss plays in animal behavior”, which couldn’t be further from the truth. After all, the same behavior could be enacted by many methods. Instead, the raw phenomenal character of bliss reveals that “something matters in this universe”. Only people who are anhedonic (or are depressed) will miss the fact that “bliss matters”. This is self-evident and self-intimating to anyone currently experiencing ecstatic rapture. In light of these experiences we can conclude that if anything at all does matter, it has to do with the qualia varieties involved in the experiences that feel like the world has meaning. The pleasure-pain axis makes our existence significant.

Now, why do I think this is the most important question? IF we discover that happiness is a spiritual trick and that God is its source then we really ought to follow “the spiritual path” and figure out with science “what is it that God truly wants”. And under an atheistic brand of spirituality, what we ought to figure out is the laws of valence-charged spiritual energy. For example, if reincarnation and karma are involved in the expected amount of future bliss and suffering, so be it. Let’s all become Bodhisattvas and help as many sentient beings as possible throughout the eons to come.

On the other hand, IF we discover (and can prove with a good empirical argument) that spirituality is just the result of changes in valence/happiness, then settling on this with a high certainty would change the world. For starters, any compassionate (and at least mildly rational) Buddhist would then come along and help us out in the pursuit of creating a pan-species welfare state free of suffering with the use of biotechnology. I.e. The 500 odd million Buddhists world-wide would be key allies for the Hedonistic Imperative (a movement that aims to eliminate suffering with biotechnology).

Recall Dalai Lama’s quote: “If it was possible to become free of negative emotions by a riskless implementation of an electrode – without impairing intelligence and the critical mind – I would be the first patient.” [Dalai Lama (Society for Neuroscience Congress, Nov. 2005)].

If Buddhist doctrine concerning the very nature of suffering and its causes is wrong from a scientific point of view and we can prove it with an empirically verified physicalist paradigm, then the very Buddhist ethic of “focusing on minimizing suffering” ought to compel Buddhists throughout the world to join us in the battle against suffering by any means necessary. And most likely, given the physicalist premise, this would take the form of creating a technology that puts us all in a perpetual pro-social clear-headed non-addictive MDMA-like state of consciousness (or, in a more sophisticated vein, a well-balanced version of rational wire-heading).

The Forces At Work

        Recreational agents which are legal and socially sanctioned by respectable society aren’t, of course, popularly viewed as drugs at all. The nicotine addict and the alcoholic don’t think of themselves as practising psychopharmacologists; and so alas their incompetence is frequently lethal.

        Is such incompetence curable? If it is, and if the abolitionist project can be carried forward with pharmacotherapy in advance of true genetic medicine, then a number of preconditions must first be in place. A necessary and sufficient set could not possibly be listed here. It is still worth isolating and examining below several distinct yet convergent societal trends of huge potential significance.

  1. First, it must be assumed that we will continue to seek out and use chemical mood-enhancers on a massive, species-wide scale.
  2. Second, a pioneering and pharmacologically (semi-)literate elite will progressively learn to use their agents of choice in a much more effective, safe and rational manner. The whole pharmacopoeia of licensed and unlicensed medicines will be purchasable globally over the Net. As the operation of our 30,000 plus genes is unravelled, the new discipline of pharmacogenomics will allow drugs to be personally tailored to the genetic makeup of each individual. Better still, desirable states of consciousness that can be induced pharmacologically can later be pre-coded genetically.
  3. Third, society will continue to fund and support research into genetic engineering, reproductive medicine and all forms of biotechnology. This will enable the breathtaking array of designer-heavens on offer from third-millennium biomedicine to become a lifestyle choice.
  4. Fourth, the ill-fated governmental War On (some) Drugs will finally collapse under the weight of its own contradictions. Parents are surely right to be anxious about many of today’s illegal intoxicants. Yet their toxicity will no more prove a reason to give up the dream of Better Living Through Chemistry than the casualties of early modern medicine are a reason to abandon contemporary medical science for homeopathy.
  5. Fifth, the medicalisation of everyday life, and of the human predicament itself, will continue apace. All manner of currently ill-defined discontents will be medically diagnosed and classified. Our innumerable woes will be given respectable clinical labels. Mass-medicalisation will enable the big drug companies aggressively to extend their lucrative markets in medically-approved psychotropics to a widening clientele. New and improved mood-modulating alleles, and other innovative gene-therapies for mood- and intellect-enrichment, will be patented. They will be brought to market by biotechnology companies eager to cure the psychopathologies of the afflicted; and to maximise profits.
  6. Sixth, in the next few centuries an explosive proliferation of ever-more sophisticated virtual reality software products will enable millions, and then billions, of people to live out their ideal fantasies. Paradoxically, as will be seen, the triumph of sensation-driven wish-fulfilment in immersive VR will also demonstrate the intellectual bankruptcy of our old Peripheralist nostrums of social reform. Unhappiness will persist. The hedonic treadmill can’t succumb to computer software.
  7. Seventh, secularism and individualism will triumph over resurgent Islamic and Christian fundamentalism. An entitlement to lifelong well-being in this world, rather than the next, will take on the status of a basic human right.

         There are quite a few imponderables here. Futurology is not, and predictably will never become, one of the exact sciences. Conceivably, one can postulate, for instance, the global triumph of an anti-scientific theocracy. This might be in the mould of the American religious right; or even some kind of Islamic fundamentalism. Less conceivably, there might be a global victory of tender-minded humanism over the onward march of biotechnical determinism. It is also possible that non-medically-approved drug use could be curtailed, at least for a time, with intrusive personal surveillance technologies and punishments of increasingly draconian severity. Abetted by the latest convulsion of moral panic over Drugs, for example, a repressive totalitarian super-state could institute a regime of universal compulsory blood-tests for banned substances. Enforced “detoxification” in rehabilitation camps for offenders would follow.

        These scenarios and their variants are almost certainly too alarmist. Given a pervasive ethos of individualism, and the worldwide spread of hedonistic consumer-capitalism, then as soon as people discover that there is no biophysical reason on earth why they can’t be as happy as they choose indefinitely, it will be hard to stop more adventurous spirits from exploring that option. Lifelong ecstasy isn’t nearly as bad as it sounds.

David Pearce in The Hedonistic Imperative (chapter 3)

 

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

 

It would be impossible for me to summarize what truly went on at Psychedelic Science 2017. Since giving a fair and detailed account of all of the presentations, workshops and social events I attended is out of the question, I will restrict myself to talking about, what I see as, the core insights and take-aways from the conference (plus some additional impressions I’ll get to). In brief, the core insights are: (1) that we are on the brink of a culturally-accepted scientific revolution on the study of consciousness in which we finally navigate our way out of our current pre-Galilean understanding of the mind, (2) that the breakdown of both the extremes of nihilism and eternalism as ideological north-stars in consciousness research is about to take place (i.e. finding out that neither scientific materialism nor spirituality convey the full picture), and (3) that a new science of valence, qualia, and rational psychonautics based on the quantification of good and bad feelings is slowly making its way into the surface.

With regards to (1): It should not come as a surprise to anyone who has been paying attention that there is a psychedelic renaissance underway. Bearing extreme world-wide counter-measures against it, in so far as psychedelic and empathogenic compounds meet the required evidentiary standards of mainstream psychopharmacology as safe and effective treatments for mental illness (and they do), they will be a staple of tomorrow’s tools for mental health. It’s not a difficult gamble: the current studies being made around the world are merely providing the scientific backing of what was already known in the 60s (for psychedelics) and 80s (for MDMA). I.e. That psychedelic medicine (people love to call it that way) in the right set and setting produces outstanding clinically-relevant effect sizes.

On (2): it is very unclear what people who attended the conference believe about the nature of reality, but overall there was a strong Open Individualist undercurrent and a powerful feeling that transcendence is right next door (even the urinals had sacred geometry*). That said, the science provided a refreshing feeling of cautious nihilism. Trying to reconcile both love and science is, in my opinion, the way to go. Whether we are about to ascend to another realm or if we are about to find out about our cosmic meaninglessness, the truth is that there are a lot of more immediate things to worry about. Arguably, psychedelic experiences could be used to treat both the afflictions that come with eternalism as well as those that come from nihilism. Namely, psychedelics often make you experience the world as you believe it to be (echoing John C. Lilly’s famous words: “In the province of the mind, what one believes to be true is true or becomes true, within certain limits to be found experientially and experimentally. These limits are further beliefs to be transcended. In the mind, there are no limits…”). So if you rely on intense (but mundanely challenged) feelings of transcendence to get by, you may find out on a psychedelic experience that making a world in which what you believe is literally true does not lead to happiness and meaningfulness in the way you thought it might. Unless, of course, one believes that everything that happens is a net positive somehow (which is hard to do given the regular onslaught of meaninglessness found in everyday life), any profound realization of an ontological basis of reality (as in “a made up universe perceived as if real”) can lead to dysphoria. Nihilism can be profoundly distressing on psychedelics. Yet, as evidenced by the bulk of conscious experiences, the quality of meaningfulness in one’s experience is a continuum, neither objective nor subjective, and neither eternal nor unreal (I’m using the terminology from the book “Meaningness“, though other terminologies exist for similar concepts such as the Buddhist “middle way”, Existentialism, Pragmatism, Rationalists’ epistemic rationality, etc.).

Psychedelic veterans usually end up converging on something that has this sort of emotional texture: A bitter-sweet yet Stoic worldview that leaves an open space for all kinds of wonderful things to happen, yet remains aware of the comings and goings of happiness and fulfillment. It makes it a point to not be too preoccupied with questions of ultimate meaning. It may be that for most people it’s impossible to arrive at such wisdom without trying out (and failing in some way) to live all of their fantasies before giving up and accepting the fluxing nature of reality. In such a case, psychedelics would seem to offer us a way to accelerate our learning about the unsatisfactoriness of attachments and find the way to live in realistic joy.

That said, maybe such wisdom is not Wisdom (in the sense of being universal) since we are restricting our analysis to the human wetware as it is today.  What reason do we have to believe that the hedonic treadmill is a fundamental property of the universe? A lot of evidence suggests persistent differences in people’s hedonic set-point (often genetically influenced, as in the case of the SCN9A gene for pain thresholds), and this challenges the notion that we can’t avoid suffering. Indeed, MDMA-like states may some day be experienced at will with the use of technology (and without side effects). There may even be scientifically-derived precision-engineered ethical and freedom-expanding wireheading technology that will make our current everyday way of life look laughably uninteresting and unmeaningful in comparison.

Unfortunately, talking about this (i.e. technologically-induced hedonic recalibration) with people who need a pessimistic metaphysics of valence just to function may be considered antisocial. For example, some people seem to need spiritual theories of the pleasure-pain axis that focus on fairness (such as the doctrine of Karma) in order to feel like they are not randomly getting the shorter end of the (cosmic) stick (this sentiment usually comes together with implicit Closed Individualist convictions). Of course feeling like one is a victim is itself the result of one’s affect. This provides the perfect segway for (3):

In addition to all of the magical (but expected) fusion of art, psychotherapy, mysticism, spirituality and self-hacking that this conference attracted, I was extremely delighted to see the hints of what I think will change the world for the better like nothing else will: psychedelic valence research.

Of particular note is the work of Dráulio Barros de Araújo (“Rapid Antidepressant Effects of the Psychedelic Ayahuasca in Treatment-Resistant Depression: A Randomized Placebo-Controlled Trial”), Mendel Kaelen (“The Psychological and Neurophysiological Effects of Music in Combination with Psychedelics”), Leor Roseman (“Psilocybin-Assisted Therapy: Neural Changes and the Relationship Between Acute Peak Experience and Clinical Outcomes”), Jordi Riba (“New Findings from Ayahuasca Research: From Enhancing Mindfulness Abilities to Promoting Neurogenesis”), Selen Atasoy (“Enhanced Improvisation in Brain Processing by LSD: Exploring Neural Correlates of LSD Experience With Connectome-Specific Harmonic Waves”), Tomas Palenicek (“The Effects of Psilocybin on Perception and Dynamics of Induced EEG/fMRI Correlates of Psychedelic Experience”) and Clare Wikins (“A Novel Approach to Detoxification from Methadone Using Low, Repeated, and Cumulative Administering of Ibogaine”).

And of all of these, Selen Atasoy‘s work seems to be hitting the nail in the head the most: Her work involves looking into how psychedelics affect the overall amount of energy that each of the brain’s discrete connectome-specific resonant states has. Without giving it away (their work with LSD is still unpublished) let me just say that they found that having some extra energy in specific harmonics was predictive of the specific psychedelic effects experienced at a given point in time (including things such as emotional arousal, deeply felt positive mood, and ego dissolution).

Remarkably, this line of work is in agreement with Mike Johnson’s theoretical framework for the study of valence (as outlined in Principia Qualia). Namely, that there is a deep connection between harmony, symmetry and valence that will make sense once we figure out the mathematical structure whose formal properties are isomorphic to a subject’s phenomenology. In particular, “Valence Structuralism” would seem to be supported by the findings that relatively pure harmonic states are experienced as positive emotion. We would further predict that very pure harmonic states would have the highest level of (positive) hedonic tone (i.e. bliss). We are indeed very intrigued by the connectome-specific harmonic approach to psychedelic research and look forward to working with this paradigm in the future. It would be an understatement to say that we are also excited to see the results of applying this paradigm to study MDMA-like states of consciousness. This line of research is, above all, what makes me think that this year is the Year of Qualia (whether we have realized it or not). As it were, we are seeing the first hints of a future science of consciousness that can finally provide quantitative predictions about valence, and hence, become the first scientifically-compliant theory of ultimate value.

And now some subjective impressions about the conference…

Impressions

Psychedelic Ambiance

At its core, the conference felt extremely psychedelic in its own right. The artwork, people’s attires, the scents, the background music, etc. were all what seemed to me like expressions of an emerging style of psychedelic ambiance: A euphoric blend of MDMA-like self-assurant empathegenesis vibes (“everything will be ok”) with an LSD-like ontological sabotage to the ego entheoblasting vibes of universal oneness (“things are not what they seem/everything already always and never has happened at the same time”). Peak experiences, after all, often involve the metaphorical reconciliation of the divine and the mundane in a cosmic dance of meaning.

The Gods

In his book “Simulations of God” John C. Lilly proposes that beneath the surface of our awareness, each and every mind worships a number of seemingly transcendental values (sometimes, but not always, explicitly personified). Whether we know it or not, he argues, each and every one of us treats as if a God at least something. Whether we think there there is a “God Out There”, that “Truth is the Ultimate God”, or that “God Is The Group”, the highest node in our behavioral hierarchy is always covertly managed by our basic assumptions about reality (and what they prescribe as “intrinsically good”). The book’s table of contents is awesome; it outlines what ends up being the bulk of what humans ever care about as their ultimate values:

  1. God As the Beginning
  2. I Am God
  3. God Out There
  4. God As Him/Her/It
  5. God As The Group
  6. God As Orgasm and Sex
  7. God As Death
  8. God As Drugs
  9. God As the Body
  10. God As Money
  11. God As Righteous Wrath
  12. God As Compassion
  13. God As War
  14. God As Science
  15. God As Mystery
  16. God As the Belief, the Simulation, the Model
  17. God As the Computer
  18. God Simulating Himself
  19. God As Consciousness-without-an-Object
  20. God As Humor
  21. God As Superspace, the Ultimate Collapse into the Black Hole, the End.
  22. The Ultimate Simulation
  23. God As the Diad

Perhaps what’s most amazing about psychedelics is that they are capable of changing one’s Gods. It’s extremely common for people who take psychedelics to de-emphasize traditionalist and mainstream Gods such as 1, 3, 5, 7, 10, 11, 13, while also having experiences (and changes of mind) that push them to emphasize 2, 6, 8, 12, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 21, 22, and 23. But one wonders, what’s the eventual steady-state? As an umbrella description of what is going on we could say that psychedelics make you more open. But where does this, ultimately, lead?

Perhaps you started out in a conservative household and a family that emphasized loyalty to the group, conformism, nationalism and traditional religious values (1, 3, 5, 7). But once you tried LSD you felt a great change in the strength of your various deep-seated inclinations. You realize that you do not want to worship anything just to fit in, just to be part of a group, and that maybe caring about money is not as important as caring about making your own meaning out of life. You now feel like you care more about mysterious things like Orgasm (6), the Mind-Body connection (9), and philosophical questions like “If I am God, why would I build a universe with suffering in it?” (2, 15, 16, 21). You maybe watch some lectures by Alan Watts and read a book by Huxley, among other counter-culture material consumed, and you might start to develop a general belief in “the transcendent” but in a way that attempts to be compatible with the fact that you and the people you love experience suffering. You fantasize with the idea that maybe all of suffering is somehow necessary for some higher cosmic purpose (18, 19, 22) to which you are only made privy every now and then. You then continue on the path of psychedelic divination, perhaps taking more than you could handle here and there, and you are made aware of incredible universes: you meet guardians, you are led to read about Theosophy, you meet archetypes of the collective psyche, and after a while your strange experience with electronic equipment on LSD makes you wonder whether telepathy (at least an energetic and emotional variant of it) could be possible after all. But you do not ever obtain “good enough evidence” that would convince anyone who is determined to be a skeptic of your glitches of the Matrix. At some point, after taking too many magic mushrooms, you end up in what seems like a sort of Buddhist Hell: Feeling like we are all One no longer feels like a fact to be excited about, but rather, this is felt as a realization that should be forgotten as soon as one has it. Don’t let the cosmic boredom set in, don’t led nihilistic monism get to your very core. But it does, and you have a bad trip, one trip that you feel you never really recovered from, and whose nature is never talked about at psychedelic gatherings. (Don’t worry, right next door someone had a bad trip whose semantic content was the exact opposite of yours yet its effects on your corresponding valence landscapes were similar, e.g. concluding that “we are all made of atoms with no purpose” may feel just as bad as believing that “we are all God, and God is bored”). So maybe psychedelic therapy is a red herring after all, you think to yourself, and we should really be looking only into compounds that both increase euphoria and obfuscate the ultimate nature of reality at the same time. “Science, we need science” -you tell yourself- “so that we can figure out what it is that consciousness truly wants, and avoid both nihilistic bad trips as well as unrealistic eternalist mania”. Perhaps we are currently about to have to figure this out as a collective intelligence: “What do we do with the fact that we are all God?” This question is now making its way in etheric undercurrents in the shared meme-space of humanity just as the psychedelic renaissance starts to unfold.

The above paragraph is just one of the various archetypical ways in which psychedelic self-exploration may progress over time for a particular person. Of course not only do people’s progression vary; people’s starting points may be different. Some people approach psychedelics with spiritual intentions, others do so with recreation in mind, others use them for psychological self-exploration, and yet others use it to try to find glitches in reality. I would love to have a quantitative assessment of how one’s starting “implicit Gods” influence the way psychedelics affect you, and how such Gods evolve over the course of more exposure to psychedelic states of consciousness. There is a lot of wisdom-amplification research to be made on this front.

Psychedelic Gods

You’re only as young as the last time you changed your mind.

– Timothy Leary

The first thing I noticed at this conference was that this is a crowd that values both love and science. The geek in me seemed to be more than welcomed in here.

While I was able to enjoy the incredible vibe of the Bicycle Day celebration (just a day before the conference), I remember thinking that evolutionary psychology (cf. Mating Mind) would have a lot to say about it. A large proportion of seemingly selfless display of psychedelic self-sacrifice (e.g. LSD mega-dosing, spiritual training, asceticism, etc.) might in fact be just sexual signaling of fitness traits such as mental and physical robustness (cf. Algorithmic Reduction of Psychedelic StatesPolitical Peacocks). It’s hard to separate the universal love from the tribal mate-selection going on at raves and parties of this nature, and at times one may even get a bit of an anti-intellectual vibe for questioning this too deeply.

At the conference, though, I could tell there was another story going on. Namely, the God of Science made a prominent appearance, giving us all a sense of genuine progress beyond the comings and goings of the eternal game of hide-and-seek as one would expect in mere neo-hippy cyber-paganist events.

The God of Science… yes… if you think about it, holding an enriched concept of “science” (in its most expansive sense possible) while simultaneously trying to hold with equal intensity and expansiveness the intent of “love for all beings”, can make strange and wonderful things happen in your mind. Of salience is the fact that there will be an intense pull towards either only experiencing thought-forms about love or only focusing on thought-forms about science. Mixing the two requires a lot of energy. It’s almost as if we were wired to only focus on one at a time. This is an effect reminiscent to the mutual inhibition between empathizing and systematizing cognitive styles, and maybe at its core, the difficulty in blending both love and science without residue is a reflection of an underlying invariant. Under the assumption that you have a limited amount of positive valence at your disposal to paint your world simulation, and that you want to achieve clarity of mind, it is possible that you will have to front-load most of that positive valence in either broad quantitative observations (systematizing) or focused feelings of specialness and intimacy (empathizing). This is why, for instance, MDMA and 2C-B are so promising for cognitive transhumanism: these compounds can give rise to experiences in which there is a huge surplus of positive valence ready to be used to paint any aspect of your world simulation with bliss qualia. Sadly, this is a property of such states of consciousness, and it cannot currently be brought into our everyday lives as it is. Without serious genetic engineering (or other valence-enhancing technologies) all we can do for now is to make use of these states of consciousness to catalyze changes in our deep-seated existential stances in order to help us get by in our half-meaningful half-meaningless everyday life.

Of course, the Holy Grail of mental health interventions would be a technology that allows us to instantiate a context-dependent level of empathogenesis in a reliable and sustainable way. When I asked people at the conference whether they thought that having “a machine that makes you feel like you are on MDMA on demand with no tolerance, impulsivity, addiction or other side effects” would be good, most people (at least 80%) said “it would be bad for humanity to have such machine”. Why? Because they think that suffering serves a higher purpose, somehow. But I would disagree. And even if they are right, I still think that there are not enough people steel-manning the case for intelligent wire-heading. It’d be silly to find out in 2200 that we could have avoided hundreds of millions of people’s suffering at no cost to our collective growth if we only had thought more carefully about the intrinsic value of suffering back in 2050 when the MDMA-machine was invented and reflexively banned.

But healthy sustainable wire-heading (let alone wire-heading done right in light of evolution-at-the-limit scenarios) is many decades away into the future anyway. So all we have for now, by way of consciousness-expanding therapies for real-life knots-and-bolts treatment-resistant human suffering is the sort of therapy paradigms discussed in the conference. Of the roughly 135 conference talks (excluding parties, networking events, and workshops) at least 100 were either only or at least primarily focused on psychedelic therapy for mental illness (cancer end-of-life anxiety, PTSD, addiction, treatment-resistant depression, etc.). As far as a strategical cultural move, this focus on treatment is a very good approach, and from a valence utilitarian point of view maybe this is indeed what we should be focusing on in 2017. But I still wish that there was a bigger presence of some other kinds of discussion. In particular, I’d love for psychedelic science to eventually make a prominent appearance in a much wider context. Any discussion about the nature of consciousness from a scientific point of view cannot overlook the peculiar consciousness-enhancing properties of psychedelics. And any discussion about ethics, life and the purpose of it all will likewise be under-informed in so far as psychedelic peak-meaningful experiences are not brought into the conversation. After all, the ethical, philosophical, and scientific significance of psychedelics is hard to overstate.

Ideally we would all organize a conference that takes the best of: 1) A steadfast resolution to figure out the problem of consciousness, such as what we can find at places like The Science of Consciousness, 2) a steadfast resolution to combine both the best of compassion and rationality in order to help as many beings as possible, as we find in places like Effective Altruism Global, and 3) a steadfast resolution to look at the most impressive pieces of evidence about the nature of the mind and valence, as can be found in places like Psychedelic Science. All in all, this would be a perfect triad, as it would combine (1) The Question (Consciousness), (2) The Purpose (Ending Suffering), and (3) The Method (Scientific Study of Highly-Energetic States of Consciousness). Rest assured, the conferences organized by the Super-Shulgin Academy will blend these three aspects into one.

The Crowd

This was a very chill crowd. The only way for me to be edgy in the social contexts that arose at Psychedelic Science 2017 was to refuse to dab with the guy next to me (and to decline the Asparagus Butternut Squash edible offered at some point), or, at its worse, trying to spark a conversation about the benefits of well-managed opioid medication treatment for chronic pain (it was a rather opioid-phobic crowd, if I may say so myself).

On the other hand, talking about one’s experience in hyperbolic phenomenal spaces while on DMT, how to secretly communicate with people on LSD, and about the use of texture analysis and synthesis for psychophysical tasks to investigate psychedelic image processing barely raised anybody’s brows. I was happy to find that some people recognized me from Qualia Computing, and more than one of them shared the thought that it would be great to see more interbreeding and cross-fertilization between the psychedelic and the rationalist communities (I can’t agree more with this sentiment).

To give you a taste of the sort of gestalt present at this event, let me share with you something. Waiting on the line for one of the parties hosted by the conference organizers I overheard someone talking about what his ketamine experiences had taught him. Curious about it, I approached him and asked him to debrief me -if at all possible -about what he had learned. He said:

The super-intelligence that I’ve encountered on my ketamine experiences is far, far, beyond human comprehension, and its main message is that everything is interconnected; it does not matter when you hear the message, but that you hear it, and unconsciously prepare for what is going to happen. We are all soon going to be part of it, and we will all be together, knowing each other at a deeper level than we have ever thought imaginable, and experience love and meaning on another level, together in a vast interdimensional ecology of benevolent minds. All of the stories that we tell ourselves about the grand human narrative are all, well, made up by our minds on our limited human level. Whatever we are coming to, whatever this future thing that we are facing is, goes beyond human cravings for transcendence, it goes beyond the sentiment of return to nature, it goes beyond science and technology, and it goes beyond every religion and contemplative practice. The complexity to be found in the super-intelligent collective being that we will become is inexpressible, but there is nothing to fear, we are it on some level already, and we will soon all realize it.

It is hard to estimate what the distribution, prevalence and resilience of beliefs about the nature of reality, consciousness, love, purpose and everything else of the people attending this conference were. As a whole, it felt remarkably diverse, though. Based on my subjective impressions, I’d suspect that like the person quoted above, about 40% of the attendees were people who genuinely believe that there is a big consciousness event that is about to happen (whether it is a collective spiritual level-breaking point, a technological Singularity, inter-dimensional aliens taking us with them, or a more mundane run-of-the-mill recursively self-improving feedback loop with genetic methods for consciousness research). Maybe about 50% seemed to be what you might call pragmatic, agnostic, and open minded people who are simply looking to find out what’s up with the field, without spiritual (or emotional) vested interested in exactly what will happen. And finally, about 10% of the attendees might be classifiable as nihilists on some or another level. While intrigued about the effects of psychedelics, they see them as dead ends or red herrings. Perhaps useful for mental health, but not likely to be a key to reality (or even a hint of a future revolution in the states of consciousness we utilize on our everyday life).

Conclusion

I am very excited with the current movement to examine psychedelics in a rational scientific framework. Ultimately, I think that we will realize that valence is a quantifiable and definite thing (cf. Valence Structuralism). Wether we are talking about humor, pain relief, transcendence, or knots-and-bolts feelings of competence, all of our positive experiences share something in common. Ultimately, I do not know whether “valence is a spiritual trick” or if “spirituality is a valence trick”, but I am confident that as a species we do not yet have the answer to these questions and that a scientific approach to them may clarify this incredibly important line of inquiry.

Sooner or later, it seems to me, we will figure out what exactly “the universe wants from us”, so to speak, and then nothing will ever be the same; psychedelic research is a powerful and promising way to make good headway in this highly desirable direction.

 

 

 

IMG_20170421_212302

The look from the Sunset Cruise at the Psychedelic Science 2017 Conference


*Even the bathroom urinals seemed to have sacred geometry:

 

IMG_20170423_192257

Even the urinals had sacred geometry… reminding you of the interconnectedness of all things at the unlikeliest of moments.

How Every Fairy Tale Should End

“And even though the princess defeated the dragon and married the prince at the end of the story, the truth is that the hedonic treadmill and the 7-year itch eventually caught up to them and they were not able to ‘live happily ever after’.

“Thankfully, the princess got really interested in philosophy of mind and worked really hard on developing a theory of valence in order to ‘sabotage the mill’ of affective ups and downs, so to speak. After 10 years of hard work, three book-length series of blog posts, a well founded team of 17 rational psychonauts, and hundreds of experiments involving psychedelics and brain computer interfaces, at last the princess was able to create a portable device capable of measuring what amounts to a reasonable proxy for valence at an individual level in sub-second timescales, which over time enabled people to have reliable and sustainable control over the temporal dynamics of valence and arousal.

“Later on the prince developed a Moloch-aware and Singleton-proof economy of information about the state-space of consciousness, and thus kick-started the era of ethical wireheads; the world became a true fariy tale… a wondrous universe of enigmatic -but always blissful- varieties of ineffable qualia. After this came to pass, one could truly and sincerely say that the prince and the princess both became (functionally and phenomenally) happily ever after. The End.”

Their Scientific Significance is Hard to Overstate

I think it’s hard to overstate the cognitive significance of major psychedelics for the future of sentience. But it’s also hard to convey why these agents can be valuable tools of investigation to academics who have never tried them. I know distinguished drug-naive philosophers of mind (and transhumanists) who are certain that psychedelia can’t be significant – and it would be irresponsible to urge them to put their assumptions to the test. Perhaps the best I can do is offer an analogy. Imagine an ultra-intelligent tribe of congenitally blind extraterrestrials. Their ignorance of vision and visual concepts is not explicitly represented in their conceptual scheme. To members of this hypothetical species, visual experiences wouldn’t be information-bearing any more than a chaotic drug-induced eruption of bat-like echolocatory experiences would be information-bearing to us. Such modes of experience have never been recruited to play a sensory or signaling function. At any rate, some time during the history of this imaginary species, one of the tribe discovers a drug that alters his neurochemistry. The drug doesn’t just distort his normal senses and sense of self. It triggers what we would call visual experiences: vivid, chaotic in texture and weirder than anything the drug-taker had ever imagined. What can the drug-intoxicated subject do to communicate his disturbing new categories of experiences to his tribe’s scientific elite? If he simply says that the experiences are “ineffable”, then the sceptics will scorn such mysticism and obscurantism. If he speaks metaphorically, and expresses himself using words from the conceptual scheme grounded in the dominant sensory modality of his species, then he’ll probably babble delirious nonsense. Perhaps he’ll start talking about messages from the gods or whatever. Critically, the drug user lacks the necessary primitive terms to communicate his experiences, let alone a theoretical understanding of what’s happening. Perhaps he can attempt to construct a rudimentary private language. Yet its terms lack public “criteria of use”, so his tribe’s quasi-Wittgensteinian philosophers will invoke the (Anti-)Private Language Argument to explain why it’s meaningless. Understandably, the knowledge elite are unimpressed by the drug-disturbed user’s claims of making a profound discovery. They can exhaustively model the behaviour of the stuff of the physical world with the equations of their scientific theories, and their formal models of mind are computationally adequate. The drug taker sounds psychotic. Yet from our perspective, we can say the alien psychonaut has indeed stumbled on a profound discovery, even though he has scarcely glimpsed its implications: the raw materials of what we would call the visual world in all its glory.

 

Anyhow, I worry that our own predicament resembles in more extreme form the hubris of the blind super-rationalists I describe above. In fact, intellectually, I worry far more about my ignorance of other modes of conscious existence than I do my cognitive biases or deficiencies of reasoning within ordinary waking consciousness. Sure, I’d love to know the master equation of a unified field theory. I’d love even more to know what it’s like to inhabit a world of echolocation like a bat – and to understand the indescribable weirdness of LSD, DMT or Salvia. It transpires that ordinary waking and dreaming consciousness are just two among numerous wholly or partially incommensurable realms of sentience. What we call waking consciousness was doubtless a fitness-enhancing adaptation in the ancestral environment of adaptation. But it occupies only a tiny fraction of experiential state-space. Our ignorance is all the more insidious because it is not explicitly represented in our conceptual scheme. From the inside, a dreamer has little insight into the nature of a dream, even in rare moments of “lucid dreaming”; and I fear this may be true of ordinary waking consciousness too. Unfortunately, the only way to even partially apprehend the nature of radically altered states is by first-person investigation, i.e. to instantiate the neurochemical substrates of the states in question. If drug-naive, you can’t fruitfully read about them. Compare how (ostensibly) trivial is the difference in the gene expression signature of neurons mediating phenomenal colour and sound. Who knows what further categories of experience other “trivial” bimolecular variations will open up, not to speak of more radical neurochemical changes? Thousands of scholarly philosophy papers and books have been written on consciousness in recent years by drug-naive academics. Psychedelic researchers worry that too many of them evoke Aristotelean scholasticism, whereas what we need is a post-Galilean experimental science of consciousness. Perhaps the nearest I come to an intellectual hero is psychedelic chemist Alexander Shulgin, whose pioneering methodology is described in PiHKAL. Alas, Shulgin doesn’t yet occupy a prominent place in the transhumanist pantheon.

 

It’s worth stressing that taking psychedelics is not a fast-track passport to either happiness or wisdom. If you take the kappa opioid agonist Salvinorin A found in Salvia divinorum, for instance, you might easily have a waking nightmare. And the experience may easily be unintelligible rather than illuminating. Even in a society of sighted people and a rich visually-based conceptual scheme, it takes years for a congenitally blind person who is surgically granted the gift of sight to master visual literacy. So understanding the implications of radically altered states may well take millennia. I’d hazard a guess and say comprehension will take millions of years and more. Either way, our descendants may be not just superintelligent but supersentient – blessed with the capacity to shift between a multitude of radically different modes of consciousness whose only common ingredient is the molecular signature of bliss. Posthuman mastery of reward circuitry will let them safely explore psychedelia in a way most humans beings don’t dare. Yes, it’s prudent for us to play safe; but in consequence our consciousness may be comparatively shallow and one-dimensional. Mine is today.

 
David Pearce‘s response to a question during an H+ interview (Autumn 2009)