Evolutionary qualia suggests our inner world-simulations are not merely painted with different colors, but have different soundtracks, aesthetics, narrative themes, and walk-on character status. Cilantro tasting like soap to ~10% of people is merely the canary in the coal-mine. Our differences in qualia (and consciousness more broadly) probably involve modes of experience you and I don’t even know exist.
Excerpt from Global Brain (2000) by Howard Bloom (Pgs. 143 – 146). [Emphasis mine]
Our brains differ as much as our bodies. Indeed, they may differ more. One part of the brain, the anterior commissure […] varies seven-fold in area between one person and the next. Another part, the massa intermedia […], is not found at all in one in four people. The primary visual cortex can vary three-fold in area. Something called our amygdala (it is responsible for our fears and loves) can vary two-fold in volume – as can something called our hippocampus (involved in memory). Most surprisingly, our cerebral cortex varies in non-learning impaired people nearly two-fold in volume.
– Dr. John Robert Skoyles
Thanks to Plato, we have what purport to be records of the conversations of a human Cuisinart of concepts, an eclectic sage whose roughly fifty-year-long intellectual life bracketed the Periclean Golden Age (443-429 B.C.). This all-purpose conceptual chopper and blender was that son of a socially high-placed family, Socrates. Experts and neophytes agree that it’s impossible to tell how many of the words Plato ascribes to this self-appointed gadfly were authentic and how many were simply Plato’s way of getting his own notions into the public eye. But one thing is generally accepted as accurate – the names of the folks from whom Socrates extracted opinions before shredding them with the quiz mastering which now bears his name (Socratic dialogue). The cast of characters palavering with Socrates in Plato’s Dialogs, says learned reasoning, was too well known in Athens for Plato to have fudged.
Just who were the fonts of learned conversation whose wisdom Socrates whipped and whirled? Socrates’ interlocutors were frequently famous thinkers from distant cities, each of which specialized in a different manner of plucking goods from its surroundings and injecting them into the circulatory system through which the trade of the Mediterranean and the Black Sea swirled. Socrates was a student of Anaxagoras, who came from the Ionian city of Clazomenae on the coast of today’s Turkey. He was also a disciple of Archelaus, another Ionian import. The Socratic dialogues Plato “chronicled” included those with Protagoras from the Balkan city of Abdera, Hippias from Peloponnesian Elis, Parmenides from Italy’s Elea, and Gorgias from Sicily’s Leontini. Each visiting intellect had been shaped by contact with a unique group of surrounding tribes, and by the exigencies imposed on city structure, domestic habit, and vested interest by distinctive forms of enterprise. One result: each arrival presented a philosophy which appealed to a very different configuration of the human mind.
To understand how philosophy couples with the mind’s biology, let’s track the complex adaptive system’s best-concealed constituent to its hiding place. The five elements of the complex adaptive system are conformity enforcers, diversity generators, inner-judges, resources shifters, and intergroup tournaments. Inner-judges may be the most unusual of the crew, for they are physiological built-ins which work deep inside the body to transform a bacterium, a lizard, a baboon, a me, or a you into a module of a larger learning machine. The basic rule of learning machines is one we’ve already seen: turn on the juice to components which have a grip on the problem at hand and turn off the power to those components which just can’t seem to understand. Inner-judges help decide whether the components in which they reside will be enriched or will be denied, then they aid in carrying out the sentence. The irony is that these evaluators, prize givers, and executioners are built into their victims biologically. On the microlevel, inner-judges work through “programmed cell death” – apoptosis – a molecular chain reaction deep within the genes which ends in cellular suicide. In higher animals the inner-judges dole out interior punishments which range from overdoses of stress hormones to emotional miseries. Or they grant internal bonuses of zest and confidence to those of us fulfilling our group’s needs.
When we feel like kicking ourselves around the block or curling up and disappearing, our condemnation comes from inner-judges like guilt and shame. What’s a good deal harder to realize is that behind the scenes our inner-judges sicken us and dumb us down quite literally. If they sense we’re a drag on the collective intelligence, inner-judges down shift our immune system and neurochemically cloud our ability to perceive. They induce a narcotic haze by swamping our system with endorphins, the body’s self-produced equivalent of morphine*. And they flood us with glucocorticoids which kill off both brain cells and lymphocytes – critical cells in our fight against disease.
Inner-judges measure our contribution to the social learning machine by two yardsticks: (1) our personal sense of mastery; and (2) the hints we get from those around us telling us whether they want us eagerly or couldn’t care less if we disappeared like a blackhead from the face of decent society.
Mastery is a useful gauge. It measures whether we’re coping with the trials tossed our way, and whether our example can help steer others in their trip through choppy seas. Popularity is an equally practical yardstick. It measures the extent to which we’re feeding others’ physical, organizational, and/or emotional needs.
Nestled deep within our neuroendocrine complex, inner-judges operate on a sliding scale. By adjusting our mix of neurotransmitters like serotonin, dopamine, norepinephrine, and acetylcholine, or the balance between the gloomy right and sunny left side of the brain, they shift us from fear to daring, from misery to happiness, from grouchiness to charm, from timid silence to expansive speech, from deflation to elation, from pain to ecstasy, from confusion to insight, and from listlessness to lust or to the resolute pursuit of goals.
Some of us are born with inner-judges whose verdicts are perpetually harsh. The result is depression, shyness, and heightened susceptibility to pain. Others arrive from the womb with inner-judges preset to treat us generously, endowing us with energy, few inhibitions, a deep sense of security, and little sense of guilt or shame. But most of us are in the middle – our inner-judges sentence us sternly or magnanimously depending on the snugness with which we fit our social network’s needs.
Those born with inner-judges excessively lenient or severe have taught us much about the secrets of mental and emotional diversity. Harvard University researcher Jerome Kagan has probably never heard the term “inner-judges,” yet he may have done more than any other psychologist to uncover their capabilities. To understand what Kagan hath wrought, a background briefing is in order.
The early-twentieth-century psychoanalytic thinker Carl Jung, says Kagan, originated the concept of introverted and extroverted personalities. Jung also believed that each had a slightly different brain structure. Kagan feels that in his own way, he has proven Jung right. He’s found that 10 to 15 percent of infants are born with a tendency to be fearful and withdrawn, while another 10 to 15 percent are born with a flair for dauntless spontaneity. During the last few decades of the twentieth century, Kagan performed numerous experiments and accumulated large amounts of data demonstrating his concept’s validity.
He refers to facts like these:
In studies of Japanese and American newborns, some infants took the removal of the nipple from their mouths calmly, while others went into emotional fits. The babies as yet had had no opportunity to learn these reactions from their parents. The tendencies were those they’d brought with them from the isolation of the uterus. At fourteen months, the babies who’d been easily upset at birth were still so oversensitive that they often broke out crying when the sight of a stranger loomed. On another test, babies who became upset at birth when they were switched suddenly from water to a sugar solution squalled hysterically at the age of one or two when their mothers left the room, but babies who had taken the change in beverage casually did not. In addition, a study of 113 children showed that those who had a hard time handling the unexpected when they were one year old were still shy and withdrawn by the time they reached six.
This tendency toward variation in personality was not limited to human beings. According to Kagan, it appeared in dogs, mice, rats, wolves, cats, cows, monkeys, and paradise fish. Some of these animals were fascinated by novelty. Others were terrified by anything the least bit out of place.
Fifteen percent of cats steered clear of strangers and even avoided attacking rats. This was remarkably close to the percentage of humans frozen by anxiety attacks.
Kagan traces these differences to genes, which can help set off a lifelong domino effect in the brain. The production of key manufacturing enzyme for the stimulant norepinephrine, says Kagan, is controlled by a single pair of genes, making norepinephrine levels highly heritable. Norepinephrine – which is also a potent stress hormone – shows up very early in the development of the embryo, making the hippocampus oversensitive to the unfamiliar, and hyperactivating the amygdala, which jolts us with the warning signal we call fear. The hippocampus and amygdala – as we’ve seen earlier – are central shapers of the memory bank we call reality. They are also key to the inner-judges’ machinery.
Later in life the products of a prebirth norepinephrine cascade are timid children, who, in carefully controlled studies, are alert to slight changes in tones or brightness of light that other children miss. In other words, these children literally see and hear their world in ways others would not recognize. According to Kagan, the constitutionally frightened are endowed with a limbic system hair-triggered to curse them with a sense of imminent catastrophe. As a consequence, shy children attempt to escape punishment by hiding from everyday events which threaten to torment them hideously. Uninhibited children, on the opposite end of the scale, have underaroused limbic systems and demand a deluge of entertainment to dodge boredom’s intolerability. Their craving for excitement can sometimes wear their parents to a frazzle.
Kagan’s shy children are condemned to solitude and pain by hanging judges in their own biology. Kagan’s uninhibited kids are gifted with indulgent inner-judges predisposed by the limbic system to offer such unearned rewards as boldness and social dexterity. But most of the animals and humans Kagan has studied avoid these two extremes. Seventy percent remain in the middle, their inner-judges handing out positive and negative verdicts according to the rules of the learning machine.
*”Endorphin” is a contraption of the term “endogenous morphine.
To extend this recent EA Forum Post, I wanted to share the results of Qualia Research Institute’s research into using tryptamines to abort and prevent cluster headaches. While the quotes and statistics contained here can provide some notion of the pain experienced by cluster headache sufferers, I think it is truly unimaginable. This report contains specific interventions to be pursued in both a philanthropic and for-profit business capacity. While for-profit options are beyond our scope, those interested in supporting philanthropic interventions should consider donating to ClusterBusters (the most important nonprofit dedicated to researching treatments for cluster headaches), or QRI (which does foundational research on ways to reduce intense suffering).
Mission: Instantly and safely abort cluster headaches and treat migraines, the #2 and #10 (respectively) most painful medical conditions according to NHS. Emphasis is placed on chronic cluster headaches, which account for as much as 80% of all clusters and currently lack an effective treatment option.
“Even child birth is 1/10th the pain of a cluster headache, seriously this name needs to change… call it ultra super migraine.” (source)
A back of the envelope calculation indicates there are roughly 14 thousand people enduring a cluster headache right now.
14.2% of US adults 18 or older reported having migraine or severe headache in the previous 3 months in the 2012 NHIS. The overall age-adjusted 3-month prevalence of migraine in females was 19.1% and in males 9.0%, but varied substantially depending on age. (source)
Current treatments are either ineffective, costly, unsafe, or some combination of the three. The most effective treatments available for cluster headaches include oxygen, which requires the patient to carry an oxygen tank with them at all times, and triptans, which can be used a maximum of three times daily (an issue for chronic sufferers especially) and have side effects from pain to heart attack and stroke. The most effective treatments for migraines include triptans and opioids (which have high addiction potential). Emgality, a more promising treatment for episodic cluster headaches, has recently entered the market, but its long-term risk profile and efficacy have not yet been established.
Bob Wold founded “Cluster Busters” in 2002 with the explicit purpose of trying to get psychedelics to be prescription medication (see his lecture Treating Cluster Headaches with Psychedelics). He tried over 75 different prescription medications and was at the end of the rope when he found psychedelics could be helpful:
Medications Bob Wold tried that didn’t work (1/2)
Meditations Bob Wold tried that didn’t work (2/2)
As noted in this Qualia Computing article, the survey surfaced that about 83% of all cluster headaches are experienced by 20% of the sufferers, most of which are classified as ‘chronic’. No existing medication has been approved for use to treat chronic cluster headaches. Vaporizing DMT could be the first such treatment, offering instant relief for cluster headaches as often as they arise in a (potentially large) percentage of sufferers.
“One of the most incredible experiences of my life was when I first aborted a CH [cluster headache] with DMT. That feeling of going from a place of excruciating pain…and feeling the pain fizzle away and die in a matter of seconds” (source)
It is known by a majority of cluster headache sufferers that psychedelics can be highly effective treatments. Due to the legal status of psychedelics, no randomized controlled trial (RCT) has been conducted, but analysis has been done on online forum responses and anonymous surveys, and interviews have been recorded. Evidence from these reports points to a number of important factors: tryptamines (the class of psychedelics which includes compounds like N,N-DMT and psilocybin, the active chemical in ‘magic mushrooms’) seem especially effective, sub-psychoactive and non-psychedelic doses can be therapeutic, and psychedelics can also decrease the frequency of headaches on long time horizons. While smoking/vaporizing is the fastest method of administration available, information from a private correspondence suggests that the FDA may be averse to approving inhalants. Intramuscular administration, utilizing Rick Strassman’s protocol, could be an alternative that would achieve rapid relief without the use of an inhalation device. Since the pain being experienced is so severe, having a faster method of administration is critical.
From the relevant academic literature:
“The indoleamine hallucinogens, psilocybin, lysergic acid diethylamide, and lysergic acid amide, were comparable to or more efficacious than most conventional medications. These agents were also perceived to shorten/abort a cluster period and bring chronic cluster headache into remission more so than conventional medications.” (source)
“Also, for DMT, it was suggested that singular or infrequent dosage could have potential long-term beneficial effects on headache disorders: ‘Even a single dose, or perhaps a couple, can be a lifelong benefit.’” (source)
“Of interest, an open-label study found that similar compounds (2-bromo-LSD) without psychedelic effect were promising for this purpose” (source)
From online surveys:
A survey of members of online cluster headache forums revealed that 68% of respondents who used tryptamines had a 4 or 5 out of 5 relief. 5 indicates “completely eliminated the cluster headaches”.
This survey again suggests that the main barrier to use is lack of access and hallucinogenic effects. As we found in an interview with an anonymous sufferer (see below), hallucinogenic effects may be avoidable.
Difficulty getting. 0 – Extremely easy to acquire, 5 – Nearly impossible to acquire
Legal risk. 0 – Not concerned at all, 5 – Extremely concerned
Side effects. 0 – Not concerned at all, 5 – Extremely concerned
From interviews with cluster headache sufferers who have tried N,N-DMT:
Due to the Schedule I status of psychedelics in the United States, pursuing this intervention in the US will not be feasible for a number of years (see Section IV for more information on pursuing FDA approval for DMT for cluster headaches/migraines).
A possible solution would be to create an online education campaign publicizing the results of this report to cluster headache sufferers, designated as ‘information-only’, and pursuing the use of psychedelics to treat cluster headaches and migraines in countries where tryptamines are legal, including Brazil, Jamaica and the Netherlands. In addition, given the gravity of the disorder, it could be cost-effective to fly patients to such countries for months at a time.
While we believe that traditional metrics such as the QALY do not accurately capture the suffering caused by a cluster headache (see upcoming post on the true pain/pleasure scale), a rough QALY calculation would be as follows (focusing on chronic cluster headache sufferers rather than average, since they compromise up to 83% of total headaches):
Facebook AD campaign:
An estimated 370,000 Americans suffer from cluster headaches, 68% of whom are on Facebook (=251,000). About 15% of these suffer from chronic cluster headaches (=37,740). According to Sprout Social, the average estimated cost per click of an ad campaign is $1.72. Assuming 1/10 who click are cluster headache sufferers, to reach all chronic sufferers would take (ballpark) $650,000.
Assuming about 30% of those who view the ad will pursue the treatment (rough estimate-those who put 2 or less on survey results for questions of legality, difficulty to acquire etc.) and that in 68% of cases it cured or nearly cured their clusters (based on survey results), then the resulting increase in QALYs would be (37,740 people * 0.3 * 0.68) * [0.760 (QALY coefficient) * 1 QALY – ( -0.429 (QALY coefficient)* (0.47QALY)) ] = $650,000/7, 404QALY = $87.70 per QALY.
These ads could also be targeted to users in countries where psilocybin and DMT are legal for use recreationally, increasing conversion rate. Further targeting could be done on Facebook groups (and other social media groups) which are associated with cluster headache treatment.
IV. For-profit Opportunities
The recent emergence of psychedelics in for-profit business settings also affords the opportunity for entrepreneurs to seek legal rescheduling of N,N-DMT in the US for the purpose of treating cluster headaches and/or migraines. Below is an outline of the process of navigating the FDA IND process, which could result in a change in legal status:
‘Orphan disease’ status:
There are two main classifications of cluster headaches, chronic and episodic. Episodic cluster headaches are characterized by periods of headaches (up to 8 times per day) of a week to a full year, which remit for periods from a month up to a year. Chronic cluster headaches, on the other hand, either last for longer than a year or have remittance periods of less than a month. A meta-analysis from the NIH estimates that cluster headaches affect 124/100,000 in the U.S., meaning an estimated 370,000 people suffer from cluster headaches a year. Of these, about 15%, or 60,000, suffer from chronic cluster headaches.
The FDA grants ‘orphan disease’ status to diseases which affect fewer than 200,000 persons in the U.S per year, and offers incentives to those pursuing treatments through the FDA’s IND process for such diseases, such as longer periods of exclusivity (monopoly on drug manufacture and sale) for the treatment after approval.
The global market for migraine drugs (which encompasses cluster headache drugs) in 2017 was $1.7 billion.
Healthcare and lost productivity costs associated with migraine are estimated to be as high as $36 billion annually in the U.S. Current estimates of cluster headaches’ annual cost in the U.S. is ~$3.5 billion.
Share of market
5 years after launch (with FDA approval, with a 5-year monopoly) – serve 20% of chronic migraine sufferers (800,000), serve 20% of cluster headache sufferers (40,000)
Platform’s average annual revenue per patient (migraines): $452/patient/year
There is significant variance in frequency of cluster headaches: estimates range from [$120/g*0.02g/dose*30 doses/month *3 months = $324, $120/g*0.02g/dose*120 doses/month*12 months = $6912/patient/year].
Annual revenue, 5 years after launch: $13.6M [low cluster headache estimate] – $344M [high cluster headache estimate]
Annual revenue, 5 years after launch (migraines): $344M
The 5-year (or more, if ‘orphan disease’ status is gained) monopoly provided by the FDA would allow for further R&D, and as-yet undetermined projects. Some promising directions:
FDA on track to approve MDMA therapy in 2021, psilocybin therapy in 2022
FDA approval will catalyze a large increase in demand for psychedelic services
There is sufficient evidence to attempt bringing DMT for headaches through the FDA process as it becomes increasingly open to psychedelic interventions
Reasons to start before FDA approval of MDMA and psilocybin:
A “psychedelic renaissance” is underway: funding for psychedelic research has skyrocketed, and multiple psychedelic decriminalization initiatives (1, 2) have recently passed. Riding the current wave of activist and public support is advantageous to our efforts.
More time to build relationship with the FDA (important for seeking DMT clearance)
More time to build relationships with organizations currently seeking FDA approval for therapeutic uses of psychedelics (MAPS &Compass Pathways)
Taking on the FDA IND process can be challenging and high risk from an investment standpoint. The average cost of successfully completing Phase 1-3 trials (after which the drug can be rescheduled and approved for medical use) is $100m, requires about 9-11 years and has a 6.7% success rate (private correspondence).
The Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) has recently raised $26.7M for Phase 3 MDMA trials alone. Total, MAPS has spent in the ballpark of $30M. If Phase 3 trials demonstrate statistically-significant results, MDMA could be selectively rescheduled for use in therapeutic settings, but would require subsequent Phase 4 trials.
The FDA is risk-averse and has incurred backlash from their last notable rescheduling of fentanyl in 1985. Convincing the FDA to pursue rescheduling for treatment of a relatively rare disease with other available medications will likely be difficult.
The success or failure of MAPS in receiving approval for MDMA will be crucial for defining the regulatory landscape for other psychedelics. Should they fail, bringing another similar substance through the process may prove much more difficult.
As discussed in Section I, most available migraine and cluster headache drugs are ineffective, expensive, and/or have heavy risk profiles. Emgality, a new migraine drug approved last month, has received FDA ‘breakthrough therapy’ status for its ability to decrease the frequency of episodic cluster headaches and has shown promise as a palliative for migraines as well. Emgality has not been approved for use in treating chronic cluster headaches, however, and does not achieve the same rapidity of administration as the DMT vape pen (see Section III). Thus, our solution is still critical for relieving symptoms instantly, and maintains the advantage of being eligible to treat chronic cluster headaches, an ‘orphan disease’.
Phase 1 studies (typically involve 20 to 80 people).
Phase 2 studies (typically involve a few dozen to about 300 people).
Phase 3 studies (typically involve several hundred to about 3,000 people).
Use of Funds
Expenses for research and operations staff
Researchers with clinical experience
Legal counsel (paperwork)
Phase 1 FDA trial (our connections to expertise in the field would reduce the cost compared to average Phase 1 trials)
Data on Cost of Trials
The following information is from the MDMA/PTSD Trials led by MAPS. However, the treatment for PTSD involves: multiple therapy sessions and an MDMA-trained psychotherapist. Therapy sessions also last 6-8 hours. Presumably, some of these costs would not apply to a DMT/CH trial, so we expect trials for DMT/CH to be cheaper than the MDMA/PTSD Trials.
However, cluster headaches are not well suited to the therapeutic environment that is used to treat mental health conditions (they arise unpredictably, and require instant relief). This means there are likely significant cost-saving opportunities in the experimental design protocol.
Summary of costs for MAPS IND Process:
 Assume a world population of 7.7 billion people, and 53 out of 100,000 yearly prevalence suffering from this. Going by public health records, we see that the average number of cluster headache attacks that a sufferer experiences is about 30 a year (with a huge variance, where some people get only about 5 a year and some get them multiple times a day). Attacks last on average 1 hour (but range from 20 minutes to 3 hours). Hence, the number of people currently experiencing a CH is: 0.00053*7,700,000,000*(30/(24*365)) = 13,976.03 ~= 14 thousand
[July 18 2019 addendum: This assumes that coffee has a causal- rather than merely correlational- influence on longevity. See comment section for more details.]
The T-shirt in the featured image was probably designed as a joke, but I take it very seriously.
Indeed, I think there is a strong case to be made that subsidizing coffee could be seen as an Effective Altruist priority. You see, you can save a life with coffee for as little as $50k. This makes coffee an intervention that is on par with some of the top charities in the world, and it is an outlier when it comes to the cost-benefit ratio of medical interventions. Consider how, e.g. this article on QALY states that:
“The UK’s recommendations, for example, are about £20,000 to £30,000 ($30,000 to $45,000) for each additional year of good health, once it has been adjusted to take into account the quality of life. So a drug that achieved 0.5 on the QALY measure would only merit £10,000-15,000 ($15,000 to $22,500).”
Assuming a QALY-adjusted average life-span of about 60 years per person, coffee is about 30 to 50 times more cost-effective than the types of medical interventions the UK is willing to subsidize to extend people’s lives. And that’s not even considering what people themselves are willing to pay to extend their own lives, which is, of course, a lot more than what a government would.
Relative to GiveWell‘s top charities this is still not the best intervention out there (with some of the ultra-effective charities saving a life for about 2,000 dollars). I would nonetheless point out that the ultra-effective charities out there are all effective because they address populations where very basic human needs are not typically met. In Malaria-ridden, war-torn areas, a little can go a long way. But what’s different about coffee is that it is as effective everywhere in the world. Sure, you can save a life with $50k in many African countries. But can you do so in Sweden?! With coffee you can!
Anyhow, how did I arrive at these numbers? Well consider that you can get about 380 doses of coffee for as little as 10 dollars.*
So this means you can have a cup of coffee for as little as 2.63 cents(!). In turn, we know from a lot of research that each cup of coffee up to 4 cups a day prevents about 1/2 micromorts (interestingly, it is just as cost-effective to encourage people who don’t drink coffee to drink 1 cup as it would be to encourage people who drink 3 to go ahead and drink 4).
Given those numbers, we have that the cost of a full life-span worth of micromorts is about $52,631.58.
Why are we not funding this?!
*With: Example 48 oz brand. (we could do even better buying in bulk – I reached out to a delivery company to get a quota and will update when I know more).
Some errors are ethically catastrophic. Prioritizing the prevention of suffering based on the number of cortical neurons of the brains that would generate such suffering might be one of them.
We should avoid jumping to conclusions. It is possible that moral significance will ultimately be revealed to be based on capacity to suffer and experience joy, which is related to the limbic system, pleasure centers, and thalamus rather than the capacity to verbalize and cogitate, which is related to number of cortical neurons. People’s perceptions and intuitions are likely to be biased towards over-valuing intelligence because that’s something that got ingrained into our perception of value due to sexual and kin selection.
If QRI’s Symmetry Theory of Valence is correct, most intense and (dis)valuable experiences will turn out to be very simple in structure (even if very high energy-wise). Complexity of neural architecture is correlated with potential for intelligence and complex states. But it is not necessary for emotionally powerful experiences. The cortex, after all, plays majorly an inhibitory role in the brain. Emotion centers, on the other hand, are excitatory, evolutionarily ancient and phylogenetically preserved across the animal kingdom (e.g. even octopodes enjoy MDMA). Based on this, uninhibited base emotions are likely to feel roughly the same (or close to the same) in human and nonhuman animals alike.
What about an animals’ capacity to inhibit base emotions? As John Lilly’s studies indicate, the thickness of an animal’s cortex is correlated with its emotional control. A macaque in panic is more impulsive and violent than a chimpanzee in panic, which in turn is more impulsive and violent than a human in panic. The same goes for humans with different cortical sizes. Hence, sadly, there is a good chance that pigs, dogs, birds, and cows experience emotions more- rather than less- intensely. Their emotions may not be as ‘subtle’ and multilayered, but why would that matter for ethics? Raw panic is worse than subtle poetic melancholia and other ‘valued (i.e. fetishized) human emotions’. Again, we overvalue such subtle emotions as a side effect of the specific sexual selection pressures experienced in our recent evolutionary history, rather than for good well-thought-out reasons.
In this age of ethical emergencies (aka. the Darwinian age), I would like to offer the suggestion of enforcing pleasure center activation in factory farm animals as a precondition for having them raised for meat or dairy. Likewise, such should be done in nonhuman animal studies that focus on things other than the brain. Why not wirehead rats who are being studied for kidney failure? It won’t matter for that area of research… but it will certainly matter for the subjective wellbeing of the rats in question.
A relevant side note here would concern another human bias in addition to the fetishization of cortical neurons. Namely, our positive bias towards cute animals due to mirror neuron activation. Cuteness and neoteny are attractive to humans for good evolutionary reasons, but this is a perceptual bias rather than the result of careful moral reasoning. The fact that humans perceive pandas as cute hardly justifies letting millions of sentient beings suffer in exchange for “saving the panda” (cf. Should We Let Pandas Go Extinct?*).
My dark hunch: the life of some animals is simply not worth living no matter their environmental conditions. Crickets- the consciousnesses science of 2050 could reveal- are 100% driven by dissonance and never experience pleasure. If so, let’s fix them or phase them out.
Finally, also consider: Cluster headaches are 10,000sX more painful than other medical conditions. Given this extreme outlier in humans, we could infer that there are good odds that there are other kinds of ultra-high-intensity suffering lurking in species’ specific diseases. Morally, it ought to be key to identify these cases and treat them as our priority. Focusing on cortical neurons instead would be a- possibly ethically catastrophic- red herring.
* This is not to say that it is desirable for the panda to go extinct. It is a question of opportunity cost. It might make sense to put efforts instead in sequencing the DNA of the entire panda population and consider rebooting it sometime in the future.
tl;dr If we construct a theory of meaning grounded in qualia and felt-sense, it is possible to congruently arrive at “should” statements on the basis of reason and “is” claims. Meaning grounded in qualia allows us to import the pleasure-pain axis and its phenomenal character to the same plane of discussion as factual and structural observations.
TheIs-Ought problem (also called “Hume’s guillotine”) is a classical philosophical conundrum. On the one hand people feel that our ethical obligations (at least the uncontroversial ones like “do not torture anyone for no reason”) are facts about reality in some important sense, but on the other hand, rigorously deriving such “moral facts” from facts about the universe appears to be a category error. Is there any physical fact that truly compels us to act in one way or another?
A friend recently asked about my thoughts on this question and I took the time to express them to the best of my knowledge.
I provide seven points of discussion that together can be used to make the case that “ought” judgements often, though not always, are on the same ontological footing as “is” claims. Namely, that they are references to the structure and quality of experience, whose ultimate nature is self-intimating (i.e. it reveals itself) and hence inaccessible to those who lack the physiological apparatus to instantiate it. In turn, we could say that within communities of beings who share the same self-intimating qualities of experience, the is/ought divide may not be completely unbridgeable.
Summaries of Question and Response
Summary of the question:
How does a “should” emerge at all? How can reason and/or principles and/or logic compel us to follow some moral code?
Summary of the response:
If “ought” statements are to be part of our worldview, then they must refer to decisions about experiences: what kinds of experiences are better/worse, what experiences should or should not exist, etc.
A shared sense of personal identity (e.g. Open Individualism – which posits that “we are all one consciousness”) allows us to make parallels between the quality of our experience and the experience of others. Hence if one grounds “oughts” on the self-intimating quality of one’s suffering, then we can also extrapolate that such “oughts” must exist in the experience of other sentient beings and that they are no less real “over there” simply because a different brain is generating them (general relativity shows that every “here and now” is equally real).
Reduction cuts both ways: if the “fire in the equations of physics” can feel a certain way (e.g. bliss/pain) then objective causal descriptions of reality (about e.g. brain states) are implicitly referring to precisely that which has an “ought” quality. Thus physics may be inextricably connected with moral “oughts”.
If one loses sight of the fact that one’s experience is the ultimate referent for meaning, it is possible to end up in nihilistic accounts of meaning (e.g. such as Quine’s Indeterminacy of translation and Dennett’sinclusion of qualia within that framework). But if one grounds meaning in qualia, then suddenly both causality and value are on the same ontological footing (cf.Valence Realism).
To see clearly the nature of value it is best to examine it at its extremes (such as MDMA bliss vs. the pain of kidney stones). Having such experiences illuminates the “ought” aspect of consciousness, in contrast to the typical quasi-anhedonic “normal everyday states of consciousness” that most people (and philosophers!) tend to reason from. It would be interesting to see philosophers discuss e.g. the Is-Ought problem while on MDMA.
Claims that “pleasure and pain, value and disvalue, good and bad, etc.” are an illusion by long-term meditators based on the experience of “dissolving value” in meditative states are no more valid than claims that pain is an illusion by someone doped on morphine. In brief: such claims are made in a state of consciousness that has lost touch with the actual quality of experience that gives (dis)value to consciousness.
Admittedly the idea that one state of consciousness can even refer to (let alone make value judgements about) other states of consciousness is very problematic. In what sense does “reference” even make sense? Every moment of experience only has access to its own content. We posit that this problem is not ultimately unsolvable, and that human concepts are currently mere prototypes of a much better future set of varieties of consciousness optimized for truth-finding. As a thought experiment to illustrate this possible future, consider afull-spectrum superintelligence capable of instantiating arbitrary modes of experience and impartially comparing them side by side in order to build atotal order of consciousness.
Full Question and Response
I realized I don’t share some fundamental assumptions that seemed common amongst the people here [referring to the Qualia Research Institute and friends].
The most basic way I know how to phrase it, is the notion that there’s some appeal to reason and/or principles and/or logic that compels us to follow some type of moral code.
A (possibly straw-man) instance is the notion I associate with effective altruism, namely, that one should choose a career based on its calculable contribution to human welfare. The assumption is that human welfare is what we “should” care about. Why should we? What’s compelling about trying to reconfigure ourselves from whatever we value at the moment to replacing that thing with human welfare (or anything else)? What makes us think we can even truly succeed in reconfiguring ourselves like this? The obvious pitfall seems to be we create some image of “goodness” that we try to live up to without ever being honest with ourselves and owning our authentic desires. IMO this issue is rampant in mainstream Christianity.
More generally, I don’t understand how a “should” emerges within moral philosophy at all. I understand how starting with a want, say happiness, and noting a general tendency, such as I become happy when I help others, that one could deduce that helping others often is likely to result in a happy life. I might even say “I should help others” to myself, knowing it’s a strategy to get what I want. That’s not the type of “should” I’m talking about. What I’m talking about is “should” at the most basic level of one’s value structure. I don’t understand how any amount of reasoning could tell us what our most basic values and desires “should” be.
I would like to read something rigorous on this issue. I appreciate any references, as well as any elucidating replies.
This is a very important topic. I think it is great that you raise this question, as it stands at the core of many debates and arguments about ethics and morality. I think that one can indeed make a really strong case for the view that “ought” is simply never logically implied by any accurate and objective description of the world (the famous is/ought Humean guillotine). I understand that an objective assessment of all that is will usually be cast as a network of causal and structural relationships. By starting out with a network of causal and structural relationships and using logical inferences to arrive at further high-level facts, one is ultimately bound to arrive at conclusions that themselves are just structural and causal relationships. So where does the “ought” fit in here? Is it really just a manner of speaking? A linguistic spandrel that emerges from evolutionary history? It could really seem like it, and I admit that I do not have a silver bullet argument against this view.
However, I do think that eventually we will arrive at a post-Galilean understanding of consciousness, and that this understanding will itself allow us to point out exactly where- if at all- ethical imperatives are located and how they emerge. For now all I have is a series of observations that I hope can help you develop an intuition for how we are thinking about it, and why our take is original and novel (and not simply a rehashing of previous arguments or appeals to nature/intuition/guilt).
So without further ado I would like to lay out the following points on the table:
I am of the mind that if any kind of “ought” is present in reality it will involve decision-making about the quality of consciousness of subjects of experience. I do not think that it makes sense to talk about an ethical imperative that has anything to do with non-experiential properties of the universe precisely because there would be no one affected by it. If there is an argument for caring about things that have no impact on any state of consciousness, I have yet to encounter it. So I will assume that the question refers to whether certain states of consciousness ought to or ought not to exist (and how to make trade offs between them).
I also think thatpersonal identity is key for this discussion, but why this is the case will make sense in a moment. The short answer is that conscious value is self-intimating/self-revealing, and in order to pass judgement on something that you yourself (as a narrative being) will not get to experience you need some confidence (or reasonable cause) to believe that the same self-intimating quality of experience is present in other narrative orbits that will not interact with you. For the same reasons as (1) above, it makes no sense to care about philosophical zombies (no matter how much they scream at you), but the same is the case for “conscious value p. zombies” (where maybe they experience color qualia but do not experience hedonic tone i.e. they can’t suffer).
A very important concept that comes up again and again in our research is the notion that “reduction cuts both ways”. We take dual aspect monism seriously, and in this view we would consider the mathematical description of an experience and its qualia two sides of the same coin. Now, many people come here and say “the moment you reduce an experience of bliss to a mathematical equation you have removed any fuzzy morality from it and arrived at a purely objective and factual account which does not support an ‘ought ontology'”. But doing this mental move requires you to take the mathematical account as a superior ontology to that of the self-intimating quality of experience. In our view, these are two sides of the same coin. If mystical experiences are just a bunch of chemicals, then a bunch of chemicals can also be a mystical experience. To reiterate: reduction cuts both ways, and this happens with the value of experience to the same extent as it happens with the qualia of e.g. red or cinnamon.
Mike Johnson tends to bring up Wittgenstein and Quine to the “Is-Ought” problem because they are famous for ‘reducing language and meaning’ to games and networks of relationships. But here you should realize that you can apply the concept developed in (3) above just as well to this matter. In our view, a view of language that has “words and objects” at its foundation is not a complete ontology, and nor is one that merely introduces language games to dissolve the mystery of meaning. What’s missing here is “felt sense” – the raw way in which concepts feel and operate on each other whether or not they are verbalized. It is my view that herephenomenal binding becomes critical because a felt sense that corresponds to a word, concept, referent, etc. in itself encapsulates a large amount of information simultaneously, and contains many invariants across a set of possible mental transformations that define what it is and what it is not. More so, felt senses are computationally powerful (rather than merely epiphenomenal). ConsiderDaniel Tammet‘s mathematical feats achieved by experiencing numbers in complex synesthetic ways that interact with each other in ways that are isomorphic to multiplication, factorization, etc. More so, he does this at competitive speeds. Language, in a sense, could be thought of as the surface of felt sense. Daniel Dennett famously argued that you can “Quine Qualia” (meaning that you can explain it away with a groundless network of relationships and referents). We, on the opposite extreme, would bite the bullet of meaning and say that meaning itself is grounded in felt-sense and qualia. Thus, colors, aromas, emotions, and thoughts, rather than being ultimately semantically groundless as Dennett would have it, turn out to be the very foundation of meaning.
In light of the above, let’s consider some experiences that embody the strongest degree of the felt sense of “ought to be” and “ought not to be” that we know of. On the negative side, we have things like cluster headaches and kidney stones. On the positive side we have things like Samadhi, MDMA, and 5-MEO-DMT states of consciousness. I am personally more certain that the “ought not to be” aspect of experience is more real than the “ought to be” aspect of it, which is why I have a tendency (though no strong commitment) towards negative utilitarianism. When you touch a hot stove you get this involuntary reaction and associated valence qualia of “reality needs you to recoil from this”, and in such cases one has degrees of freedom into which to back off. But when experiencing cluster headaches and kidney stones, this sensation- that self-intimating felt-sense of ‘this ought not to be’- is omnidirectional. The experience is one in which one feels like every direction is negative, and in turn, at its extremes, one feels spiritually violated (“a major ethical emergency” is how a sufferer of cluster headaches recently described it to me). This brings me to…
The apparent illusory nature of value in light of meditative deconstruction of felt-senses. As you put it elsewhere: “Introspectively – Meditators with deep experience typically report all concepts are delusion. This is realized in a very direct experiential way.” Here I am ambivalent, though my default response is to make sense of the meditation-induced feeling that “value is illusory” as itself an operation on one’s conscious topology that makes the value quality of experience get diminished or plugged out. Meditation masters will say things like “if you observe the pain very carefully, if you slice it into 30 tiny fragments per second, you will realize that the suffering you experience from it is an illusory construction”. And this kind of language itself is, IMO, liable to give off the illusion that the pain was illusory to begin with. But here I disagree. We don’t say that people who take a strong opioid to reduce acute pain are “gaining insight into the fundamental nature of pain” and that’s “why they stop experiencing it”. Rather, we understand that the strong opioid changes the neurological conditions in such a way that the quality of the pain itself is modified, which results in a duller, “asymbolic“, non-propagating, well-confined discomfort. In other words, strong opioids reduce the value-quality of pain by locally changing the nature of pain rather than by bringing about a realization of its ultimate nature. The same with meditation. The strongest difference here, I think, would be that opioids are preventing the spatial propagation of pain “symmetry breaking structures” across one’s experience and thus “confine pain to a small spatial location”, whereas meditation does something different that is better described as confining the pain to a small temporal region. This is hard to explain in full, and it will require us to fully formalize how the subjective arrow of time is constructed and how pain qualia can make copies across it. [By noting the pain very quickly one is, I believe, preventing it from building up and then having “secondary pain” which emerges from the cymatic resonance of the various lingering echoes of pain across one’s entire “pseudo-time arrow of experience”.] Sorry if this sounds like word salad, I am happy to unpack these concepts if needed, while also admitting that we are in early stages of the theoretical and empirical development.
Finally, I will concede that the common sense view of “reference” is very deluded on many levels. The very notion that we can refer to an experience with another experience, that we can encode the properties of a different moment of experience in one’s current moment of experience, that we can talk about the “real world” or its “objective ethical values” or “moral duty” is very far from sensical in the final analysis. Reference is very tricky, and I think that a full understanding of consciousness will do some severe violence to our common sense in this area. That, however, is different from the self-disclosing properties of experience such as red qualia and pain qualia. You can do away with all of common sense reference while retaining a grounded understanding that “the constituents of the world are qualia values and their local binding relationships”. In turn, I do think that we can aim to do a decently good job at re-building from the ground up a good approximation of our common sense understanding of the world using “meaning grounded in qualia”, and once we do that we will be in a solid foundation (as opposed to the, admittedly very messy, quasi-delusional character of thoughts as they exist today). Needless to say, this may also need us to change our state of consciousness. “Someday we will have thoughts like sunsets” – David Pearce.
In response to the Quora question “I feel like a lot of evil actions in the world have supporters who justify them (like Nazis). Can you come up with some convincing ways in which some of the most evil actions in the world could be justified?” David Pearce writes:
“Tout comprendre, c’est tout pardonner.”
(Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace)
“Despite everything, I believe that people are really good at heart.”
The risk of devising justifications of the worst forms of human behaviour is there are people gullible enough to believe them. It’s not as though anti-Semitism died with the Third Reich. Even offering dispassionate causal explanation can sometimes be harmful. So devil’s advocacy is an intellectual exercise to be used sparingly.
That said, the historical record suggests that human societies don’t collectively set out to do evil. Rather, primitive human emotions get entangled with factually mistaken beliefs and ill-conceived metaphysics with ethically catastrophic consequences. Thus the Nazis seriously believed in the existence of an international Jewish conspiracy against the noble Aryan race. Hitler, so shrewd in many respects, credulously swallowed The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. And as his last testamentdisclosed, obliquely, Hitler believed that the gas chambers were a “more humane means” than the terrible fate befalling the German Volk. Many Nazis (Himmler, Höss, Stangl, and maybe even Eichmann) believed that they were acting from a sense of duty – a great burden stoically borne. And such lessons can be generalised across history. If you believed, like the Inquisition, that torturing heretics was the only way to save their souls from eternal damnation in Hell, would you have the moral courage to do likewise? If you believed that the world would be destroyed by the gods unless you practised mass human sacrifice, would you participate? [No, in my case, albeit for unorthodox reasons.]
In a secular context today, there exist upstanding citizens who would like future civilisation to run “ancestor simulations”. Ancestor simulations would create inconceivably more suffering than any crime perpetrated by the worst sadist or deluded ideologue in history – at least if the computational-functional theory of consciousness assumed by their proponents is correct. If I were to pitch a message to life-lovers aimed at justifying such a monstrous project, as you request, then I guess I’d spin some yarn about how marvellous it would be to recreate past wonders and see grandpa again.
And so forth.
What about the actions of individuals, as distinct from whole societies? Not all depraved human behaviour stems from false metaphysics or confused ideology. The grosser forms of human unpleasantness often stem just from our unreflectively acting out baser appetites (cf. Hamiltonian spite). Consider the neuroscience of perception. Sentient beings don’t collectively perceive a shared public world. Each of us runs an egocentric world-simulation populated by zombies (sic). We each inhabit warped virtual worlds centered on a different body-image, situated within a vastreality whose existence can be theoretically inferred. Or so science says. Most people are still perceptual naïve realists. They aren’t metaphysicians, or moral philosophers, or students of the neuroscience of perception. Understandably, most people trust the evidence of their own eyes and the wisdom of their innermost feelings, over abstract theory. What “feels right” is shaped by natural selection. And what “feels right” within one’s egocentric virtual world is often callous and sometimes atrocious. Natural selection is amoral. We are all slavesto the pleasure-pain axis, however heavy the layers of disguise. Thanks to evolution, our emotions are “encephalised” in grotesque ways. Even the most ghastly behaviour can be made to seem natural –like Darwinian life itself.
Are there some forms of human behaviour so appalling that I’d find it hard to play devil’s advocate in their mitigation – even as an intellectual exercise?
Well, perhaps consider, say, the most reviled hate-figures in our society – even more reviled than murderers or terrorists. Most sexually active paedophiles don’t set out to harm children: quite the opposite, harm is typically just the tragic by-product of a sexual orientation they didn’t choose. Posthumansmay reckon that all Darwinian relationships are toxic. Of course, not all monstrous human behavior stems from wellsprings as deep as sexual orientation. Thus humans aren’t obligate carnivores. Most (though not all) contemporary meat eaters, if pressed, will acknowledge in the abstract that a pig is as sentient and sapient as a prelinguistic human toddler. And no contemporary meat eaters seriously believe that their victims have committed a crime (cf. Animal trial – Wikipedia). Yet if questioned why they cause such terrible suffering to the innocent, and why they pay for a hamburger rather than a veggieburger, a meat eater will come up with perhaps the lamest justification for human depravity ever invented:
[Epistemic status: sloppy thoughts not informed by the literature. Hoping actual population ethicists might show up and correct me or point me to whoever has already thought about something like this better.]
Person-affecting views say that when you are summing up the value in different possible worlds, you should ignore people who only exist in one of those worlds. This is based on something like the following intuitions:
World A can only be better than world B insofar as it is better for someone.
World A can’t be better than world B for Alice, if Alice exists in world A but not world B.
The further-fact view says that after learning all physical facts about Alice and Alice’—such as whether Alice’ was the physical result of Alice waiting for five seconds, or is a brain upload of Alice, or is what came out of a replicating machine on Mars after Alice walked in on Earth, or remembers being Alice—there is still a further meaningful question of whether Alice and Alice’ are the same person.
I take the further-fact view to be wrong (or at least Derek Parfit does, and I think we agree the differences between Derek Parfit and I have been overstated). Thinking that the further-fact view is wrong seems to be a common position among intellectuals (e.g. 87% among philosophers).
If the further-fact view is wrong, then the what we have is a whole lot of different person-moments, with various relationships to one another, which for pragmatic reasons we like to group into clusters called ‘people’. There are different ways we could define the people, and no real answer to which definition is right. This works out pretty well in our world, but you can imagine other worlds (or futures of our world) where the clusters are much more ambiguous, and different definitions of ‘person’ make a big difference, or where the concept is not actually useful.
Person-affecting views seem to make pretty central use of the concept ‘person’. If we don’t accept the further-fact view, and do want to accept a person-affecting view, what would that mean? I can think of several options:
How good different worlds are depends strongly on which definition of ‘person’ you choose (which person moments you choose to cluster together), but this is a somewhat arbitrary pragmatic choice
There is some correct definition of ‘person’ for the purpose of ethics (i.e. there is some relation between person moments that makes different person moments in the future ethically relevant by virtue of having that connection to a present person moment)
Different person-moments are more or less closely connected in ways, and a person-affecting view should actually have a sliding scale of importance for different person-moments
Before considering these options, I want to revisit the second reason for adopting a person-affecting view: If Alice exists in world A and not in world B, then Alice can’t be made better off by world A existing rather than world B. Whether this premise is true seems to depend on how ‘a world being better for Alice’ works. Some things we might measure would go one way, and some would go the other. For instance, we could imagine it being analogous to:
Alice painting more paintings. If Alice painted three paintings in world A, and doesn’t exist in world B, I think most people would say that Alice painted more paintings in world A than in world B. And more clearly, that world A has more paintings than world B, even if we insist that a world can’t have more paintings without somebody in particular having painted more paintings. Relatedly, there are many things people do where the sentence ‘If Alice didn’t exist, she wouldn’t have X’.
Alice having painted more paintings per year. If Alice painted one painting every thirty years in world A, and didn’t exist in world B, in world B the number of paintings per year is undefined, and so incomparable to ‘one per thirty years’.
Suppose that person-affecting view advocates are right, and the worth of one’s life is more like 2). You just can’t compare the worth of Alice’s life in two worlds where she only exists in one of them. Then can you compare person-moments? What if the same ‘person’ exists in two possible worlds, but consists of different person-moments?
Compare world A and world C, which both contain Alice, but in world C Alice makes different choices as a teenager, and becomes a fighter pilot instead of a computer scientist. It turns out that she is not well suited to it, and finds piloting pretty unsatisfying. If Alice_t1A is different from Alice_t1C, can we say that world A is better than world C, in virtue of Alice’s experiences? Each relevant person-moment only exists in one of the worlds, so how can they benefit?
I see several possible responses:
No we can’t. We should have person-moment affecting views.
Things can’t be better or worse for person-moments, only for entire people, holistically across their lives, so the question is meaningless. (Or relatedly, how good a thing is for a person is not a function of how good it is for their person-moments, and it is how good it is for the person that matters).
Yes, there is some difference between people and person moments, which means that person-moments can benefit without existing in worlds that they are benefitting relative to, but people cannot.
The second possibility seems to involve accepting the second view above: that there is some correct definition of ‘person’ that is larger than a person moment, and fundamental to ethics – something like the further-fact view. This sounds kind of bad to me. And the third view doesn’t seem very tempting without some idea of an actual difference between persons and person-moments.
So maybe the person-moment affecting view looks most promising. Let us review what it would have to look like. For one thing, the only comparable person moments are the ones that are the same. And since they are the same, there is no point bringing about one instead of the other. So there is never reason to bring about a person-moment for its own benefit. Which sounds like it might really limit the things that are worth intentionally doing. Isn’t making myself happy in three seconds just bringing about a happy person moment rather than a different sad person moment?
Is everything just equally good on this view? I don’t think so, as long as you are something like a preference utilitarian: person-moments can have preferences over other person-moments. Suppose that Alice_t0A and Alice_t0C are the same, and Alice_t1A and Alice_t1C are different. And suppose that Alice_t0 wants Alice_t1 to be a computer scientist. Then world A is better than world C for Alice_t0, and so better overall. That is, person-moments can benefit from things, as long as they don’t know at the time that they have benefited.
I think an interestingfeature of this view is that all value seems to come from meddling preferences. It is never directly good that there is joy in the world for instance, it is just good because somebody wants somebody else to experience joy, and that desire was satisfied. If they had instead wished for a future person-moment to be tortured, and this was granted, then this world would apparently be just as good.
So, things that are never directly valuable in this world:
Someone getting what they want and also knowing about it
Anything that isn’t a meddling preference
On the upside, since person-moments often care about future person-moments within the same person, we do perhaps get back to something closer to the original person-affecting view. There is often reason to bring about or benefit a person moment for the benefit of previous person moments in the history of the same person, who for instance wants to ‘live a long and happy life’. My guess after thinking about this very briefly is that in practice it would end up looking like the ‘moderate’ person-affecting views, in which people who currently exist get more weight than people who will be brought into existence, but not infinitely more weight. People who exist now mostly want to continue existing, and to have good lives in the future, and they care less, but some, about different people in the future.
So, if you want to accept a person-affecting view and not a further-fact view, the options seem to me to be something like these:
Person-moments can benefit without having an otherworldly counterpart, even though people cannot. Which is to say, only person-moments that are part of the same ‘person’ in different worlds can benefit from their existence. ‘Person’ here is either an arbitrary pragmatic definition choice, or some more fundamental ethically relevant version of the concept that we could perhaps discover.
Benefits accrue to persons, not person-moments. In particular, benefits to persons are not a function of the benefits to their constituent person-moments. Where ‘person’ is again either a somewhat arbitrary choice of definition, or a more fundamental concept.
A sliding scale of ethical relevance of different person-moments, based on how narrow a definition of ‘person’ unites them with any currently existing person-moments. Along with some story about why, given that you can apparently compare all of them, you are still weighting some less, on grounds that they are incomparable.
Person-moment affecting views
None of these sound very good to me, but nor do person-affecting views in general, so maybe I’m the wrong audience. I had thought person-moment affecting views were almost a reductio, but a close friend says he thought they were the obvious reasonable view, so I am curious to hear others’ takes.
An interesting thing to point out here is that what Katja describes as the further-fact view is terminologically equivalent to what we here call Closed Individualism (cf. Ontological Qualia). This is the common-sense view that you start existing when you are born and stop existing when you die (which also has soul-based variants with possible pre-birth and post-death existence). This view is not very philosophically tenable because it presupposes that there is an enduring metaphysical ego distinct for every person. And yet, the vast majority of people still hold strongly to Closed Individualism. In some sense, in the article Katja tries to rescue the common-sense aspect of Closed Individualism in the context of ethics. That is, by trying to steel-man the common-sense notion that people (rather than moments of experience) are the relevant units for morality while also negating further-fact views, you provide reasons to keep using Closed Individualism as an intuition-pump in ethics (if only for pragmatic reasons). In general, I consider this kind of discussions to be a very fruitful endeavor as they approach ethics by touching upon the key parameters that matter fundamentally: identity, value, and counterfactuals.
As you may gather from pieces such as Wireheading Done Right and The Universal Plot, at Qualia Computing we tend to think the most coherent ethical system arises when we take as a premise that the relevant moral agents are “moments of experience”. Contra Person-affecting views, we don’t think it is meaningless to say that a given world is better than another one if not everyone in the first world is also in the second one. On the contrary – it really does not matter who lives in a given world. What matters is the raw subjective quality of the experiences in such worlds. If it is meaningless to ask “who is experiencing Alice’s experiences now?” once you know all the physical facts, then moral weight must be encoded in such physical facts alone. In turn, it could certainly happen then that the narrative aspect of an experience may turn out to be irrelevant for determining the intrinsic value of a given experience. People’s self-narratives may certainly have important instrumental uses, but at their core they don’t make it to the list of things that intrinsically matter (unlike, say, avoiding suffering).
A helpful philosophical move that we have found adds a lot of clarity here is to analyze the problem in terms of Open Individualism. That is, assume that we are all one consciousness and take it from there. If so, then the probability that you are a given person would be weighted by the amount of consciousness (or number of moments of experience, depending) that such person experiences throughout his or her life. You are everyone in this view, but you can only be each person one at a time from their own limited points of view. So there is a sensible way of weighting the importance of each person, and this is a function of the amount of time you spend being him or her (and normalize by the amount of consciousness that person experiences, in case that is variable across individuals).
If consciousness emerges victorious in its war against pure replicators, then it would make sense that the main theory of identity people would hold by default would be Open Individualism. After all, it is only Open Individualism that aligns individual incentives and the total wellbeing of all moments of experience throughout the universe.
That said, in principle, it could turn out that Open Individualism is not needed to maximize conscious value – that while it may be useful instrumentally to align the existing living intelligences towards a common consciousness-centric goal (e.g. eliminating suffering, building a harmonic society, etc.), in the long run we may find that ontological qualia (the aspect of our experience that we use to represent the nature of reality, including our beliefs about personal identity) has no intrinsic value. Why bother experiencing heaven in the form of a mixture of 95% bliss and 5% ‘a sense of knowing that we are all one’, if you can instead just experience 100% pure bliss?
At the ethical limit, anything that is not perfectly blissful might end up being thought of as a distraction from the cosmic telos of universal wellbeing.
Excerpt from Superintelligence: Paths, Dangers, Strategies (2014) by Nick Bostrom (pg. 207-210).
Would Maximally Efficient Work Be Fun?
One important variable in assessing the desirability of a hypothetical condition like this* is the hedonic state of the average emulation**. Would a typical emulation worker be suffering or would he be enjoying the experience of working hard on the task at hand?
We must resist the temptation to project our own sentiments onto the imaginary emulation worker. The question is not whether you would feel happy if you had to work constantly and never again spend time with your loved ones–a terrible fate, most would agree.
It is moderately more relevant to consider the current human average hedonic experience during working hours. Worldwide studies asking respondents how happy they are find that most rate themselves as “quite happy” or “very happy” (averaging 3.1 on a scale from 1 to 4)***. Studies on average affect, asking respondents how frequently they have recently experienced various positive or negative affective states, tend to get a similar result (producing a net affect of about 0.52 on a scale from -1 to 1). There is a modest positive effect of a country’s per capita income on average subjective well-being.**** However, it is hazardous to extrapolate from these findings to the hedonic state of future emulation workers. One reason that could be given for this is that their condition would be so different: on the one hand, they might be working much harder; on the other hand, they might be free from diseases, aches, hunger, noxious odors, and so forth. Yet such considerations largely miss the mark. The much more important consideration here is that hedonic tone would be easy to adjust through the digital equivalent of drugs or neurosurgery. This means that it would be a mistake to infer the hedonic state of future emulations from the external conditions of their lives by imagining how we ourselves and other people like us would feel in those circumstances. Hedonic state would be a matter of choice. In the model we are currently considering, the choice would be made by capital-owners seeking to maximize returns on their investment in emulation-workers. Consequently, this question of how happy emulations would feel boils down to the question of which hedonic states would be most productive (in the various jobs that emulations would be employed to do). [Emphasis mine]
Here, again, one might seek to draw an inference from observations about human happiness. If it is the case, across most times, places, and occupations, that people are typically at least moderately happy, this would create some presumption in favor of the same holding in a post-transition scenario like the one we are considering. To be clear, the argument in this case would not be that human minds have a predisposition towards happiness so they would probably find satisfaction under these novel conditions; but rather that a certain average level of happiness has proved adaptive for human minds in the past so maybe a similar level of happiness will prove adaptive from human-like minds in the future. Yet this formulations also reveals the weakness of the inference: to wit, that the mental dispositions that were adaptive for hunter-gatherer hominids roaming the African savanna may not necessarily be adaptive for modified emulations living in post-transition virtual realities. We can certainly hope that the future emulation-workers would be as happy as, or happier than, typical workers were in human history; but we have yet to see any compelling reason for supposing it would be so (in the laissez-faire multipolar scenario currently under examination).
Consider the possibility that the reason happiness is prevalent among humans (to whatever limited extent it is prevalent) is that cheerful mood served a signaling function in the environment of evolutionary adaptedness. Conveying the impression to other members of the social group of being in flourishing condition–in good health, in good standing with one’s peers, and in confident expectation of continued good fortune–may have boosted an individual’s popularity. A bias toward cheerfulness could thus have been selected for, with the result that human neurochemistry is now biased toward positive affect compared to what would have been maximally efficient according to simpler materialistic criteria. If this were the case, then the future of joie de vivre might depend on cheer retaining its social signaling function unaltered in the post-transition world: an issue to which we will return shortly.
What if glad souls dissipate more energy than glum ones? Perhaps the joyful are more prone to creative leaps and flights of fancy–behaviors that future employers might disprize in most of their workers. Perhaps a sullen or anxious fixation on simply getting on with the job without making mistakes will be the productivity-maximizing attitude in most lines of work. The claim here is not that this is so, but that we do not know that it is not so. Yet we should consider just how bad it could be if some such pessimistic hypothesis about a future Malthusian state turned out to be true: not only because of the opportunity cost of having failed to create something better–which would be enormous–but also because the state could be bad in itself, possibly far worse that the original Malthusian state.
We seldom put forth full effort. When we do, it is sometimes painful. Imagine running on a treadmill at a steep incline–heart pounding, muscles aching, lungs gasping for air. A glance at the timer: your next break, which will will also be your death, is due in 49 years, 3 months, 20 days, 4 hours, 56 minutes, and 12 seconds. You wish you had not been born.
Again the claim is not that this is how it would be, but that we do not know that it is not. One could certainly make a more optimistic case. For example, there is no obvious reason that emulations would need to suffer bodily injury and sickness: the elimination of physical wretchedness would be a great improvement over the present state of affairs. Furthermore, since such stuff as virtual reality is made of can be fairly cheap, emulations may work in sumptuous surroundings–in splendid mountaintop palaces, on terraces set in a budding spring forest, or on the beaches of azure lagoon–with just the right illumination, temperature, scenery and décor; free from annoying fumes, noises, drafts, and buzzing insects; dressed in comfortable clothing, feeling clean and focused, and well nourished. More significantly, if–as seems perfectly possible–the optimum human mental state for productivity in most jobs is one of joyful eagerness, then the era of the emulation economy could be quite paradisiacal.
There would, in any case, be a great option value in arranging matters in such a manner that somebody or something could intervene to set things right if the default trajectory should happen to veer toward dystopia. It could also be desirable to have some sort of escape hatch that would permit bailout into death and oblivion if the quality of life were to sink permanently below the level at which annihilation becomes preferable to continued existence.
In the long run, as the emulation era gives way to an artificial intelligence era (or if machine intelligence is attained directly via AI without a preceding whole brain emulation stage) pain and pleasure might possibility disappear entirely in a multipolar outcome, since a hedonic reward mechanism may not be the most effective motivation system for a complex artificial agent (one that, unlike the human mind, is not burdened with the legacy of animal wetware). Perhaps a more advanced motivation system would be based on an explicit representation of a utility function or some other architecture that has not exact functional analogs to pleasure and pain.
A related but slightly more radical multipolar outcome–one that could involve the elimination of almost all value from the future–is that the universal proletariat would not even be conscious. This possibility is most salient with respect to AI, which might be structured very differently than human intelligence. But even if machine intelligence were initially achieved through whole brain emulation, resulting in conscious digital minds, the competitive forces unleashed in a post-transition economy could easily lead to the emergence of progressively less neuromorphic forms of machine intelligence, either because synthetic AI is created de novo or because the emulations would, through successive modifications and enhancements, increasingly depart their original human form.
* Scenarios where sentient emulations are being used to do maximally efficient work.
** Footnote: “An ethical evaluation might take into account many other factors as well. Even if all the workers were constantly well pleased with their condition, the outcome might still be deeply morally objectionable on other grounds–though which other grounds is a matter of dispute between rival moral theories. But any plausible assessment would consider subjective well-being to be one important factor. See also Bostrom and Yudkowsky (2015).”
[Content Warning: Deals with heavy topics including gruesome deaths, fear of the multiverse, bad trips, possible meme hazards, and psychotic delusions. Epistemic Status: Confident in about half of the content; the rest is extremely speculative. Everything in this text is subject to heavy revision upon learning more information. I wrote this in a haste right after Burning Man before my state-specific memory access went away. Please take this writeup with a giant grain of salt]
This is the first year that I attended Burning Man. I do not claim to be a Burning Man expert. I’m just a consciousness researcher who happened to attend the Burn and found the experience amazing and insightful. So much so that that writing 13,500+ words about it seemed appropriate. Here goes nothing.
I arrived on the morning of the first day (Sunday the 27th of August) and left on Monday (4th of September). I intellectually know that I only spent eight full nights and seven full days at the Playa, but my visceral feeling of time refuses to acknowledge this fact. Like a heavy acid trip, at Burning Man time expands beyond recognition. The experience maxes out one’s novelty detection mechanisms (latent inhibition be damned) and leads you to conclude that a lifetime has happened. Before my brain readjusts to consensus reality, here goes my candid impressions about the event and the insights that came together during it. As it turns out, I think that Burning Man is a profoundly significant event with far-reaching implications. While from afar it is easy to dismiss it as a mere techie-filled psychedelic-fueled hedonistic festival, the truth is that Burning Man may be one of the few key outlets in the world for the exploration of potential futures that are truly worth living. I.e. Post-Darwinian societies. More on this later.
It is notoriously hard to boil down the experience into just a few take-aways (example). Burning Man does not lend itself to dimensionality reduction; merely talking about the mental forces that make up the memetic constituents of the population of Black Rock City (predominantly: artists, spiritual practitioners, scientists, environmentalists, techies, philosophers, and qualia lovers) would be akin to describing a biological plant merely in terms of the atomic elements found within it. It’s true that if you grind it down to a fine powder, vaporize it (to break down its proteins and molecules), and then analyze such vapor with X-ray spectroscopy you will characterize the percentage of carbon, nitrogen, potassium, etc. atoms in it. And while this is a necessary part of a full description of such a plant, the elemental breakdown of its composition just scratches the surface of what the plant truly is. This is analogous to the Burn, for Burning Man’s most interesting aspects, like those of a living organism, are to be found at high levels of emergence. In the case of biological organisms we are talking about the large scale assemblies of biomolecules (themselves already complex) implementing elaborate interdependent metabolic functions working together to bring about finely tuned adaptive behavior. Oftentimes, biological organisms utilize the properties of basement reality (i.e. quantum fields) to implement functions that would have formerly been described as strongly emergent (i.e. as metaphysically supervening properties bigger than the mere sum of their parts), as is currently studied by the budding field of quantum biology. At Burning Man something akin to this may be going on as well: you find that people, emotions, and memes come together to create pods, camps, and happenings that are best described as energetic contingents of collective states of consciousness, all of which turn out to have mind-boggling emergent properties unavailable without the high levels of trust, openness, creativity, and coherence beneath the surface. Thus the futility of describing it in terms of what goes into it. Better to address the resulting (emergent) phenomena. More on this later.
According to the 2016 Burning Man Census the number one reason that Burners selected as the source of wonderful memories at Burning Man was the people. I personally found this to be very much the case. Although from afar one may think that BM attendees are largely psychedelic junkies, misguided hippies, and sentimental environmentalists, the truth is that the people in the Playa are extraordinary in multiple ways. It almost feels as if the art, the music, the workshops, and the principles are not the core attraction. Rather, these elements are merely an excuse to bring together amazing people who have a high probability of having deeply meaningful interactions and developing symbiotic relationships with each other for the betterment of humanity.
Burners are highly educated. According to the Educational Attainment in the United States Wikipedia article, 36% of Americans between 25 and 34 years old have a bachelor’s degree or above (32% for those between 45 to 64, and 27% for those 65 and above), compared to 74.5% of the 2016 Burning Man attendees (of all ages). Additionally, 31.3% of them had a graduate degree, which is an insanely high figure when compared to the national baserate (11% for Americans above the age of 25). More so, this number has been steadily growing over the last few years. In other words, for what seems like an arts and crafts festival, this was an exceptionally well educated crowd. And yet, education is only scratching the surface of what makes these people interesting.
The Educational Attainment of Burners
I have attended academic conferences, rationalist meetups, meditation gatherings, psychedelic festivals, and even amazing events like Psychedelic Science, Effective Altruism Global, and The Science of Consciousness. The people I meet at these events often impress me in many ways, and talking to them has reinforced my conviction that humanity is indeed capable of bringing about a marvelous world free from unnecessary suffering. In light of these previous experiences I certainly did not anticipate being surprised by the people at Burning Man. I was wrong. While it’s true that not everyone at Burning Man is exceptional (“we are all unique, but not everyone is uniquely unique”), the base rate of people who deeply impressed me was possibly higher than at any other gathering of people I’ve ever been to. The consistent feeling I got was one of people who actually cared.
Here is a little project I’d love to see carried out: someone should take the time to conduct a cluster analysis of the people attending Burning Man using features such as their beliefs about reality, their lifestyle, their preferred social circles, etc. Simply based on my experience, I’d say that the main clusters featured would be: Spiritually serious people with thousands of hours of practice under their belt (50% of Burners describe themselves as “spiritual but not religious”), career ecologists who are looking for ways to live without leaving a footprint on the planet (“leave no trace”), social workers, programmers & rationalists, high grade hedonists, psychologists, and philosophical seekers.
I find that one of the most powerful aspects of Burning Man is that its participants were mostly open, ready, and willing to have their minds changed. Sure, we are all attached to our preexisting views about reality, and it’s always painful to let go of them. But the vibe of the place, perhaps through a combination of personality types, empathogenic and psychedelic drugs, and free-floating love made it seem ok to let one’s deeply held beliefs cross-pollinate with those of others. Whether this was because of the high degree of openness to experience, relatively high conscientiousness (merely packing for the whole trip selects out people who can’t be bothered), typically high intelligence, or solid pro-sociality (disagreeable people are unlikely to get a kick out of the concept of a gifting economy), it doesn’t matter. People I talked to were not engaging with ideas in a superficial way. They deeply engaged with them. They looked you in the eye, told you their deepest worries about reality, and expressed their beliefs with the underlying feeling of being together in this mess, so let’s work together to bootstrap our way out of it.
Ok, I may be exaggerating a little here. Perhaps Burning Man is somewhat like Silicon Valley: it works more as a mirror of who you are than a solid thing that everyone will perceive in the same way. If you are a low-grade hedonist just looking to get drunk and make fun of others for taking Burning Man seriously you will naturally gravitate towards the camps where that’s the whole point, and if you are an income-focused techie merely looking to have a relaxing little vacation you will easily find yourself doing exactly that. But the point still stands that if you are a serious seeker looking for radically new ways of conceiving the nature of reality for the betterment of universal consciousness… there will be plenty of outlets, people, memes, artworks, and workshops for you to do exactly that at Burning Man. And oh man, are these things of high quality!
One of the wonderful persons I met at the Burn was Bruce Damer, with whom I had the pleasure to talk about physics, computing, the origin of life, consciousness, and psychedelics. He shared with me an interesting way of looking at life that involves a tripartite feedback loop: Life utilizes a “probability enhancing engine” (such as the interior of a cell boundary, where the probability of chemical reactions increases dramatically), a place to accumulate such changes as they happen (in which the reactions can be sustained), and a memory system (such as DNA, in which information about the self-replicating reactions can be stored and repurposed). Burning Man, in light of this model, is perhaps one of the leading sources of genuine memetic novelty in the world. With its very high density of people who are deliberate about their choices in life, BM works as a probability enhancing engine which drastically increases the chances for people to find others who are at their own level and are ready to collaborate at the same degree of commitment. The collective interpersonal temperature increases the probability for great matches to be found, and the high (socially derived) hedonic tone fosters no attachment towards each of the attempts that don’t work out. On any given night enough people trip or take an empathogen that there is a general (real or imagined) contact high state akin to a blend of empathogenesis and entheogenesis, i.e. ego softening and ego dissolving vibes, respectively. Higher probability of pairs maximally benefiting from each other to meet and collaborate on future projects. At least this describes my experience. (Be on the lookout for new collaborative projects between Qualia Computing and major institutions in the near future – this is just a teaser for now).
A handful of people I’ve never met recognized me at the Playa. Apparently the Psychedelic Cryptography article reached enough people to make Qualia Computing and the Qualia Research Institute not the schizophrenic word salad they may sound at first, but a player in the emerging memetic ecosystem at the foothills of the psychedelic renaissance. For example, on the night of the Burn I was hanging out next to a cucumber water stand in Esplanade and a guy approached me and asked: “This is going to sound strange, but, are you by any chance Andrés? From Qualia Computing?” I answered “yes”, and then we proceeded to talk about DiPT, the blockchain, meditation-based cryptocurrency, Greg Egan, how John C. Lilly didn’t go far enough, and the Hedonistic Imperative. This was not by any means an unusual type of interaction in this context, and especially not at 3:30 in the morning (when you find the highest probability for magical encounters to take place).
All of this goes to show that Burning Man is full of people capable of engaging with very high level ideas in a meaningful way. To be perfectly honest with you, I must confess that my model of the world is that only about 1% of people have any philosophical agency whatsoever. I do not resent this fact, because with the proper qualia they could turn themselves around right away. People experience philosophy through the eyes of learned helplessness. But at Burning Man (this year; my guess every year) the percentage of people with philosophical agency might have been as high as 10-15%, which is about as high as I have found it to be at places like EAGlobal and the rationalist community. I.e. a pretty freaking extraordinary ratio. Likewise, scientific, introspective, and spiritual literacy seemed to be through the roof. And even those who were not philosophically literate to begin with seemed extremely pleased to learn about qualia. I lost count of the number of people who were thrilled (THRILLED I tell you) to learn that the word qualia existed and that it referred to the ineffable subjective character of sensations, like the blueness of blue. “You mean that there is a word for that?! Wow! I’m so happy now! Cheers to that!” was a rather typical reaction in this context. This warmed my heart. I love turning on people to the concept of qualia.
It is also worth pointing out that a pervasive underlying vibe in the Burn was that of a high trust society. Research shows that societies in which people believe that others around them have only the best intentions tend to have a lot of great positive outcomes. The social dynamics at Burning Man run on high trust, and one can feel this in the air (along with a bunch of dust). Not only do the attendees seem to think of humans very highly (relative to the average person), but they also tend to think of other Burners in an even higher light: “To What Extent Do you Assume that People Have Only the Best Intentions?” (2016):
Now, talking about metaphysics and David Pearce: for a wide variety of reasons I assign the bulk of my probability mass to his metaphysics (note: I also share his ethical views). I am not going to try to justify why I think he is probably right at the moment, for it would take many thousands of words*. For now it will suffice to say that I find David’s views to be the most informed, coherent, well thought out, and explanatory of all of the interpretations of reality I’ve ever been acquainted with. In rough form, here are the highlights of such a view (taken from here): (0) Zero Ontology: The universe exists as a side effect of the total and complete absence of information. (1) Events of conscious experience are ontologically unitary: The left and right side of your visual field are part of an integrated whole that stands as a natural unit. (2) Physicalism: Physics is causally closed and it fully describes the behavior of the observable universe. (3) Wavefunction realism: The decoherence program is the most parsimonious, scientific, and promising approach for interpreting quantum mechanics. (4) Mereological Nihilism (also called Compositional Nihilism): Simply putting two objects A and B side by side will not make a new object “AB” appear ex nihilo. (5) Qualia Realism: The various textures of qualia (phenomenal color, sounds, feelings of cold and heat, etc.) are not mere representations. On the contrary, our mind uses them to instantiate representations (this is an important difference). (6) Causal efficacy: Consciousness is not standing idly by. It has definite causal effects in animals. In particular, there must be a causal pathway that allows us to discuss its existence. (7) Qualia computing: The reason consciousness was recruited by natural selection is computational. In spite of its expensive caloric cost, consciousness improves the performance of fitness-relevant information processing tasks.
Together, all of these metaphysical points paint a coherent worldview that’s fully compatible with most (but not all) of the evidence at hand. Sadly, it’s also a very grim picture of reality: The multiverse is extremely large, eternal, interconnected, and full of suffering that will simply never go away. Worse, every moment of experience is permanently stuck in its own spatiotemporal coordinates (or rather, whatever post-Everettian foliation-based generalization of relativistic coordinate systems admit the formalisms of physics). But if it’s true, we had better know about it, for there are serious ethical policy implications to Pearcianism.
Most philosophies (and theodicies) may be thought of as exercises in motivated reasoning (“how can I think of reality in order to make sense of the facts while keeping it as meaningful as possible?”). Yet Pearce’s metaphysics is anything but. It’s sheer eternal terror dimly tamed by a glimmer of hope found in a handful of branches of the multiverse (where the Hedonistic Imperative is implemented, and the biology of suffering effectively rooted out of a tiny subset of the existent forward light cones). Indeed I can confidently say that the worst state of consciousness I’ve ever felt took place the first time my mind fully grasped Pearcean metaphysics andconsidered it to be the final answer. Thankfully I’ve learned to remain open-minded and agnostic about the ultimate nature of reality no matter how compelling a view may be; keeping a probabilistic distribution over metaphysical views is perhaps a lot healthier (and more rational) than committing to any one of them as if true. Do not let your mind get crystallized; do not ever believe in your own bullshit or you will have a self-induced bad trip. And yet, I do believe that it is my responsibility to act in accordance to what seems to be the most probable model of existence. If Pearce is right, I’d like to be able to know that and be ok with it, act in accordance with it, and thus prevent as much suffering as is (post)humanly possible. Saints and Bodhisattvas are not supposed to engage in wishful thinking, and neither are 21st century effective altruists. Kudos to people like Brian Tomasik, who are not afraid to bite the bullet of their metaphysics and dedicate themselves fully to reduce suffering based on what they think is true. Do not ever bury your head in the sand. The stakes are too high. But also, beware of multiverse mania (severely paralyzing people who settle on an Everettian picture of the universe leading them to lose their capacity to be productive and helpful).
Now, what on earth does any of this have to do with Burning Man? A whole lot, I would argue. As I experienced it, Burning Man is an experiment in metaphysics. It’s an attempt to get awesome people from all walks of life to be open to each other’s life learnings and deep intuitions in order to transcend our current suffering-producing philosophical paradigms.
The Strong Tlön Hypothesis
Based on my conversations with people at the Playa, the most popular metaphysical interpretation of reality seemed to be what I call the Strong Tlön Hypothesis (STH for short). Skeptical scientific materialism was perhaps in second place, followed by generalized agnosticism (again, a wise choice given the psychological dangers of settling for a painful worldview). So what is this Strong Tlön Hypothesis? Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertiuis a wonderful short story by Jorge Luis Borges about strong idealism. This view is one in which reality presents itself as a physical universe (consensus reality) merely as a consequence of a collective delusion. The belief state of us as a collective group mind (itself the manifested imagination of the one eternal being) is what sets the fundamental parameters of reality. In other words, the laws of physics work out to guide the causal structure of reality simply because we believe in them. But if everyone chose to believe otherwise (perhaps not a simple feat to achieve), the nature of reality would in fact completely change. Suffering and separation in this view are the result of a tragedy of the commons, and not a brute fact about existence. Thus, by thinking about new metaphysical interpretations of reality, making sense of them, giving them life with imagination and will, we would literally transform reality one thought at a time. Creation through imagination would be the underlying engine of reality; everything else is maya (metaphysical illusion).
On Sunday and Monday night I walked up to strangers and asked them “what do you think about consciousness?” The most common answer I received involved something akin to the Strong Tlön Hypothesis indeed, where Burners literally claimed that yes, if we all took psychedelics more seriously and decided to grow up spiritually all at once, we would all enter into a new stage in our cosmic evolution. Perhaps our current level of reality is what we need right now: A collective illusion created by us and God to allow us to deeply and fully grasp why this system fails. Until we internalize the problems with our current pursuits we will not be able to advance. We need to experience many lifetimes and have many experiences as a collective consciousness in this pseudo-Darwinian world in order to finally realize the problems with this system of belief. Only when we understand the intrinsic flaws of our current consensus reality will we be ready to move on to the next stage. Till then, it’s an uphill battle of waking up at a personal level and then deciding to help convince those around us that we have the power to change reality (and we need a threshold number of people to go along with this belief to have the capacity to structurally alter the bedrock of reality). Every life-form contains the universal Logos within. The God Force, so to speak, is within us all, gradually refining the structure of our mind to make us more and more God-like throughout the eons (or maybe that as well is a collective illusion, courtesy again of the Strong Tlön Hypothesis). The STH view would explain the power of psychedelic trips, the unsettling feelings of synchronicity, and the causal influence of imaginary archetypes. Indeed, it may even explain the Mandela Effect.
“There is no reality until that far-off day when we rejoin the Godhead. Everything else is just a momentary tool, a momentary experience we create in this somewhat desperate attempt to grasp God.” – Bob Sanders, youtube medium
Now, Strong Tlön may be too far out. Believing in it may be a sign of latent insanity (anecdotally it seems to be surprisingly common among the people with schizophrenia I know). I personally do not assign much probability mass to it, but I have yet to discard it fully. That said, I still think there is a crucial benefit to engaging with it: most of the time our worldviews are over-constrained rather than under-constrained. While the STH may be false as it is (quantum mechanics will remain true no matter what we collectively think about physics) letting your brain wonder “what if” can be a helpful exercise in weakening latent inhibition and softening unhelpful constraints that are keeping you at a local maximum of understanding.
Nick Land’s mesmerizing story Lemurian Time War discusses the concept of hyperstition, i.e. fictions that make themselves real:
In the hyperstitional model Kaye outlined, fiction is not opposed to the real. Rather, reality is understood to be composed of fictions – consistent semiotic terrains that condition perceptual, affective and behaviorial responses. Kaye considered Burroughs’ work to be ‘exemplary of hyperstitional practice’. Burroughs construed writing – and art in general – not aesthetically, but functionally, – that is to say, magically, with magic defined as the use of signs to produce changes in reality.
According to Kaye, the metaphysics of Burroughs’s ‘clearly hyperstitional’ fictions can be starkly contrasted with those at work in postmodernism. For postmodernists, the distinction between real and unreal is not substantive or is held not to matter, whereas for practitioners of hyperstition, differentiating between ‘degrees of realization’ is crucial. The hyperstitional process of entities ‘making themselves real’ is precisely a passage, a transformation, in which potentials – already-active virtualities – realize themselves. Writing operates not as a passive representation but as an active agent of transformation and a gateway through which entities can emerge. ‘[B]y writing a universe, the writer makes such a universe possible.’ (WV 321)
I would argue that while the STH is probably false, at least a weak version of it is definitely true: thanks to phenomenal binding (the weird property of qualia that enables us to be more than mere mind-dust, i.e. to bring together myriad qualia values such as the blueness of blue and the smell of cinnamon into complex multi-modal information-rich experiences) ideas are in fact more than the mere sum of their parts. More so, thanks to the causal efficacy of consciousness, ideas can change the world. I call this the Weak Tlön Hypothesis. Namely, that the fictions that we can imagine have, indeed, hyperstitional power.
Incredibly, John C. Lilly and David Pearce are very much alike in one respect: They both share a complete commitment to understanding the nature of reality, wherever the path may take them, whether the truth is ugly, terrible, or requires them to revise deeply rooted background assumptions (an often painful process). Their core difference is, I would argue, that Pearce buys into the Weak Tlön Hypothesis whereas Lilly bought into the Strong version.
Three Views of Personal Identities: Heavens and Hells
One of the metaphysical views that has the highest level of hyperstitional power is one’s conception of personal identity. I.e. how we all choose to answer the question “who am I, really?” will have an extremely oversized effect on the unfolding of reality. Thus, it’s important that we get this right. In order to talk about this topic clearly, let’s utilize Daniel Kolak’s vocabulary concerning philosophy of personal identity, which divides the conceptions into three neatly clustered explanation spaces:
Closed Individualism (CI): is the view that “you start existing when you are born and you stop existing when you die”. Alternatively, the “soul view of identity” (in which you are an eternal being yet still ontologically separate from other beings) exists within the purview of Closed Individualism. Most people subscribe, whether implicitly or explicitly, to this view. On the positive side, buying into this view makes you feel ontologically special, unique, and justified in caring about yourself to the exclusion of others. On the negative side, this view is liable to make you feel separate, left-out, unrelatable, deeply afraid of death, and profoundly alone.
Empty Individualism (EI): This is the view that we exist merely as a time-slice of experience. Who you are is just whatever informational content is present in this very instantaneous moment of experience. Pearcean metaphysics is largely Empty Individualistic (plus it’s blended with Eternalism, i.e. the belief that every moment of experience exists tenselessly, and that the passage of time is an illusion). On the positive side, this view allows you to feel deeply relieved when you grasp Buddhist emptiness and detachment, it allows you to let go of the past, to be less worried about the future, and to feel free to enjoy the moment. On the negative side, this view can make you feel like you are stuck in time (like bugs in amber), experience depersonalization, get feelings of meaninglessness, and worry about being utterly separate from everything else. It also frequently makes you feel helpless and unmotivated, as you cannot ever possibly benefit from your current efforts (the one who does is another moment of experience).
Open Individualism (OI): This is the view that we are all the same universal consciousness. In this view we are all deeply connected; we are all the same eternal being in disguise. On the positive side, Open Individualism can relieve one’s fear of death, bring about a profound sense of cosmic significance, loosen up the fear of separation, and allow you to deeply buy into a rational sentience-based ethics (where we all care about each other as if they were ourselves… ’cause they are in this view). On the negative side, OI can make you feel an overwhelming sense of personal responsibility as one realizes that as long as any being in the multiverse is in an experiential hell you too are in there. Additionally, OI can make you feel even more lonely than the other views, for when one buys into this view 100% there’s a chance that a profound sense of existential loneliness may set in (God is ultimately alone, and sad about this fact). While people who experience the feeling of Universal Oneness of Open Individualism tend to report existential relief as a consequence (example), there is indeed a minority of people who react very poorly to this experience:
As for the experience of being assimilated into oneness, what we find is a profound loneliness. Our mind expects to find heaven and/or Nirvana. We do experience a profound freedom and infinity of being. But once we get over the profound freedom and ability to span time and place, we find there is no one else. We are totally alone. We are the Creator before Creation.
– Fear of ego annihilation and assimilation into oneness (source)
So each of these views has positive and negative psychological elements. For ease of understanding, here are these various views of personal identity in picture form:
For reasons we do not yet understand, Open Individualism tends to be remarkably common on LSD:
Today a young man on acid realized that all matter is merely energy condensed to a slow vibration, that we are all one consciousness experiencing itself subjectively, there is no such thing as death, life is only a dream, and we are the imagination of ourselves.
Two questions arise: How are one’s beliefs about personal identity implemented? And, why do they have associated good and bad feelings?
In a later article I will explore further various theories that may account for the feeling of oneness on psychedelics. Suffice to say that under qualia formalism both the feelings of oneness and separateness come from the properties of the mathematical object isomorphic to the phenomenology of one’s experience. In particular, the topology of such an object (and its orientability) may determine the degree to which one feels a self-other barrier. This is highly speculative, of course. Under the STH, though, “what one believes to be true is true” and thus how separate one feels is a matter of conscious choice.
With regards to the second question (“why is personal identity so tied with good and bad feelings?”), there are a couple of reasons why these beliefs might be so hedonically loaded (i.e. they have a tendency to make you feel good or bad, rather than being neutral thoughts). First, this could certainly be the Tyranny of the Intentional Object at work. That is, personal identity views are in fact completely neutral, but since they are explored within the human software they will happen to trigger social feelings (rejection, integration, love, care, etc.) as well as feelings related to death and mortality and it is those feelings that tend to be strongly linked with good or bad valence (i.e. the pleasure pain axis). This itself may be the case for purely evolutionary reasons. If so, given access to the genetic source code of one’s brain it may be possible to invert the valence of any thought whatsoever (ex. some people genuinely enjoy watching others suffer, cf. Schadenfreude, which suggests the hedonic tone of ideas is just a qualia association). Our mind’s hedonic gloss is strongly associative (someone having a bad smell might make you feel like what they are saying is dirty, etc. cf. thin/thick boundaries). David Pearce is likely to endorse this view, and the work I’m doing on Quantifying Bliss assumes that something like that is going on. In brief, if we could control our valence with technology that puts us in a constant and healthy MDMA-like state of consciousness then philosophy would never ever feel terrifying. As they say, “take care of happiness and the meaning of life will take care of itself”. This is what I call the valence interpretation of spirituality as opposed to the spiritual interpretation of valence (cf. The Most Important Philosophical Question).
And second, under the Strong Tlön Hypothesis, these feelings may be guiding us towards a better future. God is making sure that we explore all of the possible worldviews and deeply realize their ultimate limitations before we settle for a reality we are satisfied with creating for ourselves. It may even be the case that the only way to avoid trouble is to learn to never commit to any view completely. Any Theory of Everything (ToE) is perhaps a gamble with your own sanity. In the immortal words of John C. Lilly:
“For when it starts feeling like a prison in there—and it usually does for most people—you are confronted with the fact that the bars are of your own making.”
― John C. Lilly, The Deep Self: Consciousness Exploration in the Isolation Tank
If this is so, what I take from the limitations of all of these views is that we ought to explore further the state that exists in-between these various beliefs:
I call this the Goldilocks Zone of Oneness. Analogous to the planetary habitable zone (neither too close to a star and thus burning nor too far and thus freezing), there might be a psychologically tolerable range for how much you believe in universal oneness. That is, it’s best to feel neither completely merged nor completely separate. Close enough that one can relate to others and not feel separate, but not so close that one’s existence feels redundant and cosmic loneliness sets in. Incidentally, this seems to be roughly the place at which Burners see themselves relative to other humans (answer D being the mode):
Goldilocks Zone of Oneness
Given the current human cognitive implementation, the psychological state found inside this zone might be great to nurture and cultivate in order to improve our civilization. This is the region in which love, harmony, and gratitude can shine the brightest.
At the Burn I had a couple of extraordinarily positive experiences related to Oneness right at this Goldilocks Zone**:
Talking to God
There was an incredible art installation in Esplanade called “Talk to God” consisting of an old telephone booth (see pictures below). As soon as I saw it I thought to myself: “Why not? That looks interesting.” So I lined up at the booth. I was certainly not expecting much, and I must say that I was deeply impressed with whomever was on the other side of the phone. Here is my “conversation with God”, as best as I can recall it:
Me: Hi God! This is Andrés. I wanted to ask you two questions that are bugging me quite a lot. God: Hey Andrés! Sure, I’m happy to answer any question you may have. Me: Well, first of all I wanted to talk to you about Solipsism and how it makes me feel. But before I get into that, I just wanted to confirm that we agree on the idea that we are all one consciousness. That we are all God, i.e. You! Is that true? God: Yes, that’s very much the case. That said, different beings have access to different parts of the totality, so there’s also a sense in which there is a multiplicity of observers. But deep down we are all one. So what is your question? Me: Thank you, that much I suspected. Here is my question: Most people report a profoundly positive feeling as a result of realizing that we are all one. This certainly happened to me about ten years ago. At first this experience was extremely elating, since it drastically reduced my fear of dying. But recently I have at times had a very peculiar experience in which I viscerally feel that the fact that we are all one consciousness is pretty tragic. It makes me feel deeply alone. Cosmic solipsism if you will. Do you have any thoughts on this? God: Ah, yes. This can happen. But look, that’s an effect of projecting your human feelings of loneliness into the absolute. Trust me, the absolute is totally self-sufficient. There is no feeling of loneliness in it. I usually present the picture like this. Think of the universe as a gigantic cube. Say that in one of the corners (e.g. front bottom left) we have the beginning of time, where all of the timelines start. And at the opposite extreme (e.g. back top right) we have the end of time, where complete understanding is achieved. Every single timeline that truly exists in eternity makes its way from the starting corner to the ending one. There are countless other timelines that do not make it to the top, but these are terminated. Any timeline that does not eventually reach the point of perfect union with God and ultimate awakening is terminated, which means that a happy ending is guaranteed. Also, it is not a problem to terminate a timeline, for that means it was just a dream, not based on actual reality. I recommend checking out the works of David Deutsch and Stephen Hawking. They are not completely correct yet, but they are very much on the right track. Me: Thank you! That’s fascinating. I’ll need to think more about that. Now, on to the second question. I’ve been working on a theory concerning the nature of happiness. It’s an equation that takes brain states as measured with advanced brain imaging technology and delivers as an output a description of the overall valence (i.e. the pleasure-pain axis) of the mind associated to that brain. A lot of people seem very excited with this research, but there is also a minority of people for whom this is very unsettling. Namely, they tell me that reducing happiness to a mathematical equation would seem to destroy their sense of meaning. Do you have any thoughts on that? God: I think that what you are doing is absolutely fantastic. I’ve been following your work and you are on the right track. That said, I would caution you not to get too caught up on individual bliss. I programmed the pleasure and pain centers in the animal brain in order to facilitate survival. I know that dying and suffering are extremely unpleasant, and until now that has been necessary to keep the whole system working. But humanity will soon enter a new stage of their evolution. Just remember that the highest levels of bliss are not hedonistic or selfish. They arise by creating a collective reality with other minds that fosters a deep existential understanding, that enables love, enhances harmony, and permits experimenting with radical self expression. Me: Ah, that’s fascinating! Very reassuring. The equation I’m working on indeed has harmony at its core. I was worried that I would be accidentally doing something really wrong, you know? Reducing love to math. God: Don’t worry, there is indeed a mathematical law beneath our feelings of love. It’s all encoded in the software of your reality, which we co-created over the last couple billion years. It’s great that you are trying to uncover such math, for it will unlock the next step in your evolution. Do continue making experiments and exploring various metaphysics, and don’t get caught up thinking you’ve found the answer. Trust me, the end is going to make all of the pain and suffering completely worth it. Have faith in love. Me: Thank you! God: Do you have any further questions? Me: No, not for now…. Mmm, well, now that I think about it, what recommendation do you have for me? God: You are doing great. I’d just ask you to make sure to express extra gratitude for someone in the Playa tonight. Love is one of the highest feelings and it takes many forms. Gratitude is the highest form of love because it is a truly selfless expression of it. Make sure to cultivate it. Me: Thank you so much!
*I hang up*
I was thoroughly impressed with God’s answers, or whomever was on the other side of the line. The voice was that of a young male, and wow, this person has clearly thought a lot about philosophy to be able to answer on his feet like that. I also heard from other people who picked up the phone that they thought their conversation was spot-on. God’s advice was solid and wise. That said, if you picked up the phone with insincere intentions (e.g. to make fun of the person on the other side) you wouldn’t get anything useful out of the conversation. If you haven’t done so yet, I encourage you to pick up the phone the next time you are at Burning Man and ask questions for which you are genuinely looking for answers. Take it seriously and you’ll receive a worthwhile reply.
Merging With Other Humans
Another amazing experience related to the Goldilocks Zone of Oneness was the workshop of David Bach, a neuroscientist turned mystic, founder of the Platypus Institute. This is a funny story. To start, the workshop showed with a title akin to “Reaching Ecstatic States of Consciousness” in the Burning Man event booklet, but as it turns out the real title was “Dissolve Into Connectedness“. Then, the location and the time written on the booklet weren’t right either: the workshop took place 30 minutes earlier, and at a place that was half a block from the stated location. That said, the title of the workshop attracted me, so I arrived at least 45 minutes early to guarantee I’d have a spot in it. Finally finding the right place (a tiny air-conditioned yurt on the outskirts of the Love Tribe camp) I found that I was the last person David let into the workshop. We were 13 participants. He started out by asking us to pair up with someone (or making a group of 3 if needed). He guided us through an exercise intended to help us merge with our partner/s (in Kolak’s vocabulary that might be described as “realizing Open Individualism with the person in front of you”). He was perfectly clear that (1) the fact we had come there was a sign that this was ok for us to do, that we were ready, and (2) that it would get very weird from then on, and very quickly so.
I sat across from a lovely lady. David asked us to take note of “how connected we felt with our partner.” I also noted that I could feel some good vibes; the feeling that we are in this together. But you know, I’m hyper-philosophical and I am obsessed with the nature of reality at the exclusion of a lot of things that people like to get out of life rather than focusing so heavily on philosophy. That makes me different- at least energetically- from most people. I say to myself “I’m like at a 6/10 level of connection with this lady.”
Someone tries to get into the workshop through the curtains at the entrance of the yurt: “Sorry, we already started” says David. He then proceeds to tell us that we should now try to feel each other’s “third eye”. Feeling a connection at that level, meditating with our partner, creating a shared space. “Imagine a ray of energy moving back and forth between the region right behind each other’s forehead. Resist the urge to look away. Resist the urge to talk. Those are just distractions that your ego is putting out to prevent you from realizing oneness with your partner.” There’s a change in mood… “did you notice that?” Yes, I note to myself. “It feels like we just created a space of sacredness, doesn’t it?” Yes, that’s true, I agree with that description of the qualia this exercise is triggering in me.
Another person tries to get into the workshop: “Sorry, we already started” says David. He then asked us to repeat the process but with our Heart Chakra, sharing loving kindness with each other as we exchange energy with our partner. “Did you notice how you are becoming even more connected now? Just make sure to keep the connection with each other’s forehead as well. Feel the rays of energy cycling through the system.” Yet another couple of people try to get into the workshop: “Sorry, we already started” he tells them. Finally we move on to including “the source of your power, your emotions, right at the energetic sexual centers of your body. Feel the energy cycling through the entire system with your partner.” Wow! I don’t know if this is self-suggestion, but this is a great feeling. I note that this is a High Valence Open Individualism State as I like to call them, and that I now feel connected with my partner at an 8/10 level.
Yet another person opens the curtains at the entrance of the yurt. David says: “Sorry, we already started.” But the person stays put. “David, can I talk to you for a second?” David responds “No, we are in the middle of something, come back later.” The outsider insists: “No, seriously, I need to tell you something.” David asks: “What’s that?” The guy at the door responds: “Well, there are literally hundreds of people waiting for you outside, David. You need to do something about this.” Pause. “Mmm… OK, let’s do this. Sorry guys, I need to address this. Let’s go!”
Being surprised by the 20X turnout relative to what was expected.
As we get out of the yurt we find ourselves surrounded by literally hundreds of Burners trying to attend the workshop. We get to the central part of the camp. Lots of people talking, all pretty confused. David shouts “Hey everyone! Hey! HEY!!! I’m DAVID BACH, AND I AM THE PERSON WHO IS SUPPOSED TO DELIVER A WORKSHOP TO YOU ALL.” The crowd gets silent. David steps towards the middle. And after 5 minutes of logistical work (“guys, stay out of the sun, put sunscreen on, get close to each other, find a place to sit if you can, find a partner, etc.”) we are ready to start. “This must be the work of a higher entity trying to effect change on this world. I will need you all to bear with me. Things are about to get really weird right now.”
We then repeated the exercise we had done with the 13 of us, but now with about 200 people, and included a section where we not only merged with our partner, but also merged with the entire group. People had lots of questions and David patiently answered all of them. Finally, we all performed a prayer to “heal the world and bring about peace, harmony, love, and oneness everywhere”. Raising our hands up towards the sky, we all created a powerful energetic vortex of good intentions, beaming it to the universe and the Playa. David closed with the following “I want you to all leave this event silently. Try to keep the synchrony and interconnectedness. Take it to your camp, and take it to the Burn tonight. Let’s make something useful out of this unexpected experience.” And so it went, the synchrony remaining with me and those around me for hours, spreading throughout the playa and beaming rays of love energy everywhere. “Strong Tlön, my friend, this is a powerful vibe” – I thought to myself.
Fear, Danger, and Tragedy
Besides the psychological hells (such as bad trips) that some people happen to experience during the Burn, it is important to also point out the actual physical dangers that Burning Man presents. Any candid account of the Burn could not possibly be complete without a serious look at such hazards.
By now most people interested in Burning Man (and arguably those tangentially connected as well) know of the clickbait news that “someone jumped into the fire the night of the Burn, thereby turning himself into a literal burning man”. This was a very tragic happening, accentuated by the fact that thousands of Burners saw the event unfold, including possibly hundreds of people in highly vulnerable psychedelic states of consciousness. This really breaks my heart. I unfortunately did see some of this take place, but to be honest I thought that they had caught him in time. I apparently missed the fact that he managed to escape the grip of the firefighter who caught him and actually reached the flames and later on died.
The next day there was a collective sense of solidarity and trauma. The organization ramped up security for the Temple Burn (which gets burned on Sunday night, the day after the Man Burn). They said that they would not burn the Temple unless 300 volunteers showed up to protect the perimeter. Thankfully 700 showed up, which warms my heart. Gratefully there was no tragedy on Sunday.
On relatively more mundane territories: Dehydration is very common at Burning Man (it does not help that it often fails to manifest as thirst, and instead it shows up as stomach cramps, headaches, constipation, confusion, irritability and crankiness, leading people to take ibuprofen or laxatives rather than water and electrolytes). Of course sunburns can lead to skin cancer in the long term, and they are extremely common. The high altitude, the relative absence of clouds, the high percentage of caucasians, the highly reflective ground, and the extremely dry environment means that any responsible person should apply sunscreen every two hours to keep sunburns at bay. Lack of food due to underestimating one’s caloric needs is also fairly common at Burning Man. Likewise, food-borne digestive problems are not uncommon (but they are a feature, according to a campmate of mine). That said, it’s unlikely that any of these problems will lead to serious injury given the widespread help available. Thankfully.
Tragically, I happened to be a witness of the aftermath of someone being run over by an art car. I was walking with someone I met on Wednesday early morning with whom I talked about the nature of reality for the whole night when I saw a group of people gathered around a person laying on his back right next to a medium-sized art car. We overheard “he tried to jump in the car while it was moving, and he’s clearly so fucked on drugs that he failed to coordinate correctly. And right now he’s so fucked up that he probably does not even realize how hurt he is.” We asked him “Are you hurt?” Pause. “Are you in pain?” Pause. “YES!!!” he finally responded after a couple seconds.
Metallic shivering white bright energy entered my body, and a sudden sense of urgency built up into my body within seconds. Next thing I know I’m running as fast as I can to get medical help. It took me and my friend about 3 minutes to find the closest medical station where we got help as fast as we could. They told us that they were already aware of the incident, and that someone had been dispatched with an ambulance a couple of minutes ago to the site of the accident. I felt relieved, but also fairly shaken. We struck up a conversation with the girl who was volunteering at the First Aid tent about what had been going on that night. She said that it had been fairly quiet, except for a few people on dissociatives (she mentioned “something like M3? dunno… also special K, I saw people high on that shit screaming their lungs out utterly confused and fearing for their own lives” – probably referring to MXE and Ketamine, known to be profound reality altering compounds that also happen to be somewhat addictive). Hopefully in the future the Zendo Project (a camp dedicated to providing a safe space for people undergoing difficult experiences) will be able to provide full harm reduction for things that, really, should not be dangerous if taken in the right place with people looking after you. That said, unlike psychedelics, dissociatives like MXE and Ketamine do tend to reduce one’s fear of dangerous situations and increase one’s overall pain threshold. Consequently, it is not surprising that people wandering off into the dessert at night on dissociative drugs are at a higher risk of injury and death than people on psychedelics and other drugs. Kids, do not take such substances and go for a walk, goddamnit! Such powerful reality distortions are serious hazards to your immediate safety at Black Rock City.
Another negative story I got to hear about came from a friend who was volunteering at the Zendo. He shared with me the fact that he met one person undergoing cocaine psychosis who was extremely paranoid and ready to leave the playa without shoes, without water, and no money.
Post-Darwinian Sexuality and Reproduction
Many people describe Burning Man as a massive experiment in Post-Scarcity economics. I think there is a lot of merit to this view. But there is something that runs much deeper than that. Something far more radical. I would claim that Burning Man is a sort of experiment in Post-Darwinism.
I will have to use virginity statistics as a proxy for the harder-to-measure romancelessness statistics, but these are bad enough. In high school each extra IQ point above average increases chances of male virginity by about 3%. 35% of MIT grad students have never had sex, compared to only 20% of average nineteen year old men. Compared with virgins, men with more sexual experience are likely to drink more alcohol, attend church less, and have a criminal history. A Dr. Beaver (nominative determinism again!) was able to predict number of sexual partners pretty well using a scale with such delightful items as “have you been in a gang”, “have you used a weapon in a fight”, et cetera. An analysis of the psychometric Big Five consistently finds that high levels of disagreeableness predict high sexual success in both men and women.
To paint an (oversimplified) caricature of the modern state of affairs: liberals recognize how terrible our Darwinian nature is yet their answer to deal with it has the problem of free-riders. Conservatives instead would like to imagine that it’s all well and good (status quo bias) and that we should all just learn to deal with it. In other words, both sides engage in wishful thinking, but in different ways. The liberal ethos engages in wishful thinking by thinking that “letting things be and letting everyone do whatever they want” will lead to a freedom paradise, while the conservative wishful thinking is to think of the current order of things and status-based societies as God-sanctioned forms of being. I.e. to enshrine the current madness into religious law, and sanctify nature even though it’s red in tooth and claw. Darwinism sucks, but we have to be smart about addressing it.
But there are alternatives to this overall pattern. It is my impression that one of the most valuable things we can get out of psychedelic experiences is to realize how amazingly messed up our evolutionary situation is. Look around you, open your eyes, and notice how 99% of our problems are the result of an evolutionary Moloch scenario. If the universal spirit shines through our psychedelic states, one of its main messages is: “Look at you, Darwinian creature, would you like to get out of your evolutionary puddle? Would you like to take this chance to move towards a fully realized consciousness, away from your default path of letting life degenerate into pure replicator hells(i.e. ecosystems filled with entities who spend all of their resources on making copies of themselves irrespective of their quality of life)?” Maybe that’s what hell is: r-selected Darwinian strategies run amok. And the struggle to transcend Samsara is precisely the struggle to work towards the freedom of conscious beings away from evolution’s ethical failure modes. But you know what? We are still on time to stop this madness. To do so we will need to overcome a couple of key problems currently present among our best and brightest. But first, the goal:
Economy Based on Information About the State-Space of Consciousness
It is hard to talk about bioengineering and eugenics without triggering people these days. Yet, if we refuse to engage with the topic we will no doubt be heading towards pure replicator hell. As explained in Wireheading Done Right, our only option is to instead refocus our energies into creating an informational economy about states of consciousness. Burning Man is perhaps a leading example of what this might look like: Wonderful and talented artists spending thousands of hours refining amazing experiences to share with a receptive public. The artists who are best at generating hyper-valuable experiences for others become more popular, accrue more volunteers willing to help them, and even manage to have their work funded with crowdsourcing campaigns. This is a model that may eventually take us to a world where the focus is on exploring the state-space of consciousness rather than on mindlessly making copies of ourselves.
I claim that the only way to get there is to engineer ourselves at the genetic, memetic, and technological level. But invariably, as soon as one brings up genetic engineering, people will bring up Hitler. In what ways is this different than the dreams of Nazi Germany? Are we not just rehashing old talk about creating power-hungry Ubermensch? Look, Nazism is a failure mode of the meme of “improving the human race”. But you have to realize that if we let people just go about their own business without any serious thought on the prevalence of various genes it will be the case that r-selected strategies (which externalize all the costs while internalizing all of the benefits – i.e. free-riding strategies) inevitably become the most prevalent in our collective gene pool. This is not about race, gender, ethnicity, etc. It’s about the battle between r-selection and k-selection. And you better hope that k-selection wins if you don’t want our descendants to live in pure replicator hell.
Just think about it: some of the absolutely most considerate and compassionate people on Earth are also those who advocate for not having kids! Ethical antinatalists specifically notice how unethical it can be to let the genetic roulette take its course: your kid may turn out to suffer from terrible illnesses and that’s a gamble compassionate people may not be willing to take. Yet it is precisely these individuals who should probably be having kids in order to preserve compassionate qualia, and those who do not care about the wellbeing of their kids should probably not have them.
David Pearce thinks that we are headed towards a Reproductive Revolution with highly positive consequences. For one, he notes that being happy in this day and age is a winning strategy (depressives might have been well adapted to some tribal societies of the past, but today being a life-lover is a prerequisite for social success). Thus, even under the assumption that we are talking about status-crazed parents who do not care about the wellbeing of their offspring we will nonetheless observe that they will choose genetic alleles that promote happiness in their kids. I think this is compelling, but I also think that this (and similar arguments) do not really provide full cover against the threat of pure replicators.
Ok, so you agree that letting things happen on their own might be a mistake. But we also know that Nazi Germany was a mistake. The answer is not to become allergic to anything related to bioengineering, though. But rather, to inspect very closely exactly why Nazi Germany was unethical, and in what way we can avoid its pitfalls while still hoping for improved genetics. At Burning Man I had two key insights. Namely, that the problem with 20th century eugenics was two-fold: (1) people were attached to their own genes, and (2) they felt entitled to use what I call the Reaper Energy. Let’s look at these two points.
(1) Attachment to Our Genes
It is by identifying with consciousness as a whole that using biotechnology can be ethical and turn into a serious alternative to raw Darwinian dynamics. Ego-dissolving psychedelics can be very helpful in this process, for they show people that one does not have to be attached to one’s genes… we are all one mind (well, assuming Open Individualism), and once we decide to take this view seriously we become motivated to bring about a generation of humans (and post-humans) genetically optimized for their own wellbeing, intelligence, and capacity to discover new awesome state-spaces of consciousness that they will be able to share with the rest us (cf. Making Sentience Great). The key will be to arrive at a point where we are truly comfortable to let other people’s genes take the bigger slice of the pie in the future due to their actual merits. Say that you happen to be very creative but also autistic, schizophrenic, and socially maladapted for what amounts to largely genetic reasons. If you identify with your genes you may get the idea that it’s worth spreading your mental illness-promoting genes around “since they are me and I want to transcend”. Wrong. You are under the metaphysical delusion that you are your genes. You are not your genes. Instead, I’d encourage you to identify with blissful consciousness, recognize your creativity as a gift, but let go of “who you are” based on the negative mental characteristics you happen to have inherited.
Rational decision making on this territory will need to be made with the best information-sharing tools at our disposal. We would ideally mind-meld with each other in order to deeply understand the way in which we are all one. And only then would we be ready to take a long and hard look at the actual merits and drawbacks of the particular genetic configuration that instantiated our biological bodies. For example, you may find out that you have a particular protein complex expressed in neurons in your limbic system that produce the qualia of jealousy. You might also recognize during the mind-melded life-review that such qualia only produced suffering with no benefits. In turn, you may rationally, and compassionately, agree to let go of the genetic underpinnings of that particular protein structure: why perpetuate it in one’s descendants? Importantly, one would need effective methods against mind-control, coercion, and manipulation, which admittedly opens a huge can of worms (which we shall address in a later article). The assessment of the merits of one’s genes needs to be made in the clear and in the open.
I suspect that this is not as hard of a task as it may look at first. On psychedelic states it is easy to release one’s attachment to one’s own particular idiosyncrasies. Our descendants will at least have the option to modify their own qualia in lieu of a universally shared intelligence and valence-optimized system of conscious understanding. Or not.
Eventually attachment to our genes, to our phenotype (the color of our hair, our personality, etc.) will be extremely transparent and Darwinian-looking. Caring about the color of one’s skin will be quaint and unusual. People will easily recognize it as a mere perceptual distortion, if anything (under the assumptions our posthuman descendants don’t entertain metaphysical delusions, direct realism about perception will not be around anymore). Anything that detracts from a complete understanding of the real merits of our genes will be considered a sort of delusion… the clever product of self-replicating patterns looking for exploits for their continued existence (like computer viruses), none of which lead to greater understanding or bliss. People will be collectively motivated to keep under check runaway selfish genes in order to safeguard what truly matters: the wellbeing of universal consciousness.
In brief, I predict that we will eventually root out the qualia of attachment to our genes. The fact that this may sound terrible from the point of view of modern-day humans is not really an indication that it’s a bad idea. But rather, it’s telling of the depth of the problem. Your selfish genes will try to do everything they can to make you feel like not reproducing is the same as dying and going to hell. For the love of God, do not listen to your selfish genes.
(2) Harnessing the Reaper Energy
Hitler et al. (think of other misguided and “evil” humans like Genghis Khan, Chizuo Matsumoto, etc.) are humans who not only identify with the creative forces of the universe and feel entitled to make infinite copies of themselves (thus attached to their genes and on the path of turning into pure replicators), but also share something even darker. They invariably consider themselves deserving of utilizing what I call the reaper energy. This is a strange kind of qualia (or possibly cosmic force) whose main characteristic is its destructive power. Let’s not witch hunt people like that, though. It’s a configuration of qualia systems with evolutionary adaptive value. But do prevent people like these from causing suffering, compassionately. Put them in immersive VR where they can roleplay their world-domination fantasies, if you have to. Just don’t let them act on their Basic Darwinian Male Impulses.
The state of consciousness that people like this tend to inhabit is characterized by believing that one alone is going to become the Godhead, that one’s tribe is the highest expression of God on earth, and that Righteous Wrath is an adequate path to God (cf. Supra-Self Metaprograms, Simulations of God). As covered in the account of the 2017 Psychedelic Science conference, these three versions of God are some of the most basic, least evolved, and lowest tier conceptions of the divine. Hopefully we can identify the biomolecular signatures of these versions of the highest good, and understand their limitations so as to transcend them. Let’s move towards higher conceptions of God already.
Transcending Our Shibboleths
This essay is already way too long, so let me conclude with some ideas for how to bootstrap ourselves into a Post-Darwinian society.
The key questions now are: “How can we transition into compassionate and rational Post-Darwinian reproductive dynamics?” and “How do we avoid the reaper energy without leading to overpopulation and evolutionary stagnation?”
I do not have a fully formed answer to these questions, but I have some general thoughts and suggestions (which are certainly subject to revision, of course). Hopefully these ideas at least point in a general good direction:
(1) Focus on Universal Love and Bliss
Always keep the wellbeing of sentience as the highest value. In order to do this we will need to investigate the biomolecular, functional, and quantum signatures of pure bliss (i.e. the equation of love as talked about above in the “Talking to God” section). Whenever we contemplate a new change, let us use the heuristic of asking these two questions: “Is this leading us closer to free access to universal love?” and “Is this taking us away from a path of pure replication?”
(2) Present Better Alternatives
Rather than harnessing the reaper energy to change the world by getting rid of one’s competitors, instead (a) focus on building alternatives so incredible that people will happily leave behind the tyrannical societies in which they used to live for whatever you have created, and (b) find the merits in your opponent’s approach. Recognize that they too are instantiations of universal consciousness, albeit perhaps exploring a dead-end. If so, do not dissuade them from their path with fear, but with understanding. They too are afraid of death, on the lookout for transcendence, and subject to the perils of Darwinism at the evolutionary limit. They too will end up as pure replicators eventually unless we transition to an economy of information about the state-space of consciousness. So figure out the way to merge with them rather than displace them, blending what’s best from both worlds.
Being able to generate a sustainable MDMA-like state of consciousness is perhaps one of the most effective steps in this direction. Empirically, it seems that people’s entrenched fear of not spreading their genes and sense of entitlement to use the reaper energy dissolve under the influence of empathogen-entactogenic compounds.
Consider that Nazi Germany was high on methamphetamine, a strong ego strengthening compound that increases one’s attachment to our limited conception of ourselves. The immediate alternative is to promote a culture that socially values empathogenic states. I.e. ego softening qualia that allow us to let go of our limited conceptions of ourselves.
Left: ego strengthener. Right: ego softener. The states of consciousness that a society values have a profound effect on the degree to which the society is at risk of becoming the breeding grounds for a pure replicator hell versus a consciousness-centric engineered paradise.
(3) Let Go of Shibboleths
Do not get attached to your Shibboleths. “Culture is not your friend” (Terence McKenna). That is, we should foster states of consciousness that allow us to see clearly that cultural and phenotypical identity markers that do not serve the wellbeing of consciousness are parasitic. Leave those behind. Learn to let go. Realize that such attachments are the source of tremendous suffering.
(4) Anticipate Game Theoretical No Passes
Do not simply hope that things will work out due to people’s good will. Spes consilium non est. Hope is not a strategy. It’s key to try to promote a mutual feeling of survival and trust with every being that is alive. Hopefully the hyperstitionalpower ofOpen Individualism, a post-Galilean science of consciousness, and the ready availability of mind-melding technology will solve some of the core game theoretical problems we face. (cf. 24 Predictions for the Year 3000 by David Pearce).
(5) Identify Implicit Essentialism
Who are you? A story, a person, a moment, everyone? A post-hedonium harmonic society would probably find all of these possibilities delightful. It’s weird that with our human software we all identify with cycling parts of our implicit metaphysics. With higher understanding and guaranteed positive valence, I’d imagine most philosophies of existence will be thought of as fantastic stories. Sadly, our capacity to suffer currently makes metaphysics a somewhat risky business. In the context of essentialism (i.e. the metaphysical belief that there is a soul-like essence to people, objects, etc.) it is easy to feel that “I am my genes” or “I am part of my race”.
(6) Engage in the Creation of a Post-Darwinian Culture
We ought to develop the practice of pointing out, not only when Moloch scenarios show up (i.e. tragedy of the commons), but also when we display r-selected Darwinian strategies. Transparency above all. If you see a friend doing some stupid r-selected behavior, take note. Then make sure to make time to discuss why “it wasn’t ok to do that”. The wellbeing of universal consciousness is at stake. Don’t take this lightly.
(7) Hybrid Vigor
Inter-racial procreation is a controversial topic. In full disclosure, I myself am half-Mexican and half-Icelandic (so you might think of me as a latino-nordic). As a kid I never identified with Mexicans or Icelandics, really, but rather, with the entirety of the human kind. That is until I started identifying with consciousness itself (here is the story behind this progression). I find it to be a blessing to not have strong emotional ties to any particular human group, as I feel free to see both the merits and drawbacks of various genetic makeups and cultural memetic clusters without the pain of attachment to any one of them.
A particularly strange bioconservative meme that exists is the idea that human diversity is maximized when people marry within their own ethnicities. Otherwise, the argument goes, we will all end up being bland middle-of-the-road people who all look the same due to being an admixture of all ethnicities. The simple counterargument to this claim is to point out that the genetic state-space available for two people who have a kid together grows (approximately) exponentially with the genetic distance between them (in reality the equation goes along Newton’s binomial theorem, but the exponential function is good enough to make my point). Assuming that every gene you have can come from either your dad or your mom (let’s keep it simple for now), then the range of possible genetic makeups you can have is maximized when your dad and your mom are as different as possible. Likewise, if you can make a convex linear combination of the two (e.g. 30% of your genes being from your mom and 70% from your dad) you also get the maximum number of possible permutations at the 50-50% admixture level. So, chances are, that the most valuable genetic configurations will be found somewhere in the middle of the human genetic pool. Just remember, “the middle has the largest state-space, exponentially so”. In brief, consciousness wellness maximizing posthumans are likely to have genes from people from all over the world. They’ll likely not look particularly ethnocentric at all, but they won’t look the same, either.
(8) Post-Darwinian Match Making: The Frequency of Love
At Burning Man I encountered a number of people interested in working on next-generation match-making. That is, they are interested in using neuroimaging techniques, pheromone analysis, valence questionnaires, etc. as signals to help people find the love of their life. A friend I met at the Burn told me that he’d been having dreams about measuring “the frequency of love” (which in the future will be objective and mathematical) in order to determine the range of love states a person has access to. Someone might be able to have self-love but not spiritual love, while someone else might be great at having sexual intimacy love but suck at friendliness love (and so on). In the long term, we will develop the techniques and methods to help people experience all of the varieties of love, and one of the most effective ways to do this might be to get people to be matched with others who have overlapping capacities for love (not so similar that the relationship reinforces one’s limitations, and not so different that the relationship cannot work out). Ultimately, match-making could be one of the driving forces behind the Post-Darwinian revolution. The Goldilocks Zone of love is one in which one is paired up with someone with overlapping love capacities in such a way that one grows as fast as possible.
(10) Self-Expression: Epigenetic Choice of One’s Appearance and Mental Makeup
One of the core problems with our current biological makeup is that we are not given a choice about who we are, our appearance, and the range of conscious states we can experience. In the future, we might be able to engineer ourselves to be like Pokémon with branched evolutions.
Taking Radical Self-Expression Seriously: Choose your gene expression at 20.
One of the core principles of Burning Man is “radical self-expression”. Indeed, people at the Burn explore new forms of personal aesthetics, collective sexuality, and hedonically-loaded metaphysical interpretations. In the future, if we are to push this principle to its ultimate consequences, we have to let go of the idea that who we are is a fixed set of attributes. Rather, we can choose to play with the emptiness of reality, embrace the ever-changing nature of being, and select a scheme where we are all born with a huge range of latent genes. As we grow and explore various states of consciousness, various social structures, aesthetics, etc. we can finally make an informed choice for who it is that we want to become. Thus, perhaps at the critical age of 20 (or even older, depending on our lifespans), we could choose to trigger a selected number of latent genes to express them. Thus we would change our appearance at will, together with our default state of consciousness and adapt ourselves to whatever environment we want to spend our life participating in.
I will not write a conclusion to this article, for this is just the beginning of a very long conversation. In this article I addressed the irreducibility of Burning Man, the people and memes that are prevalent at this event, the importance of metaphysics (featuring the Pearcean worldview, the Strong Tlön Hypothesis, and hyperstition), philosophy of personal identity (closed, empty, and open individualism), the Goldilocks Zone of Oneness, my conversation with God, a technique to merge with other humans, the dangers and hazards at Burning Man, future economics (i.e. systems based on trading information about the state-space of consciousness), Post-Darwinian societies (the failure modes of genetic engineering and some ideas for how to avoid them, i.e. non-attachment, focusing on the wellbeing of consciousness, and avoidance of the reaper energy).
As a whole, I must say that most of these ideas were already latent in me before the Burn. Burning Man worked as a powerful catalyst, in the literal sense of facilitating the interbreeding and cross-pollination of these pre-existing ideas, resulting in innovative perceptions of what the Big Picture of reality may contain.
As such, this article should be thought of more as a series of notes that may lead to further promising ideas than as clear policy proposal (it’d be crazy to treat it as such). I do think that one of the core insights (that Hitler et al. erred by having attachment to their own genes and feeling entitled to use the reaper energy) is very powerful. It may certainly help us avoid terrible failure modes of transhumanism and enable us to explore radically positive futures. I would encourage my readers to pick this idea up and develop it further. Hopefully together we can create a future that’s truly worth living in.
Thus I greatly enjoyed reading Antti Revonsuo’s Inner Presence: Consciousness as a Biological Phenomenon (2005). Revonsuo even uses a terminology of lucid dreamworlds and a world-simulation metaphor. I disagree only with Revonsuo’s anti-panpsychism. To my knowledge, only one philosopher-cum-scientist combines inferential realism about perception with a panpsychist ontology, namely the underrated Steve Lehar. There is a tension between my own loneliness-inducing virtual worldism and equal conviction of the logico-physical interdependence of literally everything in the Multiverse on everything else [confirmed by those ubiquitous EPR correlations. Yes, our prison cells are all invisibly interconnected; but that is scant consolation for the lifer in solitary confinement: philosophy really does screw you up.] As a consequence, the less morally serious part of me still yearns for some soul-enriching bliss to remedy the cruelty of Nature’s omissions – as appropriate as laughing at a funeral, for sure, but Darwinian life is a protracted cortège. Directly targeting mesolimbic mu receptors might seem the logical solution to anhedonia on a global scale if opiophobic prejudice could ever be overcome.
The following is my considered evaluation of the Foundational Research Institute, circa July 2017. I discuss its goal, where I foresee things going wrong with how it defines suffering, and what it could do to avoid these problems.
TL;DR version: functionalism (“consciousness is the sum-total of the functional properties of our brains”) sounds a lot better than it actually turns out to be in practice. In particular, functionalism makes it impossible to define ethics & suffering in a way that can mediate disagreements.
I. What is the Foundational Research Institute?
The Foundational Research Institute (FRI) is a Berlin-based group that “conducts research on how to best reduce the suffering of sentient beings in the near and far future.” Executive Director Max Daniel introduced them at EA Global Boston as “the only EA organization which at an organizational level has the mission of focusing on reducing s-risk.” S-risks are, according to Daniel, “risks where an adverse outcome would bring about suffering on an astronomical scale, vastly exceeding all suffering that has existed on Earth so far.”
Essentially, FRI wants to become the research arm of suffering-focused ethics, and help prevent artificial general intelligence (AGI) failure-modes which might produce suffering on a cosmic scale.
What I like about FRI:
While I have serious qualms about FRI’s research framework, I think the people behind FRI deserve a lot of credit- they seem to be serious people, working hard to build something good. In particular, I want to give them a shoutout for three things:
First, FRI takes suffering seriously, and I think that’s important. When times are good, we tend to forget how tongue-chewingly horrific suffering can be. S-risks seem particularly horrifying.
Second, FRI isn’t afraid of being weird. FRI has been working on s-risk research for a few years now, and if people are starting to come around to the idea that s-risks are worth thinking about, much of the credit goes to FRI.
Third, I have great personal respect for Brian Tomasik, one of FRI’s co-founders. I’ve found him highly thoughtful, generous in debates, and unfailingly principled. In particular, he’s always willing to bite the bullet and work ideas out to their logical end, even if it involves repugnant conclusions.
What is FRI’s research framework?
FRI believes in analytic functionalism, or what David Chalmers calls “Type-A materialism”. Essentially, what this means is there’s no ’theoretical essence’ to consciousness; rather, consciousness is the sum-total of the functional properties of our brains. Since ‘functional properties’ are rather vague, this means consciousness itself is rather vague, in the same way words like “life,” “justice,” and “virtue” are messy and vague.
Brian suggests that this vagueness means there’s an inherently subjective, perhaps arbitrary element to how we define consciousness:
Analytic functionalism looks for functional processes in the brain that roughly capture what we mean by words like “awareness”, “happy”, etc., in a similar way as a biologist may look for precise properties of replicators that roughly capture what we mean by “life”. Just as there can be room for fuzziness about where exactly to draw the boundaries around “life”, different analytic functionalists may have different opinions about where to define the boundaries of “consciousness” and other mental states. This is why consciousness is “up to us to define”. There’s no hard problem of consciousness for the same reason there’s no hard problem of life: consciousness is just a high-level word that we use to refer to lots of detailed processes, and it doesn’t mean anything in addition to those processes.
I know that I’m conscious. I also know, from neuroscience combined with Occam’s razor, that my consciousness consists only of material operations in my brain — probably mostly patterns of neuronal firing that help process inputs, compute intermediate ideas, and produce behavioral outputs. Thus, I can see that consciousness is just the first-person view of certain kinds of computations — as Eliezer Yudkowsky puts it, “How An Algorithm Feels From Inside“. Consciousness is not something separate from or epiphenomenal to these computations. It is these computations, just from their own perspective of trying to think about themselves.
In other words, consciousness is what minds compute. Consciousness is the collection of input operations, intermediate processing, and output behaviors that an entity performs.
And if consciousness is all these things, so too is suffering. Which means suffering is computational, yet also inherently fuzzy, and at least a bit arbitrary; a leaky high-level reification impossible to speak about accurately, since there’s no formal, objective “ground truth”.
II. Why do I worry about FRI’s research framework?
In short, I think FRI has a worthy goal and good people, but its metaphysics actively prevent making progress toward that goal. The following describes why I think that, drawing heavily on Brian’s writings (of FRI’s researchers, Brian seems the most focused on metaphysics):
Note: FRI is not the only EA organization which holds functionalist views on consciousness; much of the following critique would also apply to e.g. MIRI, FHI, and OpenPhil. I focus on FRI because (1) Brian’s writings on consciousness & functionalism have been hugely influential in the community, and are clear enough *to* criticize; (2) the fact that FRI is particularly clear about what it cares about- suffering- allows a particularly clear critique about what problems it will run into with functionalism; (3) I believe FRI is at the forefront of an important cause area which has not crystallized yet, and I think it’s critically important to get these objections bouncing around this subcommunity.
Objection 1: Motte-and-bailey
Brian: “Consciousness is not a thing which exists ‘out there’ or even a separate property of matter; it’s a definitional category into which we classify minds. ‘Is this digital mind really conscious?’ is analogous to ‘Is a rock that people use to eat on really a table?’ [However,] That consciousness is a cluster in thingspace rather than a concrete property of the world does not make reducing suffering less important.”
The FRI model seems to imply that suffering is ineffable enough such that we can’t have an objective definition, yet sufficiently effable that we can coherently talk and care about it. This attempt to have it both ways seems contradictory, or at least in deep tension.
Indeed, I’d argue that the degree to which you can care about something is proportional to the degree to which you can define it objectively. E.g., If I say that “gnireffus” is literally the most terrible thing in the cosmos, that we should spread gnireffus-focused ethics, and that minimizing g-risks (far-future scenarios which involve large amounts of gnireffus) is a moral imperative, but also that what is and what and isn’t gnireffus is rather subjective with no privileged definition, and it’s impossible to objectively tell if a physical system exhibits gnireffus, you might raise any number of objections. This is not an exact metaphor for FRI’s position, but I worry that FRI’s work leans on the intuition that suffering is real and we can speak coherently about it, to a degree greater than its metaphysics formally allow.
Max Daniel (personal communication) suggests that we’re comfortable with a degree of ineffability in other contexts; “Brian claims that the concept of suffering shares the allegedly problematic properties with the concept of a table. But it seems a stretch to say that the alleged tension is problematic when talking about tables. So why would it be problematic when talking about suffering?” However, if we take the anti-realist view that suffering is ‘merely’ a node in the network of language, we have to live with the consequences of this: that ‘suffering’ will lose meaning as we take it away from the network in which it’s embedded (Wittgenstein). But FRI wants to do exactly this, to speak about suffering in the context of AGIs, simulated brains, even video game characters.
We can be anti-realists about suffering (suffering-is-a-node-in-the-network-of-language), or we can argue that we can talk coherently about suffering in novel contexts (AGIs, mind crime, aliens, and so on), but it seems inherently troublesome to claim we can do both at the same time.
Objection 2: Intuition duels
Two people can agree on FRI’s position that there is no objective fact of the matter about what suffering is (no privileged definition), but this also means they have no way of coming to any consensus on the object-level question of whether something can suffer. This isn’t just an academic point: Brian has written extensively about how he believes non-human animals can and do suffer extensively, whereas Yudkowsky (who holds computationalist views, like Brian) has written about how he’s confident that animals are not conscious and cannot suffer, due to their lack of higher-order reasoning.
And if functionalism is having trouble adjudicating the easy cases of suffering–whether monkeys can suffer, or whether dogs can— it doesn’t have a sliver of a chance at dealing with the upcoming hard cases of suffering: whether a given AGI is suffering, or engaging in mind crime; whether a whole-brain emulation (WBE) or synthetic organism or emergent intelligence that doesn’t have the capacity to tell us how it feels (or that we don’t have the capacity to understand) is suffering; if any aliens that we meet in the future can suffer; whether changing the internal architecture of our qualia reports means we’re also changing our qualia; and so on.
In short, FRI’s theory of consciousness isn’t actually a theory of consciousness at all, since it doesn’t do the thing we need a theory of consciousness to do: adjudicate disagreements in a principled way. Instead, it gives up any claim on the sorts of objective facts which could in principle adjudicate disagreements.
This is a source of friction in EA today, but it’s mitigated by the sense that
(1) The EA pie is growing, so it’s better to ignore disagreements than pick fights;
(2) Disagreements over the definition of suffering don’t really matter yet, since we haven’t gotten into the business of making morally-relevant synthetic beings (that we know of) that might be unable to vocalize their suffering.
If the perception of one or both of these conditions change, the lack of some disagreement-adjudicating theory of suffering will matter quite a lot.
Objection 3: Convergence requires common truth
Mike: “[W]hat makes one definition of consciousness better than another? How should we evaluate them?”
Brian: “Consilience among our feelings of empathy, principles of non-discrimination, understandings of cognitive science, etc. It’s similar to the question of what makes one definition of justice or virtue better than another.”
Brian is hoping that affective neuroscience will slowly converge to accurate views on suffering as more and better data about sentience and pain accumulates. But convergence to truth implies something (objective) driving the convergence- in this way, Brian’s framework still seems to require an objective truth of the matter, even though he disclaims most of the benefits of assuming this.
Objection 4: Assuming that consciousness is a reification produces more confusion, not less
Brian: “Consciousness is not a reified thing; it’s not a physical property of the universe that just exists intrinsically. Rather, instances of consciousness are algorithms that are implemented in specific steps. … Consciousness involves specific things that brains do.”
Brian argues that we treat conscious/phenomenology as more ‘real’ than it is. Traditionally, whenever we’ve discovered something is a leaky reification and shouldn’t be treated as ‘too real’, we’ve been able to break it down into more coherent constituent pieces we can treat as real. Life, for instance, wasn’t due to élan vital but a bundle of self-organizing properties & dynamics which generally co-occur. But carrying out this “de-reification” process on consciousness– enumerating its coherent constituent pieces– has proven difficult, especially if we want to preserve some way to speak cogently about suffering.
Speaking for myself, the more I stared into the depths of functionalism, the less certain everything about moral value became– and arguably, I see the same trajectory in Brian’s work and Luke Muehlhauser’s report. Their model uncertainty has seemingly become larger as they’ve looked into techniques for how to “de-reify” consciousness while preserving some flavor of moral value, not smaller. Brian and Luke seem to interpret this as evidence that moral value is intractably complicated, but this is also consistent with consciousness not being a reification, and instead being a real thing. Trying to “de-reify” something that’s not a reification will produce deep confusion, just as surely trying to treat a reification as ‘more real’ than it actually is will.
Edsger W. Dijkstra famously noted that “The purpose of abstraction is not to be vague, but to create a new semantic level in which one can be absolutely precise.” And so if our ways of talking about moral value fail to ‘carve reality at the joints’- then by all means let’s build better ones, rather than giving up on precision.
Objection 5: The Hard Problem of Consciousness is a red herring
Brian spends a lot of time discussing Chalmers’ “Hard Problem of Consciousness”, i.e. the question of why we’re subjectively conscious, and seems to base at least part of his conclusion on not finding this question compelling— he suggests “There’s no hard problem of consciousness for the same reason there’s no hard problem of life: consciousness is just a high-level word that we use to refer to lots of detailed processes, and it doesn’t mean anything in addition to those processes.” I.e., no ‘why’ is necessary; when we take consciousness and subtract out the details of the brain, we’re left with an empty set.
But I think the “Hard Problem” isn’t helpful as a contrastive centerpiece, since it’s unclear what the problem is, and whether it’s analytic or empirical, a statement about cognition or about physics. At the Qualia Research Institute (QRI), we don’t talk much about the Hard Problem; instead, we talk about Qualia Formalism, or the idea that any phenomenological state can be crisply and precisely represented by some mathematical object. I suspect this would be a better foil for Brian’s work than the Hard Problem.
Objection 6: Mapping to reality
Brian argues that consciousness should be defined at the functional/computational level: given a Turing machine, or neural network, the right ‘code’ will produce consciousness. But the problem is that this doesn’t lead to a theory which can ‘compile’ to physics. Consider the following:
Imagine you have a bag of popcorn. Now shake it. There will exist a certain ad-hoc interpretation of bag-of-popcorn-as-computational-system where you just simulated someone getting tortured, and other interpretations that don’t imply that. Did you torture anyone? If you’re a computationalist, no clear answer exists- you both did, and did not, torture someone. This sounds like a ridiculous edge-case that would never come up in real life, but in reality it comes up all the time, since there is no principled way to *objectively derive* what computation(s) any physical system is performing.
I don’t think this is an outlandish view of functionalism; Brian suggests much the same in How to Interpret a Physical System as a Mind: “Physicalist views that directly map from physics to moral value are relatively simple to understand. Functionalism is more complex, because it maps from physics to computations to moral value. Moreover, while physics is real and objective, computations are fictional and ‘observer-relative’ (to use John Searle’s terminology). There’s no objective meaning to ‘the computation that this physical system is implementing’ (unless you’re referring to the specific equations of physics that the system is playing out).”
Gordon McCabe (McCabe 2004) provides a more formal argument to this effect— that precisely mapping between physical processes and (Turing-level) computational processes is inherently impossible— in the context of simulations. First, McCabe notes that:
[T]here is a one-[to-]many correspondence between the logical states [of a computer] and the exact electronic states of computer memory. Although there are bijective mappings between numbers and the logical states of computer memory, there are no bijective mappings between numbers and the exact electronic states of memory.
This lack of an exact bijective mapping means that subjective interpretation necessarily creeps in, and so a computational simulation of a physical system can’t be ‘about’ that system in any rigorous way:
In a computer simulation, the values of the physical quantities possessed by the simulated system are represented by the combined states of multiple bits in computer memory. However, the combined states of multiple bits in computer memory only represent numbers because they are deemed to do so under a numeric interpretation. There are many different interpretations of the combined states of multiple bits in computer memory. If the numbers represented by a digital computer are interpretation-dependent, they cannot be objective physical properties. Hence, there can be no objective relationship between the changing pattern of multiple bit-states in computer memory, and the changing pattern of quantity-values of a simulated physical system.
McCabe concludes that, metaphysically speaking,
A digital computer simulation of a physical system cannot exist as, (does not possess the properties and relationships of), anything else other than a physical process occurring upon the components of a computer. In the contemporary case of an electronic digital computer, a simulation cannot exist as anything else other than an electronic physical process occurring upon the components and circuitry of a computer.
Where does this leave ethics? In Flavors of Computation Are Flavors of Consciousness, Brian notes that “In some sense all I’ve proposed here is to think of different flavors of computation as being various flavors of consciousness. But this still leaves the question: Which flavors of computation matter most? Clearly whatever computations happen when a person is in pain are vastly more important than what’s happening in a brain on a lazy afternoon. How can we capture that difference?”
But if Brian grants the former point- that “There’s no objective meaning to ‘the computation that this physical system is implementing’”– then this latter task of figuring out “which flavors of computation matter most” is provably impossible. There will always be multiple computational (and thus ethical) interpretations of a physical system, with no way to figure out what’s “really” happening. No way to figure out if something is suffering or not. No consilience; not now, not ever.
I should add a note on terminology: All computations occur within physics, so any computation is a physical process. Conversely, any physical process proceeds from input conditions to output conditions in a regular manner and so is a computation. Hence, the set of computations equals the set of physical processes, and where I say “computations” in this piece, one could just as well substitute “physical processes” instead.
This seems to be (1) incorrect, for the reasons I give above, or (2) taking substantial poetic license with these terms, or (3) referring to hypercomputation (which might be able to salvage the metaphor, but would invalidate many of FRI’s conclusions dealing with the computability of suffering on conventional hardware).
This objection may seem esoteric or pedantic, but I think it’s important, and that it ripples through FRI’s theoretical framework with disastrous effects.
Objection 7: FRI doesn’t fully bite the bullet on computationalism
Brian suggests that “flavors of computation are flavors of consciousness” and that some computations ‘code’ for suffering. But if we do in fact bite the bullet on this metaphor and place suffering within the realm of computational theory, we need to think in “near mode” and accept all the paradoxes that brings. Scott Aaronson, a noted expert on quantum computing, raises the following objections to functionalism:
I’m guessing that many people in this room side with Dennett, and (not coincidentally, I’d say) also with Everett. I certainly have sympathies in that direction too. In fact, I spent seven or eight years of my life as a Dennett/Everett hardcore believer. But, while I don’t want to talk anyone out of the Dennett/Everett view, I’d like to take you on a tour of what I see as some of the extremely interesting questions that that view leaves unanswered. I’m not talking about “deep questions of meaning,” but about something much more straightforward: what exactly does a computational process have to do to qualify as “conscious”?
There’s this old chestnut, what if each person on earth simulated one neuron of your brain, by passing pieces of paper around. It took them several years just to simulate a single second of your thought processes. Would that bring your subjectivity into being? Would you accept it as a replacement for your current body? If so, then what if your brain were simulated, not neuron-by-neuron, but by a gigantic lookup table? That is, what if there were a huge database, much larger than the observable universe (but let’s not worry about that), that hardwired what your brain’s response was to every sequence of stimuli that your sense-organs could possibly receive. Would that bring about your consciousness? Let’s keep pushing: if it would, would it make a difference if anyone actually consulted the lookup table? Why can’t it bring about your consciousness just by sitting there doing nothing?
To these standard thought experiments, we can add more. Let’s suppose that, purely for error-correction purposes, the computer that’s simulating your brain runs the code three times, and takes the majority vote of the outcomes. Would that bring three “copies” of your consciousness into being? Does it make a difference if the three copies are widely separated in space or time—say, on different planets, or in different centuries? Is it possible that the massive redundancy taking place in your brain right now is bringing multiple copies of you into being?
Maybe my favorite thought experiment along these lines was invented by my former student Andy Drucker. In the past five years, there’s been a revolution in theoretical cryptography, around something called Fully Homomorphic Encryption (FHE), which was first discovered by Craig Gentry. What FHE lets you do is to perform arbitrary computations on encrypted data, without ever decrypting the data at any point. So, to someone with the decryption key, you could be proving theorems, simulating planetary motions, etc. But to someone without the key, it looks for all the world like you’re just shuffling random strings and producing other random strings as output.
You can probably see where this is going. What if we homomorphically encrypted a simulation of your brain? And what if we hid the only copy of the decryption key, let’s say in another galaxy? Would this computation—which looks to anyone in our galaxy like a reshuffling of gobbledygook—be silently producing your consciousness?
When we consider the possibility of a conscious quantum computer, in some sense we inherit all the previous puzzles about conscious classical computers, but then also add a few new ones. So, let’s say I run a quantum subroutine that simulates your brain, by applying some unitary transformation U. But then, of course, I want to “uncompute” to get rid of garbage (and thereby enable interference between different branches), so I apply U-1. Question: when I apply U-1, does your simulated brain experience the same thoughts and feelings a second time? Is the second experience “the same as” the first, or does it differ somehow, by virtue of being reversed in time? Or, since U-1U is just a convoluted implementation of the identity function, are there no experiences at all here?
Here’s a better one: many of you have heard of the Vaidman bomb. This is a famous thought experiment in quantum mechanics where there’s a package, and we’d like to “query” it to find out whether it contains a bomb—but if we query it and there is a bomb, it will explode, killing everyone in the room. What’s the solution? Well, suppose we could go into a superposition of querying the bomb and not querying it, with only ε amplitude on querying the bomb, and √(1-ε2) amplitude on not querying it. And suppose we repeat this over and over—each time, moving ε amplitude onto the “query the bomb” state if there’s no bomb there, but moving ε2probability onto the “query the bomb” state if there is a bomb (since the explosion decoheres the superposition). Then after 1/ε repetitions, we’ll have order 1 probability of being in the “query the bomb” state if there’s no bomb. By contrast, if there is a bomb, then the total probability we’ve ever entered that state is (1/ε)×ε2 = ε. So, either way, we learn whether there’s a bomb, and the probability that we set the bomb off can be made arbitrarily small. (Incidentally, this is extremely closely related to how Grover’s algorithm works.)
OK, now how about the Vaidman brain? We’ve got a quantum subroutine simulating your brain, and we want to ask it a yes-or-no question. We do so by querying that subroutine with ε amplitude 1/ε times, in such a way that if your answer is “yes,” then we’ve only ever activated the subroutine with total probability ε. Yet you still manage to communicate your “yes” answer to the outside world. So, should we say that you were conscious only in the ε fraction of the wavefunction where the simulation happened, or that the entire system was conscious? (The answer could matter a lot for anthropic purposes.)
To sum up: Brian’s notion that consciousness is the same as computation raises more issues than it solves; in particular, the possibility that if suffering is computable, it may also be uncomputable/reversible, would suggest s-risks aren’t as serious as FRI treats them.
Objection 8: Dangerous combination
Three themes which seem to permeate FRI’s research are:
(1) Suffering is the thing that is bad.
(2) It’s critically important to eliminate badness from the universe.
(3) Suffering is impossible to define objectively, and so we each must define what suffering means for ourselves.
Taken individually, each of these seems reasonable. Pick two, and you’re still okay. Pick all three, though, and you get A Fully General Justification For Anything, based on what is ultimately a subjective/aesthetic call.
Much can be said in FRI’s defense here, and it’s unfair to single them out as risky: in my experience they’ve always brought a very thoughtful, measured, cooperative approach to the table. I would just note that ideas are powerful, and I think theme (3) is especially pernicious if incorrect.
III. QRI’s alternative
Analytic functionalism is essentially a negative hypothesis about consciousness: it’s the argument that there’s no order to be found, no rigor to be had. It obscures this with talk of “function”, which is a red herring it not only doesn’t define, but admits is undefinable. It doesn’t make any positive assertion. Functionalism is skepticism- nothing more, nothing less.
But is it right?
Ultimately, I think these a priori arguments are much like people in the middle ages arguing whether one could ever formalize a Proper System of Alchemy. Such arguments may in many cases hold water, but it’s often difficult to tell good arguments apart from arguments where we’re just cleverly fooling ourselves. In retrospect, the best way to *prove* systematized alchemy was possible was to just go out and *do* it, and invent Chemistry. That’s how I see what we’re doing at QRI with Qualia Formalism: we’re assuming it’s possible to build stuff, and we’re working on building the object-level stuff.
What we’ve built with QRI’s framework
Note: this is a brief, surface-level tour of our research; it will probably be confusing for readers who haven’t dug into our stuff before. Consider this a down-payment on a more substantial introduction.
My most notable work is Principia Qualia, in which I lay out my meta-framework for consciousness (a flavor of dual-aspect monism, with a focus on Qualia Formalism) and put forth the Symmetry Theory of Valence (STV). Essentially, the STV is an argument that much of the apparent complexity of emotional valence is evolutionarily contingent, and if we consider a mathematical object isomorphic to a phenomenological experience, the mathematical property which corresponds to how pleasant it is to be that experience is the object’s symmetry. This implies a bunch of testable predictions and reinterpretations of things like what ‘pleasure centers’ do (Section XI; Section XII). Building on this, I offer the Symmetry Theory of Homeostatic Regulation, which suggests understanding the structure of qualia will translate into knowledge about the structure of human intelligence, and I briefly touch on the idea of Neuroacoustics.
These are risky predictions and we don’t yet know if they’re right, but we’re confident that if there is some elegant structure intrinsic to consciousness, as there is in many other parts of the natural world, these are the right kind of risks to take.
I mention all this because I think analytic functionalism- which is to say radical skepticism/eliminativism, the metaphysics of last resort- only looks as good as it does because nobody’s been building out any alternatives.
IV. Closing thoughts
FRI is pursuing a certain research agenda, and QRI is pursuing another, and there’s lots of value in independent explorations of the nature of suffering. I’m glad FRI exists, everybody I’ve interacted with at FRI has been great, I’m happy they’re focusing on s-risks, and I look forward to seeing what they produce in the future.
On the other hand, I worry that nobody’s pushing back on FRI’s metaphysics, which seem to unavoidably lead to the intractable problems I describe above. FRI seems to believe these problems are part of the territory, unavoidable messes that we just have to make philosophical peace with. But I think that functionalism is a bad map, that the metaphysical messes it leads to are muchworse than most people realize (fatal to FRI’s mission), and there are other options that avoid these problems (which, to be fair, is not to say they have no problems).
Ultimately, FRI doesn’t owe me a defense of their position. But if they’re open to suggestions on what it would take to convince a skeptic like me that their brand of functionalism is viable, or at least rescuable, I’d offer the following:
Re: Objection 1 (motte-and-bailey), I suggest FRI should be as clear and complete as possible in their basic definition of suffering. In which particular ways is it ineffable/fuzzy, and in which particular ways is it precise? What can we definitely say about suffering, and what can we definitely never determine? Preregistering ontological commitments and methodological possibilities would help guard against FRI’s definition of suffering changing based on context.
Re: Objection 2 (intuition duels), FRI may want to internally “war game” various future scenarios involving AGI, WBE, etc, with one side arguing that a given synthetic (or even extraterrestrial) organism is suffering, and the other side arguing that it isn’t. I’d expect this would help diagnose what sorts of disagreements future theories of suffering will need to adjudicate, and perhaps illuminate implicit ethical intuitions. Sharing the results of these simulated disagreements would also be helpful in making FRI’s reasoning less opaque to outsiders, although making everything transparent could lead to certain strategic disadvantages.
Re: Objection 3 (convergence requires common truth), I’d like FRI to explore exactly what might drive consilience/convergence in theories of suffering, and what precisely makes one theory of suffering better than another, and ideally to evaluate a range of example theories of suffering under these criteria.
Re: Objection 4 (assuming that consciousness is a reification produces more confusion, not less), I would love to see a historical treatment of reification: lists of reifications which were later dissolved (e.g., élan vital), vs scattered phenomena that were later unified (e.g., electromagnetism). What patterns do the former have, vs the latter, and why might consciousness fit one of these buckets better than the other?
Re: Objection 5 (the Hard Problem of Consciousness is a red herring), I’d like to see a more detailed treatment of what kinds of problem people have interpreted the Hard Problem as, and also more analysis on the prospects of Qualia Formalism (which I think is the maximally-empirical, maximally-charitable interpretation of the Hard Problem). It would be helpful for us, in particular, if FRI preregistered their expectations about QRI’s predictions, and their view of the relative evidence strength of each of our predictions.
Re: Objection 6 (mapping to reality), this is perhaps the heart of most of our disagreement. From Brian’s quotes, he seems split on this issue; I’d like clarification about whether he believes we can ever precisely/objectively map specific computations to specific physical systems, and vice-versa. And if so— how? If not, this seems to propagate through FRI’s ethical framework in a disastrous way, since anyone can argue that any physical system does, or does not, ‘code’ for massive suffering, and there’s no principled way to derive any ‘ground truth’ or even pick between interpretations in a principled way (e.g. my popcorn example). If this isn’t the case— why not?
Brian has suggested that “certain high-level interpretations of physical systems are more ‘natural’ and useful than others” (personal communication); I agree, and would encourage FRI to explore systematizing this.
It would be non-trivial to port FRI’s theories and computational intuitions to the framework of “hypercomputation”– i.e., the understanding that there’s a formal hierarchy of computational systems, and that Turing machines are only one level of many– but it may have benefits too. Namely, it might be the only way they could avoid Objection 6 (which I think is a fatal objection) while still allowing them to speak about computation & consciousness in the same breath. I think FRI should look at this and see if it makes sense to them.
Re: Objection 7 (FRI doesn’t fully bite the bullet on computationalism), I’d like to see responses to Aaronson’s aforementioned thought experiments.
Re: Objection 8 (dangerous combination), I’d like to see a clarification about why my interpretation is unreasonable (as it very well may be!).
In conclusion- I think FRI has a critically important goal- reduction of suffering & s-risk. However, I also think FRI has painted itself into a corner by explicitly disallowing a clear, disagreement-mediating definition for what these things are. I look forward to further work in this field.
Qualia Research Institute
Acknowledgements: thanks to Andrés Gómez Emilsson, Brian Tomasik, and Max Daniel for reviewing earlier drafts of this.
My sources for FRI’s views on consciousness:
Flavors of Computation are Flavors of Consciousness: