Ego and Symmetry on 5-MeO-DMT

Transcript from: Using 5-MeO-DMT To Become Enlightened – Interview With Martin Ball (~43:00 – 47:00)


Martin Ball: Here is what I learned very quickly in working both with 5-MeO-DMT and other medicines during the same time period. First, I noticed this in myself, and then I started looking to see if this was true for other people, and very quickly found that this was true. There is a fundamental distinction: when people go into fully energetically open non-dual states of awareness -and I do qualify it with ‘fully energetically open’ because that is different than, say, a meditative non-dual experience, which I do not qualify as energetically fully open- when someone is energetically fully open and goes into a non-dual state of awareness, what happens is that they always open up with a perfectly mirrored bilateral symmetry, with the left and right sides of the body always mirroring each other. And nothing ever crosses the center line of the body. People move spontaneously or their bodies open up, and their hands may come together, but they come together right here, in the middle along the center line, and then they separate, and then come back together. Then you can see a transition when suddenly someone comes back into the ego. So, they are fully immersed in the experience and their bodies are opened… and then as soon as the ego comes in, there is some kind of break when suddenly the left side of the body is doing something different than the right side of the body.

For people who don’t get all the way to being fully energetically open, you give them a very powerful psychedelic -which again is changing the energetic experience of the body- and you can watch them fight with it, and you will see that there is always some kind of asymmetry taking place in their body language when they are fighting with it. Or if they are still residing in their ego. So I learned very quickly that non-dual states of awareness coincide with balanced bilateral symmetry and the ego almost always functions through some form of energetic asymmetry. Which is perfectly natural! I mean, there is noting wrong with it, I am not trying to criticize it. But for example (I use this example all the time): My glass of water is to my right. Now if I -a subject- become thirsty and I want my water, operating with bilateral symmetry isn’t going to get me my water. My water is over here to the right. So I break into object-subject duality so we can have an interaction between these two different parts of the self. So working with psychedelics for the intention of achieving… not only achieving, but also working out the distortions of the ego, means paying attention to how either symmetries or asymmetries show up within the body.

So this is the challenge that I give people: Take some 5-MeO-DMT, and see how long you can stay perfectly symmetrical within your body. Now, some people can ride it all the way through. And they can do that fairly easily. Many people… I would say the vast majority, can’t. And even those who do, who open up initially and are in this nice bilateral symmetry, you will see, after 10 or 15 minutes, or for some people after 30 seconds, as soon as the ego starts to reintegrate, they start breaking into asymmetries. Now, what can happen is… so the ego itself, and this is also coming out of my own experience, this is not based on anybody else’s model, this is just my own definition of the ego… the ego itself is not a singular thing. It is a collection of patterns of energy. So as we are coming into ourselves, as young beings, what we are doing is learning different -what we perceive as acceptable- ways of engaging our energy.

AI Alignment Podcast: On Consciousness, Qualia, and Meaning with Mike Johnson and Andrés Gómez Emilsson

Lucas Perry from the Future of Life Institute recently interviewed my co-founder Mike Johnson and I in his AI Alignment podcast. Here is the full transcript:


Lucas: Hey, everyone. Welcome back to the AI Alignment Podcast. I’m Lucas Perry, and today we’ll be speaking with Andrés Gomez Emilsson and Mike Johnson from the Qualia Research Institute. In this episode, we discuss the Qualia Research Institute’s mission and core philosophy. We get into the differences between and arguments for and against functionalism and qualia realism. We discuss definitions of consciousness, how consciousness might be causal, we explore Marr’s Levels of Analysis, we discuss the Symmetry Theory of Valence. We also get into identity and consciousness, and the world, the is-out problem, what this all means for AI alignment and building beautiful futures.

And then end on some fun bits, exploring the potentially large amounts of qualia hidden away in cosmological events, and whether or not our universe is something more like heaven or hell. And remember, if you find this podcast interesting or useful, remember to like, comment, subscribe, and follow us on your preferred listening platform. You can continue to help make this podcast better by participating in a very short survey linked in the description of wherever you might find this podcast. It really helps. Andrés is a consciousness researcher at QRI and is also the Co-founder and President of the Stanford Transhumanist Association. He has a Master’s in Computational Psychology from Stanford. Mike is Executive Director at QRI and is also a co-founder.

He is interested in neuroscience, philosophy of mind, and complexity theory. And so, without further ado, I give you Mike Johnson and Andrés Gomez Emilsson. So, Mike and Andrés, thank you so much for coming on. Really excited about this conversation and there’s definitely a ton for us to get into here.

Andrés: Thank you so much for having us. It’s a pleasure.

Mike: Yeah, glad to be here.

Lucas: Let’s start off just talking to provide some background about the Qualia Research Institute. If you guys could explain a little bit, your perspective of the mission and base philosophy and vision that you guys have at QRI. If you could share that, that would be great.

Andrés: Yeah, for sure. I think one important point is there’s some people that think that really what matters might have to do with performing particular types of algorithms, or achieving external goals in the world. Broadly speaking, we tend to focus on experience as the source of value, and if you assume that experience is a source of value, then really mapping out what is the set of possible experiences, what are their computational properties, and above all, how good or bad they feel seems like an ethical and theoretical priority to actually make progress on how to systematically figure out what it is that we should be doing.

Mike: I’ll just add to that, this thing called consciousness seems pretty confusing and strange. We think of it as pre-paradigmatic, much like alchemy. Our vision for what we’re doing is to systematize it and to do to consciousness research what chemistry did to alchemy.

Lucas: To sort of summarize this, you guys are attempting to be very clear about phenomenology. You want to provide a formal structure for understanding and also being able to infer phenomenological states in people. So you guys are realists about consciousness?

Mike: Yes, absolutely.

Lucas: Let’s go ahead and lay some conceptual foundations. On your website, you guys describe QRI’s full stack, so the kinds of metaphysical and philosophical assumptions that you guys are holding to while you’re on this endeavor to mathematically capture consciousness.

Mike: I would say ‘full stack’ talks about how we do philosophy of mind, we do neuroscience, and we’re just getting into neurotechnology with the thought that yeah, if you have a better theory of consciousness, you should be able to have a better theory about the brain. And if you have a better theory about the brain, you should be able to build cooler stuff than you could otherwise. But starting with the philosophy, there’s this conception of qualia of formalism; the idea that phenomenology can be precisely represented mathematically. You borrow the goal from Giulio Tononi’s IIT. We don’t necessarily agree with the specific math involved, but the goal of constructing a mathematical object that is isomorphic to a systems phenomenology would be the correct approach if you want to formalize phenomenology.

And then from there, one of the big questions in how you even start is, what’s the simplest starting point? And here, I think one of our big innovations that is not seen at any other research group is we’ve started with emotional valence and pleasure. We think these are not only very ethically important, but also just literally the easiest place to start reverse engineering.

Lucas: Right, and so this view is also colored by physicalism and quality of structuralism and valence realism. Could you explain some of those things in a non-jargony way?

Mike: Sure. Quality of formalism is this idea that math is the right language to talk about qualia in, and that we can get a precise answer. This is another way of saying that we’re realists about consciousness much as people can be realists about electromagnetism. We’re also valence realists. This refers to how we believe emotional valence, or pain and pleasure, the goodness or badness of an experience. We think this is a natural kind. This concept carves reality at the joints. We have some further thoughts on how to define this mathematically as well.

Lucas: So you guys are physicalists, so you think that basically the causal structure of the world is best understood by physics and that consciousness was always part of the game engine of the universe from the beginning. Ontologically, it was basic and always there in the same sense that the other forces of nature were already in the game engine since the beginning?

Mike: Yeah, I would say so. I personally like the frame of dual aspect monism, but I would also step back a little bit and say there’s two attractors in this discussion. One is the physicalist attractor, and that’s QRI. Another would be the functionalist/computationalist attractor. I think a lot of AI researchers are in this attractor and this is a pretty deep question of, if we want to try to understand what value is, or what’s really going on, or if we want to try to reverse engineer phenomenology, do we pay attention to bits or atoms? What’s more real; bits or atoms?

Lucas: That’s an excellent question. Scientific reductionism here I think is very interesting. Could you guys go ahead and unpack though the skeptics position of your view and broadly adjudicate the merits of each view?

Andrés: Maybe a really important frame here is called Marr’s Levels of Analyses. David Marr was a cognitive scientist, wrote a really influential book in the ’80s called On Vision where he basically creates a schema for how to understand knowledge about, in this particular case, how you actually make sense of the world visually. The framework goes as follows: you have three ways in which you can describe an information processing system. First of all, the computational/behavioral level. What that is about is understanding the input-output mapping of an information processing system. Part of it is also understanding the run-time complexity of the system and under what conditions it’s able to perform its actions. Here an analogy would be with an abacus, for example.

On the computational/behavioral level, what an abacus can do is add, subtract, multiply, divide, and if you’re really creative you can also exponentiate and do other interesting things. Then you have the algorithmic level of analysis, which is a little bit more detailed, and in a sense more constrained. What the algorithm level of analysis is about is figuring out what are the internal representations and possible manipulations of those representations such that you get the input output of mapping described by the first layer. Here you have an interesting relationship where understanding the first layer doesn’t fully constrain the second one. That is to say, there are many systems that have the same input output mapping but that under the hood uses different algorithms.

In the case of the abacus, an algorithm might be something whenever you want to add a number you just push a bead. Whenever you’re done with a row, you push all of the beads backs and then you add a bead in the row underneath. And finally, you have the implementation level of analysis, and that is, what is the system actually made of? How is it constructed? All of these different levels ultimately also map onto different theories of consciousness, and that is basically where in the stack you associate consciousness, or being, or “what matters”. So, for example, behaviorists in the ’50s, they may associate consciousness, if they give any credibility to that term, with the behavioral level. They don’t really care what’s happening inside as long as you have extended pattern of reinforcement learning over many iterations.

What matters is basically how you’re behaving and that’s the crux of who you are. A functionalist will actually care about what algorithms you’re running, how is it that you’re actually transforming the input into the output. Functionalists generally do care about, for example, brain imaging, they do care about the high level algorithms that the brain is running, and generally will be very interested in figuring out these algorithms and generalize them in fields like machine learning and digital neural networks and so on. A physicalist associate consciousness at the implementation level of analysis. How the system is physically constructed, has bearings on what is it like to be that system.

Lucas: So, you guys haven’t said that this was your favorite approach, but if people are familiar with David Chalmers, these seem to be the easy problems, right? And functionalists are interested in just the easy problems and some of them will actually just try to explain consciousness away, right?

Mike: Yeah, I would say so. And I think to try to condense some of the criticism we have of functionalism, I would claim that it looks like a theory of consciousness and can feel like a theory of consciousness, but it may not actually do what we need a theory of consciousness to do; specify which exact phenomenological states are present.

Lucas: Is there not some conceptual partitioning that we need to do between functionalists who believe in qualia or consciousness, and those that are illusionists or want to explain it away or think that it’s a myth?

Mike: I think that there is that partition, and I guess there is a question of how principled the partition you can be, or whether if you chase the ideas down as far as you can, the partition collapses. Either consciousness is a thing that is real in some fundamental sense and I think you can get there with physicalism, or consciousness is more of a process, a leaky abstraction. I think functionalism naturally tugs in that direction. For example, Brian Tomasik has followed this line of reasoning and come to the conclusion of analytic functionalism, which is trying to explain away consciousness.

Lucas: What is your guys’s working definition of consciousness and what does it mean to say that consciousness is real.

Mike: It is a word that’s overloaded. It’s used in many contexts. I would frame it as what it feels like to be something, and something is conscious if there is something it feels like to be that thing.

Andrés: It’s important also to highlight some of its properties. As Mike pointed out, “consciousness” is used in many different ways. There’s like eight definitions for the word consciousness, and honestly, all of them are really interesting. Some of them are more fundamental than others and we tend to focus on the more fundamental side of the spectrum for the word. A sense that would be very not fundamental would be consciousness in the sense of social awareness or something like that. We actually think of consciousness much more in terms of qualia; what is it like to be something? What is it like to exist? Some of the key properties of consciousness are as follows: First of all, we do think it exists.

Second, in some sense it has causal power in the sense that the fact that we are conscious matters for evolution, evolution made us conscious for a reason that it’s actually doing some computational legwork that would be maybe possible to do, but just not as efficient or not as conveniently as it is possible with consciousness. Then also you have the property of qualia, the fact that we can experience sights, and colors, and tactile sensations, and thoughts experiences, and emotions, and so on, and all of these are in completely different worlds, and in a sense they are, but they have the property that they can be part of a unified experience that can experience color at the same time as experiencing sound. That sends those different types of sensations, we describe them as the category of consciousness because they can be experienced together.

And finally, you have unity, the fact that you have the capability of experiencing many qualia simultaneously. That’s generally a very strong claim to make, but we think you need to acknowledge and take seriously its unity.

Lucas: What are your guys’s intuition pumps for thinking why consciousness exists as a thing? Why is there a qualia?

Andrés: There’s the metaphysical question of why consciousness exists to begin within. That’s something I would like to punt for the time being. There’s also the question of why was it recruited for information processing purposes in animals? The intuition here is that there are various contrasts that you can have within experience, which can serve a computational role. So, there may be a very deep reason why color qualia or visual qualia is used for information processing associated with sight, and why tactile qualia is associated with information processing useful for touching and making haptic representations, and that might have to do with the actual map of how all the qualia values are related to each other. Obviously, you have all of these edge cases, people who are seeing synesthetic.

They may open their eyes and they experience sounds associated with colors, and people tend to think of those as abnormal. I would flip it around and say that we are all synesthetic, it’s just that the synesthesia that we have in general is very evolutionarily adaptive. The reason why you experience colors when you open your eyes is that that type of qualia is really well suited to represent geometrically a projective space. That’s something that naturally comes out of representing the world with the sensory apparatus like eyes. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t other ways of doing it. It’s possible that you could have an offshoot of humans that whenever they opened their eyes, they experience sound and they use that very well to represent the visual world.

But we may very well be in a local maxima of how different types of qualia are used to represent and do certain types of computations in a very well-suited way. It’s like the intuition behind why we’re conscious, is that all of these different contrasts in the structure of the relationship of possible qualia values has computational implications, and there’s actual ways of using this contrast in very computationally effective ways.

Lucas: So, just to channel the functionalist here, wouldn’t he just say that everything you just said about qualia could be fully reducible to input output and algorithmic information processing? So, why do we need this extra property of qualia?

Andrés: There’s this article, I believe is by Brian Tomasik that basically says, flavors of consciousness are flavors of computation. It might be very useful to do that exercise, where basically you identify color qualia as just a certain type of computation and it may very well be that the geometric structure of color is actually just a particular algorithmic structure, that whenever you have a particular type of algorithmic information processing, you get these geometric state-space. In the case of color, that’s a Euclidean three-dimensional space. In the case of tactile or smell qualia, it might be a much more complicated space, but then it’s in a sense implied by the algorithms that we run. There is a number of good arguments there.

The general approach to how to tackle them is that when it comes down to actually defining what algorithms a given system is running, you will hit a wall when you try to formalize exactly how to do it. So, one example is, how do you determine the scope of an algorithm? When you’re analyzing a physical system and you’re trying to identify what algorithm it is running, are you allowed to basically contemplate 1,000 atoms? Are you allowed to contemplate a million atoms? Where is a natural boundary for you to say, “Whatever is inside here can be part of the same algorithm, but whatever is outside of it can’t.” And, there really isn’t a frame-invariant way of making those decisions. On the other hand, if you ask to see a qualia with actual physical states, there is a frame-invariant way of describing what the system is.

Mike: So, a couple of years ago I posted a piece giving a critique of functionalism and one of the examples that I brought up was, if I have a bag of popcorn and I shake the bag of popcorn, did I just torture someone? Did I just run a whole brain emulation of some horrible experience, or did I not? There’s not really an objective way to determine which algorithms a physical system is objectively running. So this is a kind of an unanswerable question from the perspective of functionalism, whereas with the physical theory of consciousness, it would have a clear answer.

Andrés: Another metaphor here is, let’s say you’re at a park enjoying an ice cream. In this system that I created that has, let’s say isomorphic algorithms to whatever is going on in your brain, the particular algorithms that your brain is running in that precise moment within a functionalist paradigm maps onto a metal ball rolling down one of the paths within these machine in a straight line, not touching anything else. So there’s actually not much going on. According to functionalism, that would have to be equivalent and it would actually be generating your experience. Now the weird thing there is that you could actually break the machine, you could do a lot of things and the behavior of the ball would not change.

Meaning that within functionalism, and to actually understand what a system is doing, you need to understand the counter-factuals of the system. You need to understand, what would the system be doing if the input had been different? And all of a sudden, you end with this very, very gnarly problem of defining, well, how do you actually objectively decide what is the boundary of the system? Even some of these particular states that allegedly are very complicated, the system looks extremely simple, and you can remove a lot of parts without actually modifying its behavior. Then that casts in question whether there is an objective boundary, any known arbitrary boundary that you can draw around the system and say, “Yeah, this is equivalent to what’s going on in your brain,” right now.

This has a very heavy bearing on the binding problem. The binding problem for those who haven’t heard of it is basically, how is it possible that 100 billion neurons just because they’re skull-bound, spatially distributed, how is it possible that they simultaneously contribute to a unified experience as opposed to, for example, neurons in your brain and neurons in my brain contributing to a unified experience? You hit a lot of problems like what is the speed of propagation of information for different states within the brain? I’ll leave it at that for the time being.

Lucas: I would just like to be careful about this intuition here that experience is unified. I think that the intuition pump for that is direct phenomenological experience like experience seems unified, but experience also seems a lot of different ways that aren’t necessarily descriptive of reality, right?

Andrés: You can think of it as different levels of sophistication, where you may start out with a very naive understanding of the world, where you confuse your experience for the world itself. A very large percentage of people perceive the world and in a sense think that they are experiencing the world directly, whereas all the evidence indicates that actually you’re experiencing an internal representation. You can go and dream, you can hallucinate, you can enter interesting meditative states, and those don’t map to external states of the world.

There’s this transition that happens when you realize that in some sense you’re experiencing a world simulation created by your brain, and of course, you’re fooled by it in countless ways, especially when it comes to emotional things that we look at a person and we might have an intuition of what type of person that person is, and that if we’re not careful, we can confuse our intuition, we can confuse our feelings with truth as if we were actually able to sense their souls, so to speak, rather than, “Hey, I’m running some complicated models on people-space and trying to carve out who they are.” There’s definitely a lot of ways in which experience is very deceptive, but here I would actually make an important distinction.

When it comes to intentional content, and intentional content is basically what the experience is about, for example, if you’re looking at a chair, there’s the quality of chairness, the fact that you understand the meaning of chair and so on. That is usually a very deceptive part of experience. There’s another way of looking at experience that I would say is not deceptive, which is the phenomenal character of experience; how it presents itself. You can be deceived about basically what the experience is about, but you cannot be deceived about how you’re having the experience, how you’re experiencing it. You can infer based on a number of experiences that the only way for you to even actually experience a given phenomenal object is to incorporate a lot of that information into a unified representation.

But also, if you just pay attention to your experience that you can simultaneously place your attention in two spots of your visual field and make them harmonized. That’s a phenomenal character and I would say that there’s a strong case to be made to not doubt that property.

Lucas: I’m trying to do my best to channel the functionalist. I think he or she would say, “Okay, so what? That’s just more information processing, and i’ll bite the bullet on the binding problem. I still need some more time to figure that out. So what? It seems like these people who believe in qualia have an even tougher job of trying to explain this extra spooky quality in the world that’s different from all the other physical phenomenon that science has gone into.” It also seems to violate Occam’s razor or a principle of lightness where one’s metaphysics or ontology would want to assume the least amount of extra properties or entities in order to try to explain the world. I’m just really trying to tease out your best arguments here for qualia realism as we do have this current state of things in AI alignment where most people it seems would either try to explain away consciousness, would say it’s an illusion, or they’re anti-realist about qualia.

Mike: That’s a really good question, a really good frame. And I would say our strongest argument revolves around predictive power. Just like centuries ago, you could absolutely be a skeptic about, shall we say, electromagnetism realism. And you could say, “Yeah, I mean there is this thing we call static, and there’s this thing we call lightning, and there’s this thing we call load stones or magnets, but all these things are distinct. And to think that there’s some unifying frame, some deep structure of the universe that would tie all these things together and highly compress these phenomenon, that’s crazy talk.” And so, this is a viable position today to say that about consciousness, that it’s not yet clear whether consciousness has deep structure, but we’re assuming it does, and we think that unlocks a lot of predictive power.

We should be able to make predictions that are both more concise and compressed and crisp than others, and we should be able to make predictions that no one else can.

Lucas: So what is the most powerful here about what you guys are doing? Is it the specific theories and assumptions which you take are falsifiable?

Mike: Yeah.

Lucas: If we can make predictive assessments of these things, which are either leaky abstractions or are qualia, how would we even then be able to arrive at a realist or anti-realist view about qualia?

Mike: So, one frame on this is, it could be that one could explain a lot of things about observed behavior and implicit phenomenology through a purely functionalist or computationalist lens, but maybe for a given system it might take 10 terabytes. And if you can get there in a much simpler way, if you can explain it in terms of three elegant equations instead of 10 terabytes, then it wouldn’t be proof that there exists some crystal clear deep structure at work. But it would be very suggestive. Marr’s Levels of Analysis are pretty helpful here, where a functionalist might actually be very skeptical of consciousness mattering at all because it would say, “Hey, if you’re identifying consciousness at the implementation level of analysis, how could that have any bearing on how we are talking about, how we understand the world, how we’d behave?

Since the implementational level is kind of epiphenomenal from the point of view of the algorithm. How can an algorithm know its own implementation, all it can maybe figure out its own algorithm, and it’s identity would be constrained to its own algorithmic structure.” But that’s not quite true. In fact, there is bearings on one level of analysis onto another, meaning in some cases the implementation level of analysis doesn’t actually matter for the algorithm, but in some cases it does. So, if you were implementing a computer, let’s say with water, you have the option of maybe implementing a Turing machine with water buckets and in that case, okay, the implementation level of analysis goes out the window in terms of it doesn’t really help you understand the algorithm.

But if how you’re using water to implement algorithms is by basically creating this system of adding waves in buckets of different shapes, with different resonant modes, then the implementation level of analysis actually matters a whole lot for what algorithms are … finely tuned to be very effective in that substrate. In the case of consciousness and how we behave, we do think properties of the substrate have a lot of bearings on what algorithms we actually run. A functionalist should actually start caring about consciousness if the properties of consciousness makes the algorithms more efficient, more powerful.

Lucas: But what if qualia and consciousness are substantive real things? What if the epiphenomenonalist true and is like smoke rising from computation and it doesn’t have any causal efficacy?

Mike: To offer a re-frame on this, I like this frame of dual aspect monism better. There seems to be an implicit value judgment on epiphenomenalism. It’s seen as this very bad thing if a theory implies qualia as epiphenomenal. Just to put cards on the table, I think Andrés and I differ a little bit on how we see these things, although I think our ideas also mesh up well. But I would say that under the frame of something like dual aspect monism, that there’s actually one thing that exists, and it has two projections or shadows. And one projection is the physical world such as we can tell, and then the other projection is phenomenology, subjective experience. These are just two sides of the same coin and neither is epiphenomenal to the other. It’s literally just two different angles on the same thing.

And in that sense, qualia values and physical values are really talking about the same thing when you get down to it.

Lucas: Okay. So does this all begin with this move that Descartes makes, where he tries to produce a perfectly rational philosophy or worldview by making no assumptions and then starting with experience? Is this the kind of thing that you guys are doing in taking consciousness or qualia to be something real or serious?

Mike: I can just speak for myself here, but I would say my intuition comes from two places. One is staring deep into the beast of functionalism and realizing that it doesn’t lead to a clear answer. My model is that it just is this thing that looks like an answer but can never even in theory be an answer to how consciousness works. And if we deny consciousness, then we’re left in a tricky place with ethics and moral value. It also seems to leave value on the table in terms of predictions, that if we can assume consciousness as real and make better predictions, then that’s evidence that we should do that.

Lucas: Isn’t that just an argument that it would be potentially epistemically useful for ethics if we could have predictive power about consciousness?

Mike: Yeah. So, let’s assume that it’s 100 years, or 500 years, or 1,000 years in the future, and we’ve finally cracked consciousness. We’ve finally solved it. My open question is, what does the solution look like? If we’re functionalists, what does the solution look like? If we’re physicalists, what does the solution look like? And we can expand this to ethics as well.

Lucas: Just as a conceptual clarification, the functionalists are also physicalists though, right?

Andrés: There is two senses of the word physicalism here. So if there’s physicalism in the sense of like a theory of the universe, that the behavior of matter and energy, what happens in the universe is exhaustively described by the laws of physics, or future physics, there is also physicalism in the sense of understanding consciousness in contrast to functionalism. David Pearce, I think, would describe it as non-materialist physicalist idealism. There’s definitely a very close relationship between that phrasing and dual aspect monism. I can briefly unpack it. Basically non materialist is not saying that the stuff of the world is fundamentally unconscious. That’s something that materialism claims, that what the world is made of is not conscious, is raw matter so to speak.

Andrés: Physicalist, again in the sense of the laws of physics exhaustively describe behavior and idealist in the sense of what makes up the world is qualia or consciousness. The big picture view is that the actual substrate of the universe of quantum fields are fields of qualia.

Lucas: So Mike, you were saying that in the future when we potentially have a solution to the problem of consciousness, that in the end, the functionalists with algorithms and explanations of say all of the easy problems, all of the mechanisms behind the things that we call consciousness, you think that that project will ultimately fail?

Mike: I do believe that, and I guess my gentle challenge to functionalists would be to sketch out a vision of what a satisfying answer to consciousness would be, whether it’s completely explaining it a way or completely explaining it. If in 500 years you go to the local bookstore and you check out consciousness 101, and just flip through it, you look at the headlines and the chapter list and the pictures, what do you see? I think we have an answer as formalists, but I would be very interested in getting the functionalists state on this.

Lucas: All right, so you guys have this belief in the ability to formalize our understanding of consciousness, is this actually contingent on realism or anti realism?

Mike: It is implicitly dependent on realism, that consciousness is real enough to be describable mathematically in a precise sense. And actually that would be my definition of realism, that something is real if we can describe it exactly with mathematics and it is instantiated in the universe. I think the idea of connecting math and consciousness is very core to formalism.

Lucas: What’s particularly interesting here are the you’re making falsifiable claims about phenomenological states. It’s good and exciting that your Symmetry Theory of Valence, which we can get into now has falsifiable aspects. So do you guys want to describe here your Symmetry Theory of Valence and how this fits in and as a consequence of your valence realism?

Andrés: Sure, yeah. I think like one of the key places where this has bearings on is and understanding what is it that we actually want and what is it that we actually like and enjoy. That will be answered in an agent way. So basically you think of agents as entities who spin out possibilities for what actions to take and then they have a way of sorting them by expected utility and then carrying them out. A lot of people may associate what we want or what we like or what we care about at that level, the agent level, whereas we think actually the true source of value is more low level than that. That there’s something else that we’re actually using in order to implement agentive behavior. There’s ways of experiencing value that are completely separated from agents. You don’t actually need to be generating possible actions and evaluating them and enacting them for there to be value or for you to actually be able to enjoy something.

So what we’re examining here is actually what is the lower level property that gives rise even to agentive behavior that underlies every other aspect of experience. These would be a valence and specifically valence gradients. The general claim is that we are set up in such a way that we are basically climbing the valence gradient. This is not true in every situation, but it’s mostly true and it’s definitely mostly true in animals. And then the question becomes what implements valence gradients. Perhaps your intuition is this extraordinary fact that things that have nothing to do with our evolutionary past nonetheless can feel good or bad. So it’s understandable that if you hear somebody scream, you may get nervous or anxious or fearful or if you hear somebody laugh you may feel happy.

That makes sense from an evolutionary point of view, but why would the sound of the Bay Area Rapid Transit, the Bart, which creates these very intense screeching sounds, that is not even within like the vocal range of humans, it’s just really bizarre, never encountered before in our evolutionary past and nonetheless, it has an extraordinarily negative valence. That’s like a hint that valence has to do with patterns, it’s not just goals and actions and utility functions, but the actual pattern of your experience may determine valence. The same goes for a SUBPAC, is this technology that basically renders sounds between 10 and 100 hertz and some of them feel really good, some of them feel pretty unnerving, some of them are anxiety producing and it’s like why would that be the case? Especially when you’re getting two types of input that have nothing to do with our evolutionary past.

It seems that there’s ways of triggering high and low valence states just based on the structure of your experience. The last example I’ll give is very weird states of consciousness like meditation or psychedelics that seem to come with extraordinarily intense and novel forms of experiencing significance or a sense of bliss or pain. And again, they don’t seem to have much semantic content per se or rather the semantic content is not the core reason why they feel that they’re bad. It has to do more with a particular structure that they induce in experience.

Mike: There are many ways to talk about where pain and pleasure come from. We can talk about it in terms of neuro chemicals, opioids, dopamine. We can talk about it in terms of pleasure centers in the brain, in terms of goals and preferences and getting what you want, but all these have counterexamples. All of these have some points that you can follow the thread back to which will beg the question. I think the only way to explain emotional valence, pain and pleasure, that doesn’t beg the question is to explain it in terms of some patterns within phenomenology, just intrinsically feel good and some intrinsically feel bad. To touch back on the formalism brain, this would be saying that if we have a mathematical object that is isomorphic to your phenomenology, to what it feels like to be you, then some pattern or property of this object will refer to or will sort of intrinsically encode you are emotional valence, how pleasant or unpleasant this experiences.

That’s the valence formalism aspect that we’ve come to.

Lucas: So given the valence realism, the view is this intrinsic pleasure, pain axis of the world and this is sort of challenging I guess David Pearce’s view. There are things in experience which are just clearly good seeming or bad seeming. Will MacAskill called these pre theoretic properties we might ascribe to certain kinds of experiential aspects, like they’re just good or bad. So with this valence realism view, this potentiality in this goodness or badness whose nature is sort of self intimatingly disclosed in the physics and in the world since the beginning and now it’s unfolding and expressing itself more so and the universe is sort of coming to life, and embedded somewhere deep within the universe’s structure are these intrinsically good or intrinsically bad valances which complex computational systems and maybe other stuff has access to.

Andrés: Yeah, yeah, that’s right. And I would perhaps emphasize that it’s not only pre-theoretical, it’s pre-agentive, you don’t even need an agent for there to be valence.

Lucas: Right. Okay. This is going to be a good point I think for getting into these other more specific hairy philosophical problems. Could you go ahead and unpack a little bit more this view that pleasure or pain is self intimatingly good or bad that just by existing and experiential relation with the thing its nature is disclosed. Brian Tomasik here, and I think functionalists would say there’s just another reinforcement learning algorithm somewhere before that is just evaluating these phenomenological states. They’re not intrinsically or bad, that’s just what it feels like to be the kind of agent who has that belief.

Andrés: Sure. There’s definitely many angles from which to see this. One of them is by basically realizing that liking, wanting and learning are possible to dissociate, and in particular you’re going to have reinforcement without an associated positive valence. You can have also positive valence without reinforcement or learning. Generally they are correlated but they are different things. My understanding is a lot of people who may think of valence as something we believe matters because you are the type of agent that has a utility function and a reinforcement function. If that was the case, we would expect valence to melt away in states that are non agentive, we wouldn’t necessarily see it. And also that it would be intrinsically tied to intentional content, the aboutness of experience. A very strong counter example is that somebody may claim that really what they truly want this to be academically successful or something like that.

They think of the reward function as intrinsically tied to getting a degree or something like that. I would call that to some extent illusory, that if you actually look at how those preferences are being implemented, that deep down there would be valence gradients happening there. One way to show this would be let’s say the person on the graduation day, you give them an opioid antagonist. The person will subjectively feel that the day is meaningless, you’ve removed the pleasant cream of the experience that they were actually looking for, that they thought all along was tied in with intentional content with the fact of graduating but in fact it was the hedonic gloss that they were after, and that’s kind of like one intuition pump part there.

Lucas: These core problem areas that you’ve identified in Principia Qualia, would you just like to briefly touch on those?

Mike: Yeah, trying to break the problem down into modular pieces with the idea that if we can decompose the problem correctly then the sub problems become much easier than the overall problem and if you collect all the solutions to the sub problem than in aggregate, you get a full solution to the problem of consciousness. So I’ve split things up into the metaphysics, the math and the interpretation. The first question is what metaphysics do you even start with? What ontology do you even try to approach the problem? And we’ve chosen the ontology of physics that can objectively map onto reality in a way that computation can not. Then there’s this question of, okay, so you have your core ontology in this case physics, and then there’s this question of what counts, what actively contributes to consciousness? Do we look at electrons, electromagnetic fields, quarks?

This is an unanswered question. We have hypotheses but we don’t have an answer. Moving into the math, conscious system seemed to have boundaries, if something’s happening inside my head it can directly contribute to my conscious experience. But even if we put our heads together, literally speaking, your consciousness doesn’t bleed over into mine, there seems to be a boundary. So one way of framing this is the boundary problem and one way it’s framing it is the binding problem, and these are just two sides of the same coin. There’s this big puzzle of how do you draw the boundaries of a subject experience. IIT is set up to approach consciousness in itself through this lens that has a certain style of answer, style of approach. We don’t necessarily need to take that approach, but it’s a intellectual landmark. Then we get into things like the state-space problem and the topology of information problem.

If we figured out our basic ontology of what we think is a good starting point and of that stuff, what actively contributes to consciousness, and then we can figure out some principled way to draw a boundary around, okay, this is conscious experience A and this conscious experience B, and they don’t overlap. So you have a bunch of the information inside the boundary. Then there’s this math question of how do you rearrange it into a mathematical object that is isomorphic to what that stuff feels like. And again, IIT has an approach to this, we don’t necessarily ascribe to the exact approach but it’s good to be aware of. There’s also the interpretation problem, which is actually very near and dear to what QRI is working on and this is the concept of if you had a mathematical object that represented what it feels like to be you, how would we even start to figure out what it meant?

Lucas: This is also where the falsifiability comes in, right? If we have the mathematical object and we’re able to formally translate that into phenomenological states, then people can self report on predictions, right?

Mike: Yes. I don’t necessarily fully trust self reports as being the gold standard. I think maybe evolution is tricky sometimes and can lead to inaccurate self report, but at the same time it’s probably pretty good, and it’s the best we have for validating predictions.

Andrés: A lot of this gets easier if we assume that maybe we can be wrong in an absolute sense but we’re often pretty well calibrated to judge relative differences. Maybe you ask me how I’m doing on a scale of one to ten and I say seven and the reality is a five, maybe that’s a problem, but at the same time I like chocolate and if you give me some chocolate and I eat it and that improves my subjective experience and I would expect us to be well calibrated in terms of evaluating whether something is better or worse.

Lucas: There’s this view here though that the brain is not like a classical computer, that it is more like a resonant instrument.

Mike: Yeah. Maybe an analogy here it could be pretty useful. There’s this researcher William Sethares who basically figured out the way to quantify the mutual dissonance between pairs of notes. It turns out that it’s not very hard, all you need to do is add up the pairwise dissonance between every harmonic of the notes. And what that gives you is that if you take for example a major key and you compute the average dissonance between pairs of notes within that major key it’s going to be pretty good on average. And if you take the average dissonance of a minor key it’s going to be higher. So in a sense what distinguishes the minor and a major key is in the combinatorial space of possible permutations of notes, how frequently are they dissonant versus consonant.

That’s a very ground truth mathematical feature of a musical instrument and that’s going to be different from one instrument to the next. With that as a backdrop, we think of the brain and in particular valence in a very similar light that the brain has natural resonant modes and emotions may seem externally complicated. When you’re having a very complicated emotion and we ask you to describe it it’s almost like trying to describe a moment in a symphony, this very complicated composition and how do you even go about it. But deep down the reason why a particular frame sounds pleasant or unpleasant within music is ultimately tractable to the additive per wise dissonance of all of those harmonics. And likewise for a given state of consciousness we suspect that very similar to music the average pairwise dissonance between the harmonics present on a given point in time will be strongly related to how unpleasant the experience is.

These are electromagnetic waves and it’s not exactly like a static or it’s not exactly a standing wave either, but it gets really close to it. So basically what this is saying is there’s this excitation inhibition wave function and that happens statistically across macroscopic regions of the brain. There’s only a discrete number of ways in which that way we can fit an integer number of times in the brain. We’ll give you a link to the actual visualizations for what this looks like. There’s like a concrete example, one of the harmonics with the lowest frequency is basically a very simple one where interviewer hemispheres are alternatingly more excited versus inhibited. So that will be a low frequency harmonic because it is very spatially large waves, an alternating pattern of excitation. Much higher frequency harmonics are much more detailed and obviously hard to describe, but visually generally speaking, the spatial regions that are activated versus inhibited are these very thin wave fronts.

It’s not a mechanical wave as such, it’s a electromagnetic wave. So it would actually be the electric potential in each of these regions of the brain fluctuates, and within this paradigm on any given point in time you can describe a brain state as a weighted sum of all of its harmonics, and what that weighted sum looks like depends on your state of consciousness.

Lucas: Sorry, I’m getting a little caught up here on enjoying resonant sounds and then also the valence realism. The view isn’t that all minds will enjoy resonant things because happiness is like a fundamental valence thing of the world and all brains who come out of evolution should probably enjoy resonance.

Mike: It’s less about the stimulus, it’s less about the exact signal and it’s more about the effect of the signal on our brains. The resonance that matters, the resonance that counts, or the harmony that counts we’d say, or in a precisely technical term, the consonance that counts is the stuff that happens inside our brains. Empirically speaking most signals that involve a lot of harmony create more internal consonance in these natural brain harmonics than for example, dissonant stimuli. But the stuff that counts is inside the head, not the stuff that is going in our ears.

Just to be clear about QRI’s move here, Selen Atasoy has put forth this connectome-specific harmonic wave model and what we’ve done is combined it with our symmetry theory of valence and said this is sort of a way of basically getting a Fourier transform of where the energy is in terms of frequencies of brainwaves in a much cleaner way than has been available through EEG. Basically we can evaluate this data set for harmony. How much harmony is there in a brain, with the link to the Symmetry Theory of Valence then it should be a very good proxy for how pleasant it is to be that brain.

Lucas: Wonderful.

Andrés: In this context, yeah, the Symmetry Theory of Valence would be much more fundamental. There’s probably many ways of generating states of consciousness that are in a sense completely unnatural that are not based on the harmonics of the brain, but we suspect the bulk of the differences in states of consciousness would cash out in differences in brain harmonics because that’s a very efficient way of modulating the symmetry of the state.

Mike: Basically, music can be thought of as a very sophisticated way to hack our brains into a state of greater consonance, greater harmony.

Lucas: All right. People should check out your Principia Qualia, which is the work that you’ve done that captures a lot of this well. Is there anywhere else that you’d like to refer people to for the specifics?

Mike: Principia qualia covers the philosophical framework and the symmetry theory of valence. Andrés has written deeply about this connectome-specific harmonic wave frame and the name of that piece is Quantifying Bliss.

Lucas: Great. I would love to be able to quantify bliss and instantiate it everywhere. Let’s jump in here into a few problems and framings of consciousness. I’m just curious to see if you guys have any comments on ,the first is what you call the real problem of consciousness and the second one is what David Chalmers calls the Meta problem of consciousness. Would you like to go ahead and start off here with just this real problem of consciousness?

Mike: Yeah. So this gets to something we were talking about previously, is consciousness real or is it not? Is it something to be explained or to be explained away? This cashes out in terms of is it something that can be formalized or is it intrinsically fuzzy? I’m calling this the real problem of consciousness, and a lot depends on the answer to this. There are so many different ways to approach consciousness and hundreds, perhaps thousands of different carvings of the problem, panpsychism, we have dualism, we have non materialist physicalism and so on. I think essentially the core distinction, all of these theories sort themselves into two buckets, and that’s is consciousness real enough to formalize exactly or not. This frame is perhaps the most useful frame to use to evaluate theories of consciousness.

Lucas: And then there’s a Meta problem of consciousness which is quite funny, it’s basically like why have we been talking about consciousness for the past hour and what’s all this stuff about qualia and happiness and sadness? Why do people make claims about consciousness? Why does it seem to us that there is maybe something like a hard problem of consciousness, why is it that we experience phenomenological states? Why isn’t everything going on with the lights off?

Mike: I think this is a very clever move by David Chalmers. It’s a way to try to unify the field and get people to talk to each other, which is not so easy in the field. The Meta problem of consciousness doesn’t necessarily solve anything but it tries to inclusively start the conversation.

Andrés: The common move that people make here is all of these crazy things that we think about consciousness and talk about consciousness, that’s just any information processing system modeling its own attentional dynamics. That’s one illusionist frame, but even within qualia realist, qualia formalist paradigm, you still have the question of why do we even think or self reflect about consciousness. You could very well think of consciousness as being computationally relevant, you need to have consciousness and so on, but still lacking introspective access. You could have these complicated conscious information processing systems, but they don’t necessarily self reflect on the quality of their own consciousness. That property is important to model and make sense of.

We have a few formalisms that may give rise to some insight into how self reflectivity happens and in particular how is it possible to model the entirety of your state of consciousness in a given phenomenal object. These ties in with the notion of a homonculei, if the overall valence of your consciousness is actually a signal traditionally used for fitness evaluation, detecting basically when are you in existential risk to yourself or when there’s like reproductive opportunities that you may be missing out on, that it makes sense for there to be a general thermostat of the overall experience where you can just look at it and you get a a sense of the overall well being of the entire experience added together in such a way that you experienced them all at once.

I think like a lot of the puzzlement has to do with that internal self model of the overall well being of the experience, which is something that we are evolutionarily incentivized to actually summarize and be able to see at a glance.

Lucas: So, some people have a view where human beings are conscious and they assume everyone else is conscious and they think that the only place for value to reside is within consciousness, and that a world without consciousness is actually a world without any meaning or value. Even if we think that say philosophical zombies or people who are functionally identical to us but with no qualia or phenomenological states or experiential states, even if we think that those are conceivable, then it would seem that there would be no value in a world of p-zombies. So I guess my question is why does phenomenology matter? Why does the phenomenological modality of pain and pleasure or valence have some sort of special ethical or experiential status unlike qualia like red or blue?

Why does red or blue not disclose some sort of intrinsic value in the same way that my suffering does or my bliss does or the suffering or bliss of other people?

Mike: My intuition is also that consciousness is necessary for value. Nick Bostrom has this wonderful quote in super intelligence that we should be wary of building a Disneyland with no children, some technological wonderland that is filled with marvels of function but doesn’t have any subjective experience, doesn’t have anyone to enjoy it basically. I would just say that I think that most AI safety research is focused around making sure there is a Disneyland, making sure, for example, that we don’t just get turned into something like paperclips. But there’s this other problem, making sure there are children, making sure there are subjective experiences around to enjoy the future. I would say that there aren’t many live research threads on this problem and I see QRI as a live research thread on how to make sure there is subject experience in the future.

Probably a can of worms there, but as your question about in pleasure, I may pass that to my colleague Andrés.

Andrés: Nothing terribly satisfying here. I would go with David Pearce’s view that these properties of experience are self intimating and to the extent that you do believe in value, it will come up as the natural focal points for value, especially if you’re allowed to basically probe the quality of your experience where in many states you believe that the reason why you like something is for intentional content. Again, the case of graduating or it could be the the case of getting a promotion or one of those things that a lot of people associate, with feeling great, but if you actually probe the quality of experience, you will realize that there is this component of it which is its hedonic gloss and you can manipulate it directly again with things like opiate antagonists and if the symmetry theory of valence is true, potentially also by directly modulating the consonance and dissonance of the brain harmonics, in which case the hedonic gloss would change in peculiar ways.

When it comes to consilience, when it comes to many different points of view, agreeing on what aspect of the experience is what brings value to it, it seems to be the hedonic gloss.

Lucas: So in terms of qualia and valence realism, would the causal properties of qualia be the thing that would show any arbitrary mind the self-intimating nature of how good or bad an experience is, and in the space of all possible minds, what is the correct epistemological mechanism for evaluating the moral status of experiential or qualitative states?

Mike: So first of all, I would say that my focus so far has mostly been on describing what is and not what ought. I think that we can talk about valence without necessarily talking about ethics, but if we can talk about valence clearly, that certainly makes some questions in ethics and some frameworks in ethics make much more or less than. So the better we can clearly describe and purely descriptively talk about consciousness, the easier I think a lot of these ethical questions get. I’m trying hard not to privilege any ethical theory. I want to talk about reality. I want to talk about what exists, what’s real and what the structure of what exists is, and I think if we succeed at that then all these other questions about ethics and morality get much, much easier. I do think that there is an implicit should wrapped up in questions about valence, but I do think that’s another leap.

You can accept the valence is real without necessarily accepting that optimizing valence is an ethical imperative. I personally think, yes, it is very ethically important, but it is possible to take a purely descriptive frame to valence, that whether or not this also discloses, as David Pearce said, the utility function of the universe. That is another question and can be decomposed.

Andrés: One framing here too is that we do suspect valence is going to be the thing that matters up on any mind if you probe it in the right way in order to achieve reflective equilibrium. There’s the biggest example of a talk and neuro scientist was giving at some point, there was something off and everybody seemed to be a little bit anxious or irritated and nobody knew why and then one of the conference organizers suddenly came up to the presenter and did something to the microphone and then everything sounded way better and everybody was way happier. There was these very sorrow hissing pattern caused by some malfunction of the microphone and it was making everybody irritated, they just didn’t realize that was the source of the irritation, and when it got fixed then you know everybody’s like, “Oh, that’s why I was feeling upset.”

We will find that to be the case over and over when it comes to improving valence. So like somebody in the year 2050 might come up to one of the connectome-specific harmonic wave clinics, “I don’t know what’s wrong with me,” but if you put them through the scanner we identify your 17th and 19th harmonic in a state of dissonance. We cancel 17th to make it more clean, and then the person who will say all of a sudden like, “Yeah, my problem is fixed. How did you do that?” So I think it’s going to be a lot like that, that the things that puzzle us about why do I prefer these, why do I think this is worse, will all of a sudden become crystal clear from the point of view of valence gradients objectively measured.

Mike: One of my favorite phrases in this context is what you can measure you can manage and if we can actually find the source of dissonance in a brain, then yeah, we can resolve it, and this could open the door for maybe honestly a lot of amazing things, making the human condition just intrinsically better. Also maybe a lot of worrying things, being able to directly manipulate emotions may not necessarily be socially positive on all fronts.

Lucas: So I guess here we can begin to jump into AI alignment and qualia. So we’re building AI systems and they’re getting pretty strong and they’re going to keep getting stronger potentially creating a superintelligence by the end of the century and consciousness and qualia seems to be along the ride for now. So I’d like to discuss a little bit here about more specific places in AI alignment where these views might inform it and direct it.

Mike: Yeah, I would share three problems of AI safety. There’s the technical problem, how do you make a self improving agent that is also predictable and safe. This is a very difficult technical problem. First of all to even make the agent but second of all especially to make it safe, especially if it becomes smarter than we are. There’s also the political problem, even if you have the best technical solution in the world and the sufficiently good technical solution doesn’t mean that it will be put into action in a sane way if we’re not in a reasonable political system. But I would say the third problem is what QRI is most focused on and that’s the philosophical problem. What are we even trying to do here? What is the optimal relationship between AI and humanity and also a couple of specific details here. First of all I think nihilism is absolutely an existential threat and if we can find some antidotes to nihilism through some advanced valence technology that could be enormously helpful for reducing X-risk.

Lucas: What kind of nihilism or are you talking about here, like nihilism about morality and meaning?

Mike: Yes, I would say so, and just personal nihilism that it feels like nothing matters, so why not do risky things?

Lucas: Whose quote is it, the philosophers question like should you just kill yourself? That’s the yawning abyss of nihilism inviting you in.

Andrés: Albert Camus. The only real philosophical question is whether to commit suicide, whereas how I think of it is the real philosophical question is how to make love last, bringing value to the existence, and if you have value on tap, then the question of whether to kill yourself or not seems really nonsensical.

Lucas: For sure.

Mike: We could also say that right now there aren’t many good shelling points for global coordination. People talk about having global coordination and building AGI would be a great thing but we’re a little light on the details of how to do that. If the clear, comprehensive, useful, practical understanding of consciousness can be built, then this may sort of embody or generate new shelling points that the larger world could self organize around. If we can give people a clear understanding of what is and what could be, then I think we will get a better future that actually gets built.

Lucas: Yeah. Showing what is and what could be is immensely important and powerful. So moving forward with AI alignment as we’re building these more and more complex systems, there’s this needed distinction between unconscious and conscious information processing, if we’re interested in the morality and ethics of suffering and joy and other conscious states. How do you guys see the science of consciousness here, actually being able to distinguish between unconscious and conscious information processing systems?

Mike: There are a few frames here. One is that, yeah, it does seem like the brain does some processing in consciousness and some processing outside of consciousness. And what’s up with that, this could be sort of an interesting frame to explore in terms of avoiding things like mind crime in the AGI or AI space that if there are certain computations which are painful then don’t do them in a way that would be associated with consciousness. It would be very good to have rules of thumb here for how to do that. One interesting could be in the future we might not just have compilers which optimize for speed of processing or minimization of dependent libraries and so on, but could optimize for the valence of the computation on certain hardware. This of course gets into complex questions about computationalism, how hardware dependent this compiler would be and so on.

I think it’s an interesting and important long-term frame.

Lucas: So just illustrate here I think the ways in which solving or better understanding consciousness will inform AI alignment from present day until super intelligence and beyond.

Mike: I think there’s a lot of confusion about consciousness and a lot of confusion about what kind of thing the value problem is in AI Safety, and there are some novel approaches on the horizon. I was speaking with Stuart Armstrong the last EA global and he had some great things to share about his model fragments paradigm. I think this is the right direction. It’s sort of understanding, yeah, human preferences are insane. Just they’re not a consistent formal system.

Lucas: Yeah, we contain multitudes.

Mike: Yes, yes. So first of all understanding what generates them seems valuable. So there’s this frame in AI safety we call the complexity value thesis. I believe Eliezer came up with it in a post on Lesswrong. It’s this frame where human value is very fragile in that it can be thought of as a small area, perhaps even almost a point in a very high dimensional space, say a thousand dimensions. If we go any distance in any direction from this tiny point in this high dimensional space, then we quickly get to something that we wouldn’t think of as very valuable. And maybe if we leave everything the same and take away freedom, this paints a pretty sobering picture of how difficult AI alignment will be.

I think this is perhaps arguably the source of a lot of worry in the community, that not only do we need to make machines that won’t just immediately kill us, but that will preserve our position in this very, very high dimensional space well enough that we keep the same trajectory and that possibly if we move at all, then we may enter a totally different trajectory, that we in 2019 wouldn’t think of as having any value. So this problem becomes very, very intractable. I would just say that there is an alternative frame. The phrasing that I’m playing around with here it is instead of the complexity of value thesis, the unity of value thesis, it could be that many of the things that we find valuable, eating ice cream, living in a just society, having a wonderful interaction with a loved one, all of these have the same underlying neural substrate and empirically this is what affective neuroscience is finding.

Eating a chocolate bar activates same brain regions as a transcendental religious experience. So maybe there’s some sort of elegant compression that can be made and that actually things aren’t so starkly strict. We’re not sort of this point in a super high dimensional space and if we leave the point, then everything of value is trashed forever, but maybe there’s some sort of convergent process that we can follow that we can essentialize. We can make this list of 100 things that humanity values and maybe they all have in common positive valence, and positive valence can sort of be reverse engineered. And to some people this feels like a very scary dystopic scenario – don’t knock it until you’ve tried it – but at the same time there’s a lot of complexity here.

One core frame that the idea of qualia formalism and valence realism can offer AI safety is that maybe the actual goal is somewhat different than the complexity of value thesis puts forward. Maybe the actual goal is different and in fact easier. I think this could directly inform how we spend our resources on the problem space.

Lucas: Yeah, I was going to say that there exists standing tension between this view of the complexity of all preferences and values that human beings have and then the valence realist view which says that what’s ultimately good or certain experiential or hedonic states. I’m interested and curious about if this valence view is true, whether it’s all just going to turn into hedonium in the end.

Mike: I’m personally a fan of continuity. I think that if we do things right we’ll have plenty of time to get things right and also if we do things wrong then we’ll have plenty of time for things to be wrong. So I’m personally not a fan of big unilateral moves, it’s just getting back to this question of can understanding what is help us, clearly yes.

Andrés: Yeah. I guess one view is we could say preserve optionality and learn what is, and then from there hopefully we’ll be able to better inform oughts and with maintained optionality we’ll be able to choose the right thing. But that will require a cosmic level of coordination.

Mike: Sure. An interesting frame here is whole brain emulation. So whole brain emulation is sort of a frame built around functionalism and it’s a seductive frame I would say. If whole brain emulations wouldn’t necessarily have the same qualia based on hardware considerations as the original humans, there could be some weird lock in effects where if the majority of society turned themselves into p-zombies then it may be hard to go back on that.

Lucas: Yeah. All right. We’re just getting to the end here, I appreciate all of this. You guys have been tremendous and I really enjoyed this. I want to talk about identity in AI alignment. This sort of taxonomy that you’ve developed about open individualism and closed individualism and all of these other things. Would you like to touch on that and talk about implications here in AI alignment as you see it?

Andrés: Yeah. Yeah, for sure. The taxonomy comes from Daniel Kolak, a philosopher and mathematician. It’s a pretty good taxonomy and basically it’s like open individualism, that’s the view that a lot of meditators and mystics and people who take psychedelics often ascribe to, which is that we’re all one consciousness. Another frame is that our true identity is the light of consciousness, so to speak. So it doesn’t matter in what form it manifests, it’s always the same fundamental ground of being. Then you have the common sense view, it’s called closed individualism. You start existing when you’re born, you stop existing when you die. You’re just this segment. Some religions actually extend that into the future or past with reincarnation or maybe with heaven.

It’s the belief in ontological distinction between you and others while at the same time there is ontological continuity from one moment to the next within you. Finally you have this view that’s called empty individualism, which is that you’re just a moment of experience. That’s fairly common among physicists and a lot of people who’ve tried to formalize consciousness, often they converged on empty individualism. I think a lot of theories of ethics and rationality, like the veil of ignorance as a guide or like how do you define rational decision-making as maximizing the expected utility of yourself as an agent, all of those seem to implicitly be based on closed individualism and they’re not necessarily questioning it very much.

On the other hand, if the sense of individual identity of closed individualism doesn’t actually carve nature at its joints as a Buddhist might say, the feeling of continuity of being a separate unique entity is an illusory construction of your phenomenology that casts in a completely different light how to approach rationality itself and even self interest, right? If you start identifying with the light of consciousness rather than your particular instantiation, you will probably care a lot more about what happens to pigs in factory farms because … In so far as they are conscious they are you in a fundamental way. It matters a lot in terms of how to carve out different possible futures, especially when you get into these very tricky situations like, well what if there is mind melding or what if there is the possibility of making perfect copies of yourself?

All of these edge cases are really problematic from the common sense view of identity, but they’re not really a problem from an open individualist or empty individualist point of view. With all of this said, I do personally think there’s probably a way of combining open individualism with valence realism that gives rise to the next step in human rationality where we’re actually trying to really understand what the universe wants, so to speak. But I would say that there is a very tricky aspect here that has to do with game theory. We evolved to believe in close individualism. The fact that it’s evolutionarily adaptive is obviously not an argument for it being fundamentally true, but it does seem to be some kind of an evolutionarily stable point to believe of yourself as who you can affect the most directly in a causal way, if you define your boundary that way.

That basically gives you focus on the actual degrees of freedom that you do have, and if you think of a society of open individualists, everybody’s altruistically maximally contributing to the universal consciousness, and then you have one close individualist who is just selfishly trying to acquire power just for itself, you can imagine that one view would have a tremendous evolutionary advantage in that context. So I’m not one who just naively advocates for open individualism unreflectively. I think we still have to work out to the game theory of it, how to make it evolutionarily stable and also how to make it ethical. Open question, I do think it’s important to think about and if you take consciousness very seriously, especially within physicalism, that usually will cast huge doubts on the common sense view of identity.

It doesn’t seem like a very plausible view if you actually tried to formalize consciousness.

Mike: The game theory aspect is very interesting. You can think of closed individualism as something evolutionists produced that allows an agent to coordinate very closely with its past and future ourselves. Maybe we can say a little bit about why we’re not by default all empty individualists or open individualists. Empty individualism seems to have a problem where if every slice of conscious experience is its own thing, then why should you even coordinate with your past and future self because they’re not the same as you. So that leads to a problem of defection, and open individualism is everything is the same being so to speak than … As Andrés mentioned that allows free riders, if people are defecting, it doesn’t allow altruist punishment or any way to stop the free ride. There’s interesting game theory here and it also just feeds into the question of how we define our identity in the age of AI, the age of cloning, the age of mind uploading.

This gets very, very tricky very quickly depending on one’s theory of identity. They’re opening themselves up to getting hacked in different ways and so different theories of identity allow different forms of hacking.

Andrés: Yeah, which could be sometimes that’s really good and sometimes really bad. I would make the prediction that not necessarily open individualism in its full fledged form but a weaker sense of identity than closed individualism is likely going to be highly adaptive in the future as people basically have the ability to modify their state of consciousness in much more radical ways. People who just identify with narrow sense of identity will just be in their shells, not try to disturb the local attractor too much. That itself is not necessarily very advantageous. If the things on offer are actually really good, both hedonically and intelligence wise.

I do suspect basically people who are somewhat more open to basically identify with consciousness or at least identify with a broader sense of identity, they will be the people who will be doing more substantial progress, pushing the boundary and creating new cooperation and coordination technology.

Lucas: Wow, I love all that. Seeing closed individualism for what it was has had a tremendous impact on my life and this whole question of identity I think is largely confused for a lot of people. At the beginning you said that open individualism says that we are all one consciousness or something like this, right? For me in identity I’d like to move beyond all distinctions of sameness or differenceness. To say like, oh, we’re all one consciousness to me seems to say we’re all one electromagnetism, which is really to say the consciousness is like an independent feature or property of the world that’s just sort of a ground part of the world and when the world produces agents, consciousness is just an empty identityless property that comes along for the ride.

The same way in which it would be nonsense to say, “Oh, I am these specific atoms, I am just the forces of nature that are bounded within my skin and body” That would be nonsense. In the same way in sense of what we were discussing with consciousness there was the binding problem of the person, the discreteness of the person. Where does the person really begin or end? It seems like these different kinds of individualism have, as you said, epistemic and functional use, but they also, in my view, create a ton of epistemic problems, ethical issues, and in terms of the valence theory, if quality is actually something good or bad, then as David Pearce says, it’s really just an epistemological problem that you don’t have access to other brain states in order to see the self intimating nature of what it’s like to be that thing in that moment.

There’s a sense in which i want to reject all identity as arbitrary and I want to do that in an ultimate way, but then in the conventional way, I agree with you guys that there are these functional and epistemic issues that closed individualism seems to remedy somewhat and is why evolution, I guess selected for it, it’s good for gene propagation and being selfish. But once one sees AI as just a new method of instantiating bliss, it doesn’t matter where the bliss is. Bliss is bliss and there’s no such thing as your bliss or anyone else’s bliss. Bliss is like its own independent feature or property and you don’t really begin or end anywhere. You are like an expression of a 13.7 billion year old system that’s playing out.

The universe is just peopleing all of us at the same time, and when you get this view and you see you as just sort of like the super thin slice of the evolution of consciousness and life, for me it’s like why do I really need to propagate my information into the future? Like I really don’t think there’s anything particularly special about the information of anyone really that exists today. We want to preserve all of the good stuff and propagate those in the future, but people who seek a immortality through AI or seek any kind of continuation of what they believe to be their self is, I just see that all as misguided and I see it as wasting potentially better futures by trying to bring Windows 7 into the world of Windows 10.

Mike: This all gets very muddy when we try to merge human level psychological drives and concepts and adaptations with a fundamental physics level description of what is. I don’t have a clear answer. I would say that it would be great to identify with consciousness itself, but at the same time, that’s not necessarily super easy if you’re suffering from depression or anxiety. So I just think that this is going to be an ongoing negotiation within society and just hopefully we can figure out ways in which everyone can move.

Andrés: There’s an article I wrote it, I just called it consciousness versus replicators. That kind of gets to the heart of this issue, but that sounds a little bit like good and evil, but it really isn’t. The true enemy here is replication for replication’s sake. On the other hand, the only way in which we can ultimately benefit consciousness, at least in a plausible, evolutionarily stable way is through replication. We need to find the balance between replication and benefit of consciousness that makes the whole system stable, good for consciousness and resistant against the factors.

Mike: I would like to say that I really enjoy Max Tegmark’s general frame of you leaving this mathematical universe. One re-frame of what we were just talking about in these terms are there are patterns which have to do with identity and have to do with valence and have to do with many other things. The grand goal is to understand what makes a pattern good or bad and optimize our light cone for those sorts of patterns. This may have some counter intuitive things, maybe closed individualism is actually a very adaptive thing, in the long term it builds robust societies. Could be that that’s not true but I just think that taking the mathematical frame and the long term frame is a very generative approach.

Lucas: Absolutely. Great. I just want to finish up here on two fun things. It seems like good and bad are real in your view. Do we live in heaven or hell?

Mike: Lot of quips that come to mind here. Hell is other people, or nothing is good or bad but thinking makes it so. My pet theory I should say is that we live in something that is perhaps close to heaven as is physically possible. The best of all possible worlds.

Lucas: I don’t always feel that way but why do you think that?

Mike: This gets through the weeds of theories about consciousness. It’s this idea that we tend to think of consciousness on the human scale. Is the human condition good or bad, is the balance of human experience on the good end, the heavenly end or the hellish end. If we do have an objective theory of consciousness, we should be able to point it at things that are not human and even things that are not biological. It may seem like a type error to do this but we should be able to point it at stars and black holes and quantum fuzz. My pet theory, which is totally not validated, but it is falsifiable, and this gets into Bostrom’s simulation hypothesis, it could be that if we tally up the good valence and the bad valence in the universe, that first of all, the human stuff might just be a rounding error.

Most of the value, in this value the positive and negative valence is found elsewhere, not in humanity. And second of all, I have this list in the last appendix of Principia Qualia as well, where could massive amounts of consciousness be hiding in the cosmological sense. I’m very suspicious that the big bang starts with a very symmetrical state, I’ll just leave it there. In a utilitarian sense, if you want to get a sense of whether we live in a place closer to heaven or hell we should actually get a good theory of consciousness and we should point to things that are not humans and cosmological scale events or objects would be very interesting to point it at. This will give a much better clear answer as to whether we live in somewhere closer to heaven or hell than human intuition.

Lucas: All right, great. You guys have been super generous with your time and I’ve really enjoyed this and learned a lot. Is there anything else you guys would like to wrap up on?

Mike: Just I would like to say, yeah, thank you so much for the interview and reaching out and making this happen. It’s been really fun on our side too.

Andrés: Yeah, I think wonderful questions and it’s very rare for an interviewer to have non conventional views of identity to begin with, so it was really fun, really appreciate it.

Lucas: Would you guys like to go ahead and plug anything? What’s the best place to follow you guys, Twitter, Facebook, blogs, website?

Mike: Our website is qualiaresearchinstitute.org and we’re working on getting a PayPal donate button out but in the meantime you can send us some crypto. We’re building out the organization and if you want to read our stuff a lot of it is linked from the website and you can also read my stuff at my blog, opentheory.net and Andrés’ is @qualiacomputing.com.

Lucas: If you enjoyed this podcast, please subscribe, give it a like or share it on your preferred social media platform. We’ll be back again soon with another episode in the AI Alignment series.


Featured image credit: Alex Grey

Rational 4-AcO-DMT Trip Report By An Anonymous Reader

Date: 5/5/2019

  • Self:
    • Weight: ~[150-170) lbs, Age: [20-25), Height: [5’8’’-5’11’’), Male, Dosage: 12-15mg 4-AcO-DMT, 200mg caffeine, 100mg L-theanine, 0.25-0.5g cannabis, vaporized and smoked
  • Companion:
    • Weight: ~[110-130) lbs, Age: [20-25), Height: [5’5’’-5’8’’), Female, Dosage: 10-12mg 4-AcO-DMT, 0.5g cannabis, smoked and vaporized

Relevant  Beliefs

  • Ontology on personal identity: favors ‘empty individualism’
  • Ontology on time: favors ‘eternalism’
  • Strongly favors ‘indirect realism’ over ‘direct realism’
  • Believes that an ‘information processing’ account of the mind-brain is appropriate in a variety of situations.
  • Believes states of meditation, psychedelic use, and the combination of the two allow for an application of ‘energy’ which is directed towards the brain’s natural harmonics. Coarsely, there is a pattern of energy application -> entropic disintegration -> search/self-reorganization -> neural annealing which is likely to occur in such states.
    • Believes meditation is a tool which can increase the amount of cognitive control an individual has over his/her conscious experiences.
  • Believes 4-AcO-DMT is an entactogen, and feelings of empathy and connection with others are desirable.
  • Grappling with the Symmetry Theory of Valence
  • Believes there is an interaction of ‘top-down stories’ and ‘bottom-up sensory data’ in the mind-brain. Each affects the other, and neither provides a complete account of reality.
  • Problem of other minds: Believes animals and other complex systems are capable of experiencing conscious states, other individuals exist and are conscious.

Experience

Caffeine/L-theanine:

I took a pill with 100mg of L-theanine and 200mg of caffeine when I woke up at ~7:45AM, in order to wake up at ~8:10AM. Those unfamiliar with the caffeine nap should give it a try.

Dosing/Setting – 12:45

We took our 4-AcO-DMT in capsule form, gathered our ‘tripping accoutrements’ and set off for the local park. It was a beautiful 75 degrees Fahrenheit and sunny, with some welcome clouds in the sky, which seemed placed for our later entertainment. We made it to the park without feeling the effects, making small talk and finding our ‘goldilocks zone’ – the tree with enough shade, ample view, and dry grass. We walked back and forth several times, finding out which side the grass was greenest on. During this 10 minutes, I began to notice the first perceptible changes.

Onset – 13:15-13:45

I described to my partner that I could tell the drug was ‘kicking in’ due to an increase in my proprioception (closest ‘subjective effect’ is probably bodily control enhancement). I then noticed a man lying on his side on the grass in front of us, with his arm and leg out of my view, and next to him lay which I soon realized was a bike. At first blush I thought he was an amputee, and that the device next to him was a walker of some kind. Upon seeing him sit up, I realized I had been mistaken, at which point it could not have been clearer that the ‘walker’ was actually a bicycle (I noted that I was highly aware of the distinction between my perception of the objects and my top-down ‘storytelling’, a welcome surprise I’m sure our Buddhist friends would approve tremendously of). I relayed this to my partner and she laughed, clearly still more certain of her own ability to discriminate. As we lay under a beautiful oak tree in the ‘goldilocks zone’, she commented some discomfort (in the form of ‘anxiety’), and that she felt “too much energy” was getting pumped in with “no place to go”. As a reader of opentheory.net, this analogy was welcome and even surprising in its similarity to my current opinions. I chuckled, although I too was feeling a tinge of anxiety (which I attributed mostly to the 200mg of caffeine I had consumed), increased bodily temperature, and some minor pattern recognition enhancement in the surrounding flora. As I looked to the edge of my visual field, I had the distinct sense of being in a simulated environment. While I have at times toyed with “simulation theory”, I have transitioned to a view more based on an “inner simulator”: that the reality we enjoy is taking place within the boundary of our minds, and these inner simulations exist in separation from one another (similar to Max Tegmark’s ‘bubbles’), with each one representing the mind-independent reality that I believe, but do not “know” exists. In light of this thought, I found myself looking towards the ‘boundary of my external reality’ and explaining to myself that it was in truth actually like looking deeper internally. I noticed (again with more than sober clarity) a change in my belief map.  

Resonance: ~13:30-14:30

My partner put on some appropriate lo-fi music and we began to talk as the effects became more pronounced. I felt my experience to be ‘classically psilocin-like’, characterized by intense drifting, pattern recognition enhancement, magnification, color enhancement and geometry similar to that found in ‘trippy artwork’ (internally and externally).  When I focused more loosely on my surroundings I had my first brush with scenery slicing, which divided my view of the fountain and hillside opposite us into thirds, each characterized by tapestries of fractal geometry. My partner had been blowing dandelion seeds, which reminded me of a thought I had had on a past trip, that subconsciously she was fulfilling a genetically programmed role in the ecosystem, explained away as a ‘weird urge’. We began discussing the ‘jobs’ other insects and animals had in the ecosystem, and enjoyed their personification. I spouted off some factoids on dragonflies, and their 95% predatory kill rate. She respected the prowess of the beautiful little assassins, and I internally hoped to live in a balanced ecosystem without the predators we now honor. We both noticed that we could see dandelion seeds almost a hundred feet up (magnification, and in my estimation an artifact of our mental entrainment at the time). My partner went to the bathroom in the art museum nearby, and I took 2.5 minutes to meditate, using a silent mantra technique. I experienced beautiful 8B geometry in this state, a truly profound experience. When she returned, we saw a young boy playing with dandelions in front of us. He was so purposeful, so confident, and so apparently random in his behavior. My word choice in describing him (in hushed tones, so as not to disturb his work) revealed a greater availability of infrequently-used words in my vocabulary, and some increased sense of humor. My partner commented that she thought the whole thing to be fake, and this label seemed to cause an increase in my acuity enhancement and color enhancement of the scene (again, I was highly aware of the influence of the ‘top-down story’ on my experience). To me, it also appeared in some ways “not real”, but I thought the two of us had a very different sense of the concept.

Tree

Color enhancement (experienced especially with trees) – (source)

I too needed to relieve myself at this point, and decided to take the adventure towards the bathroom, listening to the Johns Hopkins psilocybin experiment playlist on Spotify along the way. I will (for the sake of brevity that I am otherwise flouting) focus only on the seemingly pertinent detail of how I received directions to the bathroom. My partner described the sequence of steps and potential pitfalls to me, and I had an extraordinary ability to visualize the path I eventually followed. My visualization skills in general were extremely heightened, and I noticed I could imagine quite easily and accurately envision how my scenery would change when I moved to a different position (e.g. sitting to lying down).

Exploration: ~14:45-15:45

At this point we both were reporting intense cognitive euphoria (as well as spiritual euphoria). We decided to pack our things and make a trip to expend some of the boundless energy we had in our possession. We journeyed to the sculpture garden behind the museum, and I began to describe the chemical differences between psilocybin and psilocin as my partner and I basked in the glorious shade of the trees there (to which we both felt intense connection). I found that in the sculpture garden I had a greatly increased appreciation for art, and especially the symmetry and proportion found in the sculpture and museum itself. Combined with my feelings of intense well being and spiritual euphoria (which felt augmented by the artwork), this amounted to a point in favor of the Symmetry Theory of Valence. I also noticed cracks in the unity of my conscious experience, where locally bound objects seemed to separate (the analogy I could find was separate “virtual environments” a la whonix), which also engendered in me a type of pleasure I cannot find in the “Subjective effect index”. This may be an area of further examination for the Qualia Research Institute. We enjoyed a blissful walk in the park, featuring feelings of intimacy with children, pets, and ducklings. Of note here was what I felt to be an enhancement of my working memory, as borne out by the following observations: I again had higher availability of vocabulary and terminology in conversation, I was able to juggle rocks more effectively while walking (and felt that during my juggling I was simultaneously apprehending more objects – this was again pleasantly accompanied by increased reflective intelligence that allowed gave me the felt sense of 8B geometry without the visuals). I threw a rock in the stream and found that I could apprehend each ripple simultaneously, and my qualia decay function was much fatter as well. Hmmm, maybe there are some beneficial computational properties of consciousness! We sat on a bench, as I felt the intense urge to exercise physically (specifically to climb a tree, but that was a bit conspicuous). Instead, we looked at a goose and talked about memetics. We marvelled specifically about Dr. Seuss, and how his thoughts had taken root, despite his distasteful personal tendencies. I began to think about the cultivation of plants, and how we tend to use hypotheses and heuristics to guide advances in the rapid evolution, wondering if the same could be done with ideas.

ripple-effect-of-the-ciso-630x330

I found myself capable of simultaneously ‘holding in my attention’ each ripple as I cast a stone in the water. (image source)

Home

*Skip home journey, where much of the conversation centered around the responsibilities of pet ownership* 16:30-17:30

We found ourselves at home with the welcome company of a close friend. We relayed some of our experiences, and I felt the onset of some fast euphoria – there were simply too many things I wanted to do – feel water on my hands, do yoga, eat food, smoke marijuana, have sex. I considered how wonderful it would be to restructure the human cognitive reward architecture around health, knowledge of which could be researched, stored and relayed via artificial intelligence. More simply put, as I consumed an entire family-size amount of Tostitos Hint of Lime chips (feeling gustatory and olfactory enhancement), I wished pleasure mapped 1:1 to health. We did some yoga, ate some food (I found sociability enhancement with the delivery man) and we again basked in the glory of the weather and natural environment, taking comfort in each others’ arms. I noticed multisensory magnification and acuity enhancement, finding that I could hear and see elements of nature that usually were unavailable to me, such as the sounds of distant insects and birds, and the ability to see bits of dust floating far off in the sunlight. The birds above drew my attention to my frame rate enhancement, as I could easily watch their wings flapping each time, even from a distance.  I could also extract more information from an amorphous reflection in a car door, with the feeling that I was “looking through it” to a slightly more misshapen world. We saw a bunny (“awww bunny!!!”) and had an interesting exchange:

Me: “You know, when I look at that bunny I think about the algorithms going through it’s head – eat blade -> look for next blade -> check for predators -> eat blade -> ..”

Her: “Yeah, that sounds like something YOU would think. I just like to think he’s so excited every time he sees another blade, like it’s the first time every time. That would be cute.”

Me: “Well actually, those could both be true. I’m just talking about the ‘program’ – it could be implemented any way you like. I really have no idea how they feel when they see the next blade of grass, but I hope you’re right. In terms of it being the ‘first time’, he could be like Clive Wearing, on a perpetual refresh.”

Her: “I guess we’ll never know what it’s really like.”

Me: “I don’t know about that.”

Really, we’re just talking about Marr’s theory, but it was interesting to see a real-life example. I was discussing his algorithmic level of analysis, while she was pointing to potential features of the implementational level. Makes me think about how virtual and augmented reality could be such wonderful tools for education. As someone who had thought about his theory often, it was also interesting how this exchange affected me phenomenologically: I felt now like I understood it. I definitely think understanding clearly has qualia-properties (not a very bold statement), and also important computational properties (ahem). I certainly think I can “do more” in terms of analogizing etc. with concepts I understand, and yet I find that understanding likely boils to a feeling. I have had this issue ever since reading John Searle’s Chinese Room thought experiment and thinking it was positively moronic.

ftd-babyrabbit

What Is It Like To Be a Bunny? (image source)

As we were talking, I found that I had heightened coordination and dexterity in playing with my pocket knife, something I often do when deep in thought. I considered how it could be a use of some of the ‘excess mental energy’ I had been accumulating, and how the increase in neuroplasticity that Paul Stamets swears by could be playing a role as well.

Intimacy – 18:00-19:00

We vaporized some marijuana (~0.125g each – I commented on how the Pax 2 would eventually come equipped with it’s own brain) and went inside to enjoy a shower and cuddling together. Before our shower, she commented that the water was too cold, and I joked that the whole day was ruined. Yet in that moment, I felt none of the ecstacy which so permeated our day, and so I thought once again that empty individualism had such merit. I had intended to experience the feelings of ‘oneness’ commonly associated with 4-AcO, and wasn’t disappointed, feeling at times as though I was touching my own body when I felt hers. Point in favor of open individualism. For unimportant reasons which I label “boundaries”, I’ve chosen to keep the rest of the details of our intimacy to myself…  

Concluding remarks:

There is much more I could write, and yet there are only a few pertinent details of our trip that I’d like to share:

  1. We smoked some additional marijuana, which ended up overpowering the influence of the 4-AcO as the trip came to a smooth stop (there were none of the feelings of depletion or dejection I associate with other compounds such as LSD).
    1. I had a relative reduction in REM sleep compared to my average and felt a small amount of residual grogginess which I personally attribute to the marijuana.
  2. When we went out for a late snack, I again had a thought and associated changes in perception (or vice-versa, who knows?) I discussed in ‘Onset’ – I saw a car headlight, and as the afterimage decayed from my visual field, I had the sense that it was slipping from my attentional system as well. It was moving further in space-time, and more internally, making its retrieval more difficult.

Credit of Featured Image: Psychedelic brain, Bloomington photo by Ali Eminov

 

Transcending and Including Integral Theory

I have one major rule: everybody is right. More specifically, everybody — including me — has some important pieces of the truth, and all of those pieces need to be honored, cherished, and included in a more gracious, spacious, and compassionate embrace.

Introduction, Collected Works of Ken Wilber, vol. VIII (2000)

Ken Wilber recently commented on Jordan Peterson for 1 hour and 20 minutes in this interview. You can probably gain about 80% of the value in the video by watching the first 20 minutes. Using ribbonfarm‘s signature concept handle “refactoring perception”*, we could say that Ken Wilber refactors Jordan Peterson in Integral Theoretic frameworks. His affinity for Peterson is the result of interpreting his actions as those of someone who sees the world through Integral lenses, in the sense that he acknowledges the partial truths of each level up to and including Teal.

Is the Integral Theory meme-plex capable of absorbing Jordan Peterson’s sphere of influence? Probably not, because as Ken Wilber might put it, Peterson followers are a mixture of Teal (Integral), Orange (Modern), and Amber (Traditional) people all pulling together against the memetic totalitarianism of the Green (Post-Modern) developmental stage. That said, we could perhaps anticipate a degree of memetic revival of Integral Theory thanks to its compatibility with Petersonism.

Altitudes-of-Development

What do I personally think of the Integral meme-plex? I see it as an upgrade relative to current mainstream worldviews. Alas, in my experience interacting with people who really dig that worldview (of which there are plenty in the Bay Area consciousness development/hacking space), I’ve encountered strong resistance against some of the core values and perspectives that QRI‘s Qualia/Valence meme-plex brings:

Integral Theorists tend to dismiss concerns about wild animal suffering, the genetic roots of suffering, and the possibility of identifying the physico-mathematical signature of bliss– which they might dismiss as a Modernist fantasy(!).

To upgrade the Integral Theory meme-plex, I’d emphasize the following:

  1. The Tyranny of the Intentional Object (which has material bearings on how we interpret the nature of “mystical” states, e.g. Jhanas are not so much ‘spiritual’ as glorified high-valence states with long-term mental health benefits thanks to neural annealing).
  2. That Open Individualism is consistent with (and indeed even implied by) monistic physicalism.
  3. And that the goals of transhumanism (superhappiness, superintelligence, and superlongevity) are indeed a direct implication of systematizing ethics (rather than being driven by egoic structures, as swiftly assumed by most).

*As of March of 2019 they seem to have moved on to “constructions in magical thinking.”

Burning Man Theme-Camps of the Year 2029: From Replicator to Rainbow God (2/2)

[Epistemic Status: Fiction; see related non-fiction Burning Man articles – 1, 2, 3; See part 1/2 here.]

Preface

What follows is (the second part of) the result of an exercise in considering the questions: “Which novel memes, and meme-plexes, will be alive 10 years from now? And, what new worldviews will have a ‘full-stack’ account of where humanity is at, and where it is headed?” Hope this sparks interesting discussions.


The elucidation of the origin of qualia-rich subjectivity is important not only as an activity in the natural sciences, but also as a foundation and the ultimate justification of the whole world of the liberal arts. Bridging the gap between the two cultures (C. P. Snow) is made possible only through a clear understanding of the origin of qualia and subjectivity.

Qualia symbolize the essential intellectual challenge for humanity in the future. The impact of its elucidation will not be limited to the natural sciences. The liberal arts, religion, and the very concept of what a man is will be reassessed from their very foundations.

 

– Ken Mogi in The Qualia Manifesto (1998)

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.

 

– David Pearce, in Co-Evolution, Fusion or Replacement? (2012)

Thursday: Camp Super Intelligence

You wake up at 10AM, in what you feel is a surprisingly good mood given the fact you rolled last night. You still notice that your mind is a bit zonked. Taking LSD, MDMA, and Ketamine within the span of two days is not something you’ve done before, and it makes sense that they would each contribute their own distinct aftermath. If acute drug effects can be synergistic (as it was for MDMA + K), could hangover types also be synergistic? It doesn’t feel that way, but then again, you remember that by most accounts the “real MDMA hangover” happens 36 to 48 hours after taking it, not the morning after. So you figure that right now you are probably experiencing the afterglow and staving off tiredness with the psychostimulant metabolites of MDMA. With regards to the acid, you can’t really tell if there is any hang-over from it, so you figure that your feeling of being a bit discombobulated comes from the mixing of K and MDMA last night. “Oh, that! This reminds me- I should try to figure out what on earth was the massive life-energy ball I felt last night”- you think to yourself, reflecting on the fact that you had never experienced anything like it before.

You prepare a large bowl of fresh fruits and vegetables. Conveniently your camp still has many fruits and veggies in the collective dry-ice cooler that Astro Burrito is prototyping. He got his playa name because his power of invention is such that people claim that he would be able to figure out how to make a burrito from scratch in zero-g; after all he served hot burritos to the entire camp during the intense day-long dust storm of BM 2025, which is something everyone still remembers. You eat two carrots, an apple, a pear, some celery, two raw tomatoes, and a ton of grapes. Once you feel satiated, you sit down to chill for a bit at your camp’s shared shade structure.

Galaxy Fox and Cardamom join you to chill for a bit. They each have a mango slushy they got from Camp Glacier Breeze next door, and share some with you. You ask them if they have ever experienced giant life-energy balls on Ketamine and/or MDMA. Galaxy Fox admits she does not know what you are talking about, but Cardamom’s eyes brighten. She says: “I used to take ketamine weekly in my twenties, until I had some bladder problems and stopped. I remember a lot of wild visions. I’m an atheist, but man, some of these visions had a strong mystical quality to them. Perhaps the strongest experience I had was the one time I combined LSD and ketamine right after coming back from a neuroscience conference. I recall hallucinating a cast of famous neuroscientists whose work I’ve read and who I’ve interacted with over the years; almost as if I could access their soul and connect with them on a deep level. We all went on a quest to figure out the essence of life as a group of friends- naked in front of the mystery of life- rather than with all of the social pretense that inevitably comes with academic prestige. At the peak of the experience, we all witnessed this huge ball of light that looked like a sun coming down and telling us to ‘hang in there, life will make sense soon’ and ‘keep trying to make sense of it all, you will soon see the big picture’. I tried to dismiss this experience after the fact, but the feeling was very compelling. I still think about it every once in a while.” This more or less fits your experience, but you don’t recall the life-energy ball telling you anything specific. It was more like a sense of what could be possible if we all saw our underlying unity; but no words or concepts, at least not humanly recognizable. They finish the mango slushy and take off. You take a nap in a recliner, and wake up at noon, hungry again.

You eat a handful of mixed nuts, almond milk, hemp milk, macadamia milk, and electrolytes. Half a MealCube. You get ready to explore and by 1PM go on your way. You keep under shade and walk alone this time. After all you are sober and won’t be experimenting with anything tonight, and your best friends are who knows where by now. You stop a couple of blocks down, as the sign attracts you: Camp Super Intelligence.

The camp is mostly composed of a large central dome. Inside is dark and cool. There are water coolers, fans, and plenty of “mist projectors”. It also has walls with fabrics of two colors only (green and blue), which strikes you as a rather conservative aesthetic in a place like this. Some people are chilling, a few are in pairs, and there is a circle of people halfway between the center and the north corner hanging out and talking fast, and clear.

You ask if you can join them, and they say “definitely!”, and they ask your name. Then they continue their conversation, as if you weren’t there: “I thought Friston’s book was really easy to understand” – the girl in blue says. “Yes, even my mom seemed to understand it when I explained it to her.” – replies the guy in red. From what you gather, people here are obsessed with the prospect of digital Artificial General Intelligence. But rather than discussing the substance of the problem, they seem more interested in asking each other about what their “timeline is”, meaning, when they think it will happen. For better or for worse, you conclude they do not have a vision of the future – the AGI scenario interrupts their thoughts about what the future sans AGI could hold (with e.g. “mererecursively self-improving genetic engineering).

Interestingly, one of the topics they touch on is psychopharmacology. Everyone in the circle is on some or another psychiatric drug. They have, moreover, discovered that if you combine cholinergic nootropics (e.g. oxiracetam, pramiracetam, etc.) with adenosine agonists (cf. ‘anti-caffeine’ rutaecarpine) you can discuss philosophy without being bothered by questions about consciousness. They tell you that once you get used to it, you think back to the time you used to worry about consciousness as a time you were crazy in inscrutable ways. “It puzzles you that you used to fall in that trap, but once you ‘transition’, you know better”- a kid with grey eyes says. He continues: “You internalize the fact that, as Graziano puts it, ‘there is no subjective impression; there is only information in a data-processing device’ [source].”

They take purely causal approaches to reality, and in fact disregard subjectivity explicitly. Sometimes you feel you must be too tired to understand them, because you don’t believe what they tell you. You don’t believe that someone is trying to reconstruct intelligence without ever mentioning consciousness, experience, or qualia. But your friend- many hours later- reassures you that you had heard correctly. Indeed, that camp is known for saying things of this sort, and challenge each other to say it loudly, as a sort of memetic purity test.

From your point of view, you wonder whether they’ve turned into philosophical zombies in some sense, or if they have experienced a reframing of their approach to language at the very core. They now seem to lack introspective access to the intrinsic referent of experience they used to have. Alas, they say that didn’t exist to begin with; it was the “illusion that emerges from a system modeling its own attentional dynamics“. Their system is self-consistent, and seemingly complete from the inside. But from the outside you can see they are missing a critical piece. Or so it seems to you.

They tell you that getting rid of the concept of consciousness is a necessary step to take if you want to move on to actually solving the problem of intelligence. But you resist their persuasion. It somehow feels rude… in light of what you’ve experienced the last couple of days. You think to yourself just how much there is to talk about concerning what you experienced recently, and how much this knowledge has expanded your understanding of how large the world of experience truly is. You try to share some of your recent experiences with them. They look at each other, and one of them says “I feel like every time we hear the stories from people who’ve taken drugs, the story always boils down to ‘these peeps were on drugs and something crazy happened’.” They all laugh, and agree. You sense they are not interested- anywhere in their minds- about what you may have to say.

Is this what it feels like to have a serotonin dip, from the inside? Being convinced that the people around you are choosing uncooperative strategies? Or are these guys really being that unkind to me? They feel rude. “But never-mind, go ahead, we are listening”- says the same guy. They were kidding; they did want to hear your story after all. It turns out they became quite intrigued by some of your observations, including how you felt at the Pleasure Palace- I mean- what was it called? (you realize your memory is not as sharp as it usually is, mmm… wonder why). Camp Valence. They hadn’t heard of Camp Valence, or Camp State-Space of Consciousness. They seem to use Burning Man as a sort of complex interpersonal tension resolution event, and usually don’t interact much with others at the event, but do take drugs and go to see the art. Interestingly, they claim this makes them more productive during the rest of the year; it resolves the conflicts between them like nothing else. They are not very open to being changed from the outside, though, so to speak. Their behavior at Burning Man seems to be governed by a closed system and has a goal-oriented focus. You would much rather come at it with radical openness, but other forms of experiencing this place are valid, right?

You thank them for their company, stand up, and walk around. The place has tons of hammocks, reactive LED tables, and rationalist fiction lying around. Their art was geeky stuff like a dodecahedral metal-frame supporting an icosahedral “dual” internal metal-frame, itself supporting another dodecahedral frame and so on for several iterations. They also had a “statue” of a giant robotic “stuffed bear” that would vibrate if you gave it a hug with the right pressure and length. In a way, this statue was, gently, teaching you how to give pleasant hugs to others. You gave it a biiiig hug… putting all your heart into it. But it does nothing. The screen reads: “Try giving shorter hugs.” This makes you feel sad.

A girl who happens to have seen your disappointing interaction with the statue runs to you, saying “you can change the settings. How about we try ‘hug explosion’? It vibrates in a monotonically-increasing way as a function of the amount of time you keep hugging it.” It was incredible how this little act of kindness made you feel included and appreciated. You hugged her and she hugged you back for over a minute. Your mind somehow made you think about that time a kid in Korea ran up a crane to hug Michael Jackson during one of his concerts. You don’t know why your mind makes this association with what’s happening- the symbolism escapes you- but you choose to just let it be.

The camp’s entrance has a chart about humbling yourself and accepting the fact that the world is full of people who are intellectually more capable than you at essentially any task you can come up with. This wasn’t made in a way that was meant to be a put-down in any way. Rather, it was a call to look around you for people who can help you in surprisingly efficient ways. We don’t need to reinvent the wheel everywhere, and collectively we benefit if we share what we can do, sustainably, really well.

You feel tired by 6PM. Again, you were artificially energized for two consecutive days; it makes sense you would feel the need to rest tonight. You nonetheless dance for 20 minutes at a near-by major soundcamp on your way back listening to throw-back 90’s rap, check out some art, and chill with a campmate near your camp’s kitchen in a retractable chair until you feel compelled to sleep, which you do without trouble at 11PM. It’s cold tonight, really cold.

Friday: Camp Replicator – “Live Your Fantasy at Porky’s”

You wake up at 9AM and feel well rested, and hungry. Your mood is pensive, but you look forward to going out with friends tonight. One of your campmates, Lasagna Man, is preparing a batch of clean meat dishes for people to try. The sampler includes beef steak, octopodes in lemon juice, fried insects, and a James Franco BBQ.

You try each dish with a lot of curiosity. It is a bit disconcerting, to be honest, considering you’ve been vegetarian for over 12 years, and you feel compelled to verify it isn’t market meat. Either way, it is delicious, and you swallow the lab meats along with banana bread, coconut water, a 100mg capsule of 5-HTP, and 4000 fibrin units of nattokinase (as suggested by Longevity Camp to prevent cardiovascular events in periods of recovery). Satiated, you casually comment to your campmates: “I didn’t realize eating a celebrity was a hidden fantasy of mine.” Upon hearing this, Lasagna Man says: “Have you been to Replicator Camp? I think this year they call it Porky’s. It’s a place where you are compelled to live your hidden fantasies.” Galaxy Fox adds: “Strongly recommended. It’s a trip, and you do not need drugs.” Determined to check it out, you get ready by putting your Friday costume on (a tight-fitting dress inspired by the ThunderCats) and head over.

They say that “Porky’s” is just what you need to hear in this lifetime, in this branch of the multiverse, today. In reality this camp transcends this timeline, this place, this eon, this branch. It is an eternal Platonic concept which repeats itself at all scales of reality. If something exists, there were causes and conditions that gave rise to its form and quality. What people at this camp call “Generalized Darwinism” suggests that even before “the reproduction of the fittest” you have “the survival of the stable” as a primary trivial implication of time moving forward. What we see is driven by patterns trying to make copies of themselves, and being stable is a way of “making copies of yourself in the future” with an n of 1. But this is not relevant to you right now. The camp has a full-fledged metaphysical theory of the universe- and it self-describes as a spiritual camp- but in practice it looks nothing like it. Their explicit mission is to help you “experience an unrealized mental need”, and what this looks like is a bunch of actors playing a scenario for you, where you do something you’ve really been craving for a long time but have been unable to do due to the constraints of the real world.

Why would this be “spiritual”? You inquire about it with a girl that is wearing a swan costume and who seemingly volunteers at this camp. She tells you that the point is to help people fulfill an earthly craving of theirs so they can move on to their core mission in life. Most people will have a reaction of self-loathing once they finally scratch that itch, upon the realization that it wasn’t that big of a deal after all. It makes you realize that you would have been willing to throw a big chunk of your life away for what is essentially a side dish. Better to find that out in a simulacrum than risk your career, family, health, etc. with a terrible life decision, right?

At the entrance there is a menu of options that lists the role-playing scenarios they can do for you. There is a “custom” option for which you need to sign-up days in advance. They do not agree to about half of the custom requests because they exceed the bounds of what actors can feel comfortable role-playing, so there are limits as to how deep and dark your fantasy can be. The default options themselves are pretty shocking, though. The list contains things that range from adultery and incest all the way to abuse of power scenarios. Some of them are so R-rated that they make the rest of Burning Man seem conservative in comparison; heck they make the Orgy Dome seem conservative in comparison. Interestingly, the most requested role-playing scenarios among the options are completely family-friendly. For example, “work acknowledgment” fantasies account for 30% of the requests, and a whole other 25% involve receiving affection from neglectful family members.

You think to yourself: “I suppose I do feel undervalued at work, and I sometimes use outlets like Burning Man to find a place where people value me for who I am.” So you choose the “have a real conversation with your boss” option. You tell the attendant that you made up your mind, and she goes to the back of the room to inform the actors of your choice, and then proceeds to ask you for details about the scenario.

You tell her that you have been working as a journalist at a technology magazine for about 7 years. Your coworkers like you, and you are highly praised by your immediate manager, who thinks that you are a whiz kid and loves to “sell your work” to upper management. The thing is, you have a feeling that he does not represent you very well, and since you’ve been passed over for promotion already for four consecutive years, you sense that he is somehow taking credit for your work. He is very warm, and it is hard to think badly of him when he is around. He has a sort of professional candor that makes you feel rapport with him. The thought that he may be screwing you behind your back despite his warm relationship adds to the psychological torture. You tell her all of this and then she asks a few follow-up questions, mostly details like his first name, the name of a couple coworkers, and the ways the people at work refer to you such as nicknames and phrases they may use. She tells you to stand in line, that the actors will be ready in about 15 minutes.

When it’s your turn, she takes you to the backroom and tells you to be “ready for a wild ride”.

The backroom has a number of props appropriate for your job. You sit at the desk, and stare at the computer in front of you. Then an actor comes in, pretending to be your boss:

Howdy Steve! How’s it going? I was just passing by and thought I should say hi. I also remembered you mentioned you’d have the deliverable today, and it isn’t in my desk, so I thought checking wouldn’t hurt.

That’s right. He says “howdy”; this is already starting to bother you, reminding you of the pinched nerves you were experiencing less than a week ago at your job. He continues:

Don’t worry about it. There is always another tomorrow. Hey, I’ve gotta tell you something. Promotion rounds are coming up- this time around, I promise, you will get promoted. As I always say: “We’re getting there, you and me, together” [winks].

That phrase irks you horribly. You feel your blood pressure go up. The girl was right, this is really wild. How did the actor know how to emulate his demeanor? You thank him, and mention that you are hopeful and determined to get the promotion this time. Then he leaves for a minute. When he comes back, he is wearing a different attire, as if it was a different day:

Howdy Steve! I’ve gotta share something with you. Look. Sorry… they passed you up again. See, I think it’s the changing times, because the… how do you say it? They said your lateness on many assignments demonstrated lack of commitment to the company. They want you to take on a bit more responsibility before we can move you up next year. But hey, remember: “we’re getting there, you and me, together” [winks].

You feel your blood pressure sky-rocket; you feel rage boiling inside you. Or was it there all along and you are only now becoming aware of its depth? You decide to confront him. You mention how in each of the last four years you have seen him go out to conferences and present your ideas as if they were his. That you have seen him get the credit in meetings. And that once, a middle manager accidentally copied you on an email where he was bragging about how well the story you wrote did online without ever mentioning your name in the writeup. He falls silent for 5 seconds. He looks serious now. He says:

“Yes, it’s true, I stole your work, ok?! I told my wife, and she said I should always deny, deny, deny, no matter what, that she being pregnant meant that we couldn’t risk not getting the next bonus. Can you blame me screwing you to benefit my family? Are we not all like that in the end?”

Fuck! You knew it. You’ve known this for over three years, intuitively. Your boss’ kid is soon going to be entering preschool. Your head trembles and you feel your heart rate go up, crazy. After a pause he adds:

I can’t be responsible for the fact that you are a sucker. That you let yourself be taken advantage of. Darwin Awards, anyone?

The rage becomes a steam of hellfire inside you, and you feel yourself getting ready to shout and scream and kick him and bite him. But there is something stopping you. You know you could go all out on this poor fellow, and rub it in his face how the family excuse is completely bogus (it’s unsettling that the family thing is exactly the sort of rapport-congruent thing that he would actually say to justify himself), and it’s infuriating how many times you gave him a graceful exit despite your dark suspicions. You know you could hit him where it hurts most. But you instead choose the high road. “I am not like him” – you tell yourself. Silence for 10 seconds as you breath in and out, calming yourself. You say:

That one time you had me stay in the office on a Friday I had requested off a month in advance broke my heart. I missed a camping trip with my friends to satisfy your careerist hunger. But you are right, I am a sucker. Yes, being well adapted to a deeply sick social environment is not a sign of mental health. This is it. I quit. I will see you when I see you. Good bye.

“And Cut!”- a girl behind the curtain shouts. She runs up to you: “You did well! How did it feel?” But you can’t respond. The experience is cathartic, and you cry, folded upon your knees on the floor.

You notice internal boundaries dissolve. It is now clear that over the years you’ve built barriers inside yourself; some kind of protective field around your inner representation of your boss and his warm demeanor. You didn’t allow yourself to think bad thoughts about him; you empathized with him deeply. Why? Why did you make yourself blind to all of the evidence, to the fact that he was screwing you? You realize that your sense of worth has been tied to his praise for so long that it feels like part of your professional grain. If it wasn’t for him, would you even have a job? You can’t stop crying. As you let those feelings come and go, a feeling of empowerment begins to run through your body; feeling vindicated and validated by yourself is something you are not used to. Especially not concerning professional matters. But now you feel… like you are worth it. The addiction to his praise is something of your own making, you now realize. You placed conditions on your own happiness; you had it in you to love yourself all along.

The girl brings you a box of tissues. She tell you that it is common to experience a rollercoaster of emotions. She said to come back if you needed additional support. You exit Camp Replicator. You feel good. Tired, but good… and relaxed.

It feels like the image of your boss has a lot less power over you, and this process has “released” a lot of energy – you feel like your own self again- how strange. With this weight off your shoulders, you wander aimlessly… looking for something to find.

As you walk along the streets you begin to imagine your mind as an ecosystem of agents with disparate inclinations. You wonder: “And what is the distribution of ‘power’ among my subagents?” It stands to reason that, given that subagent interactions form a complex system, subagent power would follow the same distribution that income, citations, and social influence have, i.e. a power law. Your subagents compete for a place of influence within you. And the one who (temporarily) holds power tends to have substantially more mental resources than the second next one. At the bottom you have thousands of tiny subagents – like the time you wonder “should I do x?” where x is only congruent with a small part of all of your motivations. MDMA, you figure, changes this power distribution during its acute effects; the “harmonization of your experience” (as Camp Valence might call it) is not only about your sensory impressions and emotions, but also about the causal power of your sub-agents. It is fascinating to see that in ego-softened states- such as the one you are having thanks to the recent catharsis- one can see one’s highest subagent give in to the concerns of the ones below, and start a representative assembly of subagents trying to arrive at a much more fair global distribution of power that satisfies as many subagents’ preferences as possible.

The experience of having two conflicting subagents have equal degrees of power is very peculiar; one feels that, somehow, one’s future is “truly up in the air”. You wonder: “Is this agent power distribution annealing?” Within the multiplicity of subagents bidding for your attention on a daily basis, which ones of those have purely replicator objectives, and which ones are trying to increase the subjective wellbeing of people (including your own)?

You come across a little bike handing out Whisky to passersby. You pass on your cup, and receive a shot; not because you feel the need to, but because you like it. You savor the Whisky very slowly.

On the way back you come across a Chindogu Hands-on Exhibit, which you find incredibly entertaining. It makes you feel like a kid again. You start wondering about your next career. Mentally you already disconnected from your boss’ authority, though you suspect that the full consequences of having done this will only be revealed over the next days and weeks. How to break it to him? What should you work on next?

Upon arriving to your camp you get ready to go out by putting on a spiral LED hat and glow gloves. Astro Burrito and Cardamom join you, and you walk for many hours until 2:30AM, wandering from art to art, and talking to strangers, and asking them about what they do for a living… perhaps you’ll get inspired. You cap the night with James Franco left-overs- which you turn into a sandwich-, a mango, and a handful of supplements (BCAA, Magnesium Citrate, Quercetin, Turmeric, Aminoglycotetraquinone, Ashwagandha, and L-Theanine). You write some notes, and quickly pass out by 3:30AM.

Saturday: Camp Anti-Replicator

A 1980s throwback art-car driving by your camp wakes you up at 11AM. You feel refreshed, and happy. The first thought that comes to mind is “today is the day the Man burns.”  You processed so much pent-up emotion yesterday it’s unreal to you. You feel light, and energized. You then remember that you have a tested 25mg 2C-B tablet, which you had intended to use the night of the Burn. You check yourself emotionally and physically to decide whether you will go ahead and take 2C-B tonight, and all of the signs are good (blood pressure is good, VO2 Max is good, mobile ECG looks good). You feel good about the prospect of tripping today. You will be heading out to see the Man burn with your campmates at 7PM. What to do till then? You get a “shower” at the Human Carcass Wash, drink a cocoa Soylent, eat dried apricots, and devour a sun-heated bean & rice burrito. It is now 2PM so you have about 4 hours to explore before you have to get back and prepare to head out to see the Burn. What should you do? For reasons you don’t yet know, you feel an urge to take the 2C-B right now. You rationalize this decision based on the feeling that you should not stay up too late tonight if you intend to look for theme-camps tomorrow. Great press secretary internal monologue you have there.

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So you wander into the Playa with a borrowed bike looking for camps you haven’t even noticed yet in order to get the most surprising and novel stimuli possible. Along your way you see a surprisingly large number of sculptures of beasts and wild animals. You stop at a place in which you see about 50 people meditating quietly in front of a 3m-tall caterpillar statue, which intrigues you deeply. A sign close to the bike racks reads: “Camp Anti-Replicator.” At this very point you feel the first sign of the 2C-B come-up. You get off the bike and look around for someone to interact with. You check behind a blue wooden wall decorated with ʻaʻā clinkers arranged to form the shape of a mandala, whose center is an endless knot. A few people dressed in magenta robes are talking quietly on the floor, seating on cushions and drinking tea. When they notice you, they invite you to have tea with them.

mantra-mandala-with-Endlesskont

Endless Knot Mandala (cf. 7topology)

They look like monks, and they emit a rather serene but lively vibe. They explain that Camp Replicator is their “sister camp”. Replicator is designed to help people identify the most gnarly karma bundle of samskaras in one’s energy body, which is the first step in untangling them. To put it in a secular way: living your deep fantasies and unmet emotional needs helps identify the most emotionally imprinted memories that haunt you behind the scenes. Empirically, working on these bundles in a psychologically safe container is useful. Away from civilization, one can more directly address repressed impressions in a safe psychic environment.

One of the persons there pours you a cup of rooibos, while another one asks you if you know why you are here. Puzzled, you reply in the negative.

They say that Burning Man is one of the seven Pure Lands on this planet- one for each of the karmic clusters of the human species. These are places where catalytic tools for spiritual potential are plentiful. There are many scattered groups of humans around the globe doing intense spiritual development work, but when it comes to transformations happening at a large scale, this is one of the seven core locations. Each of these Pure Lands serves between 10,000 to 100,000 people a year. Burning Man, they say, is not what it looks like at first sight. The physical component of the temporary community is just a superficial facade of the spiritual processes that are being catalyzed under the surface. They explain that this is why when you go there the place becomes a new location for your dreams in which to take place; Burning Man is alive all-year round, but on the etheric level of reality, which can be accessed in a variety of states of consciousness including meditation, dreaming, and psychedelics. Indeed, many benefit from this Pure Land without ever attending, though having been there secures a karmic link to it. They say that there are some really important Light Workers here, whom you will be working with when you are ready. They say that you are not yet ready for that. But you are ready for something else.

You ask them where they are getting all of this- implausible-sounding- information. They say that their philosophy- and thus their understanding of what Burning Man is about- is the result of a synthesis of Buddhism, Metamodernism, and Martinus’s Philosophy. Their camp members tend to come from families with what they call “new religious energy”. Often they will have been born in religions such as Unitarian Universalism, Theosophy, Integral Theory, and New Age, to name a few. Based on the synthesis of these disparate sources, together with experiments they have conducted, and the download of information from spirit guides, they can affirm in consensus that this world is currently at the boundary between the immanent energy of the animal world and the human kingdom levels of consciousness. The monk who looks the youngest, around 18 years old, begins:

“You see, the cosmological principle states that, when seen on a sufficiently large scale, the universe looks regular and uniform. Locally, you see many different kinds of planets, stars, nebulae, brown dwarves, neutron stars, and so on. But on a grand scale there is asymptotically the same amount of matter, energy, dark matter, and dark energy, in large volumes of space. Similarly, the surrounding spiritual dimensions, locally, are very heterogeneous, but they are not a representative of the entirety of the multiverse. While evil can win within a given pocket of reality, on a large scale good prevails…. Well, it prevails in about 99.7% of the multiverse as far as we can determine with our spiritual telescopes.”

Then the person in the circle who looks the oldest, around 70 years old and with a heavy Swedish accent, continues:

“There are uncountably many flavors of consciousness, but they can all be placed on a cyclic evolutionary timeline. Buddhism divides the multiverse into six regions, each hosting beings who share the same main karmic signature: Gods, Titans, Human, Animal, Hungry Ghost, and Hell.”

A girl who looks of Indian descent, who is around 35 years old takes over: “Martinus’s philosophy claims that there are six basic energies of God. Each of us is an offspring of God, a soul/monad that reflects and diffracts divine light. The six stages are: plant kingdom, followed by the animal kingdom, then the real human kingdom, the kingdom of wisdom, the divine world, and the kingdom of bliss [source]. The cycle never ends, and it is driven by a principle of hunger and satiation.”

“In cases like earth, there are two energies with roughly comparable power over the beings who inhabit here. Although the keynote of the universe is Love with a capital L, locally, other energies tend to dominate.”

“Metamodernism”- the one who is bald and has a French accent, says- “asks us to consider how new forms of democracy and collective action can take place in light of an emerging cluster of people who have reached advanced psychological developmental stages (e.g. Kegan level 5). In the context of global spiritual transformation this is very relevant. What do we do as more people begin to pass over the threshold of 50% human consciousness? We are developing secular implementations of spiritual liquid democracy in order to overcome the game-theoretical short-comings of the current democratic system.”

You ask them if this is a common view. You had never heard of this kind of syncretism.  They tell you that the overall picture has been developed in Scandinavia and is gradually getting exported to other places in the world. After all, the Nordics are a culturally interesting corner of Europe in a somewhat similar way to California being a culturally interesting corner of America.

You ask them why you are hearing all of this. They said they were waiting for you. Incredulous, you start standing up to leave, but the Indian girl says:

“We all saw you the other day. You were a bright star on Wednesday night. We saw you saying hi to your grandfather, and then visiting the palace of light and its dome. We knew you would come over here later this week.”

“You mean that what I experienced on the God Helmet, MDMA, and later on with ketamine was not an illusion?” – you ask, shocked. She winks at you in response.

The man with the Swedish accent pours you another cup of rooibos. He says that at this camp shamans of consciousness gather to help you see through as many of your internal demons as possible. The atmosphere here is completely unlike the mental health institutions most people know. Here people don’t show any kind of learned helplessness (internally wondering “is there really anything that can be done in this situation?”). People here are trained technicians of consciousness. They have sharpened psychological tools to break into your psychological stress points and help you release anxiety about your life-decisions and embrace an open-ended forgiving approach to thinking about the future. Leaving your attachments is not a sacrifice when you are trading them for options that feel both good and more real.

On the table there is a book that you pick up and open at random. A pamphlet that was inside the book falls on the tea table, and you decide on reading the pamphlet instead: “[I]f enough people gather in these tents, our shamans can do efficient combinatoric searches for pairs of people in the group that can help each other grow as fast as possible in the span of 1 hour. The clock is ticking, and there is tremendous pressure and conviction that a breakthrough will happen.” The people at the table mention that a significant percentage of people who come to this camp are on serotonergic psychedelics, but the majority go sober. More than half are people who have been here before and had a breakthrough, and want to go and take more advanced classes. People remark on the intense contact-high of this particular region of the playa. Typically, people say that they had an inexplicable urge to come over to this camp, and they find ways of rationalizing it.

One of the techniques listed on the pamphlet is called “deprogramming meta-programmers”. You take a moment to let that sink in. “This sounds like a cult; only the CIA would get away with calling something ‘deprogramming’ and not sound like a cult.” – you think to yourself. “I thought Rainbow God was a cult, but this?”

But at this very moment you realize that you are, and have always been, a prisoner of your reward architecture. You’ve been programmed by evolution to execute adaptations you are not even aware of. These animal urges… they don’t feel like yours. “What is going on?”- you wonder. From the inside, certain things feel right and others feel wrong and you don’t even know why. Sure, you can justify your feelings by claiming direct and exclusive access to the universe’s utility function. “What is this?”- You look at your hands and you have a tremendous vision of your hands being like claws. You imagine all of the terrible things for which human hands have been used throughout history.

You start identifying with the abstract human rather than with yourself as a particular human. The vision of all humans sharing a divine essence comes over you. But why do you have these animal feelings? You feel in you the demon-like cast of emotions that allows the persecution, bullying, and torturing of other sentient beings. You experience profound disgust at the realization that these underly many of your dearly coveted self-concepts.

“Am I experiencing a bad trip?” – you ask them. “No, what is happening to you is that you are at the fence between animal energies and the human kingdom. You seem to be hovering close to the very middle, and you recently crossed the threshold where 51% of you can contain human kingdom energies. The interference is highly uncomfortable, of that we are aware. But do not fear.” – You ask: “Are you killing my ego?” – They say: “No, your ego is committing suicide. You are about to cross over, and that’s why you are here.”

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Don’t Fear

“What happens when you have 51% of human kingdom energy?”- you wonder out loud, tripping pretty hard by this point. “Well, that is a milestone of sorts, because it forces some realignments inside you. There is some risk of falling into Messiah complexes, manic states, and self-harm. With regards to self-harm, it is important to acclimatize you to the fact that the craving for non-existence is itself one of the animal energies. Given reincarnation and the oneness of consciousness, self-harm is strictly counter-productive. Philosophies like negative utilitarianism and antinatalism are fantasies of systematizers who are, precisely, craving non-existence to such an extent that they create a worldview to relieve that craving.”

They tell you that you have also been imprinted with quasi-parental figures primarily concerned with the replication of their attachments and vices throughout your life, be it teachers, advisors, company CEOs, or even your boss. Your imprinting will determine whether you emphasize fast or slow reproductive strategies (cf. evolutionary psychopathology). The people in Camp Replicator helped you figure out who has imprinted you. The mock confrontation with your boss was a psychological technique that effectively works by helping your System 1 come to terms with the fact that your quasi-parental figures are almost certainly constraining your behavior out of neuroticism rather than thought-through rational analysis and altruism. Camp Anti-Replicator, now, is helping you with a push in contextualizing your suffering in a larger picture that allows you to identify with spirit rather than with your animal reproductive drive.

“We are not a religion; we are a diaspora of students of the spiritual sciences. We don’t need dogma, because we have Abhijñā (‘direct knowledge’).”- says the 18 year old.

He continues: One of the most important sociological theories they deploy involves realizing that social movements work by providing an internal voice for people to be able to deal with their internalized authority figures. No social movement starts out from the altruistic desires of people, at least not on people dominated by animal consciousness. Beyond social signaling theory (cf. Mating Mind, Elephant in the Brain), the human mind has many tricks up its sleeves to transmute growth-oriented energy into the execution of replicator strategies. The true reason for this involves the relative low density of dark energy in this part of the universe, which biases physical evolution towards entropic finite games and away from negentropic infinite games.

“God of the Old Testament was really a Wrathful Deity. Marcionism and Catharism knew this truth, but it was suppressed by the more dominant replicator-based and politically powerful conservative spirit of the time, which sanctified the God of the Old Testament and pretended it was the same being as Jesus.” – Says the Indian girl. “Jesus was a Bodhisattva world-redeemer who came here to break a link in the chain of tit-for-tat karma of the animal consciousness level.”

You open the pamphlet again. The section is titled “The stages of spiritual evolution”:

– 1. Nature spiritism/shamanism
– 2. Multi-god religions
– 3. Mono-theistic religions
– 4. Hollow mono-theism (“hey man, nobody believes this nonsense about the virgin birth anyways but we just pretend to go along”)
– 5. Cynical materialism/atheism (money and power and NO re-incarnation)
– 6. Humane materialism (“Let’s all be friends but there is still no God”)
– 7. Low quality spirituality/New Age (“Peace, man. Let’s all be friends and smoke weed and not do anything practical. SOMETHING grander is going on. But we don’t have a clue about it.”)
– 8. Mature spiritual instinct. Religions, atheism and New Age now all seem a bit childish. Deep inner growing seed of spiritual knowing. The divine is real but undefined. Interest in mystics like Martinus emerge.
– 9. Cosmic glimpses. One sees the divine workings behind the veil for brief moments but still too immature to put the pieces together.
– 10. Full blown cosmic consciousness. Like Martinus, Buddha and most likely Jesus Christ. Everything is completely intuitive. You are one with God, it all makes sense and you can tap into any answer about the cosmos at any time.

The guy with the Swedish accent says: “Good, you are reading about the stages. I’d say the world is now roughly between #4 and #5, with some regional variations. For example, places like Denmark and Norway are centered around #5 and #6, whereas places like Saudi Arabia are on average between #3 and #4. Burning Man and the other Pure Lands are designed to concentrate people who are between #6 and #7, and moving towards #8.”

They said that you now know what you needed to know. You are free to hang out and ask more questions, but to feel free to walk out any time. You feel a high level of energy coursing through your veins, purifying your sense of self, making it more humane. You decide to continue reading the pamphlet:

“When Professor Christopher M. Bache was asked what was the most important thing that he learned from taking LSD in high doses in silent darkness more than 70 times, he responded:

The most important? That the universe is the manifest body of a Divine Being of unimaginable intelligence, compassion, clarity, and power, that we are all aspects of this Being, never separated from it for a moment, that we are growing ever-more aware of this connection, that physical reality emerges out of Light and returns to Light continuously, that Light is our essential nature and our destiny, that all life moves as One, that reincarnation is true, that there is a deep logic and significance to the circumstances of our lives, that everything we do contributes to the evolution of the whole, that our awareness continues in an ocean of time and a sea of bliss when we die, that we are loved beyond measure and that humanity is driving towards an evolutionary breakthrough that will change us and life on this planet at the deepest level. Take your pick.

(Source: Meet the professor who self-administered 73 high-dose LSD sessions)

This is just one of the tens of thousands of people who reached level #9 in the last 50 years, and in the coming century we expect a few million people to get there.”

You save the pamphlet in your camelback, thank everyone at the table, drink the last bit of rooibos, and start taking off. “One more thing” – the 18 year old says – “you will confront a difficult moral dilemma tonight. Keep your heart open.”

As you leave, you pass by the same place where people were meditating in front of the caterpillar statue. But the statue is not there anymore, and the people who are there are now completely different. More so, they are now facing the opposite direction… meditating in front of a 4m-tall butterfly statue, which you swear wasn’t anywhere to be seen when you arrived.

You hurry up and try to get back to your camp before people leave to see the Man burn. On your way back, you overhear a conversation between two 20-something girls who happen to be biking in the same direction as you for what seems like an eternity. One of the girls points out that she went to Burning Man with the intention of having fun and maybe some casual sex with older men. But she is now feeling a bit disgusted with her original intention, that she feels drawn to starting a family with a beta boy who, she now realizes, she has been in love with for years but wouldn’t admit it to herself. The other girl kept saying to speak louder, that the acid was making it hard for her to make out the words of what she was saying. Soon enough they turn right at a junction as you continue forward, riding fast to make sure you don’t miss your campmates. You notice you came across a large number of Human-shaped sculptures. Where are the beasts? You don’t see them anywhere.

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You arrive late by a couple minutes. Thankfully Astro Burrito is still there, and he informs you that there is a second wave of people who will be departing in half an hour. You quickly eat some granola bars, drink a protein shake, and swallow some dried apricots, and to add some hydration, drink the last soda water can left in the cooler. Astro Burrito hands you some mixed nuts and orange slices. You refill your camelback, and join the group of people right outside the camp who will be the second wave. 5 minutes later you all start walking towards the Man as a group.

You are still a little high from the 2C-B, but you feel yourself coming down. You walk alongside Astro Burrito, and you share with him some of the things you experienced at Camp Anti-Replicator.

Astro Burrito tells you to consider the fact that Burning Man is a breeding ground for meme-plexes that reproduce in an ecosystem of people in altered states of consciousness open to be infected by new memes. “What survives in here is mood congruent… so you shouldn’t be surprised to experience extremely compelling theme-camps with a worldview to- subtly or otherwise- pass on to you.”- He says. You reply: “I guess there is a lot of memetic evolution going on here.” He responds: “Yeah, right? Somebody should write an article about what Burning Man theme camps will be like in, er… 10 years from now. I’m really curious about that myself.”

“But how about the apparent independent memetic convergence of people who meditate and take psychedelics over the course of many years? The pamphlet of Camp Anti-Replicator talked about how this convergence is happening throughout the world even in places not exposed to those memes.” – you ask him.

“You really have to wonder about the extent to which pre-existing beliefs, inclinations, and wishes for a satisfying positive view of reality figure in a person’s psychedelic revelations. Indeed, as we know from Steve Lehar’s epic trip reports, not being confused with implicit direct realism about perception protects you from reaching spiritual conclusions. Direct realists about perception, admittedly, probably have the wildest trips.” He then goes on into a complex narrative about how you can think of communities of people as metal alloys. “Think of a certain type of people with characteristic cognitive and personality traits as being analogues to atoms of a certain type. When you bind together many of those atoms as a group, the material has some unique properties. But as soon as you sprinkle atoms from a different metal, the overall properties of the resulting alloy can be radically different than the pure version. The same happens with meme-plexes. Burning Man allows new memetic alloys… which can have unexpectedly sticky qualities you wouldn’t easily predict from the contents alone. Be wary of things that sound too good to be true.”

burning-man-1At the half-way point between Esplanade and the Man your campmates stop at some port-a-potties for a bathroom break. After you pee, you join your campmates in waiting for everyone to be done. Out of the corner of your eye you see rapidly-blinking lights and hear loud laughter. Turning in that direction, you notice a large group of college-aged chaotic neutral ravekids playing with an interactive sculpture. You have a bad feeling about this. They seem to be climbing it in unsafe ways, and playfully daring each other to interact with it creatively. They are clearly too excited, intoxicated, and unaware of the potential danger… and nobody is looking after them. You tell your campmates that you will stay there to look after them. Astro Burrito tells you that if you stay there you won’t be able to see the Man burn with them. “There is a sea of people out there, don’t you remember? You won’t be able to find us if you don’t come with us.” Determined, you insist. Astro Burrito says: “It’s your call. See you back at the Camp late, later tonight, or tomorrow, as the case may be.”

Your campmates continue onwards towards the Man as you stay behind, watching over the guys. One of them reaches the top and shouts: “This is freedom!” and opens his arms wide, making a Titanic pose. “This is Fre…” he shouts, but loses equilibrium, and falls six meters towards the ground, landing on his left leg, which snaps, and then landing on his torso on his left side, breaking a couple ribs. The poor guy starts screaming in agony. “Fuck! I knew this was going to happen” – you think to yourself. You run to him, but realize that’s not useful, and course-correct towards the nearest Ranger post, which is about 250 meters away. The ranger jumps on a Jeep and drives with you to the site to confirm the location, then backs out and drives to the closest medical center. There they dispatch a medical unit, and you stay there. From afar, you can start to see the Man being set alight. You feel shaken, but in your heart you feel like you did the right thing. The Man gets fully covered in flames as the medical unit comes back with the ravekid with a twisted leg, biting a pacifier and looking slightly less distressed than before. The friends thank you for watching over them, and gift you some Kandi.

You climb a nearby platform, and watch the Man burn slowly. Then a powerful feeling overtakes you: “Oh dear… the Man is not being burned… it’s being illuminated! Dear heaven! I now realize Burning Man was a Symbol of the dawn of the Human Kingdom all along!”

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You walk over to your camp, processing what happened today. Your body is resonating to an energy you are not used to. It’s as if the burden of competition… the drive to prove yourself to others, has exited every cell of your body. Green etheric energy and a sense of connection to Gaia electrifies your body. “I feel like I can appreciate anew the point of view where all of life is one, and we are all connected at the root” – you think to yourself.

Galaxy Fox is at the camp, and she is applying make-up to herself, and is wearing a gorgeous butterfly costume. She didn’t go see the Man because she wanted to watch it from the highest place in the playa, which was a five-story-tall tower at 4:00 and E. She said it looked amazing, and she also sensed a deep connection to the planet and all life while watching it burn. She then hands you a vegan alcosynth grasshopper, and you both chill for a bit. You then hit a THC vape pen, and decide to go for a long walk and admire art you haven’t yet seen. It all feels ethereal, like you are in a dream. Perhaps the veil of reality is lifting? Is reality a collective hallucination? The levity of being overwhelms you. You hold hands with Galaxy Fox from time to time, in a friendly way, and dance with her whenever an art car drives by. At 4AM both of you are exhausted, and you return to your tent. You pass out immediately after laying on your sleeping bag.

(Second) Sunday: Continuity Camp

Our identity is that which we seek to preserve.

– William Eden (HT Divia Caroline)

Your first thought upon waking up: “Did yesterday really happen?” You glance over your luggage and sure enough, there is the Kandi the ravekids gave you. Your recollection of last night feels very dreamy and ethereal, not to speak of your visit to Camp Anti-Replicator. That said, the pamphlet you took is still on your camelback. You open it at random and start reading it. “Once you cross the threshold of 51% human kingdom consciousness vibration energy in your body, you will feel the need to go back and fix the troubles you have caused to others during your life, as well as try to eliminate all suffering throughout the living world. This is a very heavy burden for many people to bear, and subconsciously you are likely to suppress some of your insights for this reason. Have faith; insight comes in waves. Do not be alarmed if you can’t reach that magical place in the near future. It always comes back, eventually. And with each wave, the human kingdom energy plants deeper roots in your mind, body, and soul.” You feel at peace. But in addition to this inner peace, you notice that your desire for new experiences isn’t gone. You should hurry up and get ready to explore before all theme-camps pack their stuff!

You know that many people are leaving today, and you need to start packing up yourself. Come to think of it, you don’t really know whether any theme-camp is still up and running. But you will look for it. You borrow a bike and from 1PM to 2:30PM you bike around looking for an active camp. The outer rings of the city are starting to look a bit deserted, and even the Esplanade is starting to empty out. Between C and 5:15, though, you spot a camp that’s still looking quite active. It is leaving a little later than the rest. The camp is called “Continuity Camp”. It turns out they make it a point to provide shelter for people who need to stay Sunday night. Many people miss their ride, or have some kind of car problem, or are too exhausted to pack and leave. The reasons are myriad, and inevitably a few hundred people find themselves lost Sunday night. To remedy this, the camp doubles as a shelter Sunday night for people who’ve experienced any planning mishap and need to stay the night to sort it out. That said, the camp’s core structures are coming down, and you can tell that some of the sculptures are already gone, given the visible craters on the ground.

You park the bike, and venture in. There is a kitchen still open under a large shade structure. In the background, pieces by classical Mexican composers are playing (Arturo Márquez, Miguel Bernal Jiménez, José Pablo Moncayo, and others). You also notice that the walls are decorated with strange symbols with eyes of different sizes, fire rings, rainbows, plants, etc.

They welcome you with a plate of black beans, tortillas buttered with coconut oil, cacao nibs, and fresh slices of avocado. They also give you a cinnamon horchata agua fresca. You look around at the tables and see a group of people having a friendly discussion, so you ask them if you can join them, and when they say yes you sit down and start eating.

One of the persons in the group is part of the camp. She explains that this camp’s theme is centered around the the concept of continuity, which in turn gives rise to questions about personal identity. How do you truly know that you will wake up in your body tomorrow? How about a couple of seconds ago? Are you the same “subject of experience” as your past and future self? And how about others?

She goes on: “There are three main views of personal identity. First you have Closed Individualism, which is the view that you are a person, that is, whose existence is limited to a linear narrative or a story over time. Most people are Closed Individualists, and identify with their bodies, memories, or some kind of transcendent individual soul. Then you have Empty Individualism, which is the view that you are just a moment of experience, and that in some ways you only exist for a tiny slice of time and then disappear… though this gets complicated by what your theory of time is… so some say you really are just there forever, like a Platonic experience in the sea of conscious possibilities. Then you have Open Individualism, which is the view that we are all, on some fundamental level, One. All of us, as apparent separate beings, are different facets or projections of the one universal consciousness.”

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She points you to the symbols hanging on the walls. “The first three symbols over there represent each of these views. The one with a ring of plants and as many eyes as individual lines represents Closed Individualism. Each being has a different size, shape, and lifetime. Like trees, identities are messy and complicated; each bearing its own unique temporally-extended narrative. The symbol with a large eye in the center and a rainbow represents Open Individualism. It is the consciousness of All Is One, which has a full-spectrum rainbow flavor. And the one on the right is Empty Individualism. Each moment of experience is its own unbridgeable monad, separated from every other monad by the fundamental fire of differentiation.”

You ponder about it for a moment, and then ask her: “What are the pros and cons of these views? Why should someone believe one over another?” To which she says: “There are good philosophical arguments for each of these views. Contrary to what most people believe, it is not like the common-sense view has as much solid backing as we feel it does by default. Aside from the philosophical question of which one is true, there are game-theoretical implications as well as psychological effects on people from each of these views. Most commentators agree that Open Individualism solves a lot of game-theoretical problems, and if we could make society more Open Individualistic we would generally experience more interest in solving current coordination impasses. That said, people who take a given view very seriously tend to experience some archetypical effects. Open Individualists tend to become either solipsistic or messianic, which are both usually dysfunctional states in the long-term. Closed Individualists feel isolated, and generally experience intense fear of death. And when someone believes in Empty Individualism too strongly at a gut level, they tend to experience a sort of motivational collapse. So there are pragmatic considerations when it comes to adopting some of these views.”

As you finish your food and drink, someone comes over to ask you if you want dessert. You agree, and they give you some quince paste (“ate“) and tequila lime ice-cream, which they sprinkle with some Miguelito. You take a minute to delight in this engrossing mixture of flavors. You then tune back into the conversation:

“Then there are people who have what we might call ‘hybrid’ views on personal identity. Really, to get there you need to give some credence to, well, paraconsistent logic people.”

Someone overhearing the conversation becomes startled. He turns around and asks: “Wait, are paraconsistent logic people real?”

And she responds: “Well, yes and no.” – people laugh. She pauses for a moment. She then goes on- “For people who hold two of those views at once, you could think of what is going on as them experiencing a bistable representation for their metaphysics. Insofar as language cannot fully specify a worldview, what remains undecidable from your linguistic axioms is fundamentally ambiguous. More strongly, some people assert that reality itself (rather than just their representations of it) is fundamentally ambiguous at the most basic level. Personally, I’ve gotten a lot of mileage from exploring that view. After all, questions like ‘why is there something rather than not?’ seem very robust against classical logic accounts.”

She goes on to explain how computational theories of identity have open, closed, and empty versions. Even philosophy of physics ultimately faces the same questions as philosophy of mind, she says, as physicists struggle to define boundaries between physical events, and grasp at straws like quantum decoherence to identify ‘natural kinds’.

“Hybrid views are more common than you may realize. Look over there, those three symbols represent the three possible hybrid mixtures of two accounts of personal identity.”

“I think that the most common hybrid view is Closed Individualism + Open Individualism, the symbol on the left. This view is extremely common in spiritual communities. Basically, this is the view of people who somehow combine the existence of an ultimate God who connects us all at the root of our being, and individual souls that carry our karma around. Outside of esoteric Buddhism and other obscure spiritual philosophies, few religious communities really take Empty Individualism seriously. For them, the continuity from one moment to the next is not questioned, so a ‘soul’ ontology is usually the philosophical backdrop of their worldview.”

“Interestingly, physicists are perhaps the people who are most likely to be Open + Empty Individualists, the symbol in the middle. Namely, they will assign to each moment of experience an eternal here-and-now spatio-temporal coordinate while also recognizing the fundamental unity of reality in the form of a universal quantum field. Monistic physicalism entails that consciousness is the fire that breaths life into the equations of physics, so to monists who take quantum mechanics seriously reality is equivalently describable as the total wave-function, or the collection of topologically-bound quantum coherent bundles. Two sides of one coin: either the universe is a collection of connected coherent bundles, or it is a unified field whose dynamic generates coherent pockets of energy. So for them, you have the symbol in the middle, which combines a central observer and countless ‘individual reflectors’ of the central light corresponding to bundles of coherent energy.”

“What about the one on the right?” – asks a fully-dusted naked man, who recently sat down with a bowl of black beans. She says: “That’s a very rare view to have. In some ways people who are functionalists in that they believe that consciousness is the result of the internal dynamics of information-processing systems are drawn towards this view. They, for example, imagine consciousness as having two facets: the instantaneous state of the system and at the same time the entire range of possible configurations of the system, which is what determines the meaning of a particular state. A system’s state is meaningless without the context of counterfactual states it might have been in, is a common trope in this view. A neighboring view is the one which says that the essence of a conscious system is its utility function (aka. its ‘values’), which again gives rise to a co-dependent relationship between the individual states and the complete being.”

The dusted man says: “That’s how I think of my life. Sure, I experience many different things over, say, even a single day, and there is a sense in which each of those experiences are separate. But they all share a common theme- they are part of a life-arc with definite goals and obstacles. So each moment is strung together with the other ones in a coherent way.”

She adds: “For example, when you are in your room, look at the decorations and objects around you. Each portrait, each drawing, blanket, pillow, furniture and even the overall feng shui of the space, can be attributed to the decisions and actions of experiences that exist as moments in your life. You could think of what they left behind as a monument to a moment of your life. It helps to try to feel grateful to “them”. They are there, really, truly, existing, just like you now, just elsewhere in space-time. And they generated intentions for you now, for the chain of future moments of experience. One can feel gratitude for all of those moments of experience over there in the past trying to build a good future for you here. When you have a moment of peace, and feel love and gratitude to all who helped you be where you are now, send them a message: ‘This level of creation and kindness will eventually carry you to the success you are looking for. Thank you, friend.'”

“What about the big symbol over there?” – you ask, pointing to the largest image, which is hanging from the ceiling and prominently displayed. She says: “We are fans of the idea of ‘transcending and including’ worldviews. Many of us have converged on a view of identity that could be described as the paraconsistent superposition of Open, Closed, and Empty Individualism.”

Open_Closed_Empty_Ring

“Contrary to common-sense views, this one takes as granted that you can exist in multiple places, times, and scales at once. Open Individualism already takes the view that you are all beings in existence. But the Promethean state, as we call it, goes further by acknowledging the seriousness of the topological folds that create the simultaneous reality of differentiated beings and universal consciousness. You are an eddy in the universal wavefunction of quantum mechanics, and your personal self is also an eddy but at a higher topological level of organization. So in reality each moment of experience is topologically distinct, each human or animal being is also topologically distinct, and the field upon which this happens is the shared ground of being. You are a topologically enclosed eddy in the life-flux of the universe. So all of Open, Closed, and Empty Individualism are true in their own terms, and yet without negating each other.”

She goes on: “Some people go at it from the point of view of physics. Feynman diagrams show how reality can be described as the sum total of all possible interactions of a universal Platonic particle with itself. Reality is what emerges from the fact that the Big Electron can pretend to be somebody else, when crossing its own alternate trajectory, to function as a stranger with whom to interact.”

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“This brings us to the Prime Radiant. You can experience self-interference patterns of the one universal mind while on peak LSD states, for instance. Here, read this transcript” – she hands everyone a little card that reads:

Prime Radiant is the concept that all that exists in physicality is one point of life, whizzing around at such speed, and with such freedom, that it creates all that we see in the universe. Now what that means is there’s one ‘atom’, if you like, and it whizzes around the universe, the whole universe, at incredible speed, such that it appears almost to cross itself sometimes, as it is going around, it does it so quickly it will come back to itself and appear to almost create a second point, and it goes around to create a third point, and so on, and that, believe it or not, is what creates everything that you see in our whole galaxy. It is doing it at such speed, this one tiny point of life, it is going around at such speed, that it is creating everything that you can see, not only Planet Earth, not only every blade of grass, every animal, every grain of sand, every person, but every planet, every star, every thing in the whole universe, all being created [nearly] instantly from this one tiny point of life.

Difficult to believe, but it is apparently so.

Now, this is true, but the story is a lot more complicated than that. In that there is a Prime Radiant for every person alive. Each and every person has their version of Prime Radiant, which operates under the control of their consciousness forming the universe in which they live. That is why no two people have identical lives. In other words, you probably understood, but what they are saying is, that for every person alive on the Planet Earth at the moment, I think there are about 7 billion people, there are 7 billion Prime Radiants, whizzing about, creating the universe exclusive to that one person, each person has a unique aspect whizzing around creating what they see and appreciate.

It may be difficult to imagine that you create a universe that is unique to you, but it is further complicated by the fact that by common agreement people can join their thoughts and agree to create similar universes or parts of universes in order to try to make sense of Life. But even that is not always quite the same. We have stated that in the case of a crime if the police asks witnesses what they saw, the descriptions can vary widely. That this is because we all create our versions of life and so we may not all see the same things. We might all see a crime but do not all see the same event.

Zero point energy, Bob Sanders 2019

“Do you just have these cards on hand all the time?” – you ask. “Yes, we print them in many different colors and shapes”- she responds. The dusted man sneezes, which causes a dust cloud to lift around him, which settles over 20 or so seconds as people laugh and stand up to undust themselves.

She continues: “Many colors and shapes… but they all say the same thing. Well, perhaps they say it in different words, and using unique metaphors, but there are many ways of saying the same thing. The Promethean view of identity is beyond any particular qualia, particular points in time and space, particular causes and conditions. Since reference to a particular is not necessary to express the view, as it posits the non-conflict between instantaneous, personal, and cosmic identity, one can think of this philosophy as a universally-accessible Schelling point in concept-space. There are innumerable ways of expressing it in concrete form. Mythically, we could say that this is the ultimate referent of any conversation to have ever taken place, if only had such conversation been extended for long enough to catch its own tail. This is the ultimate view when it comes to the progression of transcending and including worldviews, as it points to the asymptote of synthesis at the limit of the development of the concept of Self.”

A young guy who recently sat down mentions: “Sadly, this view entails that you are, in a very non-trivial way, the non-human animals suffering in factory farms.” She agrees to that. The discussion is then wrapped up with an exposition of the Buddhist notion of the interpenetration of all 10 realms and how this also applies to interpenetrations of philosophies of personal identity. Analogous to how Tiantai Buddhism proclaims that: “One thought contains three thousand worlds”, so does Continuity Camp proclaim that oneness, individuality, and instantaneous separation are inter-dependent ontological states.

You figure that the religion of this camp- trying to articulate it in as few words as possible- could be expressed thus: “The universal essence devoid of inherent properties was clever to create a reality in which questions of self, time, space, and continuity are fundamentally ambiguous. The engine of creation is not a lawful and dependable ground of being, but rather, it is what emerges out of the compromises that inconsistent ontologies need to make in order to coexist.”

On your way out you ask people why they were so keen on pushing an artistic vibe of the 20th Century Mexican intelligentsia. Not that you had anything against it, but it certainly seemed random to you. They tell you conflicting stories. One person says that this is an artistic style chosen to ground people and help them ease their way back into civilization where people have strong identities and attachments. That a good way to ease your way into the madness that is ego-identification in modern cities is to show you a defunct artistic expression with which a lot of people used to identify at some point in the past. Alternatively, the second person explains, the vibe is used as a form of meditation into a computational theory of identity. Namely, that in some accounts of identity, semantic and episodic memories fall on a secondary position relative to the preponderance of felt-sense. If you can set alight the essence of a past aesthetic, you are, quite literally- and perhaps in the only sense that mattersreviving the people of that historical period. Thus, they all meditate into becoming the life-force which identified with 20th Century Mexican Nationalism as a philosophy of identity, and use that experience to feel, process, and let go of the pain of identification. Alas, this second person seemed high as a kite, so you figure “who knows how much he actually knew about what was going on?”.

You bike back to your camp, eat a protein bar, drink coconut water, and have some white tea. You don’t feel very hungry for some reason, but you put some high-calorie foods into a bag for later, just in case. You walk towards the Temple with the two thirds of your camp that haven’t departed and aren’t actively involved in taking down structures at the moment.

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Temple Reflection

When you arrive at the ring of people around the structure you feel peaceful, pensive, and puzzled. Your campmates also seem to share your general state of solemn satisfied exhaustion. You have been exposed to so many views over the last week that you don’t know where to start. How to put all these views together into a global worldview? Do you even have to?

You realize that every camp has its own way of painting itself as the “final point of view”. As if rehearsing, you utter quietly: “A meme is a unit of cultural meaning that can be passed around from mind to mind. A particular joke is a meme. A particular name is a meme. Most memes make references to other memes. This right here is a meme. When a large bundle of memes support each other we call those meme-plexes. For example, religions and ideologies are meme-plexes because they use memes that fit well together.” You still remember giving that presentation in middle-school, where you introduced your classmates to memes. “No, not the things your parents and older siblings share online in Internet 2.0 social media. The concept of a ‘meme’ is a much more profound and wide-reaching idea.” – you still remember other students passing around Internet memes (i.e. image macros) of you explaining what a “meme really was.”

Your thoughts are interrupted when you notice that the Temple is being prepared to be burned. A campmate who was involved in building the Temple this year tells you that the theme for the structure is “Temple of Courage” (cf. Temple Themes). You weren’t aware that the Temple has a theme each year. You had visited the Temple this year, and the thought crossed your mind that it takes courage to visit it, considering the depth of grief and sorrow that is often felt in it. At the same time, you feel that you have been courageous during this visit, too. You set the goal of visiting a different camp each day and deeply engaging with its worldview. In retrospect, you realize that it really takes courage to delve into new meme-plexes, let alone full-stack ones. Being presented with compelling views that, if you were to take seriously, would mean the radical restructuring of your mind could be a dodgy matter.

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This week you consciously chose to be as open as possible to every new worldview you encountered. You were seriously shaken by more than one of these visits, but it currently feels that this has been for the better. A courageous move to expand yourself, whose consequences are yet to be seen.

You now wonder about what makes a meme-plex “full-stack”. If you recall correctly, meme-plexes are “full-stack” when they can generate a defensible and stable response to most questions humans would ask, including how the universe was made, what is love, and what it means to laugh. Usually they provide an account of what is, and what is good (i.e. valuable). Full-stack meme-plexes are immensely more powerful than other meme-plexes, because as such they do not have ‘any cracks’ from the point of view of people who buy into them; they seem “air-tight from the inside”, so to speak.

So what is the big-picture story of the camps you visited this week? Well, Camp Longevity has the mindset of assigning infinite weight to your own life and trying to survive personally and promote personal survival for others. Rainbow God wants to explore the entire state-space of consciousness. Camp Valence wants to eliminate suffering and maximize bliss, which in practice may involve ultra-blissful drugs and brain modifications. Camp Superintelligence considers intelligence intrinsically valuable and is concerned with the arms races that may ensue with drastically new intelligence coming online. Camp Replicator says that we are bound by our subconscious desires and express them in unproductive ways. We can address them directly, unleash all the built-up tension, and become free from self-replicating patterns. The Anti-Replicator Camp would say we are on a spiritual path of development which uses replicators as a means for learning. Ultimately, we will be grown out of replicator desires and focus our spiritual energy on loving each other. And finally, Continuity Camp would say that we are not who we think we are; being individual humans is an illusion. It is evolutionarily adaptive, but in order to save the world we need to agree on an expanded sense of identity.

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Life is not like Scrabble… you need to know the meaning of the concepts in order to win. In that sense, to play ideological rock-paper-scissors you need a good model of each ideology both on its own terms and in the terms of other ideologies. You ask yourself: How would each of these meme-plexes think of each other?

Longevity can be attacked by Continuity by emphasizing that Open Individualism (i.e. oneness) suggests we should not put all our eggs in the basket of personal survival. Longevity can attack Superintelligence by saying that working on AI is to betray humanity. In here, Rainbow God can come in and argue that both Longevity and Superintelligence are working on the same goals, but they do not realize that yet. More so, that the goals of Rainbow God are a super-set of all that could be achieved by both Longevity and Superintelligence. That is, mapping out the state-space of consciousness gets you both the ability to understand what survival even means, and also access to states of consciousness critical for sentient superintelligence.

Interestingly, the pair of Anti-Replicator and Valence seem to have fundamental disagreements. Anti-Replicator will tell you that good comes from our spiritual development and the Love with a capital L that emerges out of that. Valence would say that love, capital letter or not, is a label used to identify positive qualia related to pair-bonding, family, friendship and other evolutionarily adaptive social behaviors. In turn, what makes love valuable is the high valence that such states of consciousness tend to exhibit. MDMA imbues high valence across your entire world-simulation. The fact that you describe this experience with words like “I love the world and the world loves me” is the result of trying to put the experience into words. But high-valence is what is behind the “magic” of the state when it comes down to scientific fact. Anti-Replicator would simply say that such a point of view exists in people who are close to the boundary between animal and human realms, such that they try to make sense of love in materialistic ways. The conclusions are always wrong because the ontology they start with is incorrect (love as high valence which corresponds to particular material configurations). Each paradigm can explain the other by including it. There are converts in both directions. These worldviews are experienced as bistable perceptions to some people. Camp Continuity could come and say that their views are complementary rather than contradictory. Each experience is a mixture of Empty, Open, and Closed ontologies, and high-valence is achieved when there is the right balance between them. Thus love is fundamentally connected to the act of defeating duality of self, which involves undoing ancient symmetry breaking operations. Thus love is both the result of mathematical harmony, and a metaphysical quality associated with selfless giving.

The highest expression of God, as it were, is not the one that incorporates the most diverse range of qualia, but rather, the one that incorporates the largest amount of coherent energy in a state of harmony.

– Camp Valence

Now, Rainbow God and Valence would probably also have a complicated relationship. In truth, having access to high-valence states enables you to have the hyper-motivation necessary to explore the state-space of consciousness. And doing such explorations, in turn, leads to discoveries about how to create better high-valence states. Rainbow God, on the one hand, will continue on exploring as long as there is more to be found. Camp Valence might retort that learning about each of the possible varieties of beetles is not rational considering the opportunity cost. Why not leave aside variety for variety’s sake, and focus on making high-tech bliss instead? Rainbow God would feel defensive here. It would say that the whole is more than the sum of its parts. So far, pursuing full-spectrum experiences seem to be exhilarating and wonderful. Valence might then say that this could be an illusion caused by endogenous opioid release in response to novelty. Not everyone seems to enjoy exploring consciousness for its own sake, and doing so is correlated with general openness to experience. As an axis of human variability, this would suggest that people are more or less drawn towards novelty. So rather than fixating on novelty, we should investigate what makes novelty in some people feel so good. Despite these misgivings, Valence would still be open to there being a fundamental connection between valence and diversity of qualia. Both camps would agree that there might be a possible dual relationship between the symmetry of the mathematical object isomorphic to a person’s experience and the rainbowey-ness of the experience. As such, both meme-plexes would keep an eye on each other and cooperate insofar as it is mutually beneficial.

What about Porky’s? Porky’s (i.e. Camp Replicator) could argue that people going to every other camp is merely expressing and projecting their unmet psychological needs. People will be drawn towards the ideas that fulfill a certain void in them. So for example, people who support Continuity Camp have a higher existential distress baseline than the average person such that belonging to a community that reassures them of the survival of oneself-as-consciousness fulfills the need they started with. Porky’s wouldn’t necessarily disagree about key memes of other meme-plexes, but it would nonetheless be cynical about the typical motivations that draw people to these meme-plexes. Longevity is in fact a social club for people of all ages who enjoy the company of young-looking people. Valence responds to people who empathize too strongly with others. Superintelligence is a club for people insecure about their own intelligence who want to compare themselves against other smart people. Anti-replicator is dual with Porky’s; they emphasize the same facts but interpret them with complementary metaphysics.

A friend hands you an electrum necklace, and tells you that it is meant to materialize this very moment, as you receive it. The Temple is set alight as you are tying it to put around your neck. This moment. This moment. This moment. Are we counting moments, or are we counting selves? You get lost in a long now.

Your mind is surprisingly clear for being so cluttered with memes and meme-plexes. The image comes to you that your mind right now is working as a council, or general assembly, of seven tulpas representing each of the seven meme-plexes.

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The meme-plex convention.

The experience felt odd. All your life you’ve identified with a given point of view, especially as it pertains to your view of the world. But right now your experience is simultaneously hosting meme-plexes in what feels like an impartial space. The task at hand is not the competition between the meme-plexes in order to take over center-stage, but their incorporation into a meta-space which can simultaneously host each meme-plex.

In a sense, you feel like seven people at once. Each of these beings being your answer to the question “who would I become if I were to have this meme-plex as my default view?” You remember the following quote:

We aren’t afraid of dying, we’re afraid of living while never doing anything of value.

– Hi There

You make a prayer. The prayer is to be free from fear when considering alternate worldviews. You hear some chanting in the background, and after a few more minutes the Temple collapses. Everyone cheers, and then people go quiet again. The now-flat incandescent surface burns slowly but steadily. It seems like the tulpas are learning to coexist in your mind. They are learning to be there and trying to provide value without overtaking your world-model, at least not without your permission. Are the tulpas friends? Not really. But they also are not hostile against each other. Rather, they personify rational worldviews open to new evidence and arguments. If you try to imagine them, they feel like large statues of peaceful Gods minding their own business. They are all open to being asked questions and to meet each other for conversation. This feels good. It feels peaceful.

You overhear a campmate say: “I took a microdose of 2C-G-5 three days ago, and I can still feel it. I like it, but it made sleeping really hard last night.” This is the cue that makes you aware that your campmates are getting ready to leave. You take a last long look at the fire and wonder about how many selves watched this event. You walk back to your camp with your campmates. People are now really engaged in dismantling structures and cleaning. The last remaining structure is the roofed dance area, which has cushions and blankets for the people who will take it down tomorrow, and a hexayurt for those who will do the final MOOP sweep on Tuesday. You decline some nitrous and get ready to leave.

(Second) Monday

You wake up and load your vehicle with grey water from the camp along with all of your stuff. You look around and decide to make one more bike trip before taking off. You bike around with a borrowed bike. The place is about 90% deserted, which makes navigating a lot harder as the landmarks you got used to over the last week are gone. You bike towards the Temple. You notice a shiny dot at the distance, which you use as a guide. You arrive there and pick it up. It is an electrum necklace identical to the one you got last night. You then notice that you don’t have that necklace on. This must be it, you found your necklace and you weren’t even searching for it. In that moment you remember that the necklace was a symbol of the precise moment in which you received it. Paradoxically, both now and that time feel just as real. Perhaps, you wonder, this is my own proof that I exist over time. But you fail to translate your newfound intuition into words.

You then bike back to your car, and take off.


Thanks to: Mike Johnson, Romeo Stevens, David Pearce, Anders Amelin, Liam Brereton, Enrique Bojorques, Andrés Silva Ruiz, Alfredo Valverde, Duncan Wilson, Mac Davis, Mario Montano, Lauge, and playa friends Tryp, Special, Expo, Nectar, Daphne, Frank, Victor, and many others for the conversations that led to ideas featured in this text (both part 1 & 2).

Note: Apparently Buddhists did make Rainbow Body a core practice and got phenomenological mileage out of doing that.

Utilitronium Shockwaves vs. Gradients of Bliss

Excerpt from On utilitronium shockwaves versus gradients of bliss by David Pearce


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Utilitronium Shockwave: Turn your local Galaxy Super-Cluster into a Full-Spectrum Orgasm in 9 easy civilizational steps.

Why is the idea of life animated by gradients of intelligent bliss attractive, at least to some of us, whereas the prospect of utilitronium leaves almost everyone cold? One reason is the anticipated loss of self: if one’s matter and energy were converted into utilitronium, then intuitively the intense undifferentiated bliss wouldn’t be me. By contrast, even a radical recalibration of one’s hedonic set-point intuitively preserves the greater part of one’s values, memories and existing preference architecture: in short, personal identity. Whether such preservation of self would really obtain if life were animated by gradients of bliss, and whether such notional continuity is ethically significant, and whether the notion of an enduring metaphysical ego is even intellectually coherent, is another matter. Regardless of our answers to such questions, there is a tension between our divergent response to the prospect of cosmos-wide utilitronium and intelligent bliss. People rarely complain that e.g. orgasmic sexual ecstasy lasts too long, and that regrettably they lose their sense of personal identity while orgasm lasts. On the contrary: behavioural evidence strongly suggests that most men in particular reckon sexual bliss is too short-lived and infrequent. Indeed if such sexual bliss were available indefinitely, and if it were characterised by an intensity orders of magnitude greater than the best human orgasms, then would anyone – should anyone – wish such ecstasy to stop? Subjectively, utilitronium presumably feels more sublime than sexual bliss, or even whole-body orgasm. Granted the feasibility of such heavenly bliss, is viewing the history of life on Earth to date as mere stepping-stones to cosmic nirvana really so outrageous?

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Is attachment to your sense of self keeping you from embracing hedonium? Stop ‘Selfing’ with these 3 buddhist-approved Techniques!

For the foreseeable future, however, even strict classical utilitarians must work for information-sensitive gradients of intelligent bliss rather than raw undifferentiated pleasure. Classical hedonistic utilitarianism was originally formulated as an ethic for legislators, not biologists or computer scientists. Conceived in this light, the felicific calculus has been treated as infeasible. Yet a disguised implication of a classical utilitarian ethic in an era of mature biotechnology may be that we should be seeking to convert the world into utilitronium, generally assumed to be relatively homogenous matter and energy optimised for raw bliss. The “shockwave” in utilitronium shockwave alludes to our hypothetical obligation to launch von Neumann probes propagating this hyper-valuable state of matter and energy at, or nearly at, the velocity of light across our Galaxy, then our Local Cluster, and then our Local Supercluster. And beyond? Well, politics is the art of the possible. The accelerating expansion of the universe would seem to make further utilitronium propagation infeasible even with utopian technologies. Such pessimism assumes our existing understanding of theoretical physics is correct; but theoretical cosmology is currently in a state of flux.

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Utilitronium Shockwave? (cf. Hedonium)

Naively, the theoretical feasibility of utilitronium shockwave is too remote to sorry about. This question might seem a mere philosophical curiosity. But not so. Complications of uncertain outcome aside, any rate of time discounting indistinguishable from zero is ethically unacceptable for the ethical utilitarian. So on the face of it, the technical feasibility of a utilitronium shockwave makes working for its adoption ethically mandatory even if the prospect is centuries or millennia distant.

Existential Risk? Utilitarian ethics and speculative cosmology might seem far removed. But perhaps the only credible candidate naturalising value has seemingly apocalyptic implications that have never (to my knowledge) been explored in the scholarly literature. And can we seriously hope to be effective altruists in the absence of serviceable model of Reality?

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All-New “Life”! – Now animated by gradients of bliss. Pain-free!

Should existential risk reduction be the primary goal of: a) negative utilitarians? b) classical hedonistic utilitarians? c) preference utilitarians? All, or none, of the above? The answer is far from obvious. For example, one might naively suppose that a negative utilitarian would welcome human extinction. But only (trans)humans – or our potential superintelligent successors – are technically capable of phasing out the cruelties of the rest of the living world on Earth. And only (trans)humans – or rather our potential superintelligent successors – are technically capable of assuming stewardship of our entire Hubble volume. Conceptions of the meaning of the term “existential risk” differ. Compare David Benatar’s “Better Never To Have Been” with Nick Bostrom’s “Astronomical Waste“. Here at least, we will use the life-affirming sense of the term. Does negative utilitarianism or classical utilitarianism represent the greater threat to intelligent life in the cosmos? Arguably, we have our long-term existential risk-assessment back-to-front. A negative utilitarian believes that once intelligent agents have phased out the biology of suffering, all our ethical duties have been discharged. But the classical utilitarian seems ethically committed to converting all accessible matter and energy – not least human and nonhuman animals – into relatively homogeneous matter optimised for maximum bliss: “utilitronium”.

Ramifications? Severe curtailment of personal liberties in the name of Existential Risk Reduction is certainly conceivable. Assume, for example, that the technical knowledge of how to create and deploy readily transmissible, 100% lethal, delayed-action weaponised pathogens leaks into the public domain. Only the most Orwellian measures – a perpetual global totalitarianism – could hope to prevent their use, whether by a misanthrope or an idealist. Such measures would most likely fail. By contrast, constitutively happy people would be incapable of envisaging the development and use of such a doomsday agent. The biology of suffering in intelligent agents is a deep underlying source of existential risk – and one that can potentially be overcome.

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Gradients of Bliss world in a Hedonium Universe? – “Central Realm of the Densely-Packed.”

A theoretically inelegant but pragmatically effective compromise solution might be to initiate a utilitronium shockwave that propagates outside the biosphere – or realm of posthuman civilisation. The world within our cosmological horizon could then be tiled with utilitronium with the exception of a negligible island (or archipelago) of minds animated “merely” by gradients of intelligent bliss. One advantage of this hybrid option is that most refusniks would (presumably) be indifferent to the fate of inert matter and energy outside their lifeworld. Ask someone today whether they’d mind if some anonymous rock on the far side of the moon were converted into utilitronium and they’d most likely shrug.

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Shrugging at the prospect of hedonium rocks on the moon.

In future, gradients of intelligent bliss orders of magnitude richer than today’s peak experiences could well be a design feature of the post-human mind. However, I don’t think intracranial self-stimulation is consistent with intelligence or critical insight. This is because it is uniformly rewarding. Intelligence depends on informational sensitivity to positive and negative stimuli – even if “negative” posthuman hedonic dips are richer and higher than the human hedonic ceiling.

In contrast to life animated by gradients of bliss, the prospect of utilitronium cannot motivate. Or rather the prospect can motivate only a rare kind of hyper-systematiser drawn to its simplicity and elegance. The dips of intelligent bliss need not be deep […] Everyday hedonic tone could be orders of magnitude richer than anything physiologically feasible now. But will such well-being be orgasmic? Orgasmic bliss lacks – in the jargon of academic philosophy – an “intentional object”. So presumably there will be selection pressure against any predisposition to enjoy 24/7 orgasms. By contrast, information-sensitive gradients of intelligent bliss can be adaptive – and hence sustainable indefinitely, allowing universe maintenance: responsible stewardship of Hubble volume.

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Can Life and Hedonium get Married? Express your eternal love with Hedonium Jewelry! Made of 99.99% Pure Bliss! (Guaranteed by Hilbert Space Hamiltonian Assay – Lab Tested Hedonium!)

At any rate, posthumans may regard even human “peak experiences” as indescribably dull by comparison.


Image credit for the Buddhist monk picture “Is”: Alex William Hoffman.

“Letter from Utopia” and Other Triple-S Transhumanist Media

by Nick Bostrom (2010)

Dear Human,

Greetings, and may this letter find you at peace and in prosperity! Forgive
my writing to you out of the blue. Though you and I have never met, we are
not strangers. We are, in a certain sense, the closest of kin. I am one of your
possible futures.

I hope you will become me. Should fortune grant this wish, then I am not
just a possible future of yours, but your actual future: a coming phase of you,
like the full moon that follows a waxing crescent, or like the flower that
follows a seed.

I am writing to tell you about my life – how good it is – that you may choose
it for yourself.

Although this letter uses the singular, I am really writing on behalf of all
my contemporaries, and we are addressing ourselves to all of your
contemporaries. Amongst us are many who are possible futures of your
people. Some of us are possible futures of children you have not yet given
birth to. Still others are possible artificial persons that you might one day
create. What unites us is that we are all dependent on you to make us real.
You can think of this note as if it were an invitation to a ball that will take
place only if folks turn up.

We call the lives we lead here “Utopia”.

*

How can I tell you about Utopia and not leave you mystified? What words
could convey the wonder? What inflections express our happiness? What
points overcome your skepticism? My pen, I fear, is as unequal to the task as
if I had tried to use it against a charging elephant.

But the matter is so important that we must try even against long odds.
Maybe you will see through the inadequacies of my exposition.

Have you ever known a moment of bliss? On the rapids of inspiration,
maybe, where your hands were guided by a greater force to trace the shapes
of truth and beauty? Or perhaps you found such a moment in the ecstasy of
love? Or in a glorious success achieved with good friends? Or in splendid
conversation on a vine-overhung terrace one star-appointed night? Or
perhaps there was a song or a melody that smuggled itself into your heart,
setting it alight with kaleidoscopic emotion? Or during worship?

If you have experienced such a moment, experienced the best type of such a
moment, then a certain idle but sincere thought may have presented itself to
you: “Oh Heaven! I didn’t realize it could feel like this. This is on a
different level, so very much more real and worthwhile. Why can’t it be like
this always? Why must good times end? I was sleeping; now I am awake.”

Yet behold, only a little later, scarcely an hour gone by, and the softly-falling
soot of ordinary life is already piling up. The silver and gold of exuberance
lose their shine. The marble becomes dirty.

Every way you turn it’s the same: soot, casting its veil over all glamours and
revelries, despoiling your epiphany, sodding up your white pressed collar and
shirt. And once again that familiar beat is audible, the beat of numbing
routine rolling along its tracks. The commuter trains loading and unloading
their passengers… sleepwalkers, shoppers, solicitors, the ambitious and the
hopeless, the contented and the wretched… like human electrons shuffling
through the circuitry of civilization.

We do so easily forget how good life can be at its best – and how bad at its
worst. The most outstanding occasion: barely is it over before the sweepers
move in to clean up the rice. Yellowing photos remain.

And this is as it should be. We are in the business of living, and life must go
on. Special moments are out-of-equilibrium experiences in which our
puddles are stirred up and splashed about; yet when normalcy returns we are
usually relieved. We are built for mundane functionality, not lasting bliss.

So the door that was ajar begins to close, disappearing hope’s sliver behind
an insensate scab.

Quick, stop that door! Look again at your yellowing photos, search for a
clue. Do you not see it? Do you not feel it, the touch of the possible? You
have witnessed the potential for a higher life, and you hold the fading proof
in your hands. Don’t throw it away. In the attic of your mind, reserve a
drawer for the notion of a higher state of being. In the furnace of your heart,
keep an aspiring ember alive.

I am summoning this memory of your best experience – to what end? In the
hope of kindling in you a desire to share my happiness.

And yet, what you had in your best moment is not close to what I have now
– a beckoning scintilla at most. If the distance between base and apex for
you is eight kilometers, then to reach my dwellings requires a million lightyear ascent. The altitude is outside moon and planets and all the stars your
eyes can see. Beyond dreams. Beyond imagination.

My consciousness is wide and deep, my life long. I have read all your
authors – and much more. I have experienced life in many forms and from
many angles: jungle and desert, gutter and palace, heath and suburban creek
and city back alley. I have sailed the high seas of cultures, and swum, and
dived. Quite some marvelous edifice builds up over a million years by the
efforts of homunculi, just as the humble polyps amass a reef in time. And
I’ve seen the shoals of colored biography fishes, each one a life story,
scintillate under heaving ocean waters.

The whole exceeds the sum of its parts. What I have is not merely more of
what is available to you now. It isn’t just the particular things, the paintings
and toothpaste-tube designs, the record covers and books, the epochs, lives,
leaves, rivers, and random encounters, the satellite images and the hadron
collider data – it is also the complex relationships between these particulars
that make up my mind. There are ideas that can be formed only on top of
such a wide experience base. There are depths that can be fathomed only
with such ideas.

You could say I am happy, that I feel good. You could say that I feel
surpassing bliss. But these are words invented to describe human
experience. What I feel is as far beyond human feeling as my thoughts are
beyond human thought. I wish I could show you what I have in mind. If
only I could share one second of my conscious life with you!

But you don’t have to understand what I think and feel. If only you bear in
mind what is possible within the present human realm, you will have enough
to get started in the right direction, one step at a time. At no point will you
encounter a wall of blinding light. At no point will you have to jettison
yourself over an end-of-the-world precipice. As you advance, the horizon
will recede. The transformation is profound, but it can be as gradual as the
growth that made the baby you were into the adult you think you are.

You will not achieve this through any magic trick or hokum, nor by the
power of wishful thinking, nor by semantic acrobatics, meditation,
affirmation, or incantation. And I do not presume to advise you on matters
theological. I urge on you nothing more, nothing less, than reconfigured
physical situation.

*

The challenge before you: to become fully what you are now only in hope
and potential. New capacities are needed if you wish to live and play on my
level.

To reach Utopia, you must first discover the means to three fundamental
transformations.

The First Transformation: Secure life!

Your body is a deathtrap. This vital machine and mortal vehicle, unless it
jams first or crashes, is sure to rust anon. You are lucky to get seven decades
of mobility; eight if you be Fortuna’s darling. That is not sufficient to get
started in a serious way, much less to complete the journey. Maturity of the
soul takes longer. Why, even a tree-life takes longer!

Death is not one but a multitude of assassins. Do you not see them? They
are coming at you from every angle. Take aim at the causes of early death –
infection, violence, malnutrition, heart attack, cancer. Turn your biggest
gun on aging, and fire. You must seize control of the biochemical processes
in your body in order to vanquish, by and by, illness and senescence. In
time, you will discover ways to move your mind to more durable media.
Then continue to improve the system, so that the risk of death and disease
continues to decline. Any death prior to the heat death of the universe is
premature if your life is good.

Oh, it is not well to live in a self-combusting paper hut! Keep the flames at
bay and be prepared with liquid nitrogen, while you construct yourself a
better habitation. One day you or your children should have a secure home.
Research, build, redouble your effort!

The Second Transformation: Upgrade cognition!

Your brain’s special faculties: music, humor, spirituality, mathematics,
eroticism, art, nurturing, narration, gossip! These are fine spirits to pour
into the cup of life. Blessed you are if you have a vintage bottle of any of
these. Better yet, a cask! Better yet, a vineyard!

Be not afraid to grow. The mind’s cellars have no ceilings!

What other capacities are possible? Imagine a world with all the music dried
up: what poverty, what loss. Give your thanks, not to the lyre, but to your
ears for the music. And ask yourself, what other harmonies are there in the
air, that you lack the ears to hear? What vaults of value are you witlessly
debarred from, lacking the key sensibility?

Had you but an inkling, your nails would be clawing at the padlock in sacred
frenzy.

Your brain must grow beyond the bounds of any genius of humankind, in its
special faculties as well as its general intelligence, so that you may better
learn, remember, and understand, and so that you may apprehend your own
beatitude.

Mind is a means: for without insight you will get bogged down or lose your
way, and your journey will fail.

Mind is also an end: for it is in the spacetime of awareness that Utopia will
exist. May the measure of your mind be vast and expanding.

Oh, stupidity is a loathsome corral! Gnaw and tug at the posts, and you will
slowly loosen them up. One day you’ll break the fence that held your
forebears captive. Gnaw and tug, redouble your effort!

The Third Transformation: Elevate well-being!

What is the difference between indifference and interest, boredom and thrill,
despair and bliss?

Pleasure! A few grains of this magic ingredient are dearer than a king’s
treasure, and we have it aplenty here in Utopia. It pervades into everything
we do and everything we experience. We sprinkle it in our tea.

The universe is cold. Fun is the fire that melts the blocks of hardship and
creates a bubbling celebration of life.

It is the birth right of every creature, a right no less sacred for having been
trampled upon since the beginning of time.

There is a beauty and joy here that you cannot fathom. It feels so good that
if the sensation were translated into tears of gratitude, rivers would overflow.

I reach in vain for words to convey to you what it all amounts to… It’s like a
rain of the most wonderful feeling, where every raindrop has its own unique
and indescribable meaning – or rather a scent or essence that evokes a whole
world… And each such evoked world is subtler, richer, deeper, more
palpable than the totality of what you have experienced in your entire life.

I will not speak of the worst pain and misery that is to be got rid of; it is too
horrible to dwell upon, and you are already aware of the urgency of
palliation. My point is that in addition to the removal of the negative, there
is also an upside imperative: to enable the full flourishing of enjoyments that
are currently out of reach.

The roots of suffering are planted deep in your brain. Weeding them out
and replacing them with nutritious crops of well-being will require advanced
skills and instruments for the cultivation of your neuronal soil. But take
heed, the problem is multiplex! All emotions have a natural function. Prune
carefully lest you reduce the fertility of your plot.

Sustainable yields are possible. Yet fools will build fools’ paradises. I
recommend you go easy on your paradise-engineering until you have the
wisdom to do it right.

Oh, what a gruesome knot suffering is! Pull and tug on those loops, and you
will gradually loosen them up. One day the coils will fall, and you will
stretch out in delight. Pull and tug, and be patient in your effort!

May there come a time when rising suns are greeted with joy by all the living
creatures they shine upon.

*

How do you find this place? How long will it take to get here?

I can pass you no blueprint for Utopia, no timetable, no roadmap. All I can
give you is my assurance that there is something here, the potential for a
better life.

If you could visit me here for but a day, you would henceforth call this place
your home. This is the place where you belong. Ever since one hairy
creature picked up two flints and began knocking them together to make a
tool, this has been the direction of your unknown aspiration. Like Odysseus
you must journey, and never cease journeying, until you arrive upon this
shore.

“Arrive?” you say; “But isn’t the journey the destination? Isn’t Utopia a
place that doesn’t exist? And isn’t the quest for Utopia, as witnessed
historically, a dangerous folly and an incitement to mischief?”

Friend, that is not such a bad way for you to think about it. To be sure,
Utopia is not a location or a form of social organization.

The blush of health on a convalescent’s cheek. The twinkling of the eye in a
moment of wit. The smile of a loving thought… Utopia is the hope that the
scattered fragments of good that we come across from time to time in our
lives can be put together, one day, to reveal the shape of a new kind of life.
The kind of life that yours should have been.

I fear that the pursuit of Utopia will bring out the worst in you. Many a
moth has been incinerated in its pursuit of a brighter future.

Seek the light! But approach with care – swerve if you smell your wingtips
singeing. Light is for seeing, not dying.

When you embark on this quest, you will encounter rough seas and hard
problems. To prevail will take your best science, your best technology, and
your best politics. Yet each problem has a solution. My existence breaks no
law of nature. The materials are all there. Your people must become
master builders, and then you must use these skills to build yourselves up
without crushing your cores.

*

What is Suffering in Utopia? Suffering is the salt trace left on the cheeks of those
who were around before.

What is Tragedy in Utopia? There is tragedy in Snowman’s melting. Mass
murders are not required.

What is Imperfection in Utopia? Imperfection is the measure of our respect for
things as they are and for their history.

What is Body in Utopia? Body is a pair of legs, a pair of arms, a trunk and a
head, all made of flesh. Or not, as the case may be.

What is Society in Utopia? Society is a never-finished tapestry, its weavers equal
to its threads – the parts and patterns an inexhaustible bourne of beauty.

What is Death in Utopia? Death is the darkness that ultimately surrounds all
life.

What is Guilt in Utopia? Guilt is our knowledge that we could have created
Utopia sooner.

*

We love life here every instant. Every second is so good that it would blow
our minds had their amperage not been previously increased. My
contemporaries and I bear witness, and we request your aid. Please, help us
come into existence! Please, join us! Whether this tremendous possibility
becomes reality depends on your actions. If your empathy can perceive at
least the outlines of the vision I am describing, then your ingenuity will find a
way to make it real.

Human life, at its best, is fantastic. I’m asking you to create something even
greater. Life that is truly humane.

Yours sincerely,
Your Possible Future Self


See also a musicalized video rendition of this piece by Mario Montano: Letter From Utopia


Analysis

Nick Bostrom is a prominent transhumanist philosopher and academic who works at Oxford’s Future of Humanity Institute. An incredibly prolific writer, Nick has a very wide and comprehensive worldview. I find his work extremely valuable and worth diving into. Letter From Utopia is one of my favorite works of his, as it encompasses what David Pearce called “The Three Supers of Transhumanism“: Super-Intelligence, Super-Longevity, and Super-Happiness (cf. Triple-S Genetic Counseling). Bostrom also has other amazing stories and essays (such as The Fable of the Dragon-Tyrant, cf. story video rendition by CGP Grey: video), but Letter From Utopia takes the cake for not leaving behind anything of crucial importance.

Alas, despite Bostrom’s far-reaching contributions, many argue that Nick’s most important impact has been in the field of AI Alignment (cf. Superintelligence: Paths, Dangers, Strategies). In 2009 AI safety research was perceived to be a fringe concern of sci-fi aficionados and weirdos. Today, partly thanks to Bostrom (along with Yudkowsky, Chalmers, and others), many top journals publish serious work in this area.

I worry that this is not as good as it may seem. Nick Bostrom’s name is first and foremost associated with AI safety, followed by the Simulation Argument and Existential Risk, and only later by his extensive work on all other areas of transhumanism. For example, if you search Youtube for his name, you will see that of the top 20 results, 15 concern AI safety/digital superintelligence. Of the remaining 5, 3 are about the Simulation Argument, 1 is about agnosticism, and 1 is CGP Grey’s Dragon-Tyrant video. Where are the Triple-S videos?

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I remembered that I encountered the work of both David and Nick when I was 16, googling terms like consciousness, AI, psychedelics, and far future. I was drawn to both of them, though I particularly liked David’s focus on ending suffering as a priority and his acknowledgment of the scientific significance of altered states of consciousness. I thought that their work was complementary rather than redundant. Alas, Bostrom is far more well known than Pearce, perhaps due to his success as both a fringe philosopher and a mainstream academic. In contrast, David dropped out of Oxford out of frustration with the academic community; the analytic philosophy of the time was not empirical, and it focused on language use rather than real philosophical questions, including the nature of suffering, psychedelics, and physical causality (e.g. “Philosophy may in no way interfere with the actual use of language, it can in the end only describe it. For it cannot give it any foundation either. It leaves everything as it is. It also leaves mathematics as it is, and no mathematical discovery can advance it.” – Wittgenstein). Bostrom, unlike Pearce, has the blessing of Ra, the God of optionality, superlativity, status legibility, and groundless prestige. And yet, it was David’s conversation with Nick that gave rise to the creation of the World Transhumanist Association, and provided one of the most important memetic Schelling points of the early 2000s. Alas, David is not focused on AI Safety. Why?

People in the transhumanist community accuse David of not getting it. David, after all, is not a mathematician, computer scientist, or physicist; he is merely a philosopher. I must confess that the very first time I met David Pearce in person I got the sense that (1) he was an incredibly well-read and creative genius in most areas of philosophy, and yet (2) naïve and unenlightened in the field of AI. As a fan of his work, and having co-founded the Stanford Transhumanist Association a couple of months earlier, I thought to invite him to give a talk at Stanford (see: David Pearce at Stanford – 2011).

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David Pearce and the officers of the Stanford Transhumanist Association (December 1st 2011) at Palo Alto’s Chinese Vegan restaurant Garden Fresh, before David’s talk.

We had a lively conversation while eating dinner at a Chinese vegan restaurant before the event along with other members of the Association. I recall that he checked all of the right boxes when it came to personal identity (Open/Empty Individualism), ethics (consequentialism), physics (Everettian multiverse), psychedelia (they disclose new varieties of qualia), evolution (modern synthesis; selfish gene), social signaling theory (Mating Mind and sexual selection theory), and more (see his Reddit AMA). And yet, how could he dare to say that a digital computer would never be conscious? Meeting a brilliant thinker who had a better grasp of my favorite topics than I did and yet would try to hit on one of my core load-bearing beliefs was uncomfortable and unexpected. I dismissed his take on AI as that of a fuzzy thinker (at least in this area); I reassured myself by recalling that it was me who was studying AI academically at a top US institution and not him. Little did I know that over the next few years, and after hanging out with him in person for over 20 cumulative hours, he would finally change my mind- and worldview- concerning this whole field. If it wasn’t for him, I suspect I would have jumped on the bandwagon of AI-as-the-top-priority (cf. Altruists Should Prioritize Artificial Intelligence). Thankfully, I was already extremely interested in consciousness and didn’t have it in me to dismiss it. Additionally, my interest in personal identity reduced my (relative) interest in longevity research (at least as the top priority), for if we are all one consciousness, dying is more akin to forgetting a timeline than a true ontological death. The instrumental value of intelligence, however, ought not to be taken for granted, which is why I now advocate for a twin approach of improving subjective wellbeing while retaining critical insight. Figuring out that consciousness required more than digital computation utterly transformed my approach to transhumanism, and I largely credit this change to my conversations with David.

 

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Later on I met Mike Johnson, Romeo Stevens, and a number of other top thinkers in the field of consciousness who could both understand the genuine problems consciousness poses and at the same time grasp the broader transhumanist meme-plex, transcend it, and include it (cf. Why I think the Foundational Research Institute should rethink its approach). Thus we founded the Qualia Research Institute, in order to bring a new full-stack meme-plex where consciousness – and valence – are front and center. Alas, we have experienced some resistance…

AI safety is sexy. If you are a smart, industrious, open-minded, and systematizing undergraduate, studying AI gives you access to a wide circle of really fun people to hang out in. It also signals intelligence, sober-mindedness, and stoicism. It gives you both an in into smart cool kid circles, and a profitable career in Silicon Valley. It allows you to straddle the world of normies and cutting-edge thinkers.

But, crucially, you have to consider the opportunity cost that comes from directing such a large fraction of hyper-intelligent young altruistic systematizers to this problem. The field is plagued with misconceptions about pleasure and value; Eliezer Yudkowsky’s Fun Theory suffers from the severe delusion that value comes from the intentional object of experience, rather than from its phenomenal character. Brian Tomasik’s (admittedly tongue-in-cheek) People for the Ethical Treatment of Reinforcement Learners is seemingly unaware of the fact that neuroscience has found that pleasure/suffering and reinforcement learning are doubly dissociated. Pleasure is not reinforcement, and until you grasp this, your ethical models will output nonsense.

Tongue-in-cheek, perhaps AI risk is a real threat. Not because of the usual reasons, but because it siphons out top brain power into a relatively sterile field, leaving vast amounts of unclaimed marginal value in the fields of rejuvenation research and valence technologies by the wayside.

In light of all of this, I would want to advocate for the reinvigoration of the broader transhumanist meme-plex, now updated with a post-Galilean understanding of consciousness. Writers, animators, Youtubers, and philosophers ought to collaborate in creating more balanced Triple-S Transhumanist outreach in the form of widely consumable media. This, I think, is the path forward.

Burning Man Theme-Camps of the Year 2029: From Replicator to Rainbow God (1/2)

[Epistemic Status: Fiction; see related non-fiction Burning Man articles – 1, 2, 3. See part 2/2 here.]

Preface

What follows is the result of an exercise in considering the questions: “Which novel memes, and meme-plexes, will be alive 10 years from now? And, what new worldviews will have a ‘full-stack’ account of where humanity is at, and where it is headed?” Hope this sparks interesting thoughts.


The interdependent nature of knowledge is such that for you to truly understand anything, you must understand everything first.

– Alex Alamy, founder of Camp State-Space of Consciousness

The year is 2029 and Burning Man season is upon us. You’ve been there once before, but you feel like you gravitated a lot towards the art in deep playa and neglected the theme-camps that surrounded you. For instance, you didn’t even visit your neighbors despite the fact that they had giant marble statues hung up from a transparent dome visible from the street, and a picture of Shiva having sex with a rhino at the entrance. In retrospect you wonder “why didn’t I at least come by and say hi? The place looked so inviting!” This year you are determined to change that by investigating in detail one theme-camp every day, in addition to enjoying the company of your campmates and exploring the deep playa the rest of the time.

Sunday: Arrival

You arrive on Sunday evening after a 16-hour drive. Eight of those hours involved being in the line. And of those, you spent four of them manually pushing your car while a dust storm was in full force (your car’s battery died because you used it to power up speakers to blast the latest Lady Gaga album, but forgot that doing this could drain it completely if you left your engine off). After the dust cleared, the first neighbor in the line without an electric car helped you jump-start the car, which worked fine from then on. After that rough start, you are now settling in your little pod, keeping hydrated, and eating the left-over fried rice that one of your campmates cooked for everyone who helped build the shade structures. You decide to call it a night and rest. After all, you have seven full days of Burning Man ahead of you…

Monday: Camp Microlife

You wake up slightly groggy and disoriented. Like last year- you are now aware- the first day of the Burn is usually a little slow and difficult on the body as it acclimatizes to the new environment. You take it easy and wake up at 11AM, help campmates with their tents and structures, attend the camp meeting, eat bunches of fruit mixed in with Soylent Cereal®, and take a nap. At 6PM you feel rested and ready to start exploring. Your first stop is right next door, a place called Camp Microlife (formerly known as Longevity Camp).

Burning Man is said to be dangerous. Indeed, a well-known piece of advice people like to throw at each other is to only do one stupid thing at a time. If you take shrooms, don’t try to climb a giant sculpture. If you are drunk, don’t go for a walk without a camelback. If you are going to oversee the safety of a fire, don’t do so while being heavily sleep deprived. And if you go to the Orgy Dome, don’t do so while on MDMA. Just common sense things, right? You would be surprised how people tend to stack dangerous activities on top of each other at Burning Man. And you’d be even more surprised how despite this, the number of serious accidents is incredibly low. In fact, it is a marvel why more people don’t die at Burning Man, given the expectations that you can realistically place on 80,000 Homo Sapiens in the desert for an entire week. It takes a lot of effort distributed across many people to reach this level of relative safety.

The low injury statistic at Burning Man is something to applaud. That said, before 2020 there wasn’t much awareness about the fact that the environmental hazards of Burning Man had measurable effects on the rate of aging of the body. Camp Longevity was thus founded in order to help people minimize this effect by focusing on interventions that would give you the largest bang for your buck. Their welcoming sign at the entrance reads:

This camp is dedicated to the task of identifying the most cost-effective way of reducing the number of micromorts (cf. microlives) that you are expending at Burning Man. We will take a picture of your skin in controlled lighting conditions in order to determine the amount of melanin in your skin, and measure your height, BMI, and lung capacity. Then based on actuarial tables we will give you custom harm-reduction help, ranging from gifting you optimal sunscreen, to magnesium supplements & earplugs, to providing free high-quality masks and even nose-filters as part of a pilot program (did I mention that you are encouraged to enroll in a study to see whether nose-filters are as effective as dust masks at preventing lung aging from the dust?).

They have both a no-nonsense set of recommendations and a more creative “R&D” side, in which they are piloting wacky solutions to “microlife loss prevention.” For instance, they had nose-filters they could give you if you participated in a study (well, they would give them to you regardless but they would encourage you to sign up). They also had an instant-cooling system in their camp that you could use if you were over-heating (or felt like it, anyhow). Under the assumption that MDMA neurotoxicity and body strain is partly caused by hyperthemia, they hoped to incorporate this device as a harm reduction strategy at Zendos around the world. On your way out they handed you UV-protecting arm sleeves, which they had in bulk quantities, and were giving out to passersby.

At night, you visit some of the core attractions in Esplanade, and take a ride to deep playa on the Mayan Warrior, which is still going strong after 17 years of Burning Man. On your way back you stop at a space cowboy-themed bar, and have two drinks- Mr. Walker on Glowing Rocks– before calling it a night.

Tuesday: Camp State-Space of Consciousness

On Tuesday you wake up at 9AM, stretch, shower, and socialize for half an hour while eating a handful of bananas with copious amounts of almond butter. You check out the Man, the Temple, and random artwork you find on the way to and from. You eat quesadillas at Mexican Grill, and by 5PM, you return to camp and rest for ninety minutes before going out at 7PM with two friends. Tonight is a “trip night”.

Camp State-Space of Consciousness (formerly known as Rainbow God) is devoted to a made-up religion called Divine Spectralism. This religion postulates that the maximum expression of divinity is in its full-spectrum (aka. rainbow) form. God may have infinite faces, but some of them display its glory more fully, clearly, and lucidly. In their theology, God realized is tasteless and flavorless. But that’s an asymptote that’s impossible to talk about. Around it, approaching the event horizon, we see God diffractions that express all of the possible flavors, colors, thought-forms, space and time qualities, etc. of consciousness. That is, God Realized is surrounded by a full-spectrum of all varieties of experience. This region of the multiverse corresponds to the highest heavens, the rainbow worlds; these are the closest you can get to the fullest expression of God while being able to support sapience and self-awareness.

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In order to transcend our world- grey and dull relative to rainbow worlds-, we must move towards the universal gradient of synthesis, which incorporates, in each successive moment of experience, more diversity of experiential qualities (aka. qualia). Up there in the upper heavens everyone has a full-spectrum enjoyment body, which allows them to create-imagine-animate massive worlds of experience populated with maximally-encompassing narratives. They pack tremendous amounts of smell, taste, warmth, music, echolocation, and uncountably many other flavors of experience we humans don’t have words for in highly energetic forms. The result is not just an impressive “painting of experience”; there is something special and magical that happens when you start piecing together all of the varieties of experience in a giant thought-form. The whole is much more than the sum of its parts. One unlocks the ability to recombine the complementary parts of experience and get purified God consciousness. They even claim that you don’t really understand a given qualia (e.g. cinnamon scent) until you can put it in the context of all of the values of its variety (in this case all scents). And you don’t really understand a given variety (e.g. scents) until you see it in the context of all varieties (e.g. scents, colors, tactile sensations, etc.). So we don’t truly understand anything until we understand everything. That is not to say that ignorance doesn’t come in gradients, though.

Buddhists came across this phenomenon long time ago. They encountered states of consciousness where they had an intensified divine connection in conjunction with full-spectrum experiences. They called it the rainbow body. It is interesting that they knew about it but they didn’t develop techniques specifically aimed at it. Instead, they merely thought of it as a side-effect of good and deliberate practice, or maybe a gift liable to become a distraction. The Divine Spectralists, in contrast, claim to investigate this phenomenon scientifically. They will tell you that they have found a causal connection between full-spectrum practices and increased spirituality.

 

The camp is organized along the lines of a hexagon, with a large central rectangular tarp. This shape defines seven regions: one corner for each of the “top 6 senses” (sight, hearing, touch, taste, scent, and proprioception) and a central space called the “global workspace.”*

You, being the intrepid scientific psychonaut that you are, of course decide to visit this camp while on acid. You take 150 micrograms before heading out. This camp has been around for five years, and it has grown into a core Burning Man attraction. Your friends tell you that if you took acid you should definitely go check it out. So you and two of your friends- Galaxy Fox and Astro Burrito– make the walk towards it, which takes long enough for the acid to start kicking in.

As you approach the entrance you notice people playing with LED-illuminated hula hoops. That is not unexpected, since after all, Burning Man is the DIY LED Mecca of the world (cf. Ring Theory). But there is something particularly unusual about these hula hoops. The tracers left by the bright LEDs given your psychedelic state are not only stunning, they are also somehow encoding words and images. “Are you seeing what I’m seeing?” – you ask Galaxy Fox, who is sitting you during this 12 hour trip. “You mean the hula hoops? They are cool, aren’t they?” – she responds. “Yes, but you see the things they are saying? It’s saying:

You are the Chosen One, The One who will deliver the message. A message of hope for those who choose to hear it. And a warning for those who do not.

Are you not seeing that?” – you say. “Nah, man, you trippin’, I see no message there, dude.” – she says. But for you this is undeniable. As it turns out, these hula hoops were programmed to encode messages only readable by people on psychedelics; they use a technique called psychedelic cryptography. To illustrate how these hula hoops look, see the video below (tracer effect applied to LED hula hoops). In brief, they take advantage of the longer-than-normal decay of qualia on psychedelics. This way they can “paint over time” pictures that only people with pronounced persistence of vision can really detect. Shocked and intrigued, you start exploring the camp.

You learn about the made-up religion with a video they play and a few girls who answer questions about it. From your point of view this feels extremely cultish, but you are not sure whether it is your state or the actual camp. So you ask your friends if they also feel the same as you, considering they are sober judges of what’s going on. One of them says yes, and one of them says no, which isn’t very helpful. You decide to stop worrying about whether they will brainwash you and take it on good faith that they are at least doing their best at pointing you towards interesting ideas to consider.

You are fascinated by the made-up religion, and thinking about it in your state activates in you very intense feelings that are hard to put into words. At times you get convinced that you can perform psi feats and feel like you are connecting to the minds and feelings of the people around you… that God’s light is being reflected and refracted throughout everyone in the camp. Then again, you realize this is exactly what the environment is meant to suggest and exalt as much as possible, not to speak of the suggestibility of LSD states.

The camp’s center has a large rectangular tent, and when you come in you see that one of the walls is completely covered with LEDs stacked along three layers (each of the layers is capable of 7 bright primary colors, and their combinations). This artwork is called “The Fourth Wall”, and it is a large LED display optimized for psychedelic cryptography. The “hidden messages” cycle over several minutes. It displays messages written by people walking by who draw them on a tablet connected to the lights. It also shows bizarre super trippy patterns of all kinds, along with what looks like psychophysics experiments. Every once in a while it displays a live video of yourself from a corner (it takes you a moment, but you manage to locate the camera, which is behind you). The symbolism startles, as you realize that only on psychedelics you are able to realize that you are being secretly watched. Sober people passing by just see pretty lights, and a few local features of the pictures, but unlike people on a couple blotters of acid, they don’t see the entire pictures there. Interestingly, this way people on psychedelics can coordinate with each other in surprising ways. The message sometimes says “all move to the blue corner” and from the point of view of someone sober it’s like suddenly half of the room makes the telepathic decision to move together towards one corner. Doing fun things with psychedelic cryptography is an art-form. Making an analogy to a county fair, the whole range of games and prototypes in this section could accurately be described as being of the type that says “you have to be at least this high to play this game”.

You now decide to take a look at the music corner. The place is a dome shaped in a peculiar way that increases both the resonance and reverb of the space. That on its own would make it a cool experience, but the fact that those effects are massively amplified with a network of microphones and speakers that subtly generate feedback without blowing up makes it an over-the-top experience. The auditory effect is confusing and mentally scrambling to an exaggerated degree. The 3D sound effects can generate the impression of entire worlds in movement. These music and sound geeks have been working for years on being able to represent events in a sort of musical-ray-tracing engine with custom software. They can generate the illusion of the reverb fingerprint of arbitrary spaces, and hence create for you the illusion that you are inside a car, or inside a church, or inside an infinite tunnel. In addition, they use doppler effects to change the impression of how fast things are moving, and in particular, to create the illusion that the shape of the universe is changing and that information is propagating relativistically. Did I mention one of the people involved in this installation is a famous physicist? And did I mention the sound booth is managed by a robotic dog?

 

This place plays weird music. You know of weird music, but this music here is weird music. In fact the thing these guys have been working on for a while is a computational approach to figuring out which combinations of sounds will weird you out as much as possible. It learns over the course of 15 minutes or so using eye-tracking and biosignals it gets from a headband you put on when you enter their sound dome. The music tries to drive you towards the edge between chaos and predictability. It parametrically identifies how quickly to change its degree of predictability in order to assault your attention with hyper-dopaminergic attention-grabbing mood-setting sounds. The music is so mesmerizing that it has developed a sort of fame for being able to halt fights in the Playa. Taking an angry campmate there is certainly going to distract them for no less than 30 minutes, and give them a chance to approach whatever problem they are dealing with from a different angle.

You move on to the camp’s “scented room”, which has a large repertoire of scented objects and essential oils. Starting with the stereotypically obligatory patchouli (as in, if you don’t have patchouli in your kit of scent qualia, what are you even doing?)  – more seriously, the repertoire of scents is enormous, with a box with more than 5,000 scents collected over the years, including uncommon scents like cypress, palmarosa, ylang ylang, durian, acetone, cork, jojoba, and boutique scents like digestive enzymes and a synthesized “old book smell”-mimicking mixture. You didn’t even know that old books smell could be chemically identified, but now you do. You notice that some of the scents resonate with your state, and others almost, kind of, sober you up to an extent.

Perhaps the most interesting, and daring, of all of the scents there is the LSD-scent vial. “Do not get confused”-the attendant tells you- “this vial is LSD-free, but it smells like LSD.” You reply: “I thought LSD was odorless.” She says: “Most people have no idea it has a smell because there is so little LSD, weight-wise, in blotters that there is not enough of it to build enough scent for you to smell it… but dogs can smell it. What this vial contains is what is used to train dogs to detect LSD.” You smell the vial: “Uh, it’s a bit tangy?” She says: “Yeah, some say that. Others mention it reminds them of the smell of DMT to an extent, and others point out its metallic tones.” You ask her – “wait, wouldn’t search dogs get crazy about this, then? Isn’t this a liability for the camp?”. To which she replies: “There’s a funny story here. The first year we brought this scent to the playa we were stopped by a cop for a random search during the trip from Reno. A dog sniffed out the vial right away. It took literally about 5 seconds for the dogs to find it. We were careful not to have anything illegal on us, though, so that’s the only thing they found. They wanted to press charges for the vial even though we claimed it was not LSD. Later they got from the lab the result that the vial had actual LSD in it. This, of course, majorly surprised us. By having the paper trail of how we got the vial, and it having a serial number, and us hiring an independent lab to test it which confirmed it had no LSD, we and the Burner community at large discovered that lab tests were being forged. This revealed that the rumors were true, that there really were some people faking lab results, and they were making a lot of money off of this. This is currently unraveling, and the courts are now going back, historically, and dropping the charges from people harmed by faked lab results over the years. A number of burners we know are getting their charges dropped for this reason.” You think about it, for a moment, and reply: “I guess I didn’t realize there was so much power in having something that is genuinely, provably, fake, since it can be used to expose people who claim to be able to recognize the authentic ones.”

state_space_of_scents

State-space of scent qualia (adapted from: Categorical Dimensions of Human Odor Descriptor Space Revealed by Non-Negative Matrix Factorization; Castro, Ramanathan, Chennubhotla. 2013; link)

The camp has a corner dedicated to conducting perception experiments. The experiments are not just idle fun and games, they tell you. Three peer-reviewed papers have been published so far testing hypotheses about psychedelic visual and auditory perception with the data gathered here. You got excited by the prospect of helping science, and confided with the person there that you were currently on 150 micrograms of LSD. Unfortunately how the system works is that you have to go there sober first and sign an anonymous consent form in which you agree to be shown images and audio (some of it possibly R-rated) both today and in the future, so that you could then go back another day and re-do the tests while high on psychedelics. They still allowed you to try the experiments, though, but they said that in cases like yours they would not collect the data gathered.

The experiments were strange and most didn’t make much intuitive sense. For example, in some tests you had to guess “which of the 3 textures is the odd-one-out”, which they told you was used to identify which summary statistics your visual field becomes more or less capable of differentiating on psychedelics. Another experiment would show you ambiguous images and you had to guess what was in them. Interestingly, this was another way in which psychedelic cryptography was being developed, but rather than being based on tracers, it was based on semantics. That is, someone on acid might look at the picture and say “that’s clearly a banana” while someone sober would say “that’s obviously the back of a Jeep”, and if you get creative, you can send secret messages this way.

Your favorite experiment felt very much like a video-game. It was engaging and fun; it had a pleasing effect on your mood for some reason. The task involved looking at the screen of a tablet that displays patterns with wallpaper symmetries shifting along a symmetry element (see below) and identify “the region that is moving at a different rate.”** They told you that this was one of the tasks that exhibited the strongest difference between people sober and on psychedelics; the reduced symmetry detection threshold in combination with increased entrainment potential made this particularly easy for people tripping.

 

 

 

After playing the symmetry detection game for 10 minutes, you decide to move on. The last section you check out at the camp invites you to go into a “world of tactile textures” by entering a large air-conditioned hexayurt with an airlock separating the inside from the windy exterior. The textures, of course, were selected for their experiential richness, but one additional important constraint had to be applied: they had to be MOOP-free. Or at least generate MOOP that is heavy and easy to pick up (hence the airlock). The people inside talk of having “alien cuddles” which is where a handful of people in underwear make a cuddle puddle with all of the pillows, and pretend to be a single alien being with unusual skin having sex with itself. They invite you to join in, and you do. The boundary-dissolving aspect of the LSD experience makes this an incredibly confusing and compelling scenario; you don’t really know where your body starts and where it begins, and gosh, you had no idea synthetic reptile scales and cellophane-wrapped cotton could feel so sexy on your bare skin.

 

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There, in the middle of the cuddle puddle with strangers, you come to an interesting realization. From their point of view of Divine Spectralism, Burning Man is wonderful because it functions as an efficient and intelligent search algorithm for exploring new regions of the state-space of consciousness. It feeds the bottom line of the Camp’s religion and its core prescriptions: to put on the map even the most outlandish of experiences.

Exhausted but satisfied, you reconvene with your friends and start heading back to camp. On your way out, you see the secret hula hoop messages are now saying:

PEACE & LOVE & HARMONY

PEACE & LOVE & HARMONY

You ask one of the hula hoopers why the message changed. She tells you “a prankster got a hold of our controls earlier today, and was feeding them Tool lyrics, but we found it and we are back to the regular programming.”

When you arrive to your camp, you eat a couple MealCubes, drink electrolytes, and force yourself to take a power nap to recharge, but fail due to the still-ongoing acid stimulation. You give up trying to sleep and give in to the music that is blasting next door. You dance to the soundtrack of The Wandering Earth; the neighboring camp is a smallish sound-camp specializing in retro songs and soundtracks of the 2010s. At 2AM you go out and see the Man with your friends, as you hadn’t seen it at night yet. When you come back, at 3AM, you come by a little tea house offering herbal drinks. You see a friend from a different camp there and decide to talk to him about the nature of phenomenal time. It feels like this day has lasted for ages. You also try to process your experience in Camp State-Space of Consciousness. You keep talking with your friend until the sun is about to rise. You don’t go to sleep until 6AM, but then you sleep all day until roughly 6PM.

Wednesday: Camp Valence

Thankfully this was the only day that it rained. There was some rain on and off while you were asleep, and it remained cloudy throughout the day. You figure that you rested so well in part because the temperature didn’t go up as high as it usually does. Due to global warming, now each Burn is, statistically speaking, a little hotter than the previous one. Interestingly, this hasn’t dissuaded people from attending. That said, a serious discussion is underway about the possibility of re-locating Burning Man, and where to do it after it is actually inhospitable to humans. By then, people say, all humans will have more important problems to deal with, and with this, they rationalize not thinking about how to answer the question of where to move Burning Man. Either way, you want to make sure you can squeeze this experience for learning, growth, and fun as much as you can, and you appreciate the time you have in here. You think about the far future. You think about the State-Space of Consciousness, Divine Spectralism, the way textures feel and how to even go about making a language for them, and you think about holograms… something tells you holograms hold some kind of key to “the puzzle of reality”. Perhaps the acid is still in some ways making your thought-patterns less ego-oriented, and so “early” today (7PM) it feels like your mental clarity and sense of spiritual relaxation is something you can take from your trip to Burning Man back home. This alone would have made the visit to Black Rock City worthwhile- you think to yourself. But there is still a lot of the week left for you. There are so many options, so what should you explore next?

You decide that today you are going to take MDMA and ketamine. Both of these substances are things you do not take more than once every two years, and you only ever take them in moderate doses. You decided ahead of time that if there was a particularly cold day at Burning Man this year you would take MDMA that evening since, presumably, that day would have been less taxing to your body. In addition, you had been wondering what MDMA plus ketamine felt like for ages. Tonight you will take reasonable doses for both of these drugs. 85mg of MDMA and about 100mg for ketamine (two 50mg doses spread out over the course of an hour). Together with the ecstasy powder, you swallow the latest neuroscience-backed anti-“MDMA neurotoxicity” tablets, dissolved in your electrolyte water. You ask Astro Burrito for suggestions about where to go. You tell him you took an empathogen and you want something peaceful and relaxed. Another campmate overhears your conversation and says: “If you are taking MDMA, I might recommend Camp Valence, because those Burners are trying to optimize your pleasure in all sorts of ways.” So that’s where you’ll head next. Once you are finished eating a Tasty Bite you just heated up in a communal pan.

Whereas the previous Camp felt “orgiastic” and pagan (in retrospect), this one feels like a much more curated display of experiences. The Camp State-Space of Consciousness would have you be exposed to the wilderness of all possible experiences and have you make sense of it all for yourself. But Camp Valence seems to have a different overall aesthetic, and philosophy. They seem to be optimizing for softness, intimacy, centeredness, homeliness, and emotional availability.

They have a large enclosed space covered with blankets, and small tables with candles and soft pastel-colored LEDs. Some people are sitting and talking calmly. Others are resting on the floor and cuddling with blankets with each other. Some people are meditating with headphones. Yet others in an adjacent room are doing naked yoga. There is also a pod that fits four people lying down which is sound-proof, presumably to experience sensory deprivation. There is plentiful cucumber water, and lavender cookies.

Someone approaches you in a friendly, non-threatening way, and asks you if you want to hear about the place. He gives you the option to just see it for yourself and chill undisturbed. You allow yourself the option to say yes, and he takes you to an adjacent room separated by a curtain. He is dressed with a long-sleeved tie-dye shirt, a green velvety vest, and comfy pajama pants. He also has a little bit of make-up on, which gives his face a kind of cute bird-like quality. You are not gay or bi, but you somehow feel like you are hanging out with a really cool and cute guy. Well, it’s hard to separate the way the MDMA is making you feel from the environment, but you could swear there is something super friendly about this guy. He tells you that the camp was founded three years ago by a serial entrepreneur disappointed with the economic incentives of modern society. You ask if he could share more about it, but he is interrupted when a girl dressed in a black and blue (or is it white and gold?) dress made of silk and pvc comes in. She is wearing a “cloud hat” (which looks like cotton candy but is actually just cotton), and you feel the urge to touch it. She says yes, but to be careful not to pull too hard – “we don’t want cotton MOOP, like last year with the cotton incident.”

The two people you are hanging out with say that there is a joke that is making its rounds in Camp Valence. It goes like this: “What is the most fun you can have in Las Vegas legally?” Intuitively it would be something along the lines of: “Wake up early, go to the casinos, eat fancy food, get drunk, go to a show, admire the giant buildings and statues, go shopping, and sleep late in the night after a nightcap cocktail.” In contrast, the real, objective, answer goes like this: “You check-in into a fancy and quiet hotel (e.g. the Wynn or the Four Seasons), leave your stuff there, then go to the closest weed dispensary and get at least 10mg of THC in edible form, then go to the closest pharmacy and buy 2 bottles of DXM hydrobromide pills (typically 20X15mg each) for a total of 600mg of DXM. Also buy some earplugs and an eye mask there. Then go back to your hotel, put the do-not-disturb sign on the door, get yourself comfortable, take all of the DXM, and 45 minutes later eat the edible. Close the curtains, and put your earplugs and eye mask on. Over the course of the next several hours you will fall into an intense free-wheeling hallucination where you can learn a lot of fascinating properties about your mind and disclose new varieties of experience. That should keep you entertained for the next 10 hours, and then you will think about it and be amazed for the rest of your vacation. Welcome to Las Vegas, hope you have a fun stay!”

encore_roomencore_room_1

You ask bird-boy if he could continue describing the origin story of the camp. The cloud girl also knows about it, so they take turns filling you in: The person who started the camp founded a few startups in Silicon Valley, made a lot of money, and then opened an establishment in Las Vegas called “Valence Palace.” This place would somehow manage to get permits to use things like rapid thermal exchange devices to literally cool people off (and possibly prevent neurotoxicity in party-goers, as Camp Microlife would remind you), host algorithmically designed sound baths, provide God Helmet therapy, and organize overpriced nootropics tastings. This last one turned out to be all the rage in 2023-2025, and several other establishments around the world started copying the idea. This guy, they explain, somehow masterminded his way into marketing coluracetam in an upper-class status-signaling kind of way (rather than the drug nerd niche kind of way which everyone assumed was the only market for the thing). He marketed it as a high-end product in the form of a subtle experience. For a lot of rich youngsters and people courting each other it was exciting to go out to an official-looking place in Las Vegas and pay large amounts of money to sip water laced with coluracetam (of all things). Turns out this compound had very few side-effects in the vast majority of people, and temporarily increased people’s memory, visual signal-to-noise ratio, and appreciation (but not enjoyment) of music. It is the sort of thing that only refined minds could really notice and pick up an interest in (or at least that’s how this gentleman would market it). People were dying to show off to their friends how they, too, could have an opinion about what it felt like to go to the nootropics tasting at the Valence Palace. It didn’t signal the same sort of defiance of authority that on some level psychedelics tend to evoke. Nootropics tastings served a market of people with high openness to experience but not quite the intellectual disagreeableness to take psychedelics or seek experiences outside of mainstream channels. Curiously, thanks to the competitive dynamics between dopamine and acetylcholine, taking coluracetam would kill your urge to gamble and drink. Indeed, it worked as a sort of anti-addictive drug, protecting you from all the vices on offer in other Las Vegas establishments.

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Coluracetam

Anyhow, he claimed that this and his other Valence Palace experiences were genuinely valuable from a hedonic point of view. That unlike typical Las Vegas entertainment, they did not leave you dissatisfied. They had a positive area under the curve effect, rather than illusory front-loaded pleasure followed by long streaks of mundane disappointment. And Yelp reviews of the place showed it was far better, in terms of customer satisfaction, than what casinos and even oxygen bars could offer.

Of course Las Vegas would have none of this. What he called the Dopaminergic Cartel- which profits from short-term illusory and addictive pleasures- couldn’t tolerate the presence of an organization whose actual goal was the maximization of pleasure and satisfaction in the customer. As a result of the increased popularity of nootropics tastings, and the anti-addictive effects of coluracetam, large casinos detected a significant drop in earnings from high rollers. They saw the Valence Palace as a defector against their craving-based business model. So they had to kick his establishment out of the Strip, manufacture claims on him, cancel him, and destroy his future. The poor guy ended up five million dollars in personal debt. He took them to court for defamation, and thanks to legal discovery uncovered an underground collusion between casinos and aripiprazole manufacturers, which soon became national news. The casinos counter-sued, also for defamation, but dropped their charges once the media had quieted down about the aripiprazole scandal. A couple years later he managed to get his money back with the help of an LED company. It’s a long story, they tell you, and you can find it all on Youtube Blue when you are bored and back in civilization. For now all you need to know is that the founder said that Burning Man is a safe haven which the Dopaminergic Cartel hasn’t yet touched. This is all thanks to the decommodification principle, and the persistent efforts to enforce it in every way possible.

hy-14546

Aripiprazole

Camp Valence has an underlying philosophy that traces its roots back to David Pearce, Effective Altruism, and further back to Bentham, and even Buddha. The universe has an in-built utility function, and to follow the path of goodness is to (1) recognize that value is not relative, (2) that human values are provincial and distorted versions of ultimate value, and (3) to start listening, really listening, to what the universe prefers. Intrinsic value is encoded in the shape of a state of consciousness. What mystics, meditators, and hippies have all been saying for ages is true – the point of life is to live in harmony. But what is harmony, exactly? How does it manifest in precise, empirically measurable ways in terms of brain states and, more generally, configurations of matter and energy? Deep down, they claim, value is grounded in the nature of quantum fields, and the way the universal wavefunction interferes with itself. The highest expression of God, as it were, is not the one that incorporates the most diverse range of qualia, but rather, the one that incorporates the largest amount of coherent energy in a state of harmony. It so happens, they tell you, that the full-spectrum experiences that are catalyzed at places like Camp State-Space of Consciousness have as a side-effect large-scale harmonious coherence. Alas, there are far more direct and effective ways of achieving this. Thus, Divine Spectralism is not entirely true, but it is also not entirely wrong; it holds a kernel of truth… a piece of the puzzle. The full puzzle, though, can only be solved if you put your ear to the ground and listen carefully for what the universe really wants.

Mythologically, Camp Valence posits that someday in the future there will be something like Effective Altruism, but rather than focused on suffering- because there will be none of it left- it will focus on creating large projects with huge positive hedonic payoffs for the largest number of sentient beings possible. They don’t call it hedonium, because they want to retain individualized motivational architectures. They agree with David Pearce in “creating a universal welfare world where beings are animated by gradients of bliss” rather than aiming for raw undifferentiated bliss.

In a future where suffering is made physiologically impossible via gene editing, and the game-theory is taken care of such that cooperating is the evolutionarily stable equilibrium, what remains to be done competitively is to try to discover new ways to create glory and awe and delight and open-ended infinite games.

You thank them for the explanation, and you wish you could have recorded the conversation as it seemed of general interest. Alas, this is Burning Man, and as a friend once suggested, whatever happens here gets uploaded to the collective human unconscious anyway.

You walk to another room and notice a stand with many vials and powders. Like Camp State-Space of Consciousness, Camp Valence also has scents. But unlike the multi-faceted and comprehensive repertoire of Rainbow God, the scents in Camp Valence are not selected to catalyze a full-spectrum experience; they concentrate on the scents that generate the most palpable changes in one’s sense of wellbeing. They have blends of hedonically-charged scents that are made to specifically either calm you or make you hyper in a good way. You ask for the relaxing one, and you get something that fits perfectly with your empathogenic state. “Gosh, whoever designed this smell must have been rolling, too.” The attendant mentions that the most interesting thing you could do at the camp is to try out their God Helmet device. She points at one of the corners where you see two people wearing eye-masks and helmets full of wires. The attendant says that they will be done in about five minutes and you can be next. You mention that you took MDMA about two hours ago, and ask if it’s ok to mix the God Helmet with it. She winks and says “well, didn’t you notice the synergy between your state and the scent you just tried? The God Helmet is that way, too. We have many configurations that are designed specifically for a given state of consciousness. My favorite by far is the empathogenic one.”

Indeed many people show up to Camp Valence while on some empathogen or another. The people who set up the camp only take psychedelics at Burning Man due to concerns over the deleterious long-term effects of molly. Of course they are acquainted with the state, or otherwise they wouldn’t have found a way to tune the God helmet to perfectly synergize with your mind. You see the girl push a button that says “Ambrosia” and right after that you get lost into a literal world of bliss. You’ve taken larger doses of MDMA before, and you estimate that the combination of your moderate dose (85mg) with the helmet is making you feel what 200mg of MDMA feels like at its hedonic peak before palpitations and other side-effects start to set in. An all-around feeling of wellbeing and maximum enjoyment. The shape of your attention field-lines experiences interesting changes; you feel like your awareness field is a smooth toroidal powerhouse of pleasure energy. You spontaneously think of your deceased maternal grandfather, and realize you can only have good thoughts about him. Even if you were to try, you couldn’t have a single negative thing to say about him on this state. You feel his love and unconditional acceptance from afar, as if beamed through an etheric field. You yourself feel like a star of happiness– perhaps your dead relatives are seeing you from heaven due to how bright you are shining? This thought seems compelling in your state. Soon enough, your turn is over, and you take the helmet off. You still feel better than how you felt before you put it on; it’s as if this thing energized your mind, whose electromagnetic nature is now evident to you. The device did something that “boosted” your state. It now rests at a pleasant level that you associate with taking ~130mg of MDMA. They say this will also extend your state, and to drink a shot of vodka if you want your state to quiet down (e.g. in order to sleep).

You thank everyone you talked to, you tell them you love them (“we get that often”- they say- “but we know it’s true, thank you, we love you too!”), give everyone a big hug, and part ways.

You go back to your camp, hydrate, eat a couple oranges and mixed nuts, go to your tent and take a large ketamine bump, followed by another one 10 minutes later. You are propelled upwards in a tunnel of light that guides you throughout the known universe until you arrive at a giant ball of life energy. The experience is overwhelming, and hard to decipher. You think about what makes Camp Valence and Rainbow God different. What are the differences and similarities? Are you stealing fire from the Gods by having these experiences and remembering the insights that unfold from them? The giant ball of life energy feels like it is calling you, and approaches you roaring with incredible loudness- yet the sound comes out muffled, as if going through a low-pass filter. You intuitively sense that if you were to approach it too closely, you would cease to be a separate being, as it would absorb you into universal consciousness. Scared for your ego-narrative, you hesitate and hover around it, trying to make sense of it. After twenty five minutes you come down. Exhausted, you fall asleep.


Stay tuned for part 2/2.


*Pun credit: Christian Lains

**Credit for psychophysics symmetry experiment stimuli creation to Nick Xu. He generated images that I used to conduct a psychophysics experiment at Burning Man in 2017. He made images where wallpaper symmetry groups would flip along their symmetry elements. All except a single symmetry element would change at the same rate, while one of them would be moving either slightly faster or slower. People on psychedelics seemed to be faster at pointing out the “defect” in the animation. More research is needed to replicate this effect and explain how it works.

Featured Image: source. Rainbow DJ Dog GIF: source.

Cause X – What Will the New Shiny Effective Altruist Cause Be?

The Qualia Research Institute hosted an interesting event a couple of weeks ago. Here is how the event was advertised:

Description

Event NameQRI & Friends: “Cause X” – what will the new shiny EA cause be?
Time: Saturday, January 19, 2019 at 4 PM – 1 AM
Description: This event will consist of 4-minute presentations from attendees about what the “new EA cause area should be” (from 4pm to 6pm) followed by a casual and chill hangout for the rest of the evening.
There are 10 slots for the presentations, and we encourage you to sign up for one before they run out. If you want to give a presentation please fill out this form: [deleted link]
If you want to see people’s presentations please show up before 4:15pm (we will start the presentations at 4:30 sharp). Each participant will be given 4 minutes to present and 1 minute for Q&A. We will be strict on time. You should come prepared to defend your cause with logic, data, etc.
Everyone who sees the presentations will get to vote* at the end for the following three categories:
  1. Most likely to prevent as much suffering as possible with 1 million dollars of funding
  2. Most fun to think about
  3. Most likely to be the plan of a super-villain
There will be real prizes for each of these three categories!!!**
If you just want to come and hang out for the evening please show up from 6:30pm onwards. Vegetarian/vegan food and drinks will be served at around 7:30pm. Feel free to bring vegan/vegetarian food/drinks too.
As usual, feel free to invite people who are curious about consciousness and EA (but please let me know in advance so I can make a head-count for the event).

*Voting was carried out with Approval Voting (where every person can vote for as many presentations as they want and the ones with the highest number of votes win). This was chosen based on the assumption that some presentations might be similar, which would lead to an unfair penalty on similar presentations based on the spoiler effect. Additionally, voters who are undecided between more than one presentation can communicate their uncertainty via this type of voting rather than having that useful information be discarded.
**Prizes were announced the day of the event. For category (1) the prizes were “a fully-equipped first-aid kit plus a 16-bottle essential oils kit”. The winner of category (2) received a prize consisting of “a 3D Mirascope and an Ivy Cube“. And category (3) had as its prize an “Apollo Tools 39 piece general tool set (DT9706)“. These prizes were, of course, highly symbolic of their respective categories.

Winners

With the permission of the participants, here is what each of the winners presented:

For (1) two presenters tied in first place:

– Natália Mendonça presented about “Using smartphones to improve well-being measures in order to aid cause prioritization research” (link to presentation). She argued that the experience sampling paradigms that made waves in the 2000s and early 2010s happened at a time when relatively few people had smartphones. Since today smartphone adoption in developing countries has exploded we could use an experience sampling app to determine the major causes of suffering throughout the world in a way that wasn’t possible before. She specifically mentioned “comparing how bad different illnesses feel” in order to help us guide policy decision for cause prioritization.
– An anonymous attendee presented about “Psychedelic Drug Decriminalization“. Some of the core ideas involved taking a look at the effect sizes of the benefits of MDMA, LSD, psilocybin, etc. on various mental illnesses and comparing them against current alternatives. Also looking at the potential downsides they estimated that these only account for about 10% of the benefit, so cost-benefit wise it is very positive. They didn’t cover the entire presentation due to time – more details and a contact email can be found at https://enthea.net.

For (2) the winner was:

– Matthew Barnet who presented about “Timeloop Concept as Cause X” (link – slides don’t have much content; they were used just to keep the presentation on track). Matthew looked at the recent Qualia Computing article about the “Pseudo-Time Arrow” and wondered whether the importance of agents from an ethical point of view should be weighted at least in part based on their subjective time-structure. It’s true that 99% of experiences are experienced as having a linear causal time arrow, but this is not the case for the general space of possible experiences (e.g. including “moments of eternity”, “time loops”, “atemporal states”, etc. common on altered states of consciousness). He posited that perhaps time loop experiences have a much bigger moral importance because from the inside it feels like they never end. A discussion about infinite ethics and the quantification of consciousness ensued.

For (3) the winner was:

– Yev Barkalov, who proposed that rather than trying to endlessly battle in favor of digital privacy… how about we “just give up” and instead refocus the absence of digital privacy for social good. He mentioned China’s social credit score as a possible bad implementation of what he had in mind (“they have poisoned the well of the no-privacy camp by doing it so poorly”). Part of his argument was that technologies such as adblockers, crypto tokens, and the dark net further arms races in which advertisers, financial institutions, and governments become more clever at displaying ads, making you sign up for credit cards, and forcing citizens to abide by the law. Since arms races are dangerous and may lead to draconian systems while also being a waste of resources (due to their zero-sum nature), he suggested that we at least consider the alternative of seeing how a privacy-less world could work in practice. He posited that this could allow people to find quality collaborators more easily thanks to enhanced “people search” capabilities made available to the general population.

For completeness, the remaining presentations included:
Open Individualism as a new foundation for ethics
– Collective internet identities to replace countries
– The researching of possible Cause Xs as itself Cause X
– Automatic Truth Discovery neo-Wikipedia: like the current Wikipedia but with meta-analytic tools embedded into it, which provide confidence intervals for each claim based on the statistical robustness of the empirical findings that support it. And…
– A critique of utilitarianism that was more of a rant than a specific proposal (???)

Finally, I would like to add here some additional possible Causes X that I have thought about. These did not participate in the event because the organizers were not allowed to present (due to fairness and also because I didn’t want to “win a prize” that I bought myself):

  1. Subsidizing/sponsoring the use of HEPA filters in every house
  2. Distributing DMT vape pens that dispense in 4mg doses to deal with unexpected cluster headaches (this deserves an article of its own; cf. “Hell Must Be Destroyed“)
  3. Building a model that takes in genetic data and returns hedonic set point (and/or tells you which recreational drugs you are most likely to respond positively to).

In brief, (1) above might be a highly effective way of improving the health-span of a country’s population in a cost-effective fashion. As Robin Hanson has argued over the years, if we truly cared about the health of people, we would be spending more resources on the top 4 drivers of health (diet, exercise, sleep, and clean air) rather than on extravagant medical interventions designed to convince us that “an attempt was made.” Clean air, in particular, seems easy to influence at a rather minimal cost. HEPA filters capable of providing clean air to entire apartments (reducing by 10X the PM2.5 concentrations in the apartment) can cost as little as $70, with an upkeep of about $30 a year for renewing filters, and about $20 a year for electricity. Fermi calculation would indicate this would cut the average person’s daily PM2.5 exposure by half. I haven’t worked out the math concerning the amount of micromorts prevented per dollar this way, but the numbers seem extremely promising.

For (2) the rationale is that inhaling tiny doses of DMT aborts a cluster headache within about 3 seconds. Given the fact that about 0.1% of people will suffer from a cluster headache at least once in their lifetimes, and the fact that they are considered one of the most painful experiences possible, having a DMT vape pen within reach at all times as an insurance against spontaneous hellish levels of pain might be perfectly justified. A dedicated article about this specific topic will be posted soon.

And finally, (3) was recently argued in a Qualia Computing article: Triple S Genetic Counseling: Predicting Hedonic-Set Point with Commercial-Grade DNA Testing as an Effective Altruist Project. This may very well be a defensible Cause X on the basis that building such a model is already possible with the data available to commercial DNA testing companies like 23andMe, and that it might course-correct the reproductive strategy of millions of prospective parents within a few years, preventing untold amounts of suffering at a relatively small cost.

Detailed 2C-B Trip Report by an Anonymous Reader

by an anonymous reader

Introduction

Yesterday I took about 30mg of 2C-B. In my experience, the “peak” of 2C-B is rather short-lived, so I decided to divide my dose in half so that I could have time to examine the effects over the course of a prolonged plateau. I took 15mg at 2:15pm and then another 15mg at 4:00pm. The whole experience lasted around seven hours, with residual effects for about two more hours. I was just about back to baseline by 11pm. Today, I woke up hangover-free and quite happy and refreshed. I love 2C-B for this reason; unlike MDMA, it does not feel like it taxes the body very much, and unlike LSD, it does not seem to be a completely unpredictable trip with the potential for undesirably deep existential worries – “ontological paranoia”, as a friend once put it. And unlike 2C-I, 2C-E, or 2C-T-2, it is relatively nausea-free and very upbeat. I think that the quasi-entactogenic boost in mood provided by 2C-B, more so than its trippy, psychedelic effects, may be the reason why it feels “psychologically safer” than acid. I’ve never had a bad time on 2C-B- only somewhat uncomfortable- but it never gets worse than a -2 on a sadness-happiness scale from -10 to +10, whereas acid can take you all the way down to -6 or -7 if you are really unlucky and you let it happen. Anyway- I am very happy I did it and I wanted to share some observations about my experience.

From a third person point of view, I’m sure my behavior wasn’t too out of the ordinary. I laughed harder than I usually laugh, and I was clearly giggly and arousable. But I wasn’t slurring my speech, speaking slowly, or making nonsense sounds. I am reasonably certain that for most of the experience, I could have spoken to a sober person without them realizing I was on anything. They might have thought that I was in a very open-minded mood, perhaps, but I don’t think it would have been obvious that I was tripping. Time-wise, I spent the first two hours or so listening to music, looking at patterns that I had saved for just this occasion, and staring at the ceiling. From the time I re-dosed (4pm) until about 7pm, I spent a lot of that time chatting online with a friend, smelling scented objects I was able to find in my house, and trying to test some hypotheses about the state I was in. From 7pm to about 9:30pm, I danced, chatted a bit with a different friend, and tried to take some notes- but I had trouble staying on track due to my short attention span. And from 9:30pm and onwards I mostly just laid back, got sucked into a rabbit hole learning about the Unarius religion, and played chill music.

For context, I should add that I’ve read a good number of Qualia Computing articles and I like to follow the links I find in them. I may get something wrong- please forgive me if I botch any specific reference. But I do think that this analysis of my experience might be helpful for the project of consciousness research. That being said, here are some highlights of the thoughts and observations that I gathered from my trip:

Key Signatures and Atasoy’s Work

In a presentation about brain harmonics (link), Selen Atasoy described how the “repertoire of brain states increases” on LSD. But she also mentioned that LSD has the general effect of (1) increasing the amplitude of brain harmonics across the spectrum, and (2) increasing the amplitude of high-frequency harmonics more so than that of low-frequency harmonics. I remember that the first time I read about brain harmonics, I thought it was some kind of hippie fantasy, or like some sort of 19th century model of how the brain works (e.g. Atasoy quotes Tesla in her presentation). But thinking about it while coming up on a psychedelic is quite revealing. The first thing I noticed was that at the 40 minute mark, I felt an overall amplification of the energy of my consciousness. I know this sounds crazy- especially if you’ve never tried a psychedelic- but there is a global increase in the intensity of your experience. It’s very much true that when you start coming up on psychedelics, it feels like someone is turning up the volume of your experience overall. This is not only true for every sensory modality of your experience (visual, sound, tactile, etc.), but also true for the affective (emotional) and cognitive (thought) components!

On a low dose, or at the beginning of the come-up on a medium or large dose, all you really notice is this global amplification across the board. But then it gets more interesting. I realized yesterday that the mild background noise that I can hear in my head when things are silent kept changing as I was coming up. At first, the noise kept slightly increasing in amplitude. There was a certain mixture of ringings (I don’t really have tinnitus, but I hope you see what I mean… I think weed and dissociatives amplify this noise too, but in a different way), and what I noticed was the way that the mixture of components that make up this subtle background noise started changing and shifting upwards in frequency. The thing is, this didn’t happen in a simple linear progression. I paid attention to how this happened, and I noticed that at around the 50 minute mark, I experienced perfect silence. It was like all of that background noise was gone (apparently MDMA does this to people who suffer from tinnitus). But then, at around the 55 minute mark, other sounds started to appear. It was a new mixture, but the overall spectrum of frequencies was now higher than before- like a higher-pitched mixture of subtle ringings. Then, at the 1 hour mark, I heard silence again! And then another episode of ringing, but higher still- then it switched to silence again, and then it mostly stayed that way. It felt like there were several phase-changes; it seemed like mixtures of brain harmonics can sometimes cancel each other out, but at other times they leave a residue. And the higher the overall spectrum of your brain state in frequency, the higher the pitch of the residue- unless it is silence, which feels the same at any level.

While I was noticing these qualitative changes happening in the background noise that I can hear in my head, I was also paying attention to my visual field. I noticed that something quite similar was happening there too. There were several phases that I would cycle between depending on how high I was. Usually, there is a little bit of “static” random noise in my vision. And on the 2C-B, I noticed that at first, this noise diminished and my vision felt like it was perfectly clear. But then, I would see criss-crossing patterns across my visual field. They were very subtle at first, and then grew more and more noticeable over time. Then the criss-crossing patterns would get higher in their spatial frequency (lines with less space between them), up to the point where they started to saturate my visual field. And then, the whole thing would break into a visual noise pattern similar to where I started from, except that now, it seemed both brighter and more defined than before. Then, again, my visual field would go clear and crisp, like the air was being sucked out of the room. And then again, subtle criss-crossing would start overlaying it, and the entire process would repeat. It repeated itself about four times during the first hour and a half of coming up, and it ended up in the criss-crossing region, now at fairly high frequencies.

 

I spent some time during the trip wondering how this could happen. It reminded me of a few concepts which I had studied previously: aliasing, beats, and Moiré patterns. I’ll leave some pictures here (courtesy of Google Images) that do a good job of replicating some of the elements of the transitions:

 

I like the one on the left in particular, in which the concentric circles increase in their spatial frequency as you go up. You can imagine that going up that image is how it felt coming up on 2C-B. The thing is, at any given point, I was experiencing an overlap of many different frequencies, but the most dominant ones would interfere with each other- sometimes generating a single, clear, strong beat pattern when superimposed, sometimes generating silence/crisp images, and sometimes making a strange mesh of noisy, grainy, superpositions. But one thing is for certain- the frequency of the underlying components, both temporally and spatially, seemed to go up as a function of how high I was on the 2C-B.

I suppose that many people would read Atasoy’s work and Andres’s speculation about how it could be extended to quantify how happy you are (ref) to mean that in any given moment, you are experiencing just one frequency- or maybe two or three. But I think it’s more like you have a broad range of frequencies active at any point in time, and on psychedelics, the range of possible combinations explodes. At any single point in time, they are both superimposed on and interfere with each other. I guess I thought this was very abstract before the trip, but now I think I was able to feel that process from the inside and know what brain harmonics refer to. The mesh of increasingly high-frequency Moiré patterns is how it looks and sounds like- how it feels like- from the inside, to retune your connectome-harmonics upward.

 

At the time, I thought that this could potentially be explained by making an analogy to keyboards, where each brain harmonic is like a musical note on a keyboard. On 2C-B, you get a double keyboard, with a wider range of possible notes. And perhaps LSD would be not only giving you more possible notes, but also providing you with additional features- like, for example, a general synthesizer that can apply distortions to the sounds. 2C-B has some other effects in addition to increasing the range of available notes, but they are hard to describe. Reverb and delays are there for sure, but not crazy things like on-the-fly timbre modifications, which are more akin to the weirdness of LSD. More generally, my experience has been that phenethylamines have fewer features than lysergamides and tryptamines. On the other hand, when it comes to establishing an emotional base, phenethylamines have a certain “loving” frequency that persists throughout the experience, and I think that makes them better in many contexts.

Emotion

This train of thought led me to consider my experience in light of something that Mike Johnson recently blogged about: the view that our moods are the result of the key signature of our brain state:

This is not to say our key signatures are completely static, however: an interesting thread to pull here may be that some brains seem to flip between a major key and a minor key, with these keys being local maximas of harmony. I suspect each is better at certain kinds of processing, and although parts of each can be compatible with the other, each has elements that present as defection to the internal logic of the other and so these attractors can be ‘sticky’.

– Mike Johnson, A Future for Neuroscience

With respect to emotion, the things I experienced are very hard to describe, but I’ll give it a go. I think, on average, if you aggregated all the micro-moods of the experience, it would come out to be fairly positive overall- maybe a +3 on the -10 to +10 scale. But the mood would fluctuate in peculiar ways over a period of just fractions of a second. There was an underlying low-frequency tonality to the experience- which was very pleasant- that I think may be the result of the mildly euphoric, stimulant-like effect which 2C-B has. This was a strong base for the overall quality of the total mood, and it made the experience very pleasant for the most part. But there was another big component of mood, that could switch from pleasant to worried and back in the span of about half a second. It didn’t sway the base euphoria very much, and I was actually able to appreciate the switching quality. All in all, I mostly stayed on the positive side, and the negative moods were very fleeting (seconds at most). But I was amazed at how little stability there was, and how the buzzing of various frequencies didn’t settle into a particular coherent emotional impression. It certainly felt like the mood was directly connected to the buzzing of notes, which were creating a complex, chaotic symphony made up of meshes of brain harmonics. Thankfully, it was certainly biased towards positive and awe-inspiring moods. My self-model was also disassembled and reassembled with constantly shifting emotional tones. The come-up in particular had a certain anxious edge, and the semantic content of that anxiety seemed to be connected to particular things I’ve done in the past which have embarrassed me. Undergoing those emotions was intense, but it also felt somehow cleansing. It’s like- once you fully see the consequences of your embarrassing actions (or at least imagine them), you don’t worry about it as much. You get used to it and move on.

High-Energy Consciousness

As I approached the moment I would finally plateau, I experienced many different philosophical views of reality as distinct, short, intense bursts of existential feelings. In these states, one “realizes” that particular philosophical views must be true by the sheer fact of how intense they feel. I can certainly recall having believed in such intense feelings in the past, especially when I was in my early twenties and trying psychedelics for the first time. This time, the images were still as intense as they had been before in similar levels of alteration, but they were about different topics (it’s been a while since I’ve experimented with psychedelics). I recognize that these experiences have a powerful capacity to shake up your pre-existing model of the world. You either cling to your previous models and suffer, or you let go and get brainwashed into having new metaphysical views of reality. I don’t know… Over the years, the content of those feelings has changed, and I’ve seen contradictory things which seemed like the final truth at the time. I think I now interpret these intense bursts of philosophically-flavored experiences as being instances of some kind of “energetically super-charged, super-coherent state of consciousness”. I can see how many people could arrive at the conclusion that these bursts of intense consciousness are messages from aliens, or perhaps psychic laser beams coming from a secret organization, or whatnot. God, the divine, infinite life, now-ness, Buddha nature, awakening, etc. are all suitably grandiose concepts that sort of provide a conceptual framework to make sense of these super-high-energy states of consciousness. Alternatively, we just haven’t figured out how to harness these unusual state-spaces of consciousness for information-processing purposes, or even for non-brainwashy aesthetic experiences… they confuse the heck out of us.

f36b6f36

We currently lack the conceptual frameworks and adequate techniques to make sense of, and make use of, super-high-energy states of consciousness.

Anyhow, in this particular case, the intense flashes of super-energetic consciousness seemed to be about the reality of the present moment on the one hand, and the way in which scent is related to feeling alive on the other. It sounds arbitrary, but it didn’t feel arbitrary at the time. I remember looking for things to smell in my house and finding an essential oil of orange (as well as cinnamon powder, mint tea, ground coffee, and nutmeg). The particular orange smell of that essential oil really seemed to resonate with my state. How should I put it? It was an intense feeling of awake effervescence, youthful reality, and spacious energy. The scent seemed to be a key for a lock, that when turned, would bring all the channels of my experiential field into contact and into a unified expression of “presence/aliveness”. Ok, this is word salad. I’m not going to pretend this is anything but poetic allusion. Here is a concrete, logical-sounding insight instead: I felt like I was finally able to make sense of what scent qualia is getting at. Scent qualia is the phenomenological expression of the resonant signature that is produced in a high-dimensional manifold as a result of energizing it with a certain combination of frequencies. Sorry, word salad again. Let’s try once more…

Orange essential oil seemed like the olfactory equivalent of playing all the notes of a major chord at once. In fact, every scent felt like it had an equivalent in auditory qualia, and that we could describe a scent as presenting you with every note in a key signature all at once. It gave me the impression that perhaps scent is a qualia that can be experienced in a much more general way. Imagine that, all your life, you’ve only ever listened to music made by playing all the notes of certain keys at the same time. I’m sure you could make compelling music that way, and if our brains didn’t separate the notes, we might get the impression that that is all there is to music. Perhaps we are restricted in this way for scents, and the scent of lavender is, in fact, decomposable into a whole number of notes. And I don’t mean chemically purifying the product, because I think that even pure chemicals have complex smells. During the experience, I kept coming back to the orange scent to try to capture the overall emotional key signature of my state. Warm, loving, intense, bright, surprising, flickering, effervescent, citric. Make of this what you will.

state_space_of_scents

State-space of scent qualia (adapted from: Categorical Dimensions of Human Odor Descriptor Space Revealed by Non-Negative Matrix Factorization; Castro, Ramanathan, Chennubhotla. 2013; link)

Many of the “moments of experience” (ref) of high energy I experienced seemed to be half-posed questions and lack semantic content in the conventional sense. I assume that they could be co-opted by beliefs that say “that’s your karma” and “that’s God” or “that’s a vision of the future”, but honestly, all of those interpretations fall short of the actual thing- which, at the time, seemed more like random snippets of hyper-associations in a super-energized form, akin to a high-dimensional neuronal resonance box, if that makes any sense.

Sometimes the powerful bursts of high-energy consciousness were about the concept of now, and its connection to Open and Empty Individualism, and also the way it connects to the concept of “pure awareness”. I’ve explored these threads before, and it’s always startling when you get these flashes that feel like they mean something and yet contain almost no information. To extend the analogy with musical key signatures, it occurs to me that these states are in fact important nodal points in high-energy state-spaces of consciousness, but we don’t understand either their context or the way in which they fit together with all other possible experiences. I got the impression that these states have their own unique grammatical, syntactic, and semantic structure that is ultimately closed and self-consistent. I’m sure you’ve had the experience of recognizing a song by hearing one brief sub-second fragment of it. You realize there is more, much more, to it, and that the little fragment you heard is meaningless out of context. Yet the fragment is compelling in that it evokes and suggests a whole world of experience. These states feel like that- a high-energy fragment of something that seems completely genuine, whose level of structure and emotional depth is just complete enough to be highly suggestive of a higher world of organization into which such fragments could fit perfectly. From a secular point of view, one could perhaps describe this as the first glimpses of an art form that will be accessible to transhumans and posthumans, once the underlying laws that rule the emotional character of such experiences are understood and mastered.

Existential Humor and Semantic Nihilism

At the conceptual level, I remember that my mind latched onto two related themes: existential humor and semantic nihilism. For reference, I Heart Huckabees would be an example of a movie that plays with existential humor. The movie touches on existential crisis and absence of meaning; and it manages to be funny not despite it but because of it.

Existential humor is humor in the face of unresolved existential questions. Part of what makes this humor work is its self-reflective nature. It’s the humor of the fact that humor is possible in such circumstances. I think that the unresolved mood of the 2C-B state didn’t allow for an over-arching gestalt to form, and one could say it kept being a sort of affective pastiche. Like musical improvisation without a central theme. The deep philosophical questions that were posed didn’t produce deep undertones, like they usually do on LSD. Perhaps this makes it a more friendly state in a way… the buzzing of competing moods protects you from going too deep into some existential crisis, and allows you to sort of have some distance from any particularly unpleasant impression. The only somewhat constant feature here was giddiness, which probably explains why humor was present even though deep existential questions seemed to be both posed and left unresolved.

In turn, I also gained a new appreciation of the general idea of semantic nihilism (which I saw mentioned here). I once took a philosophy of language class in which we discussed Frege, Quine, and Wittgenstein. I was impressed by the fact that these authors would suggest that the semantic content of words was in some way completely relative. I may be misremembering, but I have the image in my mind of a text by Quine where he talks about how meaning is the result of a network of references and has no fundamental grounding (ref). He claimed that analytic and synthetic statements weren’t truly different- at least, not out of context. I didn’t know how to respond to this at the time, but over the years, I’ve thought about it now and then. It’s not like I’ve had the time to sit down and read that philosophy of language textbook again- and maybe I should- but I get the sense that one could, in principle, reformulate meaning by grounding it in qualia. These “no ground of reference” ideas fly in the face of felt-sense and my ability to use attentional attractors as designators. [Edit after writing this – turns out Andres has already discussed something along these lines in an article]. But what if someone claims that qualia is not enough to ground meaning? I think that hearing a strong argument against the view that qualia and meaning are connected would be very interesting. This is what my mind came up with during the trip- the view that not even feelings can be used as the source of meaning. The existential humor seemed to play very well with semantic nihilism. After all, isn’t it funny if nothing means anything and you are still laughing about it? It’s contagious laughter, that’s why. The thought that there was no true reason for why the laughter was appropriate was itself very funny. And then I’d apply the same mental move to this meta-funny layer, and so on. It was hilarious- in a niche philosophical sort of way- which only certain people who are obsessed with understanding reality could probably relate to.

As an aside, I think that if we look at it from a cultural point of view, most people would have a bad time if they were to experience a high-energy state of consciousness that does not reach a conclusion. The abstract expressionism of felt-sense, meaning, and audio-visual qualia is alarming without a framework to make sense of it. I realized that applying semantic nihilism to these experiences made me feel comfortable with them not actually meaning anything specific. It seemed okay that they would stay as they were: existential feelings with no resolution. I think that perhaps some aesthetics could really turn this into an art form. Perhaps Buddhist Vipassana meditation is trying to get at this.

Symmetry Groups

I paid a lot of attention to the visual textures I saw during the relatively long plateau. The textures that I had saved to look at were a bit enhanced, but they were not as interesting, I found, as the textures of the wall, ceiling, carpet, and blankets. The key difference was the fact that the live textures had actual depth. Although subtle, it still gave rise to interesting effects. I started the journey with the intention of examining the symmetrical structures of the textures I saw. I was impressed by the idea that a mathematician who experimented with LSD was able to catalogue each of the 17 wallpaper groups in his visual hallucinations (ref). I, on the other hand, was only able to see a few. Sadly, I didn’t practice naming the symmetries before going into the trip. But I can say that I noted mirror symmetry was rarely involved, and that the simplest, the one called “o”, was the one I saw the most frequently. By looking at the table now, I can definitely say that I also saw “2222”. I did see a lot of rotational symmetry elements, and they would click together to form larger symmetrical bundles. It was very interesting to watch.

 

I tried to really pay close attention to how the visuals were formed. It was very fascinating. I recall that there are many “subtypes” of visual effects, and they’ve been catalogued to some extent (ref). But what I noted this time was how they are all interconnected. Here is the story: first, the texture would appear relatively normal, just slightly brighter than normal. Then the positive after-image of the texture would linger for long enough to start overlaying onto itself. Then there would be a critical moment where that positive after-image would flip into a negative after-image (e.g. from orange to aqua, green to magenta, white to black, etc.). My brain would then try to deal with the presence of the negative after-image, and somehow fit it discreetly into the texture, in order to preserve as much information as possible from the “real texture”. Here is where the depth comes into play. For whatever reason, the negative after-image would tend to find its place in the crevices of the texture. There, it would form wavy patterns that seemed to self-organize in parallel lines. Once parallel, the patterns would lock into symmetrical shapes and dance together in synchrony. So now I had this two-layered texture that behaved as a unified wave pattern, and after a little while that would form a positive after-image, which in time would start to overlay onto itself- and then my mind would have to find a way to deal with that. With each iteration, my mind would find new ways to fit all of that residual after-image bundle together, and this would often look like some kind of surface trying to be shaped into something recognizable. I got the distinct feeling that whenever I could see something in the texture (cf. apophenia), the overall amount of after-image to deal with would be drastically reduced. I remember an article where the concept of energy sinks was discussed, and I think that both symmetrical re-arrangements of the residual after-image bundles and semantically-meaningful re-arrangements of them both seemed to work as energy sinks. Hence, the symmetrical texture repetition is a way by which the energy of these after-image bundles gets dissipated (and the surface gets locked in the shape that sucked out its energy). I remember thinking how the entire process somehow encapsulates many of the classic visual effect categories; tracers, drifting, pattern recognition, and symmetrical texture repetition all fit together in a continuous sequence of unfolding re-arrangements of an after-image bundle surface. Perhaps some trippers will relate to this description.

Visual Tracers

I also spent some time trying to figure out how to describe the tracers. I probably spent about 10 minutes doing this, and got to a fairly satisfying account, I think. The tracers were mostly composed of “echoes” rather than being the result of applying just a smooth and long decay function. Based on playing with GIFs, I estimated that the first visual echo lagged behind the original stimulation by about 200ms. Then there was another echo (the echo of the echo) which happened roughly 400ms afterwards. I took some time to look at the pictures in How to secretly communicate with people on LSD, and the GIFs seemed to work, but not exactly as the text describes it. It was really cool, though. During the plateau, I found it hard to tell which of the images had the artificial tracer on top (see the article’s “Secret C” GIFs for reference).

oscillation_1_5_5_75_75_1_10_0-05_signal_trailing

(notice the double echo)

Music

I will conclude by mentioning that music was very intense and interesting in this state. I specifically noted that music with reverb sounded massively amplified (example). With the appropriate combination of meditation and reverb-rich sounds, I could experience very pleasant states of equanimity that I don’t usually experience sober. I tried playing pulses of sound and seeing if I could experience “auditory tracers”, but it didn’t seem to work. That is, there wasn’t a clear analogue to the trace structure in the auditory domain. Rather, it’s less that “sound itself sounded like it had more reverb”, and more that “for the sound that already does have reverb, such reverb seemed amplified”. Why would the reverb itself sound amplified? And what is the reverb signature of such amplification? I don’t know! These seem like fertile grounds for novel research.

And that’s about it. I hope you find these observations useful, and if not, at least interesting to read. Peace! 🙂