tl;dr If we construct a theory of meaning grounded in qualia and felt-sense, it is possible to congruently arrive at “should” statements on the basis of reason and “is” claims. Meaning grounded in qualia allows us to import the pleasure-pain axis and its phenomenal character to the same plane of discussion as factual and structural observations.
TheIs-Ought problem (also called “Hume’s guillotine”) is a classical philosophical conundrum. On the one hand people feel that our ethical obligations (at least the uncontroversial ones like “do not torture anyone for no reason”) are facts about reality in some important sense, but on the other hand, rigorously deriving such “moral facts” from facts about the universe appears to be a category error. Is there any physical fact that truly compels us to act in one way or another?
A friend recently asked about my thoughts on this question and I took the time to express them to the best of my knowledge.
I provide seven points of discussion that together can be used to make the case that “ought” judgements often, though not always, are on the same ontological footing as “is” claims. Namely, that they are references to the structure and quality of experience, whose ultimate nature is self-intimating (i.e. it reveals itself) and hence inaccessible to those who lack the physiological apparatus to instantiate it. In turn, we could say that within communities of beings who share the same self-intimating qualities of experience, the is/ought divide may not be completely unbridgeable.
Summaries of Question and Response
Summary of the question:
How does a “should” emerge at all? How can reason and/or principles and/or logic compel us to follow some moral code?
Summary of the response:
If “ought” statements are to be part of our worldview, then they must refer to decisions about experiences: what kinds of experiences are better/worse, what experiences should or should not exist, etc.
A shared sense of personal identity (e.g. Open Individualism – which posits that “we are all one consciousness”) allows us to make parallels between the quality of our experience and the experience of others. Hence if one grounds “oughts” on the self-intimating quality of one’s suffering, then we can also extrapolate that such “oughts” must exist in the experience of other sentient beings and that they are no less real “over there” simply because a different brain is generating them (general relativity shows that every “here and now” is equally real).
Reduction cuts both ways: if the “fire in the equations of physics” can feel a certain way (e.g. bliss/pain) then objective causal descriptions of reality (about e.g. brain states) are implicitly referring to precisely that which has an “ought” quality. Thus physics may be inextricably connected with moral “oughts”.
If one loses sight of the fact that one’s experience is the ultimate referent for meaning, it is possible to end up in nihilistic accounts of meaning (e.g. such as Quine’s Indeterminacy of translation and Dennett’sinclusion of qualia within that framework). But if one grounds meaning in qualia, then suddenly both causality and value are on the same ontological footing (cf.Valence Realism).
To see clearly the nature of value it is best to examine it at its extremes (such as MDMA bliss vs. the pain of kidney stones). Having such experiences illuminates the “ought” aspect of consciousness, in contrast to the typical quasi-anhedonic “normal everyday states of consciousness” that most people (and philosophers!) tend to reason from. It would be interesting to see philosophers discuss e.g. the Is-Ought problem while on MDMA.
Claims that “pleasure and pain, value and disvalue, good and bad, etc.” are an illusion by long-term meditators based on the experience of “dissolving value” in meditative states are no more valid than claims that pain is an illusion by someone doped on morphine. In brief: such claims are made in a state of consciousness that has lost touch with the actual quality of experience that gives (dis)value to consciousness.
Admittedly the idea that one state of consciousness can even refer to (let alone make value judgements about) other states of consciousness is very problematic. In what sense does “reference” even make sense? Every moment of experience only has access to its own content. We posit that this problem is not ultimately unsolvable, and that human concepts are currently mere prototypes of a much better future set of varieties of consciousness optimized for truth-finding. As a thought experiment to illustrate this possible future, consider afull-spectrum superintelligence capable of instantiating arbitrary modes of experience and impartially comparing them side by side in order to build atotal order of consciousness.
Full Question and Response
I realized I don’t share some fundamental assumptions that seemed common amongst the people here [referring to the Qualia Research Institute and friends].
The most basic way I know how to phrase it, is the notion that there’s some appeal to reason and/or principles and/or logic that compels us to follow some type of moral code.
A (possibly straw-man) instance is the notion I associate with effective altruism, namely, that one should choose a career based on its calculable contribution to human welfare. The assumption is that human welfare is what we “should” care about. Why should we? What’s compelling about trying to reconfigure ourselves from whatever we value at the moment to replacing that thing with human welfare (or anything else)? What makes us think we can even truly succeed in reconfiguring ourselves like this? The obvious pitfall seems to be we create some image of “goodness” that we try to live up to without ever being honest with ourselves and owning our authentic desires. IMO this issue is rampant in mainstream Christianity.
More generally, I don’t understand how a “should” emerges within moral philosophy at all. I understand how starting with a want, say happiness, and noting a general tendency, such as I become happy when I help others, that one could deduce that helping others often is likely to result in a happy life. I might even say “I should help others” to myself, knowing it’s a strategy to get what I want. That’s not the type of “should” I’m talking about. What I’m talking about is “should” at the most basic level of one’s value structure. I don’t understand how any amount of reasoning could tell us what our most basic values and desires “should” be.
I would like to read something rigorous on this issue. I appreciate any references, as well as any elucidating replies.
This is a very important topic. I think it is great that you raise this question, as it stands at the core of many debates and arguments about ethics and morality. I think that one can indeed make a really strong case for the view that “ought” is simply never logically implied by any accurate and objective description of the world (the famous is/ought Humean guillotine). I understand that an objective assessment of all that is will usually be cast as a network of causal and structural relationships. By starting out with a network of causal and structural relationships and using logical inferences to arrive at further high-level facts, one is ultimately bound to arrive at conclusions that themselves are just structural and causal relationships. So where does the “ought” fit in here? Is it really just a manner of speaking? A linguistic spandrel that emerges from evolutionary history? It could really seem like it, and I admit that I do not have a silver bullet argument against this view.
However, I do think that eventually we will arrive at a post-Galilean understanding of consciousness, and that this understanding will itself allow us to point out exactly where- if at all- ethical imperatives are located and how they emerge. For now all I have is a series of observations that I hope can help you develop an intuition for how we are thinking about it, and why our take is original and novel (and not simply a rehashing of previous arguments or appeals to nature/intuition/guilt).
So without further ado I would like to lay out the following points on the table:
I am of the mind that if any kind of “ought” is present in reality it will involve decision-making about the quality of consciousness of subjects of experience. I do not think that it makes sense to talk about an ethical imperative that has anything to do with non-experiential properties of the universe precisely because there would be no one affected by it. If there is an argument for caring about things that have no impact on any state of consciousness, I have yet to encounter it. So I will assume that the question refers to whether certain states of consciousness ought to or ought not to exist (and how to make trade offs between them).
I also think thatpersonal identity is key for this discussion, but why this is the case will make sense in a moment. The short answer is that conscious value is self-intimating/self-revealing, and in order to pass judgement on something that you yourself (as a narrative being) will not get to experience you need some confidence (or reasonable cause) to believe that the same self-intimating quality of experience is present in other narrative orbits that will not interact with you. For the same reasons as (1) above, it makes no sense to care about philosophical zombies (no matter how much they scream at you), but the same is the case for “conscious value p. zombies” (where maybe they experience color qualia but do not experience hedonic tone i.e. they can’t suffer).
A very important concept that comes up again and again in our research is the notion that “reduction cuts both ways”. We take dual aspect monism seriously, and in this view we would consider the mathematical description of an experience and its qualia two sides of the same coin. Now, many people come here and say “the moment you reduce an experience of bliss to a mathematical equation you have removed any fuzzy morality from it and arrived at a purely objective and factual account which does not support an ‘ought ontology'”. But doing this mental move requires you to take the mathematical account as a superior ontology to that of the self-intimating quality of experience. In our view, these are two sides of the same coin. If mystical experiences are just a bunch of chemicals, then a bunch of chemicals can also be a mystical experience. To reiterate: reduction cuts both ways, and this happens with the value of experience to the same extent as it happens with the qualia of e.g. red or cinnamon.
Mike Johnson tends to bring up Wittgenstein and Quine to the “Is-Ought” problem because they are famous for ‘reducing language and meaning’ to games and networks of relationships. But here you should realize that you can apply the concept developed in (3) above just as well to this matter. In our view, a view of language that has “words and objects” at its foundation is not a complete ontology, and nor is one that merely introduces language games to dissolve the mystery of meaning. What’s missing here is “felt sense” – the raw way in which concepts feel and operate on each other whether or not they are verbalized. It is my view that herephenomenal binding becomes critical because a felt sense that corresponds to a word, concept, referent, etc. in itself encapsulates a large amount of information simultaneously, and contains many invariants across a set of possible mental transformations that define what it is and what it is not. More so, felt senses are computationally powerful (rather than merely epiphenomenal). ConsiderDaniel Tammet‘s mathematical feats achieved by experiencing numbers in complex synesthetic ways that interact with each other in ways that are isomorphic to multiplication, factorization, etc. More so, he does this at competitive speeds. Language, in a sense, could be thought of as the surface of felt sense. Daniel Dennett famously argued that you can “Quine Qualia” (meaning that you can explain it away with a groundless network of relationships and referents). We, on the opposite extreme, would bite the bullet of meaning and say that meaning itself is grounded in felt-sense and qualia. Thus, colors, aromas, emotions, and thoughts, rather than being ultimately semantically groundless as Dennett would have it, turn out to be the very foundation of meaning.
In light of the above, let’s consider some experiences that embody the strongest degree of the felt sense of “ought to be” and “ought not to be” that we know of. On the negative side, we have things like cluster headaches and kidney stones. On the positive side we have things like Samadhi, MDMA, and 5-MEO-DMT states of consciousness. I am personally more certain that the “ought not to be” aspect of experience is more real than the “ought to be” aspect of it, which is why I have a tendency (though no strong commitment) towards negative utilitarianism. When you touch a hot stove you get this involuntary reaction and associated valence qualia of “reality needs you to recoil from this”, and in such cases one has degrees of freedom into which to back off. But when experiencing cluster headaches and kidney stones, this sensation- that self-intimating felt-sense of ‘this ought not to be’- is omnidirectional. The experience is one in which one feels like every direction is negative, and in turn, at its extremes, one feels spiritually violated (“a major ethical emergency” is how a sufferer of cluster headaches recently described it to me). This brings me to…
The apparent illusory nature of value in light of meditative deconstruction of felt-senses. As you put it elsewhere: “Introspectively – Meditators with deep experience typically report all concepts are delusion. This is realized in a very direct experiential way.” Here I am ambivalent, though my default response is to make sense of the meditation-induced feeling that “value is illusory” as itself an operation on one’s conscious topology that makes the value quality of experience get diminished or plugged out. Meditation masters will say things like “if you observe the pain very carefully, if you slice it into 30 tiny fragments per second, you will realize that the suffering you experience from it is an illusory construction”. And this kind of language itself is, IMO, liable to give off the illusion that the pain was illusory to begin with. But here I disagree. We don’t say that people who take a strong opioid to reduce acute pain are “gaining insight into the fundamental nature of pain” and that’s “why they stop experiencing it”. Rather, we understand that the strong opioid changes the neurological conditions in such a way that the quality of the pain itself is modified, which results in a duller, “asymbolic“, non-propagating, well-confined discomfort. In other words, strong opioids reduce the value-quality of pain by locally changing the nature of pain rather than by bringing about a realization of its ultimate nature. The same with meditation. The strongest difference here, I think, would be that opioids are preventing the spatial propagation of pain “symmetry breaking structures” across one’s experience and thus “confine pain to a small spatial location”, whereas meditation does something different that is better described as confining the pain to a small temporal region. This is hard to explain in full, and it will require us to fully formalize how the subjective arrow of time is constructed and how pain qualia can make copies across it. [By noting the pain very quickly one is, I believe, preventing it from building up and then having “secondary pain” which emerges from the cymatic resonance of the various lingering echoes of pain across one’s entire “pseudo-time arrow of experience”.] Sorry if this sounds like word salad, I am happy to unpack these concepts if needed, while also admitting that we are in early stages of the theoretical and empirical development.
Finally, I will concede that the common sense view of “reference” is very deluded on many levels. The very notion that we can refer to an experience with another experience, that we can encode the properties of a different moment of experience in one’s current moment of experience, that we can talk about the “real world” or its “objective ethical values” or “moral duty” is very far from sensical in the final analysis. Reference is very tricky, and I think that a full understanding of consciousness will do some severe violence to our common sense in this area. That, however, is different from the self-disclosing properties of experience such as red qualia and pain qualia. You can do away with all of common sense reference while retaining a grounded understanding that “the constituents of the world are qualia values and their local binding relationships”. In turn, I do think that we can aim to do a decently good job at re-building from the ground up a good approximation of our common sense understanding of the world using “meaning grounded in qualia”, and once we do that we will be in a solid foundation (as opposed to the, admittedly very messy, quasi-delusional character of thoughts as they exist today). Needless to say, this may also need us to change our state of consciousness. “Someday we will have thoughts like sunsets” – David Pearce.
Life could be wonderful. Genetically phasing out suffering in favour of hardwired happiness ought to be mainstream. Today, it’s a fringe view. It’s worth asking why.
Perhaps the first scientifically-literate blueprint for a world without suffering was written by Lewis Mancini. “Brain stimulation and the genetic engineering of a world without pain” was published in the journal Medical Hypotheses in 1990. As far as I can tell, the paper sunk almost without a trace. Ignorant of Mancini’s work, I wrote The Hedonistic Imperative (HI) in 1995. I’ve plugged away at the theme ever since. Currently, a small, scattered minority of researchers believe that replacing the biology of suffering with gradients of genetically preprogrammed well-being is not just ethical but obviously so.
Alas, perceptions of obviousness vary. Technically, at least, the abolitionist project can no longer easily be dismissed as science fiction. The twenty-first century has already witnessed the decoding of the human genome, the development and imminent commercialisation of in vitro meat, the dawn of CRISPR genome-editing and the promise of synthetic gene drives. Identification of alleles and allelic combinations governing everything from pain-sensitivity to hedonic range and hedonic set-points is complementing traditional twin studies. The high genetic loading of subjective well-being and mental ill-health is being deciphered. The purely technical arguments against the genetic feasibility of creating a happy living world are shrinking. But genetic status quo bias is deeply entrenched. The sociopolitical obstacles to reprogramming the biosphere are daunting.
1) Timescales. Lewis Mancini reckons that completion of the abolitionist project will take thousands of years. HI predicts that the world’s last unpleasant experience will occur a few centuries hence, perhaps in some obscure marine invertebrate. If, fancifully, consensus existed for a global species-project, then 100 – 150 years (?) might be a credible forecast. Alas, such a timescale is wildly unrealistic. No such consensus exists or is plausibly in prospect. For sure, ask people a question framed on the lines of “Do you agree with Gautama Buddha, ‘May all that have life be delivered from suffering’?” and assent might be quite high. Some kind of quantified, cross-cultural study of radical Buddhist or Benthamite abolitionism would be interesting. Yet most people balk at what the scientific implementation of such a vision practically entails – if they reflect on abolitionist bioethics at all. “That’s justBrave New World” is a common response among educated Westerners to the idea of engineering “unnatural” well-being. Typically, EAs are focused on measurable results in foreseeable timeframes in areas where consensus is broad and deep, for instance the elimination of vector-borne disease. Almost everyone agrees that eliminating malaria will make the world a better place. Malaria can be eradicated this century.
2)TheHedonic Treadmill. In recent decades, popular awareness of the hedonic treadmill has grown. Sadly, most nonbiological interventions to improve well-being may not have the dramatic long-term impact we naïvely hope. However, awareness of the genetic underpinnings of the hedonic treadmill is sketchy. Knowledge of specific interventions we can plan to subvert its negative feedback mechanisms is sketchier still. Compared to more gross and visible ills, talk of “low hedonic set-points” (etc) is nebulous. Be honest, which would you personally choose if offered: a vast national lottery win (cf. How Winning The Lottery Affects Happiness) or a modestly higher hedonic set-point? Likewise, the prospect of making everyone on Earth prosperous sounds more effectively altruistic (cf. Can “effective altruism” maximise the bang for each charitable buck?) than raising their hedonic defaults – even if push-button hedonic uplift were now feasible, which it isn’t, or at least not without socially unacceptable consequences.
3)The Spectre of Eugenics. Any confusion between the racial hygiene policies of the Third Reich and the project of genetically phasing out suffering in all sentient beings ought to be laughable. Nonetheless, many people recoil at the prospect of “designer babies”. Sooner or later, the ”e”-word crops up in discussions of genetic remediation and enhancement. If we assume that bioconservative attitudes to baby-making will prevail worldwide indefinitely, and the reproductive revolution extends at best only to a minority of prospective parents, then the abolitionist project will never happen. What we call the Cambrian Explosion might alternatively be classified as the Suffering Explosion. If we don’t tackle the biological-genetic roots of suffering at source – “eugenics”, if you will – then pain and suffering will proliferate until Doomsday. Without eugenics, the world’s last unpleasant experience may occur millions or even billions of years hence.
5) Organisation and Leadership. Both secular and religious organizations exist whose tenets include the outright abolition of suffering. EAs can and do join such groups. However, sadly, I don’t know of a single organisation dedicated to biological-genetic solutions to the problem of suffering. Among transhumanists, for instance, radical life-extension and the prospect of posthuman superintelligence loom larger than biohappiness – though article 7 of the Transhumanist Declaration is admirably forthright: a commitment to the well-being of all sentience. Also, I think we need star power: the blessing of some charismatic billionaire or larger-than-life media celebrity. “Bill Gates says let’s use biotechnology to phase out the genetic basis of suffering” would be a breakthrough. Or even Justin Bieber.
For my part, I’m just a writer/researcher. We have our place! My guess is that this century will see more blueprints and manifestos and grandiose philosophical proposals together with concrete, incremental progress from real scientists. The genetic basis of suffering will eventuallybe eradicated across the tree of life, not in the name of anything “hedonistic” or gradients of intelligent bliss, and certainly not in the name of negative utilitarianism, but perhaps under the label of the World Health Organisation’s definition of health (cf. Constitution of WHO: principles). Taken literally, the constitution of the WHO enshrines the most daringly ambitious vision of the future of sentience ever conceived. Lifelong good health (“complete physical, mental and social well-being”) for all sentient beings is a noble aspiration. Regardless of race or species, all of us deserve good health as so defined. A biology of information-sensitive gradients of physical, mental and social well-being (HI) is more modest and workable thanks to biotech. Optimistically, life on Earth has only a few more centuries of misery and malaise to go.
Personal identity views (closed, empty, open) serve in philosophy the role that conservation laws play in physics. They recast difficult problems in solvable terms, and by expanding our horizon of understanding, they likewise allow us to conceive of new classes of problems. In this context, we posit that philosophy of personal identity is relevant in the realm of ethics by helping us address age-old questions like whether being born is good or bad. We further explore the intersection between philosophy of personal identity and philosophy of time, and discuss the ethical implications of antinatalism in a tenselessopen individualist “block-time” universe.
Learning physics, we often find wide-reaching concepts that simplify many problems by using an underlying principle. A good example of this is the law of conservation of energy. Take for example the following high-school physics problem:
An object that weighs X kilograms falls from a height of Y meters on a planet without an atmosphere and a gravity of Zg. Calculate the velocity with which this object will hit the ground.
One could approach this problem by using Newton’s laws of motion and differentiating the distance traveled by the object as a function of time and then obtaining the velocity of the object at the time it has fallen Y meters.
Alternatively, you could simply note that given that energy is conserved, all of the potential energy of the object at a height of X meters will be transformed into kinetic energy at 0 height. Thus the velocity of the object is equivalent to this amount, and the problem is easier to solve.
Once one has learned “the trick” one starts to see many other problems differently. In turn, grasping these deep invariants opens up new horizons; while many problems that seemed impossible can be solved using these principles, it also allows you to ask new questions, which opens up new problems that cannot be solved with those principles alone.
Does this ever happen in philosophy? Perhaps entire classes of difficult problems in philosophy may become trivial (or at least tractable) once one grasps powerful principles. Such is the case, I would claim, of transcending common-sense views of personal identity.
Personal Identity: Closed, Empty, Open
In Ontological Qualia I discussed three core views about personal identity. For those who have not encountered these concepts, I recommend reading that article for an expanded discussion.
Closed Individualism: You start existing when you are born, and stop when you die.
Empty Individualism: You exist as a “time-slice” or “moment of experience.”
Open Individualism: There is only one subject of experience, who is everyone.
Most people are Closed Individualists; this is the default common sense view for good evolutionary reasons. But what grounds are there to believe in this view? Intuitively, the fact that you will wake up in “your body” tomorrow is obvious and needs no justification. However, explaining why this is the case in a clear way requires formalizing a wide range of concepts such as causality, continuity, memory, and physical laws. And when one tries to do so one will generally find a number of barriers that will prevent one from making a solid case for Closed Individualism.
As an example line of argument, one could argue that what defines you as an individual is your set of memories, and since the person who will wake up in your body tomorrow is the only human being with access to your current memories then you must be it. And while this may seem to work on the surface, a close inspection reveals otherwise. In particular, all of the following facts work against it: (1) memory is a constructive process and every time you remember something you remember it (slightly) differently, (2) memories are unreliable and do not always work at will (e.g. false memories), (3) it is unclear what happens if you copy all of your memories into someone else (do you become that person?), (4) how many memories can you swap with someone until you become a different person?, and so on. Here the more detailed questions one asks, the more ad-hoc modifications of the theory are needed. In the end, one is left with what appears to be just a set of conventional rules to determine whether two persons are the same for practical purposes. But it does not seem to carve nature at its joints; you’d be merely over-fitting the problem.
The same happens with most Closed Individualist accounts. You need to define what the identity carrier is, and after doing so one can identify situations in which identity is not well-defined given that identity carrier (memory, causality, shared matter, etc.).
But for both Open and Empty Individualism, identity is well-defined for any being in the universe. Either all are the same, or all are different. Critics might say that this is a trivial and uninteresting point, perhaps even just definitional. Closed Individualism seems sufficiently arbitrary, however, that questioning it is warranted, and once one does so it is reasonable to start the search for alternatives by taking a look at the trivial cases in which either all or none of the beings are the same.
More so, there are many arguments in favor of these views. They indeed solve and usefully reformulate a range of philosophical problems when applied diligently. I would argue that they play a role in philosophy that is similar to that of conservation of energy in physics. The energy conservation law has been empirically tested to extremely high levels of precision, which is something which we will have to do without in the realm of philosophy. Instead, we shall rely on powerful philosophical insights. And in addition, they make a lot of problems tractable and offer a powerful lens to interpret core difficulties in the field.
Antinatalism is a philosophical view that posits that, all considered, it is better not to be born. Many philosophers could be adequately described as antinatalists, but perhaps the most widely recognized proponent is David Benatar. A key argument Benatar considers is that there might be an asymmetry between pleasure and pain. Granted, he would say, experiencing pleasure is good, and experiencing suffering is bad. But while “the absence of pain is good, even if that good is not enjoyed by anyone”, we also have that “the absence of pleasure is not bad unless there is somebody for whom this absence is a deprivation.” Thus, while being born can give rise to both good and bad, not being born can only be good.
Contrary to popular perception, antinatalists are not more selfish or amoral than others. On the contrary, their willingness to “bite the bullet” of a counter-intuitive but logically defensible argument is a sign of being willing to face social disapproval for a good cause. But along with the stereotype, it is generally true that antinatalists are temperamentally depressive. This, of course, does not invalidate their arguments. If anything, sometimes a degree of depressive realism is essential to arrive at truly sober views in philosophy. But it shouldn’t be a surprise to learn that either experiencing or having experienced suffering in the past predispose people to vehemently argue for the importance of its elimination. Having a direct acquaintance with the self-disclosing nastiness of suffering does give one a broader evidential base for commenting on the matter of pain and pleasure.
Antinatalism and Closed Individualism
Interestingly, Benatar’s argument, and those of many antinatalists, rely implicitly on personal identity background assumptions. In particular, antinatalism is usually framed in a way that assumes Closed Individualism.
The idea that a “person can be harmed by coming into existence” is developed within a conceptual framework in which the inhabitants of the universe are narrative beings. These beings have both spatial and temporal extension. And they also have the property that had the conditions previous to their birth been different, they might not have existed. But how many possible beings are there? How genetically or environmentally different do they need to be to be different beings? What happens if two beings merge? Or if they converge towards the same exact physical configuration over time?
This conceptual framework has counter-intuitive implications when taken to the extreme. For example, the amount of harm you do involves how many people you allow to be born, rather than how many years of suffering you prevented.
For the sake of the argument, imagine that you have control over a sentient-AI-enabled virtual environment in which you can make beings start existing and stop existing. Say that you create two beings, A and B, who are different in morally irrelevant ways (e.g. one likes blue more than red, but on average they both end up suffering and delighting in their experience with the same intensity). With Empty Individualism, you would consider giving A 20 years of life and not creating B vs. giving A and B 10 years of life each to be morally equivalent. But with Closed Individualism you would rightly worry that these two scenarios are completely different. By giving years of life to both A and B (any amount of life!) you have doubled the number of subjects who are affected by your decisions. If the gulf of individuality between two persons is infinite, as Closed Individualism would have it, by creating both A and B you have created two parallel realities, and that has an ontological effect on existence. It’s a big deal. Perhaps a way to put it succinctly would be: God considers much more carefully the question of whether to create a person who will live only 70 years versus whether to add a million years of life to an angel who has already lived for a very long time. Creating an entirely new soul is not to be taken lightly (incidentally, this may cast the pro-choice/pro-life debate in an entirely new light).
Thus, antinatalism is usually framed in a way that assumes Closed Individualism. The idea that a being is (possibly) harmed by coming into existence casts the possible solutions in terms of whether one should allow animals (or beings) to be born. But if one were to take an Open or Empty Individualist point of view, the question becomes entirely different. Namely, what kind of experiences should we allow to exist in the future…
Antinatalism and Empty Individualism
I think that the strongest case for antinatalism comes from a take on personal identity that is different than the implicit default (Closed Individualism). If you assume Empty Individualism, in particular, reality starts to seem a lot more horrible than you had imagined. Consider how in Empty Individualism fundamental entities exist as “moments of experience” rather than narrative streams. Therefore, every time that an animal suffers, what is actually happening is that some moments of experience get to have their whole existence in pain and suffering. In this light, one stops seeing people who suffer terrible happenings (e.g. kidney stones, schizophrenia, etc.) as people who are unlucky, and instead one sees their brains as experience machines capable of creating beings whose entire existence is extremely negative.
With Empty Individualism there is simply no way to “make it up to someone” for having had a bad experience in the past. Thus, out of compassion for the extremely negative moments of experience, one could argue that it might be reasonable to try to avoid this whole business of life altogether. That said, this imperative does not come from the asymmetry between pain and pleasure Benetar talks about (which as we saw implicitly requires Closed Individualism). In Empty Individualism it does not make sense to say that someone has been brought into existence. So antinatalism gets justified from a different angle, albeit one that might be even more powerful.
In my assessment, the mere possibility of Empty Individualism is a good reason to take antinatalism very seriously.
Here is a Reddit post and then a comment on a related thread (by the same author) worth reading on this subject (indeed these artifacts motivated me to write the article you are currently reading):
There’s an interesting theory of personal existence making the rounds lately called Open Individualism. See here, here, and here. Basically, it claims that consciousness is like a single person in a huge interconnected library. One floor of the library contains all of your life’s experiences, and the other floors contain the experiences of others. Consciousness wanders the aisles, and each time he picks up a book he experiences whatever moment of life is recorded in it as if he were living it. Then he moves onto the next one (or any other random one on any floor) and experiences that one. In essence, the “experiencer” of all experience everywhere, across all conscious beings, is just one numerically identical subject. It only seems like we are each separate “experiencers” because it can only experience one perspective at a time, just like I can only experience one moment of my own life at a time. In actuality, we’re all the same person.
Anyway, there’s no evidence for this, but it solves a lot of philosophical problems apparently, and in any case there’s no evidence for the opposing view either because it’s all speculative philosophy.
But if this were true, and when I’m done living the life of this particular person, I will go on to live every other life from its internal perspective, it has some implications for antinatalism. All suffering is essentially experienced by the same subject, just through the lens of many different brains. There would be no substantial difference between three people suffering and three thousand people suffering, assuming their experiences don’t leave any impact or residue on the singular consciousness that experiences them. Even if all conscious life on earth were to end, there are still likely innumerable conscious beings elsewhere in the universe, and if Open Individualism is correct, I’ll just move on to experiencing those lives. And since I can re-experience them an infinite number of times, it makes no difference how many there are. In fact, even if I just experienced the same life over and over again ten thousand times, it wouldn’t be any different from experiencing ten thousand different lives in succession, as far as suffering is concerned.
The only way to end the experience of suffering would be to gradually elevate all conscious beings to a state of near-constant happiness through technology, or exterminate every conscious being like the Flood from the Halo series of games. But the second option couldn’t guarantee that life wouldn’t arise again in some other corner of the multiverse, and when it did, I’d be right there again as the conscious experiencer of whatever suffering it would endure.
I find myself drawn to Open Individualism. It’s not mysticism, it’s not a Big Soul or something we all merge with, it’s just a new way of conceptualizing what it feels like to be a person from the inside. Yet, it has these moral implications that I can’t seem to resolve. I welcome any input.
I have thought a lot about the implications of open individualism (which I will refer to as “universalism” from here on, as that’s the name coined by its earliest proponent, Arnold Zuboff) for antinatalism. In short, I think it has two major implications, one of which you mention. The first, as you say, is that freedom from conscious life is impossible. This is bad, but not as bad as it would be if I were aware of it from every perspective. As it stands, at least on Earth, only a small number of people have any inkling that they are me. So, it is not like experiencing the multitude of conscious events taking place across reality is any kind of burden that accumulates over time; from the perspective of each isolated nervous system, it will always appear that whatever is being experienced is the only thing I am experiencing. In this way, the fact that I am never truly unconscious does not have the same sting as it would to, for example, an insomniac, who is also never unconscious but must experience the constant wakefulness from one integrated perspective all the time.
It’s like being told that I will suffer total irreversible amnesia at some point in my future; while I can still expect to be the person that experiences all the confusion and anxiety of total amnesia when it happens, I must also acknowledge that the residue of any pains I would have experienced beforehand would be erased. Much of what makes consciousness a losing game is the persistence of stresses. Universalism doesn’t imply that any stresses will carry over between the nervous systems of individual beings, so the reality of my situation is by no means as nightmarish as eternal life in a single body (although, if there exists an immortal being somewhere in the universe, I am currently experiencing the nightmare of its life).
The second implication of this view for antinatalism is that one of the worst things about coming into existence, namely death, is placed in quite a different context. According to the ordinary view (sometimes called “closed” individualism), death permanently ends the conscious existence of an alienated self. Universalism says there is no alienated self that is annihilated upon the death of any particular mind. There are just moments of conscious experience that occur in various substrates across space and time, and I am the subject of all such experiences. Thus, the encroaching wall of perpetual darkness and silence that is usually an object of dread becomes less of a problem for those who have realized that they are me. Of course, this realization is not built into most people’s psychology and has to be learned, reasoned out, intellectually grasped. This is why procreation is still immoral, because even though I will not cease to exist when any specific organism dies, from the perspective of each one I will almost certainly believe otherwise, and that will always be a source of deep suffering for me. The fewer instances of this existential dread, however misplaced they may be, the better.
This is why it’s important to make more people understand the position of universalism/open individualism. In the future, long after the person typing this sentence has perished, my well-being will depend in large part on having the knowledge that I am every person. The earlier in each life I come to that understanding, and thus diminish the fear of dying, the better off I will be. Naturally, this project decreases in potential impact if conscious life is abundant in the universe, and in response to that problem I concede there is probably little hope, unless there are beings elsewhere in the universe that have comprehended who they are and are taking the same steps in their spheres of influence. My dream is that intelligent life eventually either snuffs itself out or discovers how to connect many nervous systems together, which would demonstrate to every connected mind that it has always belonged to one subject, has always been me, but I don’t have any reason to assume this is even possible on a physical level.
So, I suppose you are mostly right about one thing: there are no lucky ones that escape the badness of life’s worst agonies, either by virtue of a privileged upbringing or an instantaneous and painless demise. They and the less fortunate ones are all equally me. Yet, the horror of going through their experiences is mitigated somewhat in the details.
Our brain tries to make sense of metaphysical questions in wet-ware that shares computational space with a lot of adaptive survival programs. It does not matter if you have thick barriers (cf. thick and thin boundaries of the mind), the way you assess the value of situations as a human will tend to over-focus on whatever would allow you to go up Maslow’s hierarchy of needs (or, more cynically, achieve great feats as a testament to signal your genetic-fitness). Our motivational architecture is implemented in such a way that it is very good at handling questions like how to find food when you are hungry and how to play social games in a way that impresses others and leaves a social mark. Our brains utilize many heuristics based on personhood and narrative-streams when exploring the desirability of present options. We are people, and our brains are adapted to solve people problems. Not, as it turns out, general problems involving the entire state-space of possible conscious experiences.
Our brains render our inner world-simulation with flavors and textures of qualia to suit their evolutionary needs. This, in turn, impairs our ability to aptly represent scenarios that go beyond the range of normal human experiences. Let me illustrate this point with the following thought experiment:
Would you rather (a) have a 1-hour meal, or (b) have the same meal but at the half-hour point be instantly transformed into a simple, amnesic, and blank experience of perfectly neutral hedonic value that lasts ten quintillion years, and after that extremely long time of neither-happiness-nor-suffering ends, then resume the rest of the meal as if nothing had happened, with no memory of that long neutral period?
According to most utilitarian calculi these two scenarios ought to be perfectly equivalent. In both cases the total amount of positive and negative qualia is the same (the full duration of the meal) and the only difference is that the latter also contains a large amount of neutral experience too. Whether classical or negative, utilitarians should consider these experiences equivalent since they contain the same amount of pleasure and pain (note: some other ethical frameworks do distinguish between these cases, such as average and market utilitarianism).
Intuitively, however, (a) seems a lot better than (b). One imagines oneself having an awfully long experience, bored out of one’s mind, just wanting it to end, get it over with, and get back to enjoying the nice meal. But the very premise of the thought experiment presupposes that one will not be bored during that period of time, nor will one be wishing it to be over, or anything of the sort, considering that all of those are mental states of negative quality and the experience is supposed to be neutral.
Now this is of course a completely crazy thought experiment. Or is it?
The One-Electron View
In 1940 John Wheeler proposed to Richard Feynman the idea that all of reality is made of a single electron moving backwards and forwards in time, interfering with itself. This view has come to be regarded as the One-Electron Universe. Under Open Individualism, that one electron is you. From every single moment of experience to the next, you may have experienced life as a sextillion different animals, been 10^32 fleeting macroscropic entangled particles, and gotten stuck as a single non-interacting electron in the inter-galactic medium for googols of subjective years. Of course you will not remember any of this, because your memories, and indeed all of your motivational architecture and anticipation programs, are embedded in the brain you are instantiating right now. From that point of view, there is absolutely no trace of the experiences you had during this hiatus.
The above way of describing the one-electron view is still just an approximation. In order to see it fully, we also need to address the fact that there is no “natural” order to all of these different experiences. Every way of factorizing it and describing the history of the universe as “this happened before this happened” and “this, now that” could be equally inapplicable from the point of view of fundamental reality.
Philosophy of Time
Presentism is the view that only the present moment is real. The future and the past are just conceptual constructs useful to navigate the world, but not actual places that exist. The “past exists as footprints”, in a matter of speaking. “Footprints of the past” are just strangely-shaped information-containing regions of the present, including your memories. Likewise, the “future” is unrealized: a helpful abstraction which evolution gave us to survive in this world.
On the other hand, eternalism treats the future and the past as always-actualized always-real landscapes of reality. Every point in space-time is equally real. Physically, this view tends to be brought up in connection with the theory of relativity, where frame-invariant descriptions of the space-time continuum have no absolute present line. For a compelling physical case, see the Rietdijk-Putnam argument.
Let me know in the comments if you know of any other work of fiction that explores this theme. In particular, I would love to assemble a comprehensive list of literature that explores Open Individualism and Eternalism.
Personal Identity and Eternalism
For the time being (no pun intended), let us assume that Eternalism is correct. How do Eternalism and personal identity interact? Doctor Manhattan in the above images (taken from Watchmen) exemplifies what it would be like to be a Closed Individualist Eternalist. He seems to be aware of his entire timeline at once, yet recognizes his unique identity apart from others. That said, as explained above, Closed Individualism is a distinctly unphysical theory of identity. One would thus expect of Doctor Manhattan, given his physically-grounded understanding of reality, to espouse a different theory of identity.
A philosophy that pairs Empty Individualism with Eternalism is the stuff of nightmares. Not only would we have, as with Empty Individualism alone, that some beings happen to exist entirely as beings of pain. We would also have that such unfortunate moments of experience are stuck in time. Like insects in amber, their expressions of horror and their urgency to run away from pain and suffering are forever crystallized in their corresponding spatiotemporal coordinates. I personally find this view paralyzing and sickening, though I am aware that such a reaction is not adaptive for the abolitionist project. Namely, even if “Eternalism + Empty Individualism” is a true account of reality, one ought not to be so frightened by it that one becomes incapable of working towards preventing future suffering. In this light, I adopt the attitude of “hope for the best, plan for the worst”.
Lastly, if Open Individualism and Eternalism are both true (as I suspect is the case), we would be in for what amounts to an incredibly trippy picture of reality. We are all one timeless spatiotemporal crystal. But why does this eternal crystal -who is everyone- exist? Here the one-electron view and the question “why does anything exist?” could both be simultaneously addressed with a single logico-physical principle. Namely, that the sum-total of existence contains no information to speak of. This is what David Pearce calls “Zero Ontology” (see: 1, 2, 3, 4). What you and I are, in the final analysis, is the necessary implication of there being no information; we are all a singular pattern of self-interference whose ultimate nature amounts to a dimensionless unit-sphere in Hilbert space. But this is a story for another post.
On a more grounded note, Scientific American recently ran an article that could be placed in this category of Open Individualism and Eternalism. In it the authors argue that the physical signatures of multiple-personality disorder, which explain the absence of phenomenal binding between alters that share the same brain, could be extended to explain why reality is both one and yet appears as the many. We are, in this view, all alters of the universe.
Personal Identity X Philosophy of Time X Antinatalism
Sober, scientifically grounded, and philosophically rigorous accounts of the awfulness of reality are rare. On the one hand, temperamentally happy individuals are more likely to think about the possibilities of heaven that lie ahead of us, and their heightened positive mood will likewise make them more likely to report on their findings. Temperamental depressives, on the other hand, may both investigate reality with less motivated reasoning than the euthymic and also be less likely to report on the results due to their subdued mood (“why even try? why even bother to write about it?”). Suffering in the Multiverse by David Pearce is a notable exception to this pattern. David’s essay highlights that if Eternalism is true together with Empty Individualism, there are vast regions of the multiverse filled with suffering that we can simply do nothing about (“Everett Hell Branches”). Taken together with a negative utilitarian ethic, this represents a calamity of (quite literally) astronomical proportions. And, sadly, there simply is no off-button to the multiverse as a whole. The suffering is/has/will always be there. And this means that the best we can do is to avoid the suffering of those beings in our forward-light cone (a drop relative to the size of the ocean of existence). The only hope left is to find a loop-hole in quantum mechanics that allows us to cross into other Everett branches of the multiverse and launch cosmic rescue missions. A counsel of despair or a rational prospect? Only time will tell.
A key point that both of these authors make is that however nasty reality might be, ethical antinatalists and negative utilitarians shouldn’t hold their breath about the possibility that reality can be destroyed. In Open Individualism plus Eternalism, the light of consciousness (perhaps what some might call the secular version of God) simply is, everywhere and eternally. If reality could be destroyed, such destruction is certainly limited to our forward light-cone. And unlike Closed Individualist accounts, it is not possible to help anyone by preventing their birth; the one subject of existence has already been born, and will never be unborn, so to speak.
Nor should ethical antinatalists and negative utilitarians think that avoiding having kids is in any way contributing to the cause of reducing suffering. It is reasonable to assume that the personality traits of agreeableness (specifically care and compassion), openness to experience, and high levels of systematizing intelligence are all over-represented among antinatalists. Insofar as these traits are needed to build a good future, antinatalists should in fact be some of the people who reproduce the most. Mario Montano says:
Hanson calls the era we live in the “dream time” since it’s evolutionarily unusual for any species to be wealthy enough to have any values beyond “survive and reproduce.” However, from an anthropic perspective in infinite dimensional Hilbert space, you won’t have any values beyond “survive and reproduce.” The you which survives will not be the one with exotic values of radical compassion for all existence that caused you to commit peaceful suicide. That memetic stream weeded himself out and your consciousness is cast to a different narrative orbit which wants to survive and reproduce his mind. Eventually. Wanting is, more often than not, a precondition for successfully attaining the object of want.
Anti-natalists full of weeping benignity are literally not successful replicators. The Will to Power is life itself. It is consciousness itself. And it will be, when a superintelligent coercive singleton swallows superclusters of baryonic matter and then spreads them as the flaming word into the unconverted future light cone.
You eventually love existence. Because if you don’t, something which does swallows you, and it is that which survives.
I would argue that the above reasoning is not entirely correct in the large scheme of things*, but it is certainly applicable in the context of human-like minds and agents. See also: David Pearce’s similar criticisms to antinatalism as a policy.
This should underscore the fact that in its current guise, antinatalism is completely self-limiting. Worryingly, one could imagine an organized contingent of antinatalists conducting research on how to destroy life as efficiently as possible. Antinatalists are generally very smart, and if Eliezer Yudkowsky‘s claim that “every 18 months the minimum IQ necessary to destroy the world drops by one point” is true, we may be in for some trouble. Both Pearce’s, Montano’s, and my take is that even if something akin to negative utilitarianism is the case, we should still pursue the goal of diminishing suffering in as peaceful of a way as it is possible. The risk of trying to painlessly destroy the world and failing to do so might turn out to be ethically catastrophic. A much better bet would be, we claim, to work towards the elimination of suffering by developing commercially successful hedonic recalibration technology. This also has the benefit that both depressives and life-lovers will want to team up with you; indeed, the promise of super-human bliss can be extraordinarily motivating to people who already lead happy lives, whereas the prospect of achieving “at best nothing” sounds stale and uninviting (if not outright antagonistic) to them.
An Evolutionary Environment Set Up For Success
If we want to create a world free from suffering, we will have to contend with the fact that suffering is adaptive in certain environments. The solution here is to avoid such environments, and foster ecosystems of mind that give an evolutionary advantage to the super-happy. More so, we already have the basic ingredients to do so. In Wireheading Done Right I discussed how, right now, the economy is based on trading three core goods: (1) survival tools, (2) power, and (3) information about the state-space of consciousness. Thankfully, the world right now is populated by humans who largely choose to spend their extra income on fun rather than on trips to the sperm bank. In other words, people are willing to trade some of their expected reproductive success for good experiences. This is good because it allows the existence of an economy of information about the state-space of consciousness, and thus creates an evolutionary advantage for caring about consciousness and being good at navigating its state-space. But for this to be sustainable, we will need to find the way to make positive valence gradients (i.e. gradients of bliss) both economically useful and power-granting. Otherwise, I would argue, the part of the economy that is dedicated to trading information about the state-space of consciousness is bound to be displaced by the other two (i.e. survival and power). For a more detailed discussion on these questions see: Consciousness vs. Pure Replicators.
Can we make the benevolent exploration of the state-space of consciousness evolutionarily advantageous?
In conclusion, to close downhell (to the extent that is physically possible), we need to take advantage of the resources and opportunities granted to us by merely living in Hanson’s “dream time” (cf. Age of Spandrels). This includes the fact that right now people are willing to spend money on new experiences (especially if novel and containing positive valence), and the fact that philosophy of personal identity can still persuade people to work towards the wellbeing of all sentient beings. In particular, scientifically-grounded arguments in favor of both Open and Empty Individualism weaken people’s sense of self and make them more receptive to care about others, regardless of their genetic relatedness. On its natural course, however, this tendency may ultimately be removed by natural selection: if those who are immune to philosophy are more likely to maximize their inclusive fitness, humanity may devolve into philosophical deafness. The solution here is to identify the ways in which philosophical clarity can help us overcome coordination problems, highlight natural ethical Schelling points, and ultimately allow us to summon a benevolent super-organism to carry forward the abolition of as much suffering as is physically possible.
And only once we have done everything in our power to close down hell in all of its guises, will we be able to enjoy the rest of our forward light-cone in good conscience. Till then, us ethically-minded folks shall relentlessly work on building universe-sized fire-extinguishers to put out the fire of Hell.
Note: I am generally outgoing, fun-loving, and happy to participate in podcasts, events, interviews, and miscellaneous activities. Feel free to invite me to your podcast/interview/theater/etc. I am flexible when it comes to content; anything I’ve written about in Qualia Computing is fair game for discussion. Infinite bliss!
[Epistemic status: sloppy thoughts not informed by the literature. Hoping actual population ethicists might show up and correct me or point me to whoever has already thought about something like this better.]
Person-affecting views say that when you are summing up the value in different possible worlds, you should ignore people who only exist in one of those worlds. This is based on something like the following intuitions:
World A can only be better than world B insofar as it is better for someone.
World A can’t be better than world B for Alice, if Alice exists in world A but not world B.
The further-fact view says that after learning all physical facts about Alice and Alice’—such as whether Alice’ was the physical result of Alice waiting for five seconds, or is a brain upload of Alice, or is what came out of a replicating machine on Mars after Alice walked in on Earth, or remembers being Alice—there is still a further meaningful question of whether Alice and Alice’ are the same person.
I take the further-fact view to be wrong (or at least Derek Parfit does, and I think we agree the differences between Derek Parfit and I have been overstated). Thinking that the further-fact view is wrong seems to be a common position among intellectuals (e.g. 87% among philosophers).
If the further-fact view is wrong, then the what we have is a whole lot of different person-moments, with various relationships to one another, which for pragmatic reasons we like to group into clusters called ‘people’. There are different ways we could define the people, and no real answer to which definition is right. This works out pretty well in our world, but you can imagine other worlds (or futures of our world) where the clusters are much more ambiguous, and different definitions of ‘person’ make a big difference, or where the concept is not actually useful.
Person-affecting views seem to make pretty central use of the concept ‘person’. If we don’t accept the further-fact view, and do want to accept a person-affecting view, what would that mean? I can think of several options:
How good different worlds are depends strongly on which definition of ‘person’ you choose (which person moments you choose to cluster together), but this is a somewhat arbitrary pragmatic choice
There is some correct definition of ‘person’ for the purpose of ethics (i.e. there is some relation between person moments that makes different person moments in the future ethically relevant by virtue of having that connection to a present person moment)
Different person-moments are more or less closely connected in ways, and a person-affecting view should actually have a sliding scale of importance for different person-moments
Before considering these options, I want to revisit the second reason for adopting a person-affecting view: If Alice exists in world A and not in world B, then Alice can’t be made better off by world A existing rather than world B. Whether this premise is true seems to depend on how ‘a world being better for Alice’ works. Some things we might measure would go one way, and some would go the other. For instance, we could imagine it being analogous to:
Alice painting more paintings. If Alice painted three paintings in world A, and doesn’t exist in world B, I think most people would say that Alice painted more paintings in world A than in world B. And more clearly, that world A has more paintings than world B, even if we insist that a world can’t have more paintings without somebody in particular having painted more paintings. Relatedly, there are many things people do where the sentence ‘If Alice didn’t exist, she wouldn’t have X’.
Alice having painted more paintings per year. If Alice painted one painting every thirty years in world A, and didn’t exist in world B, in world B the number of paintings per year is undefined, and so incomparable to ‘one per thirty years’.
Suppose that person-affecting view advocates are right, and the worth of one’s life is more like 2). You just can’t compare the worth of Alice’s life in two worlds where she only exists in one of them. Then can you compare person-moments? What if the same ‘person’ exists in two possible worlds, but consists of different person-moments?
Compare world A and world C, which both contain Alice, but in world C Alice makes different choices as a teenager, and becomes a fighter pilot instead of a computer scientist. It turns out that she is not well suited to it, and finds piloting pretty unsatisfying. If Alice_t1A is different from Alice_t1C, can we say that world A is better than world C, in virtue of Alice’s experiences? Each relevant person-moment only exists in one of the worlds, so how can they benefit?
I see several possible responses:
No we can’t. We should have person-moment affecting views.
Things can’t be better or worse for person-moments, only for entire people, holistically across their lives, so the question is meaningless. (Or relatedly, how good a thing is for a person is not a function of how good it is for their person-moments, and it is how good it is for the person that matters).
Yes, there is some difference between people and person moments, which means that person-moments can benefit without existing in worlds that they are benefitting relative to, but people cannot.
The second possibility seems to involve accepting the second view above: that there is some correct definition of ‘person’ that is larger than a person moment, and fundamental to ethics – something like the further-fact view. This sounds kind of bad to me. And the third view doesn’t seem very tempting without some idea of an actual difference between persons and person-moments.
So maybe the person-moment affecting view looks most promising. Let us review what it would have to look like. For one thing, the only comparable person moments are the ones that are the same. And since they are the same, there is no point bringing about one instead of the other. So there is never reason to bring about a person-moment for its own benefit. Which sounds like it might really limit the things that are worth intentionally doing. Isn’t making myself happy in three seconds just bringing about a happy person moment rather than a different sad person moment?
Is everything just equally good on this view? I don’t think so, as long as you are something like a preference utilitarian: person-moments can have preferences over other person-moments. Suppose that Alice_t0A and Alice_t0C are the same, and Alice_t1A and Alice_t1C are different. And suppose that Alice_t0 wants Alice_t1 to be a computer scientist. Then world A is better than world C for Alice_t0, and so better overall. That is, person-moments can benefit from things, as long as they don’t know at the time that they have benefited.
I think an interestingfeature of this view is that all value seems to come from meddling preferences. It is never directly good that there is joy in the world for instance, it is just good because somebody wants somebody else to experience joy, and that desire was satisfied. If they had instead wished for a future person-moment to be tortured, and this was granted, then this world would apparently be just as good.
So, things that are never directly valuable in this world:
Someone getting what they want and also knowing about it
Anything that isn’t a meddling preference
On the upside, since person-moments often care about future person-moments within the same person, we do perhaps get back to something closer to the original person-affecting view. There is often reason to bring about or benefit a person moment for the benefit of previous person moments in the history of the same person, who for instance wants to ‘live a long and happy life’. My guess after thinking about this very briefly is that in practice it would end up looking like the ‘moderate’ person-affecting views, in which people who currently exist get more weight than people who will be brought into existence, but not infinitely more weight. People who exist now mostly want to continue existing, and to have good lives in the future, and they care less, but some, about different people in the future.
So, if you want to accept a person-affecting view and not a further-fact view, the options seem to me to be something like these:
Person-moments can benefit without having an otherworldly counterpart, even though people cannot. Which is to say, only person-moments that are part of the same ‘person’ in different worlds can benefit from their existence. ‘Person’ here is either an arbitrary pragmatic definition choice, or some more fundamental ethically relevant version of the concept that we could perhaps discover.
Benefits accrue to persons, not person-moments. In particular, benefits to persons are not a function of the benefits to their constituent person-moments. Where ‘person’ is again either a somewhat arbitrary choice of definition, or a more fundamental concept.
A sliding scale of ethical relevance of different person-moments, based on how narrow a definition of ‘person’ unites them with any currently existing person-moments. Along with some story about why, given that you can apparently compare all of them, you are still weighting some less, on grounds that they are incomparable.
Person-moment affecting views
None of these sound very good to me, but nor do person-affecting views in general, so maybe I’m the wrong audience. I had thought person-moment affecting views were almost a reductio, but a close friend says he thought they were the obvious reasonable view, so I am curious to hear others’ takes.
An interesting thing to point out here is that what Katja describes as the further-fact view is terminologically equivalent to what we here call Closed Individualism (cf. Ontological Qualia). This is the common-sense view that you start existing when you are born and stop existing when you die (which also has soul-based variants with possible pre-birth and post-death existence). This view is not very philosophically tenable because it presupposes that there is an enduring metaphysical ego distinct for every person. And yet, the vast majority of people still hold strongly to Closed Individualism. In some sense, in the article Katja tries to rescue the common-sense aspect of Closed Individualism in the context of ethics. That is, by trying to steel-man the common-sense notion that people (rather than moments of experience) are the relevant units for morality while also negating further-fact views, you provide reasons to keep using Closed Individualism as an intuition-pump in ethics (if only for pragmatic reasons). In general, I consider this kind of discussions to be a very fruitful endeavor as they approach ethics by touching upon the key parameters that matter fundamentally: identity, value, and counterfactuals.
As you may gather from pieces such as Wireheading Done Right and The Universal Plot, at Qualia Computing we tend to think the most coherent ethical system arises when we take as a premise that the relevant moral agents are “moments of experience”. Contra Person-affecting views, we don’t think it is meaningless to say that a given world is better than another one if not everyone in the first world is also in the second one. On the contrary – it really does not matter who lives in a given world. What matters is the raw subjective quality of the experiences in such worlds. If it is meaningless to ask “who is experiencing Alice’s experiences now?” once you know all the physical facts, then moral weight must be encoded in such physical facts alone. In turn, it could certainly happen then that the narrative aspect of an experience may turn out to be irrelevant for determining the intrinsic value of a given experience. People’s self-narratives may certainly have important instrumental uses, but at their core they don’t make it to the list of things that intrinsically matter (unlike, say, avoiding suffering).
A helpful philosophical move that we have found adds a lot of clarity here is to analyze the problem in terms of Open Individualism. That is, assume that we are all one consciousness and take it from there. If so, then the probability that you are a given person would be weighted by the amount of consciousness (or number of moments of experience, depending) that such person experiences throughout his or her life. You are everyone in this view, but you can only be each person one at a time from their own limited points of view. So there is a sensible way of weighting the importance of each person, and this is a function of the amount of time you spend being him or her (and normalize by the amount of consciousness that person experiences, in case that is variable across individuals).
If consciousness emerges victorious in its war against pure replicators, then it would make sense that the main theory of identity people would hold by default would be Open Individualism. After all, it is only Open Individualism that aligns individual incentives and the total wellbeing of all moments of experience throughout the universe.
That said, in principle, it could turn out that Open Individualism is not needed to maximize conscious value – that while it may be useful instrumentally to align the existing living intelligences towards a common consciousness-centric goal (e.g. eliminating suffering, building a harmonic society, etc.), in the long run we may find that ontological qualia (the aspect of our experience that we use to represent the nature of reality, including our beliefs about personal identity) has no intrinsic value. Why bother experiencing heaven in the form of a mixture of 95% bliss and 5% ‘a sense of knowing that we are all one’, if you can instead just experience 100% pure bliss?
At the ethical limit, anything that is not perfectly blissful might end up being thought of as a distraction from the cosmic telos of universal wellbeing.
This time David Chalmers brought the Meta-problem of Consciousness into the overall conversation by making a presentation about his paper on the topic. I think that this was a great addition to the conference, and it played beautifully as a tone-setter.
“The meta-problem of consciousness is (to a first approximation) the problem of explaining why we think that there is a problem of consciousness.”
And of all of his works, I would argue, discussing the meta-problem of consciousness is perhaps one of the things that will help advance the field of consciousness research the most. In brief, we are in sore need of an agreed-upon explanation for the reasons why consciousness poses a problem at all. Rather than getting caught up in unfruitful arguments at the top of the argumentative tree, it is helpful to sometimes be directed to look at the roots of people’s divergent intuitions. This tends to highlight unexpected differences in people’s philosophical background assumptions.
And the fact that these background assumptions are often not specified leads to problems. For example: talking past each other due to differences in terminology, people attacking a chain of reasoning when in fact their disagreement starts at the level of ontology, and failure to recognize and map useful argumentative isomorphisms from one ontology onto another.
Having the Meta-Problem of Consciousness at the forefront of the discussions, in my appraisal of the event, turned out to be very generative. Asking an epiphenomenalist, an eliminativist, a panprotopsychist, etc. to explain why they think their view is true seemed less helpful in advancing the state of our collective knowledge than asking them about their thoughts on the Meta-Problem of Consciousness.
(2) Qualia Formalism in the Water Supply
At the Qualia Research Institute we explicitly assume that consciousness is not only real, but that it is formalizable. This is not a high-level claim about the fact that we can come up with a precise vocabulary to talk about consciousness. It is a radical take on the degree to which formal mathematical models of experience can be discovered. Qualia Formalism, as we define it, is the claim that for any conscious experience, there exists a mathematical object whose properties are isomorphic to the phenomenology of that experience. Anti-formalists, on the other hand, might say that consciousness is an improper reification.
For formalists, consciousness is akin to electromagnetism: we started out with a series of peculiar disparate phenomena such as lightning, electricity, magnets, static-electricity, etc. After a lot of work, it turned out that all of these diverse phenomena had a crisp unifying mathematical underpinning. More so, this formalism was not merely descriptive. Light, among other phenomena, were hidden in it. That is, finding a mathematical formalism for real phenomena can be generalizable to even more domains, be strongly informative for ontology, and ultimately, also technologically generative (the computer you are using to read this article wouldn’t- and in fact couldn’t -exist if electromagnetism wasn’t formalizable).
For anti-formalists, consciousness is akin to Élan vital. People had formed the incorrect impression that explaining life necessitated a new ontology. That life was, in some sense, (much) more than just the sum of life-less forces in complex arrangements. And in order to account for the diverse (apparently unphysical) behaviors of life, we needed a life force. Yet no matter how hard biologists, chemists, and physicists have tried to look for it, no life force has been found. As of 2018 it is widely agreed by scientists that life can be reduced to complex biochemical interactions. In the same vein, anti-formalists about consciousness would argue that people are making a category error when they try to explain consciousness itself. Consciousness will go the same way as Élan vital: it will turn out to be an improper reification.
In particular, the new concept-handle on the block to refer to anti-formalist views of consciousness is “illusionism”. Chalmers writes on The Meta-Problem of Consciousness:
This strategy [of talking about the meta-problem] typically involves what Keith Frankish has called illusionism about consciousness: the view that consciousness is or involves a sort of introspective illusion. Frankish calls the problem of explaining the illusion of consciousness the illusion problem. The illusion problem is a close relative of the meta-problem: it is the version of the meta-problem that arises if one adds the thesis that consciousness is an illusion. Illusionists (who include philosophers such as Daniel Dennett, Frankish, and Derk Pereboom, and scientists such as Michael Graziano and Nicholas Humphrey) typically hold that a solution to the meta-problem will itself solve or dissolve the hard problem.
In the broader academic domain, it seems that most scientists and philosophers are neither explicitly formalists nor anti-formalists. The problem is, this question has not been widely discussed. We at QRI believe that there is a fork in the road ahead of us. That while both formalist and anti-formalist views are defensible, there is very little room in-between for coherent theories of consciousness. The problem of whether qualia formalism is correct or not is what Michael Johnson has coined as TheReal Problem of Consciousness. Solving it would lead to radical improvements in our understanding of consciousness.
What a hypothetical eliminativist about consciousness would say to my colleague Michael Johnson in response to the question – “so you think consciousness is just a bag of tricks?”: No, consciousness is not a bag of tricks. It’s an illusion, Michael. A trick is what a Convolutional Neural Network needs to do to perform well on a text classification task. The illusion of consciousness is the radical ontological obfuscation that your brain performs in order to render its internal attentional dynamics as a helpful user-interface that even a kid can utilize for thinking.
Now, largely thanks to the fact that Integrated Information Theory (IIT) is being discussed openly, qualia formalism is (implicitly) starting to have its turn on the table. While we believe that IIT does not work out as a complete account of consciousness for a variety of reasons (our full critique of it is certainly over-due), we do strongly agree with its formalist take on consciousness. In fact, IIT might be the only mainstream theory of consciousness that assumes anything resembling qualia formalism. So its introduction into the water supply (so to speak) has given a lot of people the chance to ponder whether consciousness has a formal structure.
(3) Great New Psychedelic Research
The conference featured the amazing research of Robin Carhart-Harris, Anil K. Seth, and Selen Atasoy, all of whom are advancing the frontier of consciousness research by virtue of collecting new data, generating computational models to explain it, and developing big-picture accounts of psychedelic action. We’ve already featured Atasoy’s work in here. Her method of decomposing brain activity into harmonics is perhaps one of the most promising avenues for advancing qualia formalist accounts of consciousness (i.e. tentative data-structures in which the information about a given conscious state is encoded). Robin’s entropic brain theory is, we believe, a really good step in the right direction, and we hope to formalize how valence enters the picture in the future (especially as it pertains to being able to explain qualia annealingon psychedelic states). Finally, Anil is steel-manning the case for predictive coding’s role in psychedelic action, and, intriguingly, also advancing the field by trying to find out in exactly what ways the effects of psychedelics can be simulated with VR and strobe lights (cf. Algorithmic Reduction of Psychedelic States, and Getting Closer to Digital LSD).
(4) Superb Aesthetic
The Science of Consciousness brings together a group of people with eclectic takes on reality, extremely high Openness to Experience, uncompromising curiosity about consciousness, and wide-ranging academic backgrounds, and this results in an amazing aesthetic. In 2016 the underlying tone was set by Dorian Electra and Baba Brinkman, who contributed with consciousness-focused music and witty comedy (we need more of that kind of thing in the world). Dorian Electra even released an album titled “Magical Consciousness Conference” which discusses in a musical format classical topics of philosophy of mind such as: the mind-body problem, brains in vats, and the Chinese Room.
The Science of Consciousness conference carries a timeless aesthetic that is hard to describe. If I were forced to put a label on it, I would say it is qualia-aware paranormal-adjacentpsychedelicmeta-cognitivefuturism, or something along those lines. For instance, see how you can spot philosophers of all ages vigorously dancing to the empiricists vs. rationalists song by Dorian Electra (featuring David Chalmers) at The End of Consciousness Party in this video. Yes, that’s the vibe of this conference. The conference also has a Poetry Slam on Friday in which people read poems about qualia, the binding problem, and psychedelics (this year I performed a philosophy of mind stand-up comedy sketch there). They also play the Zombie Blues that night, in which people take turns to sing about philosophical zombies. Here are some of Chalmers’ verses:
I act like you act
I do what you do
But I don’t know
What it’s like to be you
What consciousness is!
I ain’t got a clue
I got the Zombie Blues!!!
I asked Tononi:
“How conscious am I?”
He said “Let’s see…”
“I’ll measure your Phi”
He said “Oh Dear!”
“It’s zero for you!”
And that’s why you’ve got the Zombie Blues!!!
Noteworthy too is the presence of after-parties that end at 3AM, the liberal attitude on cannabis, and the crazy DMT art featured in the lobby. Here are some pictures we took late at night borrowing some awesome signs we found at a Quantum Healing stand.
Panpsychism Made Practical
No Zombies Allowed: Human or Zombie? Get Tested Here
(5) We found a number of QRI allies and supporters
Finally, we were very pleased to find that Qualia Computing readers and QRI supporters attended the conference. We also made some good new friends along the way, and on the whole we judged the conference to be very much worth our time. For example, we were happy to meet Link Swanson, who recently published his article titled Unifying Theories of Psychedelic Drug Effects. I in fact had read this article a week before the event and thought it was great. I was planning on emailing him after the conference, and I was pleasantly surprised to meet him in person there instead. If you met us at the conference, thanks for coming up and saying hi! Also, thank you to all who organized or ran the conference, and to all who attended it!
QRI members, friends, and allies
What I Would Like to See More Of
(1) Qualia Formalism
We hope and anticipate that in future years the field of consciousness research will experience an interesting process in which theory proponents will come out as either formalists or anti-formalists. In the meantime, we would love to see more people at least taking seriously the vision of qualia formalism. One of the things we asked ourselves during the conference was: “Where can we find other formalists?”. Perhaps the best heuristic we explored was the simple strategy of going to the most relevant concurrent sessions (e.g. physics and consciousness, and fundamental theories of consciousness). Interestingly, the people who had more formalist intuitions also tended to take IIT seriously.
(2) Explicit Talk About Valence (and Reducing Suffering)
To our knowledge, our talks were the only ones in the event that directly addressed valence (i.e. the pleasure-pain axis). I wish there were more, given the paramount importance of affect in the brain’s computational processing, its role in culture, and of course, its ethical relevance. What is the point of meaning and intelligence if one cannot be happy?
There was one worthy exception: at some point Stuart Hameroff briefly mentioned his theory about the origin of life. He traces the evolutionary lineage of life to molecular micro-environmental system in which “quantum events [are] shielded from random, polar interactions, enabling more intense and pleasurable [Objective Reduction] qualia. ” In his view, pleasure-potential maximization is at the core of the design of the nervous system. I am intrigued by this theory, and I am glad that valence enters the picture here. I would just want to extend this kind of work to include the role of suffering as well. It seems to me that the brain evolved an adaptive range of valence that sinks deep into the negative, and is certainly not just optimizing for pleasure. While our post-human descendants might enjoy information-sensitive gradients of bliss, us Darwinians have been “gifted” by evolution a mixture of negative and positive hedonic qualia.
Related to (2), we think that one of the most important barriers for making progress in valence research is the fact that most people (even neuroscientists and philosophers of mind) think of it as a very personal thing with no underlying reality beyond hearsay or opinion. Some people like ice-cream, some like salads. Some people like Pink Floyd, others like Katy Perry. So why should we think that there is a unifying equation for bliss? Well, in our view, nobody actually likes ice-cream or Pink Floyd. Rather, ice-cream and Pink Floyd trigger high-valence states, and it is the high valence states that are actually liked and valuable. Our minds are constructed in such a way that we project pleasure and pain out into the world and think of them as necessarily connected to the external state of affairs. But this, we argue, is indeed an illusion (unlike qualia, which is as real as it gets).
Even the people in the Artificial Intelligence and Machine Consciousness plenary panel seemed subject to the Tyranny of the Intentional Object. During the Q&A section I asked them: “if you were given a billion dollars to build a brain or machine that could experience super-happiness, how would you go about doing so?” Their response was that happiness/bliss only makes sense in relational terms (i.e. by interacting with others in the real world). Someone even said that “dopamine in the brain is just superficial happiness… authentic happiness requires you to gain meaning from what you do in the world.” This is a common view to take, but I would also point out that if it is possible to generate valence in artificial minds without human interactions, generating high valence could be done more directly. Finding methods to modulate valence would be done more efficiently by seeking out foundational qualia formalist accounts of valence.
(4) Bigger Role for the Combination Problem
The number of people who account for the binding problem (also called the combination or boundary problem) is vanishingly small. How and why consciousness appears as unitary is a deep philosophical problem that cannot be dismissed with simple appeals to illusionism or implicit information processing. In general, my sense has been that many neuroscientists, computer scientists, and philosophers of mind don’t spend much time thinking about the binding problem. I have planned an article that will go in depth about why it might be that people don’t take this problem more seriously. As David Pearce has eloquently argued, any scientific theory of consciousness has to explain the binding problem. Nowadays, almost no one addresses it (and much less compellingly provides any plausible solution to it). The conference did have one concurrent session called “Panpsychism and the Combination Problem” (which I couldn’t attend), and a few more people I interacted with seemed to care about it, but the proportion was very small.
(5) Bumping-up the Effect Size of Psi Phenomena (if they are real)
There is a significant amount of interest in Psi (parapsychology) from people attending this conference. I myself am agnostic about the matter. The Institute of Noetic Science (IONS) conducts interesting research in this area, and there are some studies that argue that publication bias cannot explain the effects observed. I am not convinced that other explanations have been ruled out, but I am sympathetic to people who try to study weird phenomena within a serious scientific framework (as you might tell from this article). What puzzles me is why there aren’t more people advocating for increasing the effect size of these effects in order to study them. Some data suggests that Psi (in the form of telepathy) is stronger with twins, meditators, people on psychedelics, and people who believe in Psi. But even then the effect sizes reported are tiny. Why not go all-in and try to max out the effect size by combining these features? I.e. why not conduct studies with twins who claim to have had psychic experiences, who meditate a lot, and who can handle high doses of LSD and ketamine in sensory deprivation tanks? If we could bump up the effect sizes far enough, maybe we could definitively settle the matter.
(6) And why not… also a lab component?
Finally, I think that trip reports by philosophically-literate cognitive scientists are much more valuable than trip reports by the average Joe. I would love to see a practical component to the conference someday. The sort of thing that would lead to publications like: “The Phenomenology of Candy-Flipping: An Empirical First-Person Investigation with Philosophers of Mind at a Consciousness Conference.”
The Cards and Deck Types of Consciousness Theories
To make the analogy between Magic decks and theories of consciousness, we need to find a suitable interpretation for a card. In this case, I would posit that cards can be interpreted as either background assumptions, required criteria, emphasized empirical findings, and interpretations of phenomena. Let’s call these, generally, components of a theory.
Like we see in Magic, we will also find that some components support each other while others interact neutrally or mutually exclude each other. For example, if one’s theory of consciousness explicitly rejects the notion that quantum mechanics influences consciousness, then it is irrelevant whether one also postulates that the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics is correct. On the other hand, if one identifies the locus of consciousness to be in the microtubules inside pyramidal cells, then the particular interpretation of quantum mechanics one has is of paramount importance.
Consciousness as the Result of Action-Oriented Cognition (not explicitly named)
Higher Order Thought Theory (HOT)
So how has the meta-game changed since then? Based on the plenary presentations, the concurrent sessions, the workshops, the posters, and my conversations with many of the participants, I’d say (without much objective proof) that the new meta-game now looks more or less like this:
Orchestrated Objective Reduction (Orch OR)
Integrated Information Theory (IIT)
Entropic Brain Theory (EBT)
Global Neuronal Workspace Theory (GNWS)
Prediction Error Minimization (PEM)
Panprotopsychist as a General Framework
Harmonic-Resonant Theories of Consciousness
It seems that Higher Order Thought (HOT) theories of consciousness have fallen out of favor. Additionally, we have a new contender on the table: Harmonic-Resonant Theories of Consciousness is now slowly climbing up the list (which, it turns out, had already been in the water supply since 2006 when Steven Lehar attended the conference, but only now is gathering popular support).
Given the general telos of the conference, it is not surprising that deflationary theories of consciousness do not seem to have a strong representation. I found a few people here and there who would identify as illusionists, but there were not enough to deserve their place in a short-list of dominant deck types. I assume it would be rather unpleasant for people with this general view about consciousness to hang out with so many consciousness realists.
A good number of people I talked to admitted that they didn’t understand IIT, but that they nonetheless felt that something along the lines of irreducible causality was probably a big part of the explanation for consciousness. In contrast, we also saw a few interesting reactions to IIT – some people said “I hate IIT” and “don’t get me started on IIT”. It is unclear what is causing such reactions, but they are worth noting. Is this an allergic reaction to qualia formalism? We don’t have enough information at the moment to know.
The spiritual side of consciousness research is liable to overfocus on ethics and mood hacks rather than on truth-seeking. The problem is that a lot of people have emotionally load-bearing beliefs and points of view connected to how they see reality’s big plot. This is a generalized phenomenon, but its highest expression is found within spiritually-focused thinkers. Many of them come across as evangelizers rather than philosophers, scientists, explorers, or educators. For example: two years ago, David Pearce and I had an uncomfortable conversation with a lady who had a very negative reaction to Pearce’s take on suffering (i.e. that we should use biotechnology to eradicate it). She insisted suffering was part of life and that bliss can’t exist without it (a common argument for sure, but the problem was the intense emotional reaction and insistence on continuing the conversation until we had changed our minds).
We learned our lesson – if you suspect that a person has emotionally load-bearing beliefs about a grand plan or big spiritual telos, don’t mention you are trying to reduce suffering with biotechnology. It’s a gamble, and the chance for a pleasant interaction and meaningful exchange of ideas is not worth the risk of interpersonal friction, time investment, and the pointlessness of a potential ensuing heated discussion.
This brings me to an important matter…
Who are the people who are providing genuinely new contributions to the conversation?
There is a lot of noise in the field of consciousness research. Understandably, a lot of people react to this state of affairs with generalized skepticism (and even cynicism). In my experience, if you approach a neuroscientist in order to discuss consciousness, she will usually choose to simply listen to her priors rather than to you (no matter how philosophically rigorous and scientifically literate you may be).
And yet, at this conference and many other places, there are indeed a lot of people who have something new and valuable to contribute to our understanding of consciousness. So who are they? What allows a person to make a novel contribution?
I would suggest that people who fall into one of the following four categories have a higher chance of this:
People who have new information
Highly creative people with broad knowledge of the field
New paradigm proposers
For (1): This can take one of three forms: (a) New information about phenomenology (i.e. rational psychonauts with strong interpretation and synthesis skills). (b) New third-person data (i.e. as provided by scientists who conduct new research on e.g. neuroimaging). And (c) new information on how to map third-person data to phenomenology, especially about rare states of consciousness (i.e. as obtained from people who have both access to third-person data sources and excellent experienced phenomenologists). (a) Is very hard to come by because most psychonauts and meditators fall for one or more traps (e.g. believing in the tyranny of the intentional object, being direct realists, being dogmatic about a given pre-scientific metaphysic, etc.). (b) Is constrained by the number of labs and the current Kuhnian paradigms within which they work. And (c) is not only rare, but currently nonexistent. Hence, there are necessarily few people who can contribute to the broader conversation about consciousness by bringing new information to the table.
For (2): Great synthesizers are hard to come by. They do not need to generate new paradigms or have new information. What they have is the key ability to find what the novel contribution in a given proposal is. They gather what is similar and different across paradigms, and make effective lossless compressions – saving us all valuable time, reducing confusion, and facilitating the cross-pollination between various disciplines and paradigms. This requires the ability to extract what matters from large volumes of extremely detailed and paradigm-specific literature. Hence, it is also rare to find great synthesizers.
For (3): Being able to pose new questions, and generate weird but not random hypotheses can often be very useful. Likewise, being able to think of completely outrageous outside-the-box views might be key for advancing our understanding of consciousness. That said, non-philosophers tend to underestimate just how weird an observation about consciousness needs to be for it to be new. This in practice constrains the range of people able to contribute in this way to people who are themselves fairly well acquainted with a broad range of theories of consciousness. That said, I suspect that this could be remedied by forming groups of people who bring different talents to the table. In Peaceful Qualia I discussed a potential empirical approach for investigating consciousness which involves having people who specialize in various aspects of the problem (e.g. being great psychonauts, excellent third-person experimentalists, high-quality synthesizers, solid computational modelers, and so on). But until then, I do not anticipate much progress will come from people who are simply very smart and creative – they also need to have either privileged information (such as what you get from combining weird drugs and brain-computer interfaces), or be very knowledgeable about what is going on in the field.
And (4): This is the most difficult and rarest of all, for it requires some degree of the previous three attributes. Their work wouldn’t be possible without the work of many other people in the previous three categories. Yet, of course, they will be the most world-changing of them all. Explicitly, this is the role that we are aiming for at the Qualia Research Institute.
In addition to the above, there are other ways of making highly valuable contributions to the conversation. An example would be those individuals who have become living expressions of current theories of consciousness. That is, people who have deeply understood some paradigm and can propose paradigm-consistent explanations for completely new evidence. E.g. people who can quickly figure out “what would Tononi say about X?” no matter how weird X is. It is my view that one can learn a lot from people in this category. That said… don’t ever expect to change their minds!
A Final Suggestion: Philosophical Speed Dating
To conclude, I would like to make a suggestion in order to increase the value of this and similar conferences: philosophical speed dating. This might be valuable for two reasons. First, I think that a large percentage of people who attend TSC are craving interactions with others who also wonder about consciousness. After all, being intrigued and fascinated by this topic is not very common. Casual interest? Sure. But obsessive curiosity? Pretty uncommon. And most people who attend TCS are in the latter category. At the same time, it is never very pleasant to interact with people who are likely to simply not understand where you are coming from. The diversity of views is so large that finding a person with whom you can have a cogent and fruitful conversation is quite difficult for a lot of people. A Philosophical Speed Dating session in which people quickly state things like their interest in consciousness, take on qualia, preferred approaches, favorite authors, paradigm affinities, etc. would allow philosophical kindred souls to meet at a much higher rate.
And second, in the context of advancing the collective conversation about consciousness, I have found that having people who know where you are coming from (and either share or understand your background assumptions) is the best way to go. The best conversations I’ve had with people usually arise when we have a strong base of shared knowledge and intuitions, but disagree on one or two key points we can identify and meaningfully address. Thus a Philosophical Speed Dating session could lead to valuable collaborations.
And with that, I would like to say: If you do find our approach interesting or worth pursuing, do get in touch.
Till next time, Tucson!
* In Chalmer’s paper about the Meta-Problem of Consciousness he describes his reason for investigating the subject: “Upon hearing about this article, some people have wondered whether I am converting to illusionism, while others have suspected that I am trying to subvert the illusionist program for opposing purposes. Neither reaction is quite correct. I am really interested in the meta-problem as a problem in its own right. But if one wants to place the paper within the framework of old battles, one might think of it as lending opponents a friendly helping hand.” The quality of a philosopher should not be determined only by their ability to make a good case for their views, but also by the capacity to talk convincingly about their opponent’s. And on that metric, David is certainly world-class.
How do psychedelic drugs produce their characteristic range of acute effects in perception, emotion, cognition, and sense of self? How do these effects relate to the clinical efficacy of psychedelic-assisted therapies? Efforts to understand psychedelic phenomena date back more than a century in Western science. In this article I review theories of psychedelic drug effects and highlight key concepts which have endured over the last 125 years of psychedelic science. First, I describe the subjective phenomenology of acute psychedelic effects using the best available data. Next, I review late 19th-century and early 20th-century theories—model psychoses theory, filtration theory, and psychoanalytic theory—and highlight their shared features. I then briefly review recent findings on the neuropharmacology and neurophysiology of psychedelic drugs in humans. Finally, I describe recent theories of psychedelic drug effects which leverage 21st-century cognitive neuroscience frameworks—entropic brain theory, integrated information theory, and predictive processing—and point out key shared features that link back to earlier theories. I identify an abstract principle which cuts across many theories past and present: psychedelic drugs perturb universal brain processes that normally serve to constrain neural systems central to perception, emotion, cognition, and sense of self. I conclude that making an explicit effort to investigate the principles and mechanisms of psychedelic drug effects is a uniquely powerful way to iteratively develop and test unifying theories of brain function.
Subjective rating scale items selected after psilocybin (blue) and placebo (red) (n = 15) (Muthukumaraswamy et al., 2013). “Items were completed using a visual analog scale format, with a bottom anchor of ‘no, not more than usually’ and a top anchor of ‘yes, much more than usually’ for every item, with the exception of ‘I felt entirely normal,’ which had bottom and top anchors of ‘No, I experienced a different state altogether’ and ‘Yes, I felt just as I normally do,’ respectively. Shown are the mean ratings for 15 participants plus the positive SEMs. All items marked with an asterisk were scored significantly higher after psilocybin than placebo infusion at a Bonferroni-corrected significance level of p < 0.0022 (0.5/23 items)” (Muthukumaraswamy et al., 2013, p. 15176).
Neuropharmacology and Neurophysiological Correlates of Psychedelic Drug Effects
Klee recognized that his above hypotheses, inspired by psychoanalytic theory and LSD effects, required neurophysiological evidence. “As far as I am aware, however, adequate neurophysiological evidence is lacking … The long awaited millennium in which biochemical, physiological, and psychological processes can be freely correlated still seems a great distance off” (Klee, 1963, p. 466, 473). What clues have recent investigations uncovered?
A psychedelic drug molecule impacts a neuron by binding to and altering the conformation of receptors on the surface of the neuron (Nichols, 2016). The receptor interaction most implicated in producing classic psychedelic drug effects is agonist or partial agonist activity at serotonin (5-HT) receptor type 2A (5-HT2A) (Nichols, 2016). A molecule’s propensity for 5-HT2A affinity and agonist activity predicts its potential for (and potency of) subjective psychedelic effects (Glennon et al., 1984; McKenna et al., 1990; Halberstadt, 2015; Nichols, 2016; Rickli et al., 2016). When a psychedelic drug’s 5-HT2A agonist activity is intentionally blocked using 5-HT2Aantagonist drugs (e.g., ketanserin), the subjective effects are blocked or attenuated in humans under psilocybin (Vollenweider et al., 1998; Kometer et al., 2013), LSD (Kraehenmann et al., 2017a,b; Preller et al., 2017), and ayahuasca (Valle et al., 2016). Importantly, while the above evidence makes it clear that 5-HT2A activation is a necessary (if not sufficient) mediator of the hallmark subjective effects of classic psychedelic drugs, this does not entail that 5-HT2A activation is the sole neurochemical cause of all subjective effects. For example, 5-HT2A activation might trigger neurochemical modulations ‘downstream’ (e.g., changes in glutamate transmission) which could also play causal roles in producing psychedelic effects (Nichols, 2016). Moreover, most psychedelic drug molecules activate other receptors in addition to 5-HT2A (e.g., 5-HT1A, 5-HT2C, dopamine, sigma, etc.) and these activations may importantly contribute to the overall profile of subjective effects even if 5-HT2A activation is required for their effects to occur (Ray, 2010, 2016).
How does psychedelic drug-induced 5-HT2A receptor agonism change the behavior of the host neuron? Generally, 5-HT2A activation has a depolarizing effect on the neuron, making it more excitable (more likely to fire) (Andrade, 2011; Nichols, 2016). Importantly, this does not necessarily entail that 5-HT2Aactivation will have an overall excitatory effect throughout the brain, particularly if the excitation occurs in inhibitory neurons (Andrade, 2011). This important consideration (captured by the adage ‘one neuron’s excitation is another neuron’s inhibition’) should be kept in mind when tracing causal links in the pharmaco-neurophysiology of psychedelic drug effects.
The concept of functional connectivity rests upon fMRI brain imaging observations that reveal temporal correlations of activity occurring in spatially remote regions of the brain which form highly structured patterns (brain networks) (Buckner et al., 2013). Imaging of brains during perceptual or cognitive task performance reveals patterns of functional connectivity known as functional networks; e.g., control network, dorsal attention network, ventral attention network, visual network, auditory network, and so on. Imaging brains in taskless resting conditions reveals resting-state functional connectivity (RSFC) and structured patterns of RSFC known as resting state networks (RSNs; Deco et al., 2011). One particular RSN, the default mode network (DMN; Buckner et al., 2008), increases activity in the absence of tasks and decreases activity during task performance (Fox and Raichle, 2007). DMN activity is strong during internally directed cognition and a variety of other ‘metacognitive’ functions (Buckner et al., 2008). DMN activation in normal waking states exhibits ‘inverse coupling’ or anticorrelation with the activation of task-positive functional networks, meaning that DMN and functional networks are often mutually exclusive; one deactivates as the other activates and vice versa (Fox and Raichle, 2007).
Taken together, the recently discovered neurophysiological correlates of subjective psychedelic effects present an important puzzle for 21st-century neuroscience. A key clue is that 5-HT2A receptor agonism leads to desynchronization of oscillatory activity, disintegration of intrinsic integrity in the DMN and related brain networks, and an overall brain dynamic characterized by increased between-network global functional connectivity, expanded signal diversity, and a larger repertoire of structured neurophysiological activation patterns. Crucially, these characteristic traits of psychedelic brain activity have been correlated with the phenomenological dynamics and intensity of subjective psychedelic effects.
21st-Century Theories of Psychedelic Drug Effects
Entropic Brain Theory
Entropic Brain Theory (EBT; Carhart-Harris et al., 2014) links the phenomenology and neurophysiology of psychedelic effects by characterizing both in terms of the quantitative notions of entropy and uncertainty. Entropy is a quantitative index of a system’s (physical) disorder or randomness which can simultaneously describe its (informational) uncertainty. EBT “proposes that the quality of any conscious state depends on the system’s entropy measured via key parameters of brain function” (Carhart-Harris et al., 2014, p. 1). Their hypothesis states that hallmark psychedelic effects (e.g., perceptual destabilization, cognitive flexibility, ego dissolution) can be mapped directly onto elevated levels of entropy/uncertainty measured in brain activity, e.g., widened repertoire of functional connectivity patterns, reduced anticorrelation of brain networks, and desynchronization of RSN activity. More specifically, EBT characterizes the difference between psychedelic states and normal waking states in terms of how the underlying brain dynamics are positioned on a scale between the two extremes of order and disorder—a concept known as ‘self-organized criticality’ (Beggs and Plenz, 2003). A system with high order (low entropy) exhibits dynamics that resemble ‘petrification’ and are relatively inflexible but more stable, while a system with low order (high entropy) exhibits dynamics that resemble ‘formlessness’ and are more flexible but less stable. The notion of ‘criticality’ describes the transition zone in which the brain remains poised between order and disorder. Physical systems at criticality exhibit increased transient ‘metastable’ states, increased sensitivity to perturbation, and increased propensity for cascading ‘avalanches’ of metastable activity. Importantly, EBT points out that these characteristics are consistent with psychedelic phenomenology, e.g., hypersensitivity to external stimuli, broadened range of experiences, or rapidly shifting perceptual and mental contents. Furthermore, EBT uses the notion of criticality to characterize the difference between psychedelic states and normal waking states as it “describes cognition in adult modern humans as ‘near critical’ but ‘sub-critical’—meaning that its dynamics are poised in a position between the two extremes of formlessness and petrification where there is an optimal balance between order and flexibility” (Carhart-Harris et al., 2014, p. 12). EBT hypothesizes that psychedelic drugs interfere with ‘entropy-suppression’ brain mechanisms which normally sustain sub-critical brain dynamics, thus bringing the brain “closer to criticality in the psychedelic state” (Carhart-Harris et al., 2014, p. 12).
Integrated Information Theory
Integrated Information Theory (IIT) is a general theoretical framework which describes the relationship between consciousness and its physical substrates (Oizumi et al., 2014; Tononi, 2004, 2008). While EBT is already loosely consistent with the core principles of IIT, Gallimore (2015) demonstrates how EBT’s hypotheses can be operationalized using the technical concepts of the IIT framework. Using EBT and recent neuroimaging data as a foundation, Gallimore develops an IIT-based model of psychedelic effects. Consistent with EBT, this IIT-based model describes the brain’s continual challenge of minimizing entropy while retaining flexibility. Gallimore formally restates this problem using IIT parameters: brains attempt to optimize the give-and-take dynamic between cause-effect information and cognitive flexibility. In IIT, a (neural) system generates cause-effect information when the mechanisms which make up its current state constrain the set of states which could casually precede or follow the current state. In other words, each mechanistic state of the brain: (1) limits the set of past states which could have causally given rise to it, and (2) limits the set of future states which can causally follow from it. Thus, each current state of the mechanisms within a neural system (or subsystem) has an associated cause-effect repertoire which specifies a certain amount of cause-effect information as a function of how stringently it constrains the unconstrained state repertoire of all possible system states. Increasing the entropy within a cause-effect repertoire will in effect constrain the system less stringently as the causal possibilities are expanded in both temporal directions as the system moves closer to its unconstrained repertoire of all possible states. Moreover, increasing the entropy within a cause-effect repertoire equivalently increases the uncertainty associated with its past (and future) causal interactions. Using this IIT-based framework, Gallimore (2015)argues that, compared with normal waking states, psychedelic brain states exhibit higher entropy, higher cognitive flexibility, but lower cause-effect information.
The first modern brain imaging measurements in humans under psilocybin yielded somewhat unexpected results: reductions in oscillatory power (MEG) and cerebral blood flow (fMRI) correlated with the intensity of subjective psychedelic effects (Carhart-Harris et al., 2012; Muthukumaraswamy et al., 2013). In their discussion, the authors suggest that their findings, although surprising through the lens of commonly held beliefs about how brain activity maps to subjective phenomenology, may actually be consistent with a theory of brain function known as the free energy principle (FEP; Friston, 2010).
In one model of global brain function based on the free-energy principle (Friston, 2010), activity in deep-layer projection neurons encodes top-down inferences about the world. Speculatively, if deep-layer pyramidal cells were to become hyperexcitable during the psychedelic state, information processing would be biased in the direction of inference—such that implicit models of the world become spontaneously manifest—intruding into consciousness without prior invitation from sensory data. This could explain many of the subjective effects of psychedelics (Muthukumaraswamy et al., 2013, p. 15181).
The four key features identified in filtration and psychoanalytic accounts from the late 19th and early 20th century continue to operate in 21st-century cognitive neuroscience: (1) psychedelic drugs produce their characteristic diversity of effects because they perturb adaptive mechanisms which normally constrain perception, emotion, cognition, and self-reference, (2) these adaptive mechanisms can develop pathologies rooted in either too much or too little constraint (3) psychedelic effects appear to share elements with psychotic symptoms because both involve weakened constraints (4) psychedelic drugs are therapeutically useful precisely because they offer a way to temporarily inhibit these adaptive constraints. It is on these four points that EBT, IIT, and PP seem consistent with each other and with earlier filtration and psychoanalytic accounts. EBT and IIT describe psychedelic brain dynamics and link them to phenomenological dynamics, while PP describes informational principles and plausible neural information exchanges which might underlie the larger-scale dynamics described by EBT and IIT. Certain descriptions of neural entropy-suppression mechanisms (EBT), cause-effect information constraints (IIT), or prediction-error minimization strategies (PP, FEP) are loosely consistent with Freud’s ego and Huxley’s cerebral reducing valve.
Qualia Computing comment: As you can see above, 21st century theories of psychedelic action have a lot of interesting commonalities. A one-line summary of what they all agree on could be: Psychedelics increase the available state-space of consciousness by removing constraints that are normally imposed by standard brain functioning. That said, they do not make specific predictions about valence. That is, they leave the question of “which alien states of consciousness will feel good and which ones will feel bad” completely unaddressed. In the following posts about the presentations of members of the Qualia Research Institute at The Science of Consciousness 2018 you will see how, unlike other modern accounts, our Qualia Formalist approach to consciousness can elucidate this matter.
I had two or three such experiences on my new batch of LSD, taking perhaps 2 or 3 “hits” (tabs) each time (presumed to be about  micrograms, or “mikes” per tab). And each time the experience became somewhat more familiar, and I learned to think more clearly under its influence. In July 1990 I took a trip to Europe with Tim, a colleague from work, because we were both presenting posters at a neural network conference in Paris, and the company where we worked very kindly funded the travel expenses. Tim and I took this opportunity to plan a little excursion around Europe after the conference, visiting Germany, Austria, Italy, and Switzerland touring in a rented car. When we got to Austria we bought a little tent at a camping store, then we hiked up an enormous mountain in the Alps, and spent the day sightseeing at the top. When I told Tim that I happened to have some LSD with me, his eyes lit up. It turns out he too had been a hippy in his youth, and had even attended the original Woodstock, so he immediately warmed to the idea of taking LSD with me on a mountain top, although he had not done psychedelic drugs in over a decade. So there in the most stupendous and idyllic setting of a mountain in the Austrian alps, early the next morning after camping overnight, we consumed five hits of LSD each, and spent the day in profound wonder at the glory of creation!
I made a few new and interesting discoveries on that mountain top in Austria. First of all, I learned to have a great deal more control of the experience in the following manner. I discovered that the effects of LSD become markedly stronger and more pronounced when you sit still and stare, and clear your mind, much like a state of zen meditation, or pre-hypnotic relaxation. When you do this under LSD, the visual world begins to break up and fragment in a most astonishing way. You tend to lose all sense of self, that is, you lose the distinction between self and non-self. This can be a very alarming experience for those who are prone to panic or anxiety, or for those who insist on maintaining a level of control and awareness of themselves and the world around them. But I also discovered that this mental dissociation and visual confusion can be diminished, and normal consciousness can be largely restored by simply looking around, moving about, and interacting actively with the world around you. Because when you do this, suddenly the world appears as a solid and stable structure again, and your familiar body reappears where it belongs at the center of your world of experience. This discovery greatly enhanced my ability to explore the deeper spaces of consciousness revealed by the drug, while providing an insurance against the natural panic that tends to arise with the dissolusion of the self, and the world around you. It allowed me to descend into the depths of the experience while maintaining a life line back to consensual reality, like a spelunker descending into the bowels of the deep underground cavern of my mind, while always able to return safely to the surface. And what a splendid and magnificent cavern it was that I discovered within my mind!
One of the most prominent aspects of consciousness that has puzzled philosophers and psychologists for centuries is the unity of conscious experience. We feel that we live in a world that surrounds our body, and that world appears as a single “picture” or volumetric spatial structure, like a theatre set, every piece of which takes its proper place in the panorama of surrounding experience. It has always been somewhat difficult to grasp this notion of conscious unity, because it is difficult to even conceptualize the alternative. What would consciousness be like if it were not unified? What does that even mean? Under LSD you can discover what non-unified consciousness is like for yourself, and that in turn by contrast offers profound insights as to the nature and meaning of unified consciousness. Again, the most interesting revelations of the psychedelic experience are not confined to that experience itself, but they reveal insights into the nature of normal conscious experience that might otherwise be missed due to its familiarity. In fact, I realized much later, even normal consciousness has aspects which are not unified.
The most familiar example of non-unified consciousness is seen in binocular vision. Under normal conditions the two eyes view the same scene and produce a three-dimensional “picture” in the mind that is a unified construction based on the information from both eyes simultaneously. But everyone knows the experience of double vision. For those with greater control over their own visual function, double vision is easily achieved by simply staring into space and relaxing the eyes. As a vision scientist myself, I have trained myself to do this so as to be able to “free fuse” a binocular pair of left-eye, right-eye images to create the perception of a 3D scene. For those who have difficulty with this, a similar experience can be had by holding a small mirror at an angle close in front of one eye, so as to send very different images into the two eyes. Whichever way you do it, the result is rather unremarkable in its familiarity, and yet when you think of it, this is in fact an example of disunity of conscious experience that is familiar to one and all. For what you see in double vision is actually two visual experiences which are seen as if they are superimposed in some manner, and yet at the same time they are also experienced each in its own separate disconnected space. It is generally possible to observe the correspondence between these two disconnected visual experiences, for example to determine which point in one eye view relates to a particular point in the other, as if viewing two slide transparencies that are overlaid on top of one another, although this correspondence is shifting and unstable, as the vergence between your two eyes tends to wander when binocular fusion is broken. But in fact it is more natural to simply ignore that correspondence and to view the two visual experiences as separate and disconnected spaces that bear no significant spatial relation to each other. When the images in our two eyes do not correspond, we tend to focus on one while ignoring the other, like an experienced marksman who no longer has to close his idle eye while aiming a gun. And yet, although the image from the idle eye is generally ignored, it has not left consciousness entirely, and with an effort, or perhaps more accurately, with an absence of effort or focus, it is possible to experience both views simultaneously.
In the trance-like state of yoga-like meditation performed under LSD, the entire visual world breaks up and fragments in this manner into a multitude of disconnected parallel conscious experiences, each one only loosly related spatially to the other experiences in the visual field. The effect is much enhanced by the fact that your eyes actually diverge or relax in this mental state, as they do under binocular fission, and this helps trigger the state of visual confusion as your mind gives up on trying to make sense of what it is seeing. As in Zen meditation, the LSD trance state is a passive or receptive state of consciousness that allots equal attention, or perhaps lack of attention, to all components of experience, which is why they appear in parallel as separate disconnected pieces. The state of normal active consciousness resists this kind of parallel confusion, and tends to select and focus on the the most significant portion, like the marksman aiming a gun, suppressing alternative experiences such as the view from the idle eye.
The deep LSD-induced trance state can be easily broken by simply moving the eyes, so conversely, the deeper states are achieved by complete mental and physical relaxation, with glazed eyes staring blankly into space. But of all the separate fragments of visual experience observed in this mental state, there is one special fragment located at the very center of the visual field, the foveal center, that appears somewhat sharper and clearer than the rest of the visual field. In fact, the visual fragmentation is somewhat like a kind of tunnel vision in which the peripheral portions of the visual field break off and disconnect from this central portion of the experience. But while the peripheral fragments become separated from the whole, they are never entirely and completely independent, but appear to interact with each other, and especially with the central foveal image in characteristic ways. For example if the foveal image shows a couple of blades of grass, twitching and dancing in the wind, then if any of the peripheral fragments of visual experience happen to show a similar image, i.e. blades of grass at a similar angle and twitching and dancing in synchrony with those in the foveal view, then the central and peripheral images become instantly coupled into a larger unified perceptual experience of a global motion sweeping through the image. Instead of a million blades of grass each twitching individually, we perceive the invisible wind as a wave of synchronous motion that sweeps invisibly across the blades of grass. The waves of motion caused by the wind are perceived as waves of energy across the visual field, a perceptual experience of something larger than the individual grass blades that collectively give rise to it. By careful adjustment of my state of relaxation, I found I could relax until the visual world fragmented into a million independent experiences, and I could gently bring it back into focus, as first a few, and then ever more of the fragmented visual experiences coupled together into fewer separate, and eventually a single unified global experience, much like the moment of binocular fusion when the two monocular images finally lock into each other to produce a single binocular experience.
When the visual world was locked into a unified perceptual experience, even then there were instabilities in local portions of the scene. A little detail seen in distant trees appears first as a mounted horseman, then pops abruptly into a hand with three fingers extended, then to a duck on a branch, then back to the mounted horseman, all the while the actual shape and color perceived remain unchanged, it is only the interpretation, or visual understanding of that pattern that switches constantly, as when a child sees mountains and castles in the clouds. One of the many possible interpretations is of a dead tree with leafless branches, (the veridical percept of what was actually there) and that is the only alternative that enters consciouseness under normal circumstances. The effect of LSD is to make the visual system more tolerant of obvious contradictions in the scene, such as a giant horseman frozen in a line of trees. The effect is like those surrealistic Dali paintings, for example the Three Ages of Man, shown in Figure 2.1, where one sees a single coherent scene, local parts of which spontaneously invert into some alternative interpretation. This is very significant for the nature of biological vision, for it shows that vision involves a dynamic relaxation process whose stable states represent the final perceptual interpretation.
There was another interesting observation that I made that day. I noticed that under LSD things appear a little more regular and geometrical than they otherwise do. It is not the shape of things that is different under LSD, but rather the shape of the things we see in objects. For example a cloud is about as irregular and fragmented a shape as a shape can be, and yet we tend to see clouds in a simplified cartoon manner, as a little puff composed of simple convex curves. A real cloud under closer inspection reveals a ragged ugly appearance with very indefinite boundaries and irregular structure. Under LSD the cloud becomes even more regular than usual. I began to see parts of the cloud as regular geometrical shapes, seeing the shapes in the shapes of the cloud as if on a transparent overlay.
Another rather astonishing observation of the LSD experience was that the visual world wavered and wobbled slowly as if the visual scene was painted on an elastic canvas that would stretch over here while shrinking over there, with great waves of expansion and contraction moving slowly across the scene, as if the whole scene was “breathing”, with its component parts in constant motion relative to each other. This was perhaps the most compelling evidence that the world of experience is not the solid stable world that it portrays. Figure 2.2 shows a sketch I made shortly after my alpine mountain adventure to try to express the wavery elasticity and the visual regularity I had observed under LSD. This picture is of course an exaggeration, more of an impression than a depiction of how the experience actually appeared.
The geometrical regularity was particularly prominent in peripheral vision, when attending to the periphery without looking to see what is there. Usually peripheral vision is hardly noticed, giving the impression of a homogeneous visual field, but under LSD the loss of resolution in peripheral vision becomes more readily apparent, especially when holding a fixed and glassy stare. And in that periphery, objects like trees or shrubs appear more regular and geometrical than they do in central vision, like artificial Christmas trees with perfectly regular spacing of brances and twigs. Again, it was not the raw image in the periphery that appeared regular or geometrical, but rather it was the invisible skeleton of visual understanding derived from that raw colored experience that exhibits the more regular features. And suddenly I could see it. This is the way the visual system encodes visual form in a compact or compressed manner, by expressing shape in terms of the next nearest regular geometrical form, or combination of forms. Children draw a tree as a circular blob of leaves on top of a straight vertical trunk, or a pine tree as a green triangle with saw-tooth sides. It is not that we see trees in those simplified forms, but rather that we see those simplified forms in the trees, and the forms that we perceive in these invisible skeletons are the expression of our understanding of the shapes we perceive those more irregular forms to have. This was later to turn into my harmonic resonance theory of the brain, as I sought an explanation for this emerging regularity in perception, but in 1990 all I saw was the periodicity and the symmetry, and I thought they were profoundly beautiful.
My friend Tim who had not done LSD for many years, responded to this sudden 5 hit dose by going into a state of complete dissociation. He lay down on the forest floor with glassy eyes, muttering “It is TOO beautiful! It is TOO beautiful!” and he did not respond to me, even when I stared him straight in the face. He reported afterwards that he found himself in a giant Gothic cathedral with the most extravagantly elaborate and brightly painted ornamental decorations all around him. This too can be seen as an extreme form of the regularization discussed above. Under the influence of this powerful dose, Tim’s visual brain could no longer keep up with the massive irregularity of the forest around him, and therefore presented the forest in simplified or abbreviated form, as the interior of a Gothic cathedral. It captures the large geometry of a ground plane that supports an array of vertical columns, each of which fans out high overhead to link up into an over-arching canopy of branches. The only difference is that in the Gothic cathedral the trees are in a regular geometrical array, and each one is a masterpiece of compound symmetry, composed of smaller pillars of different diameters in perfectly symmetrical arrangements, and studded with periodic patterns of ribs, ridges, or knobby protruberances as a kind of celebration of symmetry and periodicity for their own sake. There is a kind of geometrical logic expressed in the ornamental design. If part of the cathedral were lost or destroyed, the pattern could be easily restored by following the same logic as the rest of the design. In information-theoretic terms, the Gothic cathedral has lots of redundancy, its pattern could be expressed in a very much simpler compressed geometrical code. In Tim’s drug-addled brain his visual system could only muster a simple code to represent the world around him, and that is why Tim saw the forest as a Gothic cathedral. Under normal conditions, the additional information of irregularity, or how each tree and branch breaks from the strict regularity of the cathedral model of it, creates the irregular world of experience that we normally see around us. This suggests that the beautiful shapes of ornamental art are not the product of the highest human faculty, as is commonly supposed, but rather, ornamental art offers a window onto the workings of a simpler visual system, whose image of the world is distorted by artifacts of the representational scheme used in the brain. The Gothic cathedral gives a hint as to how the world might appear to a simpler creature, a lizard, or a snake, to whom the world appears more regular than it does to us, because its full irregularity is too expensive to encode exhaustively in all its chaotic details. Of course the flip-side of this rumination is that the world that we humans experience, even in the stone-cold sober state, is itself immeasurably simpler, more regular and geometric, that the real world itself, of which our experience is an imperfect replica. In the words of William Blake, “If the doors of perception were cleansed, everything would appear to man as it is, infinite.”
While I was a PhD student at Boston University, my parents owned a beautiful ski lodge house in the picturesque town of Mittersill in the mountains of New Hampshire, and on spring breaks or long week-ends I would invite my friends, the other PhD candidates, up to Mittersill where we would take long hikes up the mountain, and spend evenings by the fireplace. I introduced a small circle of my friends to the illuminating experience of LSD, in the hopes of sharing some of my perceptual discoveries with them, and perhaps inducing them to learn to use the experience to make discoveries of their own. Eventually Mittersill became associated in our minds with these group trips with an ever-shrinking circle of true diehard psychonauts, making our regular pilgrimage up the mountain in search of Truth and to touch the face of God. We always brought a goodly supply of Happy T’Baccy, which provides a beautiful complement and bemellowment to the otherwise sometimes sharp and jangly LSD experience. Our pattern was usually to arrive on a Friday night, cook up a great feast, and spend an evening by the fire, drinking beer and/or wine and passing the pipe around until everyone felt properly toasted. The talk was often about the workings of mind and brain, since we were all students of cognitive and neural systems. We were all adept computer programmers and well versed in mathematics as part of our PhD studies, so we all understood the issues of mental computation and representation, and I found the conversations about the computational principles of the mind, to be most interesting and intellectually stimulating. This was the high point of my academic career, this is why people want to be scientists. The next morning we would rise early, and after a hearty breakfast, we would all set off up the mountain, which was a steep brisk climb of two or three hours. About half way up the mountain, at a carefully pre-planned time, we would stop, and each “dose up” with our individually chosen dose of LSD for the occasion, timed to reach the peak of the experience about the time we reached the peak of the mountain. Then we would continue our climb through the rich lush mountain forests of New Hampshire to the top of Maida Vale, the sub-peak next to Canon Mountain, from whence a stupendous view opened up across to Canon Mountain and the vast valley below. We would settle ourselves comfortably at some location off the beaten track, and spend the best hours of the day just dreaming crazy thoughts and drinking in the experience
By now I had perfected my introspective techniques to the point that I could voluntarily relax my mind into a state of total disembodiment. The visual world began to fragment, first into two large pieces as binocular fusion was broken, then into a few smaller fragments, and eventually into a miriad of separate fragments of consciousness, like the miriad reflections from a shattered mirror. I was fascinated by this state of consciousness, and how different it was from normal consensual reality. Most alarming or significant was the total absence of my body from its normal place at the center of my world. As the world began to fragment, my body would fragment along with it, disconnected pieces of my body seeming to exist independently, one part here, another over there, but in separate spaces that did not exist in a distinct spatial relation to each other, but as if in different universes, like reflections from different shards of a shattered mirror. And as the visual world attained total fragmentation, all evidence of my body completely vanished, and I lived the experience of a disembodied spirit, pure raw experience, just sensations of color, form, and light. I felt safe and secure in this environment among friends, so I did not mind the total vulnerability afforded by a complete functional shutdown of my mind in this manner. Besides, I had learned that I could snap back together again to a relatively normal consciousness at will, simply by getting up and looking around, and interacting with the world. I was endlessly fascinated by the state of complete disembodiment, and one feature of it impressed itself on me again and again, the geometric regularity of it all. There was a powerful tendency for everything to reduce to ornamental patterns, geometrical arrangements of three-dimensional shapes, like so many glistening gems in a jewelry store, with rich periodic and symmetrical patterns in deep vibrant colors. The deeper I plunged into the experience, the simpler and more powerfully emotive those patterns became. And since my body had totally vanished, these patterns were no longer patterns I viewed out in the world, but rather, the patterns were me, I had become the spatial patterns which made up my experience. I began to see that symmetry and periodicity were somehow primal to experience.
I remember lying on my back and watching the clouds in the sky overhead. Weather patterns are often chaotic at the tops of mountains, and on more than one occasion we were located at a spot where the clouds that formed on the windward side of the mountain were just cresting the summit, where they would dissove in a continuous process of chaotic fragmentation, a veritable Niagra Falls of nebular dissolution, evocative of the fragmentation of my psychedelic experience. The shattered shreds of cloud, viewed from this close up, were about the most ragged and irregular shapes you could imagine, and yet under the influence of the drug I kept seeing fleeting geometrical patterns in them. There were great circular pinwheels and arabesques, patterns like those carved in the doors of Gothic cathedrals, but each flashing in and out of brief existence so quickly that it would be impossible to draw them. I began to realize that the human mind is one great symmetry engine, that the mind makes sense of the world it sees by way of the symmetries that it finds in it. Symmetry is the glue that binds the fragments of experience into coherent wholes.
Figure 2.3 shows a series of paintings by artist Louis Wain, that I find very evocative of the LSD experience. Wain suffered a progressive psychosis that manifested itself in his art, which was originally quite realistic, becomming progressively more abstract and ornamental, in the manner I observed in the various stages or levels of my LSD dissociation. Figure 2.3 A shows a fairly realistic depiction of a cat, but there are curious artifacts in the textured background, a mere hint of periodicity breaking out. I would see such artifacts everywhere, almost invisible, fleeting, and faint, reminiscent of the ornamental pinstripe patterns painted on trucks and motorcycles, a kind of eddy in the stream of visual consciousness as it flows around visual features in the scene. As I descended into the fully dissociated states, the patterns would become more like Figure 2.3 B, C, and D, breathtakingly ornate, with many levels of compound symmetry, revealing the eigenfunctions of perceptual representation, the code by which visual form is represented in the brain.
At times we would break free from our individual reveries, and share absurd nonsensical conversations about our observations. One time, looking down at the vast valley stretching out below us, a vista that seemed to stretch out to distances beyond comprehension, my old friend Peter said that it was hard to tell whether all that scenery was just “way out there”, or was it “way WAY out there?” Of course we both laughed heartily at the absurdity of his statement, but I knew exactly what he meant. When viewing such a grand vista under normal consciousness, one is deeply impressed by the vastness of the view.
But under the influence of the drug, the vista somehow did not look quite as large as we “knew” that it really was. What Peter was saying was that for some strange reason, the world had shrunken back in on us, and that magnificently vast valley had shrunken to something like a scale model, or a diorama, where it is easy to see how vast the modeled valley is supposed to be, but the model itself appears very much smaller than the valley it attempts to portray. What Peter was observing was the same thing I had observed, and that was beginning to even become familiar, that the world of our experience is not a great open vastness of infinite space, but like the domed vault of the night sky, our experience is bounded by, and contained within, a vast but finite spherical shell, and under the influence of psychedelic drugs that shell seemed to shrink to smaller dimensions, our consciousness was closing in on its egocentric center. Many years later after giving it considerable thought, I built the diorama shown in Figure 2.4 to depict the geometry of visual experience as I observed it under LSD.
And when I was in the completely disembodied state, my consciousness closed in even smaller and tighter, the range of my experience was all contained within a rather modest sized space, like a glass showcase in a jewelry store, and the complexity of the patterns in that space was also reduced, from the unfathomably complex and chaotic fractal forms in a typical natural scene, to a much simpler but powerfully beautiful glistening ornamental world of the degree of complexity seen in a Gothic cathedral. The profound significance of these observations dawned on me incrementally every time we had these experiences. I can recall fragmentary pieces of insights gleaned through the confusion of our passage down the mountain, stopping to sit and think wherever and whenever the spirit took us. At one point three of us stopped by a babbling brook that was crashing and burbling through the rocks down the steep mountain slope. We sat in silent contemplation at this primal “white noise” sound, when Lonce commented that if you listen, you can hear a million different sounds hidden in that noise. And sure enough when I listened, I heard laughing voices and honking car horns and shrieking crashes and jangly music and every other possible sound, all at the same time superimposed on each other in a chaotic jumbled mass. It was the auditory equivalent of what we were seeing visually, the mind was latching onto the raw sensory experience not so much to view it as it really is, but to conjure up random patterns from deep within our sensory memory and to match those images to the current sensory input. And now I could see the more general concept. We experience the world by way of these images conjured up in our minds. I came to realize why the LSD experience was enjoyed best in outdoors natural settings, and that is because the chaos of a natural scene, with its innumerable twigs and leaves and stalks, acts as a kind of “white noise” stimulus, like the babbling brook, a stimulus that contains within it every possible pattern, and that frees our mind to interpret that noise as anything it pleases.
On one occasion, on arrival back down at the lodge, our minds were still reeling, and we were not yet ready to leave the magnificence of the natural landscape for the relatively tame and controlled environment indoors, so Andy and I stopped in the woods behind the house and just stood there, like deer in the headlights, drinking in the experience. It was a particularly dark green and leafy environment in the shadow behind the house, with shrubs and leaves at every level, around our ankles, our knees, our shoulders, and all the way up to a leafy canopy high overhead, and at every depth and distance from inches away to the farthest visible depths of the deep green woods. The visual chaos was total and complete, the world already fragmented into millions and millions of apparently disconnected features and facets uniformly in all directions, that it hardly required LSD to appreciate the richness of this chaotic experience. But under LSD, and with the two of us standing stock still for many long minutes of total silence, we both descended into a mental fragmentation as crazy as the fragmented world around us. My body disappeared from my experience, and I felt like I became the forest; the forest and all its visual chaos was me, which in a very real sense it actually was. And in that eternal timeless moment, wrapped in intense but wordless thought, I recognized something very very ancient and primal in my experience. I felt like I was sharing the experience of some primal creature in an ancient swamp many millions of years ago, when nature was first forging its earliest models of mind from the tissue of brain. I saw the world with the same intense attentive concentration, bewilderment, and total absence of human cogntive understanding, as that antediluvian cretaceous lizard must have experienced long ago and far away. The beautiful geometrical and symmetrical forms that condensed spontaneously in my visual experience were like the first glimmerings of understanding emerging in a primitive visual brain. This is why I do psychedelic drugs, to connect more intimately with my animal origins, to celebrate the magnificent mental mechanisms that we inherit from the earliest animal pioneers of mind.
One time after we had descended from the mountain and were sitting around the lodge drinking and smoking in a happy state of befuddlement, a peculiar phenomenon manifested itself that made a deep impression on me. It was getting close to supper time and somebody expressed something to that effect. But our minds were so befuddled by the intoxication that we could only speak in broken sentences, as we inevitably forgot what we wanted to say just as we started saying it, instantly confused by our own initial words. So the first person must have said something like “I’m getting hungry. Do you think…” and then tailed off in confusion. But somebody else would immediately sense the direction that thought was going, and would instinctively attempt to complete the sentence with something like “…we otta go get…” before himself becoming confused, at which a third person might interject “…something to eat?” It does not sound so remarkable here in the retelling, but what erupted before our eyes was an extraordinarily fluid and coherent session of what we later referred to as group thought, where the conversation bounced easily from one person to the next, each person contributing only a fragmentary thought, but nobody having any clear idea of what the whole thought was supposed to be, or how it was going to end. What was amazing about the experience was the coherence and purposefulness of the emergent thought, how it seemed to have a mind of its own independent of our individual minds, even though of course it was nothing other than the collective action of our befuddled minds. It was fascinating to see this thought, like a disembodied spirit, pick up and move our bodies and hands in concerted action, one person getting wood for the fire, another getting out a frying pan, a third going for potatoes, or to open a bottle of wine, none of it planned by any one person, and yet each person chipped in just as and when they thought would be appropriate, as the supper apparently “made itself” using us as its willing accomplices. It was reminiscent of the operational principle behind a ouija board, where people sitting in a circle around a table, all rest an index finger on some movable pointer on a circular alphabet board, and the pointer begins to spell out some message under the collective action of all those fingers. At first the emergent message appears random, but after the first few letters have been spelled out, the participants start to guess at each next letter, and without anyone being overtly aware of it, the word appears to “spell itself” as if under the influence of a supernatural force. As with the ouija board, none of us participating in the group thought experience could hold a coherent thought in their head, and yet coherent thoughts emerged nevertheless, to the bewilderment of us all. And later I observed the same phenomenon with different LSD parties. I have subsequently encountered people well versed in the psychedelic experience who claim with great certainty to have experienced mental telepathy in the form of wordless communication and sharing of thoughts. But for us hard-nosed scientific types, the natural explanation for this apparently supernatural experience is just as wonderous and noteworthy, because it offers a hint as to how the individual parts of a mind act together in concert to produce a unified coherent pattern of behavior that is greater than the mere sum of its constituent parts. The principle of group thought occurs across our individual brains in normal sober consciousness as we instinctively read each other’s faces and follow each other’s thoughts, and it is seen also whenever people are moving a heavy piece of furniture, all lifting and moving in unison in a coherent motion towards some goal. But the psychedelic experience highlighted this aspect of wordless communication and brought it to my attention in clearer, sharper focus.
As the evening tailed on and the drug’s effect gradually subsided in a long slow steady decline, we would sit by the fire and pass a pipe or joint around, and share our observations and experiences of the day. At one point Lonce, who had just taken a puff of a joint, breathed out and held it contemplatively for a while, before taking a second puff and passing it on to the next person in the circle. I objected to this behavior, and accused Lonce of “Bogarting” the joint – smoking it all by himself without passing it along. Lonce responded to this with an explanation that where he comes from, people don’t puff and pass in haste, but every man has the right to a few moments of quiet contemplation and a second puff before passing it along. That was, he explained, the civilized way of sharing a joint. So we immediately adopted Lonce’s suggestion, and this method of sharing a joint has henceforth and forever since been referred to by us as the “Lonce Method”.
As I have explained, the purpose of all this psychonautical exploration was not merely for our own entertainment, although entertaining it was, and to the highest degree. No, the primary purpose of these psychonautical exploits was clear all along at least in my mind, and that was to investigate the theoretical implications of these experiences to theories of mind and brain. And my investigations were actually beginning to bear fruit in two completely separate directions, each of which had profound theoretical implications. At that time I was studying neural network theories of the brain, or how the brain makes sense of the visual world. A principal focus of our investigation was the phenomena of visual illusions, like the Kanizsa figure shown in Figure 2.5 A. It is clear that what is happening here is that the visual mind is creating illusory contours that link up the fragmentary contours suggestive of the illusory triangle. In our studies we learned of Stephen Grossberg’s neural network model of this phenomenon. Grossberg proposed that the visual brain is equipped with oriented edge detector neurons that fire whenever a visual edge passes through their local receptive field. These neurons would be triggered by the stark black / white contrast edges of the stimulus in Figure 2.5 A. A higher level set of neurons would then detect the global pattern of collinearity, and sketch in the illusory contour by a process of collinear completion. These higher level “cooperative cells” were equipped with much larger elongated receptive fields, long enough to span the gap in the Kanizsa figure, and the activation of these higher level neurons in turn stimulated lower level local edge detector neurons located along the illusory contour, and that activation promoted the experience of an illusory contour where there is none in the stimulus
I believed I was seeing these illusory contours in my LSD experience, as suggested by all the curvy lines in my sketch in Figure 2.2 above. But I was not only seeing the contours in illusory figures, I was seeing “illusory” contours just about everywhere across the visual field. But curiously, these contours were not “visible” in the usual sense, but rather, they are experienced in an “invisible” manner as something you know is there, but you cannot actually see. However I also noticed that these contours did have an influence on the visible portions of the scene. I have mentioned how under LSD the visual world tends to “breathe”, to waver and wobble like a slow-motion movie of the bottom of a swimming pool viewed through its surface waves. In fact, the effect of the “invisible” contours was very much like the effect of the invisible waves on the surface of the pool, which can also be seen only by their effects on the scene viewed through them. You cannot see the waves themselves, all you can see is the wavering of the world caused by those waves. Well I was observing a very similar phenomenon in my LSD experience. I devised a three-dimensional Kanizsa figure, shown in Figure 2.5 B, and observed that even in the stone-cold sober state, I could see a kind of warp or wobble of the visual background behind the illusory contour caused by the figure, especially if the figure is waved back and forth gently against a noisy or chaotic background. So far, my LSD experiences were consistent with our theoretical understanding of the visual process, confirming to myself by direct observation an aspect of the neural network model we were currently studying in school.
But there was one aspect of the LSD experience that had me truly baffled, and that was the fantastic symmetries and periodicities that were so characteristic of the experience. What kind of neural network model could possibly account for that? It was an issue that I grappled with for many months that stretched into years. In relation to Grossberg’s neural network, it seemed that the issue concerned the question of what happens at corners and vertices where contours meet or cross. A model based on collinearity alone would be stumped at image vertices. And yet a straightforward extension of Grossberg’s neural network theory to address image vertices leads to a combinatorial explosion.The obvious extension, initially proposed by Grossberg himself, was to posit specialized “cooperative cells” with receptive fields configured to detect and enhance other configurations of edges besides ones that are collinear. But the problem is that you would need so many different specialized cells to recognize and complete every possible type of vertex, such as T and V and X and Y vertices, where two or more edges meet at a point, and each of these vertex types would have to be replicated at every orientation, and at every location across the whole visual field! It just seemed like a brute-force solution that was totally implausible.
Then one day after agonizing for months on this issue, my LSD observations of periodic and symmetrical patterns suddenly triggered a novel inspiration. Maybe the nervous system does not require specialized hard-wired receptive fields to accomodate every type of vertex, replicated at every orientation at every spatial location. Maybe the nervous system uses something much more dynamic and adaptive and flexible. Maybe it uses circular standing waves to represent different vertex types, where the standing wave can bend and warp to match the visual input, and standing waves would explain all that symmetry and periodicity so clearly evident in the LSD experience as little rotational standing waves that emerge spontaneously at image vertices, and adapt to the configuration of those vertices. Thanks to illegal psychotropic substances, I had stumbled on a staggeringly significant new theory of the brain, a theory which, if proven right, would turn the world of neuroscience on its head! My heart raced and pounded at the implications of what I had discovered. And this theory became the prime focus of my PhD thesis (Lehar 1994), in which I did computer simulations of my harmonic resonance model that replicated certain visual illusions in a way that no other model could. I had accomplished the impossible. I had found an actual practical use and purpose for what was becoming my favorite pass-time, psychedelic drugs! It was a moment of glory for an intrepid psychonaut, a turning point in my life. Figure 2.6 shows a page from my notebook dated October 6 1992, the first mention of my new theory of harmonic resonance in the brain.
Compare the above descriptions of point-of-view fragmentation, visual coherence, and symmetry as experienced on LSD, with our very own account of symmetrical pattern completion during psychedelic experiences as presented in Algorithmic Reduction of Psychedelic States (slightly edited for clarity):
Lower Symmetry Detection and Propagation Thresholds
Finally, this is perhaps the most interesting and ethically salient effect of psychedelics. The first three effects (tracers, drifting, and pattern recognition) are not particularly difficult to square with standard neuroscience. This fourth effect, while not incompatible with connectionist accounts, does suggest a series of research questions that may hint at an entirely new paradigm for understanding consciousness.
We have not seen anyone in the literature specifically identify this effect in all of its generality. The lowering of the symmetry detection threshold really has to be experienced to be believed. We claim that this effect manifests in all psychedelic experiences to a greater or lesser extent, and that many effects can in fact be explained by simply applying this effect iteratively.
Psychedelics make it easier to find similarities between any two given phenomenal objects. When applied to perception, this effect can be described as a lowering of the symmetry detection threshold. This effect is extremely general and symmetry should not be taken to refer exclusively to geometric symmetry.
How symmetries manifest depends on the set and setting. Researchers interested in verifying and exploring the quantitative and subjective properties of this effect will probably have to focus first on a narrow domain; the effect happens in all experiential modalities.
Credit: Chelsea Morgan from PsychonautWiki and r/replications
Symmetry detection during psychedelic experiences requires that one’s attention interprets a given element in the scene as a symmetry element. Symmetry elements are geometrical points of reference about which symmetry operations can take place (such as axes of rotation, mirror planes, hyperplanes, etc.). In turn, a collection of symmetry elements defines a symmetry structure in the following way: A symmetry structure is a set of n-dimensional symmetry elements for which the qualities of the experience surrounding each element obeys the symmetry constraints imposed by all the elements considered together.
Psychedelic symmetry detection can be (and typically is) recursively applied to previously constructed symmetry structures. At a given time multiple independent symmetry structures can coexist inside an experience. By guiding one’s attention one can make these structures interact and ultimately merge. Formally, each symmetry structure is capable of establishing a merging relationship with another symmetry structure. This is achieved by simultaneously focusing one’s attention on both. These relationships are fleeting, but they influence the evolution of the relative position of each symmetry element. When two symmetry structures are in a merging relationship, it is possible to rearrange them (with the aid of drifting and pattern recognition) to create a symmetrical structure that incorporates the symmetry elements of both substructures at once. To do so, one’s mind can either detect one (or several) more symmetry elements along which the previously-existing symmetry elements are made to conform, or, alternatively, if the two pre-existing symmetry structures share a symmetry element (e.g. an axis of rotation of order 3), these corresponding identical symmetry elements can fuse and become a bridge that merges both structures.
Surprisingly, valence seems to be related to psychedelic symmetry detection. As one constructs symmetry structures, one becomes aware of an odd and irresistible subjective pull towards building even higher levels of symmetry. In other words, every time the structure of one’s experience is simplified by identifying a new symmetry element in the scene, one’s whole experience seems to snap into a new (simplified) mode, and this comes with a positive feeling. This feeling can take many forms: it may feel blissful, interesting, beautiful, mind-expanding, and/or awe-producing, all depending on the specific structures that one is merging. Conversely when two symmetry structures are such that merging them is either tricky of impossible, this leads to low valence: frustration, anxiety, pain and an odd feeling of being stuck between two mutually unintelligible worlds. We hypothesize that this is the result of dissonance between the incompatible symmetry structures.
If one meditates in a sensorially-minimized room during a psychedelic experience while being aware that one’s symmetry detection threshold has been lowered by the substance, one can recursively re-apply this effect to produce all kinds of complex mathematical structures that incorporate complex symmetry element interactions. In other words, with the aid of concentration one can climb the symmetry gradient (i.e. increase the total number of symmetry elements) up to the point where the degrees of freedom afforded by the symmetry structure limit any further element from being incorporated into it. We will call these experiences peak symmetry states.
Future research should explore and compare the various states of consciousness that exhibit peak symmetry. There is very likely an enormous number of peak symmetry states, some of which are fairly suboptimal and others that cannot be improved upon. If there is a very deep connection between valence, symmetry, information and harmony, it would very likely show in this area. Indeed, we hypothesize that the highest levels of valence that can be consciously experienced involve peak symmetry states. Anecdotally, this connection has already been verified, with numerous trip reports of people achieving states of unimaginable bliss by inhabiting peak symmetry states (often described as fractal mandala-like mirror rooms).
The range of peak symmetry states include fractals, tessellations, graphs, and higher dimensional projections. Which one of these states contains the highest degree of inter-connectivity? And if psychedelic symmetry is indeed related to conscious bliss, which experience of symmetry is human peak bliss?
Higher Order Symmetry
Mirror Symmetry Tessellation
The pictures above all illustrate possible peak symmetry states one can achieve by combining psychedelics and meditation. The pictures illustrate only the core structure of symmetries that are present in these states of consciousness. What is being reflected is the very raw “feels” of each patch of your experiential field. Thus these pictures really miss the actual raw feelings of the whole experience. They do show, however, a rough outline of symmetrical relationships possible in one of these experiences.
Since control interruption is also co-occurrent with the psychedelic symmetry effect, previously-detected symmetries tend to linger for long periods of time. For this reason, the kinds of symmetries one can detect at a given point in time is a function of the symmetries that are currently being highlighted. And thanks to drifting and pattern recognition enhancement, there is some wiggle room for your mind to re-arrange the location of the symmetries experienced. The four effects together enable, at times, a smooth iterative integration of so many symmetries that one’s consciousness becomes symmetrically interconnected to an unbelievable degree.
What may innocently start as a simple two-sided mirror symmetry can end up producing complex arrangements of self-reflecting mirrors showing glimpses of higher and higher dimensional symmetries. Studying the mathematical properties of the allowed symmetries is a research project that has only just begun. I hope one day dedicated mathematicians describe in full the class of possible high-order symmetries that humans can experience in these states of consciousness.
Anecdotally, each of the 17 possible wallpaper symmetry groups can be instantiated with this effect. In other words, psychedelic states lower the symmetry detection threshold for all of the mathematically available symmetrical tessellations.
All of the 17 2-dimensional wallpaper groups can be experienced with symmetry planes detected, amplified and re-arranged during a psychedelic experience.
Revising the symmetrical texture repetition of grass shown above, we can now discover that the picture displays the wallpaper symmetry found in the lower left circle above:
In very high doses, the symmetry completion is so strong that at any point one risks confusing left and right, and thus losing grasp of one’s orientation in space and time. Depersonalization is, at times, the result of the information that is lost when there is intense symmetry completion going on. One’s self-models become symmetrical too quickly, and one finds it hard to articulate a grounded point of view.
LSD-like states allow the global binding of otherwise incompatible schemas by softening the degree to which neighborhood constraints are enforced. The entire experience becomes a sort of chaotic superposition of locally bound islands that can, each in its own way, tell sensory-linguistic stories in parallel about the unique origin and contribution of their corresponding gestalts to the narrative of the self.
This phenomenon forces, as it were, the onset of cognitive dissonance between incompatible schemas that would otherwise evade mutual contact. On the bright side, it also allows mutual resonance between parts that agree with each other. The global inconsistencies are explored and minimized. One’s mind can become a glorious consensus.
Each square represents, and carries with it, the information of a previously experienced cognitive gestalt (situational memories, ideas, convictions, etc.). Some gestalts never come up together naturally. The LSD-like state allows their side-by-side comparison.
In therapy, LSD-like states had been used for many decades in order to integrate disparate parts of one’s personality into a (more) coherent and integrated lifeworld. But scientists at the beginning didn’t know why this worked.
The Turing module then discovered that the kaleidoscopic world of acid can be compared to raising the temperature within an Ising model. If different gestalts imply a variety of semantic-affective constraints, kaleidoscopic Frame Stacking has the formal effect of expanding the region of one’s mind that is taken into consideration for global consistency at any given point in time. The local constraints become more loose, giving global constraints the upper hand. The degree of psychedelia is approximately proportional to the temperature of the model, and when you let it cool, the grand pattern is somewhat different. It is more stable; one arrives at a more globally consistent state. Your semantic-affective constraints are, on the whole, better satisfied. The Turings called this phenomenon qualia annealing.
Ising Model – A simple computational analogy for the LSD-induced global constraint satisfaction facilitation.
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 as a resonant attractor 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-occluduing 3D1T depth maps)
Extremelly 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 centering your attention 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…
As suggested by the quotes above, psychedelic symmetries are extremely beautiful. This is puzzling for most worldviews. But once you take into account the Tyranny of the Intentional Object and the Symmetry Theory of Valence, it begins to make sense why peak symmetry on psychedelics is so delightfully amazing (sometimes unimaginably better than a great orgasm or a back-rub on ecstasy). In this vein, we are proud to point out that we have worked out some precise, empirically testable, predictions based on connectome-specific harmonic waves and the symmetry theory of valence (see: Quantifying Bliss).
Interestingly, the process of point-of-view fragmentation and subsequent annealing to global geometric coherence is hinted at by John C. Lilly in his book Programming and Metaprogramming in the Human Biocomputer (you can read the relevant quote here: Psychedelic alignment cascades).
As evidenced in Steven Lehar’s writeup (and the other quotes and references provided above), we could say that giving psychedelics to brilliant people with a scientific background in cognitive science and natural philosophical talent does indeed have the ability to expand our evidential base for the nature of consciousness and the way our brains work.
It is thus far more useful for the advancement of the science of consciousness to allocate such experiences to serious scientifically-minded psychonauts than it is to give those same agents to people with pre-scientific frameworks. The phenomenological descriptions and insights provided by a single Steven Lehar on acid are worth a thousand Buddhists, French Existentialists, poets, and film-makers on LSD.
Either way, it is unconscionable that today most leading academics working on the problem of consciousness have no personal experience with these agents, nor they show much interest in the alien state-spaces that they disclose. That’s about as weird as physicists only showing interest in what happens at room-temperature, even though most precise mathematical theories of the physical world can only be tested in extreme conditions (such as high-energy particle collisions). Just as we can expect that a few observations of the behavior of matter in extreme conditions will provide a lot more information than thousands of observations of matter in known “everyday” conditions, the ultimate nature of qualia is most likely to be understood by studying its properties in extreme (e.g. high-energy) neuronal environments.
Bolded titles mean that the linked article is foundational: it introduces new concepts, vocabulary, heuristics, research methods, frameworks, and/or thought experiments that are important for the overall project of consciousness research. These tend to be articles that also discuss concepts in much greater depth than other articles.
The “long” tag means that the post has at least 4,000 words. Most of these long articles are in the 6,000 to 10,000 word range. The longest Qualia Computing article is the one about Burning Man which is about 13,500 words long (and also happens to be foundational as it introduces many new frameworks and concepts).
Quotes and transcripts are usually about: evolutionary psychology, philosophy of mind, ethics, neuroscience, physics, meditation, and/or psychedelic phenomenology. By far, David Pearce is the most quoted person on Qualia Computing.