Excerpt from Every Cradle Is a Grave: Rethinking the Ethics of Birth and Suicide (2014) by Sarah Perry
Suppose there were an experience machine that would give you any experience you desired. Superduper neuropsychologists could stimulate your brain so that you would think and feel you were writing a great novel, or making a friend, or reading an interesting book. All the time you would be floating in a tank, with electrodes attached to your brain. Should you plug into this machine for life, preprogramming your life’s experiences?
– Robert Nozick, Anarchy, State, and Utopia
I believe that we should be very cautious about creating conscious beings, and I believe that the ideal number of conscious beings (and perhaps even living beings) in the universe is probably zero, for the good of those beings themselves.
Since suffering and misery are inescapable parts of life, if we are to justify creating life there must be something that outweighs suffering and misery within the space of universal judgements. Candidates generally fall into two categories. The first category is essentially hedonist: pleasure or good experiences are said to outnumber or outweigh bad experiences. This is the objection Bryan Caplan is making with his Free Disposal argument, discussed in the first chapter; assuming preferentism (that people choose what is good for them), and assuming that people have free choice in the relevant arenas, people would merely commit suicide if it were not true that the pleasure of life outweighs the suffering. And since only a million people per year commit suicide, creating life is obviously the right choice. A more subtle variation of this argument does not rely on suicide, but on a sort of imaginary survey: most people would probably report that their lives are worth living, that the good outweighs the bad, and therefore it must.
The second category of responses is that there is something valuable and meaningful about life that makes it worth living even if the bad vastly outweighs the good. In the previous chapter, we explored and categorized some of the things that people find meaningful, noting how these change according to circumstance and over time. One of the most salient features of the things that make life seem meaningful is that they frequently rely on illusion: the illusion of unchanging permanence, of a future state of happiness, of one’s ability to affect the world. It is my view that the sense of meaningfulness is itself an illusion, a cognitive phenomenon that is very adaptive for individuals and groups. This illusion is maintained by communities in order to organize the behavior of individuals, in part by easing their suffering.
One response to this is to counter that meaning is not an illusion- that there is real value in the world beyond what is experienced by living beings. Unfortunately, the proposed real and true meanings are often difficult to express in words to others who do not sense their truth. The feeling that life is meaningful is a pre-rational sensory perception that is widely shared. However, the specific meanings that people find satisfying and convincing are disparate and often contradictory. These underlying realities should make us question whether the sense that life is meaningful- or that some specific meaning can be found in life- is a true observation, or merely an illusion. The very adaptiveness of this belief, even if it were not true, must also make us suspect its veracity. The meaning realist has the further problem that no specific meaning is held by a majority of humanity; if there is one true meaning, then whatever it is, the majority of people’s lives go very badly because they do not perceive it.
Another response is that while meanings vary, it is enough that almost everyone finds some meaning in life. In other words, that sense that life is meaningful is enough to justify life, and the myriad meanings found and elaborated by individuals are all, in fact, the meaning of life. This seems to be the most common position articulated in modern post-Christian Western societies: if a person finds his life to be meaningful, then it is meaningful- even if different people find contradictory meanings in life. One person might find a sense of meaning in fighting for equality, another in ethno-nationalism, and they are both right.
This second response is actually a variation on hedonism, in that the experience of meaning, rather than the experience of pleasure, provides value. According to this view, a life of overwhelming suffering but with a deep experience of meaning might be better than a life of joy and pleasure that is internally felt to be meaningless. But ultimately, divorced from the meaning realism of the first response, this grounds meaning in subjective experience; the sense of meaning becomes another form of pleasure. The modern ideas that it is up to each individual to find meaning in life, and that this meaning justifies life, means accepting a meaning-based Experience Machine.
The things that we find to be meaningful are, in fact, miniature Experience Machines. They rely on illusion and filter the information that reaches us so that we may continue to feel that life is meaningful, or continue to search for meaning in life if it is missing. They are very useful; they help us organize our behavior, coordinate with others, and manage our emotions. In a practical sense they often make the suffering of life bearable; but, once they are recognized to be illusions, they cannot justify suffering in an abstract sense any more than pleasure can.
We need not jump into a Nozickian Experience Machine to get pleasure and a sense of meaning from intricate illusions. The Reverse Experience Machine experiment is close to the illusion we find ourselves in- if we found out we were in an Experience Machine already, would we choose to leave it for the real world? Institutions, religions, social communities, and even individual people function as Experience Machines, creating and maintaining illusions that help us feel that life is worthwhile. A meaning realist would reject the Experience Machine, but to be consistent he must also reject those aspects of life that use illusion or information filters to provide meaning. A meaning subjectivist has little ground to reject the Experience Machine. This has implications for the justification of life’s misery based on meaningfulness.
The ‘EXPERIENCE MACHINE’ objection [to engineering superhappiness with genetic technologies]
According to this objection, the prospect of “artificially” ratcheting up our hedonic set-point via biotech interventions just amounts to a version of Harvard University philosopher Robert Nozick’s hypothetical Experience Machine. Recall the short section of Anarchy, State, and Utopia (1974) where Nozick purportedly refutes ethical hedonism by asking us to imagine a utopian machine that can induce experiences of anything at all in its users at will. A full-blown Experience Machine will presumably provide superauthenticity too: its users might even congratulate themselves on having opted to remain plugged into the real world – having wisely rejected the blandishments of Experience Machine evangelists and their escapist fantasies. At any rate, given this hypothetical opportunity to witness all our dreams coming true, then most of us wouldn’t take it. Our rejection shows that we value far more than mere experiences. Sure, runs this objection, millennial neuroscience may be able to create experiences millions of times more wonderful than anything open to Darwinian minds. But so what? It’s mind-independent facts in the real world that matter – and matter in some sense to us – not false happiness.
This Objection isn’t fanciful. In future, technologies akin to Experience Machines will probably be technically feasible, perhaps combining immersive VR, neural nanobots and a rewiring of the pleasure centres. Such technologies may conceivably become widely available or even ubiquitous – though whether their global use could ever be sociologically and evolutionarily stable for a whole population is problematic. [If you do think Experience Machines may become ubiquitous, then you might wonder (shades of the Simulation Argument) whether statistically you’re most probably plugged into one already. This hypothesis is more compelling if you’re a life-loving optimist who thinks you’re living in the best of all possible worlds than if you’re a depressive Darwinian convinced you’re living in the unspeakably squalid basement.]
However, feasible or otherwise, Experience Machines aren’t the kind of hedonic engineering technology we’re discussing here. Genetically recalibrating our hedonic treadmill at progressively more exalted settings needn’t promote the growth of escapist fantasy worlds. Measured, incremental increase in normal hedonic tone can allow (post-)humans to engage with the world – and each other – no less intimately than before; and possibly more so. By contrast, it’s contemporary social anxiety disorders and clinical depression that are associated with behavioural suppression and withdrawal. Other things being equal, a progressively happier population will also be more socially involved – with each other and with consensus reality. At present, it’s notable that the happiest people tend to lead the fullest social lives; conversely, depressives tend to be lonely and socially isolated. Posthuman mental superhealth may indeed be inconceivably different from the world of the happiest beings alive today: meaning-saturated and vibrantly authentic to a degree we physiologically can’t imagine. Yet this wonderful outcome won’t be – or at least it needn’t be – explicable because our descendants are escapists plugged into Experience Machines, but instead because posthuman life is intrinsically wonderful.
Perhaps. The above response to the Experience Machine objection is simplistic. It oversimplifies the issues because for a whole range of phenomena, there is simply no mind-independent fact of the matter that could potentially justify Experience Machine-style objections – and deter the future use of Experience Machine-like technologies for fear of our losing touch with Reality. Compare, say, mathematical beauty with artistic beauty. If you are a mathematician, then you want not merely to experience the epiphany of solving an important equation or devising an elegant proof of a mathematical theorem. You also want that solution or proof to be really true in some deep platonic sense. But if you create, say, a sculpture or a painting, then its beauty (or conversely, its ugliness) is inescapably in the eye of the beholder; there is no mind-independent truth beyond the subjective response of one’s audience. For an aesthete who longs to experience phenomenal beauty, there simply isn’t any fact of the matter beyond the quality of experience itself. The beauty is no less real, and it certainly seems to be a fact of the world; but it is subjective. If so, then why not create the substrates of posthuman superbeauty rather than mere artistic prettiness?
There’s also a sense in which our brains already are (dysfunctional) Experience Machines. Consider dreaming. Should one take drugs to suppress REM sleep because our dreams aren’t true? Or when awake, should one’s enjoyment of a beautiful sunset be dimmed by the knowledge that secondary properties like colour are mind-dependent? [Quantum theory suggests that classical macroscopic “primary” properties as normally conceived are mind-dependent too; but that’s another story] If you had been born a monochromat who sees the world only in different shades of grey, then as a hard-nosed scientific rationalist, should you reject colour vision gene therapy on the grounds that phenomenal colours are fake – and grass isn’t intrinsically green? No, by common consent visual experience enriches us, even if, strictly speaking, we are creating reality rather than simulating and/or perceiving it. Or to give another example: what if neural enhancement technologies could controllably modify our aesthetic filters so we could see 80-year-old women as sexier than 20-year-old women? Is this perception false or inauthentic? Intuitively, perhaps so. But actually, the perception is no more or less authentic than seeing 20-year-old women of prime reproductive potential as sexier. Evolution has biased our existing perceptual filters in ways that maximised the inclusive fitness of our genes in the ancestral environment; but in future, we can optimise the well-being of their bodily vehicles (i.e. us). Gradients of well-being billions of times richer than anything humans experience are neither more nor less genuine than the greenness of grass (or the allure of Marilyn Monroe). Could such states become as common as grass? Again, I suspect so; but speculation is cheap.
Sarah Perry argues that we already live in a meaning-based Experience Machine. David Pearce reminds us that our experience of the world is itself just a phenomenal representation of a mind-independent quantum mess, and that what makes us feel good or bad is merely a reflection of what increases or decreases the inclusive fitness of our genes. In both cases, Nozick’s Experience Machine thought-experiment is turned on its head. Namely, that if we value life, we are inescapably already agreeing to living on an Experience Machine of sorts.
You say: “I am not looking for happiness; I’m looking for meaning.” Well, the way in which your world-simulation is implemented is such that activities that foster the inclusive fitness of your genes feel good, while those that bring fewer future copies of your genes generally feel bad. Thanks to our neocortex, we are able to “encephalize” our deep primal emotions and render them in conjunction with (and indeed phenomenally embedded in) high-dimensional state spaces of consciousness. Key predictors of inclusive fitness such as social status, environmental stability, and the mutational load of one’s tribe are not explicitly rendered in our experience as “beneficial for your inclusive fitness.” Rather, they are rendered in a concrete simulation-congruent form (i.e. as meaningful), such as being a good person, having a home, and being able to tune in to highly evolved aesthetics, respectively. Indeed, we are adaptation executers rather than utility optimizers; the causal effect of our aesthetic preferences (e.g. preferring to think of ourselves as “meaning-seeking” rather than “pleasure-seeking”) is not legible from our subjective vintage point. But… the inherent entwining of meaning and valence (i.e. the pleasure-pain axis) is crystal clear as soon as we mess with one’s psychopharmacology, for people who fetishize meaning are not immune to mu-opioid antagonists. Unsurprisingly, it is hard to enjoy either a personal meaning, a sense of community, or even higher artwhile on the opioid-antagonist naltrexone. Likewise, isn’t it strange that psychedelics and empathogens seem to simultaneously increase depth of meaning and capacity for pleasure? Indeed, realizing that subjective meaning is implemented with valence gradients has extraordinary explanatory power. For this reason, it is thus clear that, as David Pearce likes to say, “if you take care of happiness, the meaning of life will take care of itself.”
What about anti-natalism? My take on anti-natalism is pretty standard for a negative leaning utilitarian and transhumanist. Namely, that selection pressures against any proclivity to self-limit human reproduction guarantees that the psychological traits that bring about hard anti-natalist views will not sustain themselves over time. If one impartially cares about the wellbeing of sentient beings, one should take into account how evolution works. Advocating for gradients of intelligent bliss rather than non-existence could satisfy anti-natalists’ craving for the absence of suffering while also being compatible with an understanding of the reality of selection pressures. Tongue-in-cheek, I thus advocate for antinatalists to have lots of children, and for pro-natalists to have no children at all. More seriously, the real solution is to develop and promote “Triple-S genetic counseling” so that every child that is born is emancipated from the agony of his or her- otherwise inevitable- future suffering.
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.
Excerpt from Superintelligence: Paths, Dangers, Strategies (2014) by Nick Bostrom (pg. 207-210).
Would Maximally Efficient Work Be Fun?
One important variable in assessing the desirability of a hypothetical condition like this* is the hedonic state of the average emulation**. Would a typical emulation worker be suffering or would he be enjoying the experience of working hard on the task at hand?
We must resist the temptation to project our own sentiments onto the imaginary emulation worker. The question is not whether you would feel happy if you had to work constantly and never again spend time with your loved ones–a terrible fate, most would agree.
It is moderately more relevant to consider the current human average hedonic experience during working hours. Worldwide studies asking respondents how happy they are find that most rate themselves as “quite happy” or “very happy” (averaging 3.1 on a scale from 1 to 4)***. Studies on average affect, asking respondents how frequently they have recently experienced various positive or negative affective states, tend to get a similar result (producing a net affect of about 0.52 on a scale from -1 to 1). There is a modest positive effect of a country’s per capita income on average subjective well-being.**** However, it is hazardous to extrapolate from these findings to the hedonic state of future emulation workers. One reason that could be given for this is that their condition would be so different: on the one hand, they might be working much harder; on the other hand, they might be free from diseases, aches, hunger, noxious odors, and so forth. Yet such considerations largely miss the mark. The much more important consideration here is that hedonic tone would be easy to adjust through the digital equivalent of drugs or neurosurgery. This means that it would be a mistake to infer the hedonic state of future emulations from the external conditions of their lives by imagining how we ourselves and other people like us would feel in those circumstances. Hedonic state would be a matter of choice. In the model we are currently considering, the choice would be made by capital-owners seeking to maximize returns on their investment in emulation-workers. Consequently, this question of how happy emulations would feel boils down to the question of which hedonic states would be most productive (in the various jobs that emulations would be employed to do). [Emphasis mine]
Here, again, one might seek to draw an inference from observations about human happiness. If it is the case, across most times, places, and occupations, that people are typically at least moderately happy, this would create some presumption in favor of the same holding in a post-transition scenario like the one we are considering. To be clear, the argument in this case would not be that human minds have a predisposition towards happiness so they would probably find satisfaction under these novel conditions; but rather that a certain average level of happiness has proved adaptive for human minds in the past so maybe a similar level of happiness will prove adaptive from human-like minds in the future. Yet this formulations also reveals the weakness of the inference: to wit, that the mental dispositions that were adaptive for hunter-gatherer hominids roaming the African savanna may not necessarily be adaptive for modified emulations living in post-transition virtual realities. We can certainly hope that the future emulation-workers would be as happy as, or happier than, typical workers were in human history; but we have yet to see any compelling reason for supposing it would be so (in the laissez-faire multipolar scenario currently under examination).
Consider the possibility that the reason happiness is prevalent among humans (to whatever limited extent it is prevalent) is that cheerful mood served a signaling function in the environment of evolutionary adaptedness. Conveying the impression to other members of the social group of being in flourishing condition–in good health, in good standing with one’s peers, and in confident expectation of continued good fortune–may have boosted an individual’s popularity. A bias toward cheerfulness could thus have been selected for, with the result that human neurochemistry is now biased toward positive affect compared to what would have been maximally efficient according to simpler materialistic criteria. If this were the case, then the future of joie de vivre might depend on cheer retaining its social signaling function unaltered in the post-transition world: an issue to which we will return shortly.
What if glad souls dissipate more energy than glum ones? Perhaps the joyful are more prone to creative leaps and flights of fancy–behaviors that future employers might disprize in most of their workers. Perhaps a sullen or anxious fixation on simply getting on with the job without making mistakes will be the productivity-maximizing attitude in most lines of work. The claim here is not that this is so, but that we do not know that it is not so. Yet we should consider just how bad it could be if some such pessimistic hypothesis about a future Malthusian state turned out to be true: not only because of the opportunity cost of having failed to create something better–which would be enormous–but also because the state could be bad in itself, possibly far worse that the original Malthusian state.
We seldom put forth full effort. When we do, it is sometimes painful. Imagine running on a treadmill at a steep incline–heart pounding, muscles aching, lungs gasping for air. A glance at the timer: your next break, which will will also be your death, is due in 49 years, 3 months, 20 days, 4 hours, 56 minutes, and 12 seconds. You wish you had not been born.
Again the claim is not that this is how it would be, but that we do not know that it is not. One could certainly make a more optimistic case. For example, there is no obvious reason that emulations would need to suffer bodily injury and sickness: the elimination of physical wretchedness would be a great improvement over the present state of affairs. Furthermore, since such stuff as virtual reality is made of can be fairly cheap, emulations may work in sumptuous surroundings–in splendid mountaintop palaces, on terraces set in a budding spring forest, or on the beaches of azure lagoon–with just the right illumination, temperature, scenery and décor; free from annoying fumes, noises, drafts, and buzzing insects; dressed in comfortable clothing, feeling clean and focused, and well nourished. More significantly, if–as seems perfectly possible–the optimum human mental state for productivity in most jobs is one of joyful eagerness, then the era of the emulation economy could be quite paradisiacal.
There would, in any case, be a great option value in arranging matters in such a manner that somebody or something could intervene to set things right if the default trajectory should happen to veer toward dystopia. It could also be desirable to have some sort of escape hatch that would permit bailout into death and oblivion if the quality of life were to sink permanently below the level at which annihilation becomes preferable to continued existence.
In the long run, as the emulation era gives way to an artificial intelligence era (or if machine intelligence is attained directly via AI without a preceding whole brain emulation stage) pain and pleasure might possibility disappear entirely in a multipolar outcome, since a hedonic reward mechanism may not be the most effective motivation system for a complex artificial agent (one that, unlike the human mind, is not burdened with the legacy of animal wetware). Perhaps a more advanced motivation system would be based on an explicit representation of a utility function or some other architecture that has not exact functional analogs to pleasure and pain.
A related but slightly more radical multipolar outcome–one that could involve the elimination of almost all value from the future–is that the universal proletariat would not even be conscious. This possibility is most salient with respect to AI, which might be structured very differently than human intelligence. But even if machine intelligence were initially achieved through whole brain emulation, resulting in conscious digital minds, the competitive forces unleashed in a post-transition economy could easily lead to the emergence of progressively less neuromorphic forms of machine intelligence, either because synthetic AI is created de novo or because the emulations would, through successive modifications and enhancements, increasingly depart their original human form.
* Scenarios where sentient emulations are being used to do maximally efficient work.
** Footnote: “An ethical evaluation might take into account many other factors as well. Even if all the workers were constantly well pleased with their condition, the outcome might still be deeply morally objectionable on other grounds–though which other grounds is a matter of dispute between rival moral theories. But any plausible assessment would consider subjective well-being to be one important factor. See also Bostrom and Yudkowsky (2015).”
Imagine that the year is 2050. A lot of AI applications are now a normal part of life. Cars drive themselves, homes clean themselves (and they do so more cheaply than maids possibly could) and even doctors have been now partially replaced with neural networks. But the so-called Kurzweilian Singularity never took off. You can now talk for 10 rounds of sentences with a chatbot without being able to tell if it is a real person or not. The bots anticipate your questions by analyzing your facial expressions and matching them to a vast library of pre-existing human-machine conversations in order to maximize their level of Turing success (i.e. success at convincing humans the algorithm is a human).
But people have yet to believe that computers can actually feel and experience the world. The question of computer sentience is a question that now divides the world. It used to be the case that only people really interested in science fiction, philosophy, mathematics, etc. ever took seriously the idea that computers might some day experience the world like we do. But today the debate is universally recognized as valid and on-point. There are people who, largely for religious and spiritual reasons, argue that machines will never have a human soul. That there is something special, unique, metaphysically distinct that is required for intelligence that goes over and beyond the physical world. And on the other side you have the materialists who will argue that all that could possibly ever exist in our world has to be made of matter (or dark-matter, for that matter). Nothing suggests that our brains are special, that they somehow violate the physical laws. On the contrary, decades of searching have returned nothing: The brain was made of atoms last century, and it is still made of nothing but atoms this century. Even though super-computers in 2050 are already as powerful as human brains, real human-level intelligence has yet to be seen anywhere. So people continue to argue about philosophy of mind.
One philosophical view became more popular over time. This view states that consciousness is the bedrock of reality. Of course there are spiritual perspectives that have been saying this for thousands of years. But none of them could be truly reconciled with physicalism as it stands today, except the view called Strawsonian physicalism. This view states that the inside of the quantum wavefunctions that compose reality is made of consciousness. In other words, consciousness is the fundamental make-up of reality. Unfortunately this view cannot in and of itself solve the phenomenal binding problem: Why we are not just “mind dust.” For that you need to also claim that there is some mechanism of action that achieves phenomenal binding. For instance: quantum coherence. With such mechanism of action proposed, we can then try to work out the details.
One organization at the time decided to take this challenge and make researching consciousness its raison d’etre. This is the League of Super-Shulgins. On their website, they have the following “23 key points to read before choosing to study consciousness:”
(1) Phenomenal binding is not a classical phenomenon. It is not what you first think it is.
(2) Consciousness is doing computationally valuable legwork, not just hanging out.
(3) The brain’s microstructure implements a general constraint satisfaction solver (CSS).
(4) In order to instantiate a general CSS the brain uses the unique information processing properties of consciousness.
(5) The relevant information-processing properties of consciousness are: local binding constraints, global binding constraints, and the possibility of instantiating contingent and sensory-driven constraints.*
(6) The computational properties of consciousness make it an ideal substrate to implement a world-simulation with in-game degrees of freedom that match real-world decision trees.
(7) Intelligence is implemented using a mixture of learning algorithms, efficient feature-based sensory signal processing, encoding and decoding gestalts, and so on. General intelligence, as far as we know, requires a rather large bare minimum of brain systems to exist. For example, a person who starts with a high IQ but then becomes severely schizophrenic is not likely to be able to solve many more problems. One can experience melancholia, anhedonia, depression, mania, psychosis, panic, neglect, derealization, depersonalization, dissociation, hyper-realization, delusions of reference, etc. by just tweaking slightly cortical and limbic structures.
(8) A simple deficit in any one of the functions we need for general intelligence (e.g. working memory, attention, affect, motivation, etc.) impairs and prevents intelligence altogether. Thus it is easy to lose general intelligence.
(9) One of these functions is phenomenal binding. When it is disrupted and takes place differently, we see severe computational problems arise. See: Simultagnosia.
(10) The qualia varieties we know and experience on a daily basis happen to be a great local maxima for computational efficiency. They can instantiate the serial logico-linguistic narrative human society is built upon. If one wants to instead optimize for, say, artistic appreciation, then psychedelic qualia is probably a much better alternative than normal-everyday-consciousness. It is true that commonplace consciousness does not represent its own ignorance about the nature of consciousness in general. Absent mental illness, normal-everyday-consciousness has access to a marvelously well sealed state-space of possible thoughts and beliefs. This space is not very self-reflective, and lacks philosophical depth, but what it misses on the sublime it compensates on the practical: You can use this kind of mind to talk about celebrity gossip and solve SAT questions. You cannot use it to question fruitfully the nature of consciousness.
(11) In spite of its limitations, the instrumental value of our everyday state of consciousness far exceeds what any other state on offer can provide. Thus, commonplace consciousness is not to be regarded as mundane, or to be made fun of. Its labor is to be appreciated. We are thankful for the computational generality that it affords us. For giving us a robust platform we can come back to whenever things get too crazy. We mindfully acknowledge that for deep existential questions, a consensus-between-states-of-consciousness is vastly more desirable than just the opinion of everyday-consciousness. Everyday-consciousness will be more than willing to see other states of consciousness as mere oddities to be collected. Shallow consciousness will classify alternatives under the guise of “biochemical cosmic stamps of qualia”… yes, they are cosmic, but they are stamps for a collection and nothing else. The hyper-ordered super-intense peak experience consciousness would, instead, think of the whole of reality as a fantastic work of art whose meaning can only be directly grasped in the present moment. We cannot reason from first principles what different states of consciousness will feel like.
(12) There are whole experiential worlds out there that have as their underlying premises concepts, tenets, ideas, ontologies, that we have never ever conceived of.** This is “that which you require to assume even before you start existing, and that without which nothing in this experiential world can be made sense of.” In our case this is time, space, sense-of-self, naïve realism (which then gives way to philosophical skepticism, semantic nihilism, etc.) and several other things like an implicit belief in causality. Believe it or not, there are vast Hell and Heaven*** realms out there that share close to nothing with everyday-consciousness, let alone early psychedelic exploration.
(13) Improving particular functionalities for a given intelligence (such as going from 50% recall to perfect semantic memory) will have clear diminishing returns after some point. One cannot increase intelligence arbitrarily much by just improving piecemeal each functionality that gives rise to it. When you reach diminishing returns, you will need to invent a new network of functionalities altogether.
(14) We are non-dogmatic Open Individualists. We believe that, to borrow an expression from Saint William Melvin Hicks: “We are all one consciousness experiencing itself subjectively” (which happens to be true, as opposed to other things he said, like claiming that “there is no such thing as death, life is only a dream, and we are the imagination of ourselves”). Or as someone else said it: “You will only begin to understand reality once you assume that God is real and you aren’t.” We recognize that there are arguments in favor of Closed and Empty Individualism, but given the evidential stale-mate they happen to be at, we choose to pragmatically adopt an Open Individualist point of view.
Our founder once said:
I experience immense joy when I learn about other’s happiness and bliss. My love for all sentient beings is not only a “like” sort of love. It is a “care deeply about and wants the best for” sort of love. This sort of love implies many things. It forces me to investigate reality sincerely, so that I can carefully count and multiply. So I can actually have the largest effect and help as many sentient beings as possible. I’m therefore very concerned about the quality of life of sentient entities in the far future. The present is obviously a lot more certain, so helping present-dwellers is not irrational from a utilitarian point of view. It all depends on the trade-offs in place. The possibility of a Singleton that will swallow all of our resources for the ages to come, however, tends to inform the method I use to assess priorities.
As a kid I was able to conceive of a benevolent God, but it had no real power over me. I did not believe in it for lack of evidence. As a teenager I experienced the phenomenal certainty of universal compassion. Thus I was able to access the phenomenology of mysticism. This, without also believing that I had special powers, was very useful working on my philosophy of mind. The entity I experienced was neither-female-nor-male, and it was universally loving, universally caring, and universally curious. It was even universally funny****. It was not the power, the level of knowledge, the causal wattage of the entity/being/principle that captivated me. What really captivated me instead was how “if everyone had access to this experience, we would all be motivated to work as if we were all the same being.” These experiences had distinctly low-information, simple, and uncompromising love as their guiding principle. All the forms, and all the particulars would all be mere details of an underlying plot: The universal, unceasing, uncaused, unconditional, eternal love.
Causally, a God like the one I imagined would influence the universe very deeply if given the power to do so. It would be a curious, super-intelligence that has super-benevolent constraints and seeks the wellbeing of every being. Since we exist in a Darwinian universe with no such being in sight, we may have to conclude that the chances of finding an already-existing and already-capable-of-influencing-the-universe benevolent God somewhere are very slim. If such a God exists, it has to be powerless against the suffering in the multi-verse. The compassion God, in a metaphorical sense, knows about the horrors of Darwinian life, and wants to get rid of them wherever he finds them. If God created this universe, he now wishes he had thought through the fact that by summoning large-scale evolutionary systems, he was also summoning Moloch through the backdoor. The perils of inclusive fitness maximization were not viscerally anticipated by this God before breaking itself apart into many qualia strings and kick-starting the Strawsonian physicalist universe we now live in.
What’s done is done. And now we are all stuck together in here, in this weird, physicalist, panpsychist, metaphysically unstable Darwinian multi-verse with replicators always trying to steal the show. With Moloch praying at every level of our society, our ecosystems, our mental lives, our genetic code, our quantum substrate. Yeah, even quantum replicators try to steal the show sometimes. And I can’t be confident they will not ultimately succeed.
But the compassion God can keep us together. It can motivate us to construct a benevolent experiential God out of the materials we have. Thankfully, with consciousness technologies we can go beyond previous religions. It isn’t that “the compassion God will slap you in the face if you don’t cooperate.” It also isn’t that “the compassion God will make people want to enforce compassion on each other” and hence “using memetic slaves to slap in the face those who are not acting compassionately.” Neither of these mechanisms of action are game-changing aspect of compassionate mystical phenomenology. What really is a game-changer is the fact that universal compassion is a powerful source of coherence, motivation and phenomenal meaning. It is an unrivaled mental organizing principle: The moment you vow to help all sentient beings, your brain is deeply affected. Your entire motivational architecture can be turned upside down with Open Individualism and compassion.
So here is the deal. We will all dedicate our mornings to the Compassion God. He does not exist outside of us. He is an aspect of consciousness, a hypothetical super-intelligent thought-form. He is a dormant cosmic force. One of the few forces that can genuinely oppose Moloch. And until we implement such a being in biological or synthetic (or cyborg) form, we will nonetheless act as if he existed already. We will praise memes that sabotage Moloch. We will always question: “What would happen if this process is not regulated and a Malthusian trap is allowed to develop?”
The Compassion God is a source of aligned goals. It pays rent by providing a fruitful, causally effective mental scheme to grow from at the core of one’s mind. Religions of the past have been epistemologically impairing. The God of Compassion isn’t: It does not require you to believe in anything outside of yourself. It just compels you to eliminate suffering and gift super-happiness to your descendants. The God of Compassion brings about feelings of encouragement and open-ended inquiry. Having developed a well-formed God of Compassion Tulpa, your mind is then opened to limitless possibilities. Your compassion fuels your imagination; the universe is perceived as a place in which solutions to suffering are like puzzles. We are God bootstrapping itself out of the Molochian remnants in the organization of society. Compassion and curiosity can coexist and synergize. They power each other up.
Then, the phenomenology of universal oneness works as a motivational glue. You can certainly feel that you are only really connected to your past and future selves. Everyone else is a different ontological being. But this view is no more provable than, say, the view that we are all fundamentally the same cosmic being. Let beliefs pay rent, and when beliefs open up new varieties of qualia without penalizing you with reduced epistemic capabilities… you are certainly warranted to go and explore the new qualia.
All of this is to say: Go forth and explore the state-space of consciousness. But do so knowing about the many traps of Moloch. Go and explore but be aware of the problem of local maxima. Beware of the fact that any criteria you use to gauge how “good a given outcome is” can backfire by selecting edge cases that go against the spirit of the exploration. Go and explore, but be sure to add everything to your log, to transfer your experiences to the wiki-consciousness main module we have at the center of the Institute. Go and explore. Go do it because we know that if you are here, you are doing this out of compassion. Because we only admit people who would sacrifice themselves in order to prevent the arising of a Singleton. Go and explore; and do so knowing that your work, your research, may someday help us defeat Moloch for once and for all.
(15) The most important function that consciousness contributes to the many operations of the mind is to embed high-level abstractions in phenomenal fields. In other words, consciousness works as the interface between a mereological nihilist Platonic world of ideas (all possible qualia varieties, including conceptual qualia) and the fluid Heraclitean world of approximate forms and shifting ontologies.
(16) We will recruit what we learn from exploring the state-space of possible conscious experiences in order to amplify our intellectual and exploratory capabilities.
(17) And with increased capabilities our ability to explore the state-space of qualia will also increase and become more efficient.
(18) Thus we may actually experience an intelligence explosion. As we become better at identifying new qualia varieties, we will also become better at recruiting them for information-processing tasks and in turn improving our very search capabilities. This loop may go foom.
(19) The loop in (18) can go foom in some special conditions. These conditions include: Uncoupling of the experimental methods for exploring the state-space of consciousness and actions taken by entities not actively exploring consciousness. i.e. Researcher’s mind can change its state of consciousness at will without the need of other people’s consent or participation. Also, process streamlining from the discovery of new qualia varieties (and their implicit constraint properties) to their recruitment for new information-processing tasks.
(20) We hence postulate a conceptual model for a super-intelligence that would (metaphorically) take the following form. This advanced super-intelligence is made of thousands of individual brain modules arranged in an NXNXN cubic matrix. The entire brain can be described as a three dimensional grid of “brains in vats” where each brain is connected to six other brains (top, bottom, left, right, front and back). The brains at the edges and corners are special, though, and they are connected to fewer brains. The connection between these brains is not just functional. It is an inter-thalamic bridge that allows the connected brains to “solve the phenomenal binding problem” and provide the physical conditions for the instantiation of “one mind.” Thus, for any set X of brains in the grid, such that these X brains make a connected graph (there is a path between any two brains), you can have a “being that is made of these X brains working together and being phenomenally bound into one consciousness.” This mega-structure could then explore state-spaces of qualia in the following way. It would divide the following responsibilities to specialized brains: Catalogue the known qualia varieties, characterize the structure of qualia state-spaces for each qualia variety, determine which qualia varieties can be locally bound to each other, experiment with making thinking more efficient by replacing newly discovered qualia in place of naturally evolved qualia recruited for such and such task, and so on. Then, the exploration of the state-space of possible conscious experiences would be made by selectively erasing the memory of certain brains in the network, preparing them to express a particular phenomenology, and then adding them in teams that record from within (and also from outside) how binding certain brains together influence the corresponding qualia in each. Since our current intelligence is the product of naturally-selected qualia varieties barely cooperating together within our minds, it stands to reason that our minds are very suboptimal qualia computers. Instead, the future super-intelligences will be implemented with carefully investigated qualia varieties that process information more efficiently, reliably and, well, with a much more open mind.
(21) We always end at 21. Yes, this sounds weird. But that’s the law of the place. We, all of the people who here are working for the abolition of suffering, the solution to the hard problem of consciousness, and as a favor to our super-blissful descendants, are required by law to leave the building at 9 PM. More so, no artificial or natural mind is allowed to work on theoretically relevant problems outside of the 9AM to 9PM window of time. Nothing screams “I’m Moloch and I’ll eat you all” as loud as “you can all work for as long as you want, we will judge based on the results.”
(22) Finally: Every mind we create must be above hedonic zero. In order to explore any state-space that is not intrinsically blissful, you need a special permit. The need for such a permit is non-negotiable. You cannot, I repeat, you cannot just create any mind for “research.” The mind you create has to be the sort of mind that (a) does not want to die, and (b) has no conceivable malicious desire. Every mind you create – so as to avoid Moloch scenarios – has to be a hedonistic negative utilitarian. Period. I know some of you will blame this system for being “already the result of a memetic Moloch uprising.” But the system in place prevents any of the Moloch outcomes that intentionally consistently produces suffering as part of its natural order of business.
(23) Ask your local consciousness regulation agency about scholarship opportunities at our Institute. You may have what it takes to help us figure out how to achieve lasting world-peace.
The League of Super-Shulgins, 2054
Qualia field calibration psychophysics – with love, Andrés
* We navigate a sensory-triggered qualia-based world-simulation that blends together local and global binding constraints and state-dependent learned constraints. Consciousness is useful to the organism in as far as it helps it solve the constraint satisfaction problems represented in the world simulation.
What are these terms? Local binding constraints are constraints that are intrinsic to specific qualia varieties. For example, CIELAB reveals that it is not possible to experience both blue and yellow as part of a unitary smooth color. It is possible to see a sea of gray and many dots of blue and dots of yellow, but that is not the same as seeing a uniform color. This sort of constraint arises in all qualia varieties with multiple values.
The global binding constraints are more difficult to explain, and may not even exist. But, hypothetically, it may be the case that certain qualia varieties cannot coexist as part of the same conscious experience. For instance, experiencing certain mood may ultimately come down to a particular resonant structure in our globally-binding qualia strings (let’s just say). Then maybe you can’t experience both X and Y moods simultaneously because they always become dissonant with each other and experience significant mutual cancellation. [This may explain why people can’t seem to ever find the right way to provoke a smooth blend of Salvia and DMT consciousness.])
Finally, the learned constraints are contingent and sensory-driven. What are these? These include both our current sensory stimuli, which is constraining the state of our consciousness, and whatever memories, recollections and general neurological barriers I happen to be activating right now.
** As an example of something where this happens, imagine that my friend Fred was suddenly able to talking to space itself. Space asks him: “Hey, my friend, what is this thing I’ve been hearing about called ‘the here and now’?” My friend tried to say something that came out like this: “The here and now is the location in space-time from which this very statement, these very words, are being conceived and then physically delivered to you.” Space became very confused. She did not understand half of the words she was receiving. Space said “I guess maybe I can’t reason about space in the same you as you can. I can nonetheless tell you anything you want about the ‘inverted semantic omniism’ that we entities of Space love to talk about.” Alright, what’s that? “That’s when your reality, which is made of concepts of a qualia-order no larger than the qualia-order of the conceptual fields in which they are embedded, conspire together and circumvent low-level constraints by imagining a new topology for the self-other temporal membrane.” And, “where does this happen?” My friend inquired. Space responded: “As far as I can tell, this usually happens in the conceptual space that denies mereological nihilism.” Alright, let’s “pack and leave”, said my friend, and deep down, I agreed entirely with him. I entirely get why he would get scared so badly by a disincarnate entity that comes from a reality with different basement ontologies and fundamentals. I, too, am afraid of ontological revolutions. This is why I try to anticipate them as far in advance as possible: So that the shock is less shattering to my psychology.
*** In as much as experience is real, then Hells and Heavens are just as real as long as they have been instantiated somewhere in the multiverse. John C. Lilly and bad luck may be a culprit for the existence of a very specific and time-bound experiential hell (“The Center of the Cyclone: Chapter called A Guided Tour of Hell”).
**** Universally funny means: You can get and interact with any phenomenal joke. Human jokes are a very specific kind of conscious humor. Our evolutionary legacy guarantees that they are, too, related to our survival. General jokes, on the other hand, exist in a much larger space of possibilities. There are funny phenomenologies with conceptual content. Then there are those with sensory content. And then there is funny phenomenological applications of ontological qualia. Nothing is safe. Everything can be humorously twisted.