Transcript from the last section of the 1983 BBC interview of Richard Feynman “Fun to Imagine” (excerpt starts at 55:52):
Interviewer presumably asks: What is it like to think about your work?
Well, when I’m actually doing my own things, that I’m working in the high, deep, and esoteric stuff that I worry about, I don’t think I can describe very well what it is like… First of all it is like asking a centipede which leg comes after which. It happens quickly and I am not exactly sure… flashes and stuff goes on in the head. But I know it is a crazy mixture of partial differential equations, partial solving of the equations, then having some sort of picture of what’s happening that the equations are saying is happening, but they are not as well separated as the words that I’m using. And it’s a kind of a nutty thing. It’s very hard to describe and I don’t know that it does any good to describe. And something that struck me, that is very curious: I suspect that what goes on in every man’s head might be very, very different. The actual imagery or semi-imagery which comes is different. And that when we are talking to each other at these high and complicated levels, and we think we are speaking very well and we are communicating… but what we’re really doing is having some kind of big translation scheme going on for translating what this fellow says into our images. Which are very different.
I found that out because at the very lowest level, I won’t go into the details, but I got interested… well, I was doing some experiments. And I was trying to figure out something about our time sense. And so what I would do is, I would count trying to count to a minute. Actually, say I’d count to 48 and it would be one minute. So I’d calibrate myself and I would count a minute by counting to 48 (so it was not seconds what I counted, but close enough), and then it turns out if you repeat that you can do very accurately when you get to 48 or 47 or 49, not far off you are very close to a minute. And I would try to find out what affected that time sense, and whether I could do anything at the same time as I was counting and I found that I could do many things, but couldn’t do other things. I could… For example I had great difficulty doing this: I was in university and I had to get my laundry ready. And I was putting the socks out and I had to make a list of how many socks, something like six or eight pair of socks, and I couldn’t count them. Because the “counting machine” was being used and I couldn’t count them. Until I found out I could put them in a pattern and recognize the number. And so I learned a way after practicing by which I could go down on lines of type and newspapers and see them in groups. Three – three – three – one, that’s a group of ten, three – three – three – one… and so on without saying the numbers, just seeing the groupings and I could therefore count the lines of type (I practiced). In the newspaper, the same time I was counting internally the seconds, so I could do this fantastic trick of saying: “48! That’s one minute, and there are 67 lines of type”, you see? It was quite wonderful. And I discovered many things I could read while I was… I could read while I was counting and get an idea of what it was about. But I couldn’t speak, say anything. Because of course, when I was counting I sort of spoke to myself inside. I would say one, two, three… sort of in the head! Well, I went down to get breakfast and there was John Tuckey, a mathematician down at Princeton at the same time, and we had many discussions, and I was telling him about these experiments and what I could do. And he says “that’s absurd!”. He says: “I don’t see why you would have any difficulty talking whatsoever, and I can’t possibly believe that you could read.” So I couldn’t believe all this. But we calibrated him, and it was 52 for him to get to 60 seconds or whatever, I don’t remember the numbers now. And then he’d say, “alright, what do you want me to say? Marry Had a Little Lamb… I can speak about anything. Blah, blah, blah, blah… 52!” It’s a minute, he was right. And I couldn’t possibly do that, and he wanted me to read because he couldn’t believe it. And then we compared notes and it turned out that when he thought of counting, what he did inside his head is that when he counted he saw a tape with numbers, that did clink, clink, clink [shows with his hand the turning and passing of a counting tape], and the tape would change with the numbers printed on it, which he could see. Well, since it’s sort of an optical system that he is using, and not voice, he could speak as much as he wanted. But if he wanted to read then he couldn’t look at his clock. Whereas for me it was the other way.
And that’s where I discovered, at least in this very simple operation of counting, the great difference in what goes on in the head when people think they are doing the same thing! And so it struck me therefore, if that’s already true at the most elementary level, that when we learn about mathematics, and the Bessel functions, and the exponentials, and the electric fields, and all these things… that the imagery and method by which we are storing it all and the way we are thinking about it… could be it really if we get into each other’s heads, entirely different? And in fact why somebody has sometimes a great deal of difficulty understanding when you are pointing to something which you see as obvious, and vice versa, it may be because it’s a little hard to translate what you just said into his particular framework and so on. Now I’m talking like a psychologist and you know I know nothing about this.
Suppose that little things behaved very differently than anything that was big. Anything that you are familiar with… because you see, as the animal evolves, and so on, as the brain evolves, it gets used to handling, and the brain is designed, for ordinary circumstances. But if the gut particles in the deep inner workings whereby some other rules and some other character they behave differently, they were very different than anything on a large scale, then there would be some kind of difficulty, you know, understanding and imagining reality. And that is the difficulty we are in. The behavior of things on a small scale is so fantastic, it is so wonderfully different, so marvelously different than anything that behaves on a large scale… say, “electrons act like waves”, no they don’t exactly. “They act like particles”, no they don’t exactly. “They act like a kind of a fog around the nucleus”, no they don’t exactly. And if you would like to get a clear sharp picture of an animal, so that you could tell exactly how it is going to behave correctly, to have a good image, in other words, a really good image of reality I don’t know how to do it!
Because that image has to be mathematical. We have mathematical expressions, strange as mathematics is I don’t understand how it is, but we can write mathematical expressions and calculate what the thing is going to do without actually being able to picture it. It would be something like a computer that you put certain numbers in and you have the formula for what time the car will arrive at different destinations, and the thing does the arithmetic to figure out what time the car arrives at the different destinations but cannot picture the car. It’s just doing the arithmetic! So we know how to do the arithmetic but we cannot picture the car. No, it’s not a hundred percent because for certain approximate situations a certain kind of approximate picture works. That it’s simply a fog around the nucleus that when you squeeze it, it repels you is very good for understanding the stiffness of material. That it’s a wave which does this and that is very good for some other phenomena. So when you are working with certain particular aspect of the behavior of atoms, for instance when I was talking about temperature and so forth, that they are just little balls is good enough and it gives us a very nice picture of temperature. But if you ask more specific questions and you get down to questions like how is it that when you cool helium down, even to absolute zero where there is not supposed to be any motion, it’s a perfect fluid that hasn’t any viscosity, has no resistance, flows perfectly, and isn’t freezing?
Well if you want to get a picture of atoms that has all of that in it, I can’t do it, you see? But I can explain why the helium behaves as it does by taking my equations and showing that the consequences of them is that the helium will behave as it is observed to behave, so we now have the theory right, but we haven’t got the pictures that will go with the theory. And is that because we are limited and haven’t caught on to the right pictures? Or is that because there aren’t any right pictures for people who have to make pictures out of things that are familiar to them? Let’s suppose it’s the last one. That there’s no right pictures in terms of things that are familiar to them. Is it possible then, to develop a familiarity with those things that are not familiar on hand by study? By learning about the properties of atoms and quantum mechanics, and practicing with the equations, until it becomes a kind of second nature, just as it is second nature to know that if two balls came towards each other they’d mash into bits, you don’t say the two balls when they come toward each other turn blue. You know what they do! So the question is whether you can get to know what things do better than we do today. You know as the generations develop, will they invent ways of teaching, so that the new people will learn tricky ways of looking at things and be so well trained that they won’t have our troubles with picturing the atom? There is still a school of thought that cannot believe that the atomic behavior is so different than large-scale behavior. I think that’s a deep prejudice, it’s a prejudice from being so used to large-scale behavior. And they are always seeking to find, to waiting for the day that we discover that underneath the quantum mechanics, there’s some mundane ordinary balls hitting, or particles moving, and so on. I think they’re going to be defeated. I think nature’s imagination is so much greater than man’s, she’s never gonna let us relax.
Excerpt from Rhythms of the Brain (2006) by György Buzsáki (pgs. 168-170)
The paramount advantage of synchronization by oscillation is its cost-effectiveness. No other known mechanism in the physical world can bring about synchrony with so little investment. What do I mean by declaring that synchrony by oscillation is cheap? Let me illustrate the cost issue first with a few familiar examples from our everyday life. You have probably watched leisurely strolling romantic couples on a fine evening in a park or on the beach. Couples holding hands walk in perfect unison, whereas couples without such physical link walk out of step. You can do this experiment yourself. Just touching your partner’s finger will result in your walking in sync in a couple of cycles. Unless your partner is twice as tall or short as you, it costs pretty much the same effort to walk in sync as out of sync. Once you establish synchronous walking, it survives for quite some time even if physical contact is discontinued. If both of you are about the same height and have a similar step size, you will stay in sync for a long distance. In other words, synchronization by oscillation requires only an occasional update, depending on the frequency differences and precision of the oscillators. Two synchronized Patek Philippe vintage timepieces can tick together for many weeks, and quartz watches fare even better.
A much larger scale example of synchrony through oscillation is rhythmic clapping of hands, an expression of appreciation for superior theater and opera performances in some countries. Clapping always starts as a tumultuous cacophony but transforms into synchronized clapping after half a minute or so. Clapping synchrony builds up gradually and dies away after a few tens of seconds. Asynchronous and synchronous group clapping periods can alternate relatively regularly. An important observation, made by Zoltán Néda at the Babeș-Bolyai University, Romania, and his colleagues, is that synchronized clapping increases the transient noise during the duty cycle, but it actually diminishes the overall noise (Neda et al. 2000).* The explanation for the noise decrease during the synchronized clapping phase is the simple fact that everyone is clapping approximately half as fast during the synchronous compared with the nonsynchronous phase. Oscillatory entrainment nevertheless provides sharp surges of sound energy at the cost of less overall muscular effort. The waxing and waning nature of rhythmic hand clapping is reminiscent of numerous transient oscillatory events in the brain, especially in the thalamocortical system. Similar to hand clapping, the total number of spikes emitted by the participating neurons and the excitatory events leading to spiking may be fewer during these brain rhythms than during comparable nonrhythmic periods. A direct test of this hypothesis would require simultaneous recordings from large numbers of individual neurons. Indirect observations, using brain imaging methods, however, support the idea.**
Perhaps the most spectacular example of low-energy coupling, known to all physics and engineering majors, is the synchronization of Christiaan Huygen’s pendulum clocks. Huygen’s striking observation was that when two identical clocks were hung next to each other on the wall, their pendula became time-locked after some period. Synchrony did not happen when the clocks were placed on different walls in the room. Huygen’s clocks entrained because the extremely small vibrations of the wall that held both clocks were large enough that each rhythm affected the other. The physical reason for synchrony between two oscillators is relatively simple, and solid math exists to explain the phenomenon.*** However, extrapolation from two oscillators to the coupling behavior of large numbers of oscillators is not at all straightforward. Imagine that, in a cylinder-shaped room, 10 clocks are placed on the wall equidistant from one another, each started at a different time. In a second, much larger room, there are 100 clocks. Finally, in a giant arena, we hang 10,000 identical clocks on the wall. As with Huygen’s two clocks, each clock in the rooms has neighbors on each side, and these clocks influence the middle clock. Furthermore, in the new experiment, there are many distant neighbors with progressively less influence. However, the aggregate effects of more distant clocks must be significant, especially if they become synchronous. Do we expect that synchronous ticking of all clocks will develop in each room? Various things can happen, including traveling waves of synchrony or local buildup of small or large synchronous groups transiently. Only one thing cannot occur: global synchrony.
I know the answer because we did an analogous experiment with Xiao-Jing Wang and his student Caroline Geisler. We built a network of 4,000 inhibitory interneurons.**** When connectivity in the network mimicked local interneuron connections in the hippocampus, all we could see were some transient oscillations involving a small set of neurons. On the other hand, when the connections were random, a situation difficult to create in physical systems, a robust population oscillation emerged. So perfect harmony prevailed in a network with no resemblance to the brain but not with what appeared to be a copy of a local interneuronal network. The problem was the same as with the clocks on the wall: neurons could affect each other primarily locally. To reduce the synaptic path length of the network, we replaced a small subset of neurons with neurons with medium- and long-range connections. Such interneurons with medium- and long-range connections do indeed exist (see Cycle 3). The new, scale-free network ticked perfectly. Its structure shared reasonable similarities with the anatomical wiring of the hippocampus and displayed synchronized oscillations, involving each member equally, irrespective of their physical distance. The reason why our small-world-like artificial network synchronized is because it exploited two key features: few but critical long-range connections that reduced the average synaptic path length of the network and oscillatory coupling, which required very little energy. Analogously, cortical networks may achieve their efficacy by exploiting small-world-like organization at the anatomical level (Cycle 2) and oscillatory synchrony at the functional level. There is synchrony for (almost) free.
* Most of the observations were taken in the small underground Kamra (Chamber) Theater of Budapest. Global and local noise was measured by microphones above the audience and placed next to a spectator, respectively. Rhythmic group clapping emerges between 12 and 25 seconds. Average global noise intensity, integrated over 3-second time windows, indicates decreased energy spending by the audience during the rhythm despite large surges of noise.
** The BOLD signal (see Cycle 4) decreases over large cortical areas during both alpha dominance (Laufs et al., 2003) and thalamocortical spike-and-wave epilepsy (Salek-Haddadi et al., 2002), demonstrating that the metabolic cost of neuronal activity associated with increased neuronal synchrony may, in fact, be less than during nonrhythmic states.
*** For the English translation of Huygen’s original letter about the “sympathy” of clocks, see Pikovsky et al. (2001).
**** In reality, the issue we addressed was quite different from the clocks on the wall because none of the 4,000 interneurons was an oscillator. Instead, their interactions formed one single clock (Buzsáki et al., 2004). Coupling of numerous oscillators have been analyzed mathematically, but these mathematical models lack the physical constraints of axon conduction delays; therefore, they cannot be directly applied to coupling of brain oscillators (Kuramoto, 2984; Mirollo and Strogatz, 1990). For the coupling of two identical oscillators with realistic axon conduction delays, see Traub et al. (1996) and Bibbig et al. (2002).
5-MeO-DMT vs. N,N-DMT – Interestingly, 5-MeO-DMT seems to lead to global synchrony (and thus the melting of internal boundaries, the feeling of complete oneness with the universe) whereas N,N-DMT instead seems to give rise to powerful clusters of synchrony which are constantly competing against each other (thus creating partitions in the mind and the sense of “an other”, aka. machine elves). It would be fascinating to figure out why this difference emerges at the level of functional changes to the brain’s network topology as induced by each drug.
“QRI Law of Transhumanism”: The overall motivation of humans to solve social and mental problems will remain much higher than the motivation to solve physics problems. The human performance in solving social and mental problems will remain much lower than the performance in solving physics problems. This continues until social and mental problems become physics problems.
A follow-up for the more nerdy audience could perhaps be how QRI seeks to resolve the confusion about individualism:
It often turns out that parsimony is a more useful guiding principle in science than naïve realism. This includes naïve realism about what constitutes parsimony. All relevant conditions must be taken into account, and some conditions are unknowns, which blurs the picture. Occam’s razor is powerful but more like a Samurai sword: you need great skill to use it well.
Compare the state-space of consciousness with the state-space of chemistry known to humans: there is biochemistry and there is other chemistry. They manifest quite differently. However, parsimony favors that at the fundamental level of organization things reduce to a small set of rules which are the same for all of chemistry. This is now known to indeed be the case but was not always so. Rather, it tended to be assumed that some extra factor, a “life-force”, had to be involved when it comes to biochemistry.
Biochemistry has been evolutionarily selected for performance on a most formidable problem. That of self-replicating a self-replicator. It takes a large number of steps in the process and high preciseness at each step. Only particular sequences of steps lead to normal cell function, and things are always open to getting corrupted. Take viruses, for instance.
Normal function of a brain is somewhat analogous to normal function of a cell. Evolution has selected for brains which produce the experience of continuity as a unique agent self. This is probably one of the harder tasks that conscious intelligence has solved, corresponding to the advanced parts necessary for reproduction in a cell. It is probably about as unusual in the state-space of consciousness as cellular replication is in the state-space of chemistry. However, the state naïvely feels like it is foundational to everything, which can make you confused when reflecting upon it. It can get even more confusing when you consider the strong possibility that valenced experiences of “good or bad” are much more commonplace in the state-space, perhaps more like transfer of electric charge is commonplace in chemistry.
Self-replicating a self-replicator
You can test this by altering (mental) system properties via meditation or psychedelics. Is “individuality” or “valence” more persistent under perturbation? It’s much harder to get rid of valence, and indeed, the highly altered state of a brain on high doses of 5-MeO-DMT gets rid of the agent self altogether but preserves and even enhances valence, interestingly more often in the positive than the negative direction. It’s like jumping from biochemistry to pyrotechnics.
Self-less 5-MeO-DMT “void”: The state is as different and exotic from normal everyday evolved consciousness as the chemistry of explosive pyrotechnics is to evolved biochemistry.
Naïve realism would hold that the sensations of “one-ness” experienced in certain highly altered states of consciousness feel the way they do because they somehow expand to include other entities into a union with yourself. What is likely to really be going on could be the opposite: there is no “self” as a reality fundament but rather a local complex qualia construct that is easy to interfere with. When it (and other detail) goes away there is less mental model complexity left. A reduction in the information diversity of the experience. Take this far enough and you can get states like “X is love” where X could be anything. These can feel as if they reveal hidden truths, for you obviously had not thought that way before, right? “X is love, wow, what a cosmic connection!”
Letter VII: Fractional Crystallization to Enhance Qualia Diversity
Some more chemistry: is there in qualia state-space something analogous to fractional crystallization? When a magma solidifies relatively rapidly, most of the minor elements stay in solid solution within a few major mineral phases. You get a low diversity assemblage. When the magma solidifies slowly it can yield a continuum of various unique phases all the way down to compounds of elements that were only present at ppb levels in the bulk. Crucially, for this to work well, a powerful viscosity reducer is needed. Water happens to fit the bill perfectly.
Consider the computational performance of the process of solidification of a thousand cubic kilometer plutonic magma with and without an added cubic kilometer of water. The one with the added water functions as a dramatically more efficient sorting algorithm for the chemical element constituents than the dry one. The properties of minor minerals can be quite different from those of the major minerals. The spectrum of mineral physical and chemical properties that the magma solidification produces is greatly broadened by adding that small fraction of water. Which nature does on Earth.
It resembles the difference between narrow and broad intelligence. Now, since the general intelligence of humans requires multiple steps at multiple levels, which takes a lot of time, there might need to be some facilitator that plays the role water does in geology. Water tends to remain in liquid form all the way through crystallization, which compensates for the increase in viscosity that takes place on cooling, allowing fractional crystallization to go to completion in certain pegmatites.
It seems that, in the brain, states become conscious once they “crystallize” into what an IIT-based model might describe as feedback loops. (Some physicalist model this as standing waves?). Each state could be viewed as analogous to a crystal belonging to a mineral family and existing somewhere on a composition spectrum. For each to crystallize as fast and distinctly as possible, there should be just the right amount of a water activity equivalent. Too much and things stay liquid, too little and no unique new states appear.
It may perhaps be possible to tease out such “mental water” by analyzing brain scan data and comparing them with element fractionation models from geochemistry?
Eliezer Yudkowsky has pointed out that something that is not very high hanging must have upgraded the human brain so that it became able to make mental models of things no animal would (presumably) even begin to think of. Something where sheer size would not suffice as an explanation. It couldn’t be high hanging since the evolutionary search space available between early hominids and homo sapiens is small in terms of individuals, generations, and genetic variability. Could it be a single factor that does the job as crystallization facilitator to get the brain primed to produce a huge qualia range? For survival, the bulk of mental states would need to remain largely as they are in other animals, but with an added icing on the cake which turned out to confer a decisive strategic advantage.
It should be low hanging for AI developers, too, but in order to find it they may have to analyze models of qualia state-space and not just models of causal chains in network configurations…
Letter VIII: Tacking on the Winds of Valence
We just thought of something on the subjects of group intelligence and mental issues. Consider a possible QRI framing: valence realism is key to understanding all conscious agency. The psyche takes the experienced valence axis to be equal to “the truth” about the objects of attention which appear experientially together with states of valence. Moment to moment.
Realism coupled with parsimony means it is most likely not possible for a psyche to step outside their experience and override this function. (Leaving out the complication of non-conscious processes here for a moment). But of course learning does exist. Things in psyches can be re-trained within bounds which differ from psyche to psyche. New memories form and valence set-points become correspondingly adjusted.
Naïvely it can be believed that it is possible to go against negative valence. If you muster enough willpower, or some such. Like a sailboat moving against the wind by using an engine. But what if it’s a system which has to use the wind for everything? With tacking, you can use the wind to move against the wind. It’s more advanced, and only experienced sailors manage to do it optimally. Advanced psyches can couple expectations (strategic predictive modeling) with a high valence associated with the appropriate objects that correlate with strategic goals. If strong enough, such valence gives a net positive sum when coupled with unpleasant things which need to be “overcome” to reach strategic goals.
You can “tack” in mental decision space. The expert psycho-mariner makes mental models of how the combinatorics of fractal valence plays out it in their own psyche and in others. Intra- and inter-domain valence summation modeling. Not quite there yet but the QRI is the group taking a systematic approach to it. We realize that’s what social superintelligences should converge towards. Experiential wellbeing and intelligence can be made to work perfectly in tandem for, in principle, arbitrarily large groups.
It is possible to make a model of negative valence states and render the model to appear in positive valence “lighting”. Sadism is possible, and self-destructive logic is possible. “I deserve to suffer so it is good that I suffer”. The valence is mixed but as long as the weighted sum is positive, agency moves in the destructive direction in these cases. Dysfunction can be complicated.
But on the bright side, a formalism that captures the valence summation well enough should be an excellent basis for ethics and for optimizing intelligences for both agency and wellbeing. This extends to group intelligences. The weight carried by various instantiations of positive and negative valence is then accessible for modeling and it is no longer necessary to consider it a moral imperative to want to destroy everything just to be on the safe side against any risk of negative experience taking place somewhere.
Is it possible to tack on the winds of group valence?
At this early stage we are however faced with the problem of how influential premature conclusions of this type can be, and how much is too much. Certain areas in philosophy and ideology are, to most people, more immediately rewarding than science and engineering, and cheaper, too. But more gets done by a group of scientists who are philosophically inspired than by a group of philosophers who are scientifically inspired.
The following essay was recently published in the Berlin-based art magazine Art Against Art (issue). Below you will find models 3 and 4 (out of 8). I will be sharing 2 new models each week until I’ve shared all of them (see part 1/4).
3. Schelling Point Creation
[Psychoanalysis teaches us:] When somebody complains, always be careful and try to find, identify, what type of additional pleasure, satisfaction, does the act of complaining itself bring to you. We all, when we complain, almost always, find a perverse satisfaction in the act of complaining itself.
– Slavoj Zizek (2019)
I certainly feel compelled to complain about the tyranny of genetic fitness signaling in art. That said, people who excel at games who are not played by many people will have an incentive to undermine the popular games and frame their favorite game as somehow superior. Why are Hipsters and Nerds allied against Cool Kids? Because the Cool Kids can decide on a whim that the games the Hipsters and Nerds play are uncool and not worthy of public fitness displays. Even if they happen to be of superb quality!
In many cases, the exploration of uncommon games can give rise to major innovations, so there is a utilitarian reason to promote some degree of exploration outside of the aesthetics that most people can enjoy.
This line of reasoning gives rise to a new interpretation for what a Hipster is. To be a Hipster is not, as popularly believed, to merely desire the uncommonly desired. The whole thrust of hipsterism is a promise of superior quality in at least some actually relevant area, even at the cost of severely reduced quality across the board. (Using an analogy from the field of statistics: Cool Kids favor L2 normalization as it signal-boosts people who are well-rounded, whereas Hipsters and Nerds favor L1 normalization which improves the outlook for imbalanced minimax strategies).
Many people believe that all Hipsters are Cool Kids. Many believe something slightly weaker, which is that to be a Cool Kid you also need to be a Hipster. But in fact this is absolutely not the case, and it is a category error to think otherwise. Cool Kids and Hipsters were correlated when being Hipster had mainstream appeal. That is, Hipsters were cool when Cool Kids used to challenge people to show how Hipster they could be. But this should not be in any way an indication that Hipster aesthetics are intrinsically related to Cool Kids, for the same reason that e.g. Country Music, Normcore, or Bolshevik aesthetics are not intrinsically invented by Cool Kids. Hipsters are individual contributors to the frontier of culture. Indeed, it is rare to find a place that produces genuinely innovative content while also being saturated with Cool Kids.
Cool Kids, in large quantities, eventually form cliques that become voting blocs. These frustrate innovation by fully orthogonalizing what is socially cool from what is socially valuable. A Hipster under those circumstances tends to feel stifled. Cool Kids tend to be above-average in openness to experience, but they are rarely in the top 2% of openness to experience – more like one standard deviation above the mean. This is because they need to be open enough to look at new trends but also sufficiently closed to be able to relate to the bulk of the consumers of new trends. Genuine Hipsters are usually above the 98th percentile of openness to experience. In turn, the sexual attraction of some people is focused on this particular trait, and Hipsters compete at signaling it to the highest extent possible. In the process, they discover interesting things. But this does not mean they can sustainably stay cool in the eyes of the average person.
High openness to experience allows you to appreciate minimax players. It allows you to accept artists who are ridiculously good at making a specific point but lack talent in every other respect. Ultimately, the innovations produced by these extreme artistic explorations sometimes radically transform social reality.
In “Ads Don’t Work That Way”, Kevin Simler discusses how advertisement’s power is not through direct persuasion, but through shaping the landscape of cultural meaning. You don’t bring a 6-pack of Coronas to a party because the ads have subconsciously conditioned you to think that this beer in particular is more likely to make you and your friends feel like you are a chill group. Rather, you buy it in order to signal the fact that you see yourself as a chill person, and to bring that mindset to those who see you bring the product. It is by virtue of common knowledge that ads can do this; if every single person received a different custom-made AI-powered neural net ad, ads would stop having the function of shaping the landscape of cultural meaning, and perhaps lose a significant portion of their power.
Art, likewise, can also change the landscape of cultural meaning. In contrast to ads, art might perhaps be described as high-bandwidth low-distribution as opposed to high-distribution low-bandwidth. And to the extent that Hipsters discover new aesthetics, they are a big source of novel cultural Schelling points for subcultures to form around.
4. Creating Sacred Experiences
Art could be the next religion – Alex Grey
Below you will find an example of a piece that aims to create a sacred experience, which I recently encountered at the Santa Cruz Regional Burn. It is called Mementomorium, and it is a mixture of a sensory-deprivation-chamber and a symbolic self-burial experience crafted in order to simulate your own death and to attempt to see your life in its finitude. This art piece plays with one’s experience of time and sense of mortality, and helps you cut through delusion in order to re-interpret one’s time on earth as finite and priceless.
Mementomorium by Oleg Muir Lou Goff
Mementomorium by Oleg Muir Lou Goff
Why is the above art? Cool Kids might find this too morbid, and Hipsters are likely to see
it as too real. So what is the thrust behind artistic visions like the above?
Sacred experiences are an aspect of social and phenomenological reality. Art, it turns out, is deeply entwined with such sacredness. Now, much has been said about the sublime in relation to art. What else is there to say?
Life isn’t about finding yourself. Life is about creating yourself. – George Bernard Shaw
Contrary to the three previous models, here the culminating emotion that is sought is not the vindication of self, but rather, the elicitation of a sense of self-transcendence. This 4th model would say that art creates some of the most valuable experiences there are, because it makes us experience a sense of transcendence. And relative to the previous three models, this model is the first to consider art as involved in the quest of finding the ultimate answer, as opposed to merely providing incremental benefits to humanity.
Cutting to the chase, let us jump right into a list of possible intentional sources for phenomenal sacredness (i.e. the possible targets of art according to this model). From John Lilly’s “Simulations of God”, below you find the most common types of self-transcendence catalogued:
God As the Beginning
I Am God
God Out There
God As Him/Her/It
God As The Group
God As Orgasm and Sex
God As Death
God As Drugs
God As the Body
God As Money
God As Righteous Wrath
God As Compassion
God As War
God As Science
God As Mystery
God As the Belief, the Simulation, the Model
God As the Computer
God Simulating Himself
God As Consciousness-without-an-Object
God As Humor
God As Superspace, the Ultimate Collapse into the Black Hole, the End.
The Ultimate Simulation
God As the Diad
According to John Lilly’s view, each of us lives in a world simulation (whether this is generated by our brains or by a higher power is something Lilly himself went back and forth on for decades). He makes the case that our world simulation is run by a hierarchical chain of programs and meta-programs. One’s locus of control is what he calls the Self Meta-Programmer, which is roughly equivalent to the ego (or at least a healthy one with high levels of self-control). Implicitly, however, the Self Meta-Programmer is subordinated to something higher, something he calls the Supra-Self Meta-Programmer (SSMP for short; see: “Programming and Metaprogramming in the Human Biocomputer”). Our SSMPs are responsible for our notions of a higher power, higher values, and higher purpose. One’s religion is determined by the SSMPs to which one is subordinated. In Lilly’s view, it is one’s SSMPs that give rise to one’s understand- ing of God. And as the list above shows, there are many possible versions of God. That is, there are many possible meta-programmings for what the highest power, value, and purpose might be. In light of this, art as the pursuit of sacred experiences would not be restricted to a particular view of God. Rather, it encapsulates every possible notion of God – where the art that hits hardest is the art that resonates the most with one’s implicit conception of God.
A parallel here could be made with adult developmental models (such as those of Wilber’s Integral Theory, Kegan’s Evolving Self, Common’s and Richard’s Model of Hierarchical Complexity, etc.). At each level of development, one’s conception of the highest value transcends and includes those of the developmental stages below. Let’s take for example Integral Theory’s levels 4, 5, and 6. Level 4, aka. “Amber” (ethno- or nation-centric, values rules, discipline, faith in transcendent God or preordained high- er order, socially conservative, etc.) would derive a sense of sacredness from religious imagery, a nationalist spirit, and art that fosters traditional values. Level 5, aka. “Orange” (values science and rationality, democracy, individualism, materialism, entrepreneurship, etc.) gets off on experiences that bring about a reductionist scientific world picture compatible with self-reliance (“the world is made of atoms, and this, rather than being tragic, is an opportunity to have fine-grained control over the elements”). And Level 6, aka. “Green” (values pluralism and equality, multiple points of view, no true reality, embraces paradox, considers civil rights and environmentalism to be the frontier of culture, etc.) would find art projects that highlight the multiplicity of perspectives to be key to a sense of the sacred. In this framework we can explain people’s negative reaction to art as a misfit between the developmental level of the target audience and the developmental level of the person who gets to experience it. Art targeted to people in a higher level of development than oneself will be perceived as heretical (e.g. postmodern art from the point of view of a traditionalist monotheist), while art targeted to people on a lower level of development than oneself will be perceived as childish or naïve (e.g. traditional religious iconography from the point of view of a scientific rationalist humanist). We could thus predict that if there are even higher developmental levels above ours, we will most likely think of the art targeted to them as deeply troubling.
The core quality of the experience is the feeling and recognition that oneness is truth. – Martin Ball on 5-MeO-DMT
At the upper levels of development, one could argue, we find sacredness based on concepts like pure consciousness, emptiness, and the clear white light of the void, etc. Famously, psychedelics, and in particular 5-MeO-DMT, seem to trigger direct experiences of this type of sacredness, which, according to its proponents, encapsulates all other kinds of transcendence within. If this is so, then we could anticipate that agents like 5-MeO-DMT will play an important role in the future of art as more people climb the ladder of adult psychological development.
On a social level, art as the pursuit of the sacred can be interpreted as an adaptive behavior aimed at taming envy. “Keeping up with the Joneses” is (artistically or other- wise) capable of diverting a group’s energy away from tasks that need to be done for individual and collective survival. When done in excess, wasteful displays of fitness make communities suffer. Runaway signaling has serious drawbacks, and sacred experiences seem to calm people down a bit, especially if the sense of sacredness comes along with social reassurance in the form of being able to hang out together without having to compete all the time, for Christ’s sake! Ahem. To be chill with one another.
As we saw with the previous models, this one, too, has its own aesthetic. The aesthetic of the model would perhaps manifest in the form of a museum that caters to every possible sense of sacredness. From aboriginal shamanism to monotheistic conservativism to punk rock concerts to transhumanism, this aesthetic recognizes the fact that sacredness is catalyzed by many different inputs depending on the psychological traits of the people who consume it.
 L1 and L2 normalization are ways of talking about how to describe the distance between points in a given space. L2 takes into account the mean squared difference along each dimension, whereas L1 simply uses the average difference in each dimension. If one is thinking about an ideal art piece within a given aesthetic, then using L2 would penalize very heavily exemplars that deviate from the archetype and generally favor well-roundedness, whereas an L1 normalization would accept large differences from the ideal along several dimensions as long as at least a fraction of the dimensions are very good.
 One’s locus of control is the part of our experience that comes with a felt sense of agency. That is, what feels like is in charge of determining the direction of one’s attention, intention, and behavior. Typically, a person’s locus of control is tied to their sense of self – or ego – but this is not true in the general case (as demonstrated by the shattered locus of control present in schizophrenia, and absent locus of control during states of depersonalization and derealization).
 According to John Lilly, a Supraself-Metaprogramer is an agent outside our locus of control that runs below our threshold of awareness and which ‘codes’ Supraself-Metaprograms. In turn, Supraself-Metaprograms are the mental “programs” that determine our sense of the highest values, which we typically inherit from our culture, influence from others, implicit historical beliefs, and so on.
 The colors of Integral Theory: Ken Wilber’s Integral theory was developed by identifying the commonalities among many different types of adult developmental models, spiritual stage maps, and meditation progression systems. The progression could broadly be described as a generalized expansion of the circle of compassion and increased acceptance of complexity. The color associated with each level is arranged from low-frequency to high-frequency parts of the spectrum. Specifically, infrared – archaic, magenta – tribal, red – warrior, amber – traditional, orange – modern, green – postmodern, teal/turquoise – integral, ultraviolet – post-integral.
El Cielo is an album about lucid dreaming, dreamless sleep, and sleep paralysis. I love the fact that a rock band takes dreaming states of consciousness seriously enough to record an entire album dedicated to them. The line “I, too, once thought the radio played” reminded me of the times I’ve thought music was playing while I was experiencing a sleep paralysis.
Convincing auditory hallucinations do seem to be commonplace during such states, and ample anecdotal evidence supports this fact. The music experienced can either be (1) generated on the fly, (2) a faithful reproduction of a song one knows, (3) an altered version of a song one has heard and remembers, or even (4) a reproduction of a song one has heard but isn’t aware of at the time.
Examples of (1) and (2) are alluded to by this experience report found on the website DreamViews:
I love listening to music in sleep paralysis. The other day it was “I Love it Loud” by Kiss. The song that forms up is usually something fresh in my mind, maybe something listened to earlier. It’s like having headphones in, the sound quality is that good. What songs do you get?
And here is FlacidSteel from Reddit relating their experience:
That happens to me when I am in the right mindset to have a lucid dream. It normally comes as the sound of the radio next to my bed, or sometimes the TV. When I finally realize I didn’t leave the radio/TV on is when I realize I’m dreaming and gain control of my dream, almost like a reality check. One time I could have sworn the garbage men were outside and I woke up and it was hours before they came. Sleep paralysis hallucinations can be the most convincing and terrifying experienced.
I’ve experienced (3) but I haven’t seen an explicit account online. There is at least one account for (4): the music might have been stored in auditory memory but not semantically.
Sleep paralysis for me comes about once a month, and lucid dreams about every two months. Like many, I’ve heard Bach Cello Suite No.1. and other classics. I once heard the Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone movie soundtrack playing perfectly for what seemed like many tracks. I think that learning about japanoise changed what my mind thought of as acceptable mood-setting melodies. So when I first started contemplating the emotional character of arbitrary sounds and I fell into a sleep paralysis my mind played a concert that combined noise music and Bach. That time I had the ability to modulate the ratio of noise music to Bach music and see how the various proportions changed the mood I experienced. Noise blunted the quality and emotional depth of Bach. On the other hand, noise did not make me commit to any particular pattern.
Our minds can create pleasant music on the fly featuring synthesizer sounds, flutes, pianos, duck quacks, elephant trumpets, and so on. Sleep paralysis allows you to experience a broad range of deeply emotional sounds of uncharted varieties. If you are in search of a bang rather than a slow burn, I would point you to the very start of the hypnagogic state. Once a sleep paralysis has gotten going it will creep for a good 5 to 15 minutes depending on your ability to reconfigure it to a better state. Some people use their extremities to bootstrap a wave of wakefulness by energizing little pulsed ripples in one’s toes and fingers until you have yourself wiggling out of the state. The methods to deal with the aftermath of entering a sleep paralysis are myriad. But let’s talk about the point before getting into it. There isn’t a better place to arrest a sleep paralysis than at its very beginning. It’s like a loud sound in the distance is trying to set the mood and seduces you so that you agree to abide by its emotional parameters. When you fully let go for a moment, that’s the real onset of a hypnagogic state. One can hear bangs right there – one can experience sounds with climaxes! Kitchen pots colliding, balloons exploding, water splashing, 80s drums. If you want to interrupt a sleep paralysis you have to contend with the mood-setting forces of the initial hypnagogic bang. Be brave; apply the mental move of either “internalism of meaning” or semantic nihilism and prevent the loud sound from convincing the rest of your experiential world to settle in on this “new world”. If you are quick to detect the hypnagogic sleight of hand and you act decisively, a sleep paralysis can be cut right at the nub.
During sleep paralysis, hearing any kind of sound is possible, really. The generality of it is remarkable. But perhaps more relevant still is the fact that dream music is often experienced as being emotionally compelling. “Like music is supposed to be heard”- I once thought as a kid waking up from a dream with a soundtrack. It is almost like the music is a manifestation of the mood one is in. Deep down, one’s own felt-sense of aliveness provides the constraints for the type of music that will resonate with you on a given night. In turn, having slept well through the night helps you internalize a certain mood, to imagine worlds within certain affective constraints. Some people remark that dream phenomenology is emotion-driven rather than emotion-responsive. What one sees is a projection of one’s mood, the semantic congruence being imposed in often symbolic and round-about ways. It’s like when you’ve had a conversation with someone a thousand times, so you come at it with a certain attitude. “Whatever you say, no, because I’ve seen it all and I’ve always said no. Try me.” And so the dream generates images and scenes and it is somehow always implied that what happens is part of the plot. Contradictions are quickly incorporated rather than a source of questioning. Sleep paralysis has this quality, but it also has the wakeful emotion-responsive quality too. So you are in the weird position of experiencing this strange feedback effect that has a certain mood, and is trying to express its excess energy in whatever way is possible, and you have your ego who is more critical and expects certain behaviors from the world. In a way you can think of this situation as having two metallic blades spinning very fast right next to each other, and they are tied together with a complicated arrangement of pulleys and levers. If you do it right and manage to keep the balance right, no harm done. But if you mess up you can experience super strange dissonant couplings and bizarre vibrations, few of which are strictly pleasant, and most of which are sharp and rather uncomfortable.
It’s no wonder some people get traumatized from experiencing sleep paralysis. I assume very few families have a parent-child vocabulary so well developed as to be able to carefully explain sleep paralysis phenomenology in a way that will work at pointing to the thing when it finally happens for the first time. Indeed, what is so stunning about the state is perhaps precisely that which people have the hardest time verbalizing. Namely, the fact that the phenomenal character of this state is almost entirely having to do with its ambiance rather than the intentional objects present. People come out of the state saying “there was a man on top of me” or “I felt like my arms were tied to the bed” which although true, completely misses the essential character of the state, the fact that it had this peculiar dreamy subtlety that embedded a mood into everything it touched. The often Halloweenesque scenic mist that comes with a sleep paralysis is rather paranormal-themed. On a bad night, the ambiance of a sleep paralysis can feel quite inviting to zombies, demons, and vultures as thought-forms. Likewise, the thought-forms can take the shape of angry sounds and dissonant percussions. It is incredible just how powerful of a filter hedonic tone exerts on reality. For that exact same reason, it does happen to be the case that some sleep paralyses are filled with extraordinary beauty and delight. The negative hedonic tone is not intrinsic to the state, although it may seem so at the time. For whatever reason, most humans’ experience with sleep paralysis is of the negative variety, but for most sufferers every once in a while the experience comes with pleasant qualities. Indeed, there is no reason to think that devoid of evolutionary selection pressures, exotic states of alertness should come with a pre-defined hedonic tone. On the contrary, I would expect them to be fully programmable.
Anyhow, some people, myself included, have experienced sleep paralysis in which the sounds heard were of extraordinary beauty. Most people will be skeptical that the music our brains can compose on the fly in a good mood sleep paralysis is genuinely good. I’ve gone through several stages on this matter. At first I treated it as self-evidently true that the music was beautiful. Then I questioned my memory and convinced myself that my brain was fabricating the music after the fact and that I was under the illusion that it was beautiful to begin with. Then I finally memorized a little melody I heard and it was nice but too small to say much about when I woke up, so I suspected again that my brain could compose great music if I just let it do it on that state. But finally I realized that the melody is in fact quite irrelevant. What matters is the mood, and the state itself, the good mood sleep paralysis itself is in a way expressing its positive valence via sounds, but if you were to listen to them in a normal state, they wouldn’t resonate in the same way. They wouldn’t produce the same peculiar echoing along one’s subjective arrow of time (cf. The Pseudo-Time Arrow).
Naïvely one may think: let us put musicians in good mood sleep paralysis and produce great music very easily. The problem is not that you will not get melodies and rhythms out. It’s that they will not create the same emotional impression they did in the person in the state in which they were generated.
Rather, what we ought to do is figure out in what ways good mood sleep paralysis states enable a wider range of emotional contrast for phenomenal music. That’s the real question. How can we import the (good) emotional depth of sleep paralysis into the wakeful state? Deep down I suspect this comes down to disabling the boredom mechanism. It is not so much that good mood sleep paralysis is great at composing music, and more that it can create a dreamy “enjoyment body” for the music. The thought-forms there can be entranced with harmonic patterns much more easily than those present while awake.
In the general case I suspect that the music produced is entirely new… it’s the emotional character that convinces you that it is so profound, not its resemblance to a previously heard soundtrack. To reword: the precise melody of the music one experiences on dream states is almost irrelevant to understanding that world of experience. It’s the resonant echoey quality of the state that gives such a remarkable emotional depth to those imagined/experienced sounds.
Perhaps the fact that dream music can be profoundly emotionally compelling is a special case of the more general feature of such states: that the brain is in some ways more resonant than usual. Music might be just one manifestation of this general effect, others being unlocking rarely-felt emotions, body vibrations, or even things like feeling that you are being electrocuted. If resonance is the key, we could predict that a sufficiently trained lucid dreamer will be able to generate musical experiences that are surprisingly simple in their complexity and yet stunningly deep in their emotional character. What is the CDNS of a dream state? This story doesn’t end here.
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
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.
This year I will be going with Michael Johnson (see picture below). If you are going to the conference and happen to see us around, don’t be afraid to say hi. We are always happy to get to know our readers and to discuss collaboration opportunities.
Michael E. Johnson & Andrés Gómez Emilsson
Below you can find the two abstracts that we submitted:
Title: Heuristics For Interpreting The Output Of Formal Panpsychist Theories Of Consciousness
Author: Michael E. Johnson
Primary Topic Area: Ontology of consciousness
Secondary Topic Area: Panpsychism, neutral monism, and idealism
Abstract: IIT, Orch-OR, Perceptronium, and other panpsychist approaches to formalizing consciousness have been gaining traction in recent years (Oizumi, Albantakis & Tononi 2014; Hameroff & Penrose 1996, 2014; Penrose & Hameroff 2011; Tegmark 2014; Barrett 2014). However, relatively little effort has been spent on interpreting the formal output of such theories. We briefly outline the problem, suggest four heuristics for addressing it, and offer the preliminary fruits of these heuristics, the Symmetry Theory of Valence. First, we offer that a theory of consciousness is “formal” insofar as it acts as an objective translation function, wherein one feeds in facts about a system, with the output result being a mathematical object isomorphic to the phenomenology of that system (Oizumi et al. 2014; Tsuchiya, Taguchi & Saigo 2016). As such, we can consider theoretical formality on a continuum, with IIT and Orch-OR on the ‘more formal’ end, and theories such as Global Workspace Theory on the ‘less formal’ end. However, even if progress continues apace and we settle on the correct method by which to objectively derive mathematical objects isomorphic to any system’s qualia, we’ll still be faced with the challenge of interpreting what such a formalism means: which features of this mathematical object correspond to which specific qualia (Balduzzi & Tononi 2009). To address this challenge, we take advantage of the bidirectional nature of the isomorphism and note that distinctions about the mathematical output of (e.g.) IIT or Orch-OR also apply to the qualia it represents and vice-versa; this gives us a framework for combining intuition and formal methods in order to reverse-engineer specific qualia. As a first pass, we offer that a quale (and its mathematical representation) can be (1) local vs global; (2) simple vs complex; (3) atomic vs composite; (4) intuitively important vs intuitively trivial. And so if we can determine that a given quale is e.g. global, simple, atomic, and intuitively important, so too is its mathematical representation, and vice-versa. Based on this analysis, we identify emotional valence, or the ‘hedonic gloss’ of experience (Frijda 2006, 2009; Aldridge & Berridge 2009; Ryle 1954) as a plausible first candidate for reverse-engineering (“the c. elegans of qualia”), and suggest the Symmetry Theory of Valence: given a mathematical object isomorphic to the phenomenology of a system, the property of that object which corresponds with how pleasant it is to be that system will be the object’s symmetry. Lastly, we extend this to empirical predictions and implications for the further development of Orch-OR and IIT.
Title: Quantifying Bliss With Microtubules And Brain Connectome Harmonics: Empirically Testable Hypotheses For Valence
Author: Andres Gomez Emilsson
Primary Topic Area: Emotion
Secondary Topic Area: Qualia
Abstract: What makes an experience blissful? Can bliss ever be quantified? Emotion is usually factored along two main axes: arousal (energy level) and valence (the pleasure-pain axis). High valence (i.e. highly blissful) states of consciousness include: orgasm, romantic love, deep sleep, concentration meditation (so-called “Jhana states”), psychedelic ecstasy, and so on. Low valence states include: depression, anxiety, bodily discomfort, and the experiential quality of listening to dissonance. Confusingly, we also experience neutral as well as mixed states of consciousness. An explanatory framework that ties together these disparate experiences in a coherent way is needed, such that valence becomes objectively quantifiable. Affective neuroscience classically addresses the question of “what makes an experience blissful” in terms of things such as neuroanatomical correlates (“pleasure center activation”), neurotransmitter and receptor function (“Mu-opioid activation”), and computational concepts (“reinforcement learning”). It is important to note that positive valence is associated with these features, but that does not, on its own, constitute a satisfying explanation. More so, counterexamples to such associations abound (unpleasant opioidergic states, reinforcement without pleasure, etc.) A scientific account of valence should be able to explain these associations and their exceptions, provide clear quantitative metrics for valence in arbitrary brain states, and, above all, make precise and testable (hopefully surprising) predictions. We advance a framework for studying consciousness that can deliver just that. We introduce the concepts of: Qualia Formalism (for any given conscious experience, there exists a mathematical object isomorphic to its phenomenology), Qualia Structuralism (this mathematical object has a rich set of formal structures), and Valence Realism (valence is a crisp phenomenon of conscious states upon which we can apply a measure). Based on this framework we propose the “Symmetry Theory of Valence” (STV): Given a mathematical object isomorphic to the qualia of a system, the mathematical property which corresponds to how pleasant it is to be that system is that object’s symmetry. We pair up the STV to various accounts of “the structural level at which valence takes place” and generate empirically testable predictions for each. Namely, we generate predictions for: (1) the protein and microtubule account introduced by Hameroff & Penrose (1996), (2) the “mental organs” account of states of consciousness proposed by Ray (2012), and (3) the connectome-specific harmonic account of brain states by Atasoy et al. (2016). In particular for (3), we arrive at an equation that transforms fMRI data into Consonance-Dissonance-Noise Signatures (CDNS) which, according to the STV, ought to account for a large fraction of the variance associated with valence. If experimentally verified, this equation would be the first fully quantitative account of valence derived from first principles capable of tying together the myriad kinds of bliss into a coherent framework.
Testable theories of the fundamental nature of pleasure? I’m in!
[Content Warning: Deals with heavy topics including gruesome deaths, fear of the multiverse, bad trips, possible meme hazards, and psychotic delusions. Epistemic Status: Confident in about half of the content; the rest is extremely speculative. Everything in this text is subject to heavy revision upon learning more information. I wrote this in a haste right after Burning Man before my state-specific memory access went away. Please take this writeup with a giant grain of salt]
This is the first year that I attended Burning Man. I do not claim to be a Burning Man expert. I’m just a consciousness researcher who happened to attend the Burn and found the experience amazing and insightful. So much so that that writing 13,500+ words about it seemed appropriate. Here goes nothing.
I arrived on the morning of the first day (Sunday the 27th of August) and left on Monday (4th of September). I intellectually know that I only spent eight full nights and seven full days at the Playa, but my visceral feeling of time refuses to acknowledge this fact. Like a heavy acid trip, at Burning Man time expands beyond recognition. The experience maxes out one’s novelty detection mechanisms (latent inhibition be damned) and leads you to conclude that a lifetime has happened. Before my brain readjusts to consensus reality, here goes my candid impressions about the event and the insights that came together during it. As it turns out, I think that Burning Man is a profoundly significant event with far-reaching implications. While from afar it is easy to dismiss it as a mere techie-filled psychedelic-fueled hedonistic festival, the truth is that Burning Man may be one of the few key outlets in the world for the exploration of potential futures that are truly worth living. I.e. Post-Darwinian societies. More on this later.
It is notoriously hard to boil down the experience into just a few take-aways (example). Burning Man does not lend itself to dimensionality reduction; merely talking about the mental forces that make up the memetic constituents of the population of Black Rock City (predominantly: artists, spiritual practitioners, scientists, environmentalists, techies, philosophers, and qualia lovers) would be akin to describing a biological plant merely in terms of the atomic elements found within it. It’s true that if you grind it down to a fine powder, vaporize it (to break down its proteins and molecules), and then analyze such vapor with X-ray spectroscopy you will characterize the percentage of carbon, nitrogen, potassium, etc. atoms in it. And while this is a necessary part of a full description of such a plant, the elemental breakdown of its composition just scratches the surface of what the plant truly is. This is analogous to the Burn, for Burning Man’s most interesting aspects, like those of a living organism, are to be found at high levels of emergence. In the case of biological organisms we are talking about the large scale assemblies of biomolecules (themselves already complex) implementing elaborate interdependent metabolic functions working together to bring about finely tuned adaptive behavior. Oftentimes, biological organisms utilize the properties of basement reality (i.e. quantum fields) to implement functions that would have formerly been described as strongly emergent (i.e. as metaphysically supervening properties bigger than the mere sum of their parts), as is currently studied by the budding field of quantum biology. At Burning Man something akin to this may be going on as well: you find that people, emotions, and memes come together to create pods, camps, and happenings that are best described as energetic contingents of collective states of consciousness, all of which turn out to have mind-boggling emergent properties unavailable without the high levels of trust, openness, creativity, and coherence beneath the surface. Thus the futility of describing it in terms of what goes into it. Better to address the resulting (emergent) phenomena. More on this later.
According to the 2016 Burning Man Census the number one reason that Burners selected as the source of wonderful memories at Burning Man was the people. I personally found this to be very much the case. Although from afar one may think that BM attendees are largely psychedelic junkies, misguided hippies, and sentimental environmentalists, the truth is that the people in the Playa are extraordinary in multiple ways. It almost feels as if the art, the music, the workshops, and the principles are not the core attraction. Rather, these elements are merely an excuse to bring together amazing people who have a high probability of having deeply meaningful interactions and developing symbiotic relationships with each other for the betterment of humanity.
Burners are highly educated. According to the Educational Attainment in the United States Wikipedia article, 36% of Americans between 25 and 34 years old have a bachelor’s degree or above (32% for those between 45 to 64, and 27% for those 65 and above), compared to 74.5% of the 2016 Burning Man attendees (of all ages). Additionally, 31.3% of them had a graduate degree, which is an insanely high figure when compared to the national baserate (11% for Americans above the age of 25). More so, this number has been steadily growing over the last few years. In other words, for what seems like an arts and crafts festival, this was an exceptionally well educated crowd. And yet, education is only scratching the surface of what makes these people interesting.
The Educational Attainment of Burners
I have attended academic conferences, rationalist meetups, meditation gatherings, psychedelic festivals, and even amazing events like Psychedelic Science, Effective Altruism Global, and The Science of Consciousness. The people I meet at these events often impress me in many ways, and talking to them has reinforced my conviction that humanity is indeed capable of bringing about a marvelous world free from unnecessary suffering. In light of these previous experiences I certainly did not anticipate being surprised by the people at Burning Man. I was wrong. While it’s true that not everyone at Burning Man is exceptional (“we are all unique, but not everyone is uniquely unique”), the base rate of people who deeply impressed me was possibly higher than at any other gathering of people I’ve ever been to. The consistent feeling I got was one of people who actually cared.
Here is a little project I’d love to see carried out: someone should take the time to conduct a cluster analysis of the people attending Burning Man using features such as their beliefs about reality, their lifestyle, their preferred social circles, etc. Simply based on my experience, I’d say that the main clusters featured would be: Spiritually serious people with thousands of hours of practice under their belt (50% of Burners describe themselves as “spiritual but not religious”), career ecologists who are looking for ways to live without leaving a footprint on the planet (“leave no trace”), social workers, programmers & rationalists, high grade hedonists, psychologists, and philosophical seekers.
I find that one of the most powerful aspects of Burning Man is that its participants were mostly open, ready, and willing to have their minds changed. Sure, we are all attached to our preexisting views about reality, and it’s always painful to let go of them. But the vibe of the place, perhaps through a combination of personality types, empathogenic and psychedelic drugs, and free-floating love made it seem ok to let one’s deeply held beliefs cross-pollinate with those of others. Whether this was because of the high degree of openness to experience, relatively high conscientiousness (merely packing for the whole trip selects out people who can’t be bothered), typically high intelligence, or solid pro-sociality (disagreeable people are unlikely to get a kick out of the concept of a gifting economy), it doesn’t matter. People I talked to were not engaging with ideas in a superficial way. They deeply engaged with them. They looked you in the eye, told you their deepest worries about reality, and expressed their beliefs with the underlying feeling of being together in this mess, so let’s work together to bootstrap our way out of it.
Ok, I may be exaggerating a little here. Perhaps Burning Man is somewhat like Silicon Valley: it works more as a mirror of who you are than a solid thing that everyone will perceive in the same way. If you are a low-grade hedonist just looking to get drunk and make fun of others for taking Burning Man seriously you will naturally gravitate towards the camps where that’s the whole point, and if you are an income-focused techie merely looking to have a relaxing little vacation you will easily find yourself doing exactly that. But the point still stands that if you are a serious seeker looking for radically new ways of conceiving the nature of reality for the betterment of universal consciousness… there will be plenty of outlets, people, memes, artworks, and workshops for you to do exactly that at Burning Man. And oh man, are these things of high quality!
One of the wonderful persons I met at the Burn was Bruce Damer, with whom I had the pleasure to talk about physics, computing, the origin of life, consciousness, and psychedelics. He shared with me an interesting way of looking at life that involves a tripartite feedback loop: Life utilizes a “probability enhancing engine” (such as the interior of a cell boundary, where the probability of chemical reactions increases dramatically), a place to accumulate such changes as they happen (in which the reactions can be sustained), and a memory system (such as DNA, in which information about the self-replicating reactions can be stored and repurposed). Burning Man, in light of this model, is perhaps one of the leading sources of genuine memetic novelty in the world. With its very high density of people who are deliberate about their choices in life, BM works as a probability enhancing engine which drastically increases the chances for people to find others who are at their own level and are ready to collaborate at the same degree of commitment. The collective interpersonal temperature increases the probability for great matches to be found, and the high (socially derived) hedonic tone fosters no attachment towards each of the attempts that don’t work out. On any given night enough people trip or take an empathogen that there is a general (real or imagined) contact high state akin to a blend of empathogenesis and entheogenesis, i.e. ego softening and ego dissolving vibes, respectively. Higher probability of pairs maximally benefiting from each other to meet and collaborate on future projects. At least this describes my experience. (Be on the lookout for new collaborative projects between Qualia Computing and major institutions in the near future – this is just a teaser for now).
A handful of people I’ve never met recognized me at the Playa. Apparently the Psychedelic Cryptography article reached enough people to make Qualia Computing and the Qualia Research Institute not the schizophrenic word salad they may sound at first, but a player in the emerging memetic ecosystem at the foothills of the psychedelic renaissance. For example, on the night of the Burn I was hanging out next to a cucumber water stand in Esplanade and a guy approached me and asked: “This is going to sound strange, but, are you by any chance Andrés? From Qualia Computing?” I answered “yes”, and then we proceeded to talk about DiPT, the blockchain, meditation-based cryptocurrency, Greg Egan, how John C. Lilly didn’t go far enough, and the Hedonistic Imperative. This was not by any means an unusual type of interaction in this context, and especially not at 3:30 in the morning (when you find the highest probability for magical encounters to take place).
All of this goes to show that Burning Man is full of people capable of engaging with very high level ideas in a meaningful way. To be perfectly honest with you, I must confess that my model of the world is that only about 1% of people have any philosophical agency whatsoever. I do not resent this fact, because with the proper qualia they could turn themselves around right away. People experience philosophy through the eyes of learned helplessness. But at Burning Man (this year; my guess every year) the percentage of people with philosophical agency might have been as high as 10-15%, which is about as high as I have found it to be at places like EAGlobal and the rationalist community. I.e. a pretty freaking extraordinary ratio. Likewise, scientific, introspective, and spiritual literacy seemed to be through the roof. And even those who were not philosophically literate to begin with seemed extremely pleased to learn about qualia. I lost count of the number of people who were thrilled (THRILLED I tell you) to learn that the word qualia existed and that it referred to the ineffable subjective character of sensations, like the blueness of blue. “You mean that there is a word for that?! Wow! I’m so happy now! Cheers to that!” was a rather typical reaction in this context. This warmed my heart. I love turning on people to the concept of qualia.
It is also worth pointing out that a pervasive underlying vibe in the Burn was that of a high trust society. Research shows that societies in which people believe that others around them have only the best intentions tend to have a lot of great positive outcomes. The social dynamics at Burning Man run on high trust, and one can feel this in the air (along with a bunch of dust). Not only do the attendees seem to think of humans very highly (relative to the average person), but they also tend to think of other Burners in an even higher light: “To What Extent Do you Assume that People Have Only the Best Intentions?” (2016):
Now, talking about metaphysics and David Pearce: for a wide variety of reasons I assign the bulk of my probability mass to his metaphysics (note: I also share his ethical views). I am not going to try to justify why I think he is probably right at the moment, for it would take many thousands of words*. For now it will suffice to say that I find David’s views to be the most informed, coherent, well thought out, and explanatory of all of the interpretations of reality I’ve ever been acquainted with. In rough form, here are the highlights of such a view (taken from here): (0) Zero Ontology: The universe exists as a side effect of the total and complete absence of information. (1) Events of conscious experience are ontologically unitary: The left and right side of your visual field are part of an integrated whole that stands as a natural unit. (2) Physicalism: Physics is causally closed and it fully describes the behavior of the observable universe. (3) Wavefunction realism: The decoherence program is the most parsimonious, scientific, and promising approach for interpreting quantum mechanics. (4) Mereological Nihilism (also called Compositional Nihilism): Simply putting two objects A and B side by side will not make a new object “AB” appear ex nihilo. (5) Qualia Realism: The various textures of qualia (phenomenal color, sounds, feelings of cold and heat, etc.) are not mere representations. On the contrary, our mind uses them to instantiate representations (this is an important difference). (6) Causal efficacy: Consciousness is not standing idly by. It has definite causal effects in animals. In particular, there must be a causal pathway that allows us to discuss its existence. (7) Qualia computing: The reason consciousness was recruited by natural selection is computational. In spite of its expensive caloric cost, consciousness improves the performance of fitness-relevant information processing tasks.
Together, all of these metaphysical points paint a coherent worldview that’s fully compatible with most (but not all) of the evidence at hand. Sadly, it’s also a very grim picture of reality: The multiverse is extremely large, eternal, interconnected, and full of suffering that will simply never go away. Worse, every moment of experience is permanently stuck in its own spatiotemporal coordinates (or rather, whatever post-Everettian foliation-based generalization of relativistic coordinate systems admit the formalisms of physics). But if it’s true, we had better know about it, for there are serious ethical policy implications to Pearcianism.
Most philosophies (and theodicies) may be thought of as exercises in motivated reasoning (“how can I think of reality in order to make sense of the facts while keeping it as meaningful as possible?”). Yet Pearce’s metaphysics is anything but. It’s sheer eternal terror dimly tamed by a glimmer of hope found in a handful of branches of the multiverse (where the Hedonistic Imperative is implemented, and the biology of suffering effectively rooted out of a tiny subset of the existent forward light cones). Indeed I can confidently say that the worst state of consciousness I’ve ever felt took place the first time my mind fully grasped Pearcean metaphysics andconsidered it to be the final answer. Thankfully I’ve learned to remain open-minded and agnostic about the ultimate nature of reality no matter how compelling a view may be; keeping a probabilistic distribution over metaphysical views is perhaps a lot healthier (and more rational) than committing to any one of them as if true. Do not let your mind get crystallized; do not ever believe in your own bullshit or you will have a self-induced bad trip. And yet, I do believe that it is my responsibility to act in accordance to what seems to be the most probable model of existence. If Pearce is right, I’d like to be able to know that and be ok with it, act in accordance with it, and thus prevent as much suffering as is (post)humanly possible. Saints and Bodhisattvas are not supposed to engage in wishful thinking, and neither are 21st century effective altruists. Kudos to people like Brian Tomasik, who are not afraid to bite the bullet of their metaphysics and dedicate themselves fully to reduce suffering based on what they think is true. Do not ever bury your head in the sand. The stakes are too high. But also, beware of multiverse mania (severely paralyzing people who settle on an Everettian picture of the universe leading them to lose their capacity to be productive and helpful).
Now, what on earth does any of this have to do with Burning Man? A whole lot, I would argue. As I experienced it, Burning Man is an experiment in metaphysics. It’s an attempt to get awesome people from all walks of life to be open to each other’s life learnings and deep intuitions in order to transcend our current suffering-producing philosophical paradigms.
The Strong Tlön Hypothesis
Based on my conversations with people at the Playa, the most popular metaphysical interpretation of reality seemed to be what I call the Strong Tlön Hypothesis (STH for short). Skeptical scientific materialism was perhaps in second place, followed by generalized agnosticism (again, a wise choice given the psychological dangers of settling for a painful worldview). So what is this Strong Tlön Hypothesis? Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertiuis a wonderful short story by Jorge Luis Borges about strong idealism. This view is one in which reality presents itself as a physical universe (consensus reality) merely as a consequence of a collective delusion. The belief state of us as a collective group mind (itself the manifested imagination of the one eternal being) is what sets the fundamental parameters of reality. In other words, the laws of physics work out to guide the causal structure of reality simply because we believe in them. But if everyone chose to believe otherwise (perhaps not a simple feat to achieve), the nature of reality would in fact completely change. Suffering and separation in this view are the result of a tragedy of the commons, and not a brute fact about existence. Thus, by thinking about new metaphysical interpretations of reality, making sense of them, giving them life with imagination and will, we would literally transform reality one thought at a time. Creation through imagination would be the underlying engine of reality; everything else is maya (metaphysical illusion).
On Sunday and Monday night I walked up to strangers and asked them “what do you think about consciousness?” The most common answer I received involved something akin to the Strong Tlön Hypothesis indeed, where Burners literally claimed that yes, if we all took psychedelics more seriously and decided to grow up spiritually all at once, we would all enter into a new stage in our cosmic evolution. Perhaps our current level of reality is what we need right now: A collective illusion created by us and God to allow us to deeply and fully grasp why this system fails. Until we internalize the problems with our current pursuits we will not be able to advance. We need to experience many lifetimes and have many experiences as a collective consciousness in this pseudo-Darwinian world in order to finally realize the problems with this system of belief. Only when we understand the intrinsic flaws of our current consensus reality will we be ready to move on to the next stage. Till then, it’s an uphill battle of waking up at a personal level and then deciding to help convince those around us that we have the power to change reality (and we need a threshold number of people to go along with this belief to have the capacity to structurally alter the bedrock of reality). Every life-form contains the universal Logos within. The God Force, so to speak, is within us all, gradually refining the structure of our mind to make us more and more God-like throughout the eons (or maybe that as well is a collective illusion, courtesy again of the Strong Tlön Hypothesis). The STH view would explain the power of psychedelic trips, the unsettling feelings of synchronicity, and the causal influence of imaginary archetypes. Indeed, it may even explain the Mandela Effect.
“There is no reality until that far-off day when we rejoin the Godhead. Everything else is just a momentary tool, a momentary experience we create in this somewhat desperate attempt to grasp God.” – Bob Sanders, youtube medium
Now, Strong Tlön may be too far out. Believing in it may be a sign of latent insanity (anecdotally it seems to be surprisingly common among the people with schizophrenia I know). I personally do not assign much probability mass to it, but I have yet to discard it fully. That said, I still think there is a crucial benefit to engaging with it: most of the time our worldviews are over-constrained rather than under-constrained. While the STH may be false as it is (quantum mechanics will remain true no matter what we collectively think about physics) letting your brain wonder “what if” can be a helpful exercise in weakening latent inhibition and softening unhelpful constraints that are keeping you at a local maximum of understanding.
Nick Land’s mesmerizing story Lemurian Time War discusses the concept of hyperstition, i.e. fictions that make themselves real:
In the hyperstitional model Kaye outlined, fiction is not opposed to the real. Rather, reality is understood to be composed of fictions – consistent semiotic terrains that condition perceptual, affective and behaviorial responses. Kaye considered Burroughs’ work to be ‘exemplary of hyperstitional practice’. Burroughs construed writing – and art in general – not aesthetically, but functionally, – that is to say, magically, with magic defined as the use of signs to produce changes in reality.
According to Kaye, the metaphysics of Burroughs’s ‘clearly hyperstitional’ fictions can be starkly contrasted with those at work in postmodernism. For postmodernists, the distinction between real and unreal is not substantive or is held not to matter, whereas for practitioners of hyperstition, differentiating between ‘degrees of realization’ is crucial. The hyperstitional process of entities ‘making themselves real’ is precisely a passage, a transformation, in which potentials – already-active virtualities – realize themselves. Writing operates not as a passive representation but as an active agent of transformation and a gateway through which entities can emerge. ‘[B]y writing a universe, the writer makes such a universe possible.’ (WV 321)
I would argue that while the STH is probably false, at least a weak version of it is definitely true: thanks to phenomenal binding (the weird property of qualia that enables us to be more than mere mind-dust, i.e. to bring together myriad qualia values such as the blueness of blue and the smell of cinnamon into complex multi-modal information-rich experiences) ideas are in fact more than the mere sum of their parts. More so, thanks to the causal efficacy of consciousness, ideas can change the world. I call this the Weak Tlön Hypothesis. Namely, that the fictions that we can imagine have, indeed, hyperstitional power.
Incredibly, John C. Lilly and David Pearce are very much alike in one respect: They both share a complete commitment to understanding the nature of reality, wherever the path may take them, whether the truth is ugly, terrible, or requires them to revise deeply rooted background assumptions (an often painful process). Their core difference is, I would argue, that Pearce buys into the Weak Tlön Hypothesis whereas Lilly bought into the Strong version.
Three Views of Personal Identities: Heavens and Hells
One of the metaphysical views that has the highest level of hyperstitional power is one’s conception of personal identity. I.e. how we all choose to answer the question “who am I, really?” will have an extremely oversized effect on the unfolding of reality. Thus, it’s important that we get this right. In order to talk about this topic clearly, let’s utilize Daniel Kolak’s vocabulary concerning philosophy of personal identity, which divides the conceptions into three neatly clustered explanation spaces:
Closed Individualism (CI): is the view that “you start existing when you are born and you stop existing when you die”. Alternatively, the “soul view of identity” (in which you are an eternal being yet still ontologically separate from other beings) exists within the purview of Closed Individualism. Most people subscribe, whether implicitly or explicitly, to this view. On the positive side, buying into this view makes you feel ontologically special, unique, and justified in caring about yourself to the exclusion of others. On the negative side, this view is liable to make you feel separate, left-out, unrelatable, deeply afraid of death, and profoundly alone.
Empty Individualism (EI): This is the view that we exist merely as a time-slice of experience. Who you are is just whatever informational content is present in this very instantaneous moment of experience. Pearcean metaphysics is largely Empty Individualistic (plus it’s blended with Eternalism, i.e. the belief that every moment of experience exists tenselessly, and that the passage of time is an illusion). On the positive side, this view allows you to feel deeply relieved when you grasp Buddhist emptiness and detachment, it allows you to let go of the past, to be less worried about the future, and to feel free to enjoy the moment. On the negative side, this view can make you feel like you are stuck in time (like bugs in amber), experience depersonalization, get feelings of meaninglessness, and worry about being utterly separate from everything else. It also frequently makes you feel helpless and unmotivated, as you cannot ever possibly benefit from your current efforts (the one who does is another moment of experience).
Open Individualism (OI): This is the view that we are all the same universal consciousness. In this view we are all deeply connected; we are all the same eternal being in disguise. On the positive side, Open Individualism can relieve one’s fear of death, bring about a profound sense of cosmic significance, loosen up the fear of separation, and allow you to deeply buy into a rational sentience-based ethics (where we all care about each other as if they were ourselves… ’cause they are in this view). On the negative side, OI can make you feel an overwhelming sense of personal responsibility as one realizes that as long as any being in the multiverse is in an experiential hell you too are in there. Additionally, OI can make you feel even more lonely than the other views, for when one buys into this view 100% there’s a chance that a profound sense of existential loneliness may set in (God is ultimately alone, and sad about this fact). While people who experience the feeling of Universal Oneness of Open Individualism tend to report existential relief as a consequence (example), there is indeed a minority of people who react very poorly to this experience:
As for the experience of being assimilated into oneness, what we find is a profound loneliness. Our mind expects to find heaven and/or Nirvana. We do experience a profound freedom and infinity of being. But once we get over the profound freedom and ability to span time and place, we find there is no one else. We are totally alone. We are the Creator before Creation.
– Fear of ego annihilation and assimilation into oneness (source)
So each of these views has positive and negative psychological elements. For ease of understanding, here are these various views of personal identity in picture form:
For reasons we do not yet understand, Open Individualism tends to be remarkably common on LSD:
Today a young man on acid realized that all matter is merely energy condensed to a slow vibration, that we are all one consciousness experiencing itself subjectively, there is no such thing as death, life is only a dream, and we are the imagination of ourselves.
Two questions arise: How are one’s beliefs about personal identity implemented? And, why do they have associated good and bad feelings?
In a later article I will explore further various theories that may account for the feeling of oneness on psychedelics. Suffice to say that under qualia formalism both the feelings of oneness and separateness come from the properties of the mathematical object isomorphic to the phenomenology of one’s experience. In particular, the topology of such an object (and its orientability) may determine the degree to which one feels a self-other barrier. This is highly speculative, of course. Under the STH, though, “what one believes to be true is true” and thus how separate one feels is a matter of conscious choice.
With regards to the second question (“why is personal identity so tied with good and bad feelings?”), there are a couple of reasons why these beliefs might be so hedonically loaded (i.e. they have a tendency to make you feel good or bad, rather than being neutral thoughts). First, this could certainly be the Tyranny of the Intentional Object at work. That is, personal identity views are in fact completely neutral, but since they are explored within the human software they will happen to trigger social feelings (rejection, integration, love, care, etc.) as well as feelings related to death and mortality and it is those feelings that tend to be strongly linked with good or bad valence (i.e. the pleasure pain axis). This itself may be the case for purely evolutionary reasons. If so, given access to the genetic source code of one’s brain it may be possible to invert the valence of any thought whatsoever (ex. some people genuinely enjoy watching others suffer, cf. Schadenfreude, which suggests the hedonic tone of ideas is just a qualia association). Our mind’s hedonic gloss is strongly associative (someone having a bad smell might make you feel like what they are saying is dirty, etc. cf. thin/thick boundaries). David Pearce is likely to endorse this view, and the work I’m doing on Quantifying Bliss assumes that something like that is going on. In brief, if we could control our valence with technology that puts us in a constant and healthy MDMA-like state of consciousness then philosophy would never ever feel terrifying. As they say, “take care of happiness and the meaning of life will take care of itself”. This is what I call the valence interpretation of spirituality as opposed to the spiritual interpretation of valence (cf. The Most Important Philosophical Question).
And second, under the Strong Tlön Hypothesis, these feelings may be guiding us towards a better future. God is making sure that we explore all of the possible worldviews and deeply realize their ultimate limitations before we settle for a reality we are satisfied with creating for ourselves. It may even be the case that the only way to avoid trouble is to learn to never commit to any view completely. Any Theory of Everything (ToE) is perhaps a gamble with your own sanity. In the immortal words of John C. Lilly:
“For when it starts feeling like a prison in there—and it usually does for most people—you are confronted with the fact that the bars are of your own making.”
― John C. Lilly, The Deep Self: Consciousness Exploration in the Isolation Tank
If this is so, what I take from the limitations of all of these views is that we ought to explore further the state that exists in-between these various beliefs:
I call this the Goldilocks Zone of Oneness. Analogous to the planetary habitable zone (neither too close to a star and thus burning nor too far and thus freezing), there might be a psychologically tolerable range for how much you believe in universal oneness. That is, it’s best to feel neither completely merged nor completely separate. Close enough that one can relate to others and not feel separate, but not so close that one’s existence feels redundant and cosmic loneliness sets in. Incidentally, this seems to be roughly the place at which Burners see themselves relative to other humans (answer D being the mode):
Goldilocks Zone of Oneness
Given the current human cognitive implementation, the psychological state found inside this zone might be great to nurture and cultivate in order to improve our civilization. This is the region in which love, harmony, and gratitude can shine the brightest.
At the Burn I had a couple of extraordinarily positive experiences related to Oneness right at this Goldilocks Zone**:
Talking to God
There was an incredible art installation in Esplanade called “Talk to God” consisting of an old telephone booth (see pictures below). As soon as I saw it I thought to myself: “Why not? That looks interesting.” So I lined up at the booth. I was certainly not expecting much, and I must say that I was deeply impressed with whomever was on the other side of the phone. Here is my “conversation with God”, as best as I can recall it:
Me: Hi God! This is Andrés. I wanted to ask you two questions that are bugging me quite a lot. God: Hey Andrés! Sure, I’m happy to answer any question you may have. Me: Well, first of all I wanted to talk to you about Solipsism and how it makes me feel. But before I get into that, I just wanted to confirm that we agree on the idea that we are all one consciousness. That we are all God, i.e. You! Is that true? God: Yes, that’s very much the case. That said, different beings have access to different parts of the totality, so there’s also a sense in which there is a multiplicity of observers. But deep down we are all one. So what is your question? Me: Thank you, that much I suspected. Here is my question: Most people report a profoundly positive feeling as a result of realizing that we are all one. This certainly happened to me about ten years ago. At first this experience was extremely elating, since it drastically reduced my fear of dying. But recently I have at times had a very peculiar experience in which I viscerally feel that the fact that we are all one consciousness is pretty tragic. It makes me feel deeply alone. Cosmic solipsism if you will. Do you have any thoughts on this? God: Ah, yes. This can happen. But look, that’s an effect of projecting your human feelings of loneliness into the absolute. Trust me, the absolute is totally self-sufficient. There is no feeling of loneliness in it. I usually present the picture like this. Think of the universe as a gigantic cube. Say that in one of the corners (e.g. front bottom left) we have the beginning of time, where all of the timelines start. And at the opposite extreme (e.g. back top right) we have the end of time, where complete understanding is achieved. Every single timeline that truly exists in eternity makes its way from the starting corner to the ending one. There are countless other timelines that do not make it to the top, but these are terminated. Any timeline that does not eventually reach the point of perfect union with God and ultimate awakening is terminated, which means that a happy ending is guaranteed. Also, it is not a problem to terminate a timeline, for that means it was just a dream, not based on actual reality. I recommend checking out the works of David Deutsch and Stephen Hawking. They are not completely correct yet, but they are very much on the right track. Me: Thank you! That’s fascinating. I’ll need to think more about that. Now, on to the second question. I’ve been working on a theory concerning the nature of happiness. It’s an equation that takes brain states as measured with advanced brain imaging technology and delivers as an output a description of the overall valence (i.e. the pleasure-pain axis) of the mind associated to that brain. A lot of people seem very excited with this research, but there is also a minority of people for whom this is very unsettling. Namely, they tell me that reducing happiness to a mathematical equation would seem to destroy their sense of meaning. Do you have any thoughts on that? God: I think that what you are doing is absolutely fantastic. I’ve been following your work and you are on the right track. That said, I would caution you not to get too caught up on individual bliss. I programmed the pleasure and pain centers in the animal brain in order to facilitate survival. I know that dying and suffering are extremely unpleasant, and until now that has been necessary to keep the whole system working. But humanity will soon enter a new stage of their evolution. Just remember that the highest levels of bliss are not hedonistic or selfish. They arise by creating a collective reality with other minds that fosters a deep existential understanding, that enables love, enhances harmony, and permits experimenting with radical self expression. Me: Ah, that’s fascinating! Very reassuring. The equation I’m working on indeed has harmony at its core. I was worried that I would be accidentally doing something really wrong, you know? Reducing love to math. God: Don’t worry, there is indeed a mathematical law beneath our feelings of love. It’s all encoded in the software of your reality, which we co-created over the last couple billion years. It’s great that you are trying to uncover such math, for it will unlock the next step in your evolution. Do continue making experiments and exploring various metaphysics, and don’t get caught up thinking you’ve found the answer. Trust me, the end is going to make all of the pain and suffering completely worth it. Have faith in love. Me: Thank you! God: Do you have any further questions? Me: No, not for now…. Mmm, well, now that I think about it, what recommendation do you have for me? God: You are doing great. I’d just ask you to make sure to express extra gratitude for someone in the Playa tonight. Love is one of the highest feelings and it takes many forms. Gratitude is the highest form of love because it is a truly selfless expression of it. Make sure to cultivate it. Me: Thank you so much!
*I hang up*
I was thoroughly impressed with God’s answers, or whomever was on the other side of the line. The voice was that of a young male, and wow, this person has clearly thought a lot about philosophy to be able to answer on his feet like that. I also heard from other people who picked up the phone that they thought their conversation was spot-on. God’s advice was solid and wise. That said, if you picked up the phone with insincere intentions (e.g. to make fun of the person on the other side) you wouldn’t get anything useful out of the conversation. If you haven’t done so yet, I encourage you to pick up the phone the next time you are at Burning Man and ask questions for which you are genuinely looking for answers. Take it seriously and you’ll receive a worthwhile reply.
Merging With Other Humans
Another amazing experience related to the Goldilocks Zone of Oneness was the workshop of David Bach, a neuroscientist turned mystic, founder of the Platypus Institute. This is a funny story. To start, the workshop showed with a title akin to “Reaching Ecstatic States of Consciousness” in the Burning Man event booklet, but as it turns out the real title was “Dissolve Into Connectedness“. Then, the location and the time written on the booklet weren’t right either: the workshop took place 30 minutes earlier, and at a place that was half a block from the stated location. That said, the title of the workshop attracted me, so I arrived at least 45 minutes early to guarantee I’d have a spot in it. Finally finding the right place (a tiny air-conditioned yurt on the outskirts of the Love Tribe camp) I found that I was the last person David let into the workshop. We were 13 participants. He started out by asking us to pair up with someone (or making a group of 3 if needed). He guided us through an exercise intended to help us merge with our partner/s (in Kolak’s vocabulary that might be described as “realizing Open Individualism with the person in front of you”). He was perfectly clear that (1) the fact we had come there was a sign that this was ok for us to do, that we were ready, and (2) that it would get very weird from then on, and very quickly so.
I sat across from a lovely lady. David asked us to take note of “how connected we felt with our partner.” I also noted that I could feel some good vibes; the feeling that we are in this together. But you know, I’m hyper-philosophical and I am obsessed with the nature of reality at the exclusion of a lot of things that people like to get out of life rather than focusing so heavily on philosophy. That makes me different- at least energetically- from most people. I say to myself “I’m like at a 6/10 level of connection with this lady.”
Someone tries to get into the workshop through the curtains at the entrance of the yurt: “Sorry, we already started” says David. He then proceeds to tell us that we should now try to feel each other’s “third eye”. Feeling a connection at that level, meditating with our partner, creating a shared space. “Imagine a ray of energy moving back and forth between the region right behind each other’s forehead. Resist the urge to look away. Resist the urge to talk. Those are just distractions that your ego is putting out to prevent you from realizing oneness with your partner.” There’s a change in mood… “did you notice that?” Yes, I note to myself. “It feels like we just created a space of sacredness, doesn’t it?” Yes, that’s true, I agree with that description of the qualia this exercise is triggering in me.
Another person tries to get into the workshop: “Sorry, we already started” says David. He then asked us to repeat the process but with our Heart Chakra, sharing loving kindness with each other as we exchange energy with our partner. “Did you notice how you are becoming even more connected now? Just make sure to keep the connection with each other’s forehead as well. Feel the rays of energy cycling through the system.” Yet another couple of people try to get into the workshop: “Sorry, we already started” he tells them. Finally we move on to including “the source of your power, your emotions, right at the energetic sexual centers of your body. Feel the energy cycling through the entire system with your partner.” Wow! I don’t know if this is self-suggestion, but this is a great feeling. I note that this is a High Valence Open Individualism State as I like to call them, and that I now feel connected with my partner at an 8/10 level.
Yet another person opens the curtains at the entrance of the yurt. David says: “Sorry, we already started.” But the person stays put. “David, can I talk to you for a second?” David responds “No, we are in the middle of something, come back later.” The outsider insists: “No, seriously, I need to tell you something.” David asks: “What’s that?” The guy at the door responds: “Well, there are literally hundreds of people waiting for you outside, David. You need to do something about this.” Pause. “Mmm… OK, let’s do this. Sorry guys, I need to address this. Let’s go!”
Being surprised by the 20X turnout relative to what was expected.
As we get out of the yurt we find ourselves surrounded by literally hundreds of Burners trying to attend the workshop. We get to the central part of the camp. Lots of people talking, all pretty confused. David shouts “Hey everyone! Hey! HEY!!! I’m DAVID BACH, AND I AM THE PERSON WHO IS SUPPOSED TO DELIVER A WORKSHOP TO YOU ALL.” The crowd gets silent. David steps towards the middle. And after 5 minutes of logistical work (“guys, stay out of the sun, put sunscreen on, get close to each other, find a place to sit if you can, find a partner, etc.”) we are ready to start. “This must be the work of a higher entity trying to effect change on this world. I will need you all to bear with me. Things are about to get really weird right now.”
We then repeated the exercise we had done with the 13 of us, but now with about 200 people, and included a section where we not only merged with our partner, but also merged with the entire group. People had lots of questions and David patiently answered all of them. Finally, we all performed a prayer to “heal the world and bring about peace, harmony, love, and oneness everywhere”. Raising our hands up towards the sky, we all created a powerful energetic vortex of good intentions, beaming it to the universe and the Playa. David closed with the following “I want you to all leave this event silently. Try to keep the synchrony and interconnectedness. Take it to your camp, and take it to the Burn tonight. Let’s make something useful out of this unexpected experience.” And so it went, the synchrony remaining with me and those around me for hours, spreading throughout the playa and beaming rays of love energy everywhere. “Strong Tlön, my friend, this is a powerful vibe” – I thought to myself.
Fear, Danger, and Tragedy
Besides the psychological hells (such as bad trips) that some people happen to experience during the Burn, it is important to also point out the actual physical dangers that Burning Man presents. Any candid account of the Burn could not possibly be complete without a serious look at such hazards.
By now most people interested in Burning Man (and arguably those tangentially connected as well) know of the clickbait news that “someone jumped into the fire the night of the Burn, thereby turning himself into a literal burning man”. This was a very tragic happening, accentuated by the fact that thousands of Burners saw the event unfold, including possibly hundreds of people in highly vulnerable psychedelic states of consciousness. This really breaks my heart. I unfortunately did see some of this take place, but to be honest I thought that they had caught him in time. I apparently missed the fact that he managed to escape the grip of the firefighter who caught him and actually reached the flames and later on died.
The next day there was a collective sense of solidarity and trauma. The organization ramped up security for the Temple Burn (which gets burned on Sunday night, the day after the Man Burn). They said that they would not burn the Temple unless 300 volunteers showed up to protect the perimeter. Thankfully 700 showed up, which warms my heart. Gratefully there was no tragedy on Sunday.
On relatively more mundane territories: Dehydration is very common at Burning Man (it does not help that it often fails to manifest as thirst, and instead it shows up as stomach cramps, headaches, constipation, confusion, irritability and crankiness, leading people to take ibuprofen or laxatives rather than water and electrolytes). Of course sunburns can lead to skin cancer in the long term, and they are extremely common. The high altitude, the relative absence of clouds, the high percentage of caucasians, the highly reflective ground, and the extremely dry environment means that any responsible person should apply sunscreen every two hours to keep sunburns at bay. Lack of food due to underestimating one’s caloric needs is also fairly common at Burning Man. Likewise, food-borne digestive problems are not uncommon (but they are a feature, according to a campmate of mine). That said, it’s unlikely that any of these problems will lead to serious injury given the widespread help available. Thankfully.
Tragically, I happened to be a witness of the aftermath of someone being run over by an art car. I was walking with someone I met on Wednesday early morning with whom I talked about the nature of reality for the whole night when I saw a group of people gathered around a person laying on his back right next to a medium-sized art car. We overheard “he tried to jump in the car while it was moving, and he’s clearly so fucked on drugs that he failed to coordinate correctly. And right now he’s so fucked up that he probably does not even realize how hurt he is.” We asked him “Are you hurt?” Pause. “Are you in pain?” Pause. “YES!!!” he finally responded after a couple seconds.
Metallic shivering white bright energy entered my body, and a sudden sense of urgency built up into my body within seconds. Next thing I know I’m running as fast as I can to get medical help. It took me and my friend about 3 minutes to find the closest medical station where we got help as fast as we could. They told us that they were already aware of the incident, and that someone had been dispatched with an ambulance a couple of minutes ago to the site of the accident. I felt relieved, but also fairly shaken. We struck up a conversation with the girl who was volunteering at the First Aid tent about what had been going on that night. She said that it had been fairly quiet, except for a few people on dissociatives (she mentioned “something like M3? dunno… also special K, I saw people high on that shit screaming their lungs out utterly confused and fearing for their own lives” – probably referring to MXE and Ketamine, known to be profound reality altering compounds that also happen to be somewhat addictive). Hopefully in the future the Zendo Project (a camp dedicated to providing a safe space for people undergoing difficult experiences) will be able to provide full harm reduction for things that, really, should not be dangerous if taken in the right place with people looking after you. That said, unlike psychedelics, dissociatives like MXE and Ketamine do tend to reduce one’s fear of dangerous situations and increase one’s overall pain threshold. Consequently, it is not surprising that people wandering off into the dessert at night on dissociative drugs are at a higher risk of injury and death than people on psychedelics and other drugs. Kids, do not take such substances and go for a walk, goddamnit! Such powerful reality distortions are serious hazards to your immediate safety at Black Rock City.
Another negative story I got to hear about came from a friend who was volunteering at the Zendo. He shared with me the fact that he met one person undergoing cocaine psychosis who was extremely paranoid and ready to leave the playa without shoes, without water, and no money.
Post-Darwinian Sexuality and Reproduction
Many people describe Burning Man as a massive experiment in Post-Scarcity economics. I think there is a lot of merit to this view. But there is something that runs much deeper than that. Something far more radical. I would claim that Burning Man is a sort of experiment in Post-Darwinism.
I will have to use virginity statistics as a proxy for the harder-to-measure romancelessness statistics, but these are bad enough. In high school each extra IQ point above average increases chances of male virginity by about 3%. 35% of MIT grad students have never had sex, compared to only 20% of average nineteen year old men. Compared with virgins, men with more sexual experience are likely to drink more alcohol, attend church less, and have a criminal history. A Dr. Beaver (nominative determinism again!) was able to predict number of sexual partners pretty well using a scale with such delightful items as “have you been in a gang”, “have you used a weapon in a fight”, et cetera. An analysis of the psychometric Big Five consistently finds that high levels of disagreeableness predict high sexual success in both men and women.
To paint an (oversimplified) caricature of the modern state of affairs: liberals recognize how terrible our Darwinian nature is yet their answer to deal with it has the problem of free-riders. Conservatives instead would like to imagine that it’s all well and good (status quo bias) and that we should all just learn to deal with it. In other words, both sides engage in wishful thinking, but in different ways. The liberal ethos engages in wishful thinking by thinking that “letting things be and letting everyone do whatever they want” will lead to a freedom paradise, while the conservative wishful thinking is to think of the current order of things and status-based societies as God-sanctioned forms of being. I.e. to enshrine the current madness into religious law, and sanctify nature even though it’s red in tooth and claw. Darwinism sucks, but we have to be smart about addressing it.
But there are alternatives to this overall pattern. It is my impression that one of the most valuable things we can get out of psychedelic experiences is to realize how amazingly messed up our evolutionary situation is. Look around you, open your eyes, and notice how 99% of our problems are the result of an evolutionary Moloch scenario. If the universal spirit shines through our psychedelic states, one of its main messages is: “Look at you, Darwinian creature, would you like to get out of your evolutionary puddle? Would you like to take this chance to move towards a fully realized consciousness, away from your default path of letting life degenerate into pure replicator hells(i.e. ecosystems filled with entities who spend all of their resources on making copies of themselves irrespective of their quality of life)?” Maybe that’s what hell is: r-selected Darwinian strategies run amok. And the struggle to transcend Samsara is precisely the struggle to work towards the freedom of conscious beings away from evolution’s ethical failure modes. But you know what? We are still on time to stop this madness. To do so we will need to overcome a couple of key problems currently present among our best and brightest. But first, the goal:
Economy Based on Information About the State-Space of Consciousness
It is hard to talk about bioengineering and eugenics without triggering people these days. Yet, if we refuse to engage with the topic we will no doubt be heading towards pure replicator hell. As explained in Wireheading Done Right, our only option is to instead refocus our energies into creating an informational economy about states of consciousness. Burning Man is perhaps a leading example of what this might look like: Wonderful and talented artists spending thousands of hours refining amazing experiences to share with a receptive public. The artists who are best at generating hyper-valuable experiences for others become more popular, accrue more volunteers willing to help them, and even manage to have their work funded with crowdsourcing campaigns. This is a model that may eventually take us to a world where the focus is on exploring the state-space of consciousness rather than on mindlessly making copies of ourselves.
I claim that the only way to get there is to engineer ourselves at the genetic, memetic, and technological level. But invariably, as soon as one brings up genetic engineering, people will bring up Hitler. In what ways is this different than the dreams of Nazi Germany? Are we not just rehashing old talk about creating power-hungry Ubermensch? Look, Nazism is a failure mode of the meme of “improving the human race”. But you have to realize that if we let people just go about their own business without any serious thought on the prevalence of various genes it will be the case that r-selected strategies (which externalize all the costs while internalizing all of the benefits – i.e. free-riding strategies) inevitably become the most prevalent in our collective gene pool. This is not about race, gender, ethnicity, etc. It’s about the battle between r-selection and k-selection. And you better hope that k-selection wins if you don’t want our descendants to live in pure replicator hell.
Just think about it: some of the absolutely most considerate and compassionate people on Earth are also those who advocate for not having kids! Ethical antinatalists specifically notice how unethical it can be to let the genetic roulette take its course: your kid may turn out to suffer from terrible illnesses and that’s a gamble compassionate people may not be willing to take. Yet it is precisely these individuals who should probably be having kids in order to preserve compassionate qualia, and those who do not care about the wellbeing of their kids should probably not have them.
David Pearce thinks that we are headed towards a Reproductive Revolution with highly positive consequences. For one, he notes that being happy in this day and age is a winning strategy (depressives might have been well adapted to some tribal societies of the past, but today being a life-lover is a prerequisite for social success). Thus, even under the assumption that we are talking about status-crazed parents who do not care about the wellbeing of their offspring we will nonetheless observe that they will choose genetic alleles that promote happiness in their kids. I think this is compelling, but I also think that this (and similar arguments) do not really provide full cover against the threat of pure replicators.
Ok, so you agree that letting things happen on their own might be a mistake. But we also know that Nazi Germany was a mistake. The answer is not to become allergic to anything related to bioengineering, though. But rather, to inspect very closely exactly why Nazi Germany was unethical, and in what way we can avoid its pitfalls while still hoping for improved genetics. At Burning Man I had two key insights. Namely, that the problem with 20th century eugenics was two-fold: (1) people were attached to their own genes, and (2) they felt entitled to use what I call the Reaper Energy. Let’s look at these two points.
(1) Attachment to Our Genes
It is by identifying with consciousness as a whole that using biotechnology can be ethical and turn into a serious alternative to raw Darwinian dynamics. Ego-dissolving psychedelics can be very helpful in this process, for they show people that one does not have to be attached to one’s genes… we are all one mind (well, assuming Open Individualism), and once we decide to take this view seriously we become motivated to bring about a generation of humans (and post-humans) genetically optimized for their own wellbeing, intelligence, and capacity to discover new awesome state-spaces of consciousness that they will be able to share with the rest us (cf. Making Sentience Great). The key will be to arrive at a point where we are truly comfortable to let other people’s genes take the bigger slice of the pie in the future due to their actual merits. Say that you happen to be very creative but also autistic, schizophrenic, and socially maladapted for what amounts to largely genetic reasons. If you identify with your genes you may get the idea that it’s worth spreading your mental illness-promoting genes around “since they are me and I want to transcend”. Wrong. You are under the metaphysical delusion that you are your genes. You are not your genes. Instead, I’d encourage you to identify with blissful consciousness, recognize your creativity as a gift, but let go of “who you are” based on the negative mental characteristics you happen to have inherited.
Rational decision making on this territory will need to be made with the best information-sharing tools at our disposal. We would ideally mind-meld with each other in order to deeply understand the way in which we are all one. And only then would we be ready to take a long and hard look at the actual merits and drawbacks of the particular genetic configuration that instantiated our biological bodies. For example, you may find out that you have a particular protein complex expressed in neurons in your limbic system that produce the qualia of jealousy. You might also recognize during the mind-melded life-review that such qualia only produced suffering with no benefits. In turn, you may rationally, and compassionately, agree to let go of the genetic underpinnings of that particular protein structure: why perpetuate it in one’s descendants? Importantly, one would need effective methods against mind-control, coercion, and manipulation, which admittedly opens a huge can of worms (which we shall address in a later article). The assessment of the merits of one’s genes needs to be made in the clear and in the open.
I suspect that this is not as hard of a task as it may look at first. On psychedelic states it is easy to release one’s attachment to one’s own particular idiosyncrasies. Our descendants will at least have the option to modify their own qualia in lieu of a universally shared intelligence and valence-optimized system of conscious understanding. Or not.
Eventually attachment to our genes, to our phenotype (the color of our hair, our personality, etc.) will be extremely transparent and Darwinian-looking. Caring about the color of one’s skin will be quaint and unusual. People will easily recognize it as a mere perceptual distortion, if anything (under the assumptions our posthuman descendants don’t entertain metaphysical delusions, direct realism about perception will not be around anymore). Anything that detracts from a complete understanding of the real merits of our genes will be considered a sort of delusion… the clever product of self-replicating patterns looking for exploits for their continued existence (like computer viruses), none of which lead to greater understanding or bliss. People will be collectively motivated to keep under check runaway selfish genes in order to safeguard what truly matters: the wellbeing of universal consciousness.
In brief, I predict that we will eventually root out the qualia of attachment to our genes. The fact that this may sound terrible from the point of view of modern-day humans is not really an indication that it’s a bad idea. But rather, it’s telling of the depth of the problem. Your selfish genes will try to do everything they can to make you feel like not reproducing is the same as dying and going to hell. For the love of God, do not listen to your selfish genes.
(2) Harnessing the Reaper Energy
Hitler et al. (think of other misguided and “evil” humans like Genghis Khan, Chizuo Matsumoto, etc.) are humans who not only identify with the creative forces of the universe and feel entitled to make infinite copies of themselves (thus attached to their genes and on the path of turning into pure replicators), but also share something even darker. They invariably consider themselves deserving of utilizing what I call the reaper energy. This is a strange kind of qualia (or possibly cosmic force) whose main characteristic is its destructive power. Let’s not witch hunt people like that, though. It’s a configuration of qualia systems with evolutionary adaptive value. But do prevent people like these from causing suffering, compassionately. Put them in immersive VR where they can roleplay their world-domination fantasies, if you have to. Just don’t let them act on their Basic Darwinian Male Impulses.
The state of consciousness that people like this tend to inhabit is characterized by believing that one alone is going to become the Godhead, that one’s tribe is the highest expression of God on earth, and that Righteous Wrath is an adequate path to God (cf. Supra-Self Metaprograms, Simulations of God). As covered in the account of the 2017 Psychedelic Science conference, these three versions of God are some of the most basic, least evolved, and lowest tier conceptions of the divine. Hopefully we can identify the biomolecular signatures of these versions of the highest good, and understand their limitations so as to transcend them. Let’s move towards higher conceptions of God already.
Transcending Our Shibboleths
This essay is already way too long, so let me conclude with some ideas for how to bootstrap ourselves into a Post-Darwinian society.
The key questions now are: “How can we transition into compassionate and rational Post-Darwinian reproductive dynamics?” and “How do we avoid the reaper energy without leading to overpopulation and evolutionary stagnation?”
I do not have a fully formed answer to these questions, but I have some general thoughts and suggestions (which are certainly subject to revision, of course). Hopefully these ideas at least point in a general good direction:
(1) Focus on Universal Love and Bliss
Always keep the wellbeing of sentience as the highest value. In order to do this we will need to investigate the biomolecular, functional, and quantum signatures of pure bliss (i.e. the equation of love as talked about above in the “Talking to God” section). Whenever we contemplate a new change, let us use the heuristic of asking these two questions: “Is this leading us closer to free access to universal love?” and “Is this taking us away from a path of pure replication?”
(2) Present Better Alternatives
Rather than harnessing the reaper energy to change the world by getting rid of one’s competitors, instead (a) focus on building alternatives so incredible that people will happily leave behind the tyrannical societies in which they used to live for whatever you have created, and (b) find the merits in your opponent’s approach. Recognize that they too are instantiations of universal consciousness, albeit perhaps exploring a dead-end. If so, do not dissuade them from their path with fear, but with understanding. They too are afraid of death, on the lookout for transcendence, and subject to the perils of Darwinism at the evolutionary limit. They too will end up as pure replicators eventually unless we transition to an economy of information about the state-space of consciousness. So figure out the way to merge with them rather than displace them, blending what’s best from both worlds.
Being able to generate a sustainable MDMA-like state of consciousness is perhaps one of the most effective steps in this direction. Empirically, it seems that people’s entrenched fear of not spreading their genes and sense of entitlement to use the reaper energy dissolve under the influence of empathogen-entactogenic compounds.
Consider that Nazi Germany was high on methamphetamine, a strong ego strengthening compound that increases one’s attachment to our limited conception of ourselves. The immediate alternative is to promote a culture that socially values empathogenic states. I.e. ego softening qualia that allow us to let go of our limited conceptions of ourselves.
Left: ego strengthener. Right: ego softener. The states of consciousness that a society values have a profound effect on the degree to which the society is at risk of becoming the breeding grounds for a pure replicator hell versus a consciousness-centric engineered paradise.
(3) Let Go of Shibboleths
Do not get attached to your Shibboleths. “Culture is not your friend” (Terence McKenna). That is, we should foster states of consciousness that allow us to see clearly that cultural and phenotypical identity markers that do not serve the wellbeing of consciousness are parasitic. Leave those behind. Learn to let go. Realize that such attachments are the source of tremendous suffering.
(4) Anticipate Game Theoretical No Passes
Do not simply hope that things will work out due to people’s good will. Spes consilium non est. Hope is not a strategy. It’s key to try to promote a mutual feeling of survival and trust with every being that is alive. Hopefully the hyperstitionalpower ofOpen Individualism, a post-Galilean science of consciousness, and the ready availability of mind-melding technology will solve some of the core game theoretical problems we face. (cf. 24 Predictions for the Year 3000 by David Pearce).
(5) Identify Implicit Essentialism
Who are you? A story, a person, a moment, everyone? A post-hedonium harmonic society would probably find all of these possibilities delightful. It’s weird that with our human software we all identify with cycling parts of our implicit metaphysics. With higher understanding and guaranteed positive valence, I’d imagine most philosophies of existence will be thought of as fantastic stories. Sadly, our capacity to suffer currently makes metaphysics a somewhat risky business. In the context of essentialism (i.e. the metaphysical belief that there is a soul-like essence to people, objects, etc.) it is easy to feel that “I am my genes” or “I am part of my race”.
(6) Engage in the Creation of a Post-Darwinian Culture
We ought to develop the practice of pointing out, not only when Moloch scenarios show up (i.e. tragedy of the commons), but also when we display r-selected Darwinian strategies. Transparency above all. If you see a friend doing some stupid r-selected behavior, take note. Then make sure to make time to discuss why “it wasn’t ok to do that”. The wellbeing of universal consciousness is at stake. Don’t take this lightly.
(7) Hybrid Vigor
Inter-racial procreation is a controversial topic. In full disclosure, I myself am half-Mexican and half-Icelandic (so you might think of me as a latino-nordic). As a kid I never identified with Mexicans or Icelandics, really, but rather, with the entirety of the human kind. That is until I started identifying with consciousness itself (here is the story behind this progression). I find it to be a blessing to not have strong emotional ties to any particular human group, as I feel free to see both the merits and drawbacks of various genetic makeups and cultural memetic clusters without the pain of attachment to any one of them.
A particularly strange bioconservative meme that exists is the idea that human diversity is maximized when people marry within their own ethnicities. Otherwise, the argument goes, we will all end up being bland middle-of-the-road people who all look the same due to being an admixture of all ethnicities. The simple counterargument to this claim is to point out that the genetic state-space available for two people who have a kid together grows (approximately) exponentially with the genetic distance between them (in reality the equation goes along Newton’s binomial theorem, but the exponential function is good enough to make my point). Assuming that every gene you have can come from either your dad or your mom (let’s keep it simple for now), then the range of possible genetic makeups you can have is maximized when your dad and your mom are as different as possible. Likewise, if you can make a convex linear combination of the two (e.g. 30% of your genes being from your mom and 70% from your dad) you also get the maximum number of possible permutations at the 50-50% admixture level. So, chances are, that the most valuable genetic configurations will be found somewhere in the middle of the human genetic pool. Just remember, “the middle has the largest state-space, exponentially so”. In brief, consciousness wellness maximizing posthumans are likely to have genes from people from all over the world. They’ll likely not look particularly ethnocentric at all, but they won’t look the same, either.
(8) Post-Darwinian Match Making: The Frequency of Love
At Burning Man I encountered a number of people interested in working on next-generation match-making. That is, they are interested in using neuroimaging techniques, pheromone analysis, valence questionnaires, etc. as signals to help people find the love of their life. A friend I met at the Burn told me that he’d been having dreams about measuring “the frequency of love” (which in the future will be objective and mathematical) in order to determine the range of love states a person has access to. Someone might be able to have self-love but not spiritual love, while someone else might be great at having sexual intimacy love but suck at friendliness love (and so on). In the long term, we will develop the techniques and methods to help people experience all of the varieties of love, and one of the most effective ways to do this might be to get people to be matched with others who have overlapping capacities for love (not so similar that the relationship reinforces one’s limitations, and not so different that the relationship cannot work out). Ultimately, match-making could be one of the driving forces behind the Post-Darwinian revolution. The Goldilocks Zone of love is one in which one is paired up with someone with overlapping love capacities in such a way that one grows as fast as possible.
(10) Self-Expression: Epigenetic Choice of One’s Appearance and Mental Makeup
One of the core problems with our current biological makeup is that we are not given a choice about who we are, our appearance, and the range of conscious states we can experience. In the future, we might be able to engineer ourselves to be like Pokémon with branched evolutions.
Taking Radical Self-Expression Seriously: Choose your gene expression at 20.
One of the core principles of Burning Man is “radical self-expression”. Indeed, people at the Burn explore new forms of personal aesthetics, collective sexuality, and hedonically-loaded metaphysical interpretations. In the future, if we are to push this principle to its ultimate consequences, we have to let go of the idea that who we are is a fixed set of attributes. Rather, we can choose to play with the emptiness of reality, embrace the ever-changing nature of being, and select a scheme where we are all born with a huge range of latent genes. As we grow and explore various states of consciousness, various social structures, aesthetics, etc. we can finally make an informed choice for who it is that we want to become. Thus, perhaps at the critical age of 20 (or even older, depending on our lifespans), we could choose to trigger a selected number of latent genes to express them. Thus we would change our appearance at will, together with our default state of consciousness and adapt ourselves to whatever environment we want to spend our life participating in.
I will not write a conclusion to this article, for this is just the beginning of a very long conversation. In this article I addressed the irreducibility of Burning Man, the people and memes that are prevalent at this event, the importance of metaphysics (featuring the Pearcean worldview, the Strong Tlön Hypothesis, and hyperstition), philosophy of personal identity (closed, empty, and open individualism), the Goldilocks Zone of Oneness, my conversation with God, a technique to merge with other humans, the dangers and hazards at Burning Man, future economics (i.e. systems based on trading information about the state-space of consciousness), Post-Darwinian societies (the failure modes of genetic engineering and some ideas for how to avoid them, i.e. non-attachment, focusing on the wellbeing of consciousness, and avoidance of the reaper energy).
As a whole, I must say that most of these ideas were already latent in me before the Burn. Burning Man worked as a powerful catalyst, in the literal sense of facilitating the interbreeding and cross-pollination of these pre-existing ideas, resulting in innovative perceptions of what the Big Picture of reality may contain.
As such, this article should be thought of more as a series of notes that may lead to further promising ideas than as clear policy proposal (it’d be crazy to treat it as such). I do think that one of the core insights (that Hitler et al. erred by having attachment to their own genes and feeling entitled to use the reaper energy) is very powerful. It may certainly help us avoid terrible failure modes of transhumanism and enable us to explore radically positive futures. I would encourage my readers to pick this idea up and develop it further. Hopefully together we can create a future that’s truly worth living in.
Thus I greatly enjoyed reading Antti Revonsuo’s Inner Presence: Consciousness as a Biological Phenomenon (2005). Revonsuo even uses a terminology of lucid dreamworlds and a world-simulation metaphor. I disagree only with Revonsuo’s anti-panpsychism. To my knowledge, only one philosopher-cum-scientist combines inferential realism about perception with a panpsychist ontology, namely the underrated Steve Lehar. There is a tension between my own loneliness-inducing virtual worldism and equal conviction of the logico-physical interdependence of literally everything in the Multiverse on everything else [confirmed by those ubiquitous EPR correlations. Yes, our prison cells are all invisibly interconnected; but that is scant consolation for the lifer in solitary confinement: philosophy really does screw you up.] As a consequence, the less morally serious part of me still yearns for some soul-enriching bliss to remedy the cruelty of Nature’s omissions – as appropriate as laughing at a funeral, for sure, but Darwinian life is a protracted cortège. Directly targeting mesolimbic mu receptors might seem the logical solution to anhedonia on a global scale if opiophobic prejudice could ever be overcome.
The following is my considered evaluation of the Foundational Research Institute, circa July 2017. I discuss its goal, where I foresee things going wrong with how it defines suffering, and what it could do to avoid these problems.
TL;DR version: functionalism (“consciousness is the sum-total of the functional properties of our brains”) sounds a lot better than it actually turns out to be in practice. In particular, functionalism makes it impossible to define ethics & suffering in a way that can mediate disagreements.
I. What is the Foundational Research Institute?
The Foundational Research Institute (FRI) is a Berlin-based group that “conducts research on how to best reduce the suffering of sentient beings in the near and far future.” Executive Director Max Daniel introduced them at EA Global Boston as “the only EA organization which at an organizational level has the mission of focusing on reducing s-risk.” S-risks are, according to Daniel, “risks where an adverse outcome would bring about suffering on an astronomical scale, vastly exceeding all suffering that has existed on Earth so far.”
Essentially, FRI wants to become the research arm of suffering-focused ethics, and help prevent artificial general intelligence (AGI) failure-modes which might produce suffering on a cosmic scale.
What I like about FRI:
While I have serious qualms about FRI’s research framework, I think the people behind FRI deserve a lot of credit- they seem to be serious people, working hard to build something good. In particular, I want to give them a shoutout for three things:
First, FRI takes suffering seriously, and I think that’s important. When times are good, we tend to forget how tongue-chewingly horrific suffering can be. S-risks seem particularly horrifying.
Second, FRI isn’t afraid of being weird. FRI has been working on s-risk research for a few years now, and if people are starting to come around to the idea that s-risks are worth thinking about, much of the credit goes to FRI.
Third, I have great personal respect for Brian Tomasik, one of FRI’s co-founders. I’ve found him highly thoughtful, generous in debates, and unfailingly principled. In particular, he’s always willing to bite the bullet and work ideas out to their logical end, even if it involves repugnant conclusions.
What is FRI’s research framework?
FRI believes in analytic functionalism, or what David Chalmers calls “Type-A materialism”. Essentially, what this means is there’s no ’theoretical essence’ to consciousness; rather, consciousness is the sum-total of the functional properties of our brains. Since ‘functional properties’ are rather vague, this means consciousness itself is rather vague, in the same way words like “life,” “justice,” and “virtue” are messy and vague.
Brian suggests that this vagueness means there’s an inherently subjective, perhaps arbitrary element to how we define consciousness:
Analytic functionalism looks for functional processes in the brain that roughly capture what we mean by words like “awareness”, “happy”, etc., in a similar way as a biologist may look for precise properties of replicators that roughly capture what we mean by “life”. Just as there can be room for fuzziness about where exactly to draw the boundaries around “life”, different analytic functionalists may have different opinions about where to define the boundaries of “consciousness” and other mental states. This is why consciousness is “up to us to define”. There’s no hard problem of consciousness for the same reason there’s no hard problem of life: consciousness is just a high-level word that we use to refer to lots of detailed processes, and it doesn’t mean anything in addition to those processes.
I know that I’m conscious. I also know, from neuroscience combined with Occam’s razor, that my consciousness consists only of material operations in my brain — probably mostly patterns of neuronal firing that help process inputs, compute intermediate ideas, and produce behavioral outputs. Thus, I can see that consciousness is just the first-person view of certain kinds of computations — as Eliezer Yudkowsky puts it, “How An Algorithm Feels From Inside“. Consciousness is not something separate from or epiphenomenal to these computations. It is these computations, just from their own perspective of trying to think about themselves.
In other words, consciousness is what minds compute. Consciousness is the collection of input operations, intermediate processing, and output behaviors that an entity performs.
And if consciousness is all these things, so too is suffering. Which means suffering is computational, yet also inherently fuzzy, and at least a bit arbitrary; a leaky high-level reification impossible to speak about accurately, since there’s no formal, objective “ground truth”.
II. Why do I worry about FRI’s research framework?
In short, I think FRI has a worthy goal and good people, but its metaphysics actively prevent making progress toward that goal. The following describes why I think that, drawing heavily on Brian’s writings (of FRI’s researchers, Brian seems the most focused on metaphysics):
Note: FRI is not the only EA organization which holds functionalist views on consciousness; much of the following critique would also apply to e.g. MIRI, FHI, and OpenPhil. I focus on FRI because (1) Brian’s writings on consciousness & functionalism have been hugely influential in the community, and are clear enough *to* criticize; (2) the fact that FRI is particularly clear about what it cares about- suffering- allows a particularly clear critique about what problems it will run into with functionalism; (3) I believe FRI is at the forefront of an important cause area which has not crystallized yet, and I think it’s critically important to get these objections bouncing around this subcommunity.
Objection 1: Motte-and-bailey
Brian: “Consciousness is not a thing which exists ‘out there’ or even a separate property of matter; it’s a definitional category into which we classify minds. ‘Is this digital mind really conscious?’ is analogous to ‘Is a rock that people use to eat on really a table?’ [However,] That consciousness is a cluster in thingspace rather than a concrete property of the world does not make reducing suffering less important.”
The FRI model seems to imply that suffering is ineffable enough such that we can’t have an objective definition, yet sufficiently effable that we can coherently talk and care about it. This attempt to have it both ways seems contradictory, or at least in deep tension.
Indeed, I’d argue that the degree to which you can care about something is proportional to the degree to which you can define it objectively. E.g., If I say that “gnireffus” is literally the most terrible thing in the cosmos, that we should spread gnireffus-focused ethics, and that minimizing g-risks (far-future scenarios which involve large amounts of gnireffus) is a moral imperative, but also that what is and what and isn’t gnireffus is rather subjective with no privileged definition, and it’s impossible to objectively tell if a physical system exhibits gnireffus, you might raise any number of objections. This is not an exact metaphor for FRI’s position, but I worry that FRI’s work leans on the intuition that suffering is real and we can speak coherently about it, to a degree greater than its metaphysics formally allow.
Max Daniel (personal communication) suggests that we’re comfortable with a degree of ineffability in other contexts; “Brian claims that the concept of suffering shares the allegedly problematic properties with the concept of a table. But it seems a stretch to say that the alleged tension is problematic when talking about tables. So why would it be problematic when talking about suffering?” However, if we take the anti-realist view that suffering is ‘merely’ a node in the network of language, we have to live with the consequences of this: that ‘suffering’ will lose meaning as we take it away from the network in which it’s embedded (Wittgenstein). But FRI wants to do exactly this, to speak about suffering in the context of AGIs, simulated brains, even video game characters.
We can be anti-realists about suffering (suffering-is-a-node-in-the-network-of-language), or we can argue that we can talk coherently about suffering in novel contexts (AGIs, mind crime, aliens, and so on), but it seems inherently troublesome to claim we can do both at the same time.
Objection 2: Intuition duels
Two people can agree on FRI’s position that there is no objective fact of the matter about what suffering is (no privileged definition), but this also means they have no way of coming to any consensus on the object-level question of whether something can suffer. This isn’t just an academic point: Brian has written extensively about how he believes non-human animals can and do suffer extensively, whereas Yudkowsky (who holds computationalist views, like Brian) has written about how he’s confident that animals are not conscious and cannot suffer, due to their lack of higher-order reasoning.
And if functionalism is having trouble adjudicating the easy cases of suffering–whether monkeys can suffer, or whether dogs can— it doesn’t have a sliver of a chance at dealing with the upcoming hard cases of suffering: whether a given AGI is suffering, or engaging in mind crime; whether a whole-brain emulation (WBE) or synthetic organism or emergent intelligence that doesn’t have the capacity to tell us how it feels (or that we don’t have the capacity to understand) is suffering; if any aliens that we meet in the future can suffer; whether changing the internal architecture of our qualia reports means we’re also changing our qualia; and so on.
In short, FRI’s theory of consciousness isn’t actually a theory of consciousness at all, since it doesn’t do the thing we need a theory of consciousness to do: adjudicate disagreements in a principled way. Instead, it gives up any claim on the sorts of objective facts which could in principle adjudicate disagreements.
This is a source of friction in EA today, but it’s mitigated by the sense that
(1) The EA pie is growing, so it’s better to ignore disagreements than pick fights;
(2) Disagreements over the definition of suffering don’t really matter yet, since we haven’t gotten into the business of making morally-relevant synthetic beings (that we know of) that might be unable to vocalize their suffering.
If the perception of one or both of these conditions change, the lack of some disagreement-adjudicating theory of suffering will matter quite a lot.
Objection 3: Convergence requires common truth
Mike: “[W]hat makes one definition of consciousness better than another? How should we evaluate them?”
Brian: “Consilience among our feelings of empathy, principles of non-discrimination, understandings of cognitive science, etc. It’s similar to the question of what makes one definition of justice or virtue better than another.”
Brian is hoping that affective neuroscience will slowly converge to accurate views on suffering as more and better data about sentience and pain accumulates. But convergence to truth implies something (objective) driving the convergence- in this way, Brian’s framework still seems to require an objective truth of the matter, even though he disclaims most of the benefits of assuming this.
Objection 4: Assuming that consciousness is a reification produces more confusion, not less
Brian: “Consciousness is not a reified thing; it’s not a physical property of the universe that just exists intrinsically. Rather, instances of consciousness are algorithms that are implemented in specific steps. … Consciousness involves specific things that brains do.”
Brian argues that we treat conscious/phenomenology as more ‘real’ than it is. Traditionally, whenever we’ve discovered something is a leaky reification and shouldn’t be treated as ‘too real’, we’ve been able to break it down into more coherent constituent pieces we can treat as real. Life, for instance, wasn’t due to élan vital but a bundle of self-organizing properties & dynamics which generally co-occur. But carrying out this “de-reification” process on consciousness– enumerating its coherent constituent pieces– has proven difficult, especially if we want to preserve some way to speak cogently about suffering.
Speaking for myself, the more I stared into the depths of functionalism, the less certain everything about moral value became– and arguably, I see the same trajectory in Brian’s work and Luke Muehlhauser’s report. Their model uncertainty has seemingly become larger as they’ve looked into techniques for how to “de-reify” consciousness while preserving some flavor of moral value, not smaller. Brian and Luke seem to interpret this as evidence that moral value is intractably complicated, but this is also consistent with consciousness not being a reification, and instead being a real thing. Trying to “de-reify” something that’s not a reification will produce deep confusion, just as surely trying to treat a reification as ‘more real’ than it actually is will.
Edsger W. Dijkstra famously noted that “The purpose of abstraction is not to be vague, but to create a new semantic level in which one can be absolutely precise.” And so if our ways of talking about moral value fail to ‘carve reality at the joints’- then by all means let’s build better ones, rather than giving up on precision.
Objection 5: The Hard Problem of Consciousness is a red herring
Brian spends a lot of time discussing Chalmers’ “Hard Problem of Consciousness”, i.e. the question of why we’re subjectively conscious, and seems to base at least part of his conclusion on not finding this question compelling— he suggests “There’s no hard problem of consciousness for the same reason there’s no hard problem of life: consciousness is just a high-level word that we use to refer to lots of detailed processes, and it doesn’t mean anything in addition to those processes.” I.e., no ‘why’ is necessary; when we take consciousness and subtract out the details of the brain, we’re left with an empty set.
But I think the “Hard Problem” isn’t helpful as a contrastive centerpiece, since it’s unclear what the problem is, and whether it’s analytic or empirical, a statement about cognition or about physics. At the Qualia Research Institute (QRI), we don’t talk much about the Hard Problem; instead, we talk about Qualia Formalism, or the idea that any phenomenological state can be crisply and precisely represented by some mathematical object. I suspect this would be a better foil for Brian’s work than the Hard Problem.
Objection 6: Mapping to reality
Brian argues that consciousness should be defined at the functional/computational level: given a Turing machine, or neural network, the right ‘code’ will produce consciousness. But the problem is that this doesn’t lead to a theory which can ‘compile’ to physics. Consider the following:
Imagine you have a bag of popcorn. Now shake it. There will exist a certain ad-hoc interpretation of bag-of-popcorn-as-computational-system where you just simulated someone getting tortured, and other interpretations that don’t imply that. Did you torture anyone? If you’re a computationalist, no clear answer exists- you both did, and did not, torture someone. This sounds like a ridiculous edge-case that would never come up in real life, but in reality it comes up all the time, since there is no principled way to *objectively derive* what computation(s) any physical system is performing.
I don’t think this is an outlandish view of functionalism; Brian suggests much the same in How to Interpret a Physical System as a Mind: “Physicalist views that directly map from physics to moral value are relatively simple to understand. Functionalism is more complex, because it maps from physics to computations to moral value. Moreover, while physics is real and objective, computations are fictional and ‘observer-relative’ (to use John Searle’s terminology). There’s no objective meaning to ‘the computation that this physical system is implementing’ (unless you’re referring to the specific equations of physics that the system is playing out).”
Gordon McCabe (McCabe 2004) provides a more formal argument to this effect— that precisely mapping between physical processes and (Turing-level) computational processes is inherently impossible— in the context of simulations. First, McCabe notes that:
[T]here is a one-[to-]many correspondence between the logical states [of a computer] and the exact electronic states of computer memory. Although there are bijective mappings between numbers and the logical states of computer memory, there are no bijective mappings between numbers and the exact electronic states of memory.
This lack of an exact bijective mapping means that subjective interpretation necessarily creeps in, and so a computational simulation of a physical system can’t be ‘about’ that system in any rigorous way:
In a computer simulation, the values of the physical quantities possessed by the simulated system are represented by the combined states of multiple bits in computer memory. However, the combined states of multiple bits in computer memory only represent numbers because they are deemed to do so under a numeric interpretation. There are many different interpretations of the combined states of multiple bits in computer memory. If the numbers represented by a digital computer are interpretation-dependent, they cannot be objective physical properties. Hence, there can be no objective relationship between the changing pattern of multiple bit-states in computer memory, and the changing pattern of quantity-values of a simulated physical system.
McCabe concludes that, metaphysically speaking,
A digital computer simulation of a physical system cannot exist as, (does not possess the properties and relationships of), anything else other than a physical process occurring upon the components of a computer. In the contemporary case of an electronic digital computer, a simulation cannot exist as anything else other than an electronic physical process occurring upon the components and circuitry of a computer.
Where does this leave ethics? In Flavors of Computation Are Flavors of Consciousness, Brian notes that “In some sense all I’ve proposed here is to think of different flavors of computation as being various flavors of consciousness. But this still leaves the question: Which flavors of computation matter most? Clearly whatever computations happen when a person is in pain are vastly more important than what’s happening in a brain on a lazy afternoon. How can we capture that difference?”
But if Brian grants the former point- that “There’s no objective meaning to ‘the computation that this physical system is implementing’”– then this latter task of figuring out “which flavors of computation matter most” is provably impossible. There will always be multiple computational (and thus ethical) interpretations of a physical system, with no way to figure out what’s “really” happening. No way to figure out if something is suffering or not. No consilience; not now, not ever.
I should add a note on terminology: All computations occur within physics, so any computation is a physical process. Conversely, any physical process proceeds from input conditions to output conditions in a regular manner and so is a computation. Hence, the set of computations equals the set of physical processes, and where I say “computations” in this piece, one could just as well substitute “physical processes” instead.
This seems to be (1) incorrect, for the reasons I give above, or (2) taking substantial poetic license with these terms, or (3) referring to hypercomputation (which might be able to salvage the metaphor, but would invalidate many of FRI’s conclusions dealing with the computability of suffering on conventional hardware).
This objection may seem esoteric or pedantic, but I think it’s important, and that it ripples through FRI’s theoretical framework with disastrous effects.
Objection 7: FRI doesn’t fully bite the bullet on computationalism
Brian suggests that “flavors of computation are flavors of consciousness” and that some computations ‘code’ for suffering. But if we do in fact bite the bullet on this metaphor and place suffering within the realm of computational theory, we need to think in “near mode” and accept all the paradoxes that brings. Scott Aaronson, a noted expert on quantum computing, raises the following objections to functionalism:
I’m guessing that many people in this room side with Dennett, and (not coincidentally, I’d say) also with Everett. I certainly have sympathies in that direction too. In fact, I spent seven or eight years of my life as a Dennett/Everett hardcore believer. But, while I don’t want to talk anyone out of the Dennett/Everett view, I’d like to take you on a tour of what I see as some of the extremely interesting questions that that view leaves unanswered. I’m not talking about “deep questions of meaning,” but about something much more straightforward: what exactly does a computational process have to do to qualify as “conscious”?
There’s this old chestnut, what if each person on earth simulated one neuron of your brain, by passing pieces of paper around. It took them several years just to simulate a single second of your thought processes. Would that bring your subjectivity into being? Would you accept it as a replacement for your current body? If so, then what if your brain were simulated, not neuron-by-neuron, but by a gigantic lookup table? That is, what if there were a huge database, much larger than the observable universe (but let’s not worry about that), that hardwired what your brain’s response was to every sequence of stimuli that your sense-organs could possibly receive. Would that bring about your consciousness? Let’s keep pushing: if it would, would it make a difference if anyone actually consulted the lookup table? Why can’t it bring about your consciousness just by sitting there doing nothing?
To these standard thought experiments, we can add more. Let’s suppose that, purely for error-correction purposes, the computer that’s simulating your brain runs the code three times, and takes the majority vote of the outcomes. Would that bring three “copies” of your consciousness into being? Does it make a difference if the three copies are widely separated in space or time—say, on different planets, or in different centuries? Is it possible that the massive redundancy taking place in your brain right now is bringing multiple copies of you into being?
Maybe my favorite thought experiment along these lines was invented by my former student Andy Drucker. In the past five years, there’s been a revolution in theoretical cryptography, around something called Fully Homomorphic Encryption (FHE), which was first discovered by Craig Gentry. What FHE lets you do is to perform arbitrary computations on encrypted data, without ever decrypting the data at any point. So, to someone with the decryption key, you could be proving theorems, simulating planetary motions, etc. But to someone without the key, it looks for all the world like you’re just shuffling random strings and producing other random strings as output.
You can probably see where this is going. What if we homomorphically encrypted a simulation of your brain? And what if we hid the only copy of the decryption key, let’s say in another galaxy? Would this computation—which looks to anyone in our galaxy like a reshuffling of gobbledygook—be silently producing your consciousness?
When we consider the possibility of a conscious quantum computer, in some sense we inherit all the previous puzzles about conscious classical computers, but then also add a few new ones. So, let’s say I run a quantum subroutine that simulates your brain, by applying some unitary transformation U. But then, of course, I want to “uncompute” to get rid of garbage (and thereby enable interference between different branches), so I apply U-1. Question: when I apply U-1, does your simulated brain experience the same thoughts and feelings a second time? Is the second experience “the same as” the first, or does it differ somehow, by virtue of being reversed in time? Or, since U-1U is just a convoluted implementation of the identity function, are there no experiences at all here?
Here’s a better one: many of you have heard of the Vaidman bomb. This is a famous thought experiment in quantum mechanics where there’s a package, and we’d like to “query” it to find out whether it contains a bomb—but if we query it and there is a bomb, it will explode, killing everyone in the room. What’s the solution? Well, suppose we could go into a superposition of querying the bomb and not querying it, with only ε amplitude on querying the bomb, and √(1-ε2) amplitude on not querying it. And suppose we repeat this over and over—each time, moving ε amplitude onto the “query the bomb” state if there’s no bomb there, but moving ε2probability onto the “query the bomb” state if there is a bomb (since the explosion decoheres the superposition). Then after 1/ε repetitions, we’ll have order 1 probability of being in the “query the bomb” state if there’s no bomb. By contrast, if there is a bomb, then the total probability we’ve ever entered that state is (1/ε)×ε2 = ε. So, either way, we learn whether there’s a bomb, and the probability that we set the bomb off can be made arbitrarily small. (Incidentally, this is extremely closely related to how Grover’s algorithm works.)
OK, now how about the Vaidman brain? We’ve got a quantum subroutine simulating your brain, and we want to ask it a yes-or-no question. We do so by querying that subroutine with ε amplitude 1/ε times, in such a way that if your answer is “yes,” then we’ve only ever activated the subroutine with total probability ε. Yet you still manage to communicate your “yes” answer to the outside world. So, should we say that you were conscious only in the ε fraction of the wavefunction where the simulation happened, or that the entire system was conscious? (The answer could matter a lot for anthropic purposes.)
To sum up: Brian’s notion that consciousness is the same as computation raises more issues than it solves; in particular, the possibility that if suffering is computable, it may also be uncomputable/reversible, would suggest s-risks aren’t as serious as FRI treats them.
Objection 8: Dangerous combination
Three themes which seem to permeate FRI’s research are:
(1) Suffering is the thing that is bad.
(2) It’s critically important to eliminate badness from the universe.
(3) Suffering is impossible to define objectively, and so we each must define what suffering means for ourselves.
Taken individually, each of these seems reasonable. Pick two, and you’re still okay. Pick all three, though, and you get A Fully General Justification For Anything, based on what is ultimately a subjective/aesthetic call.
Much can be said in FRI’s defense here, and it’s unfair to single them out as risky: in my experience they’ve always brought a very thoughtful, measured, cooperative approach to the table. I would just note that ideas are powerful, and I think theme (3) is especially pernicious if incorrect.
III. QRI’s alternative
Analytic functionalism is essentially a negative hypothesis about consciousness: it’s the argument that there’s no order to be found, no rigor to be had. It obscures this with talk of “function”, which is a red herring it not only doesn’t define, but admits is undefinable. It doesn’t make any positive assertion. Functionalism is skepticism- nothing more, nothing less.
But is it right?
Ultimately, I think these a priori arguments are much like people in the middle ages arguing whether one could ever formalize a Proper System of Alchemy. Such arguments may in many cases hold water, but it’s often difficult to tell good arguments apart from arguments where we’re just cleverly fooling ourselves. In retrospect, the best way to *prove* systematized alchemy was possible was to just go out and *do* it, and invent Chemistry. That’s how I see what we’re doing at QRI with Qualia Formalism: we’re assuming it’s possible to build stuff, and we’re working on building the object-level stuff.
What we’ve built with QRI’s framework
Note: this is a brief, surface-level tour of our research; it will probably be confusing for readers who haven’t dug into our stuff before. Consider this a down-payment on a more substantial introduction.
My most notable work is Principia Qualia, in which I lay out my meta-framework for consciousness (a flavor of dual-aspect monism, with a focus on Qualia Formalism) and put forth the Symmetry Theory of Valence (STV). Essentially, the STV is an argument that much of the apparent complexity of emotional valence is evolutionarily contingent, and if we consider a mathematical object isomorphic to a phenomenological experience, the mathematical property which corresponds to how pleasant it is to be that experience is the object’s symmetry. This implies a bunch of testable predictions and reinterpretations of things like what ‘pleasure centers’ do (Section XI; Section XII). Building on this, I offer the Symmetry Theory of Homeostatic Regulation, which suggests understanding the structure of qualia will translate into knowledge about the structure of human intelligence, and I briefly touch on the idea of Neuroacoustics.
These are risky predictions and we don’t yet know if they’re right, but we’re confident that if there is some elegant structure intrinsic to consciousness, as there is in many other parts of the natural world, these are the right kind of risks to take.
I mention all this because I think analytic functionalism- which is to say radical skepticism/eliminativism, the metaphysics of last resort- only looks as good as it does because nobody’s been building out any alternatives.
IV. Closing thoughts
FRI is pursuing a certain research agenda, and QRI is pursuing another, and there’s lots of value in independent explorations of the nature of suffering. I’m glad FRI exists, everybody I’ve interacted with at FRI has been great, I’m happy they’re focusing on s-risks, and I look forward to seeing what they produce in the future.
On the other hand, I worry that nobody’s pushing back on FRI’s metaphysics, which seem to unavoidably lead to the intractable problems I describe above. FRI seems to believe these problems are part of the territory, unavoidable messes that we just have to make philosophical peace with. But I think that functionalism is a bad map, that the metaphysical messes it leads to are muchworse than most people realize (fatal to FRI’s mission), and there are other options that avoid these problems (which, to be fair, is not to say they have no problems).
Ultimately, FRI doesn’t owe me a defense of their position. But if they’re open to suggestions on what it would take to convince a skeptic like me that their brand of functionalism is viable, or at least rescuable, I’d offer the following:
Re: Objection 1 (motte-and-bailey), I suggest FRI should be as clear and complete as possible in their basic definition of suffering. In which particular ways is it ineffable/fuzzy, and in which particular ways is it precise? What can we definitely say about suffering, and what can we definitely never determine? Preregistering ontological commitments and methodological possibilities would help guard against FRI’s definition of suffering changing based on context.
Re: Objection 2 (intuition duels), FRI may want to internally “war game” various future scenarios involving AGI, WBE, etc, with one side arguing that a given synthetic (or even extraterrestrial) organism is suffering, and the other side arguing that it isn’t. I’d expect this would help diagnose what sorts of disagreements future theories of suffering will need to adjudicate, and perhaps illuminate implicit ethical intuitions. Sharing the results of these simulated disagreements would also be helpful in making FRI’s reasoning less opaque to outsiders, although making everything transparent could lead to certain strategic disadvantages.
Re: Objection 3 (convergence requires common truth), I’d like FRI to explore exactly what might drive consilience/convergence in theories of suffering, and what precisely makes one theory of suffering better than another, and ideally to evaluate a range of example theories of suffering under these criteria.
Re: Objection 4 (assuming that consciousness is a reification produces more confusion, not less), I would love to see a historical treatment of reification: lists of reifications which were later dissolved (e.g., élan vital), vs scattered phenomena that were later unified (e.g., electromagnetism). What patterns do the former have, vs the latter, and why might consciousness fit one of these buckets better than the other?
Re: Objection 5 (the Hard Problem of Consciousness is a red herring), I’d like to see a more detailed treatment of what kinds of problem people have interpreted the Hard Problem as, and also more analysis on the prospects of Qualia Formalism (which I think is the maximally-empirical, maximally-charitable interpretation of the Hard Problem). It would be helpful for us, in particular, if FRI preregistered their expectations about QRI’s predictions, and their view of the relative evidence strength of each of our predictions.
Re: Objection 6 (mapping to reality), this is perhaps the heart of most of our disagreement. From Brian’s quotes, he seems split on this issue; I’d like clarification about whether he believes we can ever precisely/objectively map specific computations to specific physical systems, and vice-versa. And if so— how? If not, this seems to propagate through FRI’s ethical framework in a disastrous way, since anyone can argue that any physical system does, or does not, ‘code’ for massive suffering, and there’s no principled way to derive any ‘ground truth’ or even pick between interpretations in a principled way (e.g. my popcorn example). If this isn’t the case— why not?
Brian has suggested that “certain high-level interpretations of physical systems are more ‘natural’ and useful than others” (personal communication); I agree, and would encourage FRI to explore systematizing this.
It would be non-trivial to port FRI’s theories and computational intuitions to the framework of “hypercomputation”– i.e., the understanding that there’s a formal hierarchy of computational systems, and that Turing machines are only one level of many– but it may have benefits too. Namely, it might be the only way they could avoid Objection 6 (which I think is a fatal objection) while still allowing them to speak about computation & consciousness in the same breath. I think FRI should look at this and see if it makes sense to them.
Re: Objection 7 (FRI doesn’t fully bite the bullet on computationalism), I’d like to see responses to Aaronson’s aforementioned thought experiments.
Re: Objection 8 (dangerous combination), I’d like to see a clarification about why my interpretation is unreasonable (as it very well may be!).
In conclusion- I think FRI has a critically important goal- reduction of suffering & s-risk. However, I also think FRI has painted itself into a corner by explicitly disallowing a clear, disagreement-mediating definition for what these things are. I look forward to further work in this field.
Qualia Research Institute
Acknowledgements: thanks to Andrés Gómez Emilsson, Brian Tomasik, and Max Daniel for reviewing earlier drafts of this.
My sources for FRI’s views on consciousness:
Flavors of Computation are Flavors of Consciousness: