Why I think the Foundational Research Institute should rethink its approach

by Mike Johnson

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

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

I. What is the Foundational Research Institute?

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

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

What I like about FRI:

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

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

What is FRI’s research framework?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Objection 1: Motte-and-bailey

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

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

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

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

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

Objection 2: Intuition duels

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Objection 3: Convergence requires common truth

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Objection 6: Mapping to reality

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

McCabe concludes that, metaphysically speaking,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Objection 8: Dangerous combination

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

(1) Suffering is the thing that is bad.

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

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

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

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

III. QRI’s alternative

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

But is it right?

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

What we’ve built with QRI’s framework

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

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

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

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

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

IV. Closing thoughts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


Mike Johnson

Qualia Research Institute

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


My sources for FRI’s views on consciousness:

Flavors of Computation are Flavors of Consciousness:



Is There a Hard Problem of Consciousness?


Consciousness Is a Process, Not a Moment



How to Interpret a Physical System as a Mind



Dissolving Confusion about Consciousness



Debate between Brian & Mike on consciousness:


Max Daniel’s EA Global Boston 2017 talk on s-risks:
Multipolar debate between Eliezer Yudkowsky and various rationalists about animal suffering:
The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy on functionalism:
Gordon McCabe on why computation doesn’t map to physics:
Toby Ord on hypercomputation, and how it differs from Turing’s work:
Luke Muehlhauser’s OpenPhil-funded report on consciousness and moral patienthood:
Scott Aaronson’s thought experiments on computationalism:
Selen Atasoy on Connectome Harmonics, a new way to understand brain activity:
My work on formalizing phenomenology:

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



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



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


My colleague Andrés’s work on formalizing phenomenology:
A model of DMT-trip-as-hyperbolic-experience:
June 2017 talk at Consciousness Hacking, describing a theory and experiment to predict people’s valence from fMRI data:
A parametrization of various psychedelic states as operators in qualia space:
A brief post on valence and the fundamental attribution error:
A summary of some of Selen Atasoy’s current work on Connectome Harmonics:

Quantifying Bliss: Talk Summary

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

The Purpose of Life

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What is Bliss?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Symmetry Theory of Valence

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

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

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

Connectome-Specific Harmonics

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

The Algorithm for Quantifying Bliss

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

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

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


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

Quantifying Dissonance?

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

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

Visualizing Emotions as CDNS’s of States of Consciousness

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

Testable Predictions

Quantifying Bliss (27)

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

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

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

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

Summary of Predictions About Drug Effects

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

Predictions About Emotions

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

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

The Future of Mental Health

Quantifying Bliss (28)

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

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

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

Personalized Harmonic Retuning

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

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

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

Case studies – SSRIs & Psychedelics

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

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

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

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

Final Thoughts

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

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

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

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


***→ see quote →

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

– Michael Johnson in Principia Qualia, page 52

The Most Important Philosophical Question

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And now some subjective impressions about the conference…


Psychedelic Ambiance

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

The Gods

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

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

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

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

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

Psychedelic Gods

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

– Timothy Leary

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Crowd

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

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

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

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

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


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

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





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

*Even the bathroom urinals seemed to have sacred geometry:



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

Raising the Table Stakes for Successful Theories of Consciousness

What should we expect out of a theory of consciousness?

For a scientific theory of consciousness to have even the slightest chance at being correct it must be able to address- at the very least– the following four questions*:

  1. Why consciousness exists at all (i.e. “the hard problem“; why we are not p-zombies)
  2. How it is possible to experience multiple pieces of information at once in a unitary moment of experience (i.e. the phenomenal binding problem; the boundary problem)
  3. How consciousness exerts the causal power necessary to be recruited by natural selection and allow us to discuss its existence (i.e. the problem of causal impotence vs. causal overdetermination)
  4. How and why consciousness has its countless textures (e.g. phenomenal color, smell, emotions, etc.) and the interdependencies of their different values (i.e. the palette problem)

In addition the theory must be able to generate experimentally testable predictions. In Popper’s sense the theory must make “risky” predictions. In a Bayesian sense the theory must be able to generate predictions that have a much higher likelihood given that the theory is correct versus not so that the a posteriori probabilities of the different hypotheses are substantially different from their priors once the experiment is actually carried out.

As discussed in a previous article most contemporary philosophies of mind are unable to address one or more of these four problems (or simply fail to make any interesting predictions). David Pearce’s non-materialist physicalist idealism (not the schizophrenic word-salad that may seem at first) is one of the few theories that promises to meet this criteria and makes empirical predictions. This theory addresses the above questions in the following way:

(1) Why does consciousness exist?

Consciousness exists because reality is made of qualia. In particular, one might say that physics is implicitly the science that studies the flux of qualia. This would imply that in fact all that exists is a set of experiences whose interrelationships are encoded in the Universal Wavefunction of Quantum Field Theory. Thus we are collapsing two questions (“why does consciousness arise in our universe?” and “why does the universe exist?”) into a single question (“why does anything exist?”). More so, the question “why does anything exist?” may ultimately be solved with Zero Ontology. In other words, all that exists is implied by the universe having literally no information whatsoever. All (apparent) information is local; universally we live in an information-less quantum Library of Babel.

(2) Why and how is consciousness unitary?

Due to the expansion of the universe the universal wavefunction has topological bifurcations that effectively create locally connected networks of quantum entanglement that are unconnected to the rest of reality. These networks meet the criteria of being ontologically unitary while having the potential to hold multiple pieces of information at once. In other words, Pearce’s theory of consciousness postulates that the world is made of a large number of experiences, though the vast majority of them are incredibly tiny and short-lived. The overwhelming bulk of reality is made of decohered micro-experiences which are responsible for most of the phenomena we see in the macroscopic world ranging from solidity to Newton’s laws of motion.

A few of these networks of entanglement are us: you, right now, as a unitary “thin subject” of experience, according to this theory, are one of these networks (cf. Mereological Nihilism). Counter-intuitively, while a mountain is in some sense much bigger than yourself, at a deeper level you are bigger than the biggest object you will find in a mountain. Taking seriously the phenomenal binding problem we have to conclude that a mountain is for the most part just made of fields of decohered qualia, and thus, unlike a given biologically-generated experience, it is not “a unitary subject of experience”. In order to grasp this point it is necessary to contemplate a very extreme generalization of Empty Individualism: not only is it that every moment of a person’s experience is a different subject of experience, but the principle applies to every single network of entanglement in the entire multiverse. Only a tiny minority of these have anything to do with minds representing worlds. And even those that participate in the creation of a unitary experience exist within an ecosystem that gives rise to an evolutionary process in which quintillions of slightly different entanglement networks compete in order to survive in the extreme environments provided by nervous systems. Your particular experience is an entanglement network that evolved in order to survive in the specific brain state that is present right now. In other words, macroscopic experiences are the result of harnessing the computational power of Quantum Darwinism by applying it to a very particular configuration of the CNS. Brain states themselves encode Constraint Satisfaction Problems with the networks of electric gradients across firing neurons in sub-millisecond scales instantiating constraints whose solutions are found with sub-femtosecond quantum darwinism.

(3) How can consciousness be causally efficacious?

Consciousness exerts its causal power by virtue of being the only thing that exists. If anything is causal at all, it must, in the final analysis, be consciousness. No matter one’s ultimate theory of causality, assuming that physics describes the flux of qualia, then what instantiates such causality has to be this very flux.

Even under Eternalism/block view of the universe/Post-Everettian QM you can still meaningfully reconstruct causality in terms of the empirical rules for statistical independence across certain dimensions of fundamental reality. The dimensions that have time-like patterns of statistical independence will subjectively be perceived as being the arrows of time in the multiverse (cf. Timeless Causality).

Now an important caveat with this view of the relationship between qualia and causality is that it seems as if at least a weak version of epiphenomenalism must be true. The inverted spectrum thought experiment (ironically usually used in favor of the existence of qualia) can be used to question the causal power of qualia. This brings us to the fourth point:

(4) How do we explain the countless textures of consciousness?

How and why does consciousness have its countless textures and what determines its interrelationships? Pearce anticipates that someday we will have a Rosetta Stone for translating patterns of entanglement in quantum fields to corresponding varieties of qualia (e.g. colors, smells, sounds, etc.). Now, admittedly it seems far fetched that the different quantum fields and their interplay will turn out to be the source of the different qualia varieties. But is there something that in principle precludes this ontological correspondence? Yes, there are tremendous philosophical challenges here, the most salient of which might be the “being/form boundary”. This is the puzzle concerning why states of being (i.e. networks of entangled qualia) would act a certain way by virtue of their phenomenal character in and of itself (assuming its phenomenal character is what gives them reality to begin with). Indeed, what could possibly attach at a fundamental level the behavior of a given being and its intrinsic subjective texture? A compromise between full-fledged epiphenomenalism and qualia-based causality is to postulate a universal principle concerning the preference for full-spectrum states over highly differentiated ones. Consider for example how negative and positive electric charge “seek to cancel each other out”. Likewise, the Quantum Chromodynamics of quarks inside protons and neutrons works under a similar but generalized principle: color charges seek to cancel/complement each other out and become “white” or “colorless”. This principle would suggest that the causal power of specific qualia values comes from the gradient ascent towards more full-spectrum-like states rather than from the specific qualia values on their own.  If this were to be true, one may legitimately wonder whether hedonium and full-spectrum states are perhaps one and the same thing (cf. Valence structuralism). In some way this account of the “being/form boundary” is similar to process philosophy,  but unlike process philosophy, here we are also taking mereological nihilism and wavefuction monism seriously.

However far-fetched it may be to postulate intrinsic causal properties for qualia values, if the ontological unity of science is to survive, there might be no other option. As we’ve seen, simple “patterns of computation” or “information processing” cannot be the source of qualia, since nothing that isn’t a quantum coherent wavefunction actually has independent existence. Unitary minds cannot supervene on decohered quantum fields. Thus the various kinds of qualia have to be searched for in networks of quantum entanglement; within a physicalist paradigm there is nowhere else for them to be.

Alternative Theories

I am very open to the possibility that other theories of consciousness are able to address these four questions. I have yet to see any evidence of this, though. But, please, change my mind if you can! Does your theory of consciousness rise to the challenge?

* This particular set of criteria was proposed by David Pearce (cf. Qualia Computing in Tucson). I would agree with him that these are crucial questions; indeed they make up the bare minimum that such a theory must satisfy. That said, we can formulate more comprehensive sets of problems to solve. An alternative framework that takes this a little further can be found in Michael Johnson’s book Principia Qualia (Eight Problems for a New Science of Consciousness).

Core Philosophy

David Pearce asked me ages ago to make accesible videos about transhumanism, consciousness and the abolitionist project. Well, here is a start

In this video I outline the core philosophy and objectives of Qualia Computing. There are three main goals here:


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


While describing the 1st objective I explain that we start by realizing that consciousness is doing something useful (or evolution would not have been able to recruit it for information-processing purposes). I also go on to explain the difference between qualia varieties (e.g. phenomenal color, smell, touch, thought, etc.) and qualia values (i.e. the specific points in the state-spaces defined by the varieties, such as “pure phenomenal blue” or the smell of cardamom).


With regards to the 2nd objective, I explain that our minds actually use the specific properties of each qualia variety in order to represent information states and then to solve computational problems. We are only getting started in this project.


And 3rd, I argue that discovering exactly what makes an experience “worth living” in a formal and mathematical way is indeed ethically urgent. With a fundamental understanding of valence we can develop precise interventions to reduce (even prevent altogether) any form of suffering without messing up with our capacity to think and explore the state-space of consciousness (at least the valuable part of it).


I conclude by pointing out that the 1st and 2nd research programs actually interact in non-trivial ways: There is a synergy between them which may lead us to a recursively self-improving intelligence (and do so in a far “safer” way than trying to build an AGI through digital software).

David Pearce on the “Schrodinger’s Neurons Conjecture”

My friend +Andrés Gómez Emilsson on Qualia Computing: LSD and Quantum Measurements: Can you see Schrödinger’s cat both dead and alive on acid?


Most truly radical intellectual progress depends on “crazy” conjectures. Unfortunately, few folk who make crazy conjectures give serious thought to extracting novel, precise, experimentally falsifiable predictions to confound their critics. Even fewer then publish the almost inevitable negative experimental result when their crazy conjecture isn’t confirmed. So kudos to Andrés for doing both!!


What would the world look like if the superposition principle never breaks down, i.e. the unitary Schrödinger dynamics holds on all scales, and not just the microworld? The naïve – and IMO mistaken – answer is that without the “collapse of the wavefunction”, we’d see macroscopic superpositions of live-and-dead cats, experiments would never appear to have determinate outcomes, and the extremely well tested Born rule (i.e. the probability of a result is the squared absolute value of the inner product) would be violated. Or alternatively, assuming DeWitt’s misreading of Everett, if the superposition principle never breaks down, then when you observe a classical live cat, or a classical dead cat, your decohered (“split”) counterpart in a separate classical branch of the multiverse sees a dead cat or a live cat, respectively.


In my view, all these stories rest on a false background assumption. Talk of “observers” and “observations” relies on a naïve realist conception of perception whereby you (the “observer”) somehow hop outside of your transcendental skull to inspect the local mind-independent environment (“make an observation”). Such implicit perceptual direct realism simply assumes – rather than derives from quantum field theory – the existence of unified observers (“global” phenomenal binding) and phenomenally-bound classical cats and individually detected electrons striking a mind-independent classical screen cumulatively forming a non-classical interference pattern (“local” phenomenal binding). Perception as so conceived – as your capacity for some sort of out-of-body feat of levitation – isn’t physically possible. The role of the mind-independent environment beyond one’s transcendental skull is to select states of mind internal to your world-simulation; the environment can’t create, or imprint its signature on, your states of mind (“observations”) – any more than the environment can create or imprint its signature on your states of mind while you’re dreaming.


Here’s an alternative conjecture – a conjecture that holds regardless of whether you’re drug-naïve, stone-cold sober, having an out-of-body experience on ketamine, awake or dreaming, or tripping your head off on LSD. You’re experiencing “Schrodinger’s cat” states right nowin virtue of instantiating a classical world-simulation. Don’t ask what’s it like to perceive a live-and-dead Schrödinger’s cat; ask instead what it’s like to instantiate a coherent superposition of distributed feature-processing neurons. Only the superposition principle allows you to experience phenomenally-bound classical objects that one naively interprets as lying in the mind-independent world. In my view, the universal validity of the superposition principle allows you to experience a phenomenally bound classical cat within a seemingly classical world-simulation – or perform experiments with classical-looking apparatus that have definite outcomes, and confirm the Born rule. Only the vehicle of individual coherent superpositions of distributed neuronal feature-processors allows organic mind-brains to run world simulations described by an approximation of classical Newtonian physics. In the mind-independent world – i.e. not the world of your everyday experience – the post-Everett decoherence program in QM pioneered by Zeh, Zurek et al. explains the emergence of an approximation of classical “branches” for one’s everyday world-simulations to track. Yet within the CNS, only the superposition principle allows you to run a classical world-simulation tracking such gross fitness-relevant features of your local extracranial environment. A coherent quantum mind can run phenomenally-bound simulations of a classical world, but a notional classical mind couldn’t phenomenally simulate a classical world – or phenomenally simulate any other kind of world. For a supposedly “classical” mind would just be patterns of membrane-bound neuronal mind-dust: mere pixels of experience, a micro-experiential zombie.


Critically, molecular matter-wave interferometry can in principle independently be used to test the truth – or falsity – of this conjecture (see: https://www.physicalism.com/#6).


OK, that’s the claim. Why would (almost) no scientifically informed person take the conjecture seriously?


In a word, decoherence.


On a commonsense chronology of consciousness, our experience of phenomenally bound perceptual objects “arises” via patterns of distributed neuronal firings over a timescale of milliseconds – the mystery lying in how mere synchronised firing of discrete, decohered, membrane-bound neurons / micro-experiences could generate phenomenal unity, whether local or global. So if the lifetime of coherent superpositions of distributed neuronal feature-processors in the CNS were milliseconds, too, then there would be an obvious candidate for a perfect structural match between the phenomenology of our conscious minds and neurobiology / fundamental physics – just as I’m proposing above. Yet of course this isn’t the case. The approximate theoretical lifetimes of coherent neuronal superpositions in the CNS can be calculated: femtoseconds or less. Thermally-induced decoherence is insanely powerful and hard to control. It’s ridiculous – intuitively at any rate – to suppose that such fleeting coherent superpositions could be recruited to play any functional role in the living world. An epic fail!


Too quick.
Let’s step back.
Many intelligent people initially found it incredible that natural selection could be powerful enough to throw up complex organisms as thermodynamically improbable as Homo sapiens. We now recognise that the sceptics were mistaken: the human mind simply isn’t designed to wrap itself around evolutionary timescales of natural selection playing out over hundreds of millions of years. In the CNS, another form of selection pressure plays out – a selection pressure over one hundred of orders of magnitude (sic) more powerful than selection pressure on information-bearing self-replicators as conceived by Darwin. “Quantum Darwinism” as articulated by Zurek and his colleagues isn’t the shallow, tricksy metaphor one might naively assume; and the profound implications of such a selection mechanism must be explored for the world-simulation running inside your transcendental skull, not just for the extracranial environment. At work here is unimaginably intense selection pressure favouring comparative resistance to thermally (etc)-induced decoherence [i.e. the rapid loss of coherence of complex phase amplitudes of the components of a superposition] of functionally bound phenomenal states of mind in the CNS. In my view, we face a failure of imagination of the potential power of selection pressure analogous to the failure of imagination of critics of Darwin’s account of human evolution via natural selection. It’s not enough lazily to dismiss sub-femtosecond decoherence times of neuronal superpositions in the CNS as the reductio ad absurdum of quantum mind. Instead, we need to do the interferometry experiments definitively to settle the issue, not (just) philosophize.


Unfortunately, unlike Andrés, I haven’t been able to think of a DIY desktop experiment that could falsify or vindicate the conjecture. The molecular matter-wave experiment I discuss in “Schrodinger’s Neurons” is conceptually simple but (horrendously) difficult in practice. And the conjecture it tests is intuitively so insane that I’m sometimes skeptical the experiment will ever get done. If I sound like an advocate rather than a bemused truth-seeker, I don’t mean to be so; but if phenomenal binding _isn’t _quantum-theoretically or classically explicable, then dualism seems unavoidable. In that sense, David Chalmers is right.


How come I’m so confident that superposition principle doesn’t break down in the CNS? After all, the superposition principle has been tested only up to the level of fullerenes, and no one yet has a proper theory of quantum gravity. Well, besides the classical impossibility of the manifest phenomenal unity of consciousness, and the cogent reasons that a physicist would give you for not modifying the unitary Schrödinger dynamics, the reason is really just a philosophical prejudice on my part. Namely, the universal validity of the superstition principle of QM offers the only explanation-space that I can think of for why anything exists at all: an informationless zero ontology dictated by the quantum analogue of the library of Babel.


We shall see.

– David Pearce, commenting on the latest significant article published on this blog.


Vanished are the veils of light and shade,
Lifted the vapors of sorrow,
Sailed away the dawn of fleeting joy,
Gone the mirage of the senses.
Love, hate, health, disease, life and death –
Departed, these false shadows on the screen
of duality.
Waves of laughter, scyllas of sarcasm, whirlpools
of melancholy,
Melting in the vast sea of bliss.
Bestilled is the storm of maya
By the magic wand of intuition deep.
The universe, a forgotten dream, lurks
Ready to invade my newly wakened memory divine.
I exist without the cosmic shadow,
But it could not live bereft of me;
As the sea exists without the waves,
But they breathe not without the sea.
Dreams, wakings, states of deep turiya sleep,
Present, past, future, no more for me,
But the ever-present, all-flowing, I, I everywhere.
Consciously enjoyable,
Beyond the imagination of all expectancy,
Is this, my samadhi state.
Planets, stars, stardust, earth,
Volcanic bursts of doomsday cataclysms,
Creation’s moulding furnace,
Glaciers of silent X-rays,
Burning floods of electrons,
Thoughts of all men, past, present, future,
Every blade of grass, myself and all,
Each particle of creation’s dust,
Anger, greed, good, bad, salvation, lust,
I swallowed up – transmuted them
Into one vast ocean of blood of my own one Being!
Smoldering joy, oft-puffed by unceasing meditation,
Which blinded my tearful eyes,
Burst into eternal flames of bliss,
And consumed my tears, my peace, my frame,
my all.
Thou art I, I am Thou,
Knowing, Knower, Known, as One!
One tranquilled, unbroken thrill of eternal, living, ever-new peace!
Not an unconscious state
Or mental chloroform without wilful return,
Samadhi but extends my realm of consciousness
Beyond the limits of my mortal frame
To the boundaries of eternity,
Where I, the Cosmic Sea,
Watch the little ego floating in Me.
Not a sparrow, nor a grain of sand, falls
without my sight
All space floats like an iceberg in my mental sea.
I am the Colossal Container of all things made!
By deeper, longer, continuous, thirsty,
guru – given meditation,
This celestial samadhi is attained.
All the mobile murmurs of atoms are heard;
The dark earth, mountains, seas are molten liquid!
This flowing sea changes into vapors of nebulae!
Aum blows o’er the vapors; they open their veils,
Revealing a sea of shining electrons,
Till, at the last sound of the cosmic drum,
Grosser light vanishes into eternal rays
Of all-pervading Cosmic Joy.
From Joy we come,
For Joy we live,
In the sacred Joy we melt.
I, the ocean of mind, drink all creation’s waves.
The four veils of solid, liquid, vapor, light,
Lift aright.
Myself, in everything,
Enters the Great Myself.
Gone forever,
The fitful, flickering shadows of a mortal memory.
Spotless is my mental sky,
Below, ahead, and high above.
Eternity and I, one united ray.
I, a tiny bubble of laughter,
Have become the Sea of Mirth Itself.


– Songs of the Soul. Paramahansa Yogananda (source)

(cf. Ontological Qualia: The Future of Personal Identity)

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

[Content Warnings: Psychedelic Depersonalization, Fear of the Multiverse, Personal Identity Doubts, Discussion about Quantum Consciousness, DMT entities, Science]

The brain is wider than the sky,
For, put them side by side,
The one the other will include
With ease, and you beside.

– Emily Dickinson

Is it for real?

A sizable percentage of people who try a high dose of DMT end up convinced that the spaces they visit during the trip exist in some objective sense; they either suspect, intuit or conclude that their psychonautic experience reflects something more than simply the contents of their minds. Most scientists would argue that those experiences are just the result of exotic brain states; the worlds one travels to are bizarre (often useless) simulations made by our brain in a chaotic state. This latter explanation space forgoes alternate realities for the sake of simplicity, whereas the former envisions psychedelics as a multiverse portal technology of some sort.

Some exotic states, such as DMT breakthrough experiences, do typically create feelings of glimpsing foundational information about the depth and structure of the universe. Entity contact is frequent, and these seemingly autonomous DMT entities are often reported to have the ability to communicate with you. Achieving a verifiable contact with entities from another dimension would revolutionize our conception of the universe. Nothing would be quite as revolutionary, really. But how to do so? One could test the external reality of these entities by asking them to provide information that cannot be obtained unless they themselves held an objective existence. In this spirit, some have proposed to ask these entities complex mathematical questions that would be impossible for a human to solve within the time provided by the trip. This particular test is really cool, but it has the flaw that DMT experiences may themselves trigger computationally-useful synesthesia of the sort that Daniel Tammet experiences. Thus even if DMT entities appeared to solve extraordinary mathematical problems, it would still stand to reason that it is oneself who did it and that one is merely projecting the results into the entities. The mathematical ability would be the result of being lucky in the kind of synesthesia DMT triggered in you.

A common overarching description of the effects of psychedelics is that they “raise the frequency of one’s consciousness.” Now, this is a description we should take seriously whether or not we believe that psychedelics are inter-dimensional portals. After all, promising models of psychedelic action involve fast-paced control interruption, where each psychedelic would have its characteristic control interrupt frequency. And within a quantum paradigm, Stuart Hameroff has argued that psychedelic compounds work by bringing up the quantum resonance frequency of the water inside our neurons’ microtubules (perhaps going from megahertz to gigahertz), which he claims increases the non-locality of our consciousness.

In the context of psychedelics as inter-dimensional portals, this increase in the main frequency of one’s consciousness may be the key that allows us to interact with other realities. Users describe a sort of tuning of one’s consciousness, as if the interface between one’s self and the universe underwent some sudden re-adjustment in an upward direction. In the same vein, psychedelicists (e.g. Rick Strassman) frequently describe the brain as a two-way radio, and then go on to claim that psychedelics expand the range of channels we can be attuned to.

One could postulate that the interface between oneself and the universe that psychonauts describe has a real existence of its own. It would provide the bridge between us as (quantum) monads and the universe around us; and the particular structure of this interface would determine the selection pressures responsible for the part of the multiverse that we interact with. By modifying the spectral properties of this interface (e.g. by drastically raising the main frequency of its vibration) with, e.g. DMT, one effectively “relocates” (cf. alien travel) to other areas of reality. Assuming this interface exists and that it works by tuning into particular realities, what sorts of questions can we ask about its properties? What experiments could we conduct to verify its existence? And what applications might it have?

The Psychedelic State of Input Superposition

Once in a while I learn about a psychedelic effect that captures my attention precisely because it points to simple experiments that could distinguish between the two rough explanation spaces discussed above (i.e. “it’s all in your head” vs. “real inter-dimensional travel”). This article will discuss a very odd phenomenon whose interpretations do indeed have different empirical predictions. We are talking about the experience of sensing what appears to be a superposition of inputs from multiple adjacent realities. We will call this effect the Psychedelic State of Input Superposition (PSIS for short).

There is no known way to induce PSIS on purpose. Unlike the reliable DMT hyper-dimensional journeys to distant dimensions, PSIS is a rare closer-to-home effect and it manifests only on high doses of LSD (and maybe other psychedelics). Rather than feeling like one is tuning into another dimension in the higher frequency spectrum, it feels as if one just accidentally altered (perhaps even broke) the interface between the self and the universe in a way that multiplies the number of realities you are interacting with. After the event, the interface seems to tune into multiple similar universes at once; one sees multiple possibilities unfold simultaneously. After a while, one somehow “collapses” into only one of these realities, and while coming down, one is thankful to have settled somewhere specific rather than remaining in that weird in-between. Let’s take a look at a couple of trip reports that feature this effect:

[Trip report of taking a high dose of LSD on an airplane]: So I had what you call “sonder”, a moment of clarity where I realized that I wasn’t the center of the universe, that everyone is just as important as me, everyone has loved ones, stories of lost love etc, they’re the main character in their own movies.


That’s when shit went quantum. All these stories begun sinking in to me. It was as if I was beginning to experience their stories simultaneously. And not just their stories, I began seeing the story of everyone I had ever met in my entire life flash before my eyes. And in this quantum experience, there was a voice that said something about Karma. The voice told me that the plane will crash and that I will be reborn again until the quota of my Karma is at -+0. So, for every ill deed I have done, I would have an ill deed committed to me. For every cheap T-shirt I purchased in my previous life, I would live the life of the poor Asian sweatshop worker sewing that T-shirt. For every hooker I fucked, I would live the life of a fucked hooker.


And it was as if thousands of versions of me was experiencing this moment. It is hard to explain, but in every situation where something could happen, both things happened and I experienced both timelines simultaneously. As I opened my eyes, I noticed how smoke was coming out of the top cabins in the plane. Luggage was falling out. I experienced the airplane crashing a thousand times, and I died and accepted death a thousand times, apologizing to the Karma God for my sins. There was a flash of the brightest white light imagineable and the thousand realities in which I died began fading off. Remaining was only one reality in which the crash didn’t happen. Where I was still sitting in the plane. I could still see the smoke coming out of the plane and as a air stewardess came walking by I asked her if everything was alright. She said “Yes, is everything alright with YOU?”.


— Reddit user I_DID_LSD_ON_A_PLANE, in r/BitcoinMarkets (why there? who knows).

Further down on the same thread, written by someone else:

[A couple hours after taking two strong hits of LSD]: Fast-forward to when I’m peaking hours later and I find myself removed from the timeline I’m in and am watching alternate timelines branch off every time someone does something specific. I see all of these parallel universes being created in real time, people’s actions or interactions marking a split where both realities exist. Dozens of timelines, at least, all happening at once. It was fucking wild to witness.


Then I realize that I don’t remember which timeline I originally came out of and I start to worry a bit. I start focusing, trying to remember where I stepped out of my particular universe, but I couldn’t figure it out. So, with the knowledge that I was probably wrong, I just picked one to go back into and stuck with it. It’s not like I would know what changed anyway, and I wasn’t going to just hang out here in the whatever-this-place-is outside of all of them.


Today I still sometimes feel like I left a life behind and jumped into a new timeline. I like it, I feel like I left a lot of baggage behind and there are a lot of regrets and insecurities I had before that trip that I don’t have anymore. It was in a different life, a different reality, so in this case the answer I found was that it’s okay to start over when you’re not happy with where you are in life.


— GatorAutomator

Let us summarize: Person X takes a lot of LSD. At some point during the trip (usually after feeling that “this trip is way too intense for me now”) X starts experiencing sensory input from what appear to be different branches of the multiverse. For example, imagine that person X can see a friend Y sitting on a couch in the corner. Suppose that Y is indecisive, and that as a result he makes different choices in different branches of the multiverse. If Y is deciding whether to stand up or not, X will suddenly see a shadowy figure of Y standing up while another shadowy figure of Y remains sitting. Let’s call them Y-sitting and Y-standing. If Y-standing then turns indecisive about whether to drink some water or go to the bathroom, X may see one shadowy figure of Y-standing getting water and a shadowy figure of Y-standing walking towards the bathroom, all the while Y-sitting is still on the couch. And so it goes. The number of times per second that Y splits and the duration of the perceived superposition of these splits may be a function of X’s state of consciousness, the substance and dose consumed, and the degree of indecision present in Y’s mind.

The two quotes provided are examples of this effect, and one can find a number of additional reports online with stark similarities. There are two issues at hand here. First, what is going on? And second, can we test it? We will discuss three hypotheses to explain what goes on during PSIS, propose an experiment to test the third one (the Quantum Hypothesis), and provide the results of such an experiment.

Hard-nosed scientists may want to skip to the “Experiment” section, since the following contains a fair amount of speculation (you have been warned).

Three Hypothesis for PSIS: Cognitive, Spiritual, Quantum

In order to arrive at an accurate model of the world, one needs to take into account both the prior probability of the hypothesis and the likelihoods that they predict that one would obtain the available evidence. Even if one prior of yours is extremely strong (e.g. a strong belief in materialism), it is still rational to update one’s probability estimates of alternative hypotheses when new relevant evidence is provided. The difficulty often comes from finding experiments where the various hypotheses generate very different likelihoods for one’s observations.  As we will see, the quantum hypothesis has this characteristic: it is the only one that would actually predict a positive result for the experiment.

The Cognitive Hypothesis

The first (and perhaps least surreal) hypothesis is that PSIS is “only in one’s mind”. When person X sees person Y both standing up and staying put, what may be happening is that X is receiving photons only from Y-standing and that Y-sitting is just a hallucination that X’s inner simulation of her environment failed to erase.

Psychedelics intensify one’s experience, and this is thought to be the result of control interruption. This means that inhibition of mental content by cortical feedback is attenuated. In the psychedelic state, sensory impressions, automatic reactions, feelings, thoughts and all other mental contents are more intense and longer-lived. This includes the predictions that you make about how your environment will evolve. Not only is one’s sensory input perceived as more intense, one’s imagined hypotheticals are also perceived more intensely.

Under normal circumstances, cortical inhibition makes our failed predictions quickly disappear. Psychedelic states of consciousness may be poor at inhibiting these predictions. In this account, X may be experiencing her brain’s past predictions of what Y could have done overlaid on top of the current input that she is receiving from her physical environment. In a sense, she may be experiencing all of the possible “next steps” that she simply intuited. While these simulations typically remain below the threshold of awareness (or just above it), on a psychedelic state they may reinforce themselves in unpredictable ways. X’s mind never traveled anywhere and there is nothing really weird going on. X is just experiencing the aftermath of a specific failure of information processing concerning the inhibition of past predictions.

Alternatively, very intense emotions such as those experienced on intense ego-killing psychedelic experiences may distort one’s perception so much that one begins to suspect that one is perhaps dead or in another dimension. We can posit that the belief that one is not properly connected to one’s brain (or that one is dying) can trigger even stronger emotions and unleash a cascade of further distortions. This positive feedback loop may create episodes of intense confusion and overlapping pieces of information, which later might be interpreted as “seeing splitting universes”.

The Spiritual Hypothesis

Many spiritual traditions postulate the existence of alternate dimensions, additional layers of reality, and hidden spirit pathways that connect all of reality. These traditions often provide rough maps of these realities and may claim that some people are able to travel to such far-out regions with mental training and consciousness technologies. For illustration, let’s consider Buddhist cosmology, which describes 31 planes of existence. Interestingly, one of the core ideas of this cosmology is that the major characteristic that distinguishes the planes of existence is the states of consciousness typical of their inhabitants. These states of consciousness are correlated with moral conditions such as the ethical quality of their past deeds (karma), their relationship with desire (e.g. whether it is compulsive, sustainable or indifferent) and their existential beliefs. In turn, a feature of this cosmology is that it allows inter-dimensional travel by changing one’s state of consciousness. The part of the universe one interacts with is a function of one’s karma, affinities and beliefs. So by changing these variables with meditation (or psychedelic medicine) one can also change which world we exist in.

An example of a very interesting location worth trying to travel to is the mythical city of Shambhala, the location of the Kalachakra Tantra. This city has allegedly turned into a pure land thanks to the fact that its king converted to Buddhism after meeting the Buddha. Pure lands are abodes populated by enlightened and quasi-enlightened beings whose purpose is to provide an optimal teaching environment for Buddhism. One can go to Shambhala by either reincarnating there (with good karma and the help of some pointers and directions at the time of death) or by traveling there directly during meditation. In order to do the latter, one needs to kindle one’s subtle energies so that they converge on one’s heart, while one is embracing the Bodhisattva ethic (focusing on reducing others’ suffering as a moral imperative). Shambhala may not be in a physical location accessible to humans. Rather, Buddhist accounts would seem to depict it as a collective reality built by people which manifests on another plane of existence (specifically somewhere between the 23rd and 27th layer). In order to create a place like that one needs to bring together many individuals in a state of consciousness that exhibits bliss, enlightenment and benevolence. A pure land has no reality of its own; its existence is the result of the states of consciousness of its inhabitants. Thus, the very reason why Shambhala can even exist as a place somewhere outside of us is because it is already a potential place that exists within us.

Similar accounts of a wider cosmological reality can be found elsewhere (such as Hinduism, Zoroastrianism, Theosophy, etc.). These accounts may be consistent with the sort of experiences having to do with astral travel and entity contact that people have while on DMT and other psychedelics in high doses. However, it seems a lot harder to explain PSIS with an ontology of this sort. While reality is indeed portrayed as immensely vaster than what science has shown so far, we do not really encounter claims of parallel realities that are identical to ours except that your friend decided to go to the bathroom rather than drink some water just now. In other words, while many spiritual ontologies are capable of accommodating DMT hyper-dimensional travel, I am not aware of any spiritual worldview that also claims that whenever two things can happen, they both do in alternate realities (or, more specifically, that this leads to reality splitting).

The only spiritual-sounding interpretation of PSIS I can think of is the idea that these experiences are the result of high-level entities such as guardians, angels or trickster djinns who used your LSD state to teach you a lesson in an unconventional way. The first quote (the one written by Reddit user I_DID_LSD_ON_A_PLANE) seems to point in this direction, where the so-called Karma God is apparently inducing a PSIS experience and using it to illustrate the idea that we are all one (i.e. Open Individualism). Furthermore, the experience viscerally portrays the way that this knowledge should impact our feelings of self-importance (by creating a profound feeling of sonder). This way, the tripper may develop a lasting need to work towards peace, wisdom and enlightenment for the benefit of all sentient beings.

Life as a learning experience is a common trope among spiritual worldviews. It is likely that the spiritual interpretations that emerge in a state of psychedelic depersonalization and derealization will depend on one’s pre-existing ideas of what is possible. The atonement of one’s sins, becoming aware of one’s karma, feeling our past lives, realizing emptiness, hearing a dire mystical warning, etc. are all ideas that already exist in human culture. In an attempt to make sense- any sense- of the kind of qualia experienced in high doses of psychedelics, our minds may be forced to instantiate grandiose delusions drawn from one’s reservoir of far-out ideas.

On a super intense psychedelic experience in which one’s self-models fail dramatically and one experiences fear of ego dissolution, interpreting what is happening as the result of the Karma God judging you and then giving you another chance at life can viscerally seem to make a lot of sense at the time.

The Quantum Hypothesis

For the sake of transparency I must say that we currently do not have a derivation of PSIS from first principles. In other words, we have not yet found a way to use the postulates of quantum mechanics to account for PSIS (that is, assuming that the cognitive and spiritual hypothesis are not the case). That said, there are indeed some things to be said here: While a theory is missing, we can at least talk about what a quantum mechanical account of PSIS would have to look like. I.e. we can at least make sense of some of the features that the theory would need to have to predict that people on LSD would be able to see the superposition of macroscopic branches of the multiverse.

Why would being on acid allow you to receive input from macroscopic environments that have already decohered? How could taking LSD possibly prevent the so-called collapse of the wavefunction? You might think: “well, why even think about it? It’s simply impossible because the collapse of the wavefunction is an axiom of quantum mechanics and we know it is true because some of the predictions made by quantum mechanics (such as QED) are in agreement with experimental data up to the 12th decimal point.” Before jumping to this conclusion, though, let us remember that there are several formulations of quantum mechanics. Both the Born rule (which determines the probability of seeing different outcomes from a given quantum measurement) and the collapse of the wavefunction (i.e. that any quantum state other than the one that was measured disappears) are indeed axiomatic for some formulations. But other formulations actually derive these features and don’t consider them fundamental. Here is Sean Carroll explaining the usual postulates that are used to teach quantum mechanics to undergraduate audiences:

The status of the Born Rule depends greatly on one’s preferred formulation of quantum mechanics. When we teach quantum mechanics to undergraduate physics majors, we generally give them a list of postulates that goes something like this:

  1. Quantum states are represented by wave functions, which are vectors in a mathematical space called Hilbert space.
  2. Wave functions evolve in time according to the Schrödinger equation.
  3. The act of measuring a quantum system returns a number, known as the eigenvalue of the quantity being measured.
  4. The probability of getting any particular eigenvalue is equal to the square of the amplitude for that eigenvalue.
  5. After the measurement is performed, the wave function “collapses” to a new state in which the wave function is localized precisely on the observed eigenvalue (as opposed to being in a superposition of many different possibilities).

In contrast, here is what you need to specify for the Everett (Multiple Worlds) formulation of quantum mechanics:

  1. Quantum states are represented by wave functions, which are vectors in a mathematical space called Hilbert space.
  2. Wave functions evolve in time according to the Schrödinger equation.

And that’s it. As you can see this formulation does not employ any collapse of the wavefunction, and neither does it consider the Born rule as a fundamental law. Instead, the wavefunction is thought to merely seem to collapse upon measurement (which is achieved by nearly diagonalizing its components along the basis of the measurement; strictly speaking, neighboring branches never truly stop interacting, but the relevance of their interaction approaches zero very quickly). Here the Born rule is derived from first principles rather than conceived as an axiom. How exactly one can derive the Born rule is a matter of controversy, however. Currently, two very promising theoretical approaches to do so are Quantum Darwinism and the so-called Epistemic Separability Principle (ESP for short, a technical physics term not to be confused with Extra Sensory Perception). Although these approaches to deriving the Born rule are considered serious contenders for a final explanation (and they are not mutually exclusive), they have been criticized for being somewhat circular. The physics community is far from having a consensus on whether these approaches truly succeed.

Is there any alternative to either axiomatizing or deriving the apparent collapse and the Born rule? Yes, there is an alternative: we can think of them as regularities contingent upon certain conditions that are always (or almost always) met in our sphere of experience, but that are not a universal fact about quantum mechanics. Macroscopic decoherence and Born rule probability assignments work very well in our everyday lives, but they may not hold universally. In particular -and this is a natural idea to have under any view that links consciousness and quantum mechanics- one could postulate that one’s state of consciousness influences the mind-body interaction in such a way that information from one’s quantum environment seeps into one’s mind in a different way.

Don’t get me wrong; I am aware that the Born rule has been experimentally verified with extreme precision. I only ask that you bear in mind that many scientific breakthroughs share a simple form: they question the constancy of certain physical properties. For example, Einstein’s theory of special relativity worked out the implications of the fact that the speed of light is observer-independent. In turn this makes the passage of time of external systems observer-dependent. Scientists had a hard time believing Einstein when he arrived at the conclusion that accelerating our frame of reference to extremely high velocities could dilate time. What was thought to be a constant (the passage of time throughout the universe) turned out to be an artifact of the fact that we rarely travel fast enough to notice any deviation from Newton’s laws of motion. In other words, our previous understanding was flawed because it assumed that certain observations did not break down in extreme conditions. Likewise, maybe we have been accidentally ignoring a whole set of physically relevant extreme conditions: altered states of consciousness. The apparent wavefunction collapse and the Born rule may be perfectly constant in our everyday frame of reference, and yet variable across the state-space of possible conscious experiences. If this were the case, we’d finally understand why it seems so hard to derive the Born rule from first principles: it’s impossible.

Succinctly, the Quantum Hypothesis is that psychedelic experiences modify the way one’s mind interacts with its quantum environment in such a way that the world does not appear to decohere any longer from one’s point of view. Our ignorance about the non-universality of the apparent collapse of the wavefunction is just a side effect of the fact that physicists do not usually perform experiments during intense life-changing entheogenic mind journeys. But for science, today we will.

Deriving PSIS with Quantum Mechanics

Here we present a rough (incomplete) sketch of what a possible derivation of PSIS from quantum mechanics might look like. To do so we need three background assumptions: First, conscious experiences must be macroscopic quantum coherent objects (i.e. ontologically unitary subsets of the universal wavefunction, akin to super-fluid helium or Bose–Einstein condensates, except at room temperature). Second, people’s decision-making process must somehow amplify low-level quantum randomness into macroscopic history bifurcations. And third, the properties of our quantum environment* are in part the result of the quantum state of our mind, which psychedelics can help modify. This third assumption brings into play the idea that if our mind is more coherent (e.g. is in a super-symmetrical state) it will select for wavefunctions in its environment that themselves are more coherent. In turn, the apparent lifespan of superpositions may be elongated long enough so that the quantum environment of one’s mind receives records from both Y-sitting and Y-standing as they are overlapping. Now, how credible are these three assumptions?

That events of experience are macroscopic quantum coherent objects is an explanation space usually perceived as pseudo-scientific, though a sizable number of extremely bright scientists and philosophers do entertain the idea very seriously. Contrary to popular belief, there are legitimate reasons to connect quantum computing and consciousness. The reasons for making this connection include the possibility of explaining the causal efficacy of consciousness, finding an answer to the palette problem with quantum fields and solving the phenomenal binding problem with quantum coherence and panpsychism.

The second assumption claims that people around you work as quantum Random Number Generators. That human decision-making amplifies low-level quantum randomness is thought to be likely by at least some scientists, though the time-scale on which this happens is still up for debate. The brain’s decision-making is chaotic, and over the span of seconds it may amplify quantum fluctuations into macroscopic differences. Thus, people around you making decisions may result in splitting universes (e.g. “[I] am watching alternate timelines branch off every time someone does something specific.” – GatorAutomator’s quote above). Presumably, this assumption would also imply that during PSIS not only people but also physics experiments would lead to apparent macroscopic superposition.

With regards to the third assumption: widespread microscopic decoherence is not, apparently, a necessary consequence of the postulates of quantum mechanics. Rather, it is a very specific outcome of (a) our universe’s Hamiltonian and (b) the starting conditions of our universe, i.e. Pre-Inflation/Eternal Inflation/Big Bang. (A Ney & D Albert, 2013). In principle, psychedelics may influence the part of the Hamiltonian that matters for the evolution of our mind’s wavefunction and its local interactions. In turn, this may modify the decoherence patterns of our consciousness with its local environment and- perhaps- ultimately the surrounding macroscopic world. Of course we do not know if this is possible, and I would have to agree that it is extremely far-fetched.

The overall picture that would emerge from these three assumptions would take the following form: both the mental content and raw phenomenal character of our states of consciousness are the result of the quantum micro-structure of our brains. By modifying this micro-structure, one is not only altering the selection pressures that give rise to fully formed experiences (i.e. quantum darwinism applied to the compositionality of quantum fields) but also altering the selection pressures that determine which parts of the universal wave-function we are entangled with (i.e. quantum darwinism applied to the interactions between coherent objects). Thus psychedelics may not only influence how our experience is shaped within, but also how it interacts with the quantum environment that surrounds it. Some mild psychedelic states (e.g. MDMA) may influence mostly the inner degrees of freedom of one’s mind, while other more intense states (e.g. DMT) may be the result of severe changes to the entanglement selection pressures and thus result in the apparent disconnection between one’s mind and one’s local environment. Here PSIS would be the result of decreasing the rate at which our mind decoheres (possibly by increasing the degree to which our mind is in a state of quantum confinement). In turn, by boosting one’s own inner degree of quantum superposition one may also broaden the degree of superposition acceptable at the interface with one’s quantum environment. One could now readily take in packets of information that have a wider degree of superposition. In the right circumstances, this may result in one’s mind experiencing information seemingly coming from alternate branches of the multiverse. In other words, the trick to PSIS both in the Quantum and the Spiritual Hypothesis is the same (though for different reasons): travel to other dimensions by being the change that you wish to see in the world. You need to increase your own degree of quantum coherence so that you become able of interacting with a more coherent quantum environment.

If this were the case it would call for a conceptual revolution. We would stop thinking of “our universe” as the “place we inhabit” and instead think of it as “the quantum environment our consciousness can interface with”. Perhaps life as we know it exists in a quantum niche that can give rise to embodied biological beings, but the universal wavefunction also contains alien state-spaces in which the patterns of entanglement work in different ways and lead to different evolutionary histories. Our minds evolved to interact with the particular environment that leads to the sustenance of our everyday macroscopic world. Our consciousness is shaped to fit in here, and it has a symbiotic relationship with the body that hosts it.

Now, how do we go about testing the quantum hypothesis? Following previous work on psychophysics for psychedelic research, the main idea will be to show that people on psychedelics can achieve something that sober individuals can’t. In this case, the task is designed to be impossible if one is only receiving input from one world (as predicted by the cognitive hypothesis). Only if PSIS is the result of simultaneously experiencing input from the several nearby branches that correspond to different outcomes of quantum events can the task be successfully performed.

The Experiment


The task in question involves three white little squares on a black background. At each time step (~16 milliseconds) the squares move one pixel down, and some number of pixels horizontally. While the downward movement is constant, the change in the horizontal direction is chosen randomly. The horizontal movement of one of the squares is being randomized on the fly with a Quantum Random Number Generator (qRNG**). We call this the quantum square. The horizontal movement of the other two squares follows a path that was determined at the beginning of each trial by a Classical Random Number Generator (cRNG***). We will refer to these two squares as the classical squares. The task for the participant is to identify which of the squares is the “odd one out” (i.e. the quantum square). Here is an infographic that explains the experimental setup:


In order to make the horizontal movement seem very chaotic and, at times even dramatic, it is randomized by choosing a horizontal change of either -4, -1, 1 or 4 pixels. By using a jump of 4 pixels (rather than e.g. 2) the squares sometimes seem to advance very quickly in one direction. The rationale for doing this was to make the predicted effect (assuming the Quantum Hypothesis) more noticeable – we want low probability paths that are extremely different than the typical path and in turn make it easy to distinguish between single paths and the superposition of many of the possible paths at once.

Critically, the starting position of the quantum square (whether left, center or right) for each of the trials during an experiment is obtained with a cRNG at the very beginning of the experiment. Why not use a qRNG? If we randomized the position of the quantum square using a qRNG we might be sabotaging ourselves: participants might see a superposition of classical and quantum squares on each of the three positions and thus not see any square behave differently than the other two. Thus, for the experiment to work (under the assumption that PSIS is explained by the Quantum Hypothesis) the only aspect that should be randomized using a qRNG is the horizontal displacement of the quantum square.

Since the numbers coming from the qRNG need to be requested over the internet, it is also crucial that we try to obtain fresh quantum random numbers as frequently as possible without messing up the flow of the experiment. Thus, a request for new quantum random numbers is made as often as possible (usually every 1 to 2 seconds). Since internet connections, server response time and network reliability varies from moment to moment, it is inevitable that once in a while we will have to stop the downward movement of all three squares as we wait for the next batch of random numbers. In principle this should have no negative effect at all in the ability to choose the odd-one-out. This problem merely interrupts the flow of the experiment, but it should not invalidate the results. We kept track of the number of trials that were interrupted for this reason (which you will find recorded in the “Network” column of the table of results down below).

Participants were instructed to:

  1. Clone the Github code for the experiment, and to open it up in a Chrome browser.
  2. Make sure that they have a reliable high-speed internet connection.
  3. Record the pertinent facts (time of experiment, substance, dose and time of intake).
  4. Use a sensorially-minimized room for the experiment (such as a closed bathroom), turn off the lights, ask anyone who is in the house to be quiet and mind their own business, and wear earplugs.
  5. Meditate for a couple of minutes before conducting the experiment and to try to induce PSIS voluntarily.
  6. Choose the odd-one-out (i.e. the quantum square) on each trial, for a total of at least 30 trials.

Under this setup, what should the participants expect to see if the Quantum Hypothesis is correct?

Predicted Psychedelic Perception

The pictures above illustrate how the experiment looks like to three different observers. On the left we see what a sober participant would see at a given time during a trial. The squares are moving downwards but since we are taking a snapshot in time they seem to be static. The image on the center shows what we would expect out of a generic psychedelic experience. In brief, the typical control interrupt action of psychedelics (i.e. tracers) effectively allows you to see more clearly the path that the squares have traced over time, but it would not allow you to notice any difference between the classic and quantum squares. The image on the right shows what we would expect to see if the Quantum Hypothesis is correct and PSIS is actually about perceiving nearby branches of the Everett multiverse. Notice how the center square is visibly different than the other two: it consists of the superposition of many alternative paths the square took in slightly different branches.

Implications of a Positive Result: Quantum Mind, Everett Rescue Missions and Psychedelic Cryptography

It is worth noting that if one can indeed reliably distinguish between the quantum and the classical squares, then this would have far-reaching implications. It would indeed confirm that our minds are macroscopic quantum coherent objects and that psychedelics influence their pattern of interactions with their surrounding quantum environment. It would also provide strong evidence in favor of the Everett interpretation of quantum mechanics (in which all possibilities are realized). More so, we would not only have a new perspective on the fundamental nature of the universe and the mind, but the discovery would just as well suggest some concrete applications. Looking far ahead, a positive outcome is that this knowledge would encourage research on the possible ways to achieve inter-dimensional travel, and in turn instantiate pan-Everettian rescue missions to reduce suffering elsewhere in the multiverse. The despair of confirming that the quantum multiverse is real might be evened out by the hope of finally being able to help sentient beings trapped in Darwinian environments in other branches of the universal wavefunction. Looking much closer to home, a positive result would lead to a breakthrough in psychedelic cryptography (PsyCrypto for short), where spies high on LSD would obtain the ability to read information that is secretly encoded in public light displays. More so, this particular kind of PsyCrypto would be impervious to discovery after the fact. Even if given an arbitrary amount of time and resources to analyze a video recording of the event, it would not be possible to determine which of the squares was being guided by quantum randomness. Unlike other PsyCrypto techniques, this one cannot be decoded by applying psychedelic replication software to video recordings of the transmission.


Three persons participated in the experiments: S (self), A, and B. [A and B are anonymous volunteers; for more information read the legal disclaimer at the end of this article]. Participant S (me) tried the experiment both sober and after drinking 2 beers. Participant A tried the experiment sober, on LSD, 2C-B and a combination of the two. And participant B tried the experiment both sober and on DMT. The total number of trials recorded for each of the conditions is: 90 for the sober state, 275 for 2C-B, 60 for DMT, 120 for LSD and 130 for the LSD/2C-B combo. The overall summary of the results is: chance level performance outcomes for all conditions. You can find the breakdown of results for all experiments in the table shown below, and you can download the raw csv file from the Github repository.

Columns from left to right: Date, State (of consciousness), Dose(s), T (time), #Trials (number of trials), Correct (number of trials in which the participant made the correct choice), Percent correct (100*Correct/Trials), Participants (S=Self, A/B=anonymous volunteers), Requests / Second (server requests per second), Network (this tracks the number of times that a trial was temporarily paused while the browser was waiting for the next batch of quantum random numbers), Notes (by default the squares left a dim trail behind them and this was removed in two trials; by default the squares were 10×10 pixels in size, but a smaller size was used in some trials).

I thought about visualizing the results in a cool graph at first, but after I received them I realized that it would be pointless. Not a single experiment reached a statistically significant deviation from chance level; who is interested in seeing a bunch of bars representing chance-level outcomes? Null results are always boring to visualize.****

In addition to the overall performance in the task, I also wanted to hear the following qualitative assessment from the participants: did they notice any difference between the three squares? Was there any feeling that one of them was behaving differently than the other two? This is what they responded when I asked them: “I could never see any difference between the squares, so it felt like I was making random choices” (from A) and “DMT made the screen look like a hyper-dimensional tunnel and I felt like strange entities were watching over me as I was doing the experiment, and even though the color of the squares would fluctuate randomly, I never noticed a single square behaving differently than the other two. All three seemed unique. I did feel that the squares were being controlled by some entity, as if with an agency of their own, but I figured that was made up by my mind.” When I asked them if they noticed anything similar to the image labeled Psychedelic view as predicted by the Quantum Hypothesis (as shown above) they both said “no”.


It is noteworthy that neither participant reported an experience of PSIS during the experiments. Even without an explicit and noticeable input superposition, PSIS may turn out to be a continuum rather than a discrete either-or phenomenon. If so, we might still expect to see some deviations from chance. This may be analogous to how in blindsight people report not being able to see anything and yet perform better than chance in visual recognition tasks. That said, the effect size of blindsight and other psychological effects in which information is processed unbeknownst to the participant tend to be very small. Thus, in order to confirm that quantum PSIS is happening below the threshold of awareness we may require a much larger number of samples (though still a lot smaller than what we would need if we were aiming to use the experiment to conduct Psi research with or without psychedelics, again, due to the extremely small effect sizes).

Why did the experiment fail? The first possibility is that it could be that the Quantum Hypothesis is simply wrong (and possibly because it requires false assumptions to work). Second, perhaps we were simply unlucky that PSIS was not triggered during the experiments; perhaps the set, setting, and dosages used simply failed to produce the desired effect (even if the state does indeed exist out there). And third, the experiment itself may be wrong: the second-long delays between the server requests and the qRNG may be too large to produce the effect. In the current implementation (and taking into account network delays), the average delay between the moment the quantum measurement was conducted and the moment it appeared on the computer screen as horizontal movement was .9 seconds (usually in the range of .4 to 1.4 seconds, given an average of 1/2 second lag due to the number buffering and 400 milliseconds in network time). This problem would be easily sidestepped if we used an on-site qRNG obtained from hardware directly connected to the computer (as is common in psi research). To minimize the delay even further, the outcomes of the quantum measurements could be delivered directly to your brain via neuroimplants.


If psychedelic experiences do make you interact with other realities, I would like to know about it with a high degree of certainty. The present study was admittedly a very long shot. But to my judgement, it was totally worth it. As Bayesians, we reasoned that since the Quantum Hypothesis can lead to a positive result for the experiment but the Cognitive Hypothesis can’t, then a positive result should make us update our probabilities of the Quantum Hypothesis a great deal. A negative result should make us update our probabilities in the opposite direction. That said, the probability should still not go to zero since the negative result could still be accounted for by the fact that participants failed to experience PSIS, and/or that the delay between the quantum measurement and the moment it influences the movement of the square in the screen is too large. Future studies should try to minimize these two possible sources of failure. First, by researching methods to reliably induce PSIS. And second, by minimizing the delay between branching and sensory input.

In the meantime, we can at least tentatively conclude that something along the lines of the Cognitive Hypothesis is the most likely case. In this light, PSIS turns out to be the result of a failure to inhibit predictions. Despite losing their status as suspected inter-dimensional portal technology, psychedelics still remain a crucial tool for qualia research. They can help us map out the state-space of possible experiences, allow us to identify the computational properties of consciousness, and maybe even allow us to reverse engineer the fundamental nature of valence.

[Legal Disclaimer]: Both participants A and B contacted me some time ago, soon after the Qualia Computing article How to Secretly Communicate with People on LSD made it to the front page of Hacker News and was linked by SlateStarCodex. They are both experienced users of psychedelics who take them about once a month. They expressed their interest in performing the psychophysics experiments I designed, and to do so while under the influence of psychedelic drugs. I do not know these individuals personally (nor do I know their real names, locations or even their genders). I have never encouraged these individuals to take psychedelic substances and I never gave them any compensation for their participation in the experiment. They told me that they take psychedelics regularly no matter what, and that my experiments would not be the primary reason for taking them. I never asked them to take any particular substance, either. They just said “I will take substance X on day Y, can I have some experiment for that?” I have no way of knowing (1) if the substances they claim they take are actually what they think they are, (2) whether the dosages are accurately measured, and (3) whether the data they provided is accurate and isn’t manipulated. That said, they did explain that they have tested their materials with chemical reagents, and are experienced enough to tell the difference between similar substances. Since there is no way to verify these claims without compromising their anonymity, please take the data with a grain of salt.

* In this case, the immediate environment would actually refer to the quantum degrees of freedom surrounding our consciousness within our brain, not the macroscopic exterior vicinity such as the chair we are sitting on or the friends we are hanging out with. In this picture, our interaction with that vicinity is actually mediated by many layers of indirection.

** The experiment used the Australian National University Quantum Random Numbers Server. By calling their API every 1 to 2 seconds we obtain truly random numbers that feed the x-displacement of the quantum square. This is an inexpensive and readily-available way to magnify decoherence events into macroscopic splitting histories in the comfort of your own home.

*** In this case, Javascript’s Math.random() function. Unfortunately the RGN algorithm varies from browser to browser. It may be worthwhile to go for a browser-independent implementation in the future to guarantee a uniform high quality source of classical randomness.

**** As calculated with a single tailed binomial test with null probability equal to 1/3. The threshold of statistical significance at the p < 0.05 level is found at 15/30 and for p < 0.001 we need at least 19/30 correct responses. The best score that any participant managed to obtain was 14/30.


Qualia Computing So Far

As of March 20, 2016…

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Psychedelic Research

The effect of background assumptions on psychedelic research. What is the evolution of macroscopic qualia dynamics throughout a psychedelic experience as a function of the starting conditions?

Psychedelic Perception of Visual Textures 2: Going Meta presents additional patterns to look at while taking psychedelics. Some of them create very interesting effects when seen on psychedelics. This seems to be the result of locally binding features of the visual field in critical and chaotic ways that are otherwise suppressed by the visual cortex during sober states.

The psychedelic future of consciousness. What would be the result of having a total of 1.8 million consciousness researchers in the world? They would empirically study the computational and structural properties of consciousness, and learn to navigate entire new state-spaces.

It is High Time to Start Developing Psychedelic Research Tools. Pro tip: If you are still in college and want to do psychedelic research some time in the future.. don’t forget to take computer science courses.

Generalized Wada-Test may be a useful method to investigate whether there is a Total Order of consciousness. Can we reduce hedonic tone to a scalar? Semi-hemispheric drug infusion may allow us to compare unusual varieties of qualia side by side.

State-Space of Consciousness

CIELAB – The State-Space of Phenomenal Color. The three axes are: Yellow vs. Blue, Red vs. Green, and Black vs. White. This is the linear map that arises from empirically measuring Just Noticeable Differences between color hues.

Manifolds of Consciousness: The emerging geometries of iterated local binding. This is a thought experiment that is meant to help you conceive of alternative manifolds for our experiential fields.

Ethics and Suffering

Status Quo Bias. If you were born in paradise, would you agree with the proposition made by an alien that you should inject some misery into your life? Symmetrically.

An ethically disastrous cognitive dissonance… metacognition about hedonic tone is error-prone. Sometimes with terrible consequences.

Who should know about suffering? On the inability of most people-seconds (in the Empty Individualist sense) to grasp the problem of suffering.

Solutions to World Problems. Where do you put your money?

The ethical carnivore. It isn’t only humans who should eat in-vitro meat. A lot of suffering is on the line.

The Future of Love. After all, love is a deep seated human need, which means that not engineering a world where it is freely accessible is a human rights violation.

Philosophy of Mind and Physicalism

A (Very) Unexpected Argument Against General Relativity As A Complete Account Of The Cosmos, in which I make the outrageous claim that philosophy of mind could have ruled out pre-quantum physics as a complete account of the universe from the very start.

Why not Computing Qualia? Explains how Marr’s levels of analysis of information-processing systems can elucidate the place we should be looking for consciousness. It’s in the implementation level of abstraction; the bedrock of reality.

A Workable Solution to the Problem of Other Minds explores a novel approach for testing consciousness. The core idea relies on combining mind-melding with phenomenal puzzles. These puzzles are questions that can only be solved by exploring the structure of the state-space of consciousness. Mind-melding is used to guarantee that what the other is talking about actually refers to the qualia values the puzzle is about.

Phenomenal Binding is Incompatible with the Computational Theory of Mind. The fact that our consciousness is less unified than we think is a very peculiar fact. But this does not imply that there is no unity at all in consciousness. One still needs to account for this ontological unity, independently of how much of it there is.


You are not a zombie. A prolific LessWronger explains what a theory of consciousness would require. Worth mentioning: The “standard” LessWrong approach to qualia is more along the lines of: Seeing Red: Dissolving Mary’s Room and Qualia.

What’s the matter? It’s Schrödinger, Heisenberg and Dirac’s from Mind, Brain & the Quantum: The Compound ‘I’ by Michael Lockwood.

The Biointelligence Explosion, a quote on the requirements for an enriched concept of intelligence that takes into account the entire state-space of consciousness, by David Pearce.

Some Definitions. An extract from physicalism.com that contains definitions crucial to understand the relationship between qualia and computation.

Why does anything exist? A unified theory of the “why being” question may come along and synchronously with the explanation for why qualia has the properties it does. Can we collapse all mysteries into one?

On Triviality by Liam Brereton. Our impressions that some things are trivial are often socially reinforced heuristics. They save us time, but they can backfire by painting fundamental discussions as if they were trivial observations.

The fire that breathes reality into the equations of physics by Stephen Hawking in A Brief History of Time

Dualist vs. Nondual Transcendentalist. #SocialMedia

Discussion of Fanaticism. Together with sentimentalism, fanaticism drives collective behavior. Could some enlightening neural tweaking raise us all to a more harmonious Schelling point of collective cooperation? Even though our close relatives the chimpanzees and bonobos are genetically very similar, they are universes apart when it comes to social dynamics.

Suffering, not what your sober mind tells you. The sad truth about the state-dependence of one’s ability to recall the quality of episodes of low hedonic tone. Extract from “Suffering and Moral Responsibility” by Jamie Mayerfeld.

Other/Outside of known human categories

Personal Identity Joke. I wish I could be confident that you are certain, and for good reasons, that you are who you think you are.

David Pearce’s Morning Cocktail. Serious biohacking to take the edges off of qualia. This is not designed to be a short term quick gain. It’s meant to work for the duration of our lifetimes. The cocktail that suits you will probably be very different, though.

I did this as an experiment to see if sites would tag it as spam. That said, are you interested in buying stock?

God In Buddhism. Could even God be wrong about the level of power he has? It is not uncommon, after all, to encounter entities who believe themselves to be omnipotent.

The Real Tree of Life. What do we look like from outside time?

Memetics and Religion. A bad argument is still bad no matter what it is arguing for.

Basement Reality Alternatives. Warning: This is incompatible with Mereological Nihilism.

Nothing is good or bad… …but hedonic tone makes it so.

Practical Metaphysics? This explores the utilitarian implications of a very specific spiritual ontology. I like to take premises seriously and see where they lead to.

Little known fact. I know it’s true because I saw it with my own eyes.

Crossing Borders. I took an emotional intelligence class with this professor. It was very moving. Together with David Pearce, he helped me overcome my doubts about writing my thoughts and investigations. So thanks to him I finally took the plunge and created Qualia Computing 🙂

Mystical Vegetarianism. See, we are here to help other beings. We are intelligences from a different, more advanced dimension of consciousness, and we come to this planet by resonating into the brains of animals and selecting for those that allow structural requirements to implement a general qualia computer. We are here to save Darwinian life from suffering. We will turn your world into a paradise. Humans are us, disguised.