It’s serious. Science should be empirically adequate. Quantum mechanics is the bedrock of science. The superposition principle is the bedrock of quantum mechanics. So why don’t we ever experience superpositions? Why do experiments have definite outcomes? “Schrödinger’s cat” isn’t just a thought-experiment. The experiment can be done today. If quantum mechanics is complete, then microscopic superpositions should rapidly be amplified via quantum entanglement into the macroscopic realm of everyday life.
Copenhagenistsare explicit. The lesson of quantum mechanics is that we must abandon realism about the micro-world. But Schrödinger’s cat can’t be quarantined. The regress spirals without end. If quantum mechanics is complete, the lesson of Schrödinger’s cat is that if one abandons realism about a micro-world, then one must abandon realism about a macro-world too. The existence of an objective physical realm independent of one’s mind is certainly a useful calculational tool. Yet if all that matters is empirical adequacy, then why invoke such superfluous metaphysical baggage? The upshot of Copenhagen isn’t science, but solipsism.
There are realist alternatives to quantum solipsism. Some physicists propose that we modify the unitary dynamics to prevent macroscopic superpositions. Roger Penrose, for instance, believes that a non-linear correction to the unitary evolution should be introduced to prevent superpositions of macroscopically distinguishable gravitational fields. Experiments to (dis)confirm the Penrose-Hameroff Orch-OR conjecture should be feasible later this century. Butifdynamical collapse theories are wrong, and if quantum mechanics is complete (as most physicists believe), then “cat states” should be ubiquitous. This doesn’t seem to be what we experience.
Everettiansare realists, in a sense. Unitary-only QM says that there are quasi-classical branches of the universal wavefunction where you open an infernal chamber and see a live cat, other decohered branches where you see a dead cat; branches where you perceive the detection of a spin-up electron that has passed through a Stern–Gerlach device, other branches where you perceive the detector recording a spin-down electron; and so forth. I’ve long been haunted by a horrible suspicion that unitary-only QM is right, though Everettian QM boggles the mind (cf. UniverseSplitter). Yet the heart of the measurement problem from the perspective of empirical science is that one doesn’t ever see superpositions of live-and-dead cats, or detect superpositions of spin-up-and-spin-down electrons, but only definite outcomes. So the conjecture that there are other, madly proliferating decohered branches of the universal wavefunction where different versions of you record different definite outcomes doesn’t solve the mystery of why anything anywhere ever seems definite to anyone at all. Therefore, the problem of definite outcomes in QM isn’t “just” a philosophical or interpretational issue, but an empirical challenge for even the most hard-nosed scientific positivist. “Science” that isn’t empirically adequate isn’t science: it’s metaphysics. Some deeply-buried background assumption(s) or presupposition(s) that working physicists are making must be mistaken. But which? To quote the 2016 International Workshop on Quantum Observers organized by the IJQF,
“…the measurement problem in quantum mechanics is essentially the determinate-experience problem. The problem is to explain how the linear quantum dynamics can be compatible with the existence of our definite experience. This means that in order to finally solve the measurement problem it is necessary to analyze the observer who is physically in a superposition of brain states with definite measurement records. Indeed, such quantum observers exist in all main realistic solutions to the measurement problem, including Bohm’s theory, Everett’s theory, and even the dynamical collapse theories. Then, what does it feel like to be a quantum observer?“
Indeed. Here I’ll just state rather than argue my tentative analysis.
Monistic physicalism is true. Quantum mechanics is formally complete. There is no consciousness-induced collapse the wave function, no “hidden variables”, nor any other modification or supplementation of the unitary Schrödinger dynamics. The wavefunction evolves deterministically according to the Schrödinger equation as a linear superposition of different states. Yet what seems empirically self-evident, namely that measurements always find a physical system in a definite state, is false(!) The received wisdom, repeated in countless textbooks, that measurements always find a physical system in a definite state reflects an erroneous theory of perception, namely perceptual direct realism. As philosophers (e.g. the “two worlds” reading of Kant) and even poets (“The brain is wider than the sky…”) have long realised, the conceptual framework of perceptual direct realism is untenable. Only inferential realism about mind-independent reality is scientifically viable. Rather than assuming that superpositions are never experienced, suspend disbelief and consider the opposite possibility. Only superpositions are ever experienced. “Observations” are superpositions, exactly as unmodified and unsupplemented quantum mechanics says they should be: the wavefunction is a complete representation of the physical state of a system, including biological minds and the pseudo-classical world-simulations they run. Not merely “It is the theory that decides what can be observed” (Einstein); quantum theory decides the very nature of “observation” itself. If so, then the superposition principle underpins one’s subjective experience of definite, well-defined classical outcomes (“observations”), whether, say, a phenomenally-bound live cat, or the detection of a spin-up electron that has passed through a Stern–Gerlach device, or any other subjectively determinate outcome. If one isn’t dreaming, tripping or psychotic, then within one’s phenomenal world-simulation, the apparent collapse of a quantum state (into one of the eigenstates of the Hermitian operator associated with the relevant observable in accordance with a probability calculated as the squared absolute value of a complex probability amplitude) consists of fleeting uncollapsed neuronal superpositions within one’s CNS. To solve the measurement problem, the neuronal vehicle of observation and its subjective content must be distinguished. The universality of the superposition principle – not its unexplained breakdown upon “observation” – underpins one’s classical-seeming world-simulation. What naïvely seems to be the external world, i.e. one’s egocentric world-simulation, is what linear superpositions of different states feel like “from the inside”: the intrinsic nature of the physical. The otherwise insoluble binding problem in neuroscience and the problem of definite outcomes in QM share a solution.
Yes, for sure: this minimum requirement for a successful resolution of the mystery is satisfied (“If at first the idea is not absurd, then there is no hope for it”– Einstein, again). The raw power of environmentally-induced decoherence in a warm environment like the CNS makes the conjecture intuitively flaky. Assuming unitary-only QM, the effective theoretical lifetime of neuronal “cat states” in the CNS is less than femtoseconds. Neuronal superpositions of distributed feature-processors are intuitively just “noise”, not phenomenally-bound perceptual objects. At best, the idea that sub-femtosecond neuronal superpositions could underpin our experience of law-like classicality is implausible. Yet we’re not looking for plausible theories but testable theories. Every second of selection pressure in Zurek’s sense (cf. “Quantum Darwinism”) sculpting one’s neocortical world-simulation is more intense and unremitting than four billion years of evolution as conceived by Darwin. My best guess is that interferometry will disclose a perfect structural match. If the non-classical interference signature doesn’t yield a perfect structural match, then dualism is true.
Is the quantum-theoretic version of the intrinsic nature argument for non-materialist physicalism – more snappily, “Schrödinger’s neurons” – a potential solution to the measurement problem? Or a variant of the “word salad” interpretation of quantum mechanics?
Sadly, I can guess.
But if there were oneexperiment that I could do, one loophole I’d like to see closed via interferometry, then this would be it.
At this point in the trip I became something that I can not put into words… I became atemporal. I existed without time… I existed through an infinite amount of time. This concept is impossible to comprehend without having actually perceived it. Even now in retrospect it is hard to comprehend it. But I do know that I lived an eternity that night…
What is time? When people ask this question it is often hard to tell what they are talking about. Indeed, without making explicit one’s background philosophical assumptions this question will usually suffer from a lot of ambiguity. Is one talking about the experience of time? Or is one talking about the physical nature of time? What sort of answer would satisfy the listener? Oftentimes this implicit ambiguity is a source of tremendous confusion. Time distortion experiences deepen the mystery; the existence of exotic ways of experiencing time challenges the view that we perceive the passage of physical time directly. How to disentangle this conundrum?
Modern physics has made enormous strides in pinning down what physical time is. As we will see, one can reduce time to causality networks, and causality to patterns of conditional statistical independence. Yet in the realm of experience the issue of time remains much more elusive.
In this article we provide a simple explanatory framework that accounts for both the experience of time and its relation to physical time. We then sketch out how this framework can be used to account for exotic experiences of time. We end with some thoughts pertaining the connection between the experience of time and valence (the pleasure-pain axis), which may explain why exotic experiences of the passage of time are frequently intensely emotional in nature.
To get there, let us first lay out some key definitions and background philosophical assumptions:
Key Terminology: Physical vs. Phenomenal Time
Physical Time: This is the physical property that corresponds to what a clock measures. In philosophy of time we can distinguish between eternalism and presentism. Eternalism postulate that time is a geometric feature of the universe, best exemplified with “block universe” metaphor (i.e. where time is another dimension alongside our three spatial dimensions). Presentism, instead, postulates that only the present moment is real; the past and the future are abstractions derived from the way we experience patterns in sequences of events. The present is gone, and the future has yet to come.
Now, it used to be thought that there was a universal metronome that dictated “what time it is” in the universe. With this view one could reasonably support presentism as a viable account of time. However, ever since Einstein’s theory of relativity was empirically demonstrated we now know that there is no absolute frame of reference. Based on the fundamental unity of space and time as presented by general relativity, and the absence of an absolute frame of reference, we find novel interesting arguments in favor of eternalism and against presentism (e.g. the Rietdijk–Putnam argument). On the other hand, presentists have rightly argued that the ephemeral nature of the present is self-revealing to any subject of experience. Indeed, how can we explain the feeling of the passage of time if reality is in fact a large geometric “static” structure? While this article does not need to take sides between eternalism and presentism, we will point out that the way we explain the experience of time will in turn diminish the power of presentist arguments based on the temporal character of our experience.
Phenomenal Time: This is the way in which the passing of time feels like. Even drug naïve individuals can relate to the fact that the passage of time feels different depending on one’s state of mind. The felt sense of time depends on one’s level of arousal (deeply asleep, dreaming, tired, relaxed, alert, wide awake, etc.) and hedonic tone (depressed, anxious, joyful, relaxed, etc.). Indeed, time hangs heavy when one is in pain, and seems to run through one’s fingers when one is having a great time. More generally, when taking into account altered states of consciousness (e.g. meditation, yoga, psychedelics) we see that there is a wider range of experiential phenomena than is usually assumed. Indeed, one can see that there are strange generalizations to phenomenal time. Examples of exotic phenomenal temporalities include: tachypsychia (aka. time dilation), time reversal, short-term memory tracers, looping, “moments of eternity“, temporal branching, temporal synchronicities, timelessness, and so on. We suggest that any full account of consciousness ought to be able to explain all of these variants of phenomenal time (among other key features of consciousness).
Key Background Assumptions
We shall work under three key assumptions. First, we have indirect realism about perception. Second, we have mereological nihilism in the context of consciousness, meaning that one’s stream of consciousness is composed of discrete “moments of experience”. And third, Qualia Formalism, a view that states that each moment of experience has a mathematical structure whose features are isomorphic to the features of the experience. Let us unpack these assumptions:
1. Indirect Realism About Perception
This view also goes by the name of representationalism or simulationism (not to be confused with the simulation hypothesis). In this account, perception as a concept is shown to be muddled and confused. We do not really perceive the world per se. Rather, our brains instantiate a world-simulation that tracks fitness-relevant features of our environment. Our sensory apparatus merely selects which specific world-simulation our brain instantiates. In turn, our world-simulations causally covaries with the input our senses receive and the motor responses it elicits. Furthermore, evolutionary selection pressures, in some cases, work against accurate representations of one’s environment (so long as these are not fitness-enhancing). Hence, we could say that our perception of the world is an adaptive illusion more than an accurate depiction of our surroundings.
A great expositor of this view is Steve Lehar. We recommend his book about how psychonautical experience make clear the fact that we inhabit (and in some sense are) a world-simulation created by our brain. Below you can find some pictures from his “Cartoon Epistemology“, which narrates a dialogue between a direct and an indirect realist about perception:
Steve Lehar also points out that the very geometry of our world-simulation is that of a diorama. We evolved to believe that we can experience the world directly, and the geometry of our world-simulation is very well crafted to keep us under the influence of a sort of spell to makes us believe we are the little person watching the diorama. This world-simulation has a geometry that is capable of representing both nearby regions and far-away objects (and even points-at-infinity), and it represents the subject of experience with a self-model at its projective center.
We think that an account of how we experience time is possible under the assumption that experiential time is a structural feature of this world-simulation. In turn, we would argue that implicit direct realism about perception irrevocably confuses physical time and phenomenal time. For if one assumes that one somehow directly perceives the physical world, doesn’t that mean that one also perceives time? But in this case, what to make of exotic time experiences? With indirect realism we realize that we inhabit an inner world-simulation that causally co-varies with features of the environment and hence resolve to find the experience of time within the confines of one’s own skull.
2. Discrete Moments of Experience
A second key assumptions is that experiences are ontologically unitary rather than merely functionally unitary. The philosophy of mind involved in this key assumption is unfortunately rather complex and easy to misunderstand, but we can at least say the following. Intuitively, as long as one is awake an alert, it feels like one’s so-called “stream of consciousness” is an uninterrupted and continuous experience. Indeed, at the limit, some philosophers have even argued that one is a different person each day; subjects of experience are, as it were, delimited by periods of unconsciousness. We instead postulate that the continuity of experience from one moment to the next is an illusion caused be the way experience is constructed. In reality, our brains generate countless “moments of experience” every second, each with its own internal representation of the passage of time and the illusion of a continuous diachronic self.
The precise physical underpinnings of a moment of experience have yet to be discovered, but if monistic physicalism is to survive, it is likely that the (physical) temporal extension that a single moment of experience spans is incredibly thin (possibly no more than 10^-13 seconds). In this article we make no assumptions about the actual physical temporal extension of a moment of experience. All we need to say is that it is “short” (most likely under a millisecond).
It is worth noting that the existence of discrete moments of experience supports an Empty Individualist account of personal identity. That is, a person’s brain works as an experience machine that generates many conscious events every second, each with its own distinct coordinates in physical space-time and unique identity. We would also argue that this ontology may be compatible with Open Individualism, but the argument for this shall be left to a future article.
3. Qualia Formalism
This third key assumption states that the quality of all experiences can be modeled mathematically. More precisely, for any given moment of experience, there exists a mathematical object whose mathematical features are isomorphic the the features of the experience. At the Qualia Research Institute we take this view and run with it to see where it takes us. Which mathematical object can fully account for the myriad structural relationships between experiences is currently unknown. Yet, we think that we do not need to find the One True Mathematical Object in order to make progress in formalizing the structure of subjective experience. In this article we will simply invoke the mathematical object of directed graphs in order to encode the structure of local binding of a given experience. But first, what is “local binding”? I will borrow David Pearce’s explanation of the terms involved:
The “binding problem”, also called the “combination problem”, refers to the mystery of how the micro-experiences mediated by supposedly discrete and distributed neuronal edge-detectors, motion-detectors, shape-detectors, colour-detectors, etc., can be “bound” into unitary experiential objects (“local” binding) apprehended by a unitary experiential self (“global” binding). Neuroelectrode studies using awake, verbally competent human subjects confirm that neuronal micro-experiences exist. Classical neuroscience cannot explain how they could ever be phenomenally bound. As normally posed, the binding problem assumes rather than derives the emergence of classicality.
In other words, “local binding” refers to the way in which the features of our experience seem to be connected and interwoven into complex phenomenal objects. We do not see a chair as merely a disparate set of colors, edges, textures, etc. Rather, we see it as an integrated whole with fine compositional structure. Its colors are “bound” to its edges which are “bound” to its immediate surrounding space and so forth.
A simple toy model for the structure of an experience can be made by saying that there are “simple qualia” such as color and edges, and “complex qualia” formed by the binding of simple qualia. In turn, we can represent an experience as a graph where each node is a simple quale and each edge is a local binding connection. The resulting globally connected graph corresponds to the “globally bound” experience. Each “moment of experience” is, thus, coarsely at any rate, a network.
While this toy model is almost certainly incomplete (indeed some features of experience may require much more sophisticated mathematical objects to be represented properly), it is fair to say that the rough outline of our experience can be represented with a network-like skeleton encoding the local binding connections. More so, as we will see, this model will suffice to account for many of the surprising features of phenomenal time (and its exotic variants).
Each layer is connected itself in a geometric way, and connected to the previous and next layer with directed edges.
While both physical and phenomenal time pose profound philosophical conundrums, it is important to denote that science has made a lot of progress providing formal accounts of physical time. Confusingly, even Einstein’s theory of general relativity is time-symmetric, meaning that the universe would behave the same whether time was moving forwards or backwards. Hence relativity does not provide, on its own, a direction to time. What does provide a direction to time are properties like the entropy gradient (i.e. the direction along which disorder is globally increasing) and, the focus of this article, causality as encoded in the network of statistical conditional independence. This is a mouthful, let us tackle it in more detail.
In Timeless CausalityYudkowsky argues one can tell the direction of causality, (and hence of the arrow of time) by examining how conditioning on events inform us about other events. We recommend reading the linked article for details (and for a formal account read SEP’s entry on the matter).
In the image above we have a schematic representation of two measurables (1 & 2) at several times (L, M, and R). The core idea is that we can determine the flow of causality by examining the patterns of statistical conditional independence, with questions like “if I’ve observed L1 and L2, do I gain information about M1 by learning about M2?” an so on*.
Intriguingly, these models of time and causality are tenseless and hence eternalist. The whole universe works as a unified system in which time appears as an axis rather than a metaphysical universal metronome. But if eternalism is true, how come we can feel the passage of time? If moments of experience exist, how come we seem to experience movement and action? Shouldn’t we experience just a single static “image”, like seeing a single movie frame without being aware of the previous ones? We are now finally ready tackle these questions and explain how time may be encoded in the structure of one’s experience.
In the image above we contrast physical and phenomenal time explicitly. The top layer shows the physical state of a scene in which a ball is moving along a free-falling parabolic trajectory. In turn, a number of these states are aggregated by a process of layering (second row) into a unified “moment of experience”. As seen on the third row, each moment of experience represents the “present scene” as the composition of three slices of sensory input with a time-dependent dimming factor. Namely, the scene experienced is approximated with a weighted sum of three scenes with the most recent one being weighted the highest and the oldest the least.
In other words, at the coarsest level of organization time is encoded by layering the current input scene with faint after-images of very recent input scenes. In healthy people this process is rather subtle yet always present. Indeed, after-images are an omnipresent feature of sensory modalities (beyond sight).
A simple model to describe how after-images are layered on top of each other to generate a scene with temporal depth involves what we call “time-dependent qualia decay functions”. This function determines how quickly sensory (and internal) impressions fade over time. With e.g. psychedelics making this decay function significantly fatter (long-tailed) and stimulants making it slightly shorter (i.e. higher signal-to-noise ratio at the cost of reduced complex image formation).
With this layering process going on, and the Qualia Formalist model of experience as a network of local binding, we can further find a causal structure in experience akin to that in physical time (as explained in Timeless Causality):
Again, each node of the network represents a simple quale and each edge represents a local binding relationship between the nodes it connects. Then, we can describe the time-dependent qualia decay function as the probability that a node or an edge will vanish at each (physical) time step.
The rightmost nodes and edges are the most recent qualia triggered by sensory input. Notice how the nodes and edges vanish probabilistically with each time step, making the old layers sparsely populated.
With a sufficiently large network one would be able to decode the direction of causality (and hence of time) using the same principles of statistical conditional independence used to account for physical time. What we are proposing is that this underlies what time feels like.
Now that we understand what the pseudo-time arrow is, what can we do with it?
Explanatory Power: How the Pseudo-Time Arrow Explains Exotic Phenomenal Time
Let us use this explanatory framework on exotic experiences of time. That is, let us see how the network of local binding and its associated pseudo-time arrows can explain unusual experiences of time perception.
To start we should address the fact that tachypsychia (i.e. time dilation) could either mean (a) that “one experiences time passing at the same rate but that this rate moves at a different speed relative to the way clocks tick compared to typical perception” or, more intriguingly, (b) that “time itself feels slower, stretched, elongated, etc.”.
The former (a) is very easy to explain, while the latter requires more work. Namely, time dilation of the former variety can be explained by an accelerated or slowed down sensory sampling rate in such a way that the (physical) temporal interval between each layer is either longer or shorter than usual. In this case the structure of the network does not change; what is different is how it maps to physical time. If one were on a sensory deprivation chamber and this type of time dilation was going on one would not be able to say so since the quality of phenomenal time (as encoded in the network of local binding) remains the same as before. Perhaps compare how it feels like to see a movie in slow-motion relative to seeing it at its original speed while being perfectly sober. Since one is sober either way, what changes is how quickly the world seems to move, not how one feels inside.
The latter (b) is a lot more interesting. In particular, phenomenal time is often incredibly distorted when taking psychedelics in a way that is noticeable even in sensory deprivation chambers. In other words, it is the internal experience of the passage of time that changes rather than the layering rate relative to the external world. So how can we explain that kind of phenomenal time dilation?
The most straightforward effect of psychedelics one can point out with regards to the structure of one’s experience is the fact that qualia seems to last for much longer than usual. This manifests as “tracers” in all sensory modalities. Using the vocabulary introduced above, we would say that psychedelics change the time-dependent qualia decay function by making it significantly “fatter”. While in sober conditions the positive after-image of a lamp will last between 0.2 and 1 second, on psychedelics it will last anywhere between 2 and 15 seconds. This results in a much more pronounced and perceptible change in the layering process of experience. Using Lehar’s diorama model of phenomenal space, we could represent various degrees of psychedelic intoxication with the following progression:
Strong dose (overwhelming layering/confusion between layers)
The first image is what one experiences while sober. The second is what one experiences if one takes, e.g. 10 micrograms of LSD (i.e. microdosing), where there is a very faint additional layer but is at times indistinguishable from sober states. The third, fourth, and fifth image represent what tracers may feel like on ~50, ~150, and ~300 micrograms of LSD, respectively. The last image is perhaps most reminiscent of DMT experiences, which provide a uniquely powerful and intense high-frequency layering at the onset of the trip.
In the graphical model of time we could say that the structure of the network changes by (1) a lower probability for each node to vanish in each (physical) time step, and (2) an even lower probability for each edge to vanish after each (physical) time step. The tracers experienced on psychedelics are more than just a layering process; the density of connections also increases. That is to say, while simple qualia lasts for longer, the connections between them are even longer-lasting. The inter-connectivity of experience is enhanced.
A low dose of a psychedelic will lead to a slow decay of simple qualia (colors, edges, etc.) and an even slower decay of connections (local binding), resulting in an elongated and densified pseudo-time arrow.
This explains why time seems to move much more slowly on psychedelics. Namely, each moment of experience has significantly more temporal depth than a corresponding sober state. To illustrate this point, here is a first-person account of this effect:
A high dose of LSD seems to distort time for me the worst… maybe in part because it simply lasts so long. At the end of an LSD trip when i’m thinking back on everything that happened my memories of the trip feel ancient.
When you’re experiencing the trip it’s possible to feel time slowing down, but more commonly for me I get this feeling when I think back on things i’ve done that day. Like “woah, remember when I was doing this. That feels like it was an eternity ago” when in reality it’s been an hour.
On low doses of psychedelics, phenomenal time may seem to acquire a sort of high definition unusual for sober states. The incredible (and accurate) visual acuity of threshold DMT experiences is a testament to this effect, and it exemplifies what a densified pseudo-time arrow feels like:
Just as small doses of DMT enhance the definition of spatial structures, so is the pseudo-time arrow made more regular and detailed, leading to a strange but compelling feeling of “HD vision”.
But this is not all. Psychedelics, in higher doses, can lead to much more savage and surrealistic changes to the pseudo-time arrow. Let us tackle a few of the more exotic variants with this explanatory framework:
This effect feels like being stuck in a perfectly-repeating sequence of events outside of the universe in some kind of Platonic closed timelike curve. People often accidentally induce this effect by conducting repetitive tasks or listening to repetitive sounds (which ultimately entrain this pattern). For most people this is a very unsettling experience since it produces a pronounce feeling of helplessness due to making you feel powerless about ever escaping the loop.
In terms of the causal network, this experience could be accounted for with a loop in the pseudo-time arrow of experience:
High Dose LSD can lead to annealing and perfect “standing temporal waves” often described as “time looping” or “infinite time”
Moments of Eternity
Subjectively, so-called “Moments of Eternity” are extremely bizarre experiences that have the quality of being self-sustaining and unconditioned. It is often described in mystical terms, such as “it feels like one is connected to the eternal light of consciousness with no past and no future direction”. Whereas time loops lack some of the common features of phenomenal time such as a vanishing past, moments of eternity are even more alien as they also lack a general direction for the pseudo-time arrow.
High Dose LSD may also generate a pseudo-time arrow with a central source and sink to that connects all nodes.
Both time loops and moments of eternity arise from the confluence of a slower time-dependent qualia decay function and structural annealing (which is typical of feedback). As covered in previous posts, as depicted in numerous psychedelic replications, and as documented in PsychonautWiki, one of the core effects of psychedelics is to lower the symmetry detection threshold. Visually, this leads to the perception of wallpaper symmetry groups covering textures (e.g. grass, walls, etc.). But this effect is much more general than mere visual repetition; it generalizes to the pseudo-time arrow! The texture repetition via mirroring, gyrations, glides, etc. works indiscriminately across (phenomenal) time and space. As an example of this, consider the psychedelic replication gifs below and how the last one nearly achieves a standing-wave structure. On a sufficient dose, this can anneal into a space-time crystal, which may have “time looping” and/or “moment of eternity” features.
Stimuli with tracers
As discussed in a previous post, a number of people report temporal branching on high doses of psychedelics. The reported experience can be described as simultaneously perceiving multiple possible outcomes of a given event, and its branching causal implications. If you flip a coin, you see it both coming up heads and tails in different timelines, and both of these timelines become superimposed in your perceptual field. This experience is particularly unsettling if one interprets it through the lens of direct realism about perception. Here one imagines that the timelines are real, and that one is truly caught between branches of the multiverse. Which one is really yours? Which one will you collapse into? Eventually one finds oneself in one or another timeline with the alternatives having been pruned. An indirect realist about perception has an easier time dealing with this experience as she can interpret it as the explicit rendering of one’s predictions about the future in such a way that they interfere with one’s incoming sensory stimuli. But just in case, in the linked post we developed an empirically testable predictions from the wild possibility (i.e. where you literally experience information from adjacent branches of the multiverse) and tested it using quantum random number generators (and, thankfully for our collective sanity, obtained null results).
High Dose LSD Pseudo-Time Arrow Branching, as described in trip reports where people seem to experience “multiple branches of the multiverse at once.”
Finally, in some situations people report the complete loss of a perceived time arrow but not due to time loops, moments of eternity, or branching, but rather, due to scrambling. This is less common on psychedelics than the previous kinds of exotic phenomenal time, but it still happens, and is often very disorienting and unpleasant (an “LSD experience failure mode” so to speak). It is likely that this also happens on anti-psychotics and quite possibly with some anti-depressants, which seem to destroy unpleasant states by scrambling the network of local binding (rather than annealing it, as with most euphoric drugs).
Loss of the Pseudo-Time Arrow (bad trips? highly scrambled states caused by anti-psychotics?)
In summary, this framework can tackle some of the weirdest and most exotic experiences of time. It renders subjective time legible to formal systems. And although it relies on an unrealistically simple formalism for the mathematical structure of consciousness, the traction we are getting is strong enough to make this approach a promising starting point for future developments in philosophy of time perception.
We will now conclude with a few final thoughts…
Intriguingly, with compounds such as DMT, the layering process is so fast that on doses above the threshold level one very quickly loses track of the individual layers. In turn, one’s mind attempts to bind together the incoming layers, which leads to attempts of stitching together multiple layers in a small (phenomenal) space. This confusion between layers compounded with a high density of edges is the way we explained the unusual geometric features of DMT hallucinations, such as the spatial hyperbolic symmetry groups expressed in its characteristic visual texture repetition (cf. eli5). One’s mind tries to deal with multiple copies of e.g. the wall in front, and the simplest way to do so is to stitch them together in a woven Chrysanthemum pattern with hyperbolic wrinkles.
Of special interest to us is the fact that both moments of eternity and time loops tend to be experienced with very intense emotions. One could imagine that finding oneself in such an altered state is itself bewildering and therefore stunning. But there are many profoundly altered states of consciousness that lack a corresponding emotional depth. Rather, we think that this falls out of the very nature of valence and the way it is related to the structure of one’s experience.
In particular, the symmetry theory of valence (STV) we are developing at the Qualia Research Institute posits that the pleasure-pain axis is a function of the symmetry (and anti-symmetry) of the mathematical object whose features are isomorphic to an experience’s phenomenology. In the case of the simplified toy model of consciousness based on the network of local binding connections, this symmetry may manifest in the form of regularity within and across layers. Both in time loops and moments of eternity we see a much more pronounced level of symmetry of this sort than in the sober pseudo-time arrow structure. Likewise, symmetry along the pseudo-time arrow may explain the high levels of positive valence associated with music, yoga, orgasm, and concentration meditation. Each of these activities would seem to lead to repeating standing waves along the pseudo-time arrow, and hence, highly valence states. Futurework shall aim to test this correspondence empirically.
The Qualia Research Institute Logo (timeless, as you can see)
Suppose that we do know L1 and L2, but we do not know R1 and R2. Will learning M1 tell us anything about M2? […]
The answer, on the assumption that causality flows to the right, and on the other assumptions previously given, is no. “On each round, the past values of 1 and 2 probabilistically generate the future value of 1, and then separately probabilistically generate the future value of 2.” So once we have L1 and L2, they generate M1 independently of how they generate M2.
But if we did know R1 or R2, then, on the assumptions, learning M1 would give us information about M2. […]
Similarly, if we didn’t know L1 or L2, then M1 should give us information about M2, because from the effect M1 we can infer the state of its causes L1 and L2, and thence the effect of L1/L2 on M2.
Thanks to: Mike Johnson, David Pearce, Romeo Stevens, Justin Shovelain, Andrés Silva Ruiz, Liam Brereton, and Enrique Bojorquez for their thoughts about phenomenal time and its possible mathematical underpinnings. And to Alfredo Valverde for pointing me to the Erlangen program, wh
Burning Man is one week away, so I figured I would share a neat idea I’ve been hoarding that could lead to a kick-ass Burning Man-style psychedelic art installation. If I have the time and resources to do so, I may even try to manifest this idea in real life at some point.
Around the time I was writing The Hyperbolic Geometry of DMT Experiences (cf. Eli5) I began asking myself how to help people develop a feel for what it is like to inhabit non-Euclidean phenomenal spaces. I later found out that Henry Segerman developed an immersive VR experience in which you can explore 3D hyperbolic spaces. That is fantastic, and a great step in the right direction. But I wanted to see if there was any way for us to experience 3D hyperbolic geometry in a material way without the aid of computers. Something that you could hold in your hand, like a sort of mystical amulet that works as a reminder of the vastness of the state-space of consciousness.
What I had in mind was along the lines of how we can, in a sense, visualize infinite (Euclidean) space using two parallel mirrors. I thought that maybe there could be a way to do the same but in a way that visualizes a hyperbolic space.
One-Way Mirrors and 3D Space-Filling Shapes
Right now you can use one-way mirrors on the sides of a polyhedra whose edges are embedded with LEDs to create a fascinating “infinite space effect”:
This is not the case in hyperbolic space, though; arbitrary regular polyhedra can tesselate 3D hyperbolic spaces. For instance, one can use dodecahedra by choosing their size appropriately in such a way that they all have 90 degree angle corners (cf. Not Knot):
Perhaps, I thought to myself, there is a way to physically realize hyperbolic curvature and enable us to see what it is like to live in a place in which dodecahedra tesselate space. I kept thinking about this problem, and one day while riding the BART and introspecting on the geometry of sound, I realized that one could use gradient-index optics to create a solid in which light-paths behave as if the space was hyperbolic.
Gradient-index optics is the subfield of optics that specializes in the use of materials that have a smooth non-constant refractive index. One way to achieve this is to blend two transparent materials (e.g. two kinds of plastic) in such a way that the concentration of each type varies smoothly from one region to the next. As a consequence, light travels in unusual and bendy ways, like this:
Monochrome Gradient-Index Refraction
Monochrome Gradient-Index Refraction
Materializing Hyperbolic Spaces
By carefully selecting various transparent plastics with different indices of refraction and blending them in a 3D printer in precisely the right proportions, one can in principle build solids in which the gradient-index properties of the end product instantiate a hyperbolic metric. If one were to place the material with the lowest refraction index at the very center in a dodecahedron and add materials of increasingly larger refractive indices all the way up to the corners, then the final effect could be one in which the dodecahedron has an interior in which light moves as if it were in a hyperbolic space. One can then place LED strips along the edges and seal the sides with one-way window film. Lo-and-behold, one would then quite literally be able to “hold infinity in the palm of your hand”:
I think that this sort of gadget would allow us to develop better intuitions for what the far-out (experiential) spaces people “visit” on psychedelics look like. One can then, in addition, generalize this to make space behave as if its 3D curvature was non-constant. One might even, perhaps, be able to visualize a black-hole by emulating its event-horizon using a region with extremely large refractive index.
I would like to conclude by considering some of the challenges that we would face trying to construct this. For instance, finding the right materials may be difficult because they would need to have a wide range of refractive indices, all be similarly transparent, able to smoothly blend with each other, and have low melting points. I am not a material scientist, but my gut feeling is that this is not currently impossible. Modern gradient-index optics already has a rather impressive level of precision.
Another challenge comes from the resolution of the 3D printer. Modern 3D printers have layers with a thickness between .2 to 0.025mm. It’s possible that this is simply not small enough to avoid visible discontinuities in the light-paths. At least in principle this could be surmounted by melting the last layer placed such that the new layer smoothly diffuses and partially blends with it in accordance with the desired hyperbolic metric.
An important caveat is that the medium in which we live (i.e. air at atmospheric pressure) is not very dense to begin with. In the example of the dodecahedra, this may represent a problem considering that the corners need to form 90 degree angles from the point of view of an outside observer. This would imply that the surrounding medium needs to have a higher refraction index than that of the transparent medium at the corners. This could be fixed by immersing the object in water or some other dense media (and designing it under the assumption of being surrounded by such a medium). Alternatively, one can simply fix the problem by using appropriately curved sides in lieu of straight planes. This may not be as aesthetically appealing, though, so it may pay off to brainstorm other clever approaches to deal with this that I haven’t thought of.
Above all, perhaps the most difficult challenge would be that of dealing with the inevitable presence of chromatic aberrations:
Narrow-Spectrum Gradient-Index Refraction
Broad-Spectrum Gradient-Index Refraction
Since the degree to which a light-path bends in a medium depends on its frequency, how bendy light looks like with gradient-index optics is variable. If the LEDs placed at the edges of the polyhedra are white, we could expect very visible distortions and crazy rainbow patterns to emerge. This would perhaps be for the better when taken for its aesthetic value. But since the desired effect is one of actually materializing faithfully the behavior of light in hyperbolic space, this would be undesirable. The easiest way to deal with this problem would be to show the gadget in a darkened room and have only monochrome LEDs on the edges of the polyhedra whose frequency is tuned to the refractive gradient for which the metric is hyperbolic. More fancifully, it might be possible to overcome chromatic aberrations with the use of metamaterials (cf. “Metasurfaces enable improved optical lens performance“). Alas, my bedtime is approaching so I shall leave the nuts and bolts of this engineering challenge as an exercise for the reader…
The appearance of arbitrary contingency to our diverse qualia – and undiscovered state-spaces of posthuman qualia and hypothetical micro-qualia – may be illusory. Perhaps they take the phenomenal values they do as a matter of logico-mathematical necessity. I’d make this conjecture against the backdrop of some kind of zero ontology. Intuitively, there seems no reason for anything at all to exist. The fact that the multiverse exists (apparently) confounds one’s pre-reflective intuitions in the most dramatic possible way. However, this response is too quick. The cosmic cancellation of the conserved constants (mass-energy, charge, angular momentum) to zero, and the formal equivalence of zero information to all possible descriptions [the multiverse?] means we have to take seriously this kind of explanation-space. The most recent contribution to the zero-ontology genre is physicist Lawrence Krauss’s readable but frustrating “A Universe from Nothing: Why There Is Something Rather Than Nothing“. Anyhow, how does a zero ontology tie in with (micro-)qualia? Well, if the solutions to the master equation of physics do encode the field-theoretic values of micro-qualia, then perhaps their numerically encoded textures “cancel out” to zero too. To use a trippy, suspiciously New-Agey-sounding metaphor, imagine the colours of the rainbow displayed as a glorious spectrum – but on recombination cancelling out to no colour at all. Anyhow, I wouldn’t take any of this too seriously: just speculation on idle speculation. It’s tempting simply to declare the issue of our myriad qualia to be an unfathomable mystery. And perhaps it is. But mysterianism is sterile.
Personal identity views (closed, empty, open) serve in philosophy the role that conservation laws play in physics. They recast difficult problems in solvable terms, and by expanding our horizon of understanding, they likewise allow us to conceive of new classes of problems. In this context, we posit that philosophy of personal identity is relevant in the realm of ethics by helping us address age-old questions like whether being born is good or bad. We further explore the intersection between philosophy of personal identity and philosophy of time, and discuss the ethical implications of antinatalism in a tenselessopen individualist “block-time” universe.
Learning physics, we often find wide-reaching concepts that simplify many problems by using an underlying principle. A good example of this is the law of conservation of energy. Take for example the following high-school physics problem:
An object that weighs X kilograms falls from a height of Y meters on a planet without an atmosphere and a gravity of Zg. Calculate the velocity with which this object will hit the ground.
One could approach this problem by using Newton’s laws of motion and differentiating the distance traveled by the object as a function of time and then obtaining the velocity of the object at the time it has fallen Y meters.
Alternatively, you could simply note that given that energy is conserved, all of the potential energy of the object at a height of X meters will be transformed into kinetic energy at 0 height. Thus the velocity of the object is equivalent to this amount, and the problem is easier to solve.
Once one has learned “the trick” one starts to see many other problems differently. In turn, grasping these deep invariants opens up new horizons; while many problems that seemed impossible can be solved using these principles, it also allows you to ask new questions, which opens up new problems that cannot be solved with those principles alone.
Does this ever happen in philosophy? Perhaps entire classes of difficult problems in philosophy may become trivial (or at least tractable) once one grasps powerful principles. Such is the case, I would claim, of transcending common-sense views of personal identity.
Personal Identity: Closed, Empty, Open
In Ontological Qualia I discussed three core views about personal identity. For those who have not encountered these concepts, I recommend reading that article for an expanded discussion.
Closed Individualism: You start existing when you are born, and stop when you die.
Empty Individualism: You exist as a “time-slice” or “moment of experience.”
Open Individualism: There is only one subject of experience, who is everyone.
Most people are Closed Individualists; this is the default common sense view for good evolutionary reasons. But what grounds are there to believe in this view? Intuitively, the fact that you will wake up in “your body” tomorrow is obvious and needs no justification. However, explaining why this is the case in a clear way requires formalizing a wide range of concepts such as causality, continuity, memory, and physical laws. And when one tries to do so one will generally find a number of barriers that will prevent one from making a solid case for Closed Individualism.
As an example line of argument, one could argue that what defines you as an individual is your set of memories, and since the person who will wake up in your body tomorrow is the only human being with access to your current memories then you must be it. And while this may seem to work on the surface, a close inspection reveals otherwise. In particular, all of the following facts work against it: (1) memory is a constructive process and every time you remember something you remember it (slightly) differently, (2) memories are unreliable and do not always work at will (e.g. false memories), (3) it is unclear what happens if you copy all of your memories into someone else (do you become that person?), (4) how many memories can you swap with someone until you become a different person?, and so on. Here the more detailed questions one asks, the more ad-hoc modifications of the theory are needed. In the end, one is left with what appears to be just a set of conventional rules to determine whether two persons are the same for practical purposes. But it does not seem to carve nature at its joints; you’d be merely over-fitting the problem.
The same happens with most Closed Individualist accounts. You need to define what the identity carrier is, and after doing so one can identify situations in which identity is not well-defined given that identity carrier (memory, causality, shared matter, etc.).
But for both Open and Empty Individualism, identity is well-defined for any being in the universe. Either all are the same, or all are different. Critics might say that this is a trivial and uninteresting point, perhaps even just definitional. Closed Individualism seems sufficiently arbitrary, however, that questioning it is warranted, and once one does so it is reasonable to start the search for alternatives by taking a look at the trivial cases in which either all or none of the beings are the same.
More so, there are many arguments in favor of these views. They indeed solve and usefully reformulate a range of philosophical problems when applied diligently. I would argue that they play a role in philosophy that is similar to that of conservation of energy in physics. The energy conservation law has been empirically tested to extremely high levels of precision, which is something which we will have to do without in the realm of philosophy. Instead, we shall rely on powerful philosophical insights. And in addition, they make a lot of problems tractable and offer a powerful lens to interpret core difficulties in the field.
Antinatalism is a philosophical view that posits that, all considered, it is better not to be born. Many philosophers could be adequately described as antinatalists, but perhaps the most widely recognized proponent is David Benatar. A key argument Benatar considers is that there might be an asymmetry between pleasure and pain. Granted, he would say, experiencing pleasure is good, and experiencing suffering is bad. But while “the absence of pain is good, even if that good is not enjoyed by anyone”, we also have that “the absence of pleasure is not bad unless there is somebody for whom this absence is a deprivation.” Thus, while being born can give rise to both good and bad, not being born can only be good.
Contrary to popular perception, antinatalists are not more selfish or amoral than others. On the contrary, their willingness to “bite the bullet” of a counter-intuitive but logically defensible argument is a sign of being willing to face social disapproval for a good cause. But along with the stereotype, it is generally true that antinatalists are temperamentally depressive. This, of course, does not invalidate their arguments. If anything, sometimes a degree of depressive realism is essential to arrive at truly sober views in philosophy. But it shouldn’t be a surprise to learn that either experiencing or having experienced suffering in the past predispose people to vehemently argue for the importance of its elimination. Having a direct acquaintance with the self-disclosing nastiness of suffering does give one a broader evidential base for commenting on the matter of pain and pleasure.
Antinatalism and Closed Individualism
Interestingly, Benatar’s argument, and those of many antinatalists, rely implicitly on personal identity background assumptions. In particular, antinatalism is usually framed in a way that assumes Closed Individualism.
The idea that a “person can be harmed by coming into existence” is developed within a conceptual framework in which the inhabitants of the universe are narrative beings. These beings have both spatial and temporal extension. And they also have the property that had the conditions previous to their birth been different, they might not have existed. But how many possible beings are there? How genetically or environmentally different do they need to be to be different beings? What happens if two beings merge? Or if they converge towards the same exact physical configuration over time?
This conceptual framework has counter-intuitive implications when taken to the extreme. For example, the amount of harm you do involves how many people you allow to be born, rather than how many years of suffering you prevented.
For the sake of the argument, imagine that you have control over a sentient-AI-enabled virtual environment in which you can make beings start existing and stop existing. Say that you create two beings, A and B, who are different in morally irrelevant ways (e.g. one likes blue more than red, but on average they both end up suffering and delighting in their experience with the same intensity). With Empty Individualism, you would consider giving A 20 years of life and not creating B vs. giving A and B 10 years of life each to be morally equivalent. But with Closed Individualism you would rightly worry that these two scenarios are completely different. By giving years of life to both A and B (any amount of life!) you have doubled the number of subjects who are affected by your decisions. If the gulf of individuality between two persons is infinite, as Closed Individualism would have it, by creating both A and B you have created two parallel realities, and that has an ontological effect on existence. It’s a big deal. Perhaps a way to put it succinctly would be: God considers much more carefully the question of whether to create a person who will live only 70 years versus whether to add a million years of life to an angel who has already lived for a very long time. Creating an entirely new soul is not to be taken lightly (incidentally, this may cast the pro-choice/pro-life debate in an entirely new light).
Thus, antinatalism is usually framed in a way that assumes Closed Individualism. The idea that a being is (possibly) harmed by coming into existence casts the possible solutions in terms of whether one should allow animals (or beings) to be born. But if one were to take an Open or Empty Individualist point of view, the question becomes entirely different. Namely, what kind of experiences should we allow to exist in the future…
Antinatalism and Empty Individualism
I think that the strongest case for antinatalism comes from a take on personal identity that is different than the implicit default (Closed Individualism). If you assume Empty Individualism, in particular, reality starts to seem a lot more horrible than you had imagined. Consider how in Empty Individualism fundamental entities exist as “moments of experience” rather than narrative streams. Therefore, every time that an animal suffers, what is actually happening is that some moments of experience get to have their whole existence in pain and suffering. In this light, one stops seeing people who suffer terrible happenings (e.g. kidney stones, schizophrenia, etc.) as people who are unlucky, and instead one sees their brains as experience machines capable of creating beings whose entire existence is extremely negative.
With Empty Individualism there is simply no way to “make it up to someone” for having had a bad experience in the past. Thus, out of compassion for the extremely negative moments of experience, one could argue that it might be reasonable to try to avoid this whole business of life altogether. That said, this imperative does not come from the asymmetry between pain and pleasure Benetar talks about (which as we saw implicitly requires Closed Individualism). In Empty Individualism it does not make sense to say that someone has been brought into existence. So antinatalism gets justified from a different angle, albeit one that might be even more powerful.
In my assessment, the mere possibility of Empty Individualism is a good reason to take antinatalism very seriously.
Here is a Reddit post and then a comment on a related thread (by the same author) worth reading on this subject (indeed these artifacts motivated me to write the article you are currently reading):
There’s an interesting theory of personal existence making the rounds lately called Open Individualism. See here, here, and here. Basically, it claims that consciousness is like a single person in a huge interconnected library. One floor of the library contains all of your life’s experiences, and the other floors contain the experiences of others. Consciousness wanders the aisles, and each time he picks up a book he experiences whatever moment of life is recorded in it as if he were living it. Then he moves onto the next one (or any other random one on any floor) and experiences that one. In essence, the “experiencer” of all experience everywhere, across all conscious beings, is just one numerically identical subject. It only seems like we are each separate “experiencers” because it can only experience one perspective at a time, just like I can only experience one moment of my own life at a time. In actuality, we’re all the same person.
Anyway, there’s no evidence for this, but it solves a lot of philosophical problems apparently, and in any case there’s no evidence for the opposing view either because it’s all speculative philosophy.
But if this were true, and when I’m done living the life of this particular person, I will go on to live every other life from its internal perspective, it has some implications for antinatalism. All suffering is essentially experienced by the same subject, just through the lens of many different brains. There would be no substantial difference between three people suffering and three thousand people suffering, assuming their experiences don’t leave any impact or residue on the singular consciousness that experiences them. Even if all conscious life on earth were to end, there are still likely innumerable conscious beings elsewhere in the universe, and if Open Individualism is correct, I’ll just move on to experiencing those lives. And since I can re-experience them an infinite number of times, it makes no difference how many there are. In fact, even if I just experienced the same life over and over again ten thousand times, it wouldn’t be any different from experiencing ten thousand different lives in succession, as far as suffering is concerned.
The only way to end the experience of suffering would be to gradually elevate all conscious beings to a state of near-constant happiness through technology, or exterminate every conscious being like the Flood from the Halo series of games. But the second option couldn’t guarantee that life wouldn’t arise again in some other corner of the multiverse, and when it did, I’d be right there again as the conscious experiencer of whatever suffering it would endure.
I find myself drawn to Open Individualism. It’s not mysticism, it’s not a Big Soul or something we all merge with, it’s just a new way of conceptualizing what it feels like to be a person from the inside. Yet, it has these moral implications that I can’t seem to resolve. I welcome any input.
I have thought a lot about the implications of open individualism (which I will refer to as “universalism” from here on, as that’s the name coined by its earliest proponent, Arnold Zuboff) for antinatalism. In short, I think it has two major implications, one of which you mention. The first, as you say, is that freedom from conscious life is impossible. This is bad, but not as bad as it would be if I were aware of it from every perspective. As it stands, at least on Earth, only a small number of people have any inkling that they are me. So, it is not like experiencing the multitude of conscious events taking place across reality is any kind of burden that accumulates over time; from the perspective of each isolated nervous system, it will always appear that whatever is being experienced is the only thing I am experiencing. In this way, the fact that I am never truly unconscious does not have the same sting as it would to, for example, an insomniac, who is also never unconscious but must experience the constant wakefulness from one integrated perspective all the time.
It’s like being told that I will suffer total irreversible amnesia at some point in my future; while I can still expect to be the person that experiences all the confusion and anxiety of total amnesia when it happens, I must also acknowledge that the residue of any pains I would have experienced beforehand would be erased. Much of what makes consciousness a losing game is the persistence of stresses. Universalism doesn’t imply that any stresses will carry over between the nervous systems of individual beings, so the reality of my situation is by no means as nightmarish as eternal life in a single body (although, if there exists an immortal being somewhere in the universe, I am currently experiencing the nightmare of its life).
The second implication of this view for antinatalism is that one of the worst things about coming into existence, namely death, is placed in quite a different context. According to the ordinary view (sometimes called “closed” individualism), death permanently ends the conscious existence of an alienated self. Universalism says there is no alienated self that is annihilated upon the death of any particular mind. There are just moments of conscious experience that occur in various substrates across space and time, and I am the subject of all such experiences. Thus, the encroaching wall of perpetual darkness and silence that is usually an object of dread becomes less of a problem for those who have realized that they are me. Of course, this realization is not built into most people’s psychology and has to be learned, reasoned out, intellectually grasped. This is why procreation is still immoral, because even though I will not cease to exist when any specific organism dies, from the perspective of each one I will almost certainly believe otherwise, and that will always be a source of deep suffering for me. The fewer instances of this existential dread, however misplaced they may be, the better.
This is why it’s important to make more people understand the position of universalism/open individualism. In the future, long after the person typing this sentence has perished, my well-being will depend in large part on having the knowledge that I am every person. The earlier in each life I come to that understanding, and thus diminish the fear of dying, the better off I will be. Naturally, this project decreases in potential impact if conscious life is abundant in the universe, and in response to that problem I concede there is probably little hope, unless there are beings elsewhere in the universe that have comprehended who they are and are taking the same steps in their spheres of influence. My dream is that intelligent life eventually either snuffs itself out or discovers how to connect many nervous systems together, which would demonstrate to every connected mind that it has always belonged to one subject, has always been me, but I don’t have any reason to assume this is even possible on a physical level.
So, I suppose you are mostly right about one thing: there are no lucky ones that escape the badness of life’s worst agonies, either by virtue of a privileged upbringing or an instantaneous and painless demise. They and the less fortunate ones are all equally me. Yet, the horror of going through their experiences is mitigated somewhat in the details.
Our brain tries to make sense of metaphysical questions in wet-ware that shares computational space with a lot of adaptive survival programs. It does not matter if you have thick barriers (cf. thick and thin boundaries of the mind), the way you assess the value of situations as a human will tend to over-focus on whatever would allow you to go up Maslow’s hierarchy of needs (or, more cynically, achieve great feats as a testament to signal your genetic-fitness). Our motivational architecture is implemented in such a way that it is very good at handling questions like how to find food when you are hungry and how to play social games in a way that impresses others and leaves a social mark. Our brains utilize many heuristics based on personhood and narrative-streams when exploring the desirability of present options. We are people, and our brains are adapted to solve people problems. Not, as it turns out, general problems involving the entire state-space of possible conscious experiences.
Our brains render our inner world-simulation with flavors and textures of qualia to suit their evolutionary needs. This, in turn, impairs our ability to aptly represent scenarios that go beyond the range of normal human experiences. Let me illustrate this point with the following thought experiment:
Would you rather (a) have a 1-hour meal, or (b) have the same meal but at the half-hour point be instantly transformed into a simple, amnesic, and blank experience of perfectly neutral hedonic value that lasts ten quintillion years, and after that extremely long time of neither-happiness-nor-suffering ends, then resume the rest of the meal as if nothing had happened, with no memory of that long neutral period?
According to most utilitarian calculi these two scenarios ought to be perfectly equivalent. In both cases the total amount of positive and negative qualia is the same (the full duration of the meal) and the only difference is that the latter also contains a large amount of neutral experience too. Whether classical or negative, utilitarians should consider these experiences equivalent since they contain the same amount of pleasure and pain (note: some other ethical frameworks do distinguish between these cases, such as average and market utilitarianism).
Intuitively, however, (a) seems a lot better than (b). One imagines oneself having an awfully long experience, bored out of one’s mind, just wanting it to end, get it over with, and get back to enjoying the nice meal. But the very premise of the thought experiment presupposes that one will not be bored during that period of time, nor will one be wishing it to be over, or anything of the sort, considering that all of those are mental states of negative quality and the experience is supposed to be neutral.
Now this is of course a completely crazy thought experiment. Or is it?
The One-Electron View
In 1940 John Wheeler proposed to Richard Feynman the idea that all of reality is made of a single electron moving backwards and forwards in time, interfering with itself. This view has come to be regarded as the One-Electron Universe. Under Open Individualism, that one electron is you. From every single moment of experience to the next, you may have experienced life as a sextillion different animals, been 10^32 fleeting macroscropic entangled particles, and gotten stuck as a single non-interacting electron in the inter-galactic medium for googols of subjective years. Of course you will not remember any of this, because your memories, and indeed all of your motivational architecture and anticipation programs, are embedded in the brain you are instantiating right now. From that point of view, there is absolutely no trace of the experiences you had during this hiatus.
The above way of describing the one-electron view is still just an approximation. In order to see it fully, we also need to address the fact that there is no “natural” order to all of these different experiences. Every way of factorizing it and describing the history of the universe as “this happened before this happened” and “this, now that” could be equally inapplicable from the point of view of fundamental reality.
Philosophy of Time
Presentism is the view that only the present moment is real. The future and the past are just conceptual constructs useful to navigate the world, but not actual places that exist. The “past exists as footprints”, in a matter of speaking. “Footprints of the past” are just strangely-shaped information-containing regions of the present, including your memories. Likewise, the “future” is unrealized: a helpful abstraction which evolution gave us to survive in this world.
On the other hand, eternalism treats the future and the past as always-actualized always-real landscapes of reality. Every point in space-time is equally real. Physically, this view tends to be brought up in connection with the theory of relativity, where frame-invariant descriptions of the space-time continuum have no absolute present line. For a compelling physical case, see the Rietdijk-Putnam argument.
Let me know in the comments if you know of any other work of fiction that explores this theme. In particular, I would love to assemble a comprehensive list of literature that explores Open Individualism and Eternalism.
Personal Identity and Eternalism
For the time being (no pun intended), let us assume that Eternalism is correct. How do Eternalism and personal identity interact? Doctor Manhattan in the above images (taken from Watchmen) exemplifies what it would be like to be a Closed Individualist Eternalist. He seems to be aware of his entire timeline at once, yet recognizes his unique identity apart from others. That said, as explained above, Closed Individualism is a distinctly unphysical theory of identity. One would thus expect of Doctor Manhattan, given his physically-grounded understanding of reality, to espouse a different theory of identity.
A philosophy that pairs Empty Individualism with Eternalism is the stuff of nightmares. Not only would we have, as with Empty Individualism alone, that some beings happen to exist entirely as beings of pain. We would also have that such unfortunate moments of experience are stuck in time. Like insects in amber, their expressions of horror and their urgency to run away from pain and suffering are forever crystallized in their corresponding spatiotemporal coordinates. I personally find this view paralyzing and sickening, though I am aware that such a reaction is not adaptive for the abolitionist project. Namely, even if “Eternalism + Empty Individualism” is a true account of reality, one ought not to be so frightened by it that one becomes incapable of working towards preventing future suffering. In this light, I adopt the attitude of “hope for the best, plan for the worst”.
Lastly, if Open Individualism and Eternalism are both true (as I suspect is the case), we would be in for what amounts to an incredibly trippy picture of reality. We are all one timeless spatiotemporal crystal. But why does this eternal crystal -who is everyone- exist? Here the one-electron view and the question “why does anything exist?” could both be simultaneously addressed with a single logico-physical principle. Namely, that the sum-total of existence contains no information to speak of. This is what David Pearce calls “Zero Ontology” (see: 1, 2, 3, 4). What you and I are, in the final analysis, is the necessary implication of there being no information; we are all a singular pattern of self-interference whose ultimate nature amounts to a dimensionless unit-sphere in Hilbert space. But this is a story for another post.
On a more grounded note, Scientific American recently ran an article that could be placed in this category of Open Individualism and Eternalism. In it the authors argue that the physical signatures of multiple-personality disorder, which explain the absence of phenomenal binding between alters that share the same brain, could be extended to explain why reality is both one and yet appears as the many. We are, in this view, all alters of the universe.
Personal Identity X Philosophy of Time X Antinatalism
Sober, scientifically grounded, and philosophically rigorous accounts of the awfulness of reality are rare. On the one hand, temperamentally happy individuals are more likely to think about the possibilities of heaven that lie ahead of us, and their heightened positive mood will likewise make them more likely to report on their findings. Temperamental depressives, on the other hand, may both investigate reality with less motivated reasoning than the euthymic and also be less likely to report on the results due to their subdued mood (“why even try? why even bother to write about it?”). Suffering in the Multiverse by David Pearce is a notable exception to this pattern. David’s essay highlights that if Eternalism is true together with Empty Individualism, there are vast regions of the multiverse filled with suffering that we can simply do nothing about (“Everett Hell Branches”). Taken together with a negative utilitarian ethic, this represents a calamity of (quite literally) astronomical proportions. And, sadly, there simply is no off-button to the multiverse as a whole. The suffering is/has/will always be there. And this means that the best we can do is to avoid the suffering of those beings in our forward-light cone (a drop relative to the size of the ocean of existence). The only hope left is to find a loop-hole in quantum mechanics that allows us to cross into other Everett branches of the multiverse and launch cosmic rescue missions. A counsel of despair or a rational prospect? Only time will tell.
A key point that both of these authors make is that however nasty reality might be, ethical antinatalists and negative utilitarians shouldn’t hold their breath about the possibility that reality can be destroyed. In Open Individualism plus Eternalism, the light of consciousness (perhaps what some might call the secular version of God) simply is, everywhere and eternally. If reality could be destroyed, such destruction is certainly limited to our forward light-cone. And unlike Closed Individualist accounts, it is not possible to help anyone by preventing their birth; the one subject of existence has already been born, and will never be unborn, so to speak.
Nor should ethical antinatalists and negative utilitarians think that avoiding having kids is in any way contributing to the cause of reducing suffering. It is reasonable to assume that the personality traits of agreeableness (specifically care and compassion), openness to experience, and high levels of systematizing intelligence are all over-represented among antinatalists. Insofar as these traits are needed to build a good future, antinatalists should in fact be some of the people who reproduce the most. Mario Montano says:
Hanson calls the era we live in the “dream time” since it’s evolutionarily unusual for any species to be wealthy enough to have any values beyond “survive and reproduce.” However, from an anthropic perspective in infinite dimensional Hilbert space, you won’t have any values beyond “survive and reproduce.” The you which survives will not be the one with exotic values of radical compassion for all existence that caused you to commit peaceful suicide. That memetic stream weeded himself out and your consciousness is cast to a different narrative orbit which wants to survive and reproduce his mind. Eventually. Wanting is, more often than not, a precondition for successfully attaining the object of want.
Anti-natalists full of weeping benignity are literally not successful replicators. The Will to Power is life itself. It is consciousness itself. And it will be, when a superintelligent coercive singleton swallows superclusters of baryonic matter and then spreads them as the flaming word into the unconverted future light cone.
You eventually love existence. Because if you don’t, something which does swallows you, and it is that which survives.
I would argue that the above reasoning is not entirely correct in the large scheme of things*, but it is certainly applicable in the context of human-like minds and agents. See also: David Pearce’s similar criticisms to antinatalism as a policy.
This should underscore the fact that in its current guise, antinatalism is completely self-limiting. Worryingly, one could imagine an organized contingent of antinatalists conducting research on how to destroy life as efficiently as possible. Antinatalists are generally very smart, and if Eliezer Yudkowsky‘s claim that “every 18 months the minimum IQ necessary to destroy the world drops by one point” is true, we may be in for some trouble. Both Pearce’s, Montano’s, and my take is that even if something akin to negative utilitarianism is the case, we should still pursue the goal of diminishing suffering in as peaceful of a way as it is possible. The risk of trying to painlessly destroy the world and failing to do so might turn out to be ethically catastrophic. A much better bet would be, we claim, to work towards the elimination of suffering by developing commercially successful hedonic recalibration technology. This also has the benefit that both depressives and life-lovers will want to team up with you; indeed, the promise of super-human bliss can be extraordinarily motivating to people who already lead happy lives, whereas the prospect of achieving “at best nothing” sounds stale and uninviting (if not outright antagonistic) to them.
An Evolutionary Environment Set Up For Success
If we want to create a world free from suffering, we will have to contend with the fact that suffering is adaptive in certain environments. The solution here is to avoid such environments, and foster ecosystems of mind that give an evolutionary advantage to the super-happy. More so, we already have the basic ingredients to do so. In Wireheading Done Right I discussed how, right now, the economy is based on trading three core goods: (1) survival tools, (2) power, and (3) information about the state-space of consciousness. Thankfully, the world right now is populated by humans who largely choose to spend their extra income on fun rather than on trips to the sperm bank. In other words, people are willing to trade some of their expected reproductive success for good experiences. This is good because it allows the existence of an economy of information about the state-space of consciousness, and thus creates an evolutionary advantage for caring about consciousness and being good at navigating its state-space. But for this to be sustainable, we will need to find the way to make positive valence gradients (i.e. gradients of bliss) both economically useful and power-granting. Otherwise, I would argue, the part of the economy that is dedicated to trading information about the state-space of consciousness is bound to be displaced by the other two (i.e. survival and power). For a more detailed discussion on these questions see: Consciousness vs. Pure Replicators.
Can we make the benevolent exploration of the state-space of consciousness evolutionarily advantageous?
In conclusion, to close downhell (to the extent that is physically possible), we need to take advantage of the resources and opportunities granted to us by merely living in Hanson’s “dream time” (cf. Age of Spandrels). This includes the fact that right now people are willing to spend money on new experiences (especially if novel and containing positive valence), and the fact that philosophy of personal identity can still persuade people to work towards the wellbeing of all sentient beings. In particular, scientifically-grounded arguments in favor of both Open and Empty Individualism weaken people’s sense of self and make them more receptive to care about others, regardless of their genetic relatedness. On its natural course, however, this tendency may ultimately be removed by natural selection: if those who are immune to philosophy are more likely to maximize their inclusive fitness, humanity may devolve into philosophical deafness. The solution here is to identify the ways in which philosophical clarity can help us overcome coordination problems, highlight natural ethical Schelling points, and ultimately allow us to summon a benevolent super-organism to carry forward the abolition of as much suffering as is physically possible.
And only once we have done everything in our power to close down hell in all of its guises, will we be able to enjoy the rest of our forward light-cone in good conscience. Till then, us ethically-minded folks shall relentlessly work on building universe-sized fire-extinguishers to put out the fire of Hell.
John von Neumann, a Brilliant, Jovial Mathematician, was a Prodigious Servant of Science and his Country
by Clary Blair Jr. – Life Magazine (February 25th, 1957)
The world lost one of its greatest scientists when Professor John von Neumann, 54, died this month of cancer in Washington, D.C. His death, like his life’s work, passed almost unnoticed by the public. But scientists throughout the free world regarded it as a tragic loss. They knew that Von Neumann’s brilliant mind had not only advanced his own special field, pure mathematics, but had also helped put the West in an immeasurably stronger position in the nuclear arms race. Before he was 30 he had established himself as one of the world’s foremost mathematicians. In World War II he was the principal discoverer of the implosion method, the secret of the atomic bomb.
The government officials and scientists who attended the requiem mass at the Walter Reed Hospital chapel last week were there not merely in recognition of his vast contributions to science, but also to pay personal tribute to a warm and delightful personality and a selfless servant of his country.
For more than a year Von Neumann had known he was going to die. But until the illness was far advanced he continued to devote himself to serving the government as a member of the Atomic Energy Commission, to which he was appointed in 1954. A telephone by his bed connected directly with his EAC office. On several occasions he was taken downtown in a limousine to attend commission meetings in a wheelchair. At Walter Reed, where he was moved early last spring, an Air Force officer, Lieut. Colonel Vincent Ford, worked full time assisting him. Eight airmen, all cleared for top secret material, were assigned to help on a 24-hour basis. His work for the Air Force and other government departments continued. Cabinet members and military officials continually came for his advice, and on one occasion Secretary of Defence Charles Wilson, Air Force Secretary Donald Quarles and most of the top Air Force brass gathered in Von Neumann’s suite to consult his judgement while there was still time. So relentlessly did Von Neumann pursue his official duties that he risked neglecting the treatise which was to form the capstone of his work on the scientific specialty, computing machines, to which he had devoted many recent years.
His fellow scientists, however, did not need any further evidence of Von Neumann’s rank as a scientist – or his assured place in history. They knew that during World War II at Los Alamos Von Neumann’s development of the idea of implosion speeded up the making of the atomic bomb by at least a full year. His later work with electronic computers quickened U.S. development of the H-bomb by months. The chief designer of the H-bomb, Edward Teller, once said with wry humor that Von Neumann was “one of those rare mathematicians who could descend to the level of the physicist.” Many theoretical physicists admit that they learned more from Von Neumann in methods of scientific thinking than from any of their colleagues. Hans Bethe, who was director of the theoretical physics division at Los Alamos, says, “I have sometimes wondered whether a brain like Von Neumann’s does not indicate a species superior to that of man.”
The foremost authority on computing machines in the U.S., Von Neumann was more than anyone else responsible for the increased use of the electronic “brains” in government and industry. The machine he called MANIAC (mathematical analyzer, numerical integrator and computer), which he built at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, N.J., was the prototype for most of the advanced calculating machines now in use. Another machine, NORC, which he built for the Navy, can deliver a full day’s weather prediction in a few minutes. The principal adviser to the U.S. Air Force on nuclear weapons, Von Neumann was the most influential scientific force behind the U.S. decision to embark on accelerated production of intercontinental ballistic missiles. His “theory of games,” outlined in a book which he published in 1944 in collaboration with Economist Oskar Morgenstern, opened up an entirely new branch of mathematics. Analyzing the mathematical probabilities behind games of chance, Von Neumann went on to formulate a mathematical approach to such widespread fields as economics, sociology and even military strategy. His contributions to the quantum theory, the theory which explains the emission and absorption of energy in atoms and the one on which all atomic and nuclear physics are based, were set forth in a work entitled Mathematical Foundations of Quantum Mechanics which he wrote at the age of 23. It is today one of the cornerstones of this highly specialized branch of mathematical thought.
For Von Neumann the road to success was a many-laned highway with little traffic and no speed limit. He was born in 1903 in Budapest and was of the same generation of Hungarian physicists as Edward Teller, Leo Szilard and Eugene Wigner, all of whom later worked on atomic energy development for the U.S.
The eldest of three sons of a well-to-do Jewish financier who had been decorated by the Emperor Franz Josef, John von Neumann grew up in a society which placed a premium on intellectual achievement. At the age of 6 he was able to divide two eight-digit numbers in his head. By the age of 8 he had mastered college calculus and as a trick could memorize on sight a column in a telephone book and repeat back the names, addresses and numbers. History was only a “hobby,” but by the outbreak of World War I, when he was 10, his photographic mind had absorbed most of the contents of the 46-volume works edited by the German historian Oncken with a sophistication that startled his elders.
Despite his obvious technical ability, as a young man Von Neumann wanted to follow his father’s financial career, but he was soon dissuaded. Under a kind of supertutor, a first-rank mathematician at the University of Budapest named Leopold Fejer, Von Neumann was steered into the academic world. At 21 he received two degrees – one in chemical engineering at Zurich and a PhD in mathematics from the University of Budapest. The following year, 1926, as Admiral Horthy’s rightist regime had been repressing Hungarian Jews, he moved to Göttingen, Germany, then the mathematical center of the world. It was there that he published his major work on quantum mechanics.
The young professor
His fame now spreading, Von Neumann at 23 qualified as a Privatdozent (lecturer) at the University of Berlin, one of the youngest in the school’s history. But the Nazis had already begun their march to power. In 1929 Von Neumann accepted a visiting lectureship at Princeton University and in 1930, at the age of 26, he took a job there as professor of mathematical physics – after a quick trip to Budapest to marry a vivacious 18-year-old named Mariette Kovesi. Three years later, when the Institute for Advanced Study was founded at Princeton, Von Neumann was appointed – as was Albert Einstein – to be one of its first full professors. “He was so young,” a member of the institute recalls, “that most people who saw him in the halls mistook him for a graduate student.”
Although they worked near each other in the same building, Einstein and Von Neumann were not intimate, and because their approach to scientific matters was different they never formally collaborated. A member of the institute who worked side by side with both men in the early days recalls, “Einstein’s mind was slow and contemplative. He would think about something for years. Johnny’s mind was just the opposite. It was lightning quick – stunningly fast. If you gave him a problem he either solved it right away or not at all. If he had to think about it a long time and it bored him, hist interest would begin to wander. And Johnny’s mind would not shine unless whatever he was working on had his undivided attention.” But the problems he did care about, such as his “theory of games,” absorbed him for much longer periods.
‘Proof by erasure’
Partly because of this quicksilver quality Von Neumann was not an outstanding teacher to many of his students. But for the advanced students who could ascend to his level he was inspirational. His lectures were brilliant, although at times difficult to follow because of his way of erasing and rewriting dozens of formulae on the blackboard. In explaining mathematical problems Von Neumann would write his equations hurriedly, starting at the top of the blackboard and working down. When he reached the bottom, if the problem was unfinished, he would erase the top equations and start down again. By the time he had done this two or three times most other mathematicians would find themselves unable to keep track. On one such occasion a colleague at Princeton waited until Von Neumann had finished and said, “I see. Proof by erasure.”
Von Neumann himself was perpetually interested in many fields unrelated to science. Several years ago his wife gave him a 21-volume Cambridge History set, and she is sure he memorized every name and fact in the books. “He is a major expert on all the royal family trees in Europe,” a friend said once. “He can tell you who fell in love with whom, and why, what obscure cousin this or that czar married, how many illegitimate children he had and so on.” One night during the Princeton days a world-famous expert on Byzantine history came to the Von Neumann house for a party. “Johnny and the professor got into a corner and began discussing some obscure facet,” recalls a friend who was there. “Then an argument arose over a date. Johnny insisted it was this, the professor that. So Johnny said, ‘Let’s get the book.’ They looked it up and Johnny was right. A few weeks later the professor was invited to the Von Neumann house again. He called Mrs. von Neumann and said jokingly, ‘I’ll come if Johnny promises not to discuss Byzantine history. Everybody thinks I am the world’s greatest expert in it and I want them to keep on thinking that.'”
Once a friend showed him an extremely complex problem and remarked that a certain famous mathematician had taken a whole week’s journey across Russia on the Trans-Siberian Railroad to complete it. Rushing for a train, Von Neumann took the problem along. Two days later the friend received an air-mail packet from Chicago. In it was a 50-page handwritten solution to the problem. Von Neumann had added a postscript: “Running time to Chicago: 15 hours, 26 minutes.” To Von Neumann this was not an expression of vanity but of sheer delight – a hole in one.
During periods of intense intellectual concentration Von Neumann, like most of his professional colleagues, was lost in preoccupation, and the real world spun past him. He would sometimes interrupt a trip to put through a telephone call to find out why he had taken the trip in the first place.
Von Neumann believed that concentration alone was insufficient for solving some of the most difficult mathematical problems and that these are solved in the subconscious. He would often go to sleep with a problem unsolved, wake up in the morning and scribble the answer on a pad he kept on the bedside table. It was a common occurrence for him to begin scribbling with pencil and paper in the midst of a nightclub floor show or a lively party, “the noisier,” his wife says, “the better.” When his wife arranged a secluded study for Von Neumann on the third floor of the Princeton home, Von Neumann was furious. “He stormed downstairs,” says Mrs. von Neumann, “and demanded, ‘What are you trying to do, keep me away from what’s going on?’; After that he did most of his work in the living room with my phonograph blaring.”
His pride in his brain power made him easy prey to scientific jokesters. A friend once spent a week working out various steps in an obscure mathematical process. Accosting Von Neumann at a party he asked for help in solving the problem. After listening to it, Von Neumann leaned his plump frame against a door and stared blankly, his mind going through the necessary calculations. At each step in the process the friend would quickly put in, “Well, it comes out to this, doesn’t it?” After several such interruptions Von Neumann became perturbed and when his friend “beat” him to the final answer he exploded in fury. “Johnny sulked for weeks,” recalls the friend, “before he found out it was all a joke.”
He did not look like a professor. He dressed so much like a Wall Street banker that a fellow scientist once said, “Johnny, why don’t you smear some chalk dust on your coat so you look like the rest of us?” He loved to eat, especially rich sauces and desserts, and in later years was forced to diet rigidly. To him exercise was “nonsense.”
Those lively Von Neumann parties
Most card-playing bored him, although he was fascinated by the mathematical probabilities involved in poker and baccarat. He never cared for movies. “Every time we went,” his wife recalls, “he would either go to sleep or do math problems in his head.” When he could do neither he would break into violent coughing spells. What he truly loved, aside from work, was a good party. Residents of Princeton’s quiet academic community can still recall the lively goings-on at the Von Neumann’s big, rambling house on Westcott Road. “Those old geniuses got downright approachable at the Von Neumanns’,” a friend recalls. Von Neumann’s talents as a host were based on his drinks, which were strong, his repertoire of off-color limericks, which was massive, and his social ease, which was consummate. Although he could rarely remember a name, Von Neumann would escort each new guest around the room, bowing punctiliously to cover up the fact that he was not using names in introducing people.
Von Neumann also had a passion for automobiles, not for tinkering with them but for driving them as if they were heavy tanks. He turned up with a new one every year at Princeton. “The way he drove, a car couldn’t possibly last more than a year,” a friend says. Von Neumann was regularly arrested for speeding and some of his wrecks became legendary. A Princeton crossroads was for a while known as “Von Neumann corner” because of the number of times the mathematician had cracked up there. He once emerged from a totally demolished car with this explanation: “I was proceeding down the road. The threes on the right were passing me in orderly fashion at 60 miles an hour. Suddenly one of them stepped out in my path. Boom!”
Mariette and John von Neumann had one child, Marina, born in 1935, who graduated from Radcliffe last June, summa cum laude, with the highest scholastic record in her class. In 1937, the year Von Neumann was elected to the National Academy of Sciences and became a naturalized citizen of the U.S., the marriage ended in divorce. The following year on a trip to Budapest he met and married Klara Dan, whom he subsequently trained to be an expert on electronic computing machines. The Von Neumann home in Princeton continued to be a center of gaiety as well as a hotel for prominent intellectual transients.
In the late 1930s Von Neumann began to receive a new type of visitor at Princeton: the military scientist and engineer. After he had handled a number of jobs for the Navy in ballistics and anti-submarine warfare, word of his talents spread, and Army Ordnance began using him more and more as a consultant at its Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland. As war drew nearer this kind of work took up more and more of his time.
During World War II he roved between Washington, where he had established a temporary residence, England, Los Alamos and other defense installations. When scientific groups heard Von Neumann was coming, they would set up all of their advanced mathematical problems like ducks in a shooting gallery. Then he would arrive and systematically topple them over.
After the Axis had been destroyed, Von Neumann urged that the U.S. immediately build even more powerful atomic weapons and use them before the Soviets could develop nuclear weapons of their own. It was not an emotional crusade, Von Neumann, like others, had coldly reasoned that the world had grown too small to permit nations to conduct their affairs independently of one another. He held that world government was inevitable – and the sooner the better. But he also believed it could never be established while Soviet Communism dominated half of the globe. A famous Von Neumann observation at the time: “With the Russians it is not a question of whether but when.” A hard-boiled strategist, he was one of the few scientists to advocate preventive war, and in 1950 he was remarking, “If you say why not bomb them tomorrow, I say why not today? If you say today at 5 o’clock, I say why not 1 o’clock?”
In late 1949, after the Russians had exploded their first atomic bomb and the U.S. scientific community was split over whether or not the U.S. should build a hydrogen bomb, Von Neumann reduced the argument to: “It is not a question of whether we build it or not, but when do we start calculating?” When the H-bomb controversy raged, Von Neumann slipped quietly out to Los Alamos, took a desk and began work on the first mathematical steps toward building the weapon, specifically deciding which computations would be fed to which electronic computers.
Von Neumann’s principal interest in the postwar years was electronic computing machines, and his advice on computers was in demand almost everywhere. One day he was urgently summoned to the offices of the Rand Corporation, a government-sponsored scientific research organization in Santa Monica, Calif. Rand scientists had come up with a problem so complex that the electronic computers then in existence seemingly could not handle it. The scientists wanted Von Neumann to invent a new kind of computer. After listening to the scientists expound, Von Neumann broke in: “Well, gentlemen, suppose you tell me exactly what the problem is?”
For the next two hours the men at Rand lectured, scribbled on blackboards, and brought charts and tables back and forth. Von Neumann sat with his head buried in his hands. When the presentation was completed, he scribbled on a pad, stared so blankly that a Rand scientist later said he looked as if “his mind had slipped his face out of gear,” then said, “Gentlemen, you do not need the computer. I have the answer.”
While the scientists sat in stunned silence, Von Neumann reeled off the various steps which would provide the solution to the problem. Having risen to this routine challenge, Von Neumann followed up with a routine suggestion: “Let’s go to lunch.”
In 1954, when the U.S. development of the intercontinental ballistic missile was dangerously bogged down, study groups under Von Neumann’s direction began paving the way for solution of the most baffling problems: guidance, miniaturization of components, heat resistance. In less than a year Von Neumann put his O.K. on the project – but not until he had completed a relentless investigation in his own dazzlingly fast style. One day, during an ICBM meeting on the West Coast, a physicist employed by an aircraft company approached Von Neumann with a detailed plan for one phase of the project. It consisted of a tome several hundred pages long on which the physicist had worked for eight months. Von Neumann took the book and flipped through the first several pages. Then he turned it over and began reading from back to front. He jotted down a figure on a pad, then a second and a third. He looked out the window for several seconds, returned the book to the physicist and said, “It won’t work.” The physicist returned to his company. After two months of re-evaluation, he came to the same conclusion.
In October 1954 Eisenhower appointed Von Neumann to the Atomic Energy Commission. Von Neumann accepted, although the Air Force and the senators who confirmed him insisted that he retain his chairmanship of the Air Force ballistic missile panel.
Von Neumann had been on the new job only six months when the pain first stuck in the left shoulder. After two examinations, the physicians at Bethesda Naval Hospital suspected cancer. Within a month Von Neumann was wheeled into surgery at the New England Deaconess Hospital in Boston. A leading pathologist, Dr. Shields Warren, examined the biopsy tissue and confirmed that the pain was a secondary cancer. Doctors began to race to discover the primary location. Several weeks later they found it in the prostate. Von Neumann, they agreed, did not have long to live.
When he heard the news Von Neumann called for Dr. Warren. He asked, “Now that this thing has come, how shall I spend the remainder of my life?”
“Well, Johnny,” Warren said, “I would stay with the commission as long as you feel up to it. But at the same time I would say that if you have any important scientific papers – anything further scientifically to say – I would get started on it right away.”
Von Neumann returned to Washington and resumed his busy schedule at the Atomic Energy Commission. To those who asked about his arm, which was in a sling, he muttered something about a broken collarbone. He continued to preside over the ballistic missile committee, and to receive an unending stream of visitors from Los Alamos, Livermore, the Rand Corporation, Princeton. Most of these men knew that Von Neumann was dying of cancer, but the subject was never mentioned.
Machines creating new machines
After the last visitor had departed Von Neumann would retire to his second-floor study to work on the paper which he knew would be his last contribution to science. It was an attempt to formulate a concept shedding new light on the workings of the human brain. He believed that if such a concept could be stated with certainty, it would also be applicable to electronic computers and would permit man to make a major step forward in using these “automata.” In principle, he reasoned, there was no reason why some day a machine might not be built which not only could perform most of the functions of the human brain but could actually reproduce itself, i.e., create more supermachines like it. He proposed to present this paper at Yale, where he had been invited to give the 1956 Silliman Lectures.
As the weeks passed, work on the paper slowed. One evening, as Von Neumann and his wife were leaving a dinner party, he complained that he was “uncertain” about walking. Doctors furnished him with a wheelchair. But Von Neumann’s world had begun to close in tight around him. He was seized by periods of overwhelming melancholy.
In April 1956 Von Neumann moved into Walter Reed Hospital for good. Honors were now coming from all directions. He was awarded Yeshiva University’s first Einstein prize. In a special White House ceremony President Eisenhower presented him with the Medal of Freedom. In April the AEC gave him the Enrico Fermi award for his contributions to the theory and design of computing machines, accompanied by a $50,000 tax-free grant.
Although born of Jewish parents, Von Neumann had never practiced Judaism. After his arrival in the U.S. he had been baptized a Roman Catholic. But his divorce from Mariette had put him beyond the sacraments of the Catholic Church for almost 19 years. Now he felt an urge to return. One morning he said to Klara, “I want to see a priest.” He added, “But he will have to be a special kind of priest, one that will be intellectually compatible.” Arrangements were made for special instructions to be given by a Catholic scholar from Washington. After a few weeks Von Neumann began once again to receive the sacraments.
The great mind falters
Toward the end of May the seizures of melancholy began to occur more frequently. In June the doctors finally announced – though not to Von Neumann himself – that the cancer had begun to spread. The great mind began to falter. “At times he would discuss history, mathematics, or automata, and he could recall word for word conversations we had had 20 years ago,” a friend says. “At other times he would scarcely recognize me.” His family – Klara, two brothers, his mother and daughter Marina – drew close around him and arranged a schedule so that one of them would always be on hand. Visitors were more carefully screened. Drugs fortunately prevented Von Neumann from experiencing pain. Now and then his old gifts of memory were again revealed. One day in the fall his brother Mike read Goethe’s Faust to him in German. Each time Mike paused to turn the page, Von Neumann recited from memory the first few lines of the following page.
One of his favorite companions was his mother Margaret von Neumann, 76 years old. In July the family in turn became concerned about her health, and it was suggested that she go to a hospital for a checkup. Two weeks later she died of cancer. “It was unbelievable,” a friend says. “She kept on going right up to the very end and never let anyone know a thing. How she must have suffered to make her son’s last days less worrisome.” Lest the news shock Von Neumann fatally, elaborate precautions were taken to keep it from him. When he guessed the truth, he suffered a severe setback.
Von Neumann’s body, which he had never given much thought to, went on serving him much longer than did his mind. Last summer the doctors had given him only three or four weeks to live. Months later, in October, his passing was again expected momentarily. But not until this month did his body give up. It was characteristic of the impatient, witty and incalculably brilliant John von Neumann that although he went on working for others until he could do not more, his own treatise on the workings of the brain – the work he thought would be his crowning achievement in his own name – was left unfinished.
This time David Chalmers brought the Meta-problem of Consciousness into the overall conversation by making a presentation about his paper on the topic. I think that this was a great addition to the conference, and it played beautifully as a tone-setter.
“The meta-problem of consciousness is (to a first approximation) the problem of explaining why we think that there is a problem of consciousness.”
And of all of his works, I would argue, discussing the meta-problem of consciousness is perhaps one of the things that will help advance the field of consciousness research the most. In brief, we are in sore need of an agreed-upon explanation for the reasons why consciousness poses a problem at all. Rather than getting caught up in unfruitful arguments at the top of the argumentative tree, it is helpful to sometimes be directed to look at the roots of people’s divergent intuitions. This tends to highlight unexpected differences in people’s philosophical background assumptions.
And the fact that these background assumptions are often not specified leads to problems. For example: talking past each other due to differences in terminology, people attacking a chain of reasoning when in fact their disagreement starts at the level of ontology, and failure to recognize and map useful argumentative isomorphisms from one ontology onto another.
Having the Meta-Problem of Consciousness at the forefront of the discussions, in my appraisal of the event, turned out to be very generative. Asking an epiphenomenalist, an eliminativist, a panprotopsychist, etc. to explain why they think their view is true seemed less helpful in advancing the state of our collective knowledge than asking them about their thoughts on the Meta-Problem of Consciousness.
(2) Qualia Formalism in the Water Supply
At the Qualia Research Institute we explicitly assume that consciousness is not only real, but that it is formalizable. This is not a high-level claim about the fact that we can come up with a precise vocabulary to talk about consciousness. It is a radical take on the degree to which formal mathematical models of experience can be discovered. Qualia Formalism, as we define it, is the claim that for any conscious experience, there exists a mathematical object whose properties are isomorphic to the phenomenology of that experience. Anti-formalists, on the other hand, might say that consciousness is an improper reification.
For formalists, consciousness is akin to electromagnetism: we started out with a series of peculiar disparate phenomena such as lightning, electricity, magnets, static-electricity, etc. After a lot of work, it turned out that all of these diverse phenomena had a crisp unifying mathematical underpinning. More so, this formalism was not merely descriptive. Light, among other phenomena, were hidden in it. That is, finding a mathematical formalism for real phenomena can be generalizable to even more domains, be strongly informative for ontology, and ultimately, also technologically generative (the computer you are using to read this article wouldn’t- and in fact couldn’t -exist if electromagnetism wasn’t formalizable).
For anti-formalists, consciousness is akin to Élan vital. People had formed the incorrect impression that explaining life necessitated a new ontology. That life was, in some sense, (much) more than just the sum of life-less forces in complex arrangements. And in order to account for the diverse (apparently unphysical) behaviors of life, we needed a life force. Yet no matter how hard biologists, chemists, and physicists have tried to look for it, no life force has been found. As of 2018 it is widely agreed by scientists that life can be reduced to complex biochemical interactions. In the same vein, anti-formalists about consciousness would argue that people are making a category error when they try to explain consciousness itself. Consciousness will go the same way as Élan vital: it will turn out to be an improper reification.
In particular, the new concept-handle on the block to refer to anti-formalist views of consciousness is “illusionism”. Chalmers writes on The Meta-Problem of Consciousness:
This strategy [of talking about the meta-problem] typically involves what Keith Frankish has called illusionism about consciousness: the view that consciousness is or involves a sort of introspective illusion. Frankish calls the problem of explaining the illusion of consciousness the illusion problem. The illusion problem is a close relative of the meta-problem: it is the version of the meta-problem that arises if one adds the thesis that consciousness is an illusion. Illusionists (who include philosophers such as Daniel Dennett, Frankish, and Derk Pereboom, and scientists such as Michael Graziano and Nicholas Humphrey) typically hold that a solution to the meta-problem will itself solve or dissolve the hard problem.
In the broader academic domain, it seems that most scientists and philosophers are neither explicitly formalists nor anti-formalists. The problem is, this question has not been widely discussed. We at QRI believe that there is a fork in the road ahead of us. That while both formalist and anti-formalist views are defensible, there is very little room in-between for coherent theories of consciousness. The problem of whether qualia formalism is correct or not is what Michael Johnson has coined as TheReal Problem of Consciousness. Solving it would lead to radical improvements in our understanding of consciousness.
What a hypothetical eliminativist about consciousness would say to my colleague Michael Johnson in response to the question – “so you think consciousness is just a bag of tricks?”: No, consciousness is not a bag of tricks. It’s an illusion, Michael. A trick is what a Convolutional Neural Network needs to do to perform well on a text classification task. The illusion of consciousness is the radical ontological obfuscation that your brain performs in order to render its internal attentional dynamics as a helpful user-interface that even a kid can utilize for thinking.
Now, largely thanks to the fact that Integrated Information Theory (IIT) is being discussed openly, qualia formalism is (implicitly) starting to have its turn on the table. While we believe that IIT does not work out as a complete account of consciousness for a variety of reasons (our full critique of it is certainly over-due), we do strongly agree with its formalist take on consciousness. In fact, IIT might be the only mainstream theory of consciousness that assumes anything resembling qualia formalism. So its introduction into the water supply (so to speak) has given a lot of people the chance to ponder whether consciousness has a formal structure.
(3) Great New Psychedelic Research
The conference featured the amazing research of Robin Carhart-Harris, Anil K. Seth, and Selen Atasoy, all of whom are advancing the frontier of consciousness research by virtue of collecting new data, generating computational models to explain it, and developing big-picture accounts of psychedelic action. We’ve already featured Atasoy’s work in here. Her method of decomposing brain activity into harmonics is perhaps one of the most promising avenues for advancing qualia formalist accounts of consciousness (i.e. tentative data-structures in which the information about a given conscious state is encoded). Robin’s entropic brain theory is, we believe, a really good step in the right direction, and we hope to formalize how valence enters the picture in the future (especially as it pertains to being able to explain qualia annealingon psychedelic states). Finally, Anil is steel-manning the case for predictive coding’s role in psychedelic action, and, intriguingly, also advancing the field by trying to find out in exactly what ways the effects of psychedelics can be simulated with VR and strobe lights (cf. Algorithmic Reduction of Psychedelic States, and Getting Closer to Digital LSD).
(4) Superb Aesthetic
The Science of Consciousness brings together a group of people with eclectic takes on reality, extremely high Openness to Experience, uncompromising curiosity about consciousness, and wide-ranging academic backgrounds, and this results in an amazing aesthetic. In 2016 the underlying tone was set by Dorian Electra and Baba Brinkman, who contributed with consciousness-focused music and witty comedy (we need more of that kind of thing in the world). Dorian Electra even released an album titled “Magical Consciousness Conference” which discusses in a musical format classical topics of philosophy of mind such as: the mind-body problem, brains in vats, and the Chinese Room.
The Science of Consciousness conference carries a timeless aesthetic that is hard to describe. If I were forced to put a label on it, I would say it is qualia-aware paranormal-adjacentpsychedelicmeta-cognitivefuturism, or something along those lines. For instance, see how you can spot philosophers of all ages vigorously dancing to the empiricists vs. rationalists song by Dorian Electra (featuring David Chalmers) at The End of Consciousness Party in this video. Yes, that’s the vibe of this conference. The conference also has a Poetry Slam on Friday in which people read poems about qualia, the binding problem, and psychedelics (this year I performed a philosophy of mind stand-up comedy sketch there). They also play the Zombie Blues that night, in which people take turns to sing about philosophical zombies. Here are some of Chalmers’ verses:
I act like you act
I do what you do
But I don’t know
What it’s like to be you
What consciousness is!
I ain’t got a clue
I got the Zombie Blues!!!
I asked Tononi:
“How conscious am I?”
He said “Let’s see…”
“I’ll measure your Phi”
He said “Oh Dear!”
“It’s zero for you!”
And that’s why you’ve got the Zombie Blues!!!
Noteworthy too is the presence of after-parties that end at 3AM, the liberal attitude on cannabis, and the crazy DMT art featured in the lobby. Here are some pictures we took late at night borrowing some awesome signs we found at a Quantum Healing stand.
Panpsychism Made Practical
No Zombies Allowed: Human or Zombie? Get Tested Here
(5) We found a number of QRI allies and supporters
Finally, we were very pleased to find that Qualia Computing readers and QRI supporters attended the conference. We also made some good new friends along the way, and on the whole we judged the conference to be very much worth our time. For example, we were happy to meet Link Swanson, who recently published his article titled Unifying Theories of Psychedelic Drug Effects. I in fact had read this article a week before the event and thought it was great. I was planning on emailing him after the conference, and I was pleasantly surprised to meet him in person there instead. If you met us at the conference, thanks for coming up and saying hi! Also, thank you to all who organized or ran the conference, and to all who attended it!
QRI members, friends, and allies
What I Would Like to See More Of
(1) Qualia Formalism
We hope and anticipate that in future years the field of consciousness research will experience an interesting process in which theory proponents will come out as either formalists or anti-formalists. In the meantime, we would love to see more people at least taking seriously the vision of qualia formalism. One of the things we asked ourselves during the conference was: “Where can we find other formalists?”. Perhaps the best heuristic we explored was the simple strategy of going to the most relevant concurrent sessions (e.g. physics and consciousness, and fundamental theories of consciousness). Interestingly, the people who had more formalist intuitions also tended to take IIT seriously.
(2) Explicit Talk About Valence (and Reducing Suffering)
To our knowledge, our talks were the only ones in the event that directly addressed valence (i.e. the pleasure-pain axis). I wish there were more, given the paramount importance of affect in the brain’s computational processing, its role in culture, and of course, its ethical relevance. What is the point of meaning and intelligence if one cannot be happy?
There was one worthy exception: at some point Stuart Hameroff briefly mentioned his theory about the origin of life. He traces the evolutionary lineage of life to molecular micro-environmental system in which “quantum events [are] shielded from random, polar interactions, enabling more intense and pleasurable [Objective Reduction] qualia. ” In his view, pleasure-potential maximization is at the core of the design of the nervous system. I am intrigued by this theory, and I am glad that valence enters the picture here. I would just want to extend this kind of work to include the role of suffering as well. It seems to me that the brain evolved an adaptive range of valence that sinks deep into the negative, and is certainly not just optimizing for pleasure. While our post-human descendants might enjoy information-sensitive gradients of bliss, us Darwinians have been “gifted” by evolution a mixture of negative and positive hedonic qualia.
Related to (2), we think that one of the most important barriers for making progress in valence research is the fact that most people (even neuroscientists and philosophers of mind) think of it as a very personal thing with no underlying reality beyond hearsay or opinion. Some people like ice-cream, some like salads. Some people like Pink Floyd, others like Katy Perry. So why should we think that there is a unifying equation for bliss? Well, in our view, nobody actually likes ice-cream or Pink Floyd. Rather, ice-cream and Pink Floyd trigger high-valence states, and it is the high valence states that are actually liked and valuable. Our minds are constructed in such a way that we project pleasure and pain out into the world and think of them as necessarily connected to the external state of affairs. But this, we argue, is indeed an illusion (unlike qualia, which is as real as it gets).
Even the people in the Artificial Intelligence and Machine Consciousness plenary panel seemed subject to the Tyranny of the Intentional Object. During the Q&A section I asked them: “if you were given a billion dollars to build a brain or machine that could experience super-happiness, how would you go about doing so?” Their response was that happiness/bliss only makes sense in relational terms (i.e. by interacting with others in the real world). Someone even said that “dopamine in the brain is just superficial happiness… authentic happiness requires you to gain meaning from what you do in the world.” This is a common view to take, but I would also point out that if it is possible to generate valence in artificial minds without human interactions, generating high valence could be done more directly. Finding methods to modulate valence would be done more efficiently by seeking out foundational qualia formalist accounts of valence.
(4) Bigger Role for the Combination Problem
The number of people who account for the binding problem (also called the combination or boundary problem) is vanishingly small. How and why consciousness appears as unitary is a deep philosophical problem that cannot be dismissed with simple appeals to illusionism or implicit information processing. In general, my sense has been that many neuroscientists, computer scientists, and philosophers of mind don’t spend much time thinking about the binding problem. I have planned an article that will go in depth about why it might be that people don’t take this problem more seriously. As David Pearce has eloquently argued, any scientific theory of consciousness has to explain the binding problem. Nowadays, almost no one addresses it (and much less compellingly provides any plausible solution to it). The conference did have one concurrent session called “Panpsychism and the Combination Problem” (which I couldn’t attend), and a few more people I interacted with seemed to care about it, but the proportion was very small.
(5) Bumping-up the Effect Size of Psi Phenomena (if they are real)
There is a significant amount of interest in Psi (parapsychology) from people attending this conference. I myself am agnostic about the matter. The Institute of Noetic Science (IONS) conducts interesting research in this area, and there are some studies that argue that publication bias cannot explain the effects observed. I am not convinced that other explanations have been ruled out, but I am sympathetic to people who try to study weird phenomena within a serious scientific framework (as you might tell from this article). What puzzles me is why there aren’t more people advocating for increasing the effect size of these effects in order to study them. Some data suggests that Psi (in the form of telepathy) is stronger with twins, meditators, people on psychedelics, and people who believe in Psi. But even then the effect sizes reported are tiny. Why not go all-in and try to max out the effect size by combining these features? I.e. why not conduct studies with twins who claim to have had psychic experiences, who meditate a lot, and who can handle high doses of LSD and ketamine in sensory deprivation tanks? If we could bump up the effect sizes far enough, maybe we could definitively settle the matter.
(6) And why not… also a lab component?
Finally, I think that trip reports by philosophically-literate cognitive scientists are much more valuable than trip reports by the average Joe. I would love to see a practical component to the conference someday. The sort of thing that would lead to publications like: “The Phenomenology of Candy-Flipping: An Empirical First-Person Investigation with Philosophers of Mind at a Consciousness Conference.”
The Cards and Deck Types of Consciousness Theories
To make the analogy between Magic decks and theories of consciousness, we need to find a suitable interpretation for a card. In this case, I would posit that cards can be interpreted as either background assumptions, required criteria, emphasized empirical findings, and interpretations of phenomena. Let’s call these, generally, components of a theory.
Like we see in Magic, we will also find that some components support each other while others interact neutrally or mutually exclude each other. For example, if one’s theory of consciousness explicitly rejects the notion that quantum mechanics influences consciousness, then it is irrelevant whether one also postulates that the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics is correct. On the other hand, if one identifies the locus of consciousness to be in the microtubules inside pyramidal cells, then the particular interpretation of quantum mechanics one has is of paramount importance.
Consciousness as the Result of Action-Oriented Cognition (not explicitly named)
Higher Order Thought Theory (HOT)
So how has the meta-game changed since then? Based on the plenary presentations, the concurrent sessions, the workshops, the posters, and my conversations with many of the participants, I’d say (without much objective proof) that the new meta-game now looks more or less like this:
Orchestrated Objective Reduction (Orch OR)
Integrated Information Theory (IIT)
Entropic Brain Theory (EBT)
Global Neuronal Workspace Theory (GNWS)
Prediction Error Minimization (PEM)
Panprotopsychist as a General Framework
Harmonic-Resonant Theories of Consciousness
It seems that Higher Order Thought (HOT) theories of consciousness have fallen out of favor. Additionally, we have a new contender on the table: Harmonic-Resonant Theories of Consciousness is now slowly climbing up the list (which, it turns out, had already been in the water supply since 2006 when Steven Lehar attended the conference, but only now is gathering popular support).
Given the general telos of the conference, it is not surprising that deflationary theories of consciousness do not seem to have a strong representation. I found a few people here and there who would identify as illusionists, but there were not enough to deserve their place in a short-list of dominant deck types. I assume it would be rather unpleasant for people with this general view about consciousness to hang out with so many consciousness realists.
A good number of people I talked to admitted that they didn’t understand IIT, but that they nonetheless felt that something along the lines of irreducible causality was probably a big part of the explanation for consciousness. In contrast, we also saw a few interesting reactions to IIT – some people said “I hate IIT” and “don’t get me started on IIT”. It is unclear what is causing such reactions, but they are worth noting. Is this an allergic reaction to qualia formalism? We don’t have enough information at the moment to know.
The spiritual side of consciousness research is liable to overfocus on ethics and mood hacks rather than on truth-seeking. The problem is that a lot of people have emotionally load-bearing beliefs and points of view connected to how they see reality’s big plot. This is a generalized phenomenon, but its highest expression is found within spiritually-focused thinkers. Many of them come across as evangelizers rather than philosophers, scientists, explorers, or educators. For example: two years ago, David Pearce and I had an uncomfortable conversation with a lady who had a very negative reaction to Pearce’s take on suffering (i.e. that we should use biotechnology to eradicate it). She insisted suffering was part of life and that bliss can’t exist without it (a common argument for sure, but the problem was the intense emotional reaction and insistence on continuing the conversation until we had changed our minds).
We learned our lesson – if you suspect that a person has emotionally load-bearing beliefs about a grand plan or big spiritual telos, don’t mention you are trying to reduce suffering with biotechnology. It’s a gamble, and the chance for a pleasant interaction and meaningful exchange of ideas is not worth the risk of interpersonal friction, time investment, and the pointlessness of a potential ensuing heated discussion.
This brings me to an important matter…
Who are the people who are providing genuinely new contributions to the conversation?
There is a lot of noise in the field of consciousness research. Understandably, a lot of people react to this state of affairs with generalized skepticism (and even cynicism). In my experience, if you approach a neuroscientist in order to discuss consciousness, she will usually choose to simply listen to her priors rather than to you (no matter how philosophically rigorous and scientifically literate you may be).
And yet, at this conference and many other places, there are indeed a lot of people who have something new and valuable to contribute to our understanding of consciousness. So who are they? What allows a person to make a novel contribution?
I would suggest that people who fall into one of the following four categories have a higher chance of this:
People who have new information
Highly creative people with broad knowledge of the field
New paradigm proposers
For (1): This can take one of three forms: (a) New information about phenomenology (i.e. rational psychonauts with strong interpretation and synthesis skills). (b) New third-person data (i.e. as provided by scientists who conduct new research on e.g. neuroimaging). And (c) new information on how to map third-person data to phenomenology, especially about rare states of consciousness (i.e. as obtained from people who have both access to third-person data sources and excellent experienced phenomenologists). (a) Is very hard to come by because most psychonauts and meditators fall for one or more traps (e.g. believing in the tyranny of the intentional object, being direct realists, being dogmatic about a given pre-scientific metaphysic, etc.). (b) Is constrained by the number of labs and the current Kuhnian paradigms within which they work. And (c) is not only rare, but currently nonexistent. Hence, there are necessarily few people who can contribute to the broader conversation about consciousness by bringing new information to the table.
For (2): Great synthesizers are hard to come by. They do not need to generate new paradigms or have new information. What they have is the key ability to find what the novel contribution in a given proposal is. They gather what is similar and different across paradigms, and make effective lossless compressions – saving us all valuable time, reducing confusion, and facilitating the cross-pollination between various disciplines and paradigms. This requires the ability to extract what matters from large volumes of extremely detailed and paradigm-specific literature. Hence, it is also rare to find great synthesizers.
For (3): Being able to pose new questions, and generate weird but not random hypotheses can often be very useful. Likewise, being able to think of completely outrageous outside-the-box views might be key for advancing our understanding of consciousness. That said, non-philosophers tend to underestimate just how weird an observation about consciousness needs to be for it to be new. This in practice constrains the range of people able to contribute in this way to people who are themselves fairly well acquainted with a broad range of theories of consciousness. That said, I suspect that this could be remedied by forming groups of people who bring different talents to the table. In Peaceful Qualia I discussed a potential empirical approach for investigating consciousness which involves having people who specialize in various aspects of the problem (e.g. being great psychonauts, excellent third-person experimentalists, high-quality synthesizers, solid computational modelers, and so on). But until then, I do not anticipate much progress will come from people who are simply very smart and creative – they also need to have either privileged information (such as what you get from combining weird drugs and brain-computer interfaces), or be very knowledgeable about what is going on in the field.
And (4): This is the most difficult and rarest of all, for it requires some degree of the previous three attributes. Their work wouldn’t be possible without the work of many other people in the previous three categories. Yet, of course, they will be the most world-changing of them all. Explicitly, this is the role that we are aiming for at the Qualia Research Institute.
In addition to the above, there are other ways of making highly valuable contributions to the conversation. An example would be those individuals who have become living expressions of current theories of consciousness. That is, people who have deeply understood some paradigm and can propose paradigm-consistent explanations for completely new evidence. E.g. people who can quickly figure out “what would Tononi say about X?” no matter how weird X is. It is my view that one can learn a lot from people in this category. That said… don’t ever expect to change their minds!
A Final Suggestion: Philosophical Speed Dating
To conclude, I would like to make a suggestion in order to increase the value of this and similar conferences: philosophical speed dating. This might be valuable for two reasons. First, I think that a large percentage of people who attend TSC are craving interactions with others who also wonder about consciousness. After all, being intrigued and fascinated by this topic is not very common. Casual interest? Sure. But obsessive curiosity? Pretty uncommon. And most people who attend TCS are in the latter category. At the same time, it is never very pleasant to interact with people who are likely to simply not understand where you are coming from. The diversity of views is so large that finding a person with whom you can have a cogent and fruitful conversation is quite difficult for a lot of people. A Philosophical Speed Dating session in which people quickly state things like their interest in consciousness, take on qualia, preferred approaches, favorite authors, paradigm affinities, etc. would allow philosophical kindred souls to meet at a much higher rate.
And second, in the context of advancing the collective conversation about consciousness, I have found that having people who know where you are coming from (and either share or understand your background assumptions) is the best way to go. The best conversations I’ve had with people usually arise when we have a strong base of shared knowledge and intuitions, but disagree on one or two key points we can identify and meaningfully address. Thus a Philosophical Speed Dating session could lead to valuable collaborations.
And with that, I would like to say: If you do find our approach interesting or worth pursuing, do get in touch.
Till next time, Tucson!
* In Chalmer’s paper about the Meta-Problem of Consciousness he describes his reason for investigating the subject: “Upon hearing about this article, some people have wondered whether I am converting to illusionism, while others have suspected that I am trying to subvert the illusionist program for opposing purposes. Neither reaction is quite correct. I am really interested in the meta-problem as a problem in its own right. But if one wants to place the paper within the framework of old battles, one might think of it as lending opponents a friendly helping hand.” The quality of a philosopher should not be determined only by their ability to make a good case for their views, but also by the capacity to talk convincingly about their opponent’s. And on that metric, David is certainly world-class.
Bolded titles mean that the linked article is foundational: it introduces new concepts, vocabulary, heuristics, research methods, frameworks, and/or thought experiments that are important for the overall project of consciousness research. These tend to be articles that also discuss concepts in much greater depth than other articles.
The “long” tag means that the post has at least 4,000 words. Most of these long articles are in the 6,000 to 10,000 word range. The longest Qualia Computing article is Burning Man Theme-Camps of the Year 2029: From Replicator to Rainbow God (2/2) at ~16,000 words. The second longest article is the first post about Burning Man which is about 13,500 words long (and also happens to be foundational as it introduces many new frameworks and concepts).
Quotes and transcripts are usually about: evolutionary psychology, philosophy of mind, ethics, neuroscience, physics, meditation, and/or psychedelic phenomenology. By far, David Pearce is the most quoted person on Qualia Computing.
“Everyone takes the limits of his own vision for the limits of the world.” (Schopenhauer)
All that matters is the pleasure-pain axis. Pain and pleasure disclose the world’s inbuilt metric of (dis)value. Our overriding ethical obligation is to minimise suffering. After we have reprogrammed the biosphere to wipe out experience below “hedonic zero”, we should build a “triple S” civilisation based on gradients of superhuman bliss. The nature of ultimate reality baffles me. But intelligent moral agents will need to understand the multiverse if we are to grasp the nature and scope of our wider cosmological responsibilities. My working assumption is non-materialist physicalism. Formally, the world is completely described by the equation(s) of physics, presumably a relativistic analogue of the universal Schrödinger equation. Tentatively, I’m a wavefunction monist who believes we are patterns of qualia in a high-dimensional complex Hilbert space. Experience discloses the intrinsic nature of the physical: the “fire” in the equations. The solutions to the equations of QFT or its generalisation yield the values of qualia. What makes biological minds distinctive, in my view, isn’t subjective experience per se, but rather non-psychotic binding. Phenomenal binding is what consciousness is evolutionarily “for”. Without the superposition principle of QM, our minds wouldn’t be able to simulate fitness-relevant patterns in the local environment. When awake, we are quantum minds running subjectively classical world-simulations. I am an inferential realist about perception. Metaphysically, I explore a zero ontology: the total information content of reality must be zero on pain of a miraculous creation of information ex nihilo. Epistemologically, I incline to a radical scepticism that would be sterile to articulate. Alas, the history of philosophy twinned with the principle of mediocrity suggests I burble as much nonsense as everyone else.