Logarithmic Scales of Pleasure and Pain: Rating, Ranking, and Comparing Peak Experiences Suggest the Existence of Long Tails for Bliss and Suffering

TL;DR

Based on: the characteristic distribution of neural activity, personal accounts of intense pleasure and pain, the way various pain scales have been described by their creators, and the results of a pilot study we conducted which ranks, rates, and compares the hedonic quality of extreme experiences, we suggest that the best way to interpret pleasure and pain scales is by thinking of them as logarithmic compressions of what is truly a long-tail. The most intense pains are orders of magnitude more awful than mild pains (and symmetrically for pleasure).

This should inform the way we prioritize altruistic interventions and plan for a better future. Since the bulk of suffering is concentrated in a small percentage of experiences, focusing our efforts on preventing cases of intense suffering likely dominates most utilitarian calculations.

An important pragmatic takeaway from this article is that if one is trying to select an effective career path, as a heuristic it would be good to take into account how one’s efforts would cash out in the prevention of extreme suffering (see: Hell-Index), rather than just QALYs and wellness indices that ignore the long-tail. Of particular note as promising Effective Altruist careers, we would highlight working directly to develop remedies for specific, extremely painful experiences. Finding scalable treatments for migraines, kidney stones, childbirth, cluster headaches, CRPS, and fibromyalgia may be extremely high-impact (cf. Treating Cluster Headaches and Migraines Using N,N-DMT and Other Tryptamines, Using Ibogaine to Create Friendlier Opioids, and Frequency Specific Microcurrent for Kidney-Stone Pain). More research efforts into identifying and quantifying intense suffering currently unaddressed would also be extremely helpful. Finally, if the positive valence scale also has a long-tail, focusing one’s career in developing bliss technologies may pay-off in surprisingly good ways (whereby you may stumble on methods to generate high-valence healing experiences which are orders of magnitude better than you thought were possible).

Contents

Introduction:

  1. Weber’s Law
  2. Why This Matters

General ideas:

  1. The Non-Linearity of Pleasure and Pain
    1. Personal Accounts
    2. Consciousness Expansion
    3. Peak Pleasure States: Jhanas and Temporal Lobe Seizures
    4. Logarithmic Pain Scales: Stings, Peppers, and Cluster Headaches
  2. Deference-type Approaches for Experience Ranking
    1. Normal World vs. Lognormal World
    2. Predictions of Lognormal World

Survey setup:

  1. Mechanical Turk
  2. Participant Composition
  3. Filtering Bots

Results:

  1. Appearance Base Rates
  2. Average Ratings
  3. Deference Graph of Top Experiences
    1. Rebalanced Smoothed Proportion
    2. Triadic Analysis
  4. Latent Trait Ratings
  5. Long-tails in the Responses to “How Many Times Better/Worse” Question

Discussion:

  1. Key Pleasures Surfaced
    1. Birth of Children
    2. Falling in Love
    3. Travel/Vacation
    4. MDMA/LSD/Psilocybin
    5. Games of Chance Earnings
  2. Key Pains
    1. Kidney Stones/Migraines
    2. Childbirth
    3. Car Accidents
    4. Death of Father and Mother
  3. Future Directions for Methodological Approaches
    1. Graphical Models with Log-Normal Priors
  4. Closing Thoughts on the Valence Scale
  5. Additional Material
    1. Dimensionality of Pleasure and Pain
    2. Mixed States
    3. Qualia Formalism
  6. Notes

Introduction

Weber’s Law

Weber’s Law describes the relationship between the physical intensity of a stimulus and the reported subjective intensity of perceiving it. For example, it describes the relationship between how loud a sound is and how loud it is perceived as. In the general case, Weber’s Law indicates that one needs to vary the stimulus intensity by a multiplicative fraction (called “Weber’s fraction”) in order to detect a just noticeable difference. For example, if you cannot detect the differences between objects weighing 100 grams to 105 grams, then you will also not be able to detect the differences between objects weighing 200 grams to 210 grams (implying the Weber fraction for weight perception is at least 5%). In the general case, the senses detect differences logarithmically.

There are two compelling stories for interpreting this law:

In the first story, it is the low-level processing of the senses which do the logarithmic mapping. The senses “compress” the intensity of the stimulation and send a “linearized” packet of information to one’s brain, which is then rendered linearly in one’s experience.

In the second story, the senses, within the window of adaptation, do a fine job of translating (somewhat) faithfully the actual intensity of the stimulus, which then gets rendered in our experience. Our inability to detect small absolute differences between intense stimuli is not because we are not rendering such differences, but because Weber’s law applies to the very intensity of experience. In other words, the properties of one’s experience could follow a long-tail distribution, but our ability to accurately point out differences between the properties of experiences is proportional to their intensity.

We claim that, at least for the case of valence (i.e the pleasure-pain axis), the second story is much closer to the truth than the first. Accordingly, this article rethinks the pleasure-pain axis (also called the valence scale) by providing evidence, arguments, and datapoints to support the idea that how good or bad experiences feel follows a long-tail distribution.

As an intuition pump for what is to follow, we would like to highlight the empirical finding that brain activity follows a long-tail distribution (see: Statistical Analyses Support Power Law Distributions Found in Neuronal Avalanches, and Logarithmic Distributions Prove that Intrinsic Learning is Hebbian). The story where the “true valence scale” is a logarithmic compression is entirely consistent with the empirical long-tails of neural activity (in which “neural avalanches” account for a large fraction of overall brain activity).

The concrete line of argument we will present is based on the following:

  1. Phenomenological accounts of intense pleasure and pain (w/ accounts of phenomenal time and space expansion),
  2. The way in which pain scales are described by those who developed them, and
  3. The analytic results of a pilot study we conducted which investigates how people rank, rate, and assign relative proportions to their top 3 best and worst experiences

Why This Matters

Even if you are not a strict valence utilitarian, having the insight that the valence scale is long-tailed is still very important. Most ethical systems do give some weight to the prevention of suffering (in addition to the creation of subjectively valuable experiences), even if that is not all they care about. If your ethical system weighted slightly the task of preventing suffering when believing in a linear valence scale, then learning about the long-tailed nature of valence should in principle cause a major update. If indeed the worst experiences are exponentially more negative than originally believed by one’s ethical system, which nonetheless still cared about them, then after learning about the true valence scale the system would have to reprioritize. We suggest that while it might be unrealistic to have every ethical system refocus all of its energies on the prevention of intense suffering (and subsequently on researching how to create intense bliss sustainably), we can nonetheless expect such systems to raise this goal on their list of priorities. In other words, while “ending all suffering” will likely never be a part of most people’s ethical system, we hope that the data and arguments here presented at least persuade them to add “…and prevent intense forms of suffering” to the set of desiderata.

Indeed, lack of awareness about the long-tails of bliss and suffering may be the cause of an ongoing massive moral catastrophe (notes by Linch). If indeed the degree of suffering present in experiences follows a long-tail distribution, we would expect the worst experiences to dominate most utilitarian calculus. The biggest bang for the buck in altruistic interventions would therefore be those that are capable of directly addressing intense suffering and generating super-bliss.

General Ideas

The Non-Linearity of Pleasure and Pain

true_pleasure_scale

True long-tail pleasure scale (warning: psychedelics increase valence variance – the values here are for “good/lucky” trips and there is no guarantee e.g. LSD will feel good on a given occasion). Also: Mania is not always pleasant, but when it is, it can be super blissful.

true_pain_scale

True long-tail pain scale

As we’ve briefly discussed in previous articles (1, 2, 3), there are many reasons to believe that both pleasure and pain can be felt along a spectrum with values that range over possibly orders of magnitude. Understandably, someone who is currently in a state of consciousness around the human median of valence is likely to be skeptical of a claim like “the bliss you can achieve in meditation is literally 100 times better than eating your favorite food or having sex.” Intuitively, we only have so much space in our experience to fit bliss, and when one is in a “normal” or typical state of mind for a human, one is forced to imagine “ultra blissful states” by extrapolating the elements of one’s current experience, which certainly do not seem capable of being much better than, say, 50% of the current level of pleasure (or pain). The problem here is that the very building blocks of experiences that enable them to be ultra-high or ultra-low valence are themselves necessary to imagine accurately how they can be put together. Talking about extreme bliss to someone who is anhedonic is akin to talking about the rich range of possible color experiences to someone who is congenitally fully colorblind (cf. “What Mary Didn’t Know“).

“Ok”, you may say, “you are just telling me that pleasure and pain can be orders of magnitude stronger than I can even conceive of. What do you base this on?”. The most straightforward way to be convinced of this is to literally experience such states. Alas, this would be deeply unethical when it comes to the negative side, and it requires special materials and patience for the positive side. Instead, I will provide evidence from a variety of methods and conditions.

Personal Accounts

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I’ve been lucky to not have experienced major pain in my life so far (the worst being, perhaps, depression during my teens). I have, however, had two key experiences that gave me some time to introspect on the non-linear nature of pain. The first one comes from when I accidentally cut a super-spicy pepper and touched it with my bare hands (the batch of peppers I was cutting were mild, but a super-hot one snuck into the produce box). After a few minutes of cutting the peppers, I noticed that a burning heat began to intensify in my hands. This was the start of experiencing “hot pepper hands” for a full 8 hours (see other people’s experiences: 1, 2, 3). The first two to three hours of this ordeal were the worst, where I experienced what I rated as a persistent 4/10 pain interspersed with brief moments of 5/10 pain. The curious thing was that the 5/10 pain moments were clearly discernible as qualitatively different. It was as if the very numerous pinpricks and burning sensations all over my hands were in a somewhat disorganized state most of the time, but whenever they managed to build-up for long enough, they would start clicking with each other (presumably via phase-locking), giving rise to resonant waves of pain that felt both more energetic, and more aversive on the whole. In a way, this jump from what I rated as 4/10 to 5/10 was qualitative as well as quantitative, and it gave me some idea of how something that is already bad can become even worse.

My second experience involves a mild joint injury I experienced while playing Bubble Soccer (a very fun sport no doubt, and a common corporate treat for Silicon Valley cognotariats, but according to my doctor it is also a frequent source of injuries among programmers). Before doing physical therapy to treat this problem (which mostly took care of it), I remember spending hours introspecting on the quality of the pain in order to understand it better. It wasn’t particularly bad, but it was constant (I rated it as 2/10 most of the time). What stuck with me was how its constant presence would slowly increase the stress of my entire experience over time. I compared the experience to having an uncomfortable knot stuck in your body. If I had a lot of mental and emotional slack early in the day, I could easily take the stress produced by the knot and “send it elsewhere” in my body. But since the source of the stress was constant, eventually I would run out of space, and the knot would start making secondary knots around itself, and it was in those moments where I would rate the pain at a 3/10. This would only go away if I rested and somehow “reset” the amount of cognitive and emotional slack I had available.

The point of these two stories is to highlight the observation that there seem to be phase-changes between levels of discomfort. An analogy I often make is with the phenomenon of secondary coils when you twist a rope. The stress induced by pain- at least introspectively speaking- is pushed to less stressed areas of your mind. But this has a limit, which is until your whole world-simulation is stressed to the point that the source of stress starts creating secondary “stress coils” on top of the already stressed background experience. This was a very interesting realization to me, which put in a different light weird expressions that chronic pain patients use like “my pain now has a pain of its own” or “I can’t let the pain build up”.

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DNA coils and super-coils as a metaphor for pain phase-changes?

Consciousness Expansion

What about more extreme experiences? Here we should briefly mention psychedelic drugs, as they seem to be able to increase the energy of one’s consciousness (and in some sense “multiply the amount of consciousness“) in a way that grows non-linearly as a function of the dose. An LSD experience with 100 micrograms may be “only” 50% more intense than normal everyday life, but an LSD experience with 200 micrograms is felt as 2-3X as intense, while 300 micrograms may increase the intensity of experience by perhaps 10X (relative to normal). Usually people say that high-dose psychedelic states are indescribably more real and vivid than normal everyday life. And then there are compounds like 5-MeO-DMT, which people often describe as being in “a completely different category”, as it gives rise to what many describe as “infinite consciousness”. Obviously there is no such thing as an experience with infinite consciousness, and that judgement could be explained in terms of the lack of “internal boundaries” of the state, which gives the impression of infinity (not unlike how the surface of a torus can seem infinite from the point of view of a flatlander). That said, I’ve asked rational and intelligent people who have tried 5-MeO-DMT in non-spiritual settings what they think the intensity of their experiences was, and they usually say that a strong dose of 10mg or more gives rise to an intensity and “quantity” of consciousness that is at least 100X as high as normal everyday experiences. There are many reasons to be skeptical of this, no doubt, but the reports should not be dismissed out of hand.

Antoine's_Necklace_Iteration_2

Secondary knots and links as a metaphor for higher bliss

As with the above example, we can reason that one of the ways in which both pain and pleasure can be present in *multiples* of one’s normal hedonic range is because the amount of consciousness crammed into a moment of experience is not a constant. In other words, when someone in a typical state of consciousness asks “if you say one can experience so much pain/pleasure, tell me, where would that fit in my experience? I don’t see much room for that to fit in here”, one can respond by saying that “in other states of consciousness there is more (phenomenal) time and space within each moment of experience”. Indeed, at Qualia Computing we have assembled and interpreted a large number of experiences of high-energy states of consciousness that indicate that both phenomenal time, and phenomenal space, can drastically expand. To sum it up – you can fit so much pleasure and pain in peak experiences precisely because such experiences make room for them.

Let us now illustrate the point with some paradigmatic cases of very high and vey low valence:

Peak Pleasure States: Jhanas and Temporal Lobe Seizures

On the pleasure side, we have Buddhist meditators who experience meditative states of absorption (aka. “Jhanas”) as extremely, and counter-intuitively, blissful:

The experience can include some very pleasant physical sensations such as goose bumps on the body and the hair standing up to more intense pleasures which grow in intensity and explode into a state of ecstasy. If you have pain in your legs, knees, or other part of the body during meditation, the pain will actually disappear while you are in the jhanas. The pleasant sensations can be so strong to eliminate your painful sensations. You enter the jhanas from the pleasant experiences exploding into a state of ecstasy where you no longer “feel” any of your senses.

9 Jhanas, Dhamma Wiki

There are 8 (or 9, depending on who you ask) “levels” of Jhanas, and the above is describing only the 1st of them! The higher the Jhana, the more refined the bliss becomes, and the more detached the state is from the common referents of our everyday human experience. Ultra-bliss does not look at all like sensual pleasure or excitement, but more like information-theoretically optimal configurations of resonant waves of consciousness with little to no intentional content (cf. semantically neutral energy). I know this sounds weird, but it’s what is reported.

insula

“Streamlines from the insula to the cortex” – the insula (in red) is an area of the brain intimately implicated in the super-bliss that sometimes precedes temporal lobe epilepsy (source)

Another example I will provide about ultra-bliss concerns temporal lobe epilepsy, which in a minority of sufferers gives rise to extraordinarily intense states of pleasure, or pain, or both. Such experiences can result in Geschwind syndrome, a condition characterized by hypergraphia (writing non-stop), hyper-religiosity, and a generally intensified mental and emotional life. No doubt, any experience that hits the valence scale at one of its extremes is usually interpreted as other-worldly and paranormal (which gives rise to the question of whether valence is a spiritual phenomenon or the other way around). Famously, Dostoevsky seems to have experienced temporal lobe seizures, and this ultimately informed his worldview and literary work in profound ways. Here is how he describes them:

“A happiness unthinkable in the normal state and unimaginable for anyone who hasn’t experienced it… I am then in perfect harmony with myself and the entire universe.”

 

– From a letter to his friend Nikolai Strakhov.

“I feel entirely in harmony with myself and the whole world, and this feeling is so strong and so delightful that for a few seconds of such bliss one would gladly give up 10 years of one’s life, if not one’s whole life. […] You all, healthy people, can’t imagine the happiness which we epileptics feel during the second before our fit… I don’t know if this felicity lasts for seconds, hours or months, but believe me, I would not exchange it for all the joys that life may bring.”

 

– from the character Prince Myshkin in Dostoevsky’s novel, The Idiot, which he likely used to give a voice to his own experiences.

Dostoevsky is far from the only person reporting these kinds of experiences from epilepsy:

As Picard [a scientist investigating seizures] cajoled her patients to speak up about their ecstatic seizures, she found that their sensations could be characterised using three broad categories of feelings (Epilepsy & Behaviour, vol 16, p 539). The first was heightened self-awareness. For example, a 53-year-old female teacher told Picard: “During the seizure it is as if I were very, very conscious, more aware, and the sensations, everything seems bigger, overwhelming me.” The second was a sense of physical well-being. A 37-year-old man described it as “a sensation of velvet, as if I were sheltered from anything negative”. The third was intense positive emotions, best articulated by a 64-year-old woman: “The immense joy that fills me is above physical sensations. It is a feeling of total presence, an absolute integration of myself, a feeling of unbelievable harmony of my whole body and myself with life, with the world, with the ‘All’,” she said.

 

– from “Fits of Rapture”, New Scientist (January 25, 2014) (source)

All in all, these examples illustrate the fact that blissful states can be deeper, richer, more intense, more conscious, and qualitatively superior to the normal everyday range of human emotion.

Now, how about the negative side?

Logarithmic Pain Scales: Stings, Peppers, and Cluster Headaches

“The difference between 6 and 10 on the pain scale is an exponential difference. Believe it or not.”

Insufferable Indifference, by Neil E. Clement (who experiences chronic pain ranging between 6/10 to 10/10, depending on the day)

Three pain-scale examples that illustrate the non-linearity of pain are: (1) the Schmidt sting pain index, (2) the Scoville scale, and (3) the KIP scale:

image

(1) Justin O. Schmidt stung himself with over 80 species of insects of the Hymenoptera order, and rated the ensuing pain on a 4-point-scale. About the scale, he had to say the following:

4:28 – Justin Schmidt: The harvester ant is what got the sting pain scale going in the first place. I had been stung by honeybees, yellow jackets, paper wasps, etc. the garden variety stuff, that you get bitten by various beetles and things. I went down to Georgia, which has the Eastern-most extension of the harvester ant. I got stung and I said “Wooooow! This is DIFFERENT!” You know? I thought I knew everything there was about insect stings, I was just this dumb little kid. And I realized “Wait a minute! There is something different going on here”, and that’s what got me to do the comparative analysis. Is this unique to harvester ants? Or are there others that are like that. It turns out while the answer is, now we know much later – it’s unique! [unique type of pain]. 

[…]

7:09 – Justin Schmidt: I didn’t really want to go out and get stung for fun. I was this desperate graduate student trying to get a thesis, so I could get out and get a real job, and stop being a student eventually. And I realized that, oh, we can measure toxicity, you know, the killing power of something, but we can’t measure pain… ouch, that one hurts, and that one hurts, and ouch that one over there also hurts… but I can’t put that on a computer program and mathematically analyze what it means for the pain of the insect. So I said, aha! We need a pain scale. A computer can analyze one, two, three, and four, but it can’t analyze “ouch!”. So I decided that I had to make a pain scale, with the harvester ant (cutting to the chase) was a 3. Honey bees was a 2. And I kind of tell people that each number is like 10 equivalent of the number before. So 10 honey bee stings are equal to 1 harvester ant sting, and 10 harvester ant stings would equal one bullet ant sting.

[…]

11:50 – [Interviewer]: When I finally worked up the courage to [put the Tarantula Hawk on my arm] and take this sting. The sting of that insect was electric in nature. I’ve been shocked before, by accidentally taking a zap from an electrical cord. This was that times 10. And it put me on the ground. My arm seized up from muscle contraction. And it was probably the worst 5 minutes of my life at that point.

Justin Schmidt: Yeah, that’s exactly what I call electrifying. I say, imagine you are walking along in Arizona, and there is a wind storm, and the power line above snaps the wire, and it hits you, of course that hasn’t happened to me, but that’s what you imagine it feels like. Because it’s absolutely electrifying, I call it debilitating because you want to be macho, “ah I’m tough, I can do this!” Now you can’t! So I tell people lay down and SCREAM! Right?

[Interviewer]: That’s what I did! And Mark would be like, this famous “Coyote, are you ok? Are you ok?”

Justin Schmidt: No, I’m not ok!

[Interviewer]: And it was very hard to try to compose myself to be like, alright, describe what is happening to your body right now. Because your mind goes into this state that is like blank emptiness. And all you can focus on is the fact that there’s radiating pain coming out of your arm.

Justin Schmidt: That’s why you scream, because now you’re focusing on something else. In addition to the pain, you’re focusing on “AAAAAAHHHHH!!!” [screams loudly]. Takes a little bit of the juice off of the pain, so maybe you lower it down to a three for as long as you can yell. And I can yell for a pretty long time when I’m stung by a tarantula hawk.

 

Origin of STINGS!, interview of Justin O. Schmidt

If we take Justin’s word for it, a sting that scores a 4 on his pain scale is about 1,000 times more painful than a sting that scores a 1 on his scale. Accordingly, Christopher Starr (who replicated the scale), stated that any sting that scores a 4 is “traumatically painful” (source). Finally, since the scale is restricted to stings of insects of the Hymenoptera order, it remains possible that there are stings whose pain would be rated even higher than 4. A 5 on the sting pain index might perhaps be experienced with the stings of the box jellyfish that produces Irukandji syndrome, and the bite of the giant desert centipede. Needless to say, these are to be avoided.

Moving on…

(2) The Scoville scale measures how spicy different chili peppers and hot sauces are. It is calculated by diluting the pepper/sauce in water until it is no longer possible to detect any spice in it. The number that is associated with the pepper or sauce is the ratio of water-to-sauce that makes it just barely possible to taste the spice. Now, this is of course not itself a pain scale. I would nonetheless anticipate that taking the log of the Scoville units of a dish might be a good approximation for the reported pain it delivers. In particular, people note that there are several qualitative jumps in the type and nature of the pain one experiences when eating hot sauces of different strengths (e.g. “Fuck you Sean! […] That was a leap, Sean, that was a LEAP!” – Ken Jeong right after getting to the 135,000 Scoville units sauce in the pain porn Youtube series Hot Ones). Amazon reviews of ultra-hot sauces can be mined for phenomenological information concerning intense pain, and the general impression one gets after reading such reviews is that indeed there is a sort of exponential range of possible pain values:

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I know it may be fun to trivialize this kind of pain, but different people react differently to it (probably following a long-tail too!). For some people who are very sensitive to heat pain, very hot sauce can be legitimately traumatizing. Hence I advise against having ultra-spicy sauces around your house. The novelty value is not worth the probability of a regrettable accident, as exemplified in some of the Amazon reviews above (e.g. a house guest assuming that your “Da’Bomb – Beyond Insanity” bottle in the fridge can’t possibly be that hot… and ending up in the ER and with PTSD).

I should add that media that is widely consumed about extreme hot sauce (e.g. the Hot Ones mentioned above and numerous stunt Youtube channels) may seem fun on the surface, but what doesn’t make the cut and is left in the editing room is probably not very palatable at all. From an interview: “Has anyone thrown up doing it?” (interviewer) – “Yeah, we’ve run the gamuts. We’ve had people spit in buckets, half-pass out, sleep in the green room afterwards, etc.” (Sean Evans, Hot Ones host). T.J. Miller, when asked about what advice he would give to the show while eating ultra-spicy wings, responded: “Don’t do this. Don’t do this again. End the show. Stop doing the show. That’s my advice. This is very hot. This is painful. There’s a problem here.”

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Trigeminal Neuralgia pain scale – a condition similarly painful to Cluster Headaches

(3) Finally, we come to the “KIP scale”, which is used to rate Cluster Headaches, one of the most painful conditions that people endure:

The KIP scale

KIP-0 No pain, life is beautiful
KIP-1 Very minor, shadows come and go. Life is still beautiful
KIP-2 More persistent shadows
KIP-3 Shadows are getting constant but can deal with it
KIP-4 Starting to get bad, want to be left alone
KIP-5 Still not a “pacer” but need space
KIP-6 Wake up grumbling, curse a bit, but can get back to sleep without “dancing”
KIP-7 Wake up, sleep not an option, take the beast for a walk and finally fall into bed exhausted
KIP-8 Time to scream, yell, curse, head bang, rock, whatever works
KIP-9 The “Why me?” syndrome starts to set in
KIP-10 Major pain, screaming, head banging, ER trip. Depressed. Suicidal.

The duration factor is multiplied by the intensity factor, which uses the KIP scale in an exponential way – a KIP 10 is not just twice as bad as a KIP 5, it’s ten times as intense.

Source: Keeping Track, by Cluster Busters

As seen above, the KIP scale is acknowledged by its creator and users to be logarithmic in nature.

In summary: We see that pleasure comes in various grades and that peak experiences such as those induced by psychedelics, meditation, and temporal lobe seizures seem to be orders of magnitude more energetic and better than everyday sober states. Likewise, we see that across several categories of pain, people report being surprised by the leaps in both quality and intensity that are possible. More so, at least in the case of the Schmidt Index and the Kip Scale, the creators of the scale were explicit that it was a logarithmic mapping of the actual level of sensation.

While we do not have enough evidence (and conceptual clarity) to assert that the intensity of pain and pleasure does grow exponentially, the information presented so far does suggest that the valence of experiences follows a long-tail distribution.

Deference-type Approaches for Experience Ranking

The above considerations underscore the importance of coming up with a pleasure-pain scale that tries to take into account the non-linearity and non-normality of valence ratings. One idea we came up with was a “deference”-type approach, where we ask open-ended questions about people’s best and worst experiences and have them rank them against each other. Although locally the data would be very sparse, the idea was that there might be methods to integrate the collective patterns of deference into an approximate scale. If extended to populations of people who are known to have experienced extremes of valence, the approach would even allow us to unify the various pain scales (Scoville, Schmidt, KIP, etc.) and assign a kind of universal valence score to different categories of pain and pleasure.* That will be version 2.0. In the meantime, we thought to try to get a rough picture of the extreme joys and affections of members of the general public, which is what this article will focus on.

Normal World vs. Lognormal World

There is a world we could call the “Normal World”, where valence outliers are rare and most types of experiences affect people more or less similarly, distributed along a Gaussian curve. Then there is another, very different world we could call the “long-tailed world” or if we want to make it simple (acknowledging uncertainty) “Lognormal World”, where almost every valence distribution is a long-tail. So in the “Lognormal World”, say, for pleasure (and symmetrically for pain), we would expect to see a long-tail in the mean pleasure of experiences between different categories across all people, a long-tail in the amount of pleasure within a given type of experience across people, a long-tail for the number of times an individual has had a certain type of pleasure, a long-tail in the intensity of the pleasure experienced with a single category of experience within a single person, and so on. Do we live in the Normal World or the Lognormal World?

Predictions of Lognormal World

If we lived in the “Lognormal World”, we would expect:

  • That people will typically say that their top #1 best/worst experience is not only a bit better/worse than their #2 experience, but a lot better/worse. Like, perhaps, even multiple times better/worse.
  • That there will be a long-tail in the number of appearances of different categories (i.e. that a large amount, such as 80%, of top experiences will belong to the same narrow set of categories, and that there will be many different kinds of experiences capturing the remaining 20%).
  • That for most pairs of experiences x and y, people who have had both instances of x and y, will usually agree about which one is better/worse. We call such a relationship a “deference”. More so, we would expect to see that deference, in general, will be transitive (a > b and b > c implying that a > c).

To test the first and second prediction does not require a lot of data, but the third does because one needs to have enough comparisons to fill a lot of triads. The survey results we will discuss bellow are congruent with the first and second prediction. We did what we could with the data available to investigate the third, and tentatively, it seems to hold up (with ideas like deference network centrality analysis, triadic analysis, and tournament-style approaches).


Survey Setup

The survey asked the following questions: current level of pleasure, current level of pain, top 3 most pleasurable experiences (in decreasing order) along with pleasure ratings for each of them and the age when they were experienced, and the same for the top 3 most painful experiences. I specifically did not provide a set of broad categories (such as “physical” or “emotional”) or a drop-down menu of possible narrow categories (e.g. going to the movies, aerobic exercise, etc.). I wanted to see what people would say when the question was as open-ended as possible.

I also included questions aimed more directly at probing the long-tailed nature of valence: I asked participants to rate “how many times more pleasant was the #1 top experience relative to the #2 top experience” (and #2 relative to #3, and the same for the top most painful experiences).

I also asked them to describe in more detail the single most pleasant and unpleasant experiences, and added a box for comments at the end in order to see if anyone complained about the task (most people said “no comment”, many said they enjoyed the task, and one person said that it made them nostalgic). I also asked about basic demographics (age and gender). Participants earned $1.75 for the task, which seems reasonable given the time it took to complete in most cases.

Mechanical Turk: Participant Composition

The survey was run on Mechanical Turk. I requested “Masters” qualifications for 90/110 of the survey responses. To be a Mechanical Turk Master you need to have a good track record of task approval, which I reasoned would increase the rate of well thought-out high-quality responses (this turned out to be true). The participants’ genders were fairly balanced (50/97 women, 47/97 men), and the average age was 36.5 years (sd = 10):

age_distribution_no_bots

Age distribution

Bots (easy to spot – unless extremely sophisticated)

While reading the responses I discovered that some of them seemed to be generated by bots. Apparently task requesters started noticing the presence of bots a couple of years ago. This is obviously a problem for academics trying to use the service for their research, and for machine learning professionals using the service for data-tagging. Having been both of those things in the past, I can say that a few years ago I did not see any submissions that looked suspiciously bot-like. Though low-quality rushed responses did seem to be relatively common back then, I never observed bot-like responses to open-ended questions. Unfortunately this time I was able to spot several responses clearly written by bots. For example, one respondent answered the question “write a brief essay about your #1 best experience” with:

The reason these types of assignments are given so often is that anyone can write about their own experience and it doesn’t require any outside resources or research. However, even though anyone can tell a story about their life, that does not mean anyone can write a good essay about that experience. As a professor and teacher for 30 years, I’ve read thousands of essays and can tell you there is a distinct difference from telling a story about yourself and writing an excellent personal experience essay. The difference between good and great:

And it ends that way, with a colon indicating that the respondent is about to explain what the difference between good and great is. But it never does it. This answer, great, it is not.

In most cases the difference between a genuine response and a bot response was very obvious. That said, I erred on the side of caution for filtering bots and I got rid of answers even if they seemed just a little suspicious. This left me with 97 out of the 110 original responses. The following analysis was conducted on those 97 responses.

Preprocessing

Since the responses were open-ended I had to tag each of them with an experience category. To do this I read each response and identified the key theme in them and classified them with a label that was specific enough to distinguish it from nearby experiences (e.g. different types of fractures), but not so specific that we would never get more than one response per category (e.g. “breaking the middle finger in elementary school”). In general, most responses fell into very unambiguous categories (e.g. “When my father passed away” and “Watching my father die and take his last few breaths.” were both classified as “Father death”). About 10% of the responses were relatively ambiguous: it wasn’t clear what the source of the pain or pleasure was. To deal with those responses I used the label “Unspecified”. When some detail was present but ambiguity remained, such as when a broad type of pain or pleasure was mentioned but not the specific source I tagged it as “Unspecified X” where X was a broad category. For example, one person said that “broken bones” was the most painful experience they’ve had, which I labeled as “Unspecified fracture”.


Results

I should preface the following by saying that we are very aware of the lack of scientific rigor in this survey; it remains a pilot exploratory work. We didn’t specify the time-scale for the experiences (e.g. are we asking about the best minute of your life or the best month of your life?) or whether we were requesting instances of physical or psychological pain/pleasures. Despite this lack of constraints it was interesting to see very strong commonalities among people’s responses:

Appearance Base Rates

There were 77 and 124 categories of pleasure and pain identified, respectively. On the whole it seemed like there was a higher diversity of ways to suffer than of ways to experience intense bliss. Summoning the spirit of Tolstoy: “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

Here are the raw counts for each category with at least two appearances:

pleasure_baserates_97_only_2andup_

Best experiences appearances (with at least two reports)

pain_baserates_97_only_2andup_

Worst experience appearances (with at least two reports)

For those who want to see the full list of number of appearances for each experience mentioned see the bottom of the article (I also clarify some of the more confusing labels there too)**.

A simple way to try to incorporate the information about the ranking is to weight experiences rated as top #1 with 3 points, those as top #2 with 2 points, and those as the top #3 with 1 point. If you do this, the experiences scores are:

pleasure_baserates_97_weighted_

Weighted appearances of best experiences (#1 – 3 points, #2 – 2 points, #3 – 1 point)

pain_baserates_97_weighted_

Weighted appearances of worst experiences (#1 – 3 points, #2 – 2 points, #3 – 1 point)

Average ratings

Given the relatively small sample size, I will only report the mean rating for pain and pleasure (out of 10) for categories of experience for which there were 6 or more respondents:

For pain:

  1. Father death (n = 19): mean 8.53, sd 2.3
  2. Childbirth (n = 16): mean 7.94, sd 2.16
  3. Grandmother death (n = 13): mean 8.12, sd 2.5
  4. Mother death (n = 11): mean 9.4, sd 0.62
  5. Car accident (n = 9): mean 8.42, sd 1.52
  6. Kidney stone (n = 9): mean 5.97, sd 3.17
  7. Migraine (n = 9): mean 5.36, sd 3.11
  8. Romantic breakup (n = 9): mean 7.11, sd 1.52
  9. Broken arm (n = 6): mean 8.28, sd 0.88
  10. Broken leg (n = 6): mean 7.33, sd 2.02
  11. Work failure (n = 6): mean 5.88, sd 3.57

(Note: the very high variance for kidney stones and migraine is partly explained by the presence of some very low responses, with values as low as 1.1/10 – perhaps misreported, or perhaps illustrating the extreme diversity of experiences of migraines and kidney stones).

And for pleasure:

  1. Falling in love (n = 42): mean 8.68, sd 1.74
  2. Children born (n = 41): mean 9.19, sd 1.64
  3. Marriage (n = 21): mean 8.7, sd 1.25
  4. Sex (n = 19): mean 8.72, sd 1.45
  5. College graduation (n = 13): mean 7.73, sd 1.4
  6. Orgasm (n = 11): mean 8.24, sd 1.63
  7. Alcohol (n = 8): mean 6.84, sd 1.59
  8. Vacation (n = 6): mean 9.12, sd 0.73
  9. Getting job (n = 6): mean 7.22, sd 1.47
  10. Personal favorite sports win (n = 6): mean 8.17, sd 1.23

Deference Graph of Top Experiences

We will now finally get to the more exploratory and fun/interesting analysis, at least in that it will generate a cool way of visualizing what causes people great joy and pain. Namely, the idea of using people’s rankings in order to populate a global scale across people and show it in the form of a graph of deferences. While the scientific literature has some studies that compare pain across different categories (e.g. 1, 2, 3) I was not able to find any dataset that included actual rankings across a variety of categories. Hence why it was so appealing to visualize this.

The simplest way of graphing experience deferences is to assign a node to each experience category and add an edge between experiences with deference relationships with a weight proportional to the number of directed deferences. For example, if 4 people have said that A was better than B, and 3 people have said that B was better than A, then there will be an edge from A to B with a weight of 4 and an edge from B to A with a weight of 3. Additionally, we can then run a graph centrality algorithm such as PageRank to see where the “deferences end up pooling”.

The images below do this: the PageRank of the graph is represented with the color gradient (darker shades of green/red representing higher PageRank values for good/bad experiences). In addition, the graphs also represent the number of appearances in the dataset for each category with the size of each node:

The main problem with the approach above is that it double (triple?) counts experiences that are very common. Say that, for example, taking 5-MeO-DMT produces a consistently higher-valence feeling relative to having sex. If we only have a couple of people who report both 5-MeO-DMT and sex as their top experiences, the edge from sex to 5-MeO-DMT will be very weak, and the PageRank algorithm will underestimate the value of 5-MeO-DMT.

In order to avoid the double counting effect of commonly-reported peak experiences we can instead add edge weights on the basis of the proportion with which an experience defers to the other. Let’s say that f(a, b) means “number of times that b is reported as higher than a”. Then the proportion would be f(a, b) / (f(a, b) + f(b, a)). Now, this introduces another problem, which is that pairs of experiences that appear together very infrequently might get a very high proportion score due to a low sample size. In order to prevent this we use Laplace smoothing and modify the equation to (f(a, b) + 1) / (f(a, b) + f(b, a) + 2). Finally, we transform this proportion score from the range of 0 to 1 to the range of -1 to 1 by multiplying by 2 and subtracting one. We call this a “rebalanced smoothed proportion” w(a, b):

CodeCogsEqn

Rebalanced smoothed proportion

I should note that this is not based on any rigorous math. The equation is based on my intuition for what I would expect to see in such a graph, namely a sort of confidence-weighted strength of directionality, but I do not guarantee that this is a principled way of doing so (did I mention this is a pilot small-scale low-budget ‘to a first approximation’ study?). I think that, nonetheless, doing this is still an improvement upon merely using the raw deference counts as the edge weights. To visualize what w(a, b) looks like I graphed its values for a and b in the range of 0 to 20 (literally typing the equation into the google search bar):

To populate the graph I only use the positive edge weights so that we can run the PageRank algorithm on it. This now looks a lot more reasonable and informative as a deference graph than the previous attempts:

pleasure_97_balanced_2

Best experiences deference graph: Edge weights based on the rebalanced smoothed proportions, size of nodes is proportional to number of appearances in the dataset, and the color tracks the PageRank of the graph. Edge color based on source node.

 

pain_network_97_balanced

Worst experiences deference graph: Edge weights based on the rebalanced smoothed proportions, size of nodes is proportional to number of appearances in the dataset, and the color tracks the PageRank of the graph. Edge color based on source node.

By taking the PageRank of these graphs (calculated with NetworkX) we arrive at the following global rankings:

pleasure_pagerank_97_

PageRank of the graph of best experiences with edge weights computed with the rebalanced smoothed proportion equation

pain_pagerank_97__

PageRank of the graph of worst experiences with edge weights computed with the rebalanced smoothed proportion equation

Intuitively this ranking seems more aligned with what I’ve heard before, but I will withhold judgement on it until we have much more data.

Triadic Analysis

With a more populated deference graph we can analyze in detail the degree to which triads (i.e. sets of three experiences such that each of the three possible deferences are present in the graph) show transitivity (cf. Balance vs. Status Theory).

In particular, we should compare the prevalence of these two triads:

triad_analysis

Left: 030T, Right: 030C (source)

The triads above are 030T, which is transitive, and 030C, which is a loop. The higher the degree of agreement between people and the higher the probability of the existence of an underlying shared scale, we would expect to see more triads of the type 030T relative to 030C. That said, a simple ratio is not enough, since the expected proportion between these two triads can be an artifact of the way the graph is constructed and/or its general shape (and hence the importance of comparing against randomized graphs that preserve as many other statistical features as possible). With our graph, we noticed that the very way in which the edges were introduced generated an artifact of a very strong difference between these two types of triads:

In the case of pain there are 105 ‘030T’, and 3 ‘030C’. And for the pleasure questions there were 98 ‘030T’, and 9 ‘030C’. That said, many of these triads are the artifact of taking into account the top three experiences, which already generates a transitive triad by default when n = 1 for that particular triad of experiences. To avoid this artifact, we filtered the graph by only adding edges when a pair of experiences appeared at least twice (and discounting the edges where w(a, b) = 0). With this adjustment we got 2 ‘030T’, and 1 ‘030C’ for the pain questions, and 1 ‘030T’, and 0 ‘030C’ for the pleasure question. Clearly there is not enough data to meaningfully conduct this type of analysis. If we extend the study and get a larger sample size, this analysis might be much more informative.

Latent Trait Ratings

A final approach I tried for deriving a global ranking of experiences was to assume a latent parameter for pain or pleasure of different experiences and treating the rankings as the tournament results of participants with skill equal to this latent trait. So when someone says that an experience of sex was better than an experience of getting a new bike we imagine that “sex” had a match with “getting bike” and that “sex” won that match. If we do this, then we can import any of the many tournament algorithms that exist (such as the Elo rating system) in order to approximate the latent “skill” trait of each experience (except that here it is the “skill” to cause you pleasure or pain, rather than any kind of gaming ability).

Interestingly, this strategy has also been used in other areas outside of actual tournaments, such as deriving university rankings based on the choices made by students admitted to more than one college (see: Revealed Preference Rankings of US Colleges and Universities).

I should mention that the fact that we are asking about peak experiences likely violates some of the assumptions of these algorithms, since the fact that a match takes place is already information that both experiences made it into the top 3. That said, if the patterns of deference are very strong, this might not represent a problem.

To come up with this tournament-style ranking I decided to go for a state-of-the-art algorithm. The one that I was able to find and use was Microsoft Research’s algorithm called TrueSkill (which is employed to rank players in Xbox LIVE). According to their documentation, to arrive at a conservative “leaderboard” that balances the estimated “true skill” and the uncertainty around it, they recommend ranking by the expected skill level minus three times the standard error around this estimate. If we do this, we arrive at the following experience “leaderboards”:

pleasure_97_trueskill_conservative

Conservative TrueSkill scores for best experiences (mu – 3*sigma)

pain_97_trueskill_conservative

Conservative TrueSkill scores for worst experiences (mu – 3*sigma)

Long-tails in Responses to “How Many Times Better/Worse” Question

The survey included four questions aimed at comparing the relative hedonic values of peak experiences: “Relative to the 1st most pleasant experience, how many times better was the 2nd most pleasant experience?” (This was one, the other three were the permutations of also asking about 2nd vs. 3rd and about the bad experiences):

(Note: I’ll ignore the responses to the comparison between the 2nd and 3rd worst pains because I messed up the question -I forgot to substitute “better” for “worse”).

I would understand the skepticism about these graphs. But at the same time, I don’t think it is absurd that for many people the worst experience they’ve had is indeed 10 or 100 times worse than the second worst. For example, someone who has endured a bad Cluster Headache will generally say that the pain of it is tens or hundreds of times worse than any other kind of pain they have had (say, breaking a bone or having skin burns).

The above distributions suggest a long-tail for the hedonic quality of experiences: say that the hedonic quality of each day is distributed along a log-normal distribution. A 45 year old has experienced roughly 17,000 days. Let’s say that such a person’s experience of pain each day is sampled from a log-normal distribution with a Gaussian exponent with a mean of 10 and a standard deviation of 5. If we take 100 such people, and for each of them we take the single worst and the second worst days of their lives, and then take the ratio between them, we will have a distribution like this (simulated in R):

If you smooth the empirical curves above you would get a distribution that looks like these simulations. You really need a long-tail to be able to get results like “for 25% of the participants the single worst experience was at least 4 times as bad as the 2nd worst experience.” Compare that to the sort of pattern that you get if the distribution was normal rather than log-normal:

As you can see (zooming in on the y-axis), the ratios simply do not reach very high values. With the normal distribution simulated here, we see that the highest ratio we achieve is around 1.3, as opposed to the empirical ratios of 10+.*** If you are inclined to believe the survey responses- or at least assign some level of credibility to the responses in the 90th-percentile and below-, the data is much more consistent with a long-tail distribution for hedonic values relative to a normal distribution.

Discussion

Key Pleasures Surfaced

Birth of children

I have heard a number of mothers and father say that having kids was the best thing that ever happened to them. The survey showed this was a very strong pattern, especially among women. In particular, a lot of the reports deal with the very moment in which they held their first baby in their arms for the first time. Some quotes to illustrate this pattern:

The best experience of my life was when my first child was born. I was unsure how I would feel or what to expect, but the moment I first heard her cry I fell in love with her instantly. I felt like suddenly there was another person in this world that I cared about and loved more than myself. I felt a sudden urge to protect her from all the bad in the world. When I first saw her face it was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen. It is almost an indescribable feeling. I felt like I understood the purpose and meaning of life at that moment. I didn’t know it was possible to feel the way I felt when I saw her. I was the happiest I have ever been in my entire life. That moment is something that I will cherish forever. The only other time I have ever felt that way was with the subsequent births of my other two children. It was almost a euphoric feeling. It was an intense calm and contentment.

—————

I was young and had a difficult pregnancy with my first born. I was scared because they had to do an emergency c-section because her health and mine were at risk. I had anticipated and thought about how the moment would be when I finally got to hold my first child and realize that I was a mother. It was unbelievably emotional and I don’t think anything in the world could top the amount of pleasure and joy I had when I got to see and hold her for the first time.

—————

I was 29 when my son was born. It was amazing. I never thought I would be a father. Watching him come into the world was easily the best day of my life. I did not realize that I could love someone or something so much. It was at about 3am in the morning so I was really tired. But it was wonderful nonetheless.

—————

I absolutely loved when my child was born. It was a wave of emotions that I haven’t felt by anything before. It was exciting and scary and beautiful all in one.

No luck for anti-natalists… the super-strong drug-like effects of having children will presumably continue to motivate most humans to reproduce no matter how strong the ethical case against doing so may be. Coming soon: a drug that makes you feel like “you just had 10,000 children”.

Falling in Love

The category of “falling in love” was also a very common top experience. I should note that the experiences reported were not merely those of “having a crush”, but rather, they typically involved unusually fortunate circumstances. For instance, a woman reported being friends with her crush for 7 years. She thought that he was not interested in her, and so she never dared to confess her love for him… until one day, out of the blue, he confessed his love for her. Other experiences of falling in involve chance encounters with childhood friends that led to movie-deserving romantic escapades, forbidden love situations, and cases where the person was convinced the lover was out of his or her league.

Travel/Vacation

The terms “travel” and “vacation” may sound relatively frivolous in light of some of the other pleasures listed. That said, these were not just any kind of travel or vacation. The experiences described do seem rather extraordinary and life-changing. For example, talking about back-packing alone in France for a month, biking across the US with your best friend, or a long trip in South East Asia with your sibling that goes much better than planned.

MDMA/LSD/Psilocybin

It is significant that out of 97 people four of them listed MDMA as one of the most pleasant experiences of their lives. This is salient given the relatively low base rate of usage of this drug (some surveys saying about 12%, which is probably not too far off from the base rate for Mechanical Turk workers using MDMA). This means that a high percentage of people who have tried MDMA will rate it as as one of their top experiences, thus implying that this drug produces experiences sampled from an absurdly long-tailed high-valence distribution. This underscores the civilizational significance of inventing a method to experience MDMA-like states of consciousness in a sustainable fashion (cf. Cooling It Down To Partying It Up).

Likewise, the appearance of LSD and psilocybin is significant for the same reason. That said, measures of the significance of psychedelic experiences in psychedelic studies have shown that a high percentage of those who experience such states rate them among their top most meaningful experiences.

About-two-thirds-of-participants-who-received-psilocybin-reported-a-mystical-experience

Games of Chance Earnings

Four participants mentioned earnings in games of chance. These cases involved earning amounts ranging from $2,000 all the way to a truck (which was immediately sold for money). What I find significant about this is that these experiences are at times ranked above “college graduation” and other classically meaningful life moments. This brings about a crazy utilitarian idea: if indeed education is as useless as many people in the intellectual elite are saying these days (ex. The Case Against Education) we might as well stop subsidizing higher education and instead make people participate in opt-out games of chance rigged in their favor. Substitute the Department of Education for a Department of Lucky Moments and give people meaningful life experiences at a fraction of the cost.

Key Pains Surfaced

Kidney Stones and Migraines

The fact that these two medical issues were surfaced is, I think, extremely significant. This is because the lifetime incidence of kidney stones is about 10% (~13% for men, 7% for women) and for migraines it is around 13% (9% for men, 18% for women). In the survey we saw 9/93 people mentioning kidney stones, and the same number of people mentioning migraines. In other words, there is reason to believe that a large fraction of the people who have had either of these conditions will rate them as one of their top 3 most painful experiences. This fact alone underscores the massive utilitarian benefit that would come from being able to reduce the incidence of these two medical problems (luckily, we have some good research leads for addressing these problems at a large scale and in a cost-effective way: DMT for migraines, and frequency specific microcurrent for kidney stones)

Childbirth

Childbirth was mentioned 16 times, meaning that roughly 30% of women rate it as one of their three most painful experiences. While many people may look at this and simply nod their heads while saying “well, that’s just life”, here at Qualia Computing we do not condone that kind of defeatism and despicable lack of compassion. As it turns out, there are fascinating research leads to address the pain of childbirth. In particular, Jo Cameron, a 70 year old vegan schoolteacher, described her childbirth by saying that it “felt like a tickle”. She happens to have a mutation in the FAAH gene, which is usually in charge of breaking down anandamine (a neurotransmitter implicated in pain sensitivity and hedonic tone). As we’ve argued before, every child is a complete genetic experiment. In the future, we may as well try to at least make educated guesses about our children’s genes associated with low mood, anxiety, and pain sensitivity. In defiance of common sense (and the Bible) the future of childbirth could indeed be one devoid of intense pain.

Car accidents

Car accidents are extremely common (the base rate is so high that by the age of 40 or so we can almost assume that most people have been in at least one car accident, possibly multiple). More so, it seems likely that the health-damaging effects of car accidents, by their nature, follow a long-tail distribution. The high base rate of people mentioning car accidents in their top 3 most painful experiences underscores the importance of streamlining the process of transitioning into the era of self-driving cars.

Death of Father and Mother

This one does not come as a surprise, but what may stand out is the relatively higher frequency of mentions of “death of father” relative to “death of mother”. I think this is an artifact of the longevity difference between men and women. This is in agreement with the observed effect of age: about 15% vs. 25% of people under and over 40 had mentioned the death of their father, as opposed to a difference of 5% vs. 25% for death of mother. The reason why the father might be over-represented might simply be due to the lower life expectancy of men relative to women, and hence the father, on average, dying earlier. Thus, it being reported more frequently by a younger population.

Future Directions for Methodological Approaches:

Graphical Models with Log-normal Priors

After trying so many analytic angles on this dataset, what else is there to do? I think that as a proof of concept the analysis presented here is pretty well-rounded. If the Qualia Research Institute does well in the funding department, we can expect to extend this pilot study into a more comprehensive analysis of the pleasure-pain axis both in the general population and among populations who we know have endured or enjoyed extremes of valence (such as cluster headache sufferers or people who have tried 5-MeO-DMT).

In terms of statistical models, an adequate amount of data would enable us to start using probabilistic graphical models to determine the most likely long-tail distributions for all of the key parameters of pleasure and pain. For instance, we might want to develop a model similar to Item Response Theory where:

  1. Each participant samples experiences from a distribution.
  2. Each experience category generates samples with an empirically-determined base rate probability (e.g. chances that it happens in a given year), along with a latent hedonic value distribution.
  3. A “discrimination function” f(a, b) that gives the probability that experience of hedonic value a is rated as more pleasant (or painful) relative an experience with a hedonic value of b.
  4. And a generative model that estimates the likelihood of observing experiences as the top 3 (or top x) based on the parameters provided.

In brief, with an approach like the above we can potentially test the model fit for different distribution types of hedonic values per experience. In particular, we would be able to determine if the model fit is better if the experiences are drawn from a Gaussian vs. a log-normal (or other long-tailed) distribution.

Finally, it might be fruitful to explicitly ask about whether participants have had certain experiences in order to calibrate their ratings, or even have them try a battery of standardized pain/pleasure-inducing stimuli (capsaicin extract, electroshocks, stings, massage, orgasm, etc.). We could also find the way to combine (a) the numerical ratings, (2) the ranking information, and (3) the “how many times better/worse” responses into a single model. And for best results, restrict the analysis to very recent experiences in order to reduce recall biases.

Closing Thoughts on the Valence Scale

To summarize, I believe that the case for a long-tail account of the pleasure-pain axis is very defensible. This picture is supported by:

  1. The long-tailed nature of neuronal cascades,
  2. The phenomenological accounts of intense pleasure and pain (w/ phenomenological accounts of time and space expansion),
  3. The way in which pain scales are constructed by those who developed them, and
  4. The analytic results of the pilot study we conducted and presented here.

In turn, these results give rise to a new interpretation of psychophysical observations such as Weber’s Law. Namely, that Just Noticeable Differences may correspond to geometric differences in qualia, not only in sensory stimuli. That is, that the exponential nature of many cases where Weber’s Law appears are not merely the result of a logarithmic compression on the patterns of stimulation at the “surface” of our sense organs. Rather, the observations presented here suggest that these long-tails deal directly with the quality and intensity of conscious experience itself.


Additional Material

Dimensionality of Pleasure and Pain

Pain and pleasure may have an intrinsic “dimensionality”. Without elaborating, we will merely state that a generative definition for the “dimensionality of an experience” is the highest “virtual dimension” implied by the patterns of correlation between degrees of freedom. The hot pepper hands account I related suggested a kind of dimensional phase transition between 4/10 and 5/10 pain, where the patterns of a certain type (4/10 “sparks” of pain) would sometimes synchronize and generate a new type of higher-dimensional sensation (5/10 “solitons” of pain). To illustrate this idea further:

First, in Hot Ones, Kumail Nanjiani describes several “leaps” in the spiciness of the wings, first at around 30,000 Scoville (“this new ghost that appears and only here starts to visit you”), and second at around 130k Scoville (paraphrasing: “like how NES to Super Nintendo felt like a big jump, but then Super Nintendo to N64 was an even bigger leap” – “Now we are playing in the big leagues motherfucker! This is fucking real!”). This hints at a change in dimensionality, too.

And second, Shinzen Young‘s advice about dealing with pain involves not resisting it. He discusses how suffering is generated by the coordination between emotional, cognitive, and physical mental formations. If you can keep each of these mental formations happening independently and don’t allow their coordinated forms, you will avoid some of what makes the experience bad. This also suggests that higher-dimensional pain is qualitatively worse. Pragmatically, training to do this may make sense for the time being, since we are still some years away from sustainable pain-relief for everyone.

Mixed States

We have yet to discuss in detail how mixed states come into play for a log-normal valence scale. The Symmetry Theory of Valence would suggest that most states are neutral in nature and that only processes that reduce entropy locally such as neural annealing would produce highly-valenced states. In particular, we would see that high-valence states have very negative valence states nearby in configuration space; if you take a very good high-energy state and distort it in a random direction it will likely feel very unpleasant. The points in between would be mixed valence, which account for the majority of experiences in the wild.

Qualia Formalism

Qualia Formalism posits that for any given system that sustains experiences, there is a mathematical object such that the mathematical features of that object are isomorphic to the system’s phenomenology. In turn, Valence Structuralism posits that the hedonic nature of experience is encoded in a mathematical feature of this object. It is easier to find something real if you posit that it exists (rather than try to explain it away). We have suggested in the past that valence can be explained in terms of the mathematical property of symmetry, which cashes out in the form of neural dissonance and consonance.

In contrast to eliminativist, illusionist, and non-formal approaches to consciousness, at QRI we simply start by assuming that experience has a deep ground truth structure and we see where we can go from there. Although we currently lack the conceptual schemes, science, and vocabulary needed to talk in precise terms about different degrees of pleasure and pain (though we are trying!), that is not a good reason to dismiss the first-person claims and indirect pieces of evidence concerning the true amounts of various kinds of qualia bound in each moment of experience. If valence does turn out to intrinsically be a mathematical feature of our experience, then both its quality and quantity could very well be precisely measurable, conceptually crisp, and tractable. A scientific fact that, if proven, would certainly have important implications in ethics and meta-ethics.


Notes:

* It’s a shame that Coyote Peterson didn’t rate the pain produced by the various wings he ate on the Hot Ones show relative to insect stings, but that sort of data would be very helpful in establishing a universal valence scale. More generally, stunt-man personalities like the L.A. Beast who subject themselves to extremes of negative valence for Internet points might be an untapped gold mine for experience deference data (e.g. How does eating the most bitter substance known compare with the bullet ant glove? Asking this guy might be the only way to find out, without creating more casualties).

**Base rate of mentions of worst experiences:

[('Father death', 19), ('Childbirth', 16), ('Grandmother death', 13), ('Mother death', 11), ('Car accident', 9), ('Kidney stone', 9), ('Migraine', 9), ('Romantic breakup', 9), ('Broken arm', 6), ('Broken leg', 6), ('Work failure', 6), ('Divorce', 5), ('Pet death', 5), ('Broken foot', 4), ('Broken ankle', 4), ('Broken hand', 4), ('Unspecified', 4), ('Friend death', 4), ('Sister death', 4), ('Skin burns', 3), ('Skin cut needing stitches', 3), ('Financial ruin', 3), ('Property loss', 3), ('Sprained ankle', 3), ('Gallstones', 3), ('Family breakup', 3), ('Divorce of parents', 3), ('C-section recovery', 3), ('Love failure', 2), ('Broken finger', 2), ('Unspecified fracture', 2), ('Broken ribs', 2), ('Unspecified family death', 2), ('Broken collarbone', 2), ('Grandfather death', 2), ('Unspecified illness', 2), ('Period pain', 2), ('Being cheated', 2), ('Financial loss', 2), ('Broken tooth', 2), ('Cousin death', 2), ('Relative with cancer', 2), ('Cluster headache', 2), ('Unspecified leg problem', 2), ('Root canal', 2), ('Back pain', 2), ('Broken nose', 2), ('Aunt death', 2), ('Wisdom teeth', 2), ('Cancer (eye)', 1), ('Appendix operation', 1), ('Dislocated elbow', 1), ('Concussion', 1), ('Mono', 1), ('Sexual assault', 1), ('Kidney infection', 1), ('Hemorrhoids', 1), ('Tattoo', 1), ('Unspecified kidney problem', 1), ('Unspecified lung problem', 1), ('Unspecified cancer', 1), ('Unspecified childhood sickness', 1), ('Broken jaw', 1), ('Broken elbow', 1), ('Thrown out back', 1), ('Lost sentimental item', 1), ('Abortion', 1), ('Ruptured kidney', 1), ('Big fall', 1), ('Torn knee', 1), ('Finger hit by hammer', 1), ('Injured thumb', 1), ('Brother in law death', 1), ('Knocked teeth', 1), ('Unspecified death', 1), ('Ripping off fingernail', 1), ('Personal anger', 1), ('Wrist pain', 1), ('Getting the wind knocked out', 1), ('Blown knee', 1), ('Burst appendix', 1), ('Tooth abscess', 1), ('Tendinitis', 1), ('Altruistic frustration', 1), ('Leg operation', 1), ('Gallbladder infection', 1), ('Broken wrist', 1), ('Stomach flu', 1), ('Running away from family', 1), ('Child beating', 1), ('Sinus infection', 1), ('Broken thumb', 1), ('Family abuse', 1), ('Miscarriage', 1), ('Tooth extraction', 1), ('Feeling like your soul is lost', 1), ('Homelessness', 1), ('Losing your religion', 1), ('Losing bike', 1), ('Family member in prison', 1), ('Crohn s disease', 1), ('Irritable bowel syndrome', 1), ('Family injured', 1), ('Unspecified chronic disease', 1), ('Fibromyalgia', 1), ('Blood clot in toe', 1), ('Infected c-section', 1), ('Suicide of lover', 1), ('Dental extraction', 1), ('Unspecified partner abuse', 1), ('Infertility', 1), ('Father in law death', 1), ('Broken neck', 1), ('Scratched cornea', 1), ('Swollen lymph nodes', 1), ('Sun burns', 1), ('Tooth ache', 1), ('Lost custody of children', 1), ('Unspecified accident', 1), ('Bike accident', 1), ('Broken hip', 1), ('Not being loved by partner', 1), ('Dog bite', 1), ('Broken skull', 1)]

Base rate of mentions of best experiences:

[('Falling in love', 42), ('Children born', 41), ('Marriage', 21), ('Sex', 19), ('College graduation', 13), ('Orgasm', 11), ('Alcohol', 8), ('Vacation', 6), ('Getting job', 6), ('Personal favorite sports win', 6), ('Nature scene', 5), ('Owning home', 5), ('Sports win', 4), ('Graduating highschool', 4), ('MDMA', 4), ('Getting paid for the first time', 4), ('Amusement park', 4), ('Game of chance earning', 4), ('Job achievement', 4), ('Getting engaged', 4), ('Cannabis', 3), ('Eating favorite food', 3), ('Unexpected gift', 3), ('Moving to a better location', 3), ('Travel', 3), ('Divorce', 2), ('Gifting car', 2), ('Giving to charity', 2), ('LSD', 2), ('Won contest', 2), ('Friend reunion', 2), ('Winning bike', 2), ('Kiss', 2), ('Pet ownership', 2), ('Children', 1), ('First air trip', 1), ('First kiss', 1), ('Public performance', 1), ('Hugs', 1), ('Unspecified', 1), ('Recovering from unspecified kidney problem', 1), ('College party', 1), ('Graduate school start', 1), ('Financial success', 1), ('Dinner with loved one', 1), ('Feeling supported', 1), ('Children graduates from college', 1), ('Family event', 1), ('Participating in TV show', 1), ('Psychedelic mushrooms', 1), ('Opiates', 1), ('Having own place', 1), ('Making music', 1), ('Becoming engaged', 1), ('Theater', 1), ('Extreme sport', 1), ('Armed forces graduation', 1), ('Birthday', 1), ('Positive pregnancy test', 1), ('Feeling that God exists', 1), ('Belief that Hell does not exist', 1), ('Getting car', 1), ('Academic achievement', 1), ('Helping others', 1), ('Meeting soulmate', 1), ('Daughter back home', 1), ('Winning custody of children', 1), ('Friend stops drinking', 1), ('Masturbation', 1), ('Friend not dead after all', 1), ('Child learns to walk', 1), ('Attending wedding of loved one', 1), ('Children safe after dangerous situation', 1), ('Unspecified good news', 1), ('Met personal idol', 1), ('Child learns to talk', 1), ('Children good at school', 1)]

For clarity – “Personal favorite sports win” means that the respondent was a participant in the sport as opposed to a spectator (which was labeled as “Sports win”). The difference between “Sex” and “Orgasm” is that Sex refers to the entire act including foreplay and cuddles whereas Orgasm refers to the specific moment of climax. For some reason people would either mention one or the other, and emphasize very different aspects of the experience (e.g. intimacy vs. physical sensation) so I decided to label them differently.

*** It is possible that some fine-tuning of parameters could give rise to long-tail ratios even with a normal distribution (especially if the mean is, say, a negative value and the standard deviation is very wide). But in the general case a normal distribution will have a fairly narrow range for the ratios of the “top value divided by the second top value”. So at least as a general qualitative argument, I think, the simulations do suggest a long-tailed nature for the reported hedonic values.

Against Fetishizing Cortical Neurons: Prioritizing Humans As Instrumentally Rational

In response to: [Partially Retracted] Cortical Neuron Number Matches Intuitive Perceptions Of Moral Value Across Animals (see also: 1, 2), and The Cognitive Chain of Being: A New Approach to Animal Rights


Some errors are ethically catastrophic. Prioritizing the prevention of suffering based on the number of cortical neurons of the brains that would generate such suffering might be one of them.

We should avoid jumping to conclusions. It is possible that moral significance will ultimately be revealed to be based on capacity to suffer and experience joy, which is related to the limbic system, pleasure centers, and thalamus rather than the capacity to verbalize and cogitate, which is related to number of cortical neurons. People’s perceptions and intuitions are likely to be biased towards over-valuing intelligence because that’s something that got ingrained into our perception of value due to sexual and kin selection.

If QRI’s Symmetry Theory of Valence is correct, most intense and (dis)valuable experiences will turn out to be very simple in structure (even if very high energy-wise). Complexity of neural architecture is correlated with potential for intelligence and complex states. But it is not necessary for emotionally powerful experiences. The cortex, after all, plays majorly an inhibitory role in the brain. Emotion centers, on the other hand, are excitatory, evolutionarily ancient and phylogenetically preserved across the animal kingdom (e.g. even octopodes enjoy MDMA). Based on this, uninhibited base emotions are likely to feel roughly the same (or close to the same) in human and nonhuman animals alike.

What about an animals’ capacity to inhibit base emotions? As John Lilly’s studies indicate, the thickness of an animal’s cortex is correlated with its emotional control. A macaque in panic is more impulsive and violent than a chimpanzee in panic, which in turn is more impulsive and violent than a human in panic. The same goes for humans with different cortical sizes. Hence, sadly, there is a good chance that pigs, dogs, birds, and cows experience emotions more- rather than less- intensely. Their emotions may not be as ‘subtle’ and multilayered, but why would that matter for ethics? Raw panic is worse than subtle poetic melancholia and other ‘valued (i.e. fetishized) human emotions’. Again, we overvalue such subtle emotions as a side effect of the specific sexual selection pressures experienced in our recent evolutionary history, rather than for good well-thought-out reasons.

In this age of ethical emergencies (aka. the Darwinian age), I would like to offer the suggestion of enforcing pleasure center activation in factory farm animals as a precondition for having them raised for meat or dairy. Likewise, such should be done in nonhuman animal studies that focus on things other than the brain. Why not wirehead rats who are being studied for kidney failure? It won’t matter for that area of research… but it will certainly matter for the subjective wellbeing of the rats in question.

A relevant side note here would concern another human bias in addition to the fetishization of cortical neurons. Namely, our positive bias towards cute animals due to mirror neuron activation. Cuteness and neoteny are attractive to humans for good evolutionary reasons, but this is a perceptual bias rather than the result of careful moral reasoning. The fact that humans perceive pandas as cute hardly justifies letting millions of sentient beings suffer in exchange for “saving the panda” (cf. Should We Let Pandas Go Extinct?*).

Really what we need is what Mike Johnson has pointed at in his blog for ages: objective measures of species’ specific valence landscapes.

My dark hunch: the life of some animals is simply not worth living no matter their environmental conditions. Crickets- the consciousnesses science of 2050 could reveal- are 100% driven by dissonance and never experience pleasure. If so, let’s fix them or phase them out.

Finally, also consider: Cluster headaches are 10,000sX more painful than other medical conditions. Given this extreme outlier in humans, we could infer that there are good odds that there are other kinds of ultra-high-intensity suffering lurking in species’ specific diseases. Morally, it ought to be key to identify these cases and treat them as our priority. Focusing on cortical neurons instead would be a- possibly ethically catastrophic- red herring.


* This is not to say that it is desirable for the panda to go extinct. It is a question of opportunity cost. It might make sense to put efforts instead in sequencing the DNA of the entire panda population and consider rebooting it sometime in the future.

An Infinite Variety of Waste

Excerpt from The Mating Mind: How Sexual Choice Shaped the Evolution of Human Nature (2000) by Geoffrey Miller (pg. 128-129)

Zahavi’s handicap principle and the idea of condition-dependence* are different perspectives on the same thing. The handicap idea emphasizes that sexual ornaments and courtship behaviors must be costly in order to be reliable fitness indicators. Their cost can take almost any form. They can increase risk from predators by making an animal more conspicuous with bright colors. They can increase risk from germs by impairing an animal’s immune system (which many sex hormones do). They can burn up vast amounts of time and energy, like bird song. They can demand a huge effort to obtain a small gift of meat, as in human tribal hunting.

As with Veblen’s conspicuous consumption principle, the form of the cost does not matter much. What matters is the prodigious waste. The waste is what keeps the fitness indicators honest. The wastefulness of courtship is what makes it romantic. The wasteful dancing, the wasteful gift-giving, the wasteful conversation, the wasteful laughter, the wasteful foreplay, the wasteful adventures. From the viewpoint of “survival of the fittest,” the waste looks mad and pointless and maladaptive. Human courtship even looks wasteful from the viewpoint of sexual selection for non-generic benefits, because, as we shall see, the act of love considered most romantic are often those that cost the giver the most, but that bring the smallest material benefits to the receiver. However, from the viewpoint of fitness indicator theory, this waste is the most efficient and reliable way to discover someone’s fitness. Where you see conspicuous waste in nature, sexual choice has often been at work.

Every sexual ornament in every sexually reproducing species could be viewed as a different style of waste. Male humpback whales waste their energies with half-hour-long, hundred-decibel songs that they repeat all day long during the breeding season. Male weaverbirds waste their time constructing ornamental nests. Male stag beetles waste the matter and energy from their food growing huge mandibles. Male elephant seals waste a thousand pounds of their fat per breeding season fighting other elephant seals. Male lions waste countless calories copulating thirty times a day with female lions before the females will conceive. Male humans waste their time and energy getting graduate degrees, writing books, playing sports, fighting other men, painting pictures, playing jazz, and founding religious cults. These may not be conscious sexual strategies, but the underlying motivations for “achievement” and “status”- even in preference to material sources- were probably shaped by sexual selection. (Of course, the wasteful displays that seemed attractive during courtship may no longer be valued if they persist after offspring arrive- there is a trade-off between parental responsibilities and conspicuous display.)

The handicap principle suggests that in each case, sexual selection cares much more about the prodigious magnitude of the waste than about its precise form. Once the decision-making mechanisms of sexual choice get their necessary information about fitness from a sexual display, everything else about the display is just a matter of taste. This interplay between waste and taste gives evolution a lot of elbow room. In fact, every species with sexual ornaments can be viewed as a different variety of sexually selected waste. Without so many varieties of sexual waste, our planet would not be the host of so many species.


* (from Glossary, pg. 437) Condition-dependence: A trait’s sensitivity to an animal’s health and energy level. For example, dance ability is condition-dependent because tired, sick animals can’t dance very well.

Utilitronium Shockwaves vs. Gradients of Bliss

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


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

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

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

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

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Utilitronium Shockwave? (cf. Hedonium)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Shrugging at the prospect of hedonium rocks on the moon.

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Preface

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


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

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

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

Sunday: Arrival

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

Monday: Camp Microlife

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday: Camp State-Space of Consciousness

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

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

 

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

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

PEACE & LOVE & HARMONY

PEACE & LOVE & HARMONY

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

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

Wednesday: Camp Valence

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

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

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

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

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

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

encore_roomencore_room_1

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

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Coluracetam

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

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

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Aripiprazole

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Stay tuned for part 2/2.


*Pun credit: Christian Lains

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

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

Cooling It Down To Partying It Up

A relatively recent hypothesis for the neurotoxicity associated with MDMA is that it causes the brain to over-heat (see: 1, 2, 3). This would make the sorts of environments in which people take it particularly hazardous (hot raves, nightclubs, warm baths, and wild sex).

I really hope this is the core main reason for MDMA’s long-term deleterious effects.

Why?

Because then the damage would be completely preventable! In particular, I would point you to the athletic performance-enhancing technology developed at Stanford in 2012 that uses rapid thermal exchange devices (aka. “the cooling glove”*) in order to cool your blood and allow you to compete at a higher level. This is an extremely efficient method to keep the temperature of your whole body (including your brain!) within a healthy range.

Sadly, the device is likely to get banned for athletic purposes (it would be, some say, an unfair advantage if some teams have access to the cooling glove and others don’t). Sports are, of course, completely inconsequential, so the fact that the device is likely to get banned for this application shouldn’t matter. Yet it does, because as a result many people seem to be losing interest in this line of research.

Maybe, I would posit, the device could be resurrected as part of a modern harm-reduction strategy. Imagine night-clubs with a chill-out space stocked with dozens of cooling gloves. Party for 30 minutes, cool down for 10 minutes, repeat. If this could allow people to take MDMA once every month for the rest of their lives without enduring the brain damage that doing this usually causes… wouldn’t that be wonderful? I would expect it to also be highly beneficial for the benevolence of culture and the overall mental health of our society.

And this is all to say: Who would have known… that “being cool” was the key to partying for the rest of your life? Cool it down and party it up!


*For a skeptical take on the device, see: Better Than Steroids? The hype behind Stanford’s magic “cooling glove” for athletes. And a comeback article that extends its use to more serious applications: Cooling glove developed by Stanford researchers helps athletes and patients.

Triple S Genetic Counseling: Predicting Hedonic-Set Point with Commercial-Grade DNA Testing as an Effective Altruist Project

The term “Transhumanism” has many senses. It is a social movement, a philosophy, a set of technologies, and a conceptual rallying flag. David Pearce pins down the core sentiment behind the term like this:

If we get things right, the future of life in the universe can be wonderful beyond the bounds of human imagination: a “triple S” civilisation of superlongevity, superintelligence and superhappiness.

– David Pearce, in The 3 Supers

The concept of a “triple S” civilization is very widely applicable. For example, one can imagine future smart homes designed with it in mind. Such smart homes would have features to increase your longevity (HEPA filters, humidity control, mold detectors, etc.), increase your intelligence (adaptive noise-canceling, optimal lighting, smart foods), and happiness (mood-congruent lighting, music, aromas, etc.). Since there are trade-offs between these dimensions, one could specify how much one values each of them in advance, and the smart home would be tasked with maximizing a utility function based on a weighted average between the three S’s.

Likewise, one could apply the “triple S” concept to medical care, lifestyle choices, career development, governance, education, etc. In particular, one could argue that a key driver for the realization of a triple S civilization would be what I’d like to call “triple S genetic counseling.” In brief, this is counseling for prospective parents in order to minimize the risks of harming one’s children by being oblivious to the possible genetic risk for having a reduced longevity, intelligence, or happiness. Likewise, in the more forward-looking transhumanist side of the equation, triple S genetic counseling would allow parents to load the genetic dice in their kid’s favor in order to make them as happy, long-lived, and smart as possible.

Genetic counseling, as an industry, is indeed about to explode (cf. Nature’s recent article: Prospective parents should be prepared for a surge in genetic data). Predictably, there will be a significant fraction of society that will question the ethics of e.g. preimplantation genetic diagnosis for psychological traits. In practice, parents who are able to afford it will power ahead, for few prospective parents truly don’t care about the (probabilistic) well-being of their future offspring. My personal worry is not so much that this won’t happen, but that the emphasis will be narrow and misguided. In particular, both predicting health and intelligence based on sequenced genomes are very active areas of research. I worry that happiness will be (relatively) neglected. Hence the importance of emphasizing all three S’s.

In truth, I think that predicting the hedonic set-point of one’s potential future kids (i.e. the average level of genetically-determined happiness) is a relatively more important project than predicting IQ (cf. A genome-wide association study for extremely high intelligenceBGI). In addition, I anticipate that genetic-based models that predict a person’s hedonic set-point will be much more accurate than those that predict IQ. As it turns out, IQ is extremely polygenetic, with predictors diffused across the entire genome, and it is a very evolutionary recent axis of variance across the population. Predictors of hedonic-set point (such as the “pain-knob gene” SCN9A and it’s variants), on the other hand, are ancient and evolutionarily preserved across the phylogenetic tree. This makes baseline happiness a likely candidate for having a straight-forward universal physiological implementation throughout the human population. Hence my prediction that polygenetic scores of hedonic-set point will be much more precise than those for IQ (or even longevity).

Given all of the above, I would posit that a great place to start would be to develop a model that predicts hedonic set-point using all of the relevant SNPs offered by 23andMe*.  Not only would this be “low-hanging fruit” in the field of genetic counseling, it may also be a project that is way up there, close to the top of the “to do” list in Effective Altruism (cf. Cause X; Google Hedonics).

I thought about this because I saw that 23andMe reports on health predispositions based on single SNPs. From a utilitarian point of view, of particular interest are SNPs related to the SCN9A gene. For example, I found that 23andMe has the rs6746030 SNP, which some studies show can account for a percentage of the variance associated with pain in Parkinson’s and other degenerative diseases. The allele combination A/A is bad, making you more prone to experience pain intensely. This is just one SNP, though, and there ought to be a lot of other relevant SNPs, not only of the SCN9A gene but elsewhere too (e.g. involved in MAO enzymes, neuroplasticity, and pleasure centers innervation).

Concretely, the task would involve making two models and then combining them:

The first model uses people’s responses to 23andMe surveys to come up with a good estimate of a person’s hedonic set-point. Looking at some of the questions they ask, I would argue that there are more than enough dimensions to model how people vary in their hedonic set-point. They ask about things such as perception of pain, perception of spiciness, difficulty sleeping, stress levels, whether exercise is pleasant, etc. From a data science point of view, the challenge here is that number of responses provided by each participant is very variable; some power users respond to every question (and there are hundreds and hundreds), while most people respond to a few questions only, and a substantial minority respond to no questions at all. Most likely, the distribution of responses per participant follows a power law. So the model to build here has to be resilient against absent data. This is not an insurmountable problem, though, considering the existence of Bayesian Networks, PGMs, and statistical paradigms like Item Response Theory. For this reason, the model would need to both predict the most likely hedonic set-point of each participant, and provide confidence intervals specific to the participant based on the quality and relevance of the questions answered.

The second model would involve clustering and dimensionality reduction applied to the SNPs that are likely to be relevant for hedonic set-point. For example, one dimension would likely be a cluster of SNPs that are associated with “maximum intensity of pain”, another might be “how quickly pain subsides once it’s stimulated”, another “how much does pleasure counter-balance pain”, and so on. Each of these dimensions is likely to be determined by different neural circuits, and interact in non-linear ways, so they deserve their own separate dimension.

And finally, one would make a third model that combines the two models above, which predicts the hedonic set-point of a person derived from the first model using the genetic dimensions found by the second model. If you are an up-and-coming geneticist, I would like to nudge you in the direction of looking into this. As a side effect, you might as well get filthy rich in the process, as the genetic counseling field explodes in the next decade.


Bonus Content: What About Us?

Admittedly, many people will note that predicting a fraction of the variance of people’s hedonic set point with commercial DNA testing products will only really alleviate suffering in the medium to long term. The people who will benefit from this technology haven’t been born yet. In the meantime, what do we do about the people who currently have low hedonic set-points? Here is a creative, politically incorrect, and enticing idea:

Let’s predict which recreational drugs have the best cost-benefit profile for individuals based on their genetic makeup.

It is no secret that people react differently to drugs. 23andMe, among others, is currently doing research to predict your particular reaction to a drug based on your genetic makeup (cf. 23andMe can now tell you how you’ll react to 50+ common drugs). Unfortunately for people with anxiety, depression, chronic pain, and other hedonic tone illnesses, most psychiatric drugs are rather subtle and relatively ineffective. No wonder, compared to heroin, an SSRI is not likely to make you feel particularly great. As David Pearce argued in his essay Future Opioids, there is substantial evidence that many people who become addicts are driven to take recreational substances due to the fact that their endogenous opioid system is dysfunctional (e.g. they may have bad variants of opioid receptors, too many endorphin-degrading enzymes, etc.). The problem with giving people hard drugs is not that they don’t work in the short term; it is that they tend to backfire in the long-term and have cumulative negative health effects. As an aside, from the pharmaceutical angle, my main interest is the development of Anti-tolerance Drugs, which would allow hard drugs to work as mood-enhancers indefinitely.

This is not to say that there aren’t lucky people for whom the cost-benefit ratio of taking hard drugs is, in fact, rather beneficial. In what admittedly must have been a tongue-in-cheek marketing move, in the year 2010 the genetic interpretation company Knome (now part of Tute Genomics) studied Ozzy Osbourne‘s entire genome in order to determine how on earth he has been able to stay alive despite the gobs and gobs of drugs he’s taken throughout his life. Ozzy himself:

“I was curious, [g]iven the swimming pools of booze I’ve guzzled over the years—not to mention all of the cocaine, morphine, sleeping pills, cough syrup, LSD, Rohypnol…you name it—there’s really no plausible medical reason why I should still be alive. Maybe my DNA could say why.”

Ozzy Osbourne’s Genome (Scientific American, 2010)

Tentatively, Knome scientists said, Ozzy’s capacity to drink entire bottles of Whisky and Gin combined with bowlfuls of cocaine and multiple packs of cigarettes over the course of… breakfast… without ending up in the hospital may be due to novel mutations in his alcohol dehydrogenase gene (ADH4), as well as, potentially, the gene that codes for CLTCL1, a protein responsible for the intake of extra-cellular material into the cell’s inside. These are wild speculations, to be clear, but the general idea is brilliant.

Indeed, not everyone reacts in the same way to recreational drugs. A recent massive study on the health effects of alcohol funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (cf. No amount of alcohol is good for your overall health) suggests that alcohol is bad for one’s health at every dosage. This goes against the common wisdom backed up with numerous studies that light-drinkers (~1 alcohol unit a day) live longer and healthier lives than teetotalers. The new study suggests that this is not a causal effect of alcohol. Rather, it so happens that a large fraction of teetotalers are precisely the kind of people who react very badly to alcohol as a matter of poor metabolism. Hence, teetotalers are not unhealthy because they avoid alcohol; they avoid alcohol because they are unhealthy, which explains their shorter life expectancy on average. That said, the study did show that 1 alcohol unit a day is, although damaging, very minimally so:

Anyhow, the world’s cultural fascination with alcohol is bizarre to me, considering the existence of drugs that have a much better hedonic and cost-benefit profile (cf. State-Space of Drug Effects). Perhaps finding out with genetic testing that you are likely to be an above-average alcohol metabolizer might be good to lessen your worry about having a couple of drinks now and then. But the much bigger opportunity here would be to allow you to find drugs that you are particularly compatible with. For example, a genetic test might determine based on a polygenetic score that you might benefit a whole lot from taking small amounts of e.g. Khat  (or some such obscure and relatively benign euphoriant). That is, that your genetic make-up is such that Khat will be motivation enhancing, empathy-increasing, good for your heart and lungs, reduce the rate of dopamine neuron death, etc. while at the same time producing little to no hangovers, no irritability, no sleep issues, or social dysfunction. Even though you may have thought that you are “not an uppers person”, perhaps that’s because, genetically, every other upper you have ever tried is objectively terrible for your health. But Khat wouldn’t be. Wouldn’t this information be useful? Indeed, I would posit, this might be a great step in the right direction in order to achieve the goal of  Wireheading Done Right.


*23andMe is here used as a shorthand for services in general like this (including Ancestry, Counsyl, Natera, etc.)

Featured image credit: source.

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

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

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

Lillie Langtry

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


Camp Soft Landing

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

Full Circle Teahouse

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

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

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

Palenque Norte

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

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

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

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

Burning Man Attendees

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

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

[…]

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

GL

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

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

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

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

The Universal Eigen-Schelling Religion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Entrainment and Metronomes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Night of the Burn (source)

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

mystic_samskara

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

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

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

Who are the Mystics? 

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

Uncontrollable Feedback Loops

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

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

This leads to the topic of danger:

Counting Microlives

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3m-half-facepiece-respirator-welding-particulate-filter-d26.jpg

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

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

Dangerous Bonding

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

And now on to my talk…

Andrés Gómez Emilsson – Consciousness vs. Replicators

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

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

The End.


Bonus content: things I overheard virgin burners say:

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

* Thanks to Alison Streete for this idea.

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

Abstract

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

Introduction

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

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

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

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

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

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

Personal Identity: Closed, Empty, Open

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

In brief:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Antinatalism

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

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

Antinatalism and Closed Individualism

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

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

 

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

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

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

Antinatalism and Empty Individualism

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

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

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

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

Antinatalism and Open Individualism

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

And on a different thread:

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

Prandium Interruptus

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

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

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

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

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

The One-Electron View

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

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

Philosophy of Time

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

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

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

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

Personal Identity and Eternalism

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

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

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

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

Personal Identity X Philosophy of Time X Antinatalism

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

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

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

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

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

Physicalism Implies Existence Never Dies

Also, from the same essay:

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

[…]

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

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

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

An Evolutionary Environment Set Up For Success

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

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

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

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


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

Qualia Computing Media Appearances

Podcasts

16 – Andrés Gómez Emilsson on Solving Consciousness and Being Happy All the Time (The Most Interesting People I Know…, October 2019)

On Consciousness, Qualia, and Meaning with Mike Johnson and Andrés Gómez Emilsson (AI Alignment Podcast, May 2019)

71 – Researching Qualia with Andrés Gómez Emilsson (The Bayesian Conspiracy, October 2018)

The Future of Mind (Waking Cosmos, October 2018)

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

Consciousness and Qualia Realism (Cosmic Tortoise, May 2018)

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

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

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

Presentations

The Hyperbolic Geometry of DMT Experiences (@Harvard Science of Psychedelics Club, September 2019)

Harmonic Society: 8 Models of Art for a Scientific Paradigm of Aesthetic Qualia (at a QRI Party, July 2019)

Andrés Gómez Emilsson – Consciousness vs Replicators (Burning Man, August 2018)

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

Quantifying Bliss (Consciousness Hacking, June 2017)

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

Interviews

Mapping the psychedelic experience – a conversation with the Qualia Research Institute (Adeptus Psychonautica, October 2019)

Simulation #453 Catalog & Navigate Consciousness (Simulation, Jun 2019)

Simulation #310 Mike Johnson & Andrés Gómez Emilsson – Chemistry of Consciousness (Simulation, March 2019)

Simulation #255 Andrés Gómez Emilsson – Computational Properties of Consciousness (Simulation, February 2019)

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

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

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

The Mind of David Pearce (Stanford, December 2012)

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

Narrative Inclusions

SSC Journal Club: Relaxed Beliefs Under Psychedelics and the Anarchic Brain (Slate Star Codex, September 2019)

Why We Need to Study Consciousness (Scientific American, September 2019)

Young pioneers on their hopes for technology, and older trailblazers on their regrets (MIT Technology Review, August 2019)

Mike Johnson – Testable Theories of Consciousness (Science, Technology & the Future, March 2019)

On Consciousness, Qualia, Valence & Intelligence with Mike Johnson (Science, Technology, Future, October 2018)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

External Articles

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

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

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

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

Bios

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

Miscellaneous

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

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


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