Thoughts on the ‘Is-Ought Problem’ from a Qualia Realist Point of View

tl;dr If we construct a theory of meaning grounded in qualia and felt-sense, it is possible to congruently arrive at “should” statements on the basis of reason and “is” claims. Meaning grounded in qualia allows us to import the pleasure-pain axis and its phenomenal character to the same plane of discussion as factual and structural observations.

Introduction

The Is-Ought problem (also called “Hume’s guillotine”) is a classical philosophical conundrum. On the one hand people feel that our ethical obligations (at least the uncontroversial ones like “do not torture anyone for no reason”) are facts about reality in some important sense, but on the other hand, rigorously deriving such “moral facts” from facts about the universe appears to be a category error. Is there any physical fact that truly compels us to act in one way or another?

A friend recently asked about my thoughts on this question and I took the time to express them to the best of my knowledge.

Takeaways

I provide seven points of discussion that together can be used to make the case that “ought” judgements often, though not always, are on the same ontological footing as “is” claims. Namely, that they are references to the structure and quality of experience, whose ultimate nature is self-intimating (i.e. it reveals itself) and hence inaccessible to those who lack the physiological apparatus to instantiate it. In turn, we could say that within communities of beings who share the same self-intimating qualities of experience, the is/ought divide may not be completely unbridgeable.


Summaries of Question and Response

Summary of the question:

How does a “should” emerge at all? How can reason and/or principles and/or logic compel us to follow some moral code?

Summary of the response:

  1. If “ought” statements are to be part of our worldview, then they must refer to decisions about experiences: what kinds of experiences are better/worse, what experiences should or should not exist, etc.
  2. A shared sense of personal identity (e.g. Open Individualism – which posits that “we are all one consciousness”) allows us to make parallels between the quality of our experience and the experience of others. Hence if one grounds “oughts” on the self-intimating quality of one’s suffering, then we can also extrapolate that such “oughts” must exist in the experience of other sentient beings and that they are no less real “over there” simply because a different brain is generating them (general relativity shows that every “here and now” is equally real).
  3. Reduction cuts both ways: if the “fire in the equations of physics” can feel a certain way (e.g. bliss/pain) then objective causal descriptions of reality (about e.g. brain states) are implicitly referring to precisely that which has an “ought” quality. Thus physics may be inextricably connected with moral “oughts”.
  4. If one loses sight of the fact that one’s experience is the ultimate referent for meaning, it is possible to end up in nihilistic accounts of meaning (e.g. such as Quine’s Indeterminacy of translation and Dennett’s inclusion of qualia within that framework). But if one grounds meaning in qualia, then suddenly both causality and value are on the same ontological footing (cf. Valence Realism).
  5. To see clearly the nature of value it is best to examine it at its extremes (such as MDMA bliss vs. the pain of kidney stones). Having such experiences illuminates the “ought” aspect of consciousness, in contrast to the typical quasi-anhedonic “normal everyday states of consciousness” that most people (and philosophers!) tend to reason from. It would be interesting to see philosophers discuss e.g. the Is-Ought problem while on MDMA.
  6. Claims that “pleasure and pain, value and disvalue, good and bad, etc.” are an illusion by long-term meditators based on the experience of “dissolving value” in meditative states are no more valid than claims that pain is an illusion by someone doped on morphine. In brief: such claims are made in a state of consciousness that has lost touch with the actual quality of experience that gives (dis)value to consciousness.
  7. Admittedly the idea that one state of consciousness can even refer to (let alone make value judgements about) other states of consciousness is very problematic. In what sense does “reference” even make sense? Every moment of experience only has access to its own content. We posit that this problem is not ultimately unsolvable, and that human concepts are currently mere prototypes of a much better future set of varieties of consciousness optimized for truth-finding. As a thought experiment to illustrate this possible future, consider a full-spectrum superintelligence capable of instantiating arbitrary modes of experience and impartially comparing them side by side in order to build a total order of consciousness.

Full Question and Response

Question:

I realized I don’t share some fundamental assumptions that seemed common amongst the people here [referring to the Qualia Research Institute and friends].

The most basic way I know how to phrase it, is the notion that there’s some appeal to reason and/or principles and/or logic that compels us to follow some type of moral code.

A (possibly straw-man) instance is the notion I associate with effective altruism, namely, that one should choose a career based on its calculable contribution to human welfare. The assumption is that human welfare is what we “should” care about. Why should we? What’s compelling about trying to reconfigure ourselves from whatever we value at the moment to replacing that thing with human welfare (or anything else)? What makes us think we can even truly succeed in reconfiguring ourselves like this? The obvious pitfall seems to be we create some image of “goodness” that we try to live up to without ever being honest with ourselves and owning our authentic desires. IMO this issue is rampant in mainstream Christianity.

More generally, I don’t understand how a “should” emerges within moral philosophy at all. I understand how starting with a want, say happiness, and noting a general tendency, such as I become happy when I help others, that one could deduce that helping others often is likely to result in a happy life. I might even say “I should help others” to myself, knowing it’s a strategy to get what I want. That’s not the type of “should” I’m talking about. What I’m talking about is “should” at the most basic level of one’s value structure. I don’t understand how any amount of reasoning could tell us what our most basic values and desires “should” be.

I would like to read something rigorous on this issue. I appreciate any references, as well as any elucidating replies.

Response:

This is a very important topic. I think it is great that you raise this question, as it stands at the core of many debates and arguments about ethics and morality. I think that one can indeed make a really strong case for the view that “ought” is simply never logically implied by any accurate and objective description of the world (the famous is/ought Humean guillotine). I understand that an objective assessment of all that is will usually be cast as a network of causal and structural relationships. By starting out with a network of causal and structural relationships and using logical inferences to arrive at further high-level facts, one is ultimately bound to arrive at conclusions that themselves are just structural and causal relationships. So where does the “ought” fit in here? Is it really just a manner of speaking? A linguistic spandrel that emerges from evolutionary history? It could really seem like it, and I admit that I do not have a silver bullet argument against this view.

However, I do think that eventually we will arrive at a post-Galilean understanding of consciousness, and that this understanding will itself allow us to point out exactly where- if at all- ethical imperatives are located and how they emerge. For now all I have is a series of observations that I hope can help you develop an intuition for how we are thinking about it, and why our take is original and novel (and not simply a rehashing of previous arguments or appeals to nature/intuition/guilt).

So without further ado I would like to lay out the following points on the table:

  1. I am of the mind that if any kind of “ought” is present in reality it will involve decision-making about the quality of consciousness of subjects of experience. I do not think that it makes sense to talk about an ethical imperative that has anything to do with non-experiential properties of the universe precisely because there would be no one affected by it. If there is an argument for caring about things that have no impact on any state of consciousness, I have yet to encounter it. So I will assume that the question refers to whether certain states of consciousness ought to or ought not to exist (and how to make trade offs between them).
  2. I also think that personal identity is key for this discussion, but why this is the case will make sense in a moment. The short answer is that conscious value is self-intimating/self-revealing, and in order to pass judgement on something that you yourself (as a narrative being) will not get to experience you need some confidence (or reasonable cause) to believe that the same self-intimating quality of experience is present in other narrative orbits that will not interact with you. For the same reasons as (1) above, it makes no sense to care about philosophical zombies (no matter how much they scream at you), but the same is the case for “conscious value p. zombies” (where maybe they experience color qualia but do not experience hedonic tone i.e. they can’t suffer).
  3. A very important concept that comes up again and again in our research is the notion that “reduction cuts both ways”. We take dual aspect monism seriously, and in this view we would consider the mathematical description of an experience and its qualia two sides of the same coin. Now, many people come here and say “the moment you reduce an experience of bliss to a mathematical equation you have removed any fuzzy morality from it and arrived at a purely objective and factual account which does not support an ‘ought ontology'”. But doing this mental move requires you to take the mathematical account as a superior ontology to that of the self-intimating quality of experience. In our view, these are two sides of the same coin. If mystical experiences are just a bunch of chemicals, then a bunch of chemicals can also be a mystical experience. To reiterate: reduction cuts both ways, and this happens with the value of experience to the same extent as it happens with the qualia of e.g. red or cinnamon.
  4. Mike Johnson tends to bring up Wittgenstein and Quine to the “Is-Ought” problem because they are famous for ‘reducing language and meaning’ to games and networks of relationships. But here you should realize that you can apply the concept developed in (3) above just as well to this matter. In our view, a view of language that has “words and objects” at its foundation is not a complete ontology, and nor is one that merely introduces language games to dissolve the mystery of meaning. What’s missing here is “felt sense” – the raw way in which concepts feel and operate on each other whether or not they are verbalized. It is my view that here phenomenal binding becomes critical because a felt sense that corresponds to a word, concept, referent, etc. in itself encapsulates a large amount of information simultaneously, and contains many invariants across a set of possible mental transformations that define what it is and what it is not. More so, felt senses are computationally powerful (rather than merely epiphenomenal). Consider Daniel Tammet‘s mathematical feats achieved by experiencing numbers in complex synesthetic ways that interact with each other in ways that are isomorphic to multiplication, factorization, etc. More so, he does this at competitive speeds. Language, in a sense, could be thought of as the surface of felt sense. Daniel Dennett famously argued that you can “Quine Qualia” (meaning that you can explain it away with a groundless network of relationships and referents). We, on the opposite extreme, would bite the bullet of meaning and say that meaning itself is grounded in felt-sense and qualia. Thus, colors, aromas, emotions, and thoughts, rather than being ultimately semantically groundless as Dennett would have it, turn out to be the very foundation of meaning.
  5. In light of the above, let’s consider some experiences that embody the strongest degree of the felt sense of “ought to be” and “ought not to be” that we know of. On the negative side, we have things like cluster headaches and kidney stones. On the positive side we have things like Samadhi, MDMA, and 5-MEO-DMT states of consciousness. I am personally more certain that the “ought not to be” aspect of experience is more real than the “ought to be” aspect of it, which is why I have a tendency (though no strong commitment) towards negative utilitarianism. When you touch a hot stove you get this involuntary reaction and associated valence qualia of “reality needs you to recoil from this”, and in such cases one has degrees of freedom into which to back off. But when experiencing cluster headaches and kidney stones, this sensation- that self-intimating felt-sense of ‘this ought not to be’- is omnidirectional. The experience is one in which one feels like every direction is negative, and in turn, at its extremes, one feels spiritually violated (“a major ethical emergency” is how a sufferer of cluster headaches recently described it to me). This brings me to…
  6. The apparent illusory nature of value in light of meditative deconstruction of felt-senses. As you put it elsewhere: “Introspectively – Meditators with deep experience typically report all concepts are delusion. This is realized in a very direct experiential way.” Here I am ambivalent, though my default response is to make sense of the meditation-induced feeling that “value is illusory” as itself an operation on one’s conscious topology that makes the value quality of experience get diminished or plugged out. Meditation masters will say things like “if you observe the pain very carefully, if you slice it into 30 tiny fragments per second, you will realize that the suffering you experience from it is an illusory construction”. And this kind of language itself is, IMO, liable to give off the illusion that the pain was illusory to begin with. But here I disagree. We don’t say that people who take a strong opioid to reduce acute pain are “gaining insight into the fundamental nature of pain” and that’s “why they stop experiencing it”. Rather, we understand that the strong opioid changes the neurological conditions in such a way that the quality of the pain itself is modified, which results in a duller, “asymbolic“, non-propagating, well-confined discomfort. In other words, strong opioids reduce the value-quality of pain by locally changing the nature of pain rather than by bringing about a realization of its ultimate nature. The same with meditation. The strongest difference here, I think, would be that opioids are preventing the spatial propagation of pain “symmetry breaking structures” across one’s experience and thus “confine pain to a small spatial location”, whereas meditation does something different that is better described as confining the pain to a small temporal region. This is hard to explain in full, and it will require us to fully formalize how the subjective arrow of time is constructed and how pain qualia can make copies across it. [By noting the pain very quickly one is, I believe, preventing it from building up and then having “secondary pain” which emerges from the cymatic resonance of the various lingering echoes of pain across one’s entire “pseudo-time arrow of experience”.] Sorry if this sounds like word salad, I am happy to unpack these concepts if needed, while also admitting that we are in early stages of the theoretical and empirical development.
  7. Finally, I will concede that the common sense view of “reference” is very deluded on many levels. The very notion that we can refer to an experience with another experience, that we can encode the properties of a different moment of experience in one’s current moment of experience, that we can talk about the “real world” or its “objective ethical values” or “moral duty” is very far from sensical in the final analysis. Reference is very tricky, and I think that a full understanding of consciousness will do some severe violence to our common sense in this area. That, however, is different from the self-disclosing properties of experience such as red qualia and pain qualia. You can do away with all of common sense reference while retaining a grounded understanding that “the constituents of the world are qualia values and their local binding relationships”. In turn, I do think that we can aim to do a decently good job at re-building from the ground up a good approximation of our common sense understanding of the world using “meaning grounded in qualia”, and once we do that we will be in a solid foundation (as opposed to the, admittedly very messy, quasi-delusional character of thoughts as they exist today). Needless to say, this may also need us to change our state of consciousness. “Someday we will have thoughts like sunsets” – David Pearce.

 

The Qualia Explosion

Extract from “Humans and Intelligent Machines: Co-Evolution, Fusion or Replacement?” (talk) by David Pearce

Supersentience: Turing plus Shulgin?

Compared to the natural sciences (cf. the Standard Model in physics) or computing (cf. the Universal Turing Machine), the “science” of consciousness is pre-Galilean, perhaps even pre-Socratic. State-enforced censorship of the range of subjective properties of matter and energy in the guise of a prohibition on psychoactive experimentation is a powerful barrier to knowledge. The legal taboo on the empirical method in consciousness studies prevents experimental investigation of even the crude dimensions of the Hard Problem, let alone locating a solution-space where answers to our ignorance might conceivably be found.

Singularity theorists are undaunted by our ignorance of this fundamental feature of the natural world. Instead, the Singularitarians offer a narrative of runaway machine intelligence in which consciousness plays a supporting role ranging from the minimal and incidental to the completely non-existent. However, highlighting the Singularity movement’s background assumptions about the nature of mind and intelligence, not least the insignificance of the binding problem to AGI, reveals why FUSION and REPLACEMENT scenarios are unlikely – though a measure of “cyborgification” of sentient biological robots augmented with ultrasmart software seems plausible and perhaps inevitable.

If full-spectrum superintelligence does indeed entail navigation and mastery of the manifold state-spaces of consciousness, and ultimately a seamless integration of this knowledge with the structural understanding of the world yielded by the formal sciences, then where does this elusive synthesis leave the prospects of posthuman superintelligence? Will the global proscription of radically altered states last indefinitely?

Social prophecy is always a minefield. However, there is one solution to the indisputable psychological health risks posed to human minds by empirical research into the outlandish state-spaces of consciousness unlocked by ingesting the tryptaminesphenylethylaminesisoquinolines and other pharmacological tools of sentience investigation. This solution is to make “bad trips” physiologically impossible – whether for individual investigators or, in theory, for human society as a whole. Critics of mood-enrichment technologies sometimes contend that a world animated by information-sensitive gradients of bliss would be an intellectually stagnant society: crudely, a Brave New World. On the contrary, biotech-driven mastery of our reward circuitry promises a knowledge explosion in virtue of allowing a social, scientific and legal revolution: safe, full-spectrum biological superintelligence. For genetic recalibration of hedonic set-points – as distinct from creating uniform bliss – potentially leaves cognitive function and critical insight both sharp and intact; and offers a launchpad for consciousness research in mind-spaces alien to the drug-naive imagination. A future biology of invincible well-being would not merely immeasurably improve our subjective quality of life: empirically, pleasure is the engine of value-creation. In addition to enriching all our lives, radical mood-enrichment would permit safe, systematic and responsible scientific exploration of previously inaccessible state-spaces of consciousness. If we were blessed with a biology of invincible well-being, exotic state-spaces would all be saturated with a rich hedonic tone.

Until this hypothetical world-defining transition, pursuit of the rigorous first-person methodology and rational drug-design strategy pioneered by Alexander Shulgin in PiHKAL and TiHKAL remains confined to the scientific counterculture. Investigation is risky, mostly unlawful, and unsystematic. In mainstream society, academia and peer-reviewed scholarly journals alike, ordinary waking consciousness is assumed to define the gold standard in which knowledge-claims are expressed and appraised. Yet to borrow a homely-sounding quote from Einstein, “What does the fish know of the sea in which it swims?” Just as a dreamer can gain only limited insight into the nature of dreaming consciousness from within a dream, likewise the nature of “ordinary waking consciousness” can only be glimpsed from within its confines. In order to scientifically understand the realm of the subjective, we’ll need to gain access to all its manifestations, not just the impoverished subset of states of consciousness that tended to promote the inclusive fitness of human genes on the African savannah.

Why the Proportionality Thesis Implies an Organic Singularity

So if the preconditions for full-spectrum superintelligence, i.e. access to superhuman state-spaces of sentience, remain unlawful, where does this roadblock leave the prospects of runaway self-improvement to superintelligence? Could recursive genetic self-editing of our source code repair the gap? Or will traditional human personal genomes be policed by a dystopian Gene Enforcement Agency in a manner analogous to the coercive policing of traditional human minds by the Drug Enforcement Agency?

Even in an ideal regulatory regime, the process of genetic and/or pharmacological self-enhancement is intuitively too slow for a biological Intelligence Explosion to be a live option, especially when set against the exponential increase in digital computer processing power and inorganic AI touted by Singularitarians. Prophets of imminent human demise in the face of machine intelligence argue that there can’t be a Moore’s law for organic robots. Even the Flynn Effect, the three-points-per-decade increase in IQ scores recorded during the 20th century, is comparatively puny; and in any case, this narrowly-defined intelligence gain may now have halted in well-nourished Western populations.

However, writing off all scenarios of recursive human self-enhancement would be premature. Presumably, the smarter our nonbiological AI, the more readily AI-assisted humans will be able recursively to improve our own minds with user-friendly wetware-editing tools – not just editing our raw genetic source code, but also the multiple layers of transcription and feedback mechanisms woven into biological minds. Presumably, our ever-smarter minds will be able to devise progressively more sophisticated, and also progressively more user-friendly, wetware-editing tools. These wetware-editing tools can accelerate our own recursive self-improvement – and manage potential threats from nonfriendly AGI that might harm rather than help us, assuming that our earlier strictures against the possibility of digital software-based unitary minds were mistaken. MIRI rightly call attention to how small enhancements can yield immense cognitive dividends: the relatively short genetic distance between humans and chimpanzees suggests how relatively small enhancements can exert momentous effects on a mind’s general intelligence, thereby implying that AGIs might likewise become disproportionately powerful through a small number of tweaks and improvements. In the post-genomic era, presumably exactly the same holds true for AI-assisted humans and transhumans editing their own minds. What David Chalmers calls the proportionality thesis, i.e. increases in intelligence lead to proportionate increases in the capacity to design intelligent systems, will be vindicated as recursively self-improving organic robots modify their own source code and bootstrap our way to full-spectrum superintelligence: in essence, an organic Singularity. And in contrast to classical digital zombies, superficially small molecular differences in biological minds can result in profoundly different state-spaces of sentience. Compare the ostensibly trivial difference in gene expression profiles of neurons mediating phenomenal sight and phenomenal sound – and the radically different visual and auditory worlds they yield.

Compared to FUSION or REPLACEMENT scenarios, the AI-human CO-EVOLUTION conjecture is apt to sound tame. The likelihood our posthuman successors will also be our biological descendants suggests at most a radical conservativism. In reality, a post-Singularity future where today’s classical digital zombies were superseded merely by faster, more versatile classical digital zombies would be infinitely duller than a future of full-spectrum supersentience. For all insentient information processors are exactly the same inasmuch as the living dead are not subjects of experience. They’ll never even know what it’s like to be “all dark inside” – or the computational power of phenomenal object-binding that yields illumination. By contrast, posthuman superintelligence will not just be quantitatively greater but also qualitatively alien to archaic Darwinian minds. Cybernetically enhanced and genetically rewritten biological minds can abolish suffering throughout the living world and banish experience below “hedonic zero” in our forward light-cone, an ethical watershed without precedent. Post-Darwinian life can enjoy gradients of lifelong blissful supersentience with the intensity of a supernova compared to a glow-worm. A zombie, on the other hand, is just a zombie – even if it squawks like Einstein. Posthuman organic minds will dwell in state-spaces of experience for which archaic humans and classical digital computers alike have no language, no concepts, and no words to describe our ignorance. Most radically, hyperintelligent organic minds will explore state-spaces of consciousness that do not currently play any information-signalling role in living organisms, and are impenetrable to investigation by digital zombies. In short, biological intelligence is on the brink of a recursively self-amplifying Qualia Explosion – a phenomenon of which digital zombies are invincibly ignorant, and invincibly ignorant of their own ignorance. Humans too of course are mostly ignorant of what we’re lacking: the nature, scope and intensity of such posthuman superqualia are beyond the bounds of archaic human experience. Even so, enrichment of our reward pathways can ensure that full-spectrum biological superintelligence will be sublime.


Image Credit: MohammadReza DomiriGanji

Burning Man 2.0: The Eigen-Schelling Religion, Entrainment & Metronomes, and the Eternal Battle Between Consciousness and Replicators

Because our consensus reality programs us in certain destructive directions, we must experience other realities in order to know we have choices.

Anyone who limits her vision to memories of yesterday is already dead.

Lillie Langtry

Last year I wrote a 13,000 word essay about my experience at Burning Man. This year I will also share some thoughts and insights concerning my experience while being brief and limiting myself to seven thousand words. I decided to write this piece stand-alone in such a way that you do not need to have read the previous essay in order to make sense of the present text.


Camp Soft Landing

I have been wanting to attend Burning Man for several years, but last year was the first time I had both the time and resources to do so. Unfortunately I was not able to get a ticket in the main sale, so I thought I would have to wait another year to have the experience. Out of the blue, however, I received an email from someone from Camp Soft Landing asking me if I would be interested in giving a talk at Burning Man in their Palenque Norte speaker series. My immediate response was “I would love to! But I don’t have a ticket and I don’t have a camp.” The message I received in return was “Great! Well, we have extra tickets, and you can stay at our camp.” So just like that I suddenly had the opportunity to not only attend, but also be at a wonderful camp and give a talk about consciousness research.

Full Circle Teahouse

The camp I’ve been a part of turned out to be an extremely good fit for me both as a researcher and as a person. Camp Soft Landing is one of the largest camps at Burning Man, featuring a total of 150 participants every year. Its two main contributions to the playa are the Full Circle Teahouse and Palenque Norte. The Full Circle Teahouse is a place in which we serve adaptogen herbal tea blends and Pu’er tea in a peaceful setting that emphasizes presence, empathy, and listening. It’s also full of pillows and cozy blankets and serves as a place for people who are overwhelmed to calm down or crash after a hectic night. (During training we were advised to expect that some people “may not know where they are or how they got here when they wake up in the early morning” and to “help them get oriented and offer them tea”). Here are a few telling words by the Teahouse founder Annie Oak:

The real secret sauce to our camp’s collective survival has been our focus on the well being of everyone who steps inside Soft Landing. While the ancestral progenitor who occupied our location before us, Camp Above the Limit, ran a lively bar, we made a decision not to serve alcohol in our camp. I enjoy an occasional cocktail, but I believe that the conflating of the gift economy with free alcohol has compromised the public health and social cohesion of Black Rock City. We do not prohibit alcohol at Soft Landing, but we do not permit bars inside our camp. Instead, we run a tea bar at our Tea House for those seeking a place to rest, hydrate and receive compassionate care. We also give away hundreds of gallons of water to Tea House visitors. We don’t want to undermine their self-sufficiency, but we can proactively reduce the number of guests who become ill from dehydration. We keep our Tea House open until Monday after the Burn to help weary people stay alert on the perilous drive back home.

– Doing It Right: Theme Camp Management Insights from Camp Soft Landing

Palenque Norte

Palenque Norte is a speaker series founded by podcaster Lorenzo Hagerty in 2003 (cf. A Brief History of Palenque Norte). A friend described it as “TED for Psychedelic Research at Burning Man” which is pretty accurate. Indeed, looking at a list of Palenque Norte speakers is like browsing a who’s who of the scientific and artistic psychedelic community: Johns Hopkins‘ Roland GriffithsMAPS‘ Rick DoblinHeffter‘s George GreerEFF‘s John GilmoreAnn & Sasha Shulgin (Q&A), DanceSafe‘s Mitchell Gomez, Consciousness Hacking‘ Mikey SiegelPaul DaleyBruce Damer, Will Siu, Emily WilliamsSebastian Job, Alex Grey, Android Jones, and many others. For reference, here was this year’s Palenque Norte schedule:

Thanks to the Full Circle Teahouse and Palenque Norte, the social and memetic composition of Camp Soft Landing is one that is characterized by a mixture of veteran scientists and community builders in their 50s and 60s, science and engineering nerds with advanced degrees in their late 20s and early 30s, and a dash of millennials and Gen-Z-ers in the rationalist/Effective Altruist communities.

lorenzo-sasha-bruce

Lorenzo Hagerty, Sasha Shulgin, and Bruce Damer (Burning Man, Palenque Norte c. 2007)

The people of Camp Soft Landing are near and dear to my heart given that they take consciousness seriously, they have a scientific focus, and they emit a strong intellectual vibe. As a budding qualia researcher myself, I feel completely at home there. As it turns out, this type of vibe is not at all out of place at Burning Man…

Burning Man Attendees

I would hazard the guess that Burning Man attendees are on average much more open to experience, conscientious, cognitively oriented, and psychologically robust than people in the general population. In particular, the combination of conscientiousness and openness to experience is golden. These are people who are not only able to think of crazy ideas, but who are also diligent enough to manifest them in the real world in concrete forms. This may account for the high production value and elaborate nature of the art, music, workshops, and collective activities. While the openness to experience aspect of Burning Man is fairly self-evident (it jumps at you if you do a quick google images search), the conscientiousness aspect may be a little harder to believe. Here I will quote a friend to illustrate this component:

Burning Man is the annual meeting of the recreational logistics community. Or maybe it’s a job interview for CEO: how to deal with broken situations and unexpected constraints in a multi-agent setting, just to survive.

[…]

Things I learned / practiced in the last couple of weeks: truck driving, clever packing, impact driver, attaching bike trailer, pumping gas and filling generators, knots, adding hanging knobs to a whiteboard, tying things with wire, quickly moving tents on the last night, finding rides, using ratchet straps, opening & closing storage container, driving to Treasure Island.

GL

Indeed this may be one of the key barriers of entry that defines the culture of Burning Man and explains why the crazy ideas people have in a given year tend to come back in the form of art in the next year… rather than vanishing into thin air.

There are other key features of the people who attend which can be seen by inspecting the Burning Man Census report. Here is a list of attributes, their baserate for Burners, and the baserate in the general population (for comparison): Having an undergraduate degree (73.6% vs. 32%), holding a graduate degree (31% vs. 10%), being gay/lesbian (8.5% vs. 1.3%), bisexual (10% vs. 1.8%), bicurious (11% vs. ??), polyamorous (20% vs. 5%), mixed race (9% vs. 3%), female (40% vs. 50%), median income (62K vs. 30K), etc.

From a bird’s eye view one can describe Burners as much more: educated, LGBT, liberal or libertarian, “spiritual but not religious”, and more mixed race than the average person. There are many more interesting cultural and demographic attributes that define the population of Black Rock City, but I will leave it at that for now for the sake of brevity. That said, feel free to inspect the following Census graphs for further details:

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Last year at Burning Man I developed a cluster of new concepts including “The Goldilocks Zone of Oneness” and “Hybrid Vigor in the context of post-Darwinian ethics.” I included my conversation with God and instructions for a guided oneness meditation. This year I continued to use the expanded awareness field of the Playa to further these and other concepts. In what follows I will describe some of the main ideas I experienced and then conclude with a summary of the talk I gave at Palenque Norte. If any of the following sections are too dense or uninteresting please feel free to skip them.

The Universal Eigen-Schelling Religion

On one of the nights a group of friends and I went on a journey following an art car, stopping every now and then to dance and to check out some art. At one point we drove through a large crowd of people and by the time the art car was on the other side, a few people from the group were missing. The question then became “what do we do?” We didn’t agree on a strategy for dealing with this situation before we embarked on the trip. After a couple of minutes we all converged on a strategy: stay near the art car and drive around until we find the missing people. The whole situation had a “lost in space” quality. Finding individual people is very hard since from a distance everyone is wearing roughly-indistinguishable multi-colored blinking LEDs all over their body. But since art cars are large and more distinguishable at a distance, they become natural Schelling points for people to converge on. Schelling points are a natural coordination mechanism in the absence of direct communication channels.

We were thus able to re-group almost in our entirety as a group (with only one person missing, who we finally had to give up on) by independently converging on the meta-heuristic of looking for the most natural Schelling point and finding the rest of the group there. For the rest of the night I kept thinking about how this meta-strategy may play out in the grand scheme of things.

If you follow Qualia Computing you may know that our default view on the nature of ethics is valence utilitarianism. People think they want specific things (e.g. ice-cream, a house, to be rich and famous, etc.) but in reality what they want is the high-valence response (i.e. happiness, bliss, and pleasure) that is triggered by such stimuli. When two people disagree on e.g. whether a certain food is tasty, they are not usually talking about the same experience. For one person, such food could induce high degrees of sensory euphoria, while for the other person, the food may leave them cold. But if they had introspective access to each other’s valence response, the disagreement would vanish (“Ah, I didn’t realize mayo produced such a good feeling for you. I was fixated on the aversive reaction I had to it.”). In other words, disagreements about the value of specific stimuli come down to lack of empathetic fidelity between people rather than a fundamental value mismatch. Deep down, we claim, we all like the same states of consciousness, and our disagreements come from the fact that their triggers vary between people. We call the fixation on the stimuli rather than the valence response the Tyranny of the Intentional Object.

In the grand scheme of things, we posit that advanced intelligences across the multiverse will generally converge on valence realism and valence utilitarianism. This is not an arbitrary value choice; it’s the natural outcome of looking for consistency among one’s disparate preferences and trying to investigate the true nature of conscious value. Insofar as curiosity is evolutionarily adaptive, any sufficiently general and sufficiently curious conscious mind eventually reaches the conclusion that value is a structural feature of conscious states and sheds the illusion of intentionality and closed identity. And while in the context of human history one could point at specific philosophers and scientists that have advanced our understanding of ethics (i.e. Plato, Bentham, Singer, Pearce, etc.) there may be a very abstract but universal way of describing the general tendency of curious conscious intelligences towards valence utilitarianism. It would go like this:

In a physicalist panpsychist paradigm, the vast majority of moments of experience do not occur within intelligent minds and leave no records of their phenomenal character for future minds to examine and inspect. A subset of moments of experience, though, do happen to take place within intelligent minds. We can call these conscious eigen-states because their introspective value can be retroactively investigated and compared against the present moment of experience, which has access to records of past experiences. Humans, insofar as they do not experience large amounts of amnesia, are able to experience a wide range of eigen-states throughout their lives. Thus, within a single human mind, many comparisons between the valence of various states of consciousness can be carried out (this is complicated and not always feasible given the state-dependence of memory). Either way, one could visualize how the information about the relative ranking of experiences is gathered across a Directed Acyclic Graph (DAG) of moments of experience that have partial introspective access to previous moments of experience. Furthermore, if the assumption of continuity of identity is made (i.e. that each moment of experience is witnessed by the same transcendental subject) then each evaluation between pairs of states of consciousness contributes a noisy datapoint to a universal ranking of all experiences and values.

After enough comparisons, a threshold number of evaluated experiences may be crossed, at which point a general theory of value can begin to be constructed. Thus a series of natural Schelling points for “what is universally valuable” become accessible to subsequent moments of experience. One of these focal points is the prevention of suffering throughout the entire multiverse. That is, to avoid experiences that do not like existing, independently of their location in space-time. Likewise, we would see another focal point that adds an imperative to realize experiences that value their own existence (“let the thought forms who love themselves reproduce and populate the multiverse”).

I call this approach to ethics the Eigen-Schelling Religion. Any sapient mind in the multiverse with a general enough ability to reason about qualia and reflect about causality is capable of converging to it. In turn, we can see that many concepts at the core of world religions are built around universal Eigen-Schelling points. Thus, we can rest assured that both the Bodhisattva imperative to eliminate suffering and the Christ “world redeeming” sentiment are reflections of a fundamental converging process to which many other intelligent life-forms have access across the entire multiverse. What I like about this framework is that you don’t need to take anyone’s word for what constitutes wisdom in consciousness. It naturally exists as reflective focal points within the state-space of consciousness itself in a way that transcends time and space.

Entrainment and Metronomes

In A Future for Neuroscience my friend and colleague Mike E. Johnson from the Qualia Research Institute explored how taking seriously the paradigm of Connectome-Specific Harmonic Waves (CSHW) leads us to reinterpret cognitive and personality traits in an entirely new light. In particular, here is what he has to say about emotional intelligence:

EQ (emotional intelligent quotient) isn’t very good as a formal psychological construct- it’s not particularly predictive, nor very robust when viewed from different perspectives. But there’s clearly something there– empirically, we see that some people are more ‘tuned in’ to the emotional & interpersonal realm, more skilled at feeling the energy of the room, more adept at making others feel comfortable, better at inspiring people to belief and action. It would be nice to have some sort of metric here.

I suggest breaking EQ into entrainment quotient (EnQ) and metronome quotient (MQ). In short, entrainment quotient indicates how easily you can reach entrainment with another person. And by “reach entrainment”, I mean how rapidly and deeply your connectome harmonic dynamics can fall into alignment with another’s. Metronome quotient, on the other hand, indicates how strongly you can create, maintain, and project an emotional frame. In other words, how robustly can you signal your internal connectome harmonic state, and how effectively can you cause others to be entrained to it. […] Most likely, these are reasonably positively correlated; in particular, I suspect having a high MQ requires a reasonably decent EnQ. And importantly, we can likely find good ways to evaluate these with CSHW.

This conceptual framework can be useful for making sense of the novel social dynamics that take place in Black Rock City. In particular, as illustrated by the Census responses, most participants are in a very open and emotionally receptive state at Burning Man:

One could say that by feeling safe, welcomed, and accepted at Burning Man, attendees adopt a very high Entrainment Quotient modus operandi. In tandem, we then see large art pieces, art cars, theme camps, and powerful sound systems blasting their unique distinctive emotional signals throughout the Playa. In a sense the entire place looks like an ecosystem of brightly-lit high-energy metronomes trying to attract the attention of a swarm of people in highly open and sensitive states with the potential to be entrained with these metronomes. Since the competition for attention is ferocious, there is not a single metronome that can dominate or totally brainwash you. All it takes for you to get a bad signal out of your head is to walk 50 meters to another place where the vibe will be, in all likelihood, completely different and overwrite the previous state.

This dynamic reaches its ultimate climax the very night of the Burn, as (almost) everyone gathers around the Man in a maximally receptive state, while at the same time every art car and group vibe surrounds the crowd and blasts their unique signals as loud and as intensely as possible all at the same time. This leads to the reification of the collective Burning Man egregore, which manifests as the sum total of all signals and vibes in mass ecstasy.

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Night of the Burn (source)

It is worth pointing out that not all of the metronomes in the Playa are created equal. Some art cars, for example, send highly specific and culturally-bound signals (e.g. country music, Simon & Garfunkel, Michael Jackson, etc.). While these metronomes will have their specific followings (i.e. you can always find a group of dedicated Pink Floyd fans) their ability to interface with the general Burner vibe is limited by their specificity and temporal irregularity. The more typical metronomic texture you will find scattered all around the Playa will be art forms that make use of more general patternceutical Schelling points with a stronger and more general metronomic capacity. Of note is the high degree of prevalence of house music and other 110 to 140 bpm (beats per minute) music that is able to entrain your brain from a distance and motivate you to move towards it- whether or not you are able to recognize the particular song. If you listen carefully to e.g. Palenque Norte recordings you will notice the occasional art car driving by, and the music it is blasting will usually have its tempo within that range, with a strong, repeating, and easily recognizable beat structure. I suspect that this tendency is the natural emergent effect of the evolutionary selection pressures that art forms endure from one Burn to another, which benefit patterns that can captivate a lot of human attention in a competitive economy of recreational states of consciousness.

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Android Jones’ Samskara at Camp Mystic 2017 (an example of the Open Individualist Schelling Vibe – i.e. the religion of the ego-dissolving LSD frequency of consciousness)

And then there are the extremely general metronome strategies that revolve around universal principles. The best example I found of this attention-capturing approach was the aesthetic of oneness, which IMO seemed to reach its highest expression at Camp Mystic:

Inspired by a sense of mystery & wonder, we perceive the consciousness of “We Are All One”. Mystics encourage the enigmatic spirit to explore a deeper connection not only on this planet and all that exists within, but the realm of the entire Universe.

Who are the Mystics? 

At their Wednesday night “White Dance Party” (where you are encouraged to dress in white) Camp Mystic was blasting the strongest vibes of Open Individualism I witnessed this year. I am of the mind that philosophy is the soul of poetry, and that massive party certainly had as its underlying philosophy the vibe of oneness and unity. This vibe is itself a Schelling point in the state-space of consciousness… the religion of the boundary-dissolving LSD frequency is not a random state, but a central hub in the super-highway of the mind. I am glad these focal points made prominent appearances at Burning Man.

Uncontrollable Feedback Loops

It is worth pointing out that at an open field as diverse as Burning Man we are likely to encounter positive feedback systems with both good and bad effects on human wellbeing. An example of a positive feedback loop with bad effects would be the incidents that transpired around the “Carkebab” art installation:

The sculpture consisted of a series of cars piled on top of each other held together by a central pole. The setup was clearly designed to be climbed given the visible handles above the cars leading to a view cart at the top. However, in practice it turned out to be considerably more dangerous and hard to climb than it seemed. Now you may anticipate the problem. If you are told that this art piece is climbable but dangerous, one can easily conjure a mental image of a future event in which someone falls and gets hurt. And as soon as that happens, access to the art installation will be restricted. Thus, one reasons that there is a limited amount of time left in which one will be able to climb the structure. Now imagine a lot of people having that train of thought. As more people realize that an accident is imminent, more people are motivated to climb it before that happens, thus creating an incentive to go as soon as possible, leading to crowding, which in turn increases the chance of an accident. The more people approach the installation, the more imminent the final point seems, and the more pressing it becomes to climb the structure before it becomes off-limits, and the more dangerous it becomes. Predictably, the imminent accident did take place. Thankfully it only involved a broken shoulder rather than something more severe. And yet, why did we let it get to that point? Perhaps in the future we should have methods to detect positive feedback loops like this and put the brakes on before it’s too late…

This leads to the topic of danger:

Counting Microlives

Can Burning Man be a place in which an abolitionist ethic can put down roots for long-term civilizational planning? Let’s briefly examine some of the potential acute, medium-term, and long-term costs of attending. Everyone has a limit, right? Some may want to think: “well, you only live once, let’s have fun”. But if you are one of the few who carries the wisdom, will, and love to move consciousness forward this should not be how you think. What would be an acceptable level of risk that an Effective Altruist should be able to accept to experience the benefits of Burning Man? I think that the critical question here is not “Is Burning Man dangerous?” but rather “How bad is it for you?”

Thankfully actuaries, modern medicine, and economists have already developed a theoretical framework for putting a number on this question. Namely, this is the concept of micromorts (i.e. 1 in a million chance of dying) and its sister concept of microlife (a cost of 1 millionth of a lifespan lost or gained by performing some activity). My preference is that of using microlives because they translate more easily into time and are, IMO, more conceptually straightforward. So here is the question: How many microlives should we be willing to spend to attend Burning Man? 10 microlives? 100 microlives? 1,000 microlives? 10,000 microlives?

Based on the fact that there are many long-term burners still alive I guesstimate that the upper bound cannot possibly be higher than 10,000 or we would know about it already. I.e. the percentage of people who get e.g. skin cancer, lung disease, or die in other ways would probably be already apparent in the community. Alternatively, it’s also possible that a reduced life expectancy as a result of attending e.g. 10+ Burns is an open secret among long-term burners… they see their friends die at an inexplicably higher rate but are too afraid to talk about it honestly. After all, people tend to be very clingy to their main sources of meaning (what we call “emotionally load-bearing activities”) so a large amount of denial can be expected in this domain.

Additionally, discussing Burning Man micromorts might be a particularly touchy and difficult subject for a number of attendees. The reason being that part of the psychological value that Burning Man provides is a felt sense of the confrontation with one’s fragility and mortality. Many older burners seem to have come to terms with their own mortality quite well already. Indeed, perhaps accepting death as part of life may be one of the very mechanisms of action for the reduction in neuroticism caused by intense experiences like psychedelics and Burning Man.

But that is not my jazz. I would personally not want to recommend an activity that costs a lot of microlives to other people in team consciousness. While I want to come to terms with death as much as your next Silicon Valley mystically-inclined nerd, I also recognize that death-acceptance is a somewhat selfish desire. Paradoxically, living a long, healthy, and productive life is one of the best ways for us to improve our chances of helping consciousness-at-large given our unwavering commitment to the eradication of all sentient suffering.

The main acute risks of Burning Man could be summarized as: dehydration, sleep deprivation, ODing (especially via accidental dosing, which is not uncommon, sadly), being run over by large vehicles (especially by art cars, trucks, and RVs), and falling from art or having art fall on you. These risks can be mitigated by the motto of “doing only one stupid thing at a time” (cf. How not to die at Burning Man). It’s ok to climb a medium-sized art piece if you are fully sober, or to take a psychedelic if you have sitters and don’t walk around art cars, etc. Most stories of accidents one hears about start along the lines of: “So, I was drunk, and high, and on mushrooms, and holding my camera, and I decided to climb on top of the thunderdome, and…”. Yes, of course that went badly. Doing stupid things on top of each other has multiplicative risk effects.

In the medium term, a pretty important risk is that of being busted by law enforcement. After all, the financial, psychological, and physiological effects of going to prison are rather severe on most people. On a similar note, a non-deadly but psychologically devastating danger of living in the desert for a week is an increased risk of kidney stones due to dehydration. The 10/10 pain you are likely to experience while passing a kidney stone may have far-reaching traumatic effects on one’s psyche and should not be underestimated (sufferers experience an increased risk of heart disease and, I would suspect, suicide).

But of all of the risks, the ones that concern me the most are the long term ones given their otherwise silent nature. In particular, we have skin cancer due to UV exposure and lung/heart disease caused by high levels of PM2.5 particles. With respect to the skin component, it is worth observing that a large majority of Burning Man attendees are caucasian and thus at a significantly higher risk. Me being a redhead, I’ve taken rather extreme precautions in this area. I apply SPF50+ sunscreen every couple of hours, use a wide-rim hat, wear arm sleeves [and gloves] for UV sun protection, wear sunglasses, stay in the shade as often as I can, etc. I recommend that other people also follow these precautions.

And with regards to dust… here I would have to say we have the largest error bars. Does Burning Man dust cause lung cancer? Does it impair lung function? Does it cause heart disease? As far as I can tell nobody knows the answer to these questions. A lot of people seem to believe that the air-borne particles are too large to pose a problem, but I highly doubt that is the case. The only source I’ve been able to find that tried to quantify dangerous particles at Burning Man comes from Camp Particle, which unfortunately does not seem to have published its results (and only provides preliminary data without the critical measure of PM2.5 I was looking for). Here are two important thoughts in this area. First, let’s hope that the clay-like alkaline composition of Playa dust turns out to be harmless to the lungs. And second, like most natural phenomena, chances are that the concentration of dangerous particles in, e.g. 1 minute buckets, follows a power law. I would strongly expect that at least 80% of the dust one inhales comes from 20% of the time in which it is most present. More so, during dust storms and especially in white-outs, I would expect the concentration of dust in the air to be at least 1,000 times higher than the median concentration. If that’s true, breathing without protection during a white-out for as little as two minutes would be equivalent to breathing in “typical conditions” without protection for more than 24 hours. In other words, being strategic and diligent about wearing a heavy and cumbersome PN100 mask may be far more effective than lazily taking on and off a more convenient (but less effective) mask throughout the day. Personally, I chose to always have on hand an M3 half facepiece with PN100 filters ready in case the dust suddenly became thicker. This did indeed save me from breathing dust during all dust storms. The difference in the quality of air while wearing it was like day and night. I will also say that while I prefer my look when I have a beard, I chose to fully shave during the event in order to guarantee a good seal with the mask. In retrospect, the fashion sacrifice does seem to be worth it, though at the time I certainly missed having a beard.

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The question remaining is: with a realistic amount of protection, what is the acceptable level of risk? I propose that you make up your mind before we find out with science how dangerous Burning Man actually is. In my case, I am willing to endure up to 100 negative microlives per day at Burning Man (for a total of ~800 microlives) as the absolute upper bound. Anything higher than that and the experience wouldn’t be worth it for me, and I would not recommend it to memetic allies. Thankfully, I suspect that the actual danger is lower than that, perhaps in the range of 40 negative microlives per day (mostly in the form of skin cancer and lung disease). But the problem remains that this estimate has very wide error bars. This needs to be addressed.

And if the danger does turn out to be unacceptable, then we can still look to recreate the benefits of Burning Man in a safer way: Your Legacy Could Be To Move Burning Man to a Place With A Fraction of Its Micromorts Cost.

Dangerous Bonding

In the ideal case Burning Man would be an event that triggers our brains to produce “danger signals” without there actually being much danger at all. This is because with our current brain implementation, experiencing perceived danger is helpful for bonding, trust building, and a sense of self-efficacy and survival ability.

And now on to my talk…

Andrés Gómez Emilsson – Consciousness vs. Replicators

The video above documents my talk, which includes an extended Q&A with the audience. Below is a quick summary of the main points I touched throughout the talk:

  1. Intro to Qualia Computing
    1. I started out by asking the audience if they had read any Qualia Computing articles. About 30% of them raised a hand. I then asked them how they found out about my talk, and it seems that the majority of the attendees (50%+) found it through the “What Where When” booklet. Since the majority of the people didn’t know about Qualia Computing before the talk, I decided to provide a quick introduction to some of the main concepts:
      1. What is qualia? – The raw way in which consciousness feels. Like the blueness of blue. Did you ever wonder as a kid whether other people saw the same colors as you? Qualia is that ineffable quality of experience that we currently struggle to communicate.
      2. Personal Identity:
        1. Closed Individualism – you start existing when you are born, stop existing when you die.
        2. Empty Individualism – brains are “experience machines” and you really are just a “moment of experience” disconnected from every other “moment of experience” your brain has generated or will generate.
        3. Open Individualism – we are all the “light of consciousness”. Reality has only one numerically identical subject of experience who is everyone, but which takes all sorts of forms and shapes.
        4. For the purpose of this talk I assume that Open Individualism is true, which provides a strong reason to care about the wellbeing of all sentient beings, even from a “selfish” point of view.
      3. Valence – This is the pleasure-pain axis. We take a valence realist view which means that we assume that there is an objective matter of fact about how much an experience is in pain/suffering vs. experiencing happiness/pleasure. There are pure heavenly experiences, pure hellish experiences, mixed states (e.g. enjoying music you love on awful speakers while wanting to pee), and neutral states (e.g. white noise, mild apathy, etc.).
      4. Evolutionary advantages of consciousness as part of the information processing pipeline – I pointed out that we also assume that consciousness is a real and computationally relevant phenomena. And in particular, that the reason why consciousness was recruited by natural selection to process information has to do with “phenomenal binding”. I did not go into much detail about it at the time, but if you are curious I elaborated about this during the Q&A.
  2. Spirit of our research:
    1. Exploration + Knowledge/Synthesis. Many people either over-focus on exploration (especially people very high in openness to experience) or on synthesis (like conservatives who think “the good days are gone, let’s study history”). The spirit of our research combines both open-ended exploration and strong synthesis. We encourage people to both expand their evidential base and make serious time to synthesize and cross-examine their experiences.
    2. A lot of people treat consciousness research like people used to treat alchemy. That is, they have a psychological need to “keep things magical”. We don’t. We think that consciousness research is due to transition into a hard science and that many new possibilities will be unlocked after this transition, not unlike how chemistry is thousands of times more powerful than alchemy because it allows you to create synthesis pathways from scratch using chemistry principles.
  3. How People Think and Why Few Say Meaningful Things:
    1. What most people say and talk about is a function of the surrounding social status algorithm (i.e. what kind of things award social recognition) and deep-seated evolutionarily adaptive programs (such as survival, reproductive, and affective consistency programs).
    2. Nerds and people on the autism spectrum do tend to circumvent this general mental block and are able to discuss things without being motivated by status or evolutionary programs only, instead being driven by open-ended curiosity. We encourage our collaborators to have that approach to consciousness research.
  4. What the Economy is Based on:
    1. Right now there are three main goods that are exchanged in the global economy. These are:
      1. Survival – resources that help you survive, like food, shelter, safety, etc.
      2. Power – resources that allow you to acquire social and physical power and thus increase your chances of reproducing.
      3. Consciousness – information about the state-space of consciousness. Right now people are willing to spend their “surplus” resources on experiences even if they do not increase their reproductive success. A possible dystopian scenario is one in which people do not do this anymore – everyone spends all of their available time and energy pursuing jobs for the sake of maximizing their wealth and increasing their reproductive success. This leads us to…
  5. Pure Replicators – In Wireheading Done Right we introduced the concept of a Pure ReplicatorI will define a pure replicator, in the context of agents and minds, to be an intelligence that is indifferent towards the valence of its conscious states and those of others. A pure replicator invests all of its energy and resources into surviving and reproducing, even at the cost of continuous suffering to themselves or others. Its main evolutionary advantage is that it does not need to spend any resources making the world a better place. (e.g. crystals, viruses, programs, memes, genes)
    1. It is reasonable to expect that in the absence of evolutionary selection pressures that favor the wellbeing of sentient beings, in the long run everyone alive will be playing a Pure Replicator strategy.
  6. States vs. Stages vs. Theory of Morality
    1. Ken Wilber emphasizes that there is a key difference between states and stages. Whereas states of consciousness involve various degrees of oneness and interconnectedness (from normal everyday sober experiences all the way to unity consciousness and satori), how you interpret these states will ultimately depend on your own level of moral development and maturity. This is very true and important. But I propose a further axis:
    2. Levels of intellectual understanding of ethics. While stages of consciousness refer to the degree to which you are comfortable with ambiguity, can synthesize large amounts of seemingly contradictory experiences, and are able to be emotionally stable in the face of confusion, we think that there is another axis worth exploring that has more to do with one’s intellectual model of ethics.
    3. The 4 levels are:
      1. Good vs. evil – the most common view which personifies/essentializes evil (e.g. “the devil”)
      2. Balance between good and evil – the view that most people who take psychedelics and engage in eastern meditative practices tend to arrive at. People at this level tend to think that good implies evil, and that the best we can do is to reach a state of balance and equanimity. I argue that this is a rationalization to be able to deal with extremes of suffering; the belief itself is used as an anti-depressant, which shows the intrinsic contradictoriness and motivated reasoning behind adopting this ethical worldview. You believe in the balance between good and evil in general so that you, right now, can feel better about your life. You are still, implicitly, albeit in a low-key way, trying to regulate your mood like everyone else.
      3. Gradients of wisdom – this is the view that people like Sam Harris, Ken Wilber, John Lilly, David Chapman, Buddha, etc. seem to converge on. They don’t have a deontological “if-then” ethical programming like the people at the first level. Rather, they have general heuristics and meta-heuristics for navigating complex problems. They do not claim to know “the truth” or be able to identify exactly what makes a society “better for human flourishing” but they do accept that some environments and states of consciousness are more healthy and conducive to wisdom than others. The problem with this view is that it does not give you a principled way to resolve disagreements or a way forward for designing societies from first principles.
      4. Consciousness vs. pure replicators – this view is the culmination of intellectual ethical development (although you could still be very neurotic and unenlightened otherwise) which arises when one identifies the source of everything that is systematically bad as caused by patterns that are good at making copies of themselves but that either don’t add conscious value or actively increase suffering. In this framework, it is possible for consciousness to win, which would happen if we create a full-spectrum super-sentient super-intelligent singleton that explores the entire state-space of consciousness and rationally decides what experiences to instantiate at a large scale based on the empirically revealed total order of consciousness.
  7. New Reproductive Strategies
    1. Given that we on team consciousness are in a race against Pure Replicator Hell scenarios it is important to explore ways in which we could load the dice in the favor of consciousness. One way to do so would be to increase the ways in which prosocial people are able to reproduce and pass on their pro-consciousness genes going forward. Here are a few interesting examples:
      1. Gay + Lesbian couple – for gay and lesbian couples with long time horizons we could help them have biological kids with the following scheme: Gay couple A + B and lesbian couple X + Z could combine their genes and have 4 kids A/X, A/Z, B/X, B/Z. This would create the genetic and game-theoretical incentives for this new kind of family structure to work in the long term.
      2. Genetic spellchecking – one of the most promising ways of increasing sentient welfare is to apply genetic spellchecking to embryos. This means that we would be reducing the mutational load of one’s offspring without compromising one’s genetic payload (and thus selfish genes would agree to the procedure and lead to an evolutionarily stable strategy). You wouldn’t ship code to production without testing and debugging, you wouldn’t publish a book without someone proof-reading it first, so why do we push genetic code to production without any debugging? As David Pearce says, right now every child is a genetic experiment. It’s terrible that such a high percentage of them lead to health and mental problems.
      3. A reproductive scheme in which 50% of the genes come from an “intelligently vetted gene pool” and the other 50% come from the parents’ genes. This would be very unpopular at first, but after a generation or two we would see that all of the kids who are the result of this procedure are top of the class, win athletic competitions, start getting Nobel prizes and Fields medals, etc. So soon every parent will want to do this… and indeed from a selfish gene point of view there will be no option but to do so, as it will make the difference between passing on some copies vs. none.*
      4. Dispassionate evaluation of the merits and drawbacks of one’s genes in a collective of 100 or more people where one recombines the genetic makeup of the “collective children” in order to maximize both their wellbeing and the information gained. In order to do this analysis in a dispassionate way we might need to recruit 5-meo-dmt-like states of consciousness that make you identify with consciousness rather than with your particular genes, and also MDMA-like states of mind in order to create a feeling of connection to source and universal love even if your own patterns lose out at some point… which they will after long enough, because eventually the entire gene pool would be replaced by a post-human genetic make-up.
  8. Consciousness vs. Replicators as a lens – I discussed how one can use the 4th stage of intellectual ethical development as a lens to analyze the value of different patterns and aesthetics. For example:
    1. Conservatives vs. Liberals (stick to your guns and avoid cancer vs. be adaptable but expose yourself to nasty dangers)
    2. Rap Music vs. Classical or Electronic music (social signaling vs. patternistic valence exploration)
  9. Hyperstition – Finally, I discussed the concept of hyperstition, which is a concept that refers to “ideas that make themselves real”. I explored it in the first Burning Man article. The core idea is that states of consciousness can indeed transform the history of the cosmos. In particular, high-energy states of mind like those experienced under psychedelics allow for “bigger ideas” and thus increase the upper bound of “irreducible complexity” for one’s thoughts. An example of this is coming up with further alternative reproductive strategies, which I encouraged the audience to do in order to increase the chances that team consciousness wins in the long term…

The End.


Bonus content: things I overheard virgin burners say:

  • “Intelligent people build intelligent civilizations. I now get what a society made of brilliant people would look like.”
  • “Burning Man is a magical place. It seems like it is one of the only places on Earth where the Spirit World and the Physical World intersect and play with each other.”
  • “It is not every day that you engage in a deeply transformative conversation before breakfast.”

* Thanks to Alison Streete for this idea.

Why don’t more effective altruists work on the Hedonistic Imperative?

By David Pearce (in response to a Quora question)

 

Life could be wonderful. Genetically phasing out suffering in favour of hardwired happiness ought to be mainstream. Today, it’s a fringe view. It’s worth asking why.

Perhaps the first scientifically-literate blueprint for a world without suffering was written by Lewis Mancini. “Brain stimulation and the genetic engineering of a world without pain” was published in the journal Medical Hypotheses in 1990. As far as I can tell, the paper sunk almost without a trace. Ignorant of Mancini’s work, I wrote The Hedonistic Imperative (HI) in 1995. I’ve plugged away at the theme ever since. Currently, a small, scattered minority of researchers believe that replacing the biology of suffering with gradients of genetically preprogrammed well-being is not just ethical but obviously so.

Alas, perceptions of obviousness vary. Technically, at least, the abolitionist project can no longer easily be dismissed as science fiction. The twenty-first century has already witnessed the decoding of the human genome, the development and imminent commercialisation of in vitro meat, the dawn of CRISPR genome-editing and the promise of synthetic gene drives. Identification of alleles and allelic combinations governing everything from pain-sensitivity to hedonic range and hedonic set-points is complementing traditional twin studies. The high genetic loading of subjective well-being and mental ill-health is being deciphered. The purely technical arguments against the genetic feasibility of creating a happy living world are shrinking. But genetic status quo bias is deeply entrenched. The sociopolitical obstacles to reprogramming the biosphere are daunting.

You ask specifically about effective altruists (EAs). Some effective altruists (cfEffective Altruism: How Can We Best Help Others? by Magnus Vinding) do explore biological-genetic solutions to complement socio-economic reform and other environmental interventions. Most don’t. Indeed, a significant minority of EAs expressly urge a nonbiological focus for EA. For example, see Why I Don’t Focus On The Hedonistic Imperative by the influential EA Brian Tomasik. I can’t offer a complete explanation, but I think these facts are relevant:

1) Timescales. Lewis Mancini reckons that completion of the abolitionist project will take thousands of years. HI predicts that the world’s last unpleasant experience will occur a few centuries hence, perhaps in some obscure marine invertebrate. If, fancifully, consensus existed for a global species-project, then 100 – 150 years (?) might be a credible forecast. Alas, such a timescale is wildly unrealistic. No such consensus exists or is plausibly in prospect. For sure, ask people a question framed on the lines of “Do you agree with Gautama Buddha, ‘May all that have life be delivered from suffering’?” and assent might be quite high. Some kind of quantified, cross-cultural study of radical Buddhist or Benthamite abolitionism would be interesting. Yet most people balk at what the scientific implementation of such a vision practically entails – if they reflect on abolitionist bioethics at all. “That’s just Brave New World” is a common response among educated Westerners to the idea of engineering “unnatural” well-being. Typically, EAs are focused on measurable results in foreseeable timeframes in areas where consensus is broad and deep, for instance the elimination of vector-borne disease. Almost everyone agrees that eliminating malaria will make the world a better place. Malaria can be eradicated this century.

2) The Hedonic Treadmill. In recent decades, popular awareness of the hedonic treadmill has grown. Sadly, most nonbiological interventions to improve well-being may not have the dramatic long-term impact we naïvely hope. However, awareness of the genetic underpinnings of the hedonic treadmill is sketchy. Knowledge of specific interventions we can plan to subvert its negative feedback mechanisms is sketchier still. Compared to more gross and visible ills, talk of “low hedonic set-points” (etc) is nebulous. Be honest, which would you personally choose if offered: a vast national lottery win (cfHow Winning The Lottery Affects Happiness) or a modestly higher hedonic set-point? Likewise, the prospect of making everyone on Earth prosperous sounds more effectively altruistic (cfCan “effective altruism” maximise the bang for each charitable buck?) than raising their hedonic defaults – even if push-button hedonic uplift were now feasible, which it isn’t, or at least not without socially unacceptable consequences.

3) The Spectre of Eugenics. Any confusion between the racial hygiene policies of the Third Reich and the project of genetically phasing out suffering in all sentient beings ought to be laughable. Nonetheless, many people recoil at the prospect of “designer babies”. Sooner or later, the ”e”-word crops up in discussions of genetic remediation and enhancement. If we assume that bioconservative attitudes to baby-making will prevail worldwide indefinitely, and the reproductive revolution extends at best only to a minority of prospective parents, then the abolitionist project will never happen. What we call the Cambrian Explosion might alternatively be classified as the Suffering Explosion. If we don’t tackle the biological-genetic roots of suffering at source – “eugenics”, if you will – then pain and suffering will proliferate until Doomsday. Without eugenics, the world’s last unpleasant experience may occur millions or even billions of years hence.

4) Core Values. Self-identified effective altruists range from ardent life loversfocused on existential risks, AGI and the hypothetical Intelligence Explosion to radical anti-natalists and negative utilitarians committed to suffering-focused ethics (cfWhat are the main differences between the anti-natalism/efilism community and the negative utilitarian/”suffering-focused ethics” wing of the effective altruism community?). There’s no inherent conflict with HI at either extreme. On the one hand, phasing out the biology of suffering can potentially minimise existential risk. Crudely, the more we love life, the more we want to preserve it. On the opposite wing of EA, radical anti-natalists oppose reproduction because they care about suffering, not because of opposition to new babies per se. Technically speaking, CRISPR babies could be little bundles of joy – as distinct from today’s tragic genetic experiments. In practice, however, life-loving EAs are suspicious of (notionally) button-pressing negative utilitarians, whereas radical anti-natalists view worldwide genetic engineering as even more improbable than their preferred option of voluntary human extinction.

5) Organisation and Leadership. Both secular and religious organizations exist whose tenets include the outright abolition of suffering. EAs can and do join such groups. However, sadly, I don’t know of a single organisation dedicated to biological-genetic solutions to the problem of suffering. Among transhumanists, for instance, radical life-extension and the prospect of posthuman superintelligence loom larger than biohappiness – though article 7 of the Transhumanist Declaration is admirably forthright: a commitment to the well-being of all sentience. Also, I think we need star power: the blessing of some charismatic billionaire or larger-than-life media celebrity. “Bill Gates says let’s use biotechnology to phase out the genetic basis of suffering” would be a breakthrough. Or even Justin Bieber.

For my part, I’m just a writer/researcher. We have our place! My guess is that this century will see more blueprints and manifestos and grandiose philosophical proposals together with concrete, incremental progress from real scientists. The genetic basis of suffering will eventually be eradicated across the tree of life, not in the name of anything “hedonistic” or gradients of intelligent bliss, and certainly not in the name of negative utilitarianism, but perhaps under the label of the World Health Organisation’s definition of health (cfConstitution of WHO: principles). Taken literally, the constitution of the WHO enshrines the most daringly ambitious vision of the future of sentience ever conceived. Lifelong good health (“complete physical, mental and social well-being”) for all sentient beings is a noble aspiration. Regardless of race or species, all of us deserve good health as so defined. A biology of information-sensitive gradients of physical, mental and social well-being (HI) is more modest and workable thanks to biotech. Optimistically, life on Earth has only a few more centuries of misery and malaise to go.

Qualia Computing at Burning Man 2018: “Consciousness vs Replicators” talk

I’m thrilled to announce that I will be going to Burning Man for the second time this year. I will give a talk about Consciousness vs. Pure Replicators. The talk will be at Palenque Norte‘s consciousness-focused speaker series hosted by Camp Soft Landing.


The whole experience last year was very eye-opening, and as a result I wrote an (extremely) long essay about it. The essay introduces a wide range of entirely new concepts, including “The Goldillocks Zone of Oneness” and “Hybrid Vigor in the context of post-Darwinian ethics.” It also features a section about my conversation with God at Burning Man.

If you are attending Burning Man and would like to meet with me, I will be available for chatting and hanging out right after my talk (call it the Qualia Research Institute Office Hours at Burning Man).


Here are the details of the talk:

Andrés Gómez Emilsson-Consciousness vs Replicators

Date and Time: Wednesday, August 29th, 2018, 3 PM – 4:30 PM
Type: Class/Workshop
Located at CampCamp Soft Landing (8:15 & C (Cylon). Mid-block on C, between 8 and 8:30.)

Description:

Patterns that are good at making copies of themselves are not necessarily good from an ethical point of view. We call Pure Replicators, in the context of brains and minds, those beings that use all of their resources for the purpose of replicating. In other words, beings that replicate without regards for their own psychological wellbeing (if they are conscious) or the wellbeing of others. In as much as we believe that value is presented in the quality of experience, perhaps to be “ethical” is to be stewards and advocates for the wellbeing of as many of the “moments of experience” that exist in reality as one can. We will talk about how an “economy of information about the state-space of consciousness” can be a helpful tool in preventing pure-replicator take-over. Lastly, we will announce the existence of a novel test of consciousness that can be used to identify non-sentient artifacts or robots passing for humans within the crowd.

 

Open Individualism and Antinatalism: If God could be killed, it’d be dead already

Abstract

Personal identity views (closed, empty, open) serve in philosophy the role that conservation laws play in physics. They recast difficult problems in solvable terms, and by expanding our horizon of understanding, they likewise allow us to conceive of new classes of problems. In this context, we posit that philosophy of personal identity is relevant in the realm of ethics by helping us address age-old questions like whether being born is good or bad. We further explore the intersection between philosophy of personal identity and philosophy of time, and discuss the ethical implications of antinatalism in a tenseless open individualist “block-time” universe.

Introduction

Learning physics, we often find wide-reaching concepts that simplify many problems by using an underlying principle. A good example of this is the law of conservation of energy. Take for example the following high-school physics problem:

An object that weighs X kilograms falls from a height of Y meters on a planet without an atmosphere and a gravity of Zg. Calculate the velocity with which this object will hit the ground.

One could approach this problem by using Newton’s laws of motion and differentiating the distance traveled by the object as a function of time and then obtaining the velocity of the object at the time it has fallen Y meters.

Alternatively, you could simply note that given that energy is conserved, all of the potential energy of the object at a height of X meters will be transformed into kinetic energy at 0 height. Thus the velocity of the object is equivalent to this amount, and the problem is easier to solve.

Once one has learned “the trick” one starts to see many other problems differently. In turn, grasping these deep invariants opens up new horizons; while many problems that seemed impossible can be solved using these principles, it also allows you to ask new questions, which opens up new problems that cannot be solved with those principles alone.

Does this ever happen in philosophy? Perhaps entire classes of difficult problems in philosophy may become trivial (or at least tractable) once one grasps powerful principles. Such is the case, I would claim, of transcending common-sense views of personal identity.

Personal Identity: Closed, Empty, Open

In Ontological Qualia I discussed three core views about personal identity. For those who have not encountered these concepts, I recommend reading that article for an expanded discussion.

In brief:

  1. Closed Individualism: You start existing when you are born, and stop when you die.
  2. Empty Individualism: You exist as a “time-slice” or “moment of experience.”
  3. Open Individualism: There is only one subject of experience, who is everyone.

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Most people are Closed Individualists; this is the default common sense view for good evolutionary reasons. But what grounds are there to believe in this view? Intuitively, the fact that you will wake up in “your body” tomorrow is obvious and needs no justification. However, explaining why this is the case in a clear way requires formalizing a wide range of concepts such as causality, continuity, memory, and physical laws. And when one tries to do so one will generally find a number of barriers that will prevent one from making a solid case for Closed Individualism.

As an example line of argument, one could argue that what defines you as an individual is your set of memories, and since the person who will wake up in your body tomorrow is the only human being with access to your current memories then you must be it. And while this may seem to work on the surface, a close inspection reveals otherwise. In particular, all of the following facts work against it: (1) memory is a constructive process and every time you remember something you remember it (slightly) differently, (2) memories are unreliable and do not always work at will (e.g. false memories), (3) it is unclear what happens if you copy all of your memories into someone else (do you become that person?), (4) how many memories can you swap with someone until you become a different person?, and so on. Here the more detailed questions one asks, the more ad-hoc modifications of the theory are needed. In the end, one is left with what appears to be just a set of conventional rules to determine whether two persons are the same for practical purposes. But it does not seem to carve nature at its joints; you’d be merely over-fitting the problem.

The same happens with most Closed Individualist accounts. You need to define what the identity carrier is, and after doing so one can identify situations in which identity is not well-defined given that identity carrier (memory, causality, shared matter, etc.).

But for both Open and Empty Individualism, identity is well-defined for any being in the universe. Either all are the same, or all are different. Critics might say that this is a trivial and uninteresting point, perhaps even just definitional. Closed Individualism seems sufficiently arbitrary, however, that questioning it is warranted, and once one does so it is reasonable to start the search for alternatives by taking a look at the trivial cases in which either all or none of the beings are the same.

More so, there are many arguments in favor of these views. They indeed solve and usefully reformulate a range of philosophical problems when applied diligently. I would argue that they play a role in philosophy that is similar to that of conservation of energy in physics. The energy conservation law has been empirically tested to extremely high levels of precision, which is something which we will have to do without in the realm of philosophy. Instead, we shall rely on powerful philosophical insights. And in addition, they make a lot of problems tractable and offer a powerful lens to interpret core difficulties in the field.

Open and Empty Individualism either solve or have bearings on: Decision theory, utilitarianism, fission/fusion, mind-uploading and mind-melding, panpsychism, etc. For now, let us focus on…

Antinatalism

Antinatalism is a philosophical view that posits that, all considered, it is better not to be born. Many philosophers could be adequately described as antinatalists, but perhaps the most widely recognized proponent is David Benatar. A key argument Benatar considers is that there might be an asymmetry between pleasure and pain. Granted, he would say, experiencing pleasure is good, and experiencing suffering is bad. But while “the absence of pain is good, even if that good is not enjoyed by anyone”, we also have that “the absence of pleasure is not bad unless there is somebody for whom this absence is a deprivation.” Thus, while being born can give rise to both good and bad, not being born can only be good.

Contrary to popular perception, antinatalists are not more selfish or amoral than others. On the contrary, their willingness to “bite the bullet” of a counter-intuitive but logically defensible argument is a sign of being willing to face social disapproval for a good cause. But along with the stereotype, it is generally true that antinatalists are temperamentally depressive. This, of course, does not invalidate their arguments. If anything, sometimes a degree of depressive realism is essential to arrive at truly sober views in philosophy. But it shouldn’t be a surprise to learn that either experiencing or having experienced suffering in the past predispose people to vehemently argue for the importance of its elimination. Having a direct acquaintance with the self-disclosing nastiness of suffering does give one a broader evidential base for commenting on the matter of pain and pleasure.

Antinatalism and Closed Individualism

Interestingly, Benatar’s argument, and those of many antinatalists, rely implicitly on personal identity background assumptions. In particular, antinatalism is usually framed in a way that assumes Closed Individualism.

The idea that a “person can be harmed by coming into existence” is developed within a conceptual framework in which the inhabitants of the universe are narrative beings. These beings have both spatial and temporal extension. And they also have the property that had the conditions previous to their birth been different, they might not have existed. But how many possible beings are there? How genetically or environmentally different do they need to be to be different beings? What happens if two beings merge? Or if they converge towards the same exact physical configuration over time?

 

This conceptual framework has counter-intuitive implications when taken to the extreme. For example, the amount of harm you do involves how many people you allow to be born, rather than how many years of suffering you prevented.

For the sake of the argument, imagine that you have control over a sentient-AI-enabled virtual environment in which you can make beings start existing and stop existing. Say that you create two beings, A and B, who are different in morally irrelevant ways (e.g. one likes blue more than red, but on average they both end up suffering and delighting in their experience with the same intensity). With Empty Individualism, you would consider giving A 20 years of life and not creating B vs. giving A and B 10 years of life each to be morally equivalent. But with Closed Individualism you would rightly worry that these two scenarios are completely different. By giving years of life to both A and B (any amount of life!) you have doubled the number of subjects who are affected by your decisions. If the gulf of individuality between two persons is infinite, as Closed Individualism would have it, by creating both A and B you have created two parallel realities, and that has an ontological effect on existence. It’s a big deal. Perhaps a way to put it succinctly would be: God considers much more carefully the question of whether to create a person who will live only 70 years versus whether to add a million years of life to an angel who has already lived for a very long time. Creating an entirely new soul is not to be taken lightly (incidentally, this may cast the pro-choice/pro-life debate in an entirely new light).

Thus, antinatalism is usually framed in a way that assumes Closed Individualism. The idea that a being is (possibly) harmed by coming into existence casts the possible solutions in terms of whether one should allow animals (or beings) to be born. But if one were to take an Open or Empty Individualist point of view, the question becomes entirely different. Namely, what kind of experiences should we allow to exist in the future…

Antinatalism and Empty Individualism

I think that the strongest case for antinatalism comes from a take on personal identity that is different than the implicit default (Closed Individualism). If you assume Empty Individualism, in particular, reality starts to seem a lot more horrible than you had imagined. Consider how in Empty Individualism fundamental entities exist as “moments of experience” rather than narrative streams. Therefore, every time that an animal suffers, what is actually happening is that some moments of experience get to have their whole existence in pain and suffering. In this light, one stops seeing people who suffer terrible happenings (e.g. kidney stones, schizophrenia, etc.) as people who are unlucky, and instead one sees their brains as experience machines capable of creating beings whose entire existence is extremely negative.

With Empty Individualism there is simply no way to “make it up to someone” for having had a bad experience in the past. Thus, out of compassion for the extremely negative moments of experience, one could argue that it might be reasonable to try to avoid this whole business of life altogether. That said, this imperative does not come from the asymmetry between pain and pleasure Benetar talks about (which as we saw implicitly requires Closed Individualism). In Empty Individualism it does not make sense to say that someone has been brought into existence. So antinatalism gets justified from a different angle, albeit one that might be even more powerful.

In my assessment, the mere possibility of Empty Individualism is a good reason to take antinatalism very seriously.

It is worth noting that the combination of Empty Individualism and Antinatalism has been (implicitly) discussed by Thomas Metzinger (cf. Benevolent Artificial Anti-Natalism (BAAN)) and FRI‘s Brian Tomasik.

Antinatalism and Open Individualism

Here is a Reddit post and then a comment on a related thread (by the same author) worth reading on this subject (indeed these artifacts motivated me to write the article you are currently reading):

There’s an interesting theory of personal existence making the rounds lately called Open Individualism. See herehere, and here. Basically, it claims that consciousness is like a single person in a huge interconnected library. One floor of the library contains all of your life’s experiences, and the other floors contain the experiences of others. Consciousness wanders the aisles, and each time he picks up a book he experiences whatever moment of life is recorded in it as if he were living it. Then he moves onto the next one (or any other random one on any floor) and experiences that one. In essence, the “experiencer” of all experience everywhere, across all conscious beings, is just one numerically identical subject. It only seems like we are each separate “experiencers” because it can only experience one perspective at a time, just like I can only experience one moment of my own life at a time. In actuality, we’re all the same person.

 

Anyway, there’s no evidence for this, but it solves a lot of philosophical problems apparently, and in any case there’s no evidence for the opposing view either because it’s all speculative philosophy.

 

But if this were true, and when I’m done living the life of this particular person, I will go on to live every other life from its internal perspective, it has some implications for antinatalism. All suffering is essentially experienced by the same subject, just through the lens of many different brains. There would be no substantial difference between three people suffering and three thousand people suffering, assuming their experiences don’t leave any impact or residue on the singular consciousness that experiences them. Even if all conscious life on earth were to end, there are still likely innumerable conscious beings elsewhere in the universe, and if Open Individualism is correct, I’ll just move on to experiencing those lives. And since I can re-experience them an infinite number of times, it makes no difference how many there are. In fact, even if I just experienced the same life over and over again ten thousand times, it wouldn’t be any different from experiencing ten thousand different lives in succession, as far as suffering is concerned.

 

The only way to end the experience of suffering would be to gradually elevate all conscious beings to a state of near-constant happiness through technology, or exterminate every conscious being like the Flood from the Halo series of games. But the second option couldn’t guarantee that life wouldn’t arise again in some other corner of the multiverse, and when it did, I’d be right there again as the conscious experiencer of whatever suffering it would endure.

 

I find myself drawn to Open Individualism. It’s not mysticism, it’s not a Big Soul or something we all merge with, it’s just a new way of conceptualizing what it feels like to be a person from the inside. Yet, it has these moral implications that I can’t seem to resolve. I welcome any input.

 

– “Open individualism and antinatalism” by Reddit user CrumbledFingers in r/antinatalism (March 23, 2017)

And on a different thread:

I have thought a lot about the implications of open individualism (which I will refer to as “universalism” from here on, as that’s the name coined by its earliest proponent, Arnold Zuboff) for antinatalism. In short, I think it has two major implications, one of which you mention. The first, as you say, is that freedom from conscious life is impossible. This is bad, but not as bad as it would be if I were aware of it from every perspective. As it stands, at least on Earth, only a small number of people have any inkling that they are me. So, it is not like experiencing the multitude of conscious events taking place across reality is any kind of burden that accumulates over time; from the perspective of each isolated nervous system, it will always appear that whatever is being experienced is the only thing I am experiencing. In this way, the fact that I am never truly unconscious does not have the same sting as it would to, for example, an insomniac, who is also never unconscious but must experience the constant wakefulness from one integrated perspective all the time.

 

It’s like being told that I will suffer total irreversible amnesia at some point in my future; while I can still expect to be the person that experiences all the confusion and anxiety of total amnesia when it happens, I must also acknowledge that the residue of any pains I would have experienced beforehand would be erased. Much of what makes consciousness a losing game is the persistence of stresses. Universalism doesn’t imply that any stresses will carry over between the nervous systems of individual beings, so the reality of my situation is by no means as nightmarish as eternal life in a single body (although, if there exists an immortal being somewhere in the universe, I am currently experiencing the nightmare of its life).

 

The second implication of this view for antinatalism is that one of the worst things about coming into existence, namely death, is placed in quite a different context. According to the ordinary view (sometimes called “closed” individualism), death permanently ends the conscious existence of an alienated self. Universalism says there is no alienated self that is annihilated upon the death of any particular mind. There are just moments of conscious experience that occur in various substrates across space and time, and I am the subject of all such experiences. Thus, the encroaching wall of perpetual darkness and silence that is usually an object of dread becomes less of a problem for those who have realized that they are me. Of course, this realization is not built into most people’s psychology and has to be learned, reasoned out, intellectually grasped. This is why procreation is still immoral, because even though I will not cease to exist when any specific organism dies, from the perspective of each one I will almost certainly believe otherwise, and that will always be a source of deep suffering for me. The fewer instances of this existential dread, however misplaced they may be, the better.

 

This is why it’s important to make more people understand the position of universalism/open individualism. In the future, long after the person typing this sentence has perished, my well-being will depend in large part on having the knowledge that I am every person. The earlier in each life I come to that understanding, and thus diminish the fear of dying, the better off I will be. Naturally, this project decreases in potential impact if conscious life is abundant in the universe, and in response to that problem I concede there is probably little hope, unless there are beings elsewhere in the universe that have comprehended who they are and are taking the same steps in their spheres of influence. My dream is that intelligent life eventually either snuffs itself out or discovers how to connect many nervous systems together, which would demonstrate to every connected mind that it has always belonged to one subject, has always been me, but I don’t have any reason to assume this is even possible on a physical level.

 

So, I suppose you are mostly right about one thing: there are no lucky ones that escape the badness of life’s worst agonies, either by virtue of a privileged upbringing or an instantaneous and painless demise. They and the less fortunate ones are all equally me. Yet, the horror of going through their experiences is mitigated somewhat in the details.

 

– A comment by CrumbledFingers in the Reddit post “Antinatalism and Open individualism“, also in r/antinatalism (March 12, 2017)

Our brain tries to make sense of metaphysical questions in wet-ware that shares computational space with a lot of adaptive survival programs. It does not matter if you have thick barriers (cf. thick and thin boundaries of the mind), the way you assess the value of situations as a human will tend to over-focus on whatever would allow you to go up Maslow’s hierarchy of needs (or, more cynically, achieve great feats as a testament to signal your genetic-fitness). Our motivational architecture is implemented in such a way that it is very good at handling questions like how to find food when you are hungry and how to play social games in a way that impresses others and leaves a social mark. Our brains utilize many heuristics based on personhood and narrative-streams when exploring the desirability of present options. We are people, and our brains are adapted to solve people problems. Not, as it turns out, general problems involving the entire state-space of possible conscious experiences.

Prandium Interruptus

Our brains render our inner world-simulation with flavors and textures of qualia to suit their evolutionary needs. This, in turn, impairs our ability to aptly represent scenarios that go beyond the range of normal human experiences. Let me illustrate this point with the following thought experiment:

Would you rather (a) have a 1-hour meal, or (b) have the same meal but at the half-hour point be instantly transformed into a simple, amnesic, and blank experience of perfectly neutral hedonic value that lasts ten quintillion years, and after that extremely long time of neither-happiness-nor-suffering ends, then resume the rest of the meal as if nothing had happened, with no memory of that long neutral period?

According to most utilitarian calculi these two scenarios ought to be perfectly equivalent. In both cases the total amount of positive and negative qualia is the same (the full duration of the meal) and the only difference is that the latter also contains a large amount of neutral experience too. Whether classical or negative, utilitarians should consider these experiences equivalent since they contain the same amount of pleasure and pain (note: some other ethical frameworks do distinguish between these cases, such as average and market utilitarianism).

Intuitively, however, (a) seems a lot better than (b). One imagines oneself having an awfully long experience, bored out of one’s mind, just wanting it to end, get it over with, and get back to enjoying the nice meal. But the very premise of the thought experiment presupposes that one will not be bored during that period of time, nor will one be wishing it to be over, or anything of the sort, considering that all of those are mental states of negative quality and the experience is supposed to be neutral.

Now this is of course a completely crazy thought experiment. Or is it?

The One-Electron View

In 1940 John Wheeler proposed to Richard Feynman the idea that all of reality is made of a single electron moving backwards and forwards in time, interfering with itself. This view has come to be regarded as the One-Electron Universe. Under Open Individualism, that one electron is you. From every single moment of experience to the next, you may have experienced life as a sextillion different animals, been 10^32 fleeting macroscropic entangled particles, and gotten stuck as a single non-interacting electron in the inter-galactic medium for googols of subjective years. Of course you will not remember any of this, because your memories, and indeed all of your motivational architecture and anticipation programs, are embedded in the brain you are instantiating right now. From that point of view, there is absolutely no trace of the experiences you had during this hiatus.

The above way of describing the one-electron view is still just an approximation. In order to see it fully, we also need to address the fact that there is no “natural” order to all of these different experiences. Every way of factorizing it and describing the history of the universe as “this happened before this happened” and “this, now that” could be equally inapplicable from the point of view of fundamental reality.

Philosophy of Time

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Presentism is the view that only the present moment is real. The future and the past are just conceptual constructs useful to navigate the world, but not actual places that exist. The “past exists as footprints”, in a matter of speaking. “Footprints of the past” are just strangely-shaped information-containing regions of the present, including your memories. Likewise, the “future” is unrealized: a helpful abstraction which evolution gave us to survive in this world.

On the other hand, eternalism treats the future and the past as always-actualized always-real landscapes of reality. Every point in space-time is equally real. Physically, this view tends to be brought up in connection with the theory of relativity, where frame-invariant descriptions of the space-time continuum have no absolute present line. For a compelling physical case, see the Rietdijk-Putnam argument.

Eternalism has been explored in literature and spirituality extensively. To name a few artifacts: The EggHindu and Buddhist philosophy, the videos of Bob Sanders (cf. The Gap in Time, The Complexity of Time), the essays of Philip K. Dick and J. L. Borges, the poetry of T. S. Eliot, the fiction of Kurt Vonnegut Jr (TimequakeSlaughterhouse Five, etc.), and the graphic novels of Alan Moore, such as Watchmen:

Let me know in the comments if you know of any other work of fiction that explores this theme. In particular, I would love to assemble a comprehensive list of literature that explores Open Individualism and Eternalism.

Personal Identity and Eternalism

For the time being (no pun intended), let us assume that Eternalism is correct. How do Eternalism and personal identity interact? Doctor Manhattan in the above images (taken from Watchmen) exemplifies what it would be like to be a Closed Individualist Eternalist. He seems to be aware of his entire timeline at once, yet recognizes his unique identity apart from others. That said, as explained above, Closed Individualism is a distinctly unphysical theory of identity. One would thus expect of Doctor Manhattan, given his physically-grounded understanding of reality, to espouse a different theory of identity.

A philosophy that pairs Empty Individualism with Eternalism is the stuff of nightmares. Not only would we have, as with Empty Individualism alone, that some beings happen to exist entirely as beings of pain. We would also have that such unfortunate moments of experience are stuck in time. Like insects in amber, their expressions of horror and their urgency to run away from pain and suffering are forever crystallized in their corresponding spatiotemporal coordinates. I personally find this view paralyzing and sickening, though I am aware that such a reaction is not adaptive for the abolitionist project. Namely, even if “Eternalism + Empty Individualism” is a true account of reality, one ought not to be so frightened by it that one becomes incapable of working towards preventing future suffering. In this light, I adopt the attitude of “hope for the best, plan for the worst”.

Lastly, if Open Individualism and Eternalism are both true (as I suspect is the case), we would be in for what amounts to an incredibly trippy picture of reality. We are all one timeless spatiotemporal crystal. But why does this eternal crystal -who is everyone- exist? Here the one-electron view and the question “why does anything exist?” could both be simultaneously addressed with a single logico-physical principle. Namely, that the sum-total of existence contains no information to speak of. This is what David Pearce calls “Zero Ontology” (see: 1, 2, 3, 4). What you and I are, in the final analysis, is the necessary implication of there being no information; we are all a singular pattern of self-interference whose ultimate nature amounts to a dimensionless unit-sphere in Hilbert space. But this is a story for another post.

On a more grounded note, Scientific American recently ran an article that could be placed in this category of Open Individualism and Eternalism. In it the authors argue that the physical signatures of multiple-personality disorder, which explain the absence of phenomenal binding between alters that share the same brain, could be extended to explain why reality is both one and yet appears as the many. We are, in this view, all alters of the universe.

Personal Identity X Philosophy of Time X Antinatalism

Sober, scientifically grounded, and philosophically rigorous accounts of the awfulness of reality are rare. On the one hand, temperamentally happy individuals are more likely to think about the possibilities of heaven that lie ahead of us, and their heightened positive mood will likewise make them more likely to report on their findings. Temperamental depressives, on the other hand, may both investigate reality with less motivated reasoning than the euthymic and also be less likely to report on the results due to their subdued mood (“why even try? why even bother to write about it?”). Suffering in the Multiverse by David Pearce is a notable exception to this pattern. David’s essay highlights that if Eternalism is true together with Empty Individualism, there are vast regions of the multiverse filled with suffering that we can simply do nothing about (“Everett Hell Branches”). Taken together with a negative utilitarian ethic, this represents a calamity of (quite literally) astronomical proportions. And, sadly, there simply is no off-button to the multiverse as a whole. The suffering is/has/will always be there. And this means that the best we can do is to avoid the suffering of those beings in our forward-light cone (a drop relative to the size of the ocean of existence). The only hope left is to find a loop-hole in quantum mechanics that allows us to cross into other Everett branches of the multiverse and launch cosmic rescue missions. A counsel of despair or a rational prospect? Only time will tell.

Another key author that explores the intersection of these views is Mario Montano (see: Eternalism and Its Ethical Implications and The Savior Imperative).

A key point that both of these authors make is that however nasty reality might be, ethical antinatalists and negative utilitarians shouldn’t hold their breath about the possibility that reality can be destroyed. In Open Individualism plus Eternalism, the light of consciousness (perhaps what some might call the secular version of God) simply is, everywhere and eternally. If reality could be destroyed, such destruction is certainly limited to our forward light-cone. And unlike Closed Individualist accounts, it is not possible to help anyone by preventing their birth; the one subject of existence has already been born, and will never be unborn, so to speak.

Nor should ethical antinatalists and negative utilitarians think that avoiding having kids is in any way contributing to the cause of reducing suffering. It is reasonable to assume that the personality traits of agreeableness (specifically care and compassion), openness to experience, and high levels of systematizing intelligence are all over-represented among antinatalists. Insofar as these traits are needed to build a good future, antinatalists should in fact be some of the people who reproduce the most. Mario Montano says:

Hanson calls the era we live in the “dream time” since it’s evolutionarily unusual for any species to be wealthy enough to have any values beyond “survive and reproduce.” However, from an anthropic perspective in infinite dimensional Hilbert space, you won’t have any values beyond “survive and reproduce.” The you which survives will not be the one with exotic values of radical compassion for all existence that caused you to commit peaceful suicide. That memetic stream weeded himself out and your consciousness is cast to a different narrative orbit which wants to survive and reproduce his mind. Eventually. Wanting is, more often than not, a precondition for successfully attaining the object of want.

Physicalism Implies Existence Never Dies

Also, from the same essay:

Anti-natalists full of weeping benignity are literally not successful replicators. The Will to Power is life itself. It is consciousness itself. And it will be, when a superintelligent coercive singleton swallows superclusters of baryonic matter and then spreads them as the flaming word into the unconverted future light cone.

[…]

You eventually love existence. Because if you don’t, something which does swallows you, and it is that which survives.

I would argue that the above reasoning is not entirely correct in the large scheme of things*, but it is certainly applicable in the context of human-like minds and agents. See also: David Pearce’s similar criticisms to antinatalism as a policy.

This should underscore the fact that in its current guise, antinatalism is completely self-limiting. Worryingly, one could imagine an organized contingent of antinatalists conducting research on how to destroy life as efficiently as possible. Antinatalists are generally very smart, and if Eliezer Yudkowsky‘s claim that “every 18 months the minimum IQ necessary to destroy the world drops by one point” is true, we may be in for some trouble. Both Pearce’s, Montano’s, and my take is that even if something akin to negative utilitarianism is the case, we should still pursue the goal of diminishing suffering in as peaceful of a way as it is possible. The risk of trying to painlessly destroy the world and failing to do so might turn out to be ethically catastrophic. A much better bet would be, we claim, to work towards the elimination of suffering by developing commercially successful hedonic recalibration technology. This also has the benefit that both depressives and life-lovers will want to team up with you; indeed, the promise of super-human bliss can be extraordinarily motivating to people who already lead happy lives, whereas the prospect of achieving “at best nothing” sounds stale and uninviting (if not outright antagonistic) to them.

An Evolutionary Environment Set Up For Success

If we want to create a world free from suffering, we will have to contend with the fact that suffering is adaptive in certain environments. The solution here is to avoid such environments, and foster ecosystems of mind that give an evolutionary advantage to the super-happy. More so, we already have the basic ingredients to do so. In Wireheading Done Right I discussed how, right now, the economy is based on trading three core goods: (1) survival tools, (2) power, and (3) information about the state-space of consciousness. Thankfully, the world right now is populated by humans who largely choose to spend their extra income on fun rather than on trips to the sperm bank. In other words, people are willing to trade some of their expected reproductive success for good experiences. This is good because it allows the existence of an economy of information about the state-space of consciousness, and thus creates an evolutionary advantage for caring about consciousness and being good at navigating its state-space. But for this to be sustainable, we will need to find the way to make positive valence gradients (i.e. gradients of bliss) both economically useful and power-granting. Otherwise, I would argue, the part of the economy that is dedicated to trading information about the state-space of consciousness is bound to be displaced by the other two (i.e. survival and power). For a more detailed discussion on these questions see: Consciousness vs. Pure Replicators.

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Can we make the benevolent exploration of the state-space of consciousness evolutionarily advantageous?

In conclusion, to close down hell (to the extent that is physically possible), we need to take advantage of the resources and opportunities granted to us by merely living in Hanson’s “dream time” (cf. Age of Spandrels). This includes the fact that right now people are willing to spend money on new experiences (especially if novel and containing positive valence), and the fact that philosophy of personal identity can still persuade people to work towards the wellbeing of all sentient beings. In particular, scientifically-grounded arguments in favor of both Open and Empty Individualism weaken people’s sense of self and make them more receptive to care about others, regardless of their genetic relatedness. On its natural course, however, this tendency may ultimately be removed by natural selection: if those who are immune to philosophy are more likely to maximize their inclusive fitness, humanity may devolve into philosophical deafness. The solution here is to identify the ways in which philosophical clarity can help us overcome coordination problems, highlight natural ethical Schelling points, and ultimately allow us to summon a benevolent super-organism to carry forward the abolition of as much suffering as is physically possible.

And only once we have done everything in our power to close down hell in all of its guises, will we be able to enjoy the rest of our forward light-cone in good conscience. Till then, us ethically-minded folks shall relentlessly work on building universe-sized fire-extinguishers to put out the fire of Hell.


* This is for several reasons: (1) phenomenal binding is not epiphenomenal, (2) the most optimal computational valence gradients are not necessarily located on the positive side, sadly, and (3) wanting, liking, and learning are possible to disentangle.

Qualia Computing Media Appearances

Podcasts

The Future of Mind (Waking Cosmos, October 2018)

Consciousness, Qualia, and Psychedelics with Andres Gomez Emilsson (Catalyzing Coherence, May 2018)

Consciousness and Qualia Realism (Cosmic Tortoise, May 2018)

Robert Stark interviews Transhumanist Andres Gomez Emilsson (The Stark Truth with Robert Stark, October 2017)

Como el MDMA, pero sin la neurotoxicidad (Abolir el sufrimiento con Andrés Gómez) (Guía Escéptica [in Spanish], March 2016)

Happiness is Solving the World’s Problems (The World Transformed, January 2016)

Presentations

Quantifying Valence (see alsoThe Science of Consciousness, April 2018)

Quantifying Bliss (Consciousness Hacking, June 2017)

Utilitarian Temperament: Satisfying Impactful Careers (BIL Oakland 2016: The Recession Generation, July 2016)

Interviews

Want a Penfield Mood Organ? This Scientist Might Be Able to Help (Ziff Davis PCMag, April 2018)

Frameworks for Consciousness – Andres Gomez Emilsson (Science, Technology & the Future by Adam Ford, March 2018)

Towards the Abolition of Suffering through Science (featuring David Pearce, Brian Tomasik, & Mike Johnson hosted by Adam Ford, August 2015)

The Mind of David Pearce (Stanford, December 2012)

Andrés Gómez Emilsson, el joven que grito espurio a Felipe Calderón (Cine Desbundo [in Spanish], October 2008)

Narrative Inclusions

Podcast with Daniel Ingram (Cosmic Tortoise [referenced at 2h22m], January 2018)

Fear and Loathing at Effective Altruism Global 2017 (Slate Star Codex, August 2017)

Transhumanist Proves Schrödinger’s Cat Experiment Isn’t Better on LSD (Inverse, October 2016)

High Performer: Die Renaissance des LSD im Silicon Valley (Wired Germany [in German], June 2015)

Come With Us If You Want To Live (Harper’s Magazine, January 2015)

David Pearce’s Social Media Posts (Hedwebpre-2014, 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018)

David Pearce at Stanford 2011 (Stanford Transhumanist Association, December 2011)

External Articles

Ending Suffering Is The Most Important Cause (IEET, September 2015)

This Is What I Mean When I Say ‘Consciousness’ (IEET, September 2015)

My Interest Shifted from Mathematics to Consciousness after a THC Experience (IEET, September 2015)

‘Spiritual/Philosophical’ is the Deepest, Highest, Most Powerful Dimension of Euphoria (IEET, September 2015)

Bios

H+pedia, ISI-S, The Transhuman Party, Decentralized AI Summit, Earth Sharing

Miscellaneous

Philosophy of Mind Stand-up Comedy (The Science of Consciousness,  April 2018)

Randal Koene vs. Andres Emilsson on The Binding Problem (Bay Area Futurists, Oakland CA, May 2016)


Note: I am generally outgoing, fun-loving, and happy to participate in podcasts, events, interviews, and miscellaneous activities. Feel free to invite me to your podcast/interview/theater/etc. I am flexible when it comes to content; anything I’ve written about in Qualia Computing is fair game for discussion. Infinite bliss!

Person-moment affecting views

by Katja Grace (source)

[Epistemic status: sloppy thoughts not informed by the literature. Hoping actual population ethicists might show up and correct me or point me to whoever has already thought about something like this better.]

Person-affecting views say that when you are summing up the value in different possible worlds, you should ignore people who only exist in one of those worlds. This is based on something like the following intuitions:

  1. World A can only be better than world B insofar as it is better for someone.
  2. World A can’t be better than world B for Alice, if Alice exists in world A but not world B.

The further-fact view says that after learning all physical facts about Alice and Alice’—such as whether Alice’ was the physical result of Alice waiting for five seconds, or is a brain upload of Alice, or is what came out of a replicating machine on Mars after Alice walked in on Earth, or remembers being Alice—there is still a further meaningful question of whether Alice and Alice’ are the same person.

I take the further-fact view to be wrong (or at least Derek Parfit does, and I think we agree the differences between Derek Parfit and I have been overstated). Thinking that the further-fact view is wrong seems to be a common position among intellectuals (e.g. 87% among philosophers).

If the further-fact view is wrong, then the what we have is a whole lot of different person-moments, with various relationships to one another, which for pragmatic reasons we like to group into clusters called ‘people’. There are different ways we could define the people, and no real answer to which definition is right. This works out pretty well in our world, but you can imagine other worlds (or futures of our world) where the clusters are much more ambiguous, and different definitions of ‘person’ make a big difference, or where the concept is not actually useful.

Person-affecting views seem to make pretty central use of the concept ‘person’. If we don’t accept the further-fact view, and do want to accept a person-affecting view, what would that mean? I can think of several options:

  1. How good different worlds are depends strongly on which definition of ‘person’ you choose (which person moments you choose to cluster together), but this is a somewhat arbitrary pragmatic choice
  2. There is some correct definition of ‘person’ for the purpose of ethics (i.e. there is some relation between person moments that makes different person moments in the future ethically relevant by virtue of having that connection to a present person moment)
  3. Different person-moments are more or less closely connected in ways, and a person-affecting view should actually have a sliding scale of importance for different person-moments

Before considering these options, I want to revisit the second reason for adopting a person-affecting view: If Alice exists in world A and not in world B, then Alice can’t be made better off by world A existing rather than world B. Whether this premise is true seems to depend on how ‘a world being better for Alice’ works. Some things we might measure would go one way, and some would go the other. For instance, we could imagine it being analogous to:

  1. Alice painting more paintings. If Alice painted three paintings in world A, and doesn’t exist in world B, I think most people would say that Alice painted more paintings in world A than in world B. And more clearly, that world A has more paintings than world B, even if we insist that a world can’t have more paintings without somebody in particular having painted more paintings. Relatedly, there are many things people do where the sentence ‘If Alice didn’t exist, she wouldn’t have X’.
  2. Alice having painted more paintings per year. If Alice painted one painting every thirty years in world A, and didn’t exist in world B, in world B the number of paintings per year is undefined, and so incomparable to ‘one per thirty years’.

Suppose that person-affecting view advocates are right, and the worth of one’s life is more like 2). You just can’t compare the worth of Alice’s life in two worlds where she only exists in one of them. Then can you compare person-moments? What if the same ‘person’ exists in two possible worlds, but consists of different person-moments?

Compare world A and world C, which both contain Alice, but in world C Alice makes different choices as a teenager, and becomes a fighter pilot instead of a computer scientist. It turns out that she is not well suited to it, and finds piloting pretty unsatisfying. If Alice_t1A is different from Alice_t1C, can we say that world A is better than world C, in virtue of Alice’s experiences? Each relevant person-moment only exists in one of the worlds, so how can they benefit?

I see several possible responses:

  1. No we can’t. We should have person-moment affecting views.
  2. Things can’t be better or worse for person-moments, only for entire people, holistically across their lives, so the question is meaningless. (Or relatedly, how good a thing is for a person is not a function of how good it is for their person-moments, and it is how good it is for the person that matters).
  3. Yes, there is some difference between people and person moments, which means that person-moments can benefit without existing in worlds that they are benefitting relative to, but people cannot.

The second possibility seems to involve accepting the second view above: that there is some correct definition of ‘person’ that is larger than a person moment, and fundamental to ethics – something like the further-fact view. This sounds kind of bad to me. And the third view doesn’t seem very tempting without some idea of an actual difference between persons and person-moments.

So maybe the person-moment affecting view looks most promising. Let us review what it would have to look like. For one thing, the only comparable person moments are the ones that are the same. And since they are the same, there is no point bringing about one instead of the other. So there is never reason to bring about a person-moment for its own benefit. Which sounds like it might really limit the things that are worth intentionally doing. Isn’t making myself happy in three seconds just bringing about a happy person moment rather than a different sad person moment?

Is everything just equally good on this view? I don’t think so, as long as you are something like a preference utilitarian: person-moments can have preferences over other person-moments. Suppose that Alice_t0A and Alice_t0C are the same, and Alice_t1A and Alice_t1C are different. And suppose that Alice_t0 wants Alice_t1 to be a computer scientist. Then world A is better than world C for Alice_t0, and so better overall. That is, person-moments can benefit from things, as long as they don’t know at the time that they have benefited.

I think an interesting  feature of this view is that all value seems to come from meddling preferences. It is never directly good that there is joy in the world for instance, it is just good because somebody wants somebody else to experience joy, and that desire was satisfied. If they had instead wished for a future person-moment to be tortured, and this was granted, then this world would apparently be just as good.

So, things that are never directly valuable in this world:

  • Joy
  • Someone getting what they want and also knowing about it
  • Anything that isn’t a meddling preference

On the upside, since person-moments often care about future person-moments within the same person, we do perhaps get back to something closer to the original person-affecting view. There is often reason to bring about or benefit a person moment for the benefit of previous person moments in the history of the same person, who for instance wants to ‘live a long and happy life’. My guess after thinking about this very briefly is that in practice it would end up looking like the ‘moderate’ person-affecting views, in which people who currently exist get more weight than people who will be brought into existence, but not infinitely more weight. People who exist now mostly want to continue existing, and to have good lives in the future, and they care less, but some, about different people in the future.

So, if you want to accept a person-affecting view and not a further-fact view, the options seem to me to be something like these:

  1. Person-moments can benefit without having an otherworldly counterpart, even though people cannot. Which is to say, only person-moments that are part of the same ‘person’ in different worlds can benefit from their existence. ‘Person’ here is either an arbitrary pragmatic definition choice, or some more fundamental ethically relevant version of the concept that we could perhaps discover.
  2. Benefits accrue to persons, not person-moments. In particular, benefits to persons are not a function of the benefits to their constituent person-moments. Where ‘person’ is again either a somewhat arbitrary choice of definition, or a more fundamental concept.
  3. A sliding scale of ethical relevance of different person-moments, based on how narrow a definition of ‘person’ unites them with any currently existing person-moments. Along with some story about why, given that you can apparently compare all of them, you are still weighting some less, on grounds that they are incomparable.
  4. Person-moment affecting views

None of these sound very good to me, but nor do person-affecting views in general, so maybe I’m the wrong audience. I had thought person-moment affecting views were almost a reductio, but a close friend says he thought they were the obvious reasonable view, so I am curious to hear others’ takes.



An interesting thing to point out here is that what Katja describes as the further-fact view is terminologically equivalent to what we here call Closed Individualism (cf. Ontological Qualia). This is the common-sense view that you start existing when you are born and stop existing when you die (which also has soul-based variants with possible pre-birth and post-death existence). This view is not very philosophically tenable because it presupposes that there is an enduring metaphysical ego distinct for every person. And yet, the vast majority of people still hold strongly to Closed Individualism. In some sense, in the article Katja tries to rescue the common-sense aspect of Closed Individualism in the context of ethics. That is, by trying to steel-man the common-sense notion that people (rather than moments of experience) are the relevant units for morality while also negating further-fact views, you provide reasons to keep using Closed Individualism as an intuition-pump in ethics (if only for pragmatic reasons). In general, I consider this kind of discussions to be a very fruitful endeavor as they approach ethics by touching upon the key parameters that matter fundamentally: identity, value, and counterfactuals.

As you may gather from pieces such as Wireheading Done Right and The Universal Plot, at Qualia Computing we tend to think the most coherent ethical system arises when we take as a premise that the relevant moral agents are “moments of experience”. Contra Person-affecting views, we don’t think it is meaningless to say that a given world is better than another one if not everyone in the first world is also in the second one. On the contrary – it really does not matter who lives in a given world. What matters is the raw subjective quality of the experiences in such worlds. If it is meaningless to ask “who is experiencing Alice’s experiences now?” once you know all the physical facts, then moral weight must be encoded in such physical facts alone. In turn, it could certainly happen then that the narrative aspect of an experience may turn out to be irrelevant for determining the intrinsic value of a given experience. People’s self-narratives may certainly have important instrumental uses, but at their core they don’t make it to the list of things that intrinsically matter (unlike, say, avoiding suffering).

A helpful philosophical move that we have found adds a lot of clarity here is to analyze the problem in terms of Open Individualism. That is, assume that we are all one consciousness and take it from there. If so, then the probability that you are a given person would be weighted by the amount of consciousness (or number of moments of experience, depending) that such person experiences throughout his or her life. You are everyone in this view, but you can only be each person one at a time from their own limited points of view. So there is a sensible way of weighting the importance of each person, and this is a function of the amount of time you spend being him or her (and normalize by the amount of consciousness that person experiences, in case that is variable across individuals).

If consciousness emerges victorious in its war against pure replicators, then it would make sense that the main theory of identity people would hold by default would be Open Individualism. After all, it is only Open Individualism that aligns individual incentives and the total wellbeing of all moments of experience throughout the universe.

That said, in principle, it could turn out that Open Individualism is not needed to maximize conscious value – that while it may be useful instrumentally to align the existing living intelligences towards a common consciousness-centric goal (e.g. eliminating suffering, building a harmonic society, etc.), in the long run we may find that ontological qualia (the aspect of our experience that we use to represent the nature of reality, including our beliefs about personal identity) has no intrinsic value. Why bother experiencing heaven in the form of a mixture of 95% bliss and 5% ‘a sense of knowing that we are all one’, if you can instead just experience 100% pure bliss?

At the ethical limit, anything that is not perfectly blissful might end up being thought of as a distraction from the cosmic telos of universal wellbeing.

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

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

What Went Great

(1) The Meta-Problem of Consciousness

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

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

– Chalmers on the Meta-Problem

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

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

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

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

(2) Qualia Formalism in the Water Supply

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(3) Great New Psychedelic Research

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

(4) Superb Aesthetic

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

aesthetic_dorian

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

I act like you act

I do what you do

But I don’t know

What it’s like to be you

What consciousness is!

I ain’t got a clue

I got the Zombie Blues!!!

 


I asked Tononi:

“How conscious am I?”

He said “Let’s see…”

“I’ll measure your Phi”

He said “Oh Dear!”

“It’s zero for you!”

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

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

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

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

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QRI members, friends, and allies

 

What I Would Like to See More Of

(1) Qualia Formalism

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

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

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

There was one worthy exception: at some point Stuart Hameroff briefly mentioned his theory about the origin of life. He traces the evolutionary lineage of life to molecular micro-environmental system in which “quantum events [are] shielded from random, polar interactions, enabling more intense and pleasurable [Objective Reduction] qualia. ” In his view, pleasure-potential maximization is at the core of the design of the nervous system. I am intrigued by this theory, and I am glad that valence enters the picture here. I would just want to extend this kind of work to include the role of suffering as well. It seems to me that the brain evolved an adaptive range of valence that sinks deep into the negative, and is certainly not just optimizing for pleasure. While our post-human descendants might enjoy information-sensitive gradients of bliss, us Darwinians have been “gifted” by evolution a mixture of negative and positive hedonic qualia.

(3) Awareness of the Tyranny of the Intentional Object

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

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

(4) Bigger Role for the Combination Problem

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

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

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

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

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

Additional Observations

The Cards and Deck Types of Consciousness Theories

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ontological Violence

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

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

This brings me to an important matter…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Final Suggestion: Philosophical Speed Dating

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

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

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

Till next time, Tucson!


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

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

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

Here is Michael’s presentation:

And here is my presentation:


On a related note:

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