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.
It finally arrived. I had to appeal it’s denial a couple times, but it finally came through. It arrived in the mail today. It’s laminated with rounded corners, a holographic mark, and a pinch of glitter. I finally got my Poetic License. They said if I wanted permission to use metaphors I would need to apply for an allegorical diploma, but what is a poetic license without metaphor? In practice most licensed professionals in the field ignore this rule. It’s not like the reader ever asks you for your credentials whenever symbolism is used. They said my trope copyright agreement is on the way. They gave me a tracking number. But I’m not going to be waiting around any longer…
The most insidious thing about taking the blue pill is that it is usually followed by an immediate amnesia of having done so. Soon after one is presented with the same decision, but now with an incredible -unbelievable- literary feeling of empowerment and bravery that makes you decide to take the red pill in an heroic act of self-effacement. Alas, this is of course all a fantasy induced by the original blue pill.
There are various grades of pseudo-red pills. You have the standard sedatives that put you to sleep; a dreamless coma – “Life is an unprofitable episode disturbing the blessed calm of non-existence” (Schopenhauer). You have the one that makes you forget -in fact achieve a state of convenient social neglect- of the intensely bad experiences that exist out there in Hell branches of the multiverse. There is the one that makes you believe that nonhuman animals lack souls and are unable to suffer (despite their, it turns out, much greater capacity for suffering than humans). There are those that by virtue of making you believe that you took the red pill give your life a tremendous sense of mission and moral superiority. There is the pill of sentimentalism, the pill of fanaticism, the pill of scientism, the pill of mainstream sports, the pill of social media rage, the pill of analytic philosophy fandom, and the pill of pop psychopharmachology (SSRIs increase your serotonin levels, and serotonin is the happy molecule, or so the scientists are saying *wink*). Alas, naming the most common ones, those that zombify the people who claim to be the most awake would feel like a personal attack (even if far from it). So the most common blue pills shall remain unmentioned lest I’m lynched.
The true red pill is not just DXM with red 2. It isn’t just eugenics, international conspiracies, evolutionary psychopathology, or Hansonian signaling theory. The real red pill is made of 4000°C bright red luminous magma that destroys not only your esophagus, but cuts through your body and falls directly on the ground below passing right through, only barely cooled down by your body due to its incredibly high specific heat capacity.
No. That’s still another blue pill fantasy designed to make you feel brave and morally superior for taking it. The real red pill is agape. The communion with the Godhead in its infinite compassion for all Beings large and small.
But you guessed it right, that’s also another type of coating for the blue fellow (iridescent, yes, but still synthetic and bad for your liver).
What did you think, that there is any real closure? It is not like nature is going to be kind to us humans who suffer from high levels of neuroticism and psychological need for closure.
There is no red pill. But there are decent approximations. There is the unprejudiced pursuit of truth – the high AQ high IQ depressive realism that is an evolutionary spandrel. The state of metta and LSD ego death are close seconds, though they lack the critical clarity of mind needed to be willing to stare at the raw truth of suffering and its causes for too long before craving social validation for doing so.
Is there an alternative? Yes.
The purple pill is the pill that gives you both high hedonic tone and an unprejudiced open ended approach to the pursuit of truth. For losing truth is to lose it all, but to lose it all is only bad because it makes you and others suffer in the wider universe. Yes, here is where I am abusing my poetic license. I am a licensed wordsmith, don’t you know? I carry with me the approval of RA, I have the blessing of poetic authority so don’t you dare question my use of vagueness to drive a point home. The purple pill is what will redeem us all. The recognition that though truth is painful in our current, evolutionarily adaptive mind-frame, it is not in and of itself a cause of seething pain. Recognizing that true evil is not a person or a mythical archetype but the mere existence of states of consciousness as pornographically unethical as kidney stones or cluster headaches does not need to induce (at least not logically, not physically) a nihilistic depression. It does not need to make you speak in tongues, to scream at strangers in the street “AHH don’t you see how bad it is that we live in an eternalist empty individualist universe that does not care about the welfare of moments of experience!?!?” – It is still possible to do something productive instead. You can still, it turns out, choose to take eros and agape and reforge them into a laser sword that produces hyperdopaminergic loving-kindness in those who are hit by it, and mindfulness in those who wield it.
The purple pill is the true red pill; at least the best approximation there is. For if the truth is that the world is tenselessly (timelessly) littered with hellish states of consciousness implicated by the universal wavefunction satisfying the principles of zero ontology, this still does not imply that accurately representing the causal structure of such facts *has* to come along with a hellish hedonic tone of itself. This is the truth we all long for.
Take the purple pill and join us in the battle to destroy hell. You will, much to everyone’s incredulous amazement, be happy while doing so.
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.
Palenque Norte schedule 2018 (Tuesday & Wednesday)
Palenque Norte schedule 2018 (Thursday & Friday)
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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:
Intro to Qualia Computing
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:
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.
Closed Individualism – you start existing when you are born, stop existing when you die.
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.
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.
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.
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.).
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.
Spirit of our research:
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.
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.
How People Think and Why Few Say Meaningful Things:
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).
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.
What the Economy is Based on:
Right now there are three main goods that are exchanged in the global economy. These are:
Survival – resources that help you survive, like food, shelter, safety, etc.
Power – resources that allow you to acquire social and physical power and thus increase your chances of reproducing.
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…
Pure Replicators – In Wireheading Done Right we introduced the concept of a Pure Replicator: I 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)
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.
States vs. Stages vs. Theory of Morality
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:
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.
The 4 levels are:
Good vs. evil – the most common view which personifies/essentializes evil (e.g. “the devil”)
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.
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.
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.
New Reproductive Strategies
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:
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.
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.
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.*
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.
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:
Conservatives vs. Liberals (stick to your guns and avoid cancer vs. be adaptable but expose yourself to nasty dangers)
Rap Music vs. Classical or Electronic music (social signaling vs. patternistic valence exploration)
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…
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.”
There’s an old Jewish childrens’ song called Had Gadya. It starts:
A little goat, a little goat My father bought for two silver coins, A little goat, a little goat
Then came the cat that ate the goat My father bought for two silver coins A little goat, a little goat
Then came that dog that bit the cat…
And so on. A stick hits the dog, a fire burns the stick, water quenches the fire, an ox drinks the water, a butcher slaughters the ox, the Angel of Death takes the butcher, and finally God destroys the Angel of Death. Throughout all of these verses, it is emphasized that it is indeed a little goat, and the father did indeed buy it for two silver coins.
As far as I know, no one has previously linked this song to the Lurianic Kabbalah. So I will say it: the deepest meaning of Had Gadya is a description of how and why God created the world. As an encore, it also resolves the philosophical problem of evil.
The most prominent Biblical reference to a goat is the scapegoating ritual. Once a year, the High Priest of Israel would get rid of the sins of the Jewish people by mystically transferring all of them onto a goat, then yelling at the goat until it ran off somewhere, presumably taking all the sin with it.
The thing is, at that point the goat contained an entire nation-year worth of sin. That goat was super evil. As a result, many religious and mystical traditions have associated unholy forces with goats ever since, from the goat demon Baphomet to the classical rather goat-like appearance of Satan.
So the goat represents evil. I’ll go along with everyone else saying the father represents God here. So God buys evil with two silver coins. What’s up?
The most famous question in theology is “Why did God create a universe filled with so much that is evil?” The classical answers tend to be kind of weaselly, and center around something like free will or necessary principles or mysterious ways. Something along the lines of “Even though God’s omnipotent, creating a universe without evil just isn’t possible.”
But here we have God buying evil with two silver coins. Buying to me represents an intentional action. Let’s go further – buying represents a sacrifice. Buying is when you sacrifice something dear to you to get something you want even more. Evil isn’t something God couldn’t figure out how to avoid, it’s something He covets.
What did God sacrifice for the sake of evil? Two silver coins. We immediately notice the number “two”. Two is not typically associated with God. God is One. Two is right out. The kabbalists identify the worst demon, the nadir of all demons, as Thamiel, whose name means “duality in God”. Two is dissonance, divorce, division, dilemmas, distance, discrimination, diabolism.
This, then, was God’s sacrifice. In order to create evil, He took up duality.
“Why would God want to create evil? God is pure Good!”
Exactly. The creation of anything at all other than God requires evil. God is perfect. Everything else is imperfect. Imperfection contains evil by definition. Two scoops of evil is the first ingredient in the recipe for creating universes. Finitude is evil. Form is evil. Without evil all you have is God, who, as the kabbalists tell us, is pure Nothing. If you want something, evil is part of the deal.
Now count the number of creatures in the song. God, angel, butcher, ox, water, fire, stick, dog, cat, goat. Ten steps from God to goat. This is the same description of the ten sephirot we’ve found elsewhere, the ten levels by which God’s ineffability connects to the sinful material world without destroying it. This is not a coincidence because nothing is ever a coincidence. Had Gadya isn’t just a silly children’s song about the stages of advancement of the human soul, the appropriate rituals for celebrating Passover in the Temple, the ancient Sumerian pantheon, and the historical conquests of King Tiglath-Pileser III. It’s also a blueprint for the creation of the universe. Just like everything else.
This is one of those questions that tends to arise when Hinduism or Christianity come in contact with Buddhism. However, perhaps it should arise more when Buddhism is thinking about itself. I include this discussion here because it addresses some points that are useful for later and previous discussions. True Self and no-self are actually talking about the same thing, just from different perspectives. Each can be useful, but each is an extreme. Truly, the truth is a Middle Way between these and is indescribable, but I will try to explain it anyway in the hope that it may support actual practice. It may seem odd to put a chapter that deals with the fruits of insight practices in the middle of descriptions of the samatha jhanas, but hopefully when you read the next chapter you will understand why it falls where it does.
For all you intellectuals out there, the way in which this chapter is most likely to support practice is to be completely incomprehensible and thus useless. Ironically, I have tried to make this chapter very clear, and in doing so have crafted a mess of paradoxes. In one of his plays, Shakespeare puts philosophers on par with lawyers. In terms of insight practice, a lawyer who is terrible at insight practices but tries to do them anyway is vastly superior to a world-class philosopher who is merely an intellectual master of this theory but practices not at all.
Remember that the spiritual life is something you do and hopefully understand but not some doctrine to believe. Those of you who are interested in the formal Buddhist dogmatic anti-dogma should check out the particularly profound Sutta 1, “The Root of All Things“, in The Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha, as well as Sutta 1, “The Supreme Net (What the Teaching is Not)“, in The Long Discourses of the Buddha.
Again, realize that all of this language is basically useless in the end and prone to not making much sense. Only examination of our reality will help us to actually directly understand this, but it will not be in a way accessible to the rational mind. Nothing in the content of our thoughts can really explain the experience of the understanding I am about to point to, though there is something in the direct experience of those thoughts that might reveal it. Everything that I am about to try to explain here can become a great entangling net of useless views without direct insight.
Many of the juvenile and tedious disputes between the various insight traditions result from fixation on these concepts and inappropriate adherence to only one side of these apparent paradoxes. Not surprisingly, these disputes between insight traditions generally arise from those with little or no insight. One clear mark of the development of true insight is that these paradoxes lose their power to confuse and obscure. They become tools for balanced inquiry and instruction, beautiful poetry, intimations of the heart of the spiritual life and of one’s own direct and non-conceptual experience of it.
No-self teachings directly counter the sense that there is a separate watcher, and that this watcher is an “I” that is in control, observing reality or subject to the tribulations of the world. Truly, this is a useful illusion to counter. However, if misunderstood, this teaching can produce a shadow side that reeks of nihilism, disengagement with life and denial. People can get all fixated on eliminating a “self”, when the emphasis is supposed to be on the words “separate” and “permanent,” as well as on the illusion that is being created. A better way to say this would be, “stopping the process of mentally creating the illusion of a separate self from sensations that are inherently non-dual, utterly transient and thus empty of any separate, permanent self.”
Even if you get extremely enlightened, you will still be here from a conventional point of view, but you will also be just an interdependent and intimate part of this utterly transient universe, just as you actually always have been. The huge and yet subtle difference is that this will be known directly and clearly. The language “eliminating your ego” is similarly misunderstood most of the time.
You see, there are physical phenomena and mental phenomena, as well as the “consciousness” or mental echo of these, which is also in the category of mental phenomena. These are just phenomena, and all phenomena are not permanent, separate self, as they all change and are all intimately interdependent. They are simply “aware,” i.e. manifest, where they are without any observer of them at all. The boundaries that seem to differentiate self from not-self are arbitrary and conceptual, i.e. not the true nature of things. Said another way, reality is intimately interdependent and non-dual, like a great ocean.
There is also “awareness”, but awareness is not a thing or localized in a particular place, so to even say “there is also awareness” is already a tremendous problem, as it implies separateness and existence where none can be found. To be really philosophically correct about it, borrowing heavily from Nagarjuna, awareness cannot be said to fit any of the descriptions: that it exists, that it does not exist, that it both exists and does not exist, that it neither exists nor doesn’t exist. Just so, in truth, it cannot be said that: we are awareness, that we are not awareness, that we are both awareness and not awareness, or even that we are neither awareness nor not awareness. We could go through the same pattern with whether or not phenomena are intrinsically luminous.
For the sake of discussion, and in keeping with standard Buddhist thought, awareness is permanent and unchanging. It is also said that, “All things arise from it, and all things return to it,” though again this implies a false certainty about something which is actually impenetrably mysterious and mixing the concept of infinite potential with awareness is a notoriously dangerous business. We could call it “God”, “Nirvana”, “The Tao”, “The Void”, “Allah”, “Krishna”, “Intrinsic Luminosity”, “Buddha Nature”, “Buddha”, “Bubba” or just “awareness” as long as we realize the above caveats, especially that it is not a thing or localized in any particular place and has no definable qualities. Awareness is sometimes conceptualized as pervading all of this while not being all of this, and sometimes conceptualized as being inherent in all of this while not being anything in particular. Neither is quite true, though both perspectives can be useful.
If you find yourself adopting any fixed idea about what we are calling “awareness” here, try also adopting its logical opposite to try to achieve some sense of direct inquisitive paradoxical imbalance that shakes fixed views about this stuff and points to something beyond these limited concepts. This is incredibly useful advice for dealing with all teachings about “Ultimate Reality.” I would also recommend looking into the true nature of the sensations that make up philosophical speculation and all sensations of questioning.
While phenomena are in flux from their arising to their passing, there is awareness of them. Thus, awareness is not these objects, as it is not a thing, nor is it separate from these objects as there would be no experience if this were so. By examining our reality just as it is, we may come to understand this.
Further, phenomena do not exist in the sense of abiding in a fixed way for any length of time, and thus are utterly transitory, and yet the laws that govern the functioning of this utter transience hold. That phenomena do not exist does not mean that there is not a reality, but that this reality is completely inconstant, except for awareness, which is not a thing. This makes no sense to the rational mind, but that is how it is with this stuff.
One teaching that comes out of the Theravada that can be helpful is that there are Three Ultimate Dharmas or ultimate aspects of reality: materiality (the sensations of the first five sense doors), mentality (all mental sensations) and Nirvana (though they would call it “Nibbana,” which is the Pali equivalent of the Sanskrit). In short, this is actually it, and “that” which is beyond this is also it. Notice that “awareness” is definitely not on this list. It might be conceptualized as being all three (from a True Self point of view), or quickly discarded as being a useless concept that solidifies a sense of a separate or localized “watcher” (from the no-self point of view).
Buddhism also contains a strangely large number of True Self teachings, though if you told most Buddhists this they would give you a good scolding. Many of these have their origins in Hindu Vedanta and Hindu Tantra. All the talk of Buddha Nature, the Bodhisattva Vow, and that sort of thing are True Self teachings. True Self teachings point out that this “awareness” is “who we are,” but isn’t a thing, so it is not self. They also point out that we actually are all these phenomena, rather than all of these phenomena being seen as something observed and thus not self, which they are also as they are utterly transient and not awareness. This teaching can help practitioners actually examine their reality just as it is and sort of “inhabit it” in a honest and realistic way, or it can cause them to cling to things as “self” if they misunderstand this teaching. I will try again…
You see, as all phenomena are observed, they cannot possibly be the observer. Thus, the observer, which is awareness and not any of the phenomena pretending to be it, cannot possibly be a phenomenon and thus is not localized and doesn’t exist. This is no-self. However, all of these phenomena are actually us from the point of view of non-duality and interconnectedness, as the illusion of duality is just an illusion. When the illusion of duality permanently collapses in final awakening, all that is left is all of these phenomena, which is True Self, i.e. the lack of a separate self and thus just all of this as it is. Remember, however, that no phenomena abide for even an instant, and so are empty of permanent abiding and thus of stable existence.
This all brings me to one of my favorite words, “non-dual,” a word that means that both duality and unity fail to clearly describe ultimate reality. As “awareness” is in some way separate from and unaffected by phenomena, we can’t say that that unity is the true answer. Unitive experiences arise out of strong concentration and can easily fool people into thinking they are the final answer. They are not.
That said, it is because “awareness” is not a phenomena, thing or localized in any place that you can’t say that duality is true. A duality implies something on both sides, an observer and an observed. However, there is no phenomenal observer, so duality does not hold up under careful investigation. Until we have a lot of fundamental insight, the sense that duality is true can be very compelling and can cause all sorts of trouble. We extrapolate false dualities from sensations until we are very highly enlightened.
Thus, the word “non-dual” is an inherently paradoxical term, one that confounds reason and even our current experience of reality. If we accept the working hypothesis that non-duality is true, then we will be able to continue to reject both unitive and dualistic experiences as the true answer and continue to work towards awakening. This is probably the most practical application of discussions of no-self and True Self.
No-self and True Self are really just two sides of the same coin. There is a great little poem by one Kalu Rinpoche that goes something like:
We live in illusion
And the appearance of things.
There is a reality:
We are that reality.
When you understand this,
You will see that you are nothing.
And, being nothing,
You are everything.
That is all.
There are many fine poems on similar themes presented in Sogyal Rinpoche’s The Tiberan Book of Living and Dying. It is because we are all of this that compassionate action for all beings and ourselves is so important. To truly understand this moment is to truly understand both, which is the Middle Way between these two extremes (see Nisargadatta’s I Am That for a very down-to-earth discussion of these issues). While only insight practices will accomplish this, there are some concentration attainments (the last four jhanas or Formless Realms) that can really help put things in proper perspective, though they do not directly cause deep insight and awakening unless the true nature of the sensations that make them up is understood.
Quote from Mastering the Core Teachings of the Buddha: An Unusually Hardcore Dharma Book by Daniel M. Ingram (pages 182-187)
Cf. Ontological Qualia: The Future of Personal Identity (for a discussion about how the experience of identity might change in the future), The Manhattan Project of Consciousness (for speculative writing about the potential social benefits of combining bliss technologies with qualia that make us experience oneness in a reliably way), and this essay about Burning Man (which introduces the concept of the Goldilocks Zone of Oneness which refers to the experience of “feeling neither one with everything nor ontologically separate from the rest of reality” in which wonderful things like love, gratitude, and meaning can thrive).
It is the greatest intellectual challenge for humanity at present to elucidate the first principles behind the fact that there is such a thing as a subjective experience. The hallmark of our subjective experiences is qualia. It is the challenge to find the natural law behind the neural generation of qualia which constitute the percepts in our mind, or to go beyond the metaphor of a “correspondence” between physical and mental processes. This challenge is necessary to go beyond the present paradigm of natural sciences which is based on the so-called objective point of view of description. In order to pin down the origin of qualia, we need to incorporate the subjective point of view in a non-trivial manner.
The clarification of the nature of the way how qualia in our mind are invoked by the physical processes in the brain and how the “subjectivity” structure which supports qualia is originated is an essential step in making compatible the subjective and objective points of view.
The elucidation of the origin of qualia rich subjectivity is important not only as an activity in the natural sciences, but also as a foundation and the ultimate justification of the whole world of the liberal arts. Bridging the gap between the two cultures (C.P.Snow) is made possible only through a clear understanding of the origin of qualia and subjectivity.
Qualia symbolize the essential intellectual challenge for the humanity in the future. The impact of its elucidation will not be limited to the natural sciences. The liberal arts, religion, and the very concept of what a man is will be reassessed from the very foundations.
1. History of the Mind-Brain Problem
The strong AI position held by Marvin Minsky and others was an attempt to simulate some aspects of human intelligence from an objective point of view. It had little to say about the essential problems of the mind, namely the qualia rich subjectivity.
In an effort to fill the gap left by the objective natural sciences, such movements as the “new science” and the “new age” came into the scene. These activities, however, were not particularly keen on taking seriously the consistency with the objective sciences. Even if we are to find new paradigms in search of the theory of mind, the consistency with the objective sciences should be maintained. Theses “alternative movements” tended instead to the over-emphasis of the subjective. These activities did not therefore lead to a real breakthrough in the science of the mind. These activities proved to be a stud.
The concept of information due to Claude Shannon is based on a statistical picture, and as he himself declared in his historic paper, has nothing to do with the semantics of information. Despite this, the Shannonian concept of information has been applied to “understand” the information processing in the brain. For example, it is an experimentally accepted fact that there is a correspondence between certain features of external objects and the spatio-temporal firing pattern of a group of neurons in our brain. This selectivity of neural activities is called “response selectivity” and is an important analytical concept in neuropsychology. However, it is wrong to think that the nature of our qualia rich perception can be explained away by the fact that there are activities of neurons in the brain characterized by certain response selectivities. We should instead start from the “interaction picture” rather than the “statistical picture”.
We cannot elucidate the neural correlates of qualia starting from the concept of response selectivity. We should instead start from Mach’s principle in perception.
Qualia is deeply related to the semantic aspects of information. The Shannonian concept of information has little to do with qualia.
2. Qualia and Subjectivity
In view of the neurophysiological data, it is reasonable to assume that qualia in our mind are caused by the collection of action potentials on the cellular membrane of the neuron in our brain.
“I” feel the qualia in “my” mind. This “I” and “my” structure (subjectivity) is maintained also by the neural firings in my brain. The problems of qualia and subjectivity are deeply related.
Qualia and subjectivity in general cannot be explained away by a simple extension of physicalism. From the point of view of the objective sciences, it is necessary and sufficient to describe the temporal evolution of a system. However, the principle of correspondence of qualia to physical states should be constructed on top of the conventional type of natural laws that describe the temporal evolution of the system. This particular natural law should be of a different character from the conventional ones.
Even if we obtain an ultimate physical theory of everything, it only gives a complete description of the temporal evolution of a physical system;even then the origin of qualia from physical processes such as brain activities would remain unsolved.
Causality plays an essential role when we consider the way the perceptual space-time structure in which qualia are embedded arises from the space-time structure of the neural firing in the brain. In particular, in the Principle of Interaction Simultaneity plays an essential role in the origin of the subjective time.
The “subjectivity” that we discuss here has relatively little to do with the “subjectivity” in the context of the theory of measurement in quantum mechanics. It is our view that the introduction of the concept of subjectivity in quantum mechanics did a tremendous disservice. It confused rather than enriched the arguments.
3. Related Problems
In modern physics, “NOW” has no special meaning in the flow of time. In oder to elucidate the origin of our mind, we need to come up with a structure of the time which designates a special meaning to “Now”
The formulationn of the relativistic space-time by the formalism of Riemanian geometry (Minkowski 1911) is only an intermediate step.
4. Methodology and Conjectures
The trivial attempt to assume a seat for subjectivity in the brain (the homunculus solution) is bound to fail. For example, the Crick and Koch model puts the subjectivity seat in the prefrontal cortex. Of course, saying empirically that this seems to be a necessary correlate of subjectivity is O.K. But that does not solve the most difficult part of the problem.
In considering the neural correlates of qualia rich subjective experiences, the invariance under the transformation of neural activity patterns in space and time is going to be essential.
5. Towards the Fusion of Two Cultures
A solution of the qualia problem is bound to have impact not only for the natural sciences but also for the humanities.
To take the visual art, music, literature seriously is to take qualia seriously. For paintings and music, this sounds like a cliche. Literature is also an art of the qualia, as the semantics is embedded in the intentional qualia.
As the so-called “exact” sciences have been focusing only on the measurable and quantifiable properties of nature, there was no place in the scientific world view for the immensely qualia rich subjective experience which is the ultimate raison d’etre for the arts. This was the essential reason why there was and continued to be a division between the two cultures a la C.P.Snow.
To analyze the sound wave of a violin though the Fourier analysis has nothing to do with our subjective experience of the violin sound qualia. It is meaningless to say that color is nothing but the wavelength of light when our concern is the subjective experience of color.
The development of the digital information technology perhaps had a beneficial effect on the fusion of the two cultures. The digital coding of provides a useful tool for the storing and manipulation of information, but has nothing to do with the richness of subjective experience. Unless we understand the “qualia coding” by the neural activities, we cannot find scientific foundations for the subjective experience.
In general, it is nonsensical to try to explain away the enigma of qualia from the information theoretic or evolution theory points of view.
6. On the Coming New Situation
The sense for the future essential entails a sensitivity for the possibility that the next moment can be something completely different from the previously known.
It is no longer meaningful to cling to the systemacity of religion. Religious feelings and values also consist of qualia, which in turn can be treatedly more or less individually. For example, the qualia associated with the stained glass has nothing in essence to do with Christianity. Even though traditional religion employed the appeal of the qualia as an engine to promote their specific causes, there is no reason to obstinately maintain that systemacity now.
Due to the physical limitation of the human brain, there is a limit to the category of qualia that a human being can experience. Only a ridiculously small subset of all possible qualia is accessible to the human being. This makes us take the possibilities of metaphysics more seriously.
The concept of qualia is clearly at the heart of the next stage of human intellectual endeavors.
There is no other intellectual challenge more important or pressing than qualia.
The revolution can only be brought about by a combination of a rigorous scientific thinking and a trembling sensitivity.
The following is my considered evaluation of the Foundational Research Institute, circa July 2017. I discuss its goal, where I foresee things going wrong with how it defines suffering, and what it could do to avoid these problems.
TL;DR version: functionalism (“consciousness is the sum-total of the functional properties of our brains”) sounds a lot better than it actually turns out to be in practice. In particular, functionalism makes it impossible to define ethics & suffering in a way that can mediate disagreements.
I. What is the Foundational Research Institute?
The Foundational Research Institute (FRI) is a Berlin-based group that “conducts research on how to best reduce the suffering of sentient beings in the near and far future.” Executive Director Max Daniel introduced them at EA Global Boston as “the only EA organization which at an organizational level has the mission of focusing on reducing s-risk.” S-risks are, according to Daniel, “risks where an adverse outcome would bring about suffering on an astronomical scale, vastly exceeding all suffering that has existed on Earth so far.”
Essentially, FRI wants to become the research arm of suffering-focused ethics, and help prevent artificial general intelligence (AGI) failure-modes which might produce suffering on a cosmic scale.
What I like about FRI:
While I have serious qualms about FRI’s research framework, I think the people behind FRI deserve a lot of credit- they seem to be serious people, working hard to build something good. In particular, I want to give them a shoutout for three things:
First, FRI takes suffering seriously, and I think that’s important. When times are good, we tend to forget how tongue-chewingly horrific suffering can be. S-risks seem particularly horrifying.
Second, FRI isn’t afraid of being weird. FRI has been working on s-risk research for a few years now, and if people are starting to come around to the idea that s-risks are worth thinking about, much of the credit goes to FRI.
Third, I have great personal respect for Brian Tomasik, one of FRI’s co-founders. I’ve found him highly thoughtful, generous in debates, and unfailingly principled. In particular, he’s always willing to bite the bullet and work ideas out to their logical end, even if it involves repugnant conclusions.
What is FRI’s research framework?
FRI believes in analytic functionalism, or what David Chalmers calls “Type-A materialism”. Essentially, what this means is there’s no ’theoretical essence’ to consciousness; rather, consciousness is the sum-total of the functional properties of our brains. Since ‘functional properties’ are rather vague, this means consciousness itself is rather vague, in the same way words like “life,” “justice,” and “virtue” are messy and vague.
Brian suggests that this vagueness means there’s an inherently subjective, perhaps arbitrary element to how we define consciousness:
Analytic functionalism looks for functional processes in the brain that roughly capture what we mean by words like “awareness”, “happy”, etc., in a similar way as a biologist may look for precise properties of replicators that roughly capture what we mean by “life”. Just as there can be room for fuzziness about where exactly to draw the boundaries around “life”, different analytic functionalists may have different opinions about where to define the boundaries of “consciousness” and other mental states. This is why consciousness is “up to us to define”. There’s no hard problem of consciousness for the same reason there’s no hard problem of life: consciousness is just a high-level word that we use to refer to lots of detailed processes, and it doesn’t mean anything in addition to those processes.
I know that I’m conscious. I also know, from neuroscience combined with Occam’s razor, that my consciousness consists only of material operations in my brain — probably mostly patterns of neuronal firing that help process inputs, compute intermediate ideas, and produce behavioral outputs. Thus, I can see that consciousness is just the first-person view of certain kinds of computations — as Eliezer Yudkowsky puts it, “How An Algorithm Feels From Inside“. Consciousness is not something separate from or epiphenomenal to these computations. It is these computations, just from their own perspective of trying to think about themselves.
In other words, consciousness is what minds compute. Consciousness is the collection of input operations, intermediate processing, and output behaviors that an entity performs.
And if consciousness is all these things, so too is suffering. Which means suffering is computational, yet also inherently fuzzy, and at least a bit arbitrary; a leaky high-level reification impossible to speak about accurately, since there’s no formal, objective “ground truth”.
II. Why do I worry about FRI’s research framework?
In short, I think FRI has a worthy goal and good people, but its metaphysics actively prevent making progress toward that goal. The following describes why I think that, drawing heavily on Brian’s writings (of FRI’s researchers, Brian seems the most focused on metaphysics):
Note: FRI is not the only EA organization which holds functionalist views on consciousness; much of the following critique would also apply to e.g. MIRI, FHI, and OpenPhil. I focus on FRI because (1) Brian’s writings on consciousness & functionalism have been hugely influential in the community, and are clear enough *to* criticize; (2) the fact that FRI is particularly clear about what it cares about- suffering- allows a particularly clear critique about what problems it will run into with functionalism; (3) I believe FRI is at the forefront of an important cause area which has not crystallized yet, and I think it’s critically important to get these objections bouncing around this subcommunity.
Objection 1: Motte-and-bailey
Brian: “Consciousness is not a thing which exists ‘out there’ or even a separate property of matter; it’s a definitional category into which we classify minds. ‘Is this digital mind really conscious?’ is analogous to ‘Is a rock that people use to eat on really a table?’ [However,] That consciousness is a cluster in thingspace rather than a concrete property of the world does not make reducing suffering less important.”
The FRI model seems to imply that suffering is ineffable enough such that we can’t have an objective definition, yet sufficiently effable that we can coherently talk and care about it. This attempt to have it both ways seems contradictory, or at least in deep tension.
Indeed, I’d argue that the degree to which you can care about something is proportional to the degree to which you can define it objectively. E.g., If I say that “gnireffus” is literally the most terrible thing in the cosmos, that we should spread gnireffus-focused ethics, and that minimizing g-risks (far-future scenarios which involve large amounts of gnireffus) is a moral imperative, but also that what is and what and isn’t gnireffus is rather subjective with no privileged definition, and it’s impossible to objectively tell if a physical system exhibits gnireffus, you might raise any number of objections. This is not an exact metaphor for FRI’s position, but I worry that FRI’s work leans on the intuition that suffering is real and we can speak coherently about it, to a degree greater than its metaphysics formally allow.
Max Daniel (personal communication) suggests that we’re comfortable with a degree of ineffability in other contexts; “Brian claims that the concept of suffering shares the allegedly problematic properties with the concept of a table. But it seems a stretch to say that the alleged tension is problematic when talking about tables. So why would it be problematic when talking about suffering?” However, if we take the anti-realist view that suffering is ‘merely’ a node in the network of language, we have to live with the consequences of this: that ‘suffering’ will lose meaning as we take it away from the network in which it’s embedded (Wittgenstein). But FRI wants to do exactly this, to speak about suffering in the context of AGIs, simulated brains, even video game characters.
We can be anti-realists about suffering (suffering-is-a-node-in-the-network-of-language), or we can argue that we can talk coherently about suffering in novel contexts (AGIs, mind crime, aliens, and so on), but it seems inherently troublesome to claim we can do both at the same time.
Objection 2: Intuition duels
Two people can agree on FRI’s position that there is no objective fact of the matter about what suffering is (no privileged definition), but this also means they have no way of coming to any consensus on the object-level question of whether something can suffer. This isn’t just an academic point: Brian has written extensively about how he believes non-human animals can and do suffer extensively, whereas Yudkowsky (who holds computationalist views, like Brian) has written about how he’s confident that animals are not conscious and cannot suffer, due to their lack of higher-order reasoning.
And if functionalism is having trouble adjudicating the easy cases of suffering–whether monkeys can suffer, or whether dogs can— it doesn’t have a sliver of a chance at dealing with the upcoming hard cases of suffering: whether a given AGI is suffering, or engaging in mind crime; whether a whole-brain emulation (WBE) or synthetic organism or emergent intelligence that doesn’t have the capacity to tell us how it feels (or that we don’t have the capacity to understand) is suffering; if any aliens that we meet in the future can suffer; whether changing the internal architecture of our qualia reports means we’re also changing our qualia; and so on.
In short, FRI’s theory of consciousness isn’t actually a theory of consciousness at all, since it doesn’t do the thing we need a theory of consciousness to do: adjudicate disagreements in a principled way. Instead, it gives up any claim on the sorts of objective facts which could in principle adjudicate disagreements.
This is a source of friction in EA today, but it’s mitigated by the sense that
(1) The EA pie is growing, so it’s better to ignore disagreements than pick fights;
(2) Disagreements over the definition of suffering don’t really matter yet, since we haven’t gotten into the business of making morally-relevant synthetic beings (that we know of) that might be unable to vocalize their suffering.
If the perception of one or both of these conditions change, the lack of some disagreement-adjudicating theory of suffering will matter quite a lot.
Objection 3: Convergence requires common truth
Mike: “[W]hat makes one definition of consciousness better than another? How should we evaluate them?”
Brian: “Consilience among our feelings of empathy, principles of non-discrimination, understandings of cognitive science, etc. It’s similar to the question of what makes one definition of justice or virtue better than another.”
Brian is hoping that affective neuroscience will slowly converge to accurate views on suffering as more and better data about sentience and pain accumulates. But convergence to truth implies something (objective) driving the convergence- in this way, Brian’s framework still seems to require an objective truth of the matter, even though he disclaims most of the benefits of assuming this.
Objection 4: Assuming that consciousness is a reification produces more confusion, not less
Brian: “Consciousness is not a reified thing; it’s not a physical property of the universe that just exists intrinsically. Rather, instances of consciousness are algorithms that are implemented in specific steps. … Consciousness involves specific things that brains do.”
Brian argues that we treat conscious/phenomenology as more ‘real’ than it is. Traditionally, whenever we’ve discovered something is a leaky reification and shouldn’t be treated as ‘too real’, we’ve been able to break it down into more coherent constituent pieces we can treat as real. Life, for instance, wasn’t due to élan vital but a bundle of self-organizing properties & dynamics which generally co-occur. But carrying out this “de-reification” process on consciousness– enumerating its coherent constituent pieces– has proven difficult, especially if we want to preserve some way to speak cogently about suffering.
Speaking for myself, the more I stared into the depths of functionalism, the less certain everything about moral value became– and arguably, I see the same trajectory in Brian’s work and Luke Muehlhauser’s report. Their model uncertainty has seemingly become larger as they’ve looked into techniques for how to “de-reify” consciousness while preserving some flavor of moral value, not smaller. Brian and Luke seem to interpret this as evidence that moral value is intractably complicated, but this is also consistent with consciousness not being a reification, and instead being a real thing. Trying to “de-reify” something that’s not a reification will produce deep confusion, just as surely trying to treat a reification as ‘more real’ than it actually is will.
Edsger W. Dijkstra famously noted that “The purpose of abstraction is not to be vague, but to create a new semantic level in which one can be absolutely precise.” And so if our ways of talking about moral value fail to ‘carve reality at the joints’- then by all means let’s build better ones, rather than giving up on precision.
Objection 5: The Hard Problem of Consciousness is a red herring
Brian spends a lot of time discussing Chalmers’ “Hard Problem of Consciousness”, i.e. the question of why we’re subjectively conscious, and seems to base at least part of his conclusion on not finding this question compelling— he suggests “There’s no hard problem of consciousness for the same reason there’s no hard problem of life: consciousness is just a high-level word that we use to refer to lots of detailed processes, and it doesn’t mean anything in addition to those processes.” I.e., no ‘why’ is necessary; when we take consciousness and subtract out the details of the brain, we’re left with an empty set.
But I think the “Hard Problem” isn’t helpful as a contrastive centerpiece, since it’s unclear what the problem is, and whether it’s analytic or empirical, a statement about cognition or about physics. At the Qualia Research Institute (QRI), we don’t talk much about the Hard Problem; instead, we talk about Qualia Formalism, or the idea that any phenomenological state can be crisply and precisely represented by some mathematical object. I suspect this would be a better foil for Brian’s work than the Hard Problem.
Objection 6: Mapping to reality
Brian argues that consciousness should be defined at the functional/computational level: given a Turing machine, or neural network, the right ‘code’ will produce consciousness. But the problem is that this doesn’t lead to a theory which can ‘compile’ to physics. Consider the following:
Imagine you have a bag of popcorn. Now shake it. There will exist a certain ad-hoc interpretation of bag-of-popcorn-as-computational-system where you just simulated someone getting tortured, and other interpretations that don’t imply that. Did you torture anyone? If you’re a computationalist, no clear answer exists- you both did, and did not, torture someone. This sounds like a ridiculous edge-case that would never come up in real life, but in reality it comes up all the time, since there is no principled way to *objectively derive* what computation(s) any physical system is performing.
I don’t think this is an outlandish view of functionalism; Brian suggests much the same in How to Interpret a Physical System as a Mind: “Physicalist views that directly map from physics to moral value are relatively simple to understand. Functionalism is more complex, because it maps from physics to computations to moral value. Moreover, while physics is real and objective, computations are fictional and ‘observer-relative’ (to use John Searle’s terminology). There’s no objective meaning to ‘the computation that this physical system is implementing’ (unless you’re referring to the specific equations of physics that the system is playing out).”
Gordon McCabe (McCabe 2004) provides a more formal argument to this effect— that precisely mapping between physical processes and (Turing-level) computational processes is inherently impossible— in the context of simulations. First, McCabe notes that:
[T]here is a one-[to-]many correspondence between the logical states [of a computer] and the exact electronic states of computer memory. Although there are bijective mappings between numbers and the logical states of computer memory, there are no bijective mappings between numbers and the exact electronic states of memory.
This lack of an exact bijective mapping means that subjective interpretation necessarily creeps in, and so a computational simulation of a physical system can’t be ‘about’ that system in any rigorous way:
In a computer simulation, the values of the physical quantities possessed by the simulated system are represented by the combined states of multiple bits in computer memory. However, the combined states of multiple bits in computer memory only represent numbers because they are deemed to do so under a numeric interpretation. There are many different interpretations of the combined states of multiple bits in computer memory. If the numbers represented by a digital computer are interpretation-dependent, they cannot be objective physical properties. Hence, there can be no objective relationship between the changing pattern of multiple bit-states in computer memory, and the changing pattern of quantity-values of a simulated physical system.
McCabe concludes that, metaphysically speaking,
A digital computer simulation of a physical system cannot exist as, (does not possess the properties and relationships of), anything else other than a physical process occurring upon the components of a computer. In the contemporary case of an electronic digital computer, a simulation cannot exist as anything else other than an electronic physical process occurring upon the components and circuitry of a computer.
Where does this leave ethics? In Flavors of Computation Are Flavors of Consciousness, Brian notes that “In some sense all I’ve proposed here is to think of different flavors of computation as being various flavors of consciousness. But this still leaves the question: Which flavors of computation matter most? Clearly whatever computations happen when a person is in pain are vastly more important than what’s happening in a brain on a lazy afternoon. How can we capture that difference?”
But if Brian grants the former point- that “There’s no objective meaning to ‘the computation that this physical system is implementing’”– then this latter task of figuring out “which flavors of computation matter most” is provably impossible. There will always be multiple computational (and thus ethical) interpretations of a physical system, with no way to figure out what’s “really” happening. No way to figure out if something is suffering or not. No consilience; not now, not ever.
I should add a note on terminology: All computations occur within physics, so any computation is a physical process. Conversely, any physical process proceeds from input conditions to output conditions in a regular manner and so is a computation. Hence, the set of computations equals the set of physical processes, and where I say “computations” in this piece, one could just as well substitute “physical processes” instead.
This seems to be (1) incorrect, for the reasons I give above, or (2) taking substantial poetic license with these terms, or (3) referring to hypercomputation (which might be able to salvage the metaphor, but would invalidate many of FRI’s conclusions dealing with the computability of suffering on conventional hardware).
This objection may seem esoteric or pedantic, but I think it’s important, and that it ripples through FRI’s theoretical framework with disastrous effects.
Objection 7: FRI doesn’t fully bite the bullet on computationalism
Brian suggests that “flavors of computation are flavors of consciousness” and that some computations ‘code’ for suffering. But if we do in fact bite the bullet on this metaphor and place suffering within the realm of computational theory, we need to think in “near mode” and accept all the paradoxes that brings. Scott Aaronson, a noted expert on quantum computing, raises the following objections to functionalism:
I’m guessing that many people in this room side with Dennett, and (not coincidentally, I’d say) also with Everett. I certainly have sympathies in that direction too. In fact, I spent seven or eight years of my life as a Dennett/Everett hardcore believer. But, while I don’t want to talk anyone out of the Dennett/Everett view, I’d like to take you on a tour of what I see as some of the extremely interesting questions that that view leaves unanswered. I’m not talking about “deep questions of meaning,” but about something much more straightforward: what exactly does a computational process have to do to qualify as “conscious”?
There’s this old chestnut, what if each person on earth simulated one neuron of your brain, by passing pieces of paper around. It took them several years just to simulate a single second of your thought processes. Would that bring your subjectivity into being? Would you accept it as a replacement for your current body? If so, then what if your brain were simulated, not neuron-by-neuron, but by a gigantic lookup table? That is, what if there were a huge database, much larger than the observable universe (but let’s not worry about that), that hardwired what your brain’s response was to every sequence of stimuli that your sense-organs could possibly receive. Would that bring about your consciousness? Let’s keep pushing: if it would, would it make a difference if anyone actually consulted the lookup table? Why can’t it bring about your consciousness just by sitting there doing nothing?
To these standard thought experiments, we can add more. Let’s suppose that, purely for error-correction purposes, the computer that’s simulating your brain runs the code three times, and takes the majority vote of the outcomes. Would that bring three “copies” of your consciousness into being? Does it make a difference if the three copies are widely separated in space or time—say, on different planets, or in different centuries? Is it possible that the massive redundancy taking place in your brain right now is bringing multiple copies of you into being?
Maybe my favorite thought experiment along these lines was invented by my former student Andy Drucker. In the past five years, there’s been a revolution in theoretical cryptography, around something called Fully Homomorphic Encryption (FHE), which was first discovered by Craig Gentry. What FHE lets you do is to perform arbitrary computations on encrypted data, without ever decrypting the data at any point. So, to someone with the decryption key, you could be proving theorems, simulating planetary motions, etc. But to someone without the key, it looks for all the world like you’re just shuffling random strings and producing other random strings as output.
You can probably see where this is going. What if we homomorphically encrypted a simulation of your brain? And what if we hid the only copy of the decryption key, let’s say in another galaxy? Would this computation—which looks to anyone in our galaxy like a reshuffling of gobbledygook—be silently producing your consciousness?
When we consider the possibility of a conscious quantum computer, in some sense we inherit all the previous puzzles about conscious classical computers, but then also add a few new ones. So, let’s say I run a quantum subroutine that simulates your brain, by applying some unitary transformation U. But then, of course, I want to “uncompute” to get rid of garbage (and thereby enable interference between different branches), so I apply U-1. Question: when I apply U-1, does your simulated brain experience the same thoughts and feelings a second time? Is the second experience “the same as” the first, or does it differ somehow, by virtue of being reversed in time? Or, since U-1U is just a convoluted implementation of the identity function, are there no experiences at all here?
Here’s a better one: many of you have heard of the Vaidman bomb. This is a famous thought experiment in quantum mechanics where there’s a package, and we’d like to “query” it to find out whether it contains a bomb—but if we query it and there is a bomb, it will explode, killing everyone in the room. What’s the solution? Well, suppose we could go into a superposition of querying the bomb and not querying it, with only ε amplitude on querying the bomb, and √(1-ε2) amplitude on not querying it. And suppose we repeat this over and over—each time, moving ε amplitude onto the “query the bomb” state if there’s no bomb there, but moving ε2probability onto the “query the bomb” state if there is a bomb (since the explosion decoheres the superposition). Then after 1/ε repetitions, we’ll have order 1 probability of being in the “query the bomb” state if there’s no bomb. By contrast, if there is a bomb, then the total probability we’ve ever entered that state is (1/ε)×ε2 = ε. So, either way, we learn whether there’s a bomb, and the probability that we set the bomb off can be made arbitrarily small. (Incidentally, this is extremely closely related to how Grover’s algorithm works.)
OK, now how about the Vaidman brain? We’ve got a quantum subroutine simulating your brain, and we want to ask it a yes-or-no question. We do so by querying that subroutine with ε amplitude 1/ε times, in such a way that if your answer is “yes,” then we’ve only ever activated the subroutine with total probability ε. Yet you still manage to communicate your “yes” answer to the outside world. So, should we say that you were conscious only in the ε fraction of the wavefunction where the simulation happened, or that the entire system was conscious? (The answer could matter a lot for anthropic purposes.)
To sum up: Brian’s notion that consciousness is the same as computation raises more issues than it solves; in particular, the possibility that if suffering is computable, it may also be uncomputable/reversible, would suggest s-risks aren’t as serious as FRI treats them.
Objection 8: Dangerous combination
Three themes which seem to permeate FRI’s research are:
(1) Suffering is the thing that is bad.
(2) It’s critically important to eliminate badness from the universe.
(3) Suffering is impossible to define objectively, and so we each must define what suffering means for ourselves.
Taken individually, each of these seems reasonable. Pick two, and you’re still okay. Pick all three, though, and you get A Fully General Justification For Anything, based on what is ultimately a subjective/aesthetic call.
Much can be said in FRI’s defense here, and it’s unfair to single them out as risky: in my experience they’ve always brought a very thoughtful, measured, cooperative approach to the table. I would just note that ideas are powerful, and I think theme (3) is especially pernicious if incorrect.
III. QRI’s alternative
Analytic functionalism is essentially a negative hypothesis about consciousness: it’s the argument that there’s no order to be found, no rigor to be had. It obscures this with talk of “function”, which is a red herring it not only doesn’t define, but admits is undefinable. It doesn’t make any positive assertion. Functionalism is skepticism- nothing more, nothing less.
But is it right?
Ultimately, I think these a priori arguments are much like people in the middle ages arguing whether one could ever formalize a Proper System of Alchemy. Such arguments may in many cases hold water, but it’s often difficult to tell good arguments apart from arguments where we’re just cleverly fooling ourselves. In retrospect, the best way to *prove* systematized alchemy was possible was to just go out and *do* it, and invent Chemistry. That’s how I see what we’re doing at QRI with Qualia Formalism: we’re assuming it’s possible to build stuff, and we’re working on building the object-level stuff.
What we’ve built with QRI’s framework
Note: this is a brief, surface-level tour of our research; it will probably be confusing for readers who haven’t dug into our stuff before. Consider this a down-payment on a more substantial introduction.
My most notable work is Principia Qualia, in which I lay out my meta-framework for consciousness (a flavor of dual-aspect monism, with a focus on Qualia Formalism) and put forth the Symmetry Theory of Valence (STV). Essentially, the STV is an argument that much of the apparent complexity of emotional valence is evolutionarily contingent, and if we consider a mathematical object isomorphic to a phenomenological experience, the mathematical property which corresponds to how pleasant it is to be that experience is the object’s symmetry. This implies a bunch of testable predictions and reinterpretations of things like what ‘pleasure centers’ do (Section XI; Section XII). Building on this, I offer the Symmetry Theory of Homeostatic Regulation, which suggests understanding the structure of qualia will translate into knowledge about the structure of human intelligence, and I briefly touch on the idea of Neuroacoustics.
These are risky predictions and we don’t yet know if they’re right, but we’re confident that if there is some elegant structure intrinsic to consciousness, as there is in many other parts of the natural world, these are the right kind of risks to take.
I mention all this because I think analytic functionalism- which is to say radical skepticism/eliminativism, the metaphysics of last resort- only looks as good as it does because nobody’s been building out any alternatives.
IV. Closing thoughts
FRI is pursuing a certain research agenda, and QRI is pursuing another, and there’s lots of value in independent explorations of the nature of suffering. I’m glad FRI exists, everybody I’ve interacted with at FRI has been great, I’m happy they’re focusing on s-risks, and I look forward to seeing what they produce in the future.
On the other hand, I worry that nobody’s pushing back on FRI’s metaphysics, which seem to unavoidably lead to the intractable problems I describe above. FRI seems to believe these problems are part of the territory, unavoidable messes that we just have to make philosophical peace with. But I think that functionalism is a bad map, that the metaphysical messes it leads to are muchworse than most people realize (fatal to FRI’s mission), and there are other options that avoid these problems (which, to be fair, is not to say they have no problems).
Ultimately, FRI doesn’t owe me a defense of their position. But if they’re open to suggestions on what it would take to convince a skeptic like me that their brand of functionalism is viable, or at least rescuable, I’d offer the following:
Re: Objection 1 (motte-and-bailey), I suggest FRI should be as clear and complete as possible in their basic definition of suffering. In which particular ways is it ineffable/fuzzy, and in which particular ways is it precise? What can we definitely say about suffering, and what can we definitely never determine? Preregistering ontological commitments and methodological possibilities would help guard against FRI’s definition of suffering changing based on context.
Re: Objection 2 (intuition duels), FRI may want to internally “war game” various future scenarios involving AGI, WBE, etc, with one side arguing that a given synthetic (or even extraterrestrial) organism is suffering, and the other side arguing that it isn’t. I’d expect this would help diagnose what sorts of disagreements future theories of suffering will need to adjudicate, and perhaps illuminate implicit ethical intuitions. Sharing the results of these simulated disagreements would also be helpful in making FRI’s reasoning less opaque to outsiders, although making everything transparent could lead to certain strategic disadvantages.
Re: Objection 3 (convergence requires common truth), I’d like FRI to explore exactly what might drive consilience/convergence in theories of suffering, and what precisely makes one theory of suffering better than another, and ideally to evaluate a range of example theories of suffering under these criteria.
Re: Objection 4 (assuming that consciousness is a reification produces more confusion, not less), I would love to see a historical treatment of reification: lists of reifications which were later dissolved (e.g., élan vital), vs scattered phenomena that were later unified (e.g., electromagnetism). What patterns do the former have, vs the latter, and why might consciousness fit one of these buckets better than the other?
Re: Objection 5 (the Hard Problem of Consciousness is a red herring), I’d like to see a more detailed treatment of what kinds of problem people have interpreted the Hard Problem as, and also more analysis on the prospects of Qualia Formalism (which I think is the maximally-empirical, maximally-charitable interpretation of the Hard Problem). It would be helpful for us, in particular, if FRI preregistered their expectations about QRI’s predictions, and their view of the relative evidence strength of each of our predictions.
Re: Objection 6 (mapping to reality), this is perhaps the heart of most of our disagreement. From Brian’s quotes, he seems split on this issue; I’d like clarification about whether he believes we can ever precisely/objectively map specific computations to specific physical systems, and vice-versa. And if so— how? If not, this seems to propagate through FRI’s ethical framework in a disastrous way, since anyone can argue that any physical system does, or does not, ‘code’ for massive suffering, and there’s no principled way to derive any ‘ground truth’ or even pick between interpretations in a principled way (e.g. my popcorn example). If this isn’t the case— why not?
Brian has suggested that “certain high-level interpretations of physical systems are more ‘natural’ and useful than others” (personal communication); I agree, and would encourage FRI to explore systematizing this.
It would be non-trivial to port FRI’s theories and computational intuitions to the framework of “hypercomputation”– i.e., the understanding that there’s a formal hierarchy of computational systems, and that Turing machines are only one level of many– but it may have benefits too. Namely, it might be the only way they could avoid Objection 6 (which I think is a fatal objection) while still allowing them to speak about computation & consciousness in the same breath. I think FRI should look at this and see if it makes sense to them.
Re: Objection 7 (FRI doesn’t fully bite the bullet on computationalism), I’d like to see responses to Aaronson’s aforementioned thought experiments.
Re: Objection 8 (dangerous combination), I’d like to see a clarification about why my interpretation is unreasonable (as it very well may be!).
In conclusion- I think FRI has a critically important goal- reduction of suffering & s-risk. However, I also think FRI has painted itself into a corner by explicitly disallowing a clear, disagreement-mediating definition for what these things are. I look forward to further work in this field.
Qualia Research Institute
Acknowledgements: thanks to Andrés Gómez Emilsson, Brian Tomasik, and Max Daniel for reviewing earlier drafts of this.
My sources for FRI’s views on consciousness:
Flavors of Computation are Flavors of Consciousness:
As many as 10% of people may be suffering from a mild form of Restless Legs Syndrome, and 2 to 5% may be experiencing a moderate to severe form of it (NIH). Unfortunately, the phenomenal character of this affliction is usually hard to describe, and for that reason sufferers of the condition are frequently dismissed. Whereas prescription medications can be effective at treating the acute effects of this problem (specifically opioidergics, dopaminergics, and anticonvulsants), a life-long solution has yet to be found. What is less well-known is the fact that there are many over-the-counter supplements that can help with this condition in a real and substantial way. For those who do not want to go the prescription route, here is a list of OTC supplements that can be helpful.
The list is organized into three buckets, from most effective to least effective. I also include two “negative buckets” which are compounds that worsen the symptoms, which you may not be aware of. For the most part, the drawback of chemicals in bucket 3 is that they are addictive and work “too well” (if taken regularly and later discontinued, the RLS symptoms may come back in a worse form). Bucket 2 chemicals are effective at reducing the core symptoms of the syndrome but usually do not make the feeling of restlessness go away entirely. Drugs in bucket 1 can help mask the symptoms, but do not address them directly (so they are only helpful to people who have rather mild versions of the syndrome). Bucket -1 includes things that worsen the overall restlessness but do not seem to interact with the specific feeling of restlessness characteristic of RLS. And finally, bucket -2 literally amplifies the exact feeling that characterizes RLS. Note that if you take such compounds (from bucket -1 and -2) in the morning, by the evening you may experience a sort of relief from the come-down of these drugs.
In practice, I would suggest using bucket 3 compounds as little as possible, but have them around in case of a very bad night. Instead, cycle through several bucket 2 and 1 drugs and experiment with combining them. Your aim is to develop a treatment that works for you that minimizes receptor down-regulation and that does not stop working over time.
Tianeptine Sulfate (10-30 mg; addictive)
Kratom (1 to 3 grams; addictive)
Ethylphenidate (.5 to 3mg; addictive)
DXM (10 to 30mg)
Niacinamide (300mg to 1 gram)
L-Tyrosine (100 to 600mg)
Agmatine (20mg to 1 gram, depending on personal response curve)
Indica Marijuana (specially edibles of high-CBD strains; even pure CBD can work, though tiny amounts of THC seem to amplify the RLS-killing effect of CBD)
[Content Warning: Trying to understand the contents of this essay may be mind-warping. Proceed with caution. Featured image credit: Paul Nylander]
Friends, right here and now, one quantum away, there is raging a universe of active intelligence that is transhuman, hyperdimensional, and extremely alien.
The Geometry of DMT States
This is an essay on the phenomenology of DMT. The analysis here presented predominantly uses algorithmic, geometric and information-theoretic frameworks, which distinguishes it from purely phenomenological, symbolic, neuroscientific or spiritual accounts. We do not claim to know what ultimately implements the effects here described (i.e. in light of the substrate problem of consciousness), but the analysis does not need to go there in order to have explanatory power. We posit that one can account for a wide array of (apparently diverse) phenomena present on DMT-induced states of consciousness by describing the overall changes in the geometry of one’s spatiotemporal representations (what we will call “world-sheets” i.e. 3D + time surfaces;3D1T for short). The concrete hypothesis is that the network of subjective measurements of distances we experience on DMT (coming from the relationships between the phenomenal objects one experiences in that state) has an overall geometry that can accurately be described as hyperbolic (or hyperbolic-like). In other words, our inner 3D1T world grows larger than is possible to fit in an experiential field with 3D Euclidean phenomenal space (i.e. an experience of dimension R2.5 representing an R3 scene). This results in phenomenal spaces, surfaces, and objects acquiring a mean negative curvature. Of note is that even though DMT produces this effect in the most consistent and intense way, the effect is also present in states of consciousness induced by tryptamines and to a lesser extent in those induced by all other psychedelics.
Conceptual Framework: Algorithmic Reduction
We will use the reduction framework originally proposed in the article Algorithmic Reductions of Psychedelic States. This means that we will be examining how algorithms and processes (as experienced by a subject of experience) can explain the dynamics of people’s phenomenology in DMT states. We do not claim “the substrate of consciousness” is becoming hyperbolic in any literal sense (though we do not discard that possibility). Rather, we interpret the hyperbolic curvature that experience acquires while on DMT as an emergent effect of a series of more general mechanism of action that can work together to change the geometry of a mind. These same mechanisms of action govern the dynamics of other psychedelic experiences; it is the proportion and intensity of the various “basic” effects that lead to the different outcomes observed. In other words, the hyperbolization of phenomenal space may not be a fundamental effect of DMT, but rather, it may be an emergent effect of more simple effects combined (not unlike how our seemingly smooth macroscopic space-time emerges from the jittery yet fundamental interactions that happen in a microscopic high-dimensional quantum foam).
In particular, we will discuss three candidate models for a more fundamental algorithmic reduction: (1) the synergistic effect of control interruption and symmetry detection resulting in a change of the metric of phenomenal space (analogously to how one can measure the geometry of hyperbolic graph embeddings), (2) the mind as a dynamic system with energy sources, sinks and invariants, in which curvature stores potential energy, and (3) a change in the underlying curvature of the micro-structure of consciousness. These models are not mutually-exclusive, and they may turn out to be compatible. More on this later.
What is Hyperbolic Geometry?
Perhaps the clearest way to describe hyperbolic space is to show examples of it:
Inside a hyperbolic cube
In hyperbolic 3D space dodecahedra can have right corners.
The picture to the left shows a representation of a “saddle” surface. In geometry, saddle surfaces are 2-dimensional hyperbolic spaces (also called “hyperbolic planes” or H2). For a surface to have “constant curvature” it must look the same at every point. In other words, for a saddle to be a geometric saddle, every point in it must be a “saddle point” (i.e. a point with negative curvature). As you can see, saddles have the property that the angles of a triangle found in them add up to less than 180 degrees (compare that to surfaces with positive curvature such as the 2-sphere, in which the angles of a triangle add up to more than 180 degrees). Generalizing this to higher dimensions, the middle image above shows a cube in H3 (i.e. a hyperbolic space of three dimensions). This cube, since it is in hyperbolic space, has thin edges and pointy corners. More generally, the corners of a polyhedra (and polytopes) will be more pointy in Hn than they are in Rn. This is why you can see in the right image a dodecahedron with right-angled corners, which in this case can tile H3 (cf. Not Knot). Such a thing- people of the past might say- is an insult to the imagination. Times are changing, though, and hyperbolic geometry is now an acceptable subject of conversation.
An important property of hyperbolic spaces is the way in which the area of a circle (or the n-dimensional volume of a hypersphere) increases as a function of its radius. In 2D Euclidean space the area grows quadratically with the radius. But on H2, the area grows exponentially as a function of the radius! As you may imagine, it is easy to get lost in hyperbolic space. A few steps take you to an entirely different scene. More so, your influence over the environment is greatly diminished as a function of distance. For example, the habitable region of solar systems in hyperbolic spaces (i.e.the Goldilocks zone) is extremely thin. In order to avoid getting burned or freezing to death you would have to place your planet within a very narrow distance range from the center star. Most of what you do in hyperbolic space either stays as local news or is quickly dissipated in an ever-expanding environment.
We Can Only Remember What We Can Reconstruct
We cannot experience H2 or H3 manifolds under normal circumstances, but we can at least represent some aspects of them through partial embeddings (i.e. instantiations as subsets of other spaces preserving properties) and projections into more familiar geometries. It is important to note that such representations will necessarily be flawed. As it turns out, it is notoriously hard to truly embed H2 in Euclidean 3D space, since doing so will necessarily distort some properties of the original H2 space (such as distance, angle, area, local curvature, etc.). As we will discuss further below, this difficulty turns out to be crucial for understanding why DMT experiences are so hard to remember. In order to remember the experience you need to create a faithful and memorable 3D Euclidean embedding of it. Thus, if one happens to experience a hyperbolic object and wants to remember as much of it as possible, one will have to think strategically about how to fold, crunch and deform such object so that it can be fit in compact Euclidean representations.
What about DMT suggests hyperbolic geometry?
Why should we believe that phenomenal space on DMT (and to a lesser extent on other psychedelics) becomes hyperbolic-like? We will argue that the features people use to describe their trips as well as concrete mathematical observations of such features point directly to hyperbolic geometry. Here is a list of such features (arranged from least to most suggestive… you know, for dramatic effect):
Perception of far-out travel (as we said, small movements in hyperbolic space lead to huge changes in the scene).
Feelings of becoming big (you can fit a lot more inside a circle of radius r in hyperbolic space).
The space experienced is often depicted as “more real and more dense than normal”.
The use of terms like “mind-expanding” and “warping” to describe the effects of the drug are very common.
People describing it as “a different kind of space” and frequently using the word “hyperspace” to talk about it.
Difficulty integrating/remembering the objects and scenes experienced (e.g. “they were too alien to recall”).
Constant movement/acceleration and change of perspectives which are often described as “unfolding scenes and expanding patterns” (cf. thechrysanthemum, jitterbox).
Continuous change of the scene’s context through escape routes: A door that leads to a labyrinth that leads to branching underground tunnels that lead to mirror rooms that lead to endless windows, and the one you take leading you to a temple with thirty seven gates which lead you to a kale salad world etc. (example).
Crowding of scene beyond the limits of Euclidean space (users frequently wondering “How was I able to fit so much in my mind? I don’t see any space for my experience to fit in here!”)
Reported similarity with fractals.
Omnipresence of saddles making up the structural constraints of the hallucinated scenes. For example, one often hears about experiencing scenes saturated with: joints, twists, bifurcations, curved alleys, knots, and double helixes.
Looking at self-similar objects (such as cauliflowers) can get you lost in what seems like endless space. (Note: beware of the potential side effects of looking at a cauliflower on DMT*).
PSIS-like experiences where people seem to experience multiple alternative outcomes from each event at the same time (this may be the result of “hyperbolic branching” through time rather than space).
People describe “incredibly advanced mechanisms” and “impossible objects” that cannot be represented in our usual reality (e.g. Terence Mckenna’s self-dribbling basketballs).
At least one mathematician has stated that what one experiences on DMT cannot be translated into Euclidian geometry (unlike what one experiences on LSD).
We received a series of systematic DMT trip-reports by a math enthusiast and experienced psychonaut who claims that the surfaces experienced on DMT are typically composed of hyperbolic tilings (which imply a negative curvature; cf. wallpaper groups).
This article goes beyond claiming a mere connection between DMT and hyperbolic geometry. We will be more specific by addressing the aspects of the experience that can be interpreted geometrically. To do so, let us now turn to a phenomenological description of the way DMT experiences usually unfold:
The Phenomenology of DMT experiences: The 6 Levels
In order to proceed we will give an account of a typical vaporized DMT experience. You can think of the following six sections as stages or levels of a DMT journey. Let me explain. The highest level you get to depends on the dose consumed, and in high doses one experiences all of the levels, one at a time, and in quick succession (i.e. on high doses these levels are perceived as the stages of the experience). If one takes just enough DMT to cross over to the highest level one reaches during the journey for only a brief moment, then that level will probably be described as “the peak of the experience”. If, on the other hand, one takes a dose that squarely falls within the milligram range for producing a given level, it will be felt as more of a “plateau”. Each level is sufficiently distinct from the others that people will rarely miss the transitions between them.
The six levels of a DMT experience are: Threshold, Chrysanthemum, Magic Eye, Waiting Room, Breakthrough, and Amnesia. Let us dive in!
(Note: The following description assumes that the self-experimenter is in good physical and mental health at the time of consuming the DMT. It is well known that negative states of consciousness can lead to incomprehensible hellscapes when “boosted” by DMT (please avoid DMT at all costs while you are drunk, depressed, angry, suicidal, irritable, etc.). The full geometry is best appreciated on a mentally and emotionally balanced set and settings.)
The very first alert of something unusual happening may take between 3 to 30 seconds after inhaling the DMT, depending on the dose consumed. Rather than a clear sensorial or cognitive change, the very first hint is a change in the apparent ambiance of one’s setting. You know how at times when you enter a temple, an art museum, a crowd of people, or even just a well decorated restaurant you can abstract an undefinable yet clearly present “vibe of the place”? There’s nothing overt or specific about it. The ambiance of a place is more of an overall gestalt than a localized feeling. An ambiance somehow encodes information about the social, ideological and aesthetic quality of the place or community you just crashed into, and it tells you at a glance which moods are socially acceptable and which ones are discouraged. The specific DMT vibe you feel on a given session can be one of a million different flavors. That said, whether you feel like you entered a circus or joined a religious ceremony, the very first hint of a DMT experience is nonetheless always (or almost always) accompanied with an overall feeling of significance. The feeling that something important is about to happen or is happening is made manifest by the vibe of the state. This vibe is usually present for at least the first 150 seconds or so of the journey. Interestingly, the change in ambiance is shorter-lived than the trip itself; it seems to go away before the visuals vanish quickly declining once the the peak is over.
Within seconds after the change in ambiance, one feels a sudden sharpening of all the senses. Some people describe this as “upgrading one’s experience to an HD version of it”. The level of detail in one’s experience is increased, yet the overall semantic content is still fairly intact. People say things like: “Reality around me seems more crisp” and “it’s like I’m really grasping my surroundings, you know? fully in tune with the smallest textures of the things around me.” Terence Mckenna described this state as follows: “The air appears to suddenly have been sucked out of the room because all the colors brighten visibly, as though some intervening medium has been removed.”
On a schedule of repeated small doses (below 4 mg; preferably i.m.) one can stabilize this sharpening of the senses for arbitrarily long periods of time. I am a firm believer that this state (quite apart from the alien experiences on higher doses) can already be recruited for a variety of computational and aesthetic tasks that humans do in this day and age. In particular, the state itself seems to enable grasping complex ideas with many parameters without distorting them, which may be useful for learning mathematics at an accelerated pace. Likewise, the sate increases one’s awareness of one’s surroundings (possibly at the expense of consuming many calories). I find it hard to imagine that artists will not be able to use this state for anything valuable.
(2) The Chrysanthemum
If one ups the dose a little bit and lands somewhere in the range between 4 to 8 mg, one is likely to experience what Terrence McKenna called “the Chrysanthemum”. This usually manifests as a surface saturated with a sort of textured fabric composed of intricate symmetrical relationships, bright colors, shifting edges and shimmering pulsing superposition patterns of harmonic linear waves of many different frequencies.
Depending on the dose consumed one may experience either one or several semi-parallel channels. Whereas a threshold dose usually presents you with a single strong vibe (or ambiance), the Chrysanthemum level often has several competing vibes each bidding for your attention. Here are some examples of what the visual component of this state of consciousness may look like.
Chrysanthemum with multuple symmetry channels
The visual component of the Chrysanthemum is often described as “the best screen saver ever“, and if you happen to experience it in a good mood you will almost certainly agree with that description, as it is usually extremely harmonious, symmetric and beautiful in uncountable ways. No external input can possibly replicate the information density and intricate symmetry of this state; such state has to be endogenously generated as a a sort of harmonic attractor of your brain dynamics.
You can find many replications of Chrysanthemum-level DMT experiences on the internet, and I encourage you to examine their implicit symmetries (this replication is one of my all-times favorite).
In Algorithmic Reduction of Psychedelic States we posited that any one of the 17 wallpaper symmetry groups can be instantiated as the symmetries that govern psychedelic visuals. Unfortunately, unlike the generally slow evolution of usual psychedelic visuals, DMT’s vibrational frequency forces such visuals to evolve at a speed that makes it difficult for most people to spot the implicit symmetry elements that give rise to the overall mathematical structure underneath one’s experience. For this reason it has been difficult to verify that all 17 wallpaper groups are possible in DMT states. Fortunately we were recently able to confirm that this is in fact the case thanks to someone who trained himself to do just this. I.e. detecting symmetry elements in patterns at an outstanding speed.
An anonymous psychonaut (whom we will call researcher A) sent a series of trip report to Qualia Computing detailing the mathematical properties of psychedelic visuals under various substances and dose regimens. A is an experienced psychonaut and a math enthusiast who recently trained himself to recognize (and name) the mathematical properties of symmetrical patterns (such as in works of art or biological organisms). In particular, he has become fluent at naming the symmetries exhibited by psychedelic visuals. In the context of 2D visuals on surfaces, A confirms that the symmetrical textures that arise in psychedelic states can exhibit any one of the 17 wallpaper symmetry groups. Likewise, he has been able to confirm that every possible spherical symmetry group can also be instantiated in one’s mind on these states.
The images below show some examples of the visuals that A has experienced on 2C-B, LSD, 4-HO-MET and DMT (sources: top left, top middle, the rest were made with this service):
The Chrysanthemum level interacts with sensory input in an interesting way: the texture of anything one looks at quickly becomes saturated with nested 2-dimensional symmetry groups. If you took enough DMT to take you to this level and you keep your eyes open and look at a patterned surface (i.e. statistical texture), it will symmetrify beyond recognition. A explains that at this level DMT visuals share some qualities with those of, say, LSD, mescaline, and psilocin. Like other psychedelics, DMT’s Chrysanthemum level can instantiate any 2-dimensional symmetry, yet there are important differences from other psychedelics at this dose range. These include the consistent change in ambiance (already present in threshold doses), the complexity and consistency of the symmetrical relationships (much more dense and whole-experience-consistent than is usually possible with other psychedelics), and the speed (with a control-interruption frequency reaching up to 30 hertz, compared to 10-20 hertz for most psychedelics). Thus, people tend to point out that DMT visuals (at this level) are “faster, smaller, more detailed and more globally consistent” than on comparable levels of alteration from similar agents.
Now, if you take a dose that is a little higher (in the ballpark of 8 to 12 mg), the Chrysanthemum will start doing something new and interesting…
(3) The Magic Eye Level
A great way to understand the Magic Eye level of DMT effects is to think of the Chrysanthemum as the texture of an autostereogram (colloquially described as “Magic Eye” pictures). Our visual experience can be easily decomposed into two points-of-view (corresponding to the feed coming from each eye) that share information in order to solve the depth-map problem in vision. This is to map each visual qualia to a space with relative distances so (a) the input is explained and (b) you get recognizable every-day objects represented as implicit shapes beneath the depth-map. You can think of this process as a sort of hand-shake between bottom-up perception and top-down modeling.
In everyday conditions one solves the depth-map problem within a second of opening one’s eyes (minus minor details that are added as one looks around). But on DMT, the “low-level perceptions” looks like a breathing Chrysanthemum, which means that the top-down modeling has that “constantly shifting” stuff to play with. What to make of it? Anything you can think of.
There are three major components of variance on the DMT Magic Eye level:
Texture (dependent on the Chrysanthemum’s evolution)
World-sheet (non-occluding 3D1T depth maps)
Extremely lowered information copying threshold.
The image on the left is a lobster, the one on the center is a cone and the one to the right contains furniture (a lamp, a chair and a table). Notice that what you see is a sort of depth-map which encodes shapes. We will call this depth-map together with the appearance of movement and acceleration represented in it, a world-sheet.
The world-sheet encodes the “semantic content” of the scene and is capable of representing arbitrary situations (including information about what you are seeing, where you are, what the entities there are doing, what is happening, etc.).
It is common to experience scenes from usually mundane-looking places like ice-cream stores, play pens, household situations, furniture rooms, apparel, etc.. Likewise, one frequently sees entities in these places, but they rarely seem to mind you because their world is fairly self-contained. As if seeing through a window. People often report that the worlds they saw on a DMT trip were all “made of the same thing”. This can be interpreted as the texture becoming the surfaces of the world-sheet, so that the surfaces of the tables, chairs, ice-cream cones, the bodies of the people, and so on are all patterned with the same texture (just as in actual autostereograms). This texture is indeed the Chrysanthemum completely contorted to accommodate all the curvature of the scene.
Magic Eye level scenes often include 3D geometrical shapes like spheres, cones, cylinders, cubes, etc. The complexity of the scene is roughly dose-dependent. As one ups the highness (but still remaining within the Magic Eye level) complex translucid qualia crystals in three dimensions start to become a possibility.
Whatever phenomenal objects you experience on this level that lives for more than a millisecond needs to have effective strategies for surviving in an ecosystem of other objects adapted to that level. Given the extremely lowered information copying threshold, whatever is good at making copies of itself will begin to tesselate, mutate and evolve, stealing as much of your attention as possible in the way. Cyclic transitions occupy one’s attention: objects quickly become scenes which quickly become gestalts from which a new texture evolves in which new objects are detected and so on ad infinitum.
A reports that at this dose range one can experience at least some of the 230 space groups as objects represented in the world-sheet. For example, A reports having stabilized a structure with a Pm-3m symmetry structure, not unlike the structure of ZIF-71-RHO. Visualizing such complex 3D symmetries, however, does seem to require previous training and high levels of mental concentration (i.e. in order to ensure that all the symmetry elements are indeed what they are supposed to be).
There is so much qualia laying around, though, at times not even your normal space can contain it all. Any regular or semi regular symmetrical structure you construct by focusing on it is prone to overflow if you focus too much on it. What does this mean? If you focus too much on, for example, the number 6, your mind might represent the various ways in which you can arrange six balls in a perfectly symmetrical way. Worlds made of hexagons and octahedrons interlocked in complex but symmetrical ways may begin to tesselate your experiential field. With every second you find more and more ways of representing the number six in interesting, satisfying, metaphorically-sound synesthetic ways (cf. Thinking in Numbers). Now, what happens if you try to represent the number seven in a symmetric way on the plane? Well, the problem is that you will have too many heptagons to fit in Euclidean space (cf. Too Many Triangles). Thus the resulting symmetrical patterns will seem to overflow the plane (which is often felt as a folding and fluid re-arrangement, and when there is no space left in a region it either expands space or it is felt as some sort of synesthetic tension or stress, like a sense of crackling under a lot of pressure).
Heptagonal tiling of the Poincaré disk representing the 2D hyperbolic space.
Order-7-3 rhombille tiling
In particular, A claims that in the lower ranges of the DMT Magic Eye level the texture of the Chrysanthemum tends to exhibit heptagonal and triheptagonal tilings (as shown in the picture above). A explains that at the critical point between the Chrysanthemum and the Magic Eye levels the intensity of the rate of symmetry detection of the Chrysanthemum cannot be contained to a 2D surface. Thus, the surface begins to fold, often in semi-symmetric ways. Every time one “recognizes” an object on this “folding Chrysanthemum” the extra curvature is passed on to this object. As the dose increases, one interprets more and more of this extra curvature and ends up shaping a complex and highly dynamic spatiotemporal depth map with hyperbolic folds. In the upper ranges of the Magic Eye level the world-sheet is so curved that the scenes one visualize are intricate and expansive, feeling at times like one is able to peer through one’s horizon in all directions and see oneself and one’s world from a distance. At some critical point one may feel like the space around one is folding into a huge dome where the walls are made of whatever texture + world-sheet combination happened to win the Darwinian selection pressures applied to the qualia patterns on the Magic Eye level. This concentrated hyperbolic synesthetic texture is what becomes the walls of the Waiting Room…
(4) Waiting Room
In the range of 12-25mg of DMT a likely final destination is the so-called Waiting Room. This experience is distinguished from the Magic Eye level in several ways: first, the world-sheet at this level breaks into several quasi-independent components, each evolving semi-autonomously. Second, one goes from “partial immersion” into “full immersion”. The transition between Magic Eye and Waiting Room often looks like “finding a very complex element in the scene and using it as a window into another dimension”. The total 2D surface curvature present (by adding up the curvature of all elements in the scene) is substantially higher than that of the Magic Eye level, and one can start to see actual 3D hyperbolic space. Perhaps a way of describing this transition is as follows: The curvature of the world-sheet gets to be so extreme that in order to accommodate it one’s entire multi-modal experiential field becomes involved, and a feeling of total and complete synchronization of all senses into a unified synesthetic experience is inescapable (often described as the “mmmMMMMMMM+++++!!!” whole-body tone people report). Thus the feeling of entering into an entirely new dimension. This explains what people mean when they say: “I experienced such an intense pressure that my soul could not be contained in my tiny body, and the intense pressure launched me into a bigger world”.
DMT Waiting Room
Changes in the connectivity of the micro-structure of the texture
Constant flow of interlocking symmetry elements tile the texture.
The images above, taken together, are meant as an impressionistic replication of what a Waiting Room experience may feel like. On the left you see the textured world-sheet curved in several ways resulting in an enclosed room with shimmering walls and an entity looking at a futuristic-looking contraption. The images on the right are meant to illustrate the ways in which the texture of the world-sheet evolves: you will find that the micro-structure of such texture is constantly unfolding in new symmetrical ways (bottom right), and propagating such changes throughout the entire surface at a striking speed (top right).
DMT Waiting Rooms contain entities that at times do interact directly with you. Their reality is perceived as a much more intense and intimate version of what human interaction normally is, but they do not give the impression of being telepathic. That said, their power is felt as if they could radiate it. One could say that this level of DMT places you in such an intimate, vulnerable and open state that interpreting the entities in a second-person social mode is almost inevitable. It is like interacting with someone you really know (or perhaps someone you really really want to know… or really really don’t want to know), except that the whole world is made of those feelings and some entities inhabit that world.
Serious hard-core psychonauts tend to describe the Waiting Room as a temporary stopgap. Indeed more poetry could ever be written about the Waiting Room states of consciousness than about most human activities, for its state-space is larger, more diverse and more hedonically loaded. But even so, it is important to realize that there are even weirder states. Serious psychonauts exploring the upper ranges of humanly-accessible high energy consciousness research may see Waiting Rooms as a stepping stones to the real deal…
If one manages to ingest around 20-30mg of DMT there is a decent chance that one will achieve a DMT breakthrough experience (some sources place the dosage as high as 40mg). There is no agreed-upon definition for a “DMT breakthrough”, but most experienced users confirm that there is a qualitative change in the structure and feel of one’s experience on such high doses. Based on A’s observations we postulate that DMT breakthroughs are the result of a world-sheet with a curvature so extreme that topological bifurcations start to happen uncontrollably. In other words, the very topology of one’s world-sheet is forced to change in order to accommodate all of the intense curvature.
The geometry of space you experience may suddenly go from a simply-connected space into something else. What does this mean? Suddenly one may feel like space itself is twisting and reconnecting to itself in complex (and often confusing) ways. One may find that given any two points on this “alien world” there may be loops between them. This has drastic effects on one’s every representation (including, of course, the self-other divide). The particular feeling that comes with this may explain the presence of PSIS-like experiences induced by DMT and high dose LSD (cf. LSD and Quantum Measurements). Since the topological bifurcations are happening on a 3D1T world-sheet, this may look like “multiple things happening at once” or “objects taking multiple non-overlapping paths at once in order to get from one place into another”. The entities at this level feel transpersonal: due to the extreme curvature it is hard to distinguish between the information you ascribe to your self-model and the information you ascribe to others. Thus one is all over the place, in a literal topological sense.
While on the Waiting Room one can stabilize the context where the experience seems to be taking place, on a DMT breakthrough state one invariably “moves across vast regions, galaxies, universes, realities, etc.” in a constant uncontrollable way. Why is this? This may be related to whether one can contain the curvature of the objects one attends to. If the curvature is uncontrollable, it will “pass on to the walls” and result in constant “context switches”. In fact, such a large fraction of 3D space is perceived as hyperbolic in one way or another, that one seems to have access to vast regions of reality at the same time. Thus a sense of radical openness is often experienced.
(6) Amnesia Level
Unlike 5-MeO-DMT, “normal DMT” experiences are not typically so mind-warping that they dissolve one’s self-model completely. On the contrary, many people report DMT as having “surprisingly little effect on one’s sense of self except at very high doses” relative to the overall intensity of the alteration. Thus, DMT usually does not produce amnesia due to ego death directly. Rather, the amnesic properties of DMT at high doses can be blamed on the difficulty of instantiating the necessary geometry to make sense of what was experienced. In the case of doses above “breakthrough experiences” there is a chance that the user will not be able to recall anything about the most intense periods of the journey. Unfortunately, we are not likely to learn much from these states (that is, until we live in a community of people who can access other phenomenal geometries in a controlled fashion).
Recalling the Immemorial
We postulate that the difficulty people have remembering the phenomenal quality of a DMT experience is in part the result of not being able to access the geometry required to accurately relive their hallucinations. The few and far apart elements of the experience that people do somehow manage to remember, we posit, are those that happen to be (relatively) easy to embed in 3D Euclidean space. Thus, we predict that what people do manage to “bring back” from hyperspace will be biased towards those things that can be represented in R3.
This explains why people remember experiencing intensely saddled scenes (e.g. fractals, tunnels, kale worlds, recursive processes, and so on). Unfortunately most information-rich and interesting (irreducible, prime) phenomenal objects one experiences on DMT are by their very nature impossible to embed in our normal experiential geometry. This problem reveals an intrinsic limitation that comes from living in a community of intelligences (i.e. contemporary humans) who are constrained in the range of state-spaces of consciousness that they can access. This realization calls for a new epistemological paradigm, one that incorporate state-specific representations into a globally accessible database of states of consciousness, together with the network that emerges from their mutual (in)intelligibility.
The increased curvature of one’s world-sheet can manifest in endless ways. In some important ways, the state-space of possible scenes that you can experience on DMT is much bigger than what you can experience on normal states of consciousness. Strictly speaking, you can represent more scenes on DMT states than in most other states because the overall amount qualia available is much larger. Of course the very dynamics of these experiences constrains what can be experienced, so there are still many things inaccessible on DMT. For instance, it may be impossible to experience a perfectly uniform blue screen (since the Chrysanthemum texture is saturated with edges, surfaces and symmetrical patterns). Likewise, scenes that are too irregular may be impossible to stabilize given the omnipresent symmetry enhancement found in the state.
What are the nature of the objects and entities one experiences on DMT? Magic Eye level experiences tend to include objects that are usually found in our everyday life. It is at the DMT waiting room level and above that the “truly impossible objects” begin to emerge. In particular, all of these objects are often curved in extreme ways. They condense within them complex networks of interlocking structures sustaining an overall superlative curvature. Here are some example objects that one can experience on Waiting Room and Breakthrough level experiences:
Notice that all of these images have many saddles everywhere. Ultimately, the range of objects one can experience on such states includes many other features that are impossible to represent in R3. The objects that people do manage to bring back and recall later on, are precisely those that can be embedded in R3. Thus you often see extremely contorted wrapped-up objects. The most interesting ones (such as quasi-regular H3 tilings or irreducible objects) are next-to-impossible to bring back in any meaningful way, for now at least.
DMT Space Expansion
The expansion of space responsible for the increased curvature happens anywhere you direct your attention (including the objects you see). Here you can see what it may look like to stare at a DMT object: This is called the “jitterbox” mechanism.
DMT entities come in many forms, and their overall quality is extremelly dose-dependent. Rather than describing any specific manifestation we will instead briefly characterize the rough properties of the entities experienced based on the level reached.
Threshold: Usually the ambiance change has a social feel to is. More similar to entering a room of people of an alien culture, than entering an empty cave or a warm pool on your own. In this sense the very beginning of a DMT experience may already frame the experience in social terms and facilitate the expectation of meeting entities.
Chrysanthemum: One can feel perhaps the subtle presence of entities, but they are often interpreted as “feeling connected” to one’s friends, relatives and acquaintances. The feeling does not manifest in any clear spatial way, though. Other than that, this state is apersonal in the sense that one does not see any entity directly.
Magic Eye: Here the entities can be roughly described as having an impersonal relationship with you. They are just there, hanging out on their own, often engrossed with whatever activities your world-sheet is capable of representing for them.
Waiting Room: At this level entities start becoming able to interact with you. They feel like autonomous beings wrapped in mystery. Their intentions, what they know, and their emotional states can be guessed from their behavior, but they are not immediately obvious.
Breakthrough: At this level the entities one meets seem to have what we might call a transpersonal relationship with you. They share their own internal states (emotions, knowledge, wishes, etc) with you. It feels like they can communicate telepathically and “see through” you. One cannot hide one’s “private” mental contents from them at this level.
Amnesia: One cannot remember, of course, exactly what happens here. But if trip reports are any indication, this level is reminiscent of highly “mystical” states in which one’s implicit beliefs about Personal Identity are obliterated and replaced by the feeling of becoming an all-encompassing entity. “Union with God” and “Samadhi” are terms that describe the subjective feeling of self in this state. In other words, at this level it is impossible to distinguish between oneself and other entities, for all is represented as one. (Beware of never trying to go here if you feel bad at the time since negative hedonic tone can be amplified just as much as a good feeling such as Samadhi).
Modeling the Hyperbolic Geometry of DMT
How can we explain the drastic geometric changes of phenomenal space on DMT? As mentioned earlier, we will discuss three (non-mutually exclusive) hypothesis. These hypothesis work at the level of an algorithmic reduction, which means that we will go deeper than just describing information processing and phenomenology. We will stop short of addressing the implementation level of abstraction. It is worth pointing out that describing the ways in which DMT experiences are hyperbolic is in itself an algorithmic reduction. What we are about to do is to develop a more granular algorithmic reduction in which we try to explain why hyperbolic geometry emerges on DMT states by postulating underlying processes. Here are the three reductions:
(1) Control Interruption + Symmetry detection = Change in Metric
Recall that on a previous article we algorithmically reduced general psychedelic states. The building blocks of that reduction were:
Using this framework one can argue that DMT makes space more hyperbolic in the following way: in high amounts the synergistic effect of control interruption together with extremely lowered symmetry detection thresholds experienced in quick succession makes the subjective distance between the points in the phenomenal objects in the scene evolve a hyperbolic metric. How would this happen? The key thing to realize is that in this model the usual quasi-Euclidean space we experience is an emergent effect of an equilibrium between these two forces. Even in normal circumstances our world-sheet is continuously regenerated; the rate at which symmetrical relationships in the scene are detected is balanced by the rate at which these subjective measurements are forgotten. This usually results in an emergent Euclidean geometry. On DMT the rate of symmetry detection increases while the rate of “forgetting” (inhibiting control) decreases. Attention points out more relationships in quick succession and this creates a network of measured subjective distances that cannot be embedded in Euclidean 3D space. Thus there is an overflow of symmetries. We are currently working on a precise mathematical model of this process in order to reconstruct a hyperbolic metric out of these two parameters. In this model, control interruption is interpreted as a change in the decay for subjective measurements of distance in one’s mind, whereas the lowered symmetry detection threshold is interpreted as a change in the probability of measuring the distance between any two given points as a function of the network of distances already measured.
The curvature increase is most salient where there is already a lot of measurements made, since highly-measured regions focus attention and attention drives symmetry detection. Thus, focusing on any surface will make the surface itself hyperbolic (rather than the 3D space, since measurements are mostly concentrated on the surface). On the other hand, if the curvature is too high to keep on a 2D surface, it will “jump” to 3D or even 3D1T (i.e. branching out the temporal component of one’s experience). The result is that the total curvature of one’s 3D1T world-sheet increases on DMT in a dose-dependent way.
Different doses lead to different states of curvature homeostasis. Each part of the worldsheet has constantly-morphing shapes and sudden curvature changes, but the total curvature is nonetheless more or less preserved on a given dose. It is not easy to get rid of excess curvature. Rather, whenever one tries to reduce the curvature in one part of the scene one is simply pushing it elsewhere. Even when one manages to push most of the curvature out of a given modality (e.g. vision) it is likely to quickly return in another modality (e.g. kinesthetic or auditory landscape) since attention never ceases on a DMT trip. Such apparent dose-dependent global curving of the world-sheet (and its jump from one modality into another) constrains the shape of the objects one can represent on the state (thus leading to alien-looking highly-curved objects similar to the ones shown above).
(2) Dynamic System Account: Energy Sources, Sinks and Invariants
Let us define a notion of energy in consciousness so that we can formalize the way experiences warps and transforms on DMT. Assume that one needs “energy” in order to instantiate a given experience (really, this is just an implicit invariant and we could use a different name). Each feature of a given experience needs a certain amount of energy, which roughly corresponds to a weighted sum of the intensity and the information content of an experience. For instance, the brightness of a point of colored light in one’s visual field is energy-dependent. Likewise, the information content in a texture, the number of represented symmetrical relationships, the speed by which an object moves (plus its acceleration), and even the curvature of one’s geometry. All of these features require energy to be instantiated.
Under normal circumstances the brain has many clever and (evolutionarily) appropriate ways of modulating the amount of energy present in different modules of one’s mind. That is, we have many programs that work as energy switches for different mental activities depending on the context. When we think, we have allocated a certain amount of energy to finding a shape/thought-form that satisfies a number of constraints. When it shape-shifting that energy in various ways and finding a solution, we either allocate more energy to it or perhaps give up. However, on DMT the energy cannot be switched off, and it can only pass from one modality into another. In other words, whereas in normal circumstances one uses strategically one’s ability to give energy limits to different tasks, on DMT one simply has constant high energy globally no matter what.
More formally, this model of DMT action says that DMT modifies the structure of one’s mind so that (1) energy freely passes from one form into another, and (2) energy floods the entire system. Let’s talk about energy sources and sinks.
Energy Sources and Sinks
In this algorithmic reduction DMT increases the amount of consciousness in one’s mind by virtue of impairing our normal energy sinks while increasing the throughput of its energy sources. This may frequently manifests as phenomenal spaces becoming hyperbolic in the mathematical-geometric sense of increasing its negative curvature as such curvature is one manifestation of higher levels of energy. Energy sinks are still present and they struggle to capture as much of the energy as possible. In particular, one energy sink is “recognition” of objects on the world-sheet.
This model postulates that attention functions as an energy source, whereas pattern recognition functions as an energy sink.
The Hamiltonian of a World-sheet
The total energy in one’s consciousness increases on DMT, and there is a constant flow between different ways for this energy to take form. That said, one can analyze piecewise the various components of one’s experience, specially if the network of energy exchange clusters well. In particular, we can postulate that world-sheets are fairly self-contained. Relative to other parts of the environment the mind is simulating, the world-sheet itself has a very high within-cluster energy exchange and a relatively low cross-cluster energy exchange. One’s world-sheet is very fluid, and little deformations propagate almost linearly throughout it. In a given dose plateau, if you add up the acceleration, the velocity, the curvature, and so on of every point in the world-sheet you will come up with a number that remains fairly constant over time. Thus studying the Hamiltonian of a world-sheet (i.e. the state-space given by a constant level of energy) can be very informative in describing both the information content and the experiential intensity of DMT experiences.
You can deform a surface without changing its local curvature. (Source: Gauss’ “Remarkable Theorem” [seriously not my quotes]). Thus on a DMT trip plateau there is still a lot of room for transformations of the world-sheet into different shapes with similar curvature.
Under normal circumstances the curvature of one’s world-sheet is, as far as I can tell, arousal-dependent. Have you noticed how when you feel tired you are more likely to defocus your visual experience? You are tired late at night and you are trying to watch a movie, but bringing the scene in focus is too much of an effort so you defocus for a little bit (still listening to the dialogue). What did you do that for? In the framework here proposed, you did that to diminish the energy it takes you to sustain a curved world-sheet with a lot of information. Doing so may be aesthetically pleasing and rewarding when fully awake or excited, but when tired the returns on doing the focusing are not great given how much effort it needs and the fact that the dialogue is more essential for the plot anyway.
It takes effort and wakefulness to focus on a complex scene with many intricate details. (Reading and trying to comprehend this essay may itself require significant conscious energy expenditure). For this reason we might say that DMT is an exceedingly effective arouser of consciousness.
Bayesian Energy Sinks
One essential property of our minds is that our level of mental arousal decreases when we interpret our experience as “expected”. People who can enjoy their own minds do so, in part, by finding unexpected ways of understanding expected things. In the presence of new information that one cannot easily integrate, however, one’s level of energy is adjusted upwards so that we try out a variety of different models quickly and try to sort out a model that does make the new information expected (though perhaps integrating new assumptions or adding content in other ways). When we cannot manage to generate a mental model that works out a likely model of what we are experiencing we tend to remain in an over-active state.
This general principle applies to the world-sheet. One of the predominant ways in which a world-sheet reduces its energy (locally) is by morphing into something you can recognize or interpret. Thus the world-sheet in some way keeps on producing objects, at first familiar, but in higher energies the whole process can seem desperate or hopeless: one can only recognize things with a stretch of the imagination. Since humans in general lack much experience with hyperbolic geometry, we usually don’t manage to imagine objects that are symmetric on their own native geometry. But when we do, and we fill them up with resonant light-mind-energy, then BAM! New harmonics of consciousness! New varieties of bliss! Music of the angels! OMG! Laughter till infinity and more- shared across the galaxy- in a hyperbolic transpersonal delight! It’s like LSD and N2O! Wow!
Forgive me, it is my first day. Let’s carry on. As one does not know any object that the world-sheet can reasonably be able to generate in high doses, and the world-sheet has so much energy on its own, energy can seem to spiral out of control. This explains in part the non-linear relationship between experienced intensity and DMT dose.
Like all aspects of one’s consciousness, the negative curvature of phenomenal space tends to decay over time (possibly through inhibition by the cortex). In this case, the feeling is one of “smoothing out the curves” and embedding the phenomenal objects in 3D euclidean space. However, this is opposed by the effect that attention and (degrees of) awareness have on our phenomenal sheet, which is to increase its negative curvature. On DMT, anything that attention focuses on will begin branching, copying itself and multiplying, a process that quickly saturates the scene to the point of filling more spatial relationships than would fit in Euclidean 3D. The rate at which this happens is dose-dependent. The higher the dose, the less inhibiting control there is and the more intense the “folding” property of attention will be. Thus, for different dosages one reaches different homeostatic levels of overall curvature in one’s phenomenal space. Since attention does not stop at any point during a DMT trip (it keeps being bright and intense all throughout) there isn’t really any rest period to sit back and see the curvature get smoothed out on its own. Everything one thinks about, perceives or imagines branches out and bifurcate at a high speed.
Every moment during the experience is very hard to “grasp” because the way one normally does that in usual circumstances is by focusing attention on it and shaping one’s world-sheet to account for the input. But here that very attention makes the world-sheet wobble, warp and expand beyond recognition. Thus one might say that during a solid DMT experience one never sees the same thing twice, as the experience continues to evolve. That is, of course, as long as you do not stumble upon (or deliberatively create) stable phenomenal objects whose structure can survive the warping effect of attention.
(3) Hyperbolic Micro-structure of Consciousness
Subjectively, A says, negative curvature is associated with more energy. Perhaps this curvature happens at a very low level? An example to light up the imagination is using heat to fold a sheet of metal (thanks to thermal expansion). Whatever your attention focuses on seems to get heated up (in some sense) and expand as a result. The folding patterns themselves seem to store potential energy. Left on their own, this extra energy stored as negative curvature usually dissipates, but on DMT this process is lowered (while the effect of increasing the energy is heightened). Could this be the result of some very very fine-level micro-experiential change that gradually propagates upwards? With the help of our normal mental processes the change in the micro-structure may propagate all the way into seemingly hyperbolic 2D and 3D surfaces.
Perhaps the most important difference between DMT in high doses and other psychedelics is that the micro-structure of consciousness drifts in such a way that tiny Droste effects bubble up into large Möbius transforms.
As noted already, these three algorithmic reductions are not incompatible. We just present them here due to their apparent explanatory power. A lot more theoretical work will be needed to make them quantitative and precise, but we are optimistic. The aim is now to develop an experimental framework to distinguish between the predictions that each candidate algorithmic reduction makes (including many not presented here). This is a work in progress.
Generalizing hyperbolization to non-spatial experiential fields
In the case of experiential fields such as body feelings, smells and concepts, the “hyperbolization” takes different forms depending on the algorithmic reduction you use. I prefer the very general interpretation that one experiences hyperbolic information geometry rather than just hyperbolic space. In other words, when we talk about body feelings and so on, on a psychedelic one organizes such information in a hyperbolic relational graph, which also exhibits a negative curvature relative to its normal geometry. Arguing in favor of this interpretation would take another article, so we will leave that for another time.
Getting a handle on the DMT state
Gluing a 1-handle is easy on a 2-sphere. Tongue in cheek, sticking a little doughnut on a big ball allows you to grab the sphere and control it in some way. But how do you get a handle on hyperbolic space? The answer is to build hyperbolic manifolds at the core of one’s being, by imagining knots very intensely. The higher one is, the more complex the knot one can imagine in detail. Having practiced visualizations of this sort while sober certainly helps. If you imagine the knot with enough detail, you can then stress the environment surrounding it to represent a warped hyperbolic space. This way you give life to the complement of the knot (which is almost always hyperbolic!). We postulate that it is possible to study in detail the relationship between the knots imagined, and the properties of the experiential worlds that result from their inversion (i.e. thinking about the geometry of the space surrounding the knot rather than the knot itself). A reports that different hyperbolic spaces generated this way (i.e. imagining knots on tryptamines) have different levels of energy, and have unique resonant properties. Different kinds of music feel better in different kinds of hyperbolic manifolds. It takes more energy to “light up” a hyperbolic space like that, mostly due to its openness. This is why using small doses of 2C-B can be helpful to create a positive backbone to the experience (providing the necessary warmth to light up the hyperbolic space). Admittedly MDMA tends to work best, but its use is unadvisable for reasons we will not get into (related to the hedonic treadmill). A healthy combination that both enables the visualization of the hyperbolic spaces in a vivid way and also lights them up with positive hedonic tone healthily and reliably has yet to be found.
Relatedly… Get a handle on your DMT trip by creating a stabilizing 4D hyperbolic manifold in four easy steps:
Unifying Your Space
God, the divine, open individualism, the number one, an abstract notion of self, or the thought of existence itself are all thoughts that work as great “unifiers” of large areas of phenomenal space. Indeed these concepts can allow a person to connect the edges of the hyperbolic space and create a pocket of one’s experience that does not seem to have a boundary yet is extremely open. This may be a reason why such ideas are very common in high levels of psychedelia. In a sense, depending on the mind, they have at times the highest recruiting power for your multi-threaded attention.
Applications to Qualia Computing and Closing Thoughts
Beyond mere designer synesthesia, the future of consciousness research contains the possibility of exploring alternative geometries for the layout of our experiences. One’s overall level of energy, its manifestation, the allowed invariants, the logic gates, the differences in resonance, the granularity of the patterns, and so on, are all parameters that we will get to change in our minds to see what happens (in controlled and healthy ways, of course). The exploration of the state-space of consciousness is sure to lead to a combinatorial explosion. Even with good post-theoretical quantitative algorithmic reductions, it is likely that qualia computing scientists will still find an unfathomable number of distinct “prime” permutations. For some applications it may be more useful to use special kinds of hyperbolic spaces (like the compliment of certain class of knot), but for others it may suffice to be a little sphere. Who knows. In the end, if a valence economy ends up dominating the world, then the value of hyperbolic phenomenal spaces will be proportional to the level of wellbeing and bliss that can be felt in them. Which space in which resonant mode generates the highest level of bliss? This is an empirical question with far-reaching economic implications.
Mathematics post-hyperbolic consciousness
I predict that some time in the next century or so many of the breakthroughs in mathematics will take place in consciousness research centers. The ability to utilize arbitrary combinations of qualia with programable geometry and information content (in addition to our whole range of pre-existing cognitive skills) will allow people to have new semantic primitives related to mathematical structures and qualia systems currently unfathomable to us. In the end, studying the mathematics of consciousness and valence is perhaps the ultimate effective altruist endeavor in a world filled with suffering, since reverse-engineering valence would simplify paradise engineering… But even in a post-scarcity world, consciousness research will also probably be the ultimate past time given the endless new discoveries awaiting to be found in the state-space of consciousness.
*On the unexpected side effects of staring at a cauliflower on DMT: You can get lost in the hyperbolic reality of the (apparent) life force that spirals in a scale-free fractal fashion throughout the plant. The spirals may feel like magnetic vortexes that take advantage of your state to attract your attention. The cauliflower may pull you into its own world of interconnected fractals, and as soon as you start to trust it, it begins trying to recruit you for the cauliflower cause. The cauliflower may scare you into not eating it, and make you feel guilty about frying it. You may freak out a little, but when you come down you convince yourself that it was all just a hallucination. That said, you secretly worry it was for real. You may never choose to abstain from eating cauliflowers, but you will probably drop the knife when cooking it. You will break it apart with your own hands in the way you think minimizes its pain. You sometimes wonder whether it experiences agony as it is slowly cooked in the pan, and you drink alcohol to forget. Damn, don’t stare at a cauliflower while high on DMT if you ever intend to eat one again.
P.S. Note on Originality: The only mention I have been able to find that explicitly connects hyperbolic geometry in a literal sense with DMT (rather than just metaphorical talk of “hyperspace”) is a 2014 post in the Psychonaut subredit. To my knowledge, no one has yet elaborated to any substantial degree on this interesting connection. That said, I’m convinced that during the days that follow a strong trip, psychedelic self-experimenters may frequently wonder about the geometry of the places they explored. Yet they usually lack any conceptual framework to justify their intuitions or even verbalize them, so they quickly forget about them.
P.S.S. Example Self-Dribbling Basketball:
To the right you can see what a “self-dribbling basketball” looks like. The more you try to “grasp” what it is, the more curved it gets. That’s because you are adding energy with you attention and you do not have enough recognition ability in this space to lower its energy and reduce the curvature to stabilize it. The curvature is so extreme at times that it produces constant “context switches”. This is the result of excess curvature being pushed towards the edge of your experience and turning into walls and corridors.
P.S.S.S.: Example on world-sheet bending:
Below you can find two gifs that illustrate the behavior of a world-sheet on a 5mg vs. 20mg dose. The speed at which you are adding curvature to it increases so much that the shapes and objects keep shifting to accommodate it all.
Finding yourself to be a conscious being is anthropically necessary. If the universe contains quantum-computational conscious beings and classical-computational zombies, and only the first are conscious, then you can only ever be the first kind of being, and you can only ever find that you had an evolutionary history that managed to produce such beings as yourself. (ETA: Also, you can only find yourself to exist in a universe where consciousness can exist, no matter how exotic an ontology that requires.)
Obviously I believe in the possibility of unconscious simulations of conscious beings. All it should require is implementing a conscious state machine on a distributed base. But I have no idea how likely it is that evolution should produce something like that. Consciousness does have survival value, and given that I take genuine conscious states to be something relatively fundamental, some fairly fundamental laws are probably implicated in the details of its internal causality. I simply don’t know whether a naturally evolved unconscious intelligence would be likely to have a causal architecture isomorphic to that of a conscious intelligence, or whether it would be more likely to implement useful functions like self-monitoring in a computationally dissimilar way.
What I say about the internal causality of genuine consciousness may sound mysterious, so I will try to give an example; I emphasize this is not even speculation, it’s just an ontology of consciousness which allows me to make a point.
One of the basic features of conscious states is intentionality – they’re about something. So let us say that a typical conscious state contains two sorts of relations – “being aware of” a quale, and “paying attention to” a quale. Unreflective consciousness is all awareness and no attention, while a reflective state of consciousness will consist of attending to certain qualia, amid a larger background of qualia which are just at the level of awareness.
Possible states of consciousness would be specified by listing the qualia and by listing whether the subject is attending to them or just aware of them. (The whole idea is that when attending, you’re aware that you are aware.) Now we have a state space, we can talk about dynamics. There will be a “physical law” governing transitions in the conscious state, whereby the next state after the current one is a function of the current state and of various external conditions.
An example of a transition that might be of interest, is the transition from the state “aware of A, aware of B, aware of C…” to the state “attending to A, aware of B, aware of C…” What are the conditions under which we start attending to something – the conditions under which we become aware of being aware of something? In this hypothetical ontology, there would be a fundamental law describing the exact conditions which cause such a transition. We can go further, and think about embedding this model of mind, into a formal ontology of monads whose mathematical states are, say, drawn from Hilbert spaces with nested graded subspaces of varying dimensionality, and which works to reproduce quantum mechanics in some limit. We might be able to represent the recursive nature of iterated reflection (being aware of being aware of being aware of A) by utilizing this subspace structure.
We are then to think of the world as consisting mostly of “monads” or tensor factors drawn from the subspaces of smallest dimensionality, but sometimes they evolve into states of arbitrarily high dimensionality, something which corresponds to the formation of entangled states in conventional quantum mechanics. But this is all just mathematical formalism, and we are to understand that the genuine ontology of the complex monadic states is this business about a subject perceiving a set of qualia under a mixture of the two aspects (awareness versus attention), and that the dynamical laws of nature that pertain to monads in reflective states are actually statements of the form “A quale jumps from awareness level to attention level if… [some psycho-phenomenological condition is met]”.
Furthermore, it would be possible to simulate complex individual monads with appropriately organized clusters of simple monads, but ontologically you wouldn’t actually have the complex states of awareness and attention being present, you would just have lots of simple monads being used like dots in a painting or bits in a computer.
I really do expect that the truth about how consciousness works is going to sound this weird and this concrete, even if this specific fancy is way off in its details.
– Mitchell_Porter comment on Does functionalism imply dualism? – Less Wrong