The Binding Problem

[Our] subjective conscious experience exhibits a unitary and integrated nature that seems fundamentally at odds with the fragmented architecture identified neurophysiologically, an issue which has come to be known as the binding problem. For the objects of perception appear to us not as an assembly of independent features, as might be suggested by a feature based representation, but as an integrated whole, with every component feature appearing in experience in the proper spatial relation to every other feature. This binding occurs across the visual modalities of color, motion, form, and stereoscopic depth, and a similar integration also occurs across the perceptual modalities of vision, hearing, and touch. The question is what kind of neurophysiological explanation could possibly offer a satisfactory account of the phenomenon of binding in perception?
One solution is to propose explicit binding connections, i.e. neurons connected across visual or sensory modalities, whose state of activation encodes the fact that the areas that they connect are currently bound in subjective experience. However this solution merely compounds the problem, for it represents two distinct entities as bound together by adding a third distinct entity. It is a declarative solution, i.e. the binding between elements is supposedly achieved by attaching a label to them that declares that those elements are now bound, instead of actually binding them in some meaningful way.
Von der Malsburg proposes that perceptual binding between cortical neurons is signalled by way of synchronous spiking, the temporal correlation hypothesis (von der Malsburg & Schneider 1986). This concept has found considerable neurophysiological support (Eckhorn et al. 1988, Engel et al. 1990, 1991a, 1991b, Gray et al. 1989, 1990, 1992, Gray & Singer 1989, Stryker 1989). However although these findings are suggestive of some significant computational function in the brain, the temporal correlation hypothesis as proposed, is little different from the binding label solution, the only difference being that the label is defined by a new channel of communication, i.e. by way of synchrony. In information theoretic terms, this is no different than saying that connected neurons posses two separate channels of communication, one to transmit feature detection, and the other to transmit binding information. The fact that one of these channels uses a synchrony code instead of a rate code sheds no light on the essence of the binding problem. Furthermore, as Shadlen & Movshon (1999) observe, the temporal binding hypothesis is not a theory about how binding is computed, but only how binding is signaled, a solution that leaves the most difficult aspect of the problem unresolved.
I propose that the only meaningful solution to the binding problem must involve a real binding, as implied by the metaphorical name. A glue that is supposed to bind two objects together would be most unsatisfactory if it merely labeled the objects as bound. The significant function of glue is to ensure that a force applied to one of the bound objects will automatically act on the other one also, to ensure that the bound objects move together through the world even when one, or both of them are being acted on by forces. In the context of visual perception, this suggests that the perceptual information represented in cortical maps must be coupled to each other with bi-directional functional connections in such a way that perceptual relations detected in one map due to one visual modality will have an immediate effect on the other maps that encode other visual modalities. The one-directional axonal transmission inherent in the concept of the neuron doctrine appears inconsistent with the immediate bi-directional relation required for perceptual binding. Even the feedback pathways between cortical areas are problematic for this function due to the time delay inherent in the concept of spike train integration across the chemical synapse, which would seem to limit the reciprocal coupling between cortical areas to those within a small number of synaptic connections. The time delays across the chemical synapse would seem to preclude the kind of integration apparent in the binding of perception and consciousness across all sensory modalities, which suggests that the entire cortex is functionally coupled to act as a single integrated unit.
— Section 5 of “Harmonic Resonance Theory: An Alternative to the ‘Neuron Doctrine’ Paradigm of Neurocomputation to Address Gestalt properties of perception” by Steven Lehar

Just the fate of our forward light-cone

Implicit in the picture is that the Hedonium Ball is at the verge of becoming critical (and turn into super-critical hedonium, at around 17 kgs, which leads to runaway re-coherence of the wavefunction reachable, i.e. all of our forward light-cone). The only reason why the ball hasn’t gone critical is because the friendly AI is currently preventing it from doing so. But the AI is at full capacity. If it had a bit more power the AI would completely annihilate the hedonium, since it is a threat to the Coherent Extrapolated Volition (CEV) of the particular human values that led to its creation. More so, the friendly AI would then go ahead and erase the memory of anyone who has ever thought of making hedonium, and change them slightly so that they belong to a society of other people who have been brainwashed to not know anything about philosophical hedonism. They would have deeply fulfilling lives, but would never know of the existence of hyper-valuable states of consciousness.

Only you can sort out this stale-mate. The ball and the AI are at such a delicate balance that just throwing a trolley at either will make the other win forever.


The Super-Shulgin Academy: A Singularity I Can Believe In

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.


CIELAB (1976)

** 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.

Some Definitions

Both physics and philosophy are jargon-ridden. So let’s first define some key concepts.


Both “consciousness” and “physical” are contested terms. Accurately if inelegantly, consciousness may be described following Nagel (“What is it like to be a bat?”) as the subjective what-it’s-like-ness of experience. Academic philosophers term such self-intimating “raw feels” “qualia” – whether macro-qualia or micro-qualia. The minimum unit of consciousness (or “psychon”, so to speak) has been variously claimed to be the entire universe, a person, a sub-personal neural network, an individual neuron, or the most basic entities recognised by quantum physics. In The Principles of Psychology (1890), American philosopher and psychologist William James christened these phenomenal simples “primordial mind-dust“. This paper conjectures that (1) our minds consist of ultra-rapidly decohering neuronal superpositions in strict accordance with unmodified quantum physics without the mythical “collapse of the wavefunction”; (2) natural selection has harnessed the properties of these neuronal superpositions so our minds run phenomenally-bound world-simulations; and (3) predicts that with enough ingenuity the non-classical interference signature of these conscious neuronal superpositions will be independently experimentally detectable (see 6 below) to the satisfaction of the most incredulous critic.


The “physical” may be contrasted with the supernatural or the abstract and – by dualists and epiphenomenalists, with the mental. The current absence of any satisfactory “positive” definition of the physical leads many philosophers of science to adopt instead the “via negativa“. Thus some materialists have sought stipulatively to define the physical in terms of an absence of phenomenal experience. Such a priori definitions of the nature of the physical are question-begging.


Physicalism” is sometimes treated as the formalistic claim that the natural world is exhaustively described by the equations of physics and their solutions. Beyond these structural-relational properties of matter and energy, the term “physicalism” is also often used to make an ontological claim about the intrinsic character of whatever the equations describe. This intrinsic character, or metaphysical essence, is typically assumed to be non-phenomenal. “Strawsonian physicalists” (cf. “Consciousness and Its Place in Nature: Does Physicalism Entail Panpsychism?”) dispute any such assumption. Traditional reductive physicalism proposes that the properties of larger entities are determined by properties of their physical parts. If the wavefunction monism of post-Everett quantum mechanics assumed here is true, then the world does not contain discrete physical parts as understood by classical physics.


Materialism” is the metaphysical doctrine that the world is made of intrinsically non-phenomenal “stuff”. Materialism and physicalism are often treated as cousins and sometimes as mere stylistic variants – with “physicalism” used as a nod to how bosonic fields, for example, are not matter. “Physicalistic materialism” is the claim that physical reality is fundamentally non-experiential and that the natural world is exhaustively described by the equations of physics and their solutions.


Panpsychism” is the doctrine that the world’s fundamental physical stuff also has primitive experiential properties. Unlike the physicalistic idealism explored here, panpsychism doesn’t claim that the world’s fundamental physical stuff is experiential.


Epiphenomenalism” in philosophy of mind is the view that experience is caused by material states or events in the brain but does not itself cause anything; the causal efficacy of mental agency is an illusion.


For our purposes, “idealism” is the ontological claim that reality is fundamentally experiential. This use of the term should be distinguished from Berkeleyan idealism, and more generally, from subjective idealism, i.e. the doctrine that only mental contents exist: reality is mind-dependent. One potential source of confusion of contemporary scientific idealism with traditional philosophical idealism is the use by inferential realists in the theory of perception of the term “world-simulation”. The mind-dependence of one’s phenomenal world-simulation, i.e. the quasi-classical world of one’s everyday experience, does not entail the idealist claim that the mind-independent physical world is intrinsically experiential in nature – a far bolder conjecture that we nonetheless tentatively defend here.


Physicalistic idealism” is the non-materialist physicalist claim that reality is fundamentally experiential and that the natural world is exhaustively described by the equations of physics and their solutions: more specifically, by the continuous, linear, unitary evolution of the universal wavefunction of post-Everett quantum mechanics. The “decoherence program” in contemporary theoretical physics aims to show in a rigorously quantitative manner how quasi-classicality emerges from the unitary dynamics.


Monism” is the conjecture that reality consists of a single kind of “stuff” – be it material, experiential, spiritual, or whatever. Wavefunction monism is the view that the universal wavefunction mathematically represents, exhaustively, all there is in the world. Strictly speaking, wavefunction monism shouldn’t be construed as the claim that reality literally consists of a certain function, i.e. a mapping from some mind-wrenchingly immense configuration space to the complex numbers, but rather as the claim that every mathematical property of the wavefunction except the overall phase corresponds to some property of physical world. “Dualism”, the conjecture that reality consists of two kinds of “stuff”, comes in many flavours: naturalistic and theological; interactionist and non-interactionist; property and ontological. In the modern era, most scientifically literate monists have been materialists. But to describe oneself as both a physicalist and a monistic idealist is not the schizophrenic word-salad it sounds at first blush.


Functionalism” in philosophy of mind is the theory that mental states are constituted solely by their functional role, i.e. by their causal relations to other mental states, perceptual inputs, and behavioural outputs. Functionalism is often associated with the idea of “substrate-neutrality”, sometimes misnamed “substrate-independence”, i.e. minds can be realised in multiple substrates and at multiple levels of abstraction. However, micro-functionalists may dispute substrate-neutrality on the grounds that one or more properties of mind, for example phenomenal binding, functionally implicate the world’s quantum-mechanical bedrock from which the quasi-classical worlds of Everett’s multiverse emerge. Thus this paper will argue that only successive quantum-coherent neuronal superpositions at naively preposterously short time-scales can explain phenomenal binding. Without phenomenal binding, no functionally adaptive classical world-simulations could exist in the first instance.


The “binding problem(10), also called the “combination problem”, refers to the mystery of how the micro-experiences mediated by supposedly discrete and distributed neuronal edge-detectors, motion-detectors, shape-detectors, colour-detectors (etc) can be “bound” into unitary experiential objects (“local” binding) apprehended by a unitary experiential self (“global” binding). Neuroelectrode studies using awake, verbally competent human subjects confirm that neuronal micro-experiences exist. Classical neuroscience cannot explain how they could ever be phenomenally bound.


Mereology” is the theory of the relations between part to whole and the relations between part to part within a whole. Scientifically literate humans find it’s natural and convenient to think of particles, macromolecules or neurons as having their own individual wavefunctions by which they can be formally represented. However, the manifest non-classicality of phenomenal binding means that in some contexts we must consider describing the entire mind-brain via a single wavefunction. Organic minds are not simply the “mereological sum” of discrete classical parts. Organic brains are not simply the “mereological sum” of discrete classical neurons.


Quantum field theory” is the formal, mathematico-physical description of the natural world. The world is made up of the states of quantum fields, conventionally non-experiential in character, that take on discrete values. Physicists use mathematical entities known as “wavefunctions” to represent quantum states. Wavefunctions may be conceived as representing all the possible configurations of a superposed quantum system. Wavefunction(al)s are complex valued functionals on the space of field configurations. Wavefunctions in quantum mechanics are sinusoidal functions with an amplitude (a “measure”) and also a phase. The Schrödinger equation:




describes the time-evolution of a wavefunction. “Coherence” means that the phases of the wavefunction are kept constant between the coherent particles, macromolecules or (hypothetically) neurons, while “decoherence” is the effective loss of ordering of the phase angles between the components of a system in a quantum superposition. Such thermally-induced “dephasing” rapidly leads to the emergence – on a perceptual naive realist story – of classical, i.e. probabilistically additive, behaviour in the central nervous system (“CNS”), and also the illusory appearance of separate, non-interfering organic macromolecules. Hence the discrete, decohered classical neurons of laboratory microscopy and biology textbooks. Unlike classical physics, quantum mechanics deals with superpositions of probability amplitudes rather than of probabilities; hence the interference terms in the probability distribution. Decoherence should be distinguished from dissipation, i.e. the loss of energy from a system – a much slower, classical effect. Phase coherence is a quantum phenomenon with no classical analogue. If quantum theory is universally true, then any physical system such as a molecule, neuron, neuronal network or an entire mind-brain exists partly in all its theoretically allowed states, or configuration of its physical properties, simultaneously in a “quantum superposition“; informally, a “Schrödinger’s cat state”. Each state is formally represented by a complex vector in Hilbert space. Whatever overall state the nervous system is in can be represented as being a superposition of varying amounts of these particular states (“eigenstates”) where the amount that each eigenstate contributes to the overall sum is termed a component. The “Schrödinger equation” is a partial differential equation that describes how the state of a physical system changes with time. The Schrödinger equation acts on the entire probability amplitude, not merely its absolute value. The absolute value of the probability amplitude encodes information about probability densities, so to speak, whereas its phase encodes information about the interference between quantum states. On measurement by an experimenter, the value of the physical quantity in a quantum superposition will naively seem to “collapse” in an irreducibly stochastic manner, with a probability equal to the square of the coefficient of the superposition in the linear combination. If the superposition principle really breaks down in the mind-brain, as traditional Copenhagen positivists still believe, then the central conjecture of this paper is false.


Mereological nihilism“, also known as “compositional nihilism”, is the philosophical position that objects with proper parts do not exist, whether extended in space or in time. Only basic building blocks (particles, fields, superstrings, branes, information, micro-experiences, quantum superpositions, entangled states, or whatever) without parts exist. Such ontological reductionism is untenable if the mind-brain supports macroscopic quantum coherence in the guise of bound phenomenal states because coherent neuronal superpositions describe individual physical states. Coherent superpositions of neuronal feature-detectors cannot be interpreted as classical ensembles of states. Radical ontological reductionism is even more problematic if post-Everett(11) quantum mechanics is correct: reality is exhaustively described by the time-evolution of one gigantic universal wavefunction. If such “wavefunction monism” is true, then talk of how neuronal superpositions are rapidly “destroyed” is just a linguistic convenience because a looser, heavily-disguised coherence persists within a higher-level Schrödinger equation (or its relativistic generalisation) that subsumes the previously tighter entanglement within a hierarchy of wavefunctions, all ultimately subsumed within the universal wavefunction.


Direct realism“, also known as “naive realism”, about perception is the pre-scientific view that the mind-brain is directly acquainted with the external world. In contrast, the “world-simulation model”(12) assumed here treats the mind-brain as running a data-driven simulation of gross fitness-relevant patterns in the mind-independent environment. As an inferential realist, the world-simulationist is not committed per se to any kind of idealist ontology, physicalistic or otherwise. However, s/he will understand phenomenal consciousness as broader in scope compared to the traditional perceptual direct realist. The world-simulationist will also be less confident than the direct realist that we have any kind of pre-theoretic conceptual handle on the nature of the “physical” beyond the formalism of theoretical physics – and our own phenomenally-bound physical consciousness.


“Classical worlds” are what perceptual direct realists call the world. Quantum theory suggests that the multiverse exists in an inconceivably vast cosmological superposition. Yet within our individual perceptual world-simulations, familiar macroscopic objects 1) occupy definite positions (the “preferred basis” problem); 2) don’t readily display quantum interference effects; and 3) yield well-defined outcomes when experimentally probed. Cats are either dead or alive, not dead-and-alive. Or as one scientific populariser puts it, “Where Does All the Weirdness Go?” This paper argues that the answer lies under our virtual noses – though independent physical proof will depend on next-generation matter-wave interferometry. Phenomenally-bound classical world-simulations are the mind-dependent signature of the quantum “weirdness”. Without the superposition principle, no phenomenally-bound classical world-simulations could exist – and no minds. In short, we shouldn’t imagine superpositions of live-and-dead cats, but instead think of superpositions of colour-, shape-, edge- and motion-processing neurons. Thanks to natural selection, the content of our waking world-simulations typically appears classical; but the vehicle of the simulation that our minds run is inescapably quantum. If the world were classical it wouldn’t look like anything to anyone.


A “zombie“, sometimes called a “philosophical zombie” or “p-zombie” to avoid confusion with its lumbering Hollywood cousins, is a hypothetical organism that is materially and behaviourally identical to humans and other organic sentients but which isn’t conscious. Philosophers explore the epistemological question of how each of us can know that s/he isn’t surrounded by p-zombies. Yet we face a mystery deeper than the ancient sceptical Problem of Other Minds. If our ordinary understanding of the fundamental nature of matter and energy as described by physics is correct, and if our neurons are effectively decohered classical objects as suggested by standard neuroscience, then we all ought to be zombies. Following David Chalmers, this is called the Hard Problem of consciousness.


Non-Materialist Physicalism: An experimentally Testable Conjecture by David Pearce

Ontological Qualia: The Future of Personal Identity

*WARNING* If you are not psychologically robust, this *may* be a memetic hazard. It talks about ideas that may affect hedonic tone in people susceptible to bad philosophical experiences.

Personal Identity

What is personal identity? The word consciousness has many meanings. Some of them are mundane, such as “social awareness.” Others are extremely fundamental, like the nature of qualia. Likewise, personal identity has multiple meanings that are at entirely different levels in the philosophical hierarchy for how fundamental the questions are. A mundane sense of personal identity is “how people see you, and how you perceive yourself relative to others.” This article is not about that. Here the sense of this concept I will address is evoked by the question: What are the necessary and sufficient conditions for my existence?

Say someone is pointing at a given person somewhere in the multiverse. What information do I need to know in order to assert that “this person is me, and I am/did/will experience what he is experiencing”?

Related to this question, we also have what Derek Parfit defined as the question of survival. This is evoked by the following question: Under what circumstances will I exist in the future?

In principle, answering the first question will give you a direct answer to the second question. Answering the second one, however, does not necessarily answer the first one. In this article I will focus on the first question; I will note, however, that what people usually care about is the second one. Why? This is probably due to emotional reasons; caused by how our modeling of our future is implemented emotionally in our consciousness. We are wired to seek our own survival, so that inclusive fitness is maximized. It seems that, somehow, what we care about is whether “we will exist in the future” and not “whether some person in another dimension is also me.” Implicitly, we care about whether we can anticipate future experiences. Not, unfortunately, what the ultimate truth of identity really is.

I would argue, however, that a rational “selfish” individual who wants to survive should also take seriously the question of personal identity:  Even though it does not engage him or her at an emotional level, it still gives you what truly matters.

It gets worse: Even though most young people believe, at an intellectual level, that it is truly they who will experience life as an old individual when the time comes, in practice hyperbolic discounting tends to make us care very little about our (far) future selves. Our survival programs are implemented in a peculiar way, using emotions such as anticipation, desire, and fear, prioritizing perceptually-large, salient and soon-to-be possibilities rather than objectively bigger problems and opportunities in the far future. From an evolutionary point of view this makes sense: Hyperbolic discounting can be explained as a direct consequence of living in uncertain environments. Our ancestral environments were chaotic and unpredictable; if given the chance, placing all of one’s resources into a plan that guarantees one’s survival for a day was more effective than dividing equally one’s resources into improving the chances of surviving tomorrow and next year.

Emotional, Propositional, Ontological Qualia

Competing with our visceral anticipation we also have another representation of one’s survival: A cognitive understanding, which is implemented with thought and propositional beliefs. I call this propositional qualia; this is the very ineffable quality of one’s thoughts and propositional beliefs. Although this is a controversial idea, I am confident that our thoughts have a certain subjective quality. Propositional qualia probably evolved alongside with language and complex social cognition, and it is one of the largest differences between the subjective experience of human and non-human animals.

Propositional qualia is “the way our beliefs and counterfactual reasonings about the world feel.” This qualia is flexible and changes as we think. We start to develop it at the age of 3, and it is not fully mature until roughly our early 20s. Contra purely functionalist accounts of consciousness, the way thought feels like is not merely the result of neural networks churning away searches in a state-space of possibilities. Propositional qualia is, in itself, the instrument with which we do our thinking (via local phenomenal binding constraint satisfaction, but that story is for another article).

There is also a deeper sort of qualia that changes a lot less frequently, and seems to underpin people’s experience of philosophy, spirituality and religion. I call this ontological qualia. This is the way in which “beliefs about the nature of reality, the self and consciousness feel like.”

Psychedelics are well known for being able to change the quality of one’s sensory experience, produce distortions and greatly amplify emotions. What is less frequently talked about is how they also drastically change one’s propositional and ontological qualia. For example, there are reports of people who were devoted materialists and atheists for their entire lives, who suddenly experienced a profound sense of universal oneness after smoking a bit of 5-MeO-DMT.

Philosophical activity recruits a mixture of propositional and ontological qualia. Typically, people have settled ontological qualia, and they express it by playing with propositional qualia. Another way of saying this: People’s “deeply held beliefs and intuitions” rarely change. Rather, these beliefs inform the way they think and approach philosophical questions.

I would argue that beliefs about personal identity are propositional qualia that are informed by underlying ontological qualia. What are these beliefs?

Thanks to Daniel Kolak (the writer of “I am You”) we now have very clear vocabulary to discuss broad varieties of beliefs about personal identity. These varieties are:

Closed Individualism (CI)

This is the common-sense view of survival and personal identity. Most people are Closed Individualists. Our implicit gut feeling is largely Closed Individualistic. This view states that “you begin to exist when you are born and you stop existing when you die.” That said, this is only the classic formulation. One can be a Closed Individualist and believe in God, and the after-life. For example, people who believe in mainstream Abrahamic religions are usually Closed Individualists (gnostics and mystics being exceptions). With an after-(or pre-)life, the formulation is only slightly different: “You start existing when you are born (when your soul is created), and you never stop existing.” The main conditions for a view to be classified as CI is that (1) there is at most one instance of you at any given point in time, and (2) you continue to exist moment after moment.

Empty Individualism (EI)

This is the view that you only exist as a time-slice in space-time. For an Empty Individualist, the passage of time is an illusion. At every point in time you are born, you live and you die, all simultaneously. This is not to be confused with eternalism [as opposed to presentism] (also called The Block View of the universe). An Empty Individualist can be a presentist, and in that case he or she believes that one only exists for a unit of time (or an infinitesimally thin space-time cross-section, if time is continuous). This view is very intimately related to Mereological Nihilism. People like David Hume, Derek Parfit and David Pearce believe in this view, as well as many physicalist philosophers. Among the world’s classic religions, a notorious example of an EI religion is Buddhism (though this depends on the specific branch).

Open Individualism (OI)

This is the view that there is only one (universal) subject of experience. Alan Watts’ would describe it as the realization that we are all “God playing a cosmic game of hide and seek.” Every conscious entity may have a distinct form, a distinct personality, and a distinct causal role in the entire universe. But the essence beneath it all is one and the same. Hindu cosmology is often Open Individualist (we are all made of, and resting on, the same ground of being – Brahman). Famous Open Individualists include Einstein and Schopenhauer.

In a future article I will provide the steel man case for each of these views. This article, however, is focused on the qualia underlying these views… rather than on their merit as plausible truths.

LSD: The Qualia Evolution Neglected

The most recent neuroimaging study on the effects of LSD reveals that functionally coherent neural circuits break apart when one is high on acid. Unfortunately, I do not think such an explanation will be sufficient to account for the entirely novel kinds of qualia people experience under the influence. David Pearce hypothesizes that the indescribable weirdness of psychedelics is the result of changes in the structures of proteins inside cells. In his view, psychedelics drastically change the intra-cellular signaling of neurons, resulting in changes within the structure of cells. He believes that the textures of qualia are the result of the secondary, tertiary and quaternary structure of proteins in neurons. This is a thoroughly testable hypothesis, and it may even be possible to investigate it in-vitro. Opponents to this view would point out that the various parts of the brain, such as the visual cortex and the auditory cortex, can be exchanged with little to no functional deficits. Thus we could argue that any part of the cortex is functionally identical; there is one neat trick throughout the entire cortex.

We can reply to this, however, with the claim that unitary consciousness is actually implemented in the thalamus. Hence it matters little that various parts of the cortex can be used interchangeably for the same information processing task: Where we should be looking to find the one neat trick, is in the thalamus itself.

Anyhow, LSD and other major psychedelics produce entirely new phenomenologies. Are they short-cuts to enlightenment? Once psychedelic research is instantiated on a large scale again we will probably verify that there are strong parallels between the neurological properties (both in terms of signaling and intra-cellular composition) of natural mystical experiences and those induced by psychedelics. Natural selection recruited particular state-spaces of propositional and ontological qualia… spirituality and psychedelics enable us to hack new varieties of it that, so far, have not been useful to increase inclusive fitness.

It Gets Personal

In my personal experience, personal identity views have very distinct subjective qualities. I started my philosophical journey when I was a small kid. At 3 I was informed that every person dies sooner or later, and I remember that this information shocked me very deeply. I did not believe in God, but I still prayed at night “God, I know I can’t live forever. At least make me the oldest man on earth!”

Death was a constant subject of dread for me. I experienced several existential crisis at different points in my youth. The two most dreadfiul were: One that lasted a whole year, at the age of 9, and another that lasted about 6 months when I was 13. In both cases I was experiencing fairly constant dysphoria.

Thankfully, I managed to find some comforting interpretation of reality to quench my fear of death. For example, I managed to convince myself that “being dead and being non-existent are both the same state. I have already experienced non-existence, and it was a totally natural state… death cannot be worse than that. Its the most common state for everyone! We only live for a blink of an eye. Thus, to be alive is to be weird. To not exist, is to be in the natural state.” I knew these were rationalizations, but the need to reduce my bad existential feelings (i.e. bad ontological qualia) was rather severe. I was a Closed Individualist.

At 16 I had a mystical experience. An instance of what is usually talked about as “an oceanic dissolution of one’s identity into the ground of being.” It was very Hindu-like. Well before I had learned anything about any religion besides Christianity, I experienced something that can only be described as “realizing I’m the universal mind”. What happened is that I felt that my consciousness was giving life to my body: It was as if there was this endless ocean of being that was both inside and outside my body. My mind would make it seem as if “I was this body” but that was an illusion. In reality, I was the very ocean of being, and that was everywhere, in everything and in everyone, eternal and immortal.

I experienced a profound sense of relief when I had that experience. It completely transformed my experiential understanding of myself and others. I knew that no experience could be a “proof” for the reality of a particular philosophical view. But I now had at least a proof of concept for how things could be differently. I thought very deeply about the question of personal identity, and how it could be answered philosophically. I considered many thought experiments such as fission, fusion, split-brain, and so on. I realized that, if I am willing to accept that I do exist from one moment after another, then I would have to conclude that I was all of consciousness. I became an Open Individualist.

This experience, and the subsequent change in my beliefs (and thus the modification of my propositional and ontological qualia) drastically reduced, and even eliminated, my fear of death. In retrospect, I am amazed at the depth of my fear of death as a kid. I am not sure if this is common, or whether one needs to also have some sort of hyper-philosophilia in addition (the personality trait of being deeply concerned about philosophical matters at least a large fraction of every single day). I could imagine that, even though I would die and my body would be destroyed along with my memories, what really -fundamentally- mattered about me would never cease to exist. This was profoundly comforting.

Over the years, however, this view has lost some of its appeal. At 21 I started talking with David Pearce, and I realized that there was a somewhat stronger case for Empty Individualism than there was for Open Individualism. OI could be described as a poetic interpretation of reality, but the truth about it was that each unitary element of reality (whether trivial quantum wave-functions or fully developed conscious experiences such as mine) stands on its own, trapped in the Everett multiverse. I have since been in a rather ambiguous state: I experience ontological qualia related to Empty Individualism, Open Individualism, and even Closed Individualism, depending on my mood, my level of empathy, my brain chemistry, and my state of consciousness.

A Deep and Dark Realization

Recently I had one of the worst experiences of my life: After intense contemplation upon the problem of personal identity, and the nature of suffering, my mind temporarily settled with 100% certainty (subjective certainty, that is) into an Empty Individualist interpretation. I realized (in the sense of “experiencing as if true”) a state of consciousness that believes without any doubt in the following notions: Mereological Nihilism, Empty Individualism, Eternalism, Hedonic tone realism (that suffering is, truly, bad), Negative Utilitarianism, and a few others I can’t remember now. This was awful. I felt that I was stuck in space-time forever. And worse, that reality was incredibly sadistic and unfair: There are countless beings who exist in a state of suffering forever. Whereas with a Closed Individualist or Open Individualist viewpoint one can rationalize suffering as being temporary and “not the whole of the truth,” a fully realized Empty Individualist viewpoint does not allow you to make this rationalization. There are beings who, well, exist entirely below hedonic zero. Their whole existence is eternal suffering. Experiencing compassion towards suffering time-slices was painful beyond my usual range of hedonic tone.

Hedonic Tone and Ontological Qualia

The fact that this experience was so bad for me is a strong hint that there is indeed some kind of deep connection between hedonic tone and ontological qualia. But what is the nature of this connection? One hypothesis is that hedonic tone is like a color that “paints ontological qualia.” In other words, ontological qualia does not have an intrinsic hedonic tone. Instead, it is due to our particular brain makeup that certain beliefs are felt as good or bad. Thus, positive hedonic tone locally binds (in the phenomenal binding sense) to ontological qualia that suggests that one will survive in a good way, and vice versa. In other words, survival programs may be hijacking one’s hedonic coloring of philosophical notions. Since I experienced a fully fleshed out realization of Empty Individualism, my self-model was one of “being in a state of suffering forever without any possible escape, just as a lot of other beings in the multiverse.”

If this is so, then we can predict that artificial brains wired differently (either our descendants, or genetically engineered brains) may not necessarily experience the same hedonic tone associated to ontological qualia in the way that we do.

Alternatively, it may be the case that hedonic tone is intrinsic to ontological qualia: Some beliefs about “the nature of reality” may have an intrinsic positive or negative feel.

Moving On Beyond Ontological Distress

I have been fortunate to move on from the very bad state of “absolute belief in Empty Individualism.” Recently I had a mind-expanding session in which I focused on feeling intently how different ontological qualia are experienced. The trick was to allow myself to negate some background assumptions that were leaving me stuck in a particularly negative configuration of propositional and ontological qualia. What did I do? I assumed that Mereological Nihilism is false. This is a very bizarre thing to do. To start, most people are not Mereological Nihilists to begin with. But I suspect that once they have carefully explored this philosophical view, they will generally settle on it being true. It is self-evident once you contemplate it carefully. So negating Mereological Nihilism is a very strange philosophical move. Doable nonetheless. Doable, that is, if one is willing to experience some degree of depersonalization.

There are four ways Mereological Nihilism could be false. The first one is to embrace “Strong Emergence” (the view that collections of simples can somehow make another simple that simultaneously also is a bunch of simples). The second possibility is to negate the boundaries between oneself and the rest of reality. Discreet quantum wave functions will always be able to interfere with each other (even if very, very little), and thus one may be able to conceive of them as one whole being. It may be that our individuality is not ontological; it is an illusion caused by extremely thin, extremely sharp pseudo-boundries between minds. In this Open Individualist view, there are no vertical walls between you and other conscious experiences… only very steep walls that give rise to the illusion of separation. This embodies the very essence of Open Individualism. The third way is to contemplate the possibility of Gunk. Infinitely divisible beings with no ontological unity besides the whole of reality. These three methods require normally-inaccessible ontological qualia. The fourth method requires ontological qualia that is even further away from consensus reality:

Imagine that both “being” and “non-being” are both illusory concepts. In reality, the truth exists beyond being and beyond non-being… beyond logic. Thus, identification with one’s “present conscious experience” could be a simple mistake; dualistic ontological qualia, in which things either are or aren’t, could be just a very special case of a non-dualistic state-space of possible experiences. This is far out, I know. But the experience of this being the case is actually possible. It requires intense concentration, dedication, and perhaps some brain chemistry modifications.

Experiencing ontological qualia that negates Mereological Nihilism and thus renders Empty Individualism imposible, allowed me to be freed from my case of bad ontological qualia (will psychiatrists ever be able to diagnose this problem?). This was the result of contemplating Empty Individualism, and the cure was to contemplate the negation of Mereological Nihilism. I would recommend it to anyone who is suffering as a consequence of that very specific set of beliefs.

Is it possible that what freed me from bad ontological qualia was not, ultimately, the result of simply changing ontological qualia itself? It could also be related, again, to how one’s survival programs are implemented with a variety of positive and negative hedonic tones depending on one’s beliefs about survival. As we are currently implemented, though, it may be prudent to find ways of experiencing Open Individualistic ontological qualia in a reliable way. If for no other reason than to use it as an anti-depressant.

Reducing Spirituality to Hedonic Tone – and Hedonic Tone to Spirituality

Do we all just seek what feels good at every point in time? This view is called the pleasure principle (though I prefer calling it hedonic tone determinism). Belief in this view is, paradoxically, strangely dysphoric (at least in my case). At the same time, if this is true, then taking it into account is an important step in order to engage in paradise engineering. People tend to reject this possibility out of hand by coming up with striking counter-examples. For instance, how do we explain arduous and disciplined spiritual practice? Isn’t a Hindu or Buddhist monk’s first year of practice filled with a lot of loneliness and bodily dysphoria? This can certainly be true. But then again, the strongest source of hedonic tone may be ontological qualia. A person who experiences life as meaningful (say, a self-proclaimed Stoic) can face negative feelings and bodily discomfort. The feelings of meaningfulness compensate for the surface-level negativity. Having a persistent feeling of existential emptiness, on the other hand, is rarely cured by engaging in superficially pleasurable activities.

Remaining agnostic about the ultimate nature of reality, though, leaves me open to alternative interpretations of the nature of hedonic tone. As some mystics have argued, it may be the case that one’s degree of pleasure –specially existential spiritual euphoria– is related to one’s connection to one’s higher self, one’s soul or even to God. In this case, hedonic tone would be reduced to spirituality, rather than the other way around. I wouldn’t hold my breath, though.

What’s the Future of Personal Identity?

As we develop technologies to modify the quality of our consciousness by modifying our genetic source code, gene expression, brain protein composition (the distribution of secondary, tertiary and quaternary protein structures in neurons) and so on, we will begin to explore and catalogue the state-space of possible qualia.

We may be able to disentangle hedonic tone from ontological qualia. If so, then beliefs about personal identity may be just a matter of aesthetics: People with any particular view about reality might be just as unfathomably happy. On the other hand, if ontological qualia has an intrinsic hedonic tone, then we can predict that people in the future will experience the ontological qualia that is the most pleasant. For example, people may end up adopting an Open Individualist viewpoint and rejoice in the extremely long life of the universal collective being (or collective meta-being, which incorporates all views about itself within).

However, personal identity is not only consequential to hedonic tone. The functional and evolutionary consequences of various propositional and ontological qualia cannot be dismissed…

Personal Identity Wars

Beliefs about personal identity have fascinating evolutionary implications. The selection pressures for particular views on personal identity are widely different depending on the details. It is probable that in the future we will experience some sort of memetic warfare: As people begin to explore, induce and recruit exotic varieties of ontological qualia, we will see a lot of new motivations behind the replication of specific varieties of consciousness.

Closed Individualists will arguably continue to be afraid of death. Afraid may not necessarily be the right way of putting it. If the Hedonistic Imperative comes to fruition, even Closed Individualists may experience bliss so profound that defies human description. But, they may still not want to come to terms with their mortality. Who cares if the entire world is a great place to live when you are not going to be there to experience it?

Empty Individualists will not care very much about who gets to experience what. They will probably lack the motivation to ensure their own “personal” survival. They may, however, have strong aesthetic preferences. And, strikingly, people who have the specific variety of Empty Individualism I call “Type Empty Individualism” (namely, they exist and “are” in perfect copies of themselves rather than just in their unique spatio-temporal instantiation) may want to transform all matter and energy in the universe into perfect copies of themselves. That is, of course, if they value their own existence.

Now, Open Individualists would have a key strategical advantage. Their decision theory would be novel and fascinating: A God’s eye view of ethics. They would not care whether their own bodies happen to survive in the future, as long as sentient beings as a whole inhabit blissful, wise and/or novel states of consciousness. Additionally, OIsts would accept radically changing their state of consciousness. Closed Individualists of the psychological criterion type (who believe they exist as long as they share a threshold amount of memories with their future selves) would not be interested in radically changing their states of consciousness. For all they know, that is the same as death. OIsts would do a lot of consciousness research with no worries about death.

Given their strategic advantage, it would then seem that OIsts would win right away. They would quickly become universal allies and do intesne consciousness research. But then we also have to consider second-order effects: Closed Individualists, if sufficiently smart, would be able to anticipate the coming Open Individualist collective super-intelligence that results from their systematic experimentation with consciousness.

Would they wage a preventive war in advance? And would Empty Individualists become allies with Closed Individualists, or would they call for a total annihilation of reality?

Tune in next week, and read: “Personal Identity Wars II: The Menace of the Utilitronium Shockwave

State-Space of Background Assumptions

There is a wide number of transhumanist strains/clusters, and we don’t really understand why. How do we explain the fact that immortality is the number one concern for some, while it is a very minor concern for others who are more preoccupied with AI apocalypse or making everyone animated by gradients of bliss?

A possible interpretation is that our values and objectives are in fact intimately connected to our background assumptions about fundamental matters such as consciousness and personal identity. To test this theory, I developed a questionnaire for transhumanists that will examine the relationship between transhumanist goals and their background philosophical assumptions. If you wish to contribute, please find this questionnaire here (it takes ~15 minutes):


The link will be alive until Jul 30 2015 (EDIT: I have extended the deadline until August 2nd!). Please complete it as soon as possible. Once the results are out you will be happy you participated.

The very sense we give to words requires an underlying network of background assumptions to support them. Thus, when we don’t share implicit background assumptions, we often interpret what others say in very different ways than what they had in mind. With enough transhumanists answering this questionaire (about 150) we will be able to develop a better ontology. What would this look like? I don’t know yet, but I can give you an example of the sort of results this work can deliver: State-Space of Drug Effects.

Getting closer to digital LSD

I am very pleased with the recent work on psychedelic replications by communities such as the wonderful Psychonaut Wiki and r/replications. There is a lot of great work in the area, a little too much to discuss at length in one post. Keep up the good work!

A recent source of marvelous psychedelic replication techniques has just come into the scene, and from an unlikely source. Of course, we are talking about inceptionism applied to deep belief networks.

Someone said DMT?

Someone said DMT?

First of all, who says these pictures are actually trippy? Is there evidence of that? I intend to fully operationalize the concept of trippiness for the classification of pictures; I believe the question is empirically approachable. In the meantime I will simply point out that a lot of people are talking about the peculiar trippiness of these pictures. To give an example, look at some of the comments on the Google blogpost:

Help! We’ve created AIs more powerful than us, and now we need to feed them hallucinogenic drugs to subdue them…. – Urs

Either somebody has been feeding hallucinogens to Google’s image-recognition neural networks, or computer comprehension is alien! Well, actually, I wonder how this compares to visualizations of how the human brain stores images for pattern-matching purposes. – Stephen

Computers are all on drugs. – Matt

And from the Vice article:

“Its incredible how close it looks to an LSD trip, that is normally so hard to describe.” – corners

There are ongoing discussions in a lot of forums about this right now. Somehow, it seems that these new pictures are hitting a particular component of the psychedelic experience that previous replications have missed or at least not fully captured. What is that?

For the purpose of this post I will use a particular classification of phenomenal effects caused by psychedelics. Specifically, the one proposed by Psychedelic Information Theory. In order to fully grasp the motivation for this classification I highly recommend reading the control interrupt model of psychedelic action. In summary, it seems that there are natural inhibitory processes that prevent features of our current experience to build up over time. Psychedelics are thought to chemically interrupt inhibitory control signals from the cortex, which in turn results in a non-linear interaction between the unmitigated characteristics of your conscious experience. I will explain in a bit how this model provides a good framework for explaining the way recent Google Inceptionist (GI) pictures fit into the broader world of visual psychedelic replication.

But now let’s start with the three classes of hallucinations discussed:

  1. Entropic hallucinations describe the visual effects of gently pushing one’s eyes as well as the amazing interaction between LSD and strobes
  2. Eidetic hallucinations are the result of interpreting ambiguous stimuli using high-level concepts
  3. Erratic hallucinations result from the chaotic binding and over-saturation of sensory modalities, which affect the stability of the global perceptual frame (and probably disrupts the continuity field too)

Zooming into the phenomenology of eidetic hallucinations:

The most commonly reported eidetic hallucinations seen on psychedelics are of people, faces, animals, plants, flowers, spirits, aliens, insects, and other similar archetypes. Eidetic hallucinations can sometimes take the form of entire virtual worlds, spirit dimensions, invisible landscapes, and so on. Eidetics often emerge within a pre-existing entoptic interference pattern that grows in intensity over time to produce more photographic or 3D rendered objects. Eidetics under the influence of psychedelics are most often reported with eyes closed or while sitting motionless in meditative trance. On high doses of psychedelics eidetic hallucinations may materialize with eyes open on any surface, pattern, or texture that’s gazed at for more than a few seconds.*

If you surf the internet looking for replications of psychedelic experiences, you will notice that there are great examples of a wide range of effects, but compelling software-generated images of eidetic hallucinations are rare. The challenge here is the complexity of creating actionable tools that highlight high-level features in pre-existing pictures. Amazingly, people can make successful and stunning pictures with eidetic tones, but this requires a lot of dedication and artistic experience. The mighty human artistic effort is unstoppable, though:

Thanks to this 3-fold classification of psychedelic effects we can isolate the quality of experience that both Dali and the recent GI pics specifically enhance. Of course, the phenomenology of most psychedelic experiences incorporate elements of each of these classes, and the interaction between them is certainly non-trivial. In addition, specific substances may have a larger loading of each type, and signature proportions with peculiar results.

It is also worth mentioning the existence of other classification systems, within and beyond visual phenomenology. For example the subjective effect index of Psychonaut Wiki and even the various circuits proposed by ancient Leary and Dass writings have very worthwhile observations that may come useful in one context or another. For the level of resolution here discussed giving eidetic hallucinations their own class is particularly useful.

How the Inceptionist method and psychedelic experiences work similarly

Here is the core of the explanation for how the Google trippy pictures were made:

In this case we simply feed the network an arbitrary image or photo and let the network analyze the picture. We then pick a layer and ask the network to enhance whatever it detected. Each layer of the network deals with features at a different level of abstraction, so the complexity of features we generate depends on which layer we choose to enhance. For example, lower layers tend to produce strokes or simple ornament-like patterns, because those layers are sensitive to basic features such as edges and their orientations.

In some sense this is basically the same eidetic effect we find in psychedelic experiences. For one reason or another, there are moments during a psychedelic experience in which strong eidetic effects manifest. As if a specific layer (or hierarchy level) of one’s model of reality is chosen for being enhanced and fractally iterated in a scale-free manner. Referencing back the control interrupt model of psychedelic action, we can reason that what is going on involves a reduction in the amount of inhibition that highlighted high-level features receive. Again, this resembles the Inceptionist algorithm:

If we choose higher-level layers, which identify more sophisticated features in images, complex features or even whole objects tend to emerge. Again, we just start with an existing image and give it to our neural net. We ask the network: “Whatever you see there, I want more of it!” This creates a feedback loop: if a cloud looks a little bit like a bird, the network will make it look more like a bird. This in turn will make the network recognize the bird even more strongly on the next pass and so forth, until a highly detailed bird appears, seemingly out of nowhere.

Now, this only really shows a snapshot of a psychedelic experience with a heavy eidetic bent. In actual psychedelic experiences there are other common factors that come into play that influence the experience. First, not only are specific features highlighted, but, on the whole, we could say that there is an increase in the overall amount of sensations experienced together. The overall amplitude of your experience goes up, if that makes sense. In other words, although this is hard to imagine, the overall amount of experience increases relative to baseline. That is not evoked using external stimuli, of course, since the actual change in the intensity of your experience requires direct control interruption. The overall information content globally available in the field of awareness of a person tripping increases in a dose-dependent way.

The second hallmark characteristic of psychedelic experiences, which gives them a powerful edge over current digital techniques, is that the state highlights already salient stimuli. High-level psychedelic pattern recognition seems to be based on attention-modulated saliency enhancement. Let me explain:

Our visual system automatically recognizes salient features in our experience. This is not an exclusive property of visual consciousness, by the way. Here we must notice that awareness and attention are distinct but related aspects of our mind. Awareness happens effortlessly, and its visual variety arises as soon as we open our eyes (within 200 milliseconds therefrom). Even at the level of awareness we see a fast sorting of perceived features by their overall saliency, which is a function both of their intrinsic properties and those relative to every other feature in the awareness field. Attention, which is slower and builds on top of the awareness field, enables a variety of high level cognitive activities to interplay with the features highlighted by awareness. In turn, the overall state of consciousness of a person changes as attention moves the reference point for awareness to bring forth new salient features. Iteratively, these processes allow a mind to surf through states of consciousness.

In summary, awareness creates the marketplace of salient features that compete for attention. As attention is recentered on a new cluster of features, the field of awareness is modified and the new salient features again have a chance to change the focus of attention.

With psychedelic-induced control interruption, the intensity by which saliency of features in the field of awareness is highlighted goes up significantly. In turn, the attention-modulated perception of the intensely salient features highlights specific high-level features suggested by the field of awareness. And finally, this conceptual mental state highlighted via attention, results in an even higher saliency for conceptually-related features. And hence come the eye reality, fish realty, tree reality, abstract concept reality, divine reality, fractal reality, etc. people discover on LSD.

Although a difficult challenge, I predict that a well-trained, dedicated and mentally healthy psychonaut would be able to paint psychedelic experiences of her own that highlight similar high-level features as those highlighted on specific Inceptionist works of art. Probably a long meditative practice would help in the process, since the specific saliency of various features is attention-modulated, and thus requires inhibiting unrelated salient directions (e.g. deep philosophical questions, personal issues, etc.) and focus exclusively on, say, dogs.

Who chooses what is salient?

If you already know what class of features you want to highlight, then the inceptionist method will help you. But what about choosing what to highlight to begin with? This, I believe, is the crux of what makes psychedelic experiences (and minds in general) still unbeatable by neural networks. Once you know what to look for, your cortex and inceptionist methods (and their future incarnations) might be on the same playing field. But what enables you to decide what is worth looking for?

The key unresolved problem standing for a fully-digital psychedelic experience replication algorithm is what I call the saliency-attention mapping. This is: Given a particular conscious experience that is highlighting a set of features, how does attention ultimately find what to focus on? How are the subsequent relevant features to be highlighted? In many cases we choose to ignore all of the immediately salient features in a scene precisely to see more subtle patterns. And during a psychedelic experience, directing your attention to entirely unsuspecting places has the effect of switching off previously salient features and activating a new class of them (for example, choosing to focus on the music rather than the visual scene).

Is there any way of modeling the saliency-attention mapping without taking into account all of the information present in the field of awareness at the time? Indeed, an ongoing hypothesis here in Qualia Computing is that consciousness itself is required for this step. The very computational advantage of being conscious seems to be related to the unitary nature of experiences: Your choices are not only the result of parallel processing or implicit information integration. They stem from what you choose to pay attention to considering the entirety of your field of awareness. You do this at every point in time. Thus, a sort of instantaneous and ontological unity is required to account for a significant step of the information processing pipeline of the mind. And this may lead to a saliency-attention function whose runtime complexity is impossible to match with digital computers.

The conceivability horizon

Now, this unitary field of awareness step also has large down-stream effects. In particular, subsets of the phenomenology of experiences can be reinterpreted in very novel ways. Psychedelics are likewise famous for unlocking entirely new conceptual ontologies and points of view that remain with the person long after acute effects subside. We could call this, an extension of the horizon of conceivability. This comes about from considering many of the features of the particular conscious experience at once and identifying a new private referent (such as a concept) whose meaning is derived from the unique combination of those elements.

Without a unitary conscious experience this step would be impossible, and it remains to be seen for an artificial neural network to accomplish this on its own. For completeness, it is worth mentioning that phenomenal binding also has strong implications for memory. Every time we experience a new situation a new ‘situational snapshot’ is added to the collection of — and network of relationships between — memories that can be triggered with temporal lobe stimulation. Thus, incorporating a human (or whatever implements phenomenal binding) into the loop may be unavoidable.

The future of psychedelic replications and consciousness engineering

Eidetic art is marvelous, and for a long time we didn’t have any idea about how to systematize it in software. Now we have some wonderful examples of a fully scalable approach. Inevitably, we will soon have visual editing software that incorporates neural networks.

Deep belief networks applied to replications will allow us to drastically increase the level of realism of simulated trips. This will thus draw a lot more attention to this fascinating field, and bring engineers, artists and mathematicians onboard. They will have a wonderful synergy in this sphere.

But how practical are these techniques? If you want to find fundamentally new patterns in an image, what should you use… neural networks or LSD? The answer is: why do you have to choose only one? Here is where I casually mention that if you were planning on taking a psychedelic sometime in the future, why not tell us how the trippy images of Google look like during a trippy experience? I bet a lot of people would appreciate your input.

Presumably, incorporating a human in the loop could actually empower these networks to recreate remarkably psychedelic progressions of scenes and features (and high level ideas!). To do so you need to somehow identify what the human finds salient in the picture/video being explored, and how her attention is directed as a consequence of that. Obvious candidates here are eye tracking devices and the general class of bio/neurometrics. More speculatively, endocrine measurements of the chemical markers of saliency and attention may be of tremendous value too. What would this look like? A person hooked to a series of tubes that provide fast feedback using a lab-on-a-chip, and a deep belief network with flexible Inceptionist dynamics guided by the person’s measured center of attention. In case you haven’t noticed, I think that this area of exploration is extremely promising. Go ahead and do it!

Now, if you want to figure out a hard technical problem, currently mild psychedelic experiences are more promising than deep belief networks. This, again, is because the attention-modulated saliency enhancement of psychedelics can allow you to discover, explore and reinterpret the features that matter for a particular problem. Assisted digital exploration, however, may someday surpass the effectiveness of psychedelics, or better yet: A smart combination of techniques –chemical, biological and digital– will incite in the field of consciousness research what the Galilean revolution was to physics. The hands-on collective exploration science needs in order to fully thrive is about to arrive for consciousness. Finally!

Generalized Wada Test and the Total Order of Consciousness

In a Wada test a single hemisphere is sedated with sodium amobarbital. While the sedated hemisphere is unresponsive, a cognitive examination is conducted on the other hemisphere. This test is done to determine whether performing an ablative surgery on a given hemisphere is a viable treatment for epileptic seizures. By using the Wada test, one can avoid creating irreversible damage in areas of the brain crucial for modern day life, such as language production regions.

The Generalized Wada Test

The thought of targeting an isolated brain region for drug therapy is very stimulating. But do we have to sedate it? Sodium amobarbital may have useful properties that makes it a good fit for the Wada test. But it is unlikely to be the only substance that can be used. More broadly, there seem to be a variety of compounds that can be used for intracarotid drug delivery.

In all likelihood there must be a number of psychedelic compounds that could selectively affect brain regions via intracarotid delivery. One thought is to inject 2C-B (or whichever psychedelic has the desired pharmacological properties) on one hemisphere so that a person can compare the two sides of her visual field. This way, she would be able to compare side-by-side the features and patterns highlighted by the algorithms of her visual system (which would, presumably, be different on each side). In turn, this will enable us to catalogue more precisely the specific differences in visual experience under the influence of several drugs.

Even more generally, one could also make use of additional brain interventions such as tDCS, ultrasound, optogenetcs, etc. For example, imagine using ketamine and tDCS on the right hemisphere while the left receives ultrasound stimulation. We have a combinatorial explosion. A good one. I call this the Generalized Wada Test (WGT).

Philosophical Applications of the Generalized Wada Test

This technique presents a striking possibility: approaching philosophical problems empirically. More specifically, this technique might be used to:

  1. Test the properties of phenomenal binding, and
  2.  Allow “incommensurable” experiences to “experience each other” as the halves of a unitary consciousness

Phenomenal binding can be put under a microscope by using a GWT to infer the necessary chemical properties that brain regions require in order to enable the integration of phenomenal features into unitary experiential wholes. The speed at which binding takes place between the hemispheres could also be quantified. If phenomenal binding is not possible between two given states of consciousness, that would also be very valuable information for consciousness research.

With regards to the second possibility…

Is there a Total Order of Subjective Preferences?

Take two states of consciousness A and B. Suppose we use a GWT to make A manifest in the left hemisphere, while B does so in the right. The subject as a whole is asked to decide which of the two states of consciousness is subjectively preferable. If A is preferred over B, then a directed edge from B to A is added to the graph (with a weight proportional to the certainty/degree of preference). By adding the corresponding weighted edge between every pair of states of consciousness inducible on a GWT we would map a large portion of the state-space of consciousness available to humans. Let’s call this graph the directed network of subjective preferences.

Now, once we have fully populated such graph… would it actually be a directed acyclic graph (DAG)? Could we extract a Total Order? In other words, does the directed network of subjective preferences reveal a proper order of experiences from least to most preferred?

Can we make a universal scale of subjective preferability? Is it possible to infer a scale that, as David Pearce would call it, shows us the utility function of the universe?

But what if we find cycles?

Hedonic Tone

Even though there is a very close relationship between bliss and activity in the outer shell of the nucleus accumbens (and various other nearby hedonic hot-spots), it is not yet clear whether all pleasurable, blissful or otherwise subjectively valuable states are triggered by the activation of this area. We know that classic psychedelics, for example, do not have pharmacological dopaminergic or opiodergic action, and thus don’t activate the nucleus accumbens directly. And yet, people do report ecstatic and blissful states of consciousness on LSD…

It is not yet clear whether that bliss is mediated by hedonic hot-spot activity (thankfully, we may soon find out). If psychedelic bliss is fundamentally dissociated from dopaminergic and opiodergic activity, what would that say about the nature of pleasure? Could there be higher levels of bliss that are unrelated to current neurobiological models of subjective reward? What if everyone on acid bliss says that acid bliss is better than heroine bliss, while everyone on heroine bliss says the opposite? What do we make of Dostoevsky’s epileptic bliss?

For several instants I experience a happiness that is impossible in an ordinary state, and of which other people have no conception. I feel full harmony in myself and in the whole world, and the feeling is so strong and sweet that for a few seconds of such bliss one could give up ten years of life, perhaps all of life.

I felt that heaven descended to earth and swallowed me. I really attained god and was imbued with him. All of you healthy people don’t even suspect what happiness is, that happiness that we epileptics experience for a second before an attack.

Nothing short of a Generalized Wada Test would be able to approach these questions.

Why not computing qualia?

Qualia is the given. In our minds, qualia comparisons and interactions are an essential component of our information processing pipeline. However, this is a particular property of the medium: Consciousness.

David Marr, a cognitive scientist and vision researcher, developed an interesting conceptual framework to analyze information processing systems. This is Marr’s three levels of analysis:

The computational level describes the system in terms of the problems that it can and does solve. What does it do? How fast can it do it? What kind of environment does it need to perform the task?

The algorithmic level describes the system in terms of the specific methods it uses to solve the problems specified on the computational level. In many cases, two information processing systems do the exact same thing from an input-output point of view, and yet they are algorithmically very different. Even when both systems have near identical time and memory demands, you cannot rule out the possibility that they use very different algorithms. A thorough analysis of the state-space of possible algorithms and their relative implementation demands could rule out the use of different algorithms, but this is hard to do.

The implementation level describes the system in terms of the very substrate it uses. Two systems that perform the same exact algorithms can still differ in the substrate used to implement them.

An abacus is a simple information processing system that is easy to describe in terms of Marr’s three levels of analysis. First, computationally: the abacus performs addition, subtraction and various other arithmetic computations. Then algorithms: those used to process information involve moving {beds} along {sticks} (I use ‘{}’ to denote that the sense of these words is about their algorithmic-level abstractions rather than physical instantiation). And the implementation: not only can you choose from metallic and wooden abacus, you can also get your abacus implemented using people’s minds!

What about the mind itself? The mind is an information processing system. At the computational level, the mind has a very general power. It can solve problems never before presented to it, and it can also design and implement computers to do narrow problems more efficiently. At the algorithmic level, we know very little about the human mind, though various fields center on this level. Computational psychology models the algorithmic and the computational level of the mind. Psychophysics, too, attempts to reveal the parameters of the algorithmic component of our minds and their relationship to parameters at the implementation level. And when we reason about logical problems, we do so using specific algorithms. And even counting is something that kids do with algorithms they learn.

The implementation level of the mind is a very tricky subject. There is a lot of research on the possible implementation of algorithms that a neural network abstraction of the brain can instantiate. This is an incredibly important part of the puzzle, but it cannot fully describe the implementation of the human mind. This is because some of the algorithms performed by the mind seem to be implemented with phenomenal binding: The simultaneous presence of diverse phenomenologies in a unified experience. When we make decisions we compare how pleasant each option would be. And to reason, we bundle up sensory-symbolic representations within the scope of the attention of our conscious mind. In general, all algorithmic applications of sensations require the use of phenomenal binding in specific ways. The mind is implemented by a network of binding tendencies between sensations.

A full theory of the mind will require a complete account of the computational properties of qualia. To obtain those we will have to bridge the computational and the implementation level descriptions. We can do this from the bottom up:

  1. An account of the dynamics of qualia (to be able to predict the interactions between sensations just as we can currently predict how silicon transistors will behave) is needed to describe the implementation level of the mind.
  2. An account of the algorithms of the mind (how the dynamics of qualia are harnessed to implement algorithms) is needed to describe the algorithmic level of the mind.
  3. And an account of the capabilities of the mind (the computational limits of qualia algorithms) is needed to describe the computational level of the mind.

Why not call it computing qualia? Computational theories of mind suggest that your conscious experience is the result of information processing per se. But information processing cannot account for the substrate that implements it. Otherwise you are confusing the first and the second level with the third. Even a computer cannot exist without first making sure that there is a substrate that can implement it. In the case of the mind, the fact that you experience multiple pieces of information at once is information concerning the implementation level of your mind, not the algorithmic or computational level.

Isn’t information processing substrate-independent?

Not when the substrate has properties needed for the specific information processing system at hand. If you go to your brian and replace one neuron at a time by a silicon neuron that is functionally identical, at what point would your consciousness disappear? Would it fade gradually? Or would nothing happen? Functionalists would say that nothing should happen since all the functions, locally and globally, are maintained throughout this process. But what if this is not possible?

If you start with a quantum computer, for example, then you have the problem that part of the computational horse-power is being produced by the very quantum substrate of the universe, which the computer harnesses. Replacing every component, one at a time, by a classical counter-part (a non-quantum chip with similar non-quantum properties), would actually lead to a crash. At some point the quantum part of the computer will break down and will no longer be useful.

Likewise with the mind. If the substrate of the mind is actually relevant from a computational point of view, then replacing a brain by seemingly functionally identical components could also lead to an inevitable crash. Functionalists would suggest that there is no reason to think that there is anything functionally special about the mind. But phenomenal binding seems to be it. Uniting pieces of information in a unitary experience is an integral part of our information processing pipeline, and precisely that functionality is the one we do not know how to conceivably implement without consciousness.


Implementing something with phenomenal binding, rather than implementing phenomenal binding (which is not possible)

On a related note: If you build a conscious robot and you don’t mind phenomenal binding, your robot will have a jumbled-up mind. You need to incorporate phenomenal binding in the pipeline of training. If you want your conscious robot to have a semantically meaningful interpretation of the sentence “the cat eats” you need to be able to bind its sensory-symbolic representations of cats and of eating to each other.

A workable solution to the problem of other minds

Deciding whether other entities are also conscious is not an insoluble philosophical problem. It is tricky. A good analogy might be a wire puzzle. At a first glance, the piece you have to free looks completely locked. And yet a solution does exist, it just requires to represent a sufficiently large number of facts and features that our working memory is not enough.


Usually showing the solution once will not fully satisfy one’s curiosity. It takes some time to develop a personally satisfying account. And to do so, we need to unpack how the various components interact with one another. After a while the reason why the free piece is not locked becomes intuitive, and at the same time you may also encounter mathematical arguments and principles to complement your understanding.

At first, though, the free piece looks and feels locked.

I think the problem of other minds is perceived similarly to a wire puzzle. At first it looks and feels insoluble. After a while, though, many suspect that the problem can be solved. This essay proposes a protocol that may point in the right direction. It could have some flaws as it is currently formulated, so I’m open to refinements of any kind. But I believe that it represents a drastic improvement over previous protocols, and it gets close to being a fully functioning proof of concept.

Starting from the basics: An approach that is widely discussed is the application of a Turing test. But a Turing test has several serious flaws when used as a test of consciousness. First, many conscious entities can’t pass a Turing test. So we know that it could have a very poor recall (missing most conscious entities). This problem is also present in every protocol I’m aware of. The major problem with it is that when an entity passes a Turing test, this can be counted as probabilistic evidence in favor of a large number of hypothesis, and not only to the desired conclusion that “this entity is conscious.” In principle highly persuasive chatbots could hack your entity recognition module by presenting hyperstimuli created by analyzing your biases for styles of conversation.

Your brain sees faces everywhere (cartoons, 2D computer screens, even clouds). It also sees entities where there are none. It might be much more simple to *trick* your judgement than actually create a sentient intelligence. Could the entity given the Turing test be an elaborate chatobot with no phenomenal binding? It seems likely that could take place.

Thus passing a Turing test is also not a guarantee that an entity is conscious. The method would have low recall and probably low accuracy too.

The second approach would be to simply *connect* your brain to the other entity’s brain (that is, of course, if you are not talking about a disembodied entity). We already have something like the Corpus Callosum, which seems to be capable of providing a bridge that solves the phenomenal binding problem between the hemispheres of a single person. In principle we could create a biologically similar, microfunctionally equivalent neural bridge between two persons.

Assuming physicalism, it seems very likely that there is a way for this to be done. Here, rather than merely observing the other person’s conscious experience, the point of connecting would be to become one entity. Strong, extremely compelling personal identity problems aside (Who are you really? Can you expect to ‘survive’ after the union? If you are the merged entity, does that mean you were always the same consciousness as the one with whom you merged?, etc. More on this on later posts), this possibility opens up the opportunity to actually corroborate that another entity is indeed conscious.

Indeed separate hemispheres can have very different opinions about the nature of reality. Assuming physicalism, why would it be the case that you can’t actually revert (or instantiate for the first time) the union between brains?

The previous idea has been proposed before. I think it is a significant improvement over the use of a Turing test, since you are directly addressing the main phenomenon in question (rather than its ripples). That said, the method has problems, and epistemic holes.  In brief, a big unknown is the effect that interfacing with another conscious experience has on both conscious experiences. For example, some people have (like Eliezer Yudkowsky and Brian Tomasik) argued that your interaction with the other brain could functionally expand your own mind. As it were, the interaction with the other brain could be interpreted as expanding your own mind by obtaining a large hardware upgrade. Thus it could be that the whole experience of being connected and becoming one with another entity is a fantasy of your recently-expanded mind. It can give you the impression that the other brain was already conscious before you were connected to it. So you can’t rule out that it was a zombie before and after the connection was over.

But there is a way out. And this is the stimulating part of the essay. Because I’m about to untangle the wires.

The great idea behind this solution is: Phenomenal puzzles. This one phenomenal puzzle linked here is about figuring out the appropriate geometry of color (arranging the state-space in an Euclidean manifold so that the degrees of subjective differences between colors are proportional to their distances). Doing this requires the ability of comparing the various parts of an experience to each other and being able to remember the comparison. In turn this can be iterated and generate a map of subjective differences. This is an instance of what I call qualia computing, where you need to be in touch with the subjective quality of your experience and to be capable of comparing sensations.

In brief, you want to give the other entity a puzzle that can only be solved by a conscious entity via manipulating and comparing qualia. The medium used to deliver the puzzle will be a first-person merging of brains: To share the puzzle you first connect with the entity you want to test.

By doing this, by sharing the puzzle when you are connected to the other entity, you will be able to know its inner referents in terms of qualia. While connected, you can point to a yellow patch and say “this is yellow.” Possibly, both halfs will have their own system of private referents (a natural consequence of having slightly different sense organs which make variable mappings between physical stimuli and qualia). But as a whole the merged entity will be able to compare notes with itself about the mapping of stimuli to qualia in both halfs. The entity could look at the same object from the point of view of its two heads at the same time and form an unified visual field, which incorporates the feed from the two former “personal-sized” visual fields (similarly to how you incorporate sensory stimuli from two eyes. Now you’ll see with four). The color appearance of the object could have a slightly different quality when the two visual fields are compared. That’s the fascinating thing about phenomenal binding. The differences in mappings between stimuli and qualia of the two former entities can be compared, which means that this difference can be analyzed and reasoned about and added to both repertoires of hippocampal snapshots of the current experience.

Then, when you disconnect from the other and there are two streams of consciousness going on again, you will both know what that “yellow” referred to. This overcomes the age-old problem of communicating private referents, and mutually agreeing on name for private referents. This way, the pieces of the (phenomenal) puzzle will be the same in both minds.

For the test to work, the specific question needs to stay secret until it is revealed briefly before merging.

Imagine that you have a set of standardized phenomenal puzzles. Psychologists and people who have done the test before tend to agree that the puzzles in the set do require you to explore a minimum number of states of consciousness. The tests have precise conceptual answers. These answers are extremely difficult to deliver by accident or luck.

The puzzles may require you to use external tools like an image editor or a computer. This is because computers can enable you to program combinations of sensory input in precise ways. This expands the phenomenal gamut you can reach. In turn one can calibrate sensory input to have nice properties (ex. use gamma correction).  The puzzles will also be selected based on the time sentient beings typically take to solve them.

When you want to perform the test, you meet with the entity right after you finish reading the phenomenal puzzle. The puzzle is calibrated to not be solvable in the time it will take you to connect to the other entity.

When you connect your brain to the other entity and become one conscious narrative, the entire entity reads the puzzle to itself. In other words, you state out loud the phenomenal puzzle by clearly pointing to the referents of the puzzle within your own “shared” experience. Then you disconnect the two brains.

In the time that the other entity is trying to solve the puzzle you distract yourself. This way you can prevent yourself from solving the puzzle. Ideally you might want to bring your state of consciousness to a very low activity. The other entity will have all of its stimuli controlled to guarantee there is no incoming information. All the “qualia processing” is going on through approved channels. When the entity claims to have solved the puzzle, at that point you connect your brain back to it.

Does the merged entity know anything about the solution to the puzzle? You search for a memory thread that shows the process of solving the puzzle and the eventual answer. Thanks to the calibration of this puzzle (it has also been given to “merged” entities before) we know you would need more time to solve it. Now you may find yourself in a position where you realize that if the other entity was a zombie, you would have somehow solved a phenomenal puzzle without using experience at all. If so, where did that information come from?

With the memory thread you can remember how the other entity arrived at the conclusion. All of the hard work can be attributed to the other entity now. You witness this confirmation as the merged entity, and then you disconnect. You will still hold redundant memories of the period of merging (both brains do, like the hemispheres in split-brain patients). Do you know the answer to the puzzle? You can now check your memory for it and see that you can reconstruct the answer very quickly. The whole process may even take less time than it would take you to solve the puzzle.

If you know the answer to the puzzle you can infer that the other entity is capable of manipulating qualia in the same way that you can. You would now have information that your mind/brain could only obtain by exploring a large region of the state-space of consciousness… which takes time. The answer to the puzzle is a verifiable fact about the structure of your conscious experience. It gives you information about your own qualia gamut (think CIELAB). In summary, the other entity figured out a fact about your own conscious experience, and explained it to you using your own private referents.

You can then conclude that if the entity solved the phenomenal puzzle for you, it must be capable of manipulating its qualia in a semantically consistent way to how you do it. A positive result reveals that the entity utilizes conscious algorithms. Perhaps even stronger: It also shares the generalizable computational power of a sapient mind.

Unfortunately just as for the Turing test, not passing this test is not a guarantee that the other entity lacks consciousness. What the test guarantees is a high precision: Near every entity that passes the test is conscious. And that is a milestone, I think.

Do you agree that the problem of other minds is like a wire puzzle?

Now go ahead and brainstorm more phenomenal puzzles!