An approach to doing good is to come up with a metric for what constitutes good or bad, and then trying to do things that will optimally increase or decrease such metric, as the case may be.
If you do this, you have to be careful about what metric you choose.
If you have an ontology where you measure good by “number of people who feel benefited by you”, you might end up doing things like sending everyone you can a doughnut with a signed note. If instead your metric is “number of people classified as poor” you might do best to focus on interventions that get people just over the hump of poverty as defined by your scale. And so on.
Conscientious and systematic altruists tend to see problems with metrics like those above. They realize that “people impressed” and “being poor according to an economic metric” are not metrics that really carve nature at its joints.
Dissatisfied with misleading metrics, one then tends to look closer at the world and arrive at metrics that take into account the length of different lives, their quality, their instrumental effect in the world, how much are they exactly being benefited by the intervention relative to other cost-effective alternatives, and so on. And that’s how you get things like Quality Adjusted Life-Years (QALY), micromorts, and the happiness index.
This is, I think, all moving in the right direction. Metrics that make an effort to carve nature at its joints can provide new lenses to see the world. And looking through those lenses tends to generate novel angles and approaches to do a lot of good.
This is why today I will suggest we consider a new metric: The Hell-Index.
A country’s Hell-Index could be defined as the yearlytotal of people-seconds in pain and suffering that are at or above 20 in the McGill Pain Index (or equivalent)*. This index captures the intuition that intense suffering can be in some ways qualitatively different and more serious than lesser suffering in a way that isn’t really captured by a linear pain scale.
What does this metric suggest we should do to make the world better? Here is an idea (told as if narrated from the future):
Between 2030 and 2050 it was very common for people to wear Get-Out-Of-Hell-Free Necklaces. People had an incredible variety of custom-fit aesthetic and practical additives to their necklaces. But in every single one of them, you could rest assured, you would find a couple of doses of each of these agents:
Agmatine (to take in case you suspect of having being brainwashed recently), and
Caffeine (if you absolutely need to operate heavy machinery and you are sleep-deprived)
In all cases, the antidote needed would be administered as soon as requested by the wearer. And the wearer would request the antidote as indicated by a very short test done with an app to determine the need for it.
But why? What’s this all about?
The Get-Out-Of-Hell-Free Necklace contents were chosen based on a cost-benefit analysis for how to reduce the world’s Hell-Index as much as possible. Cluster-headaches, kidney stones, bad stings, severe psychotic episodes, suicidal depression, panic attacks, and many types of acute physical pain turned out to account for a surprisingly large percentage of each country’s Hell-Index. And in many of these cases, a substantial amount of the suffering was experienced before medical help could be able to arrive to the scene and do anything about it. A lot of that intense suffering happened to be tightly concentrated in acute episodes rather than in chronic problems (save for some notable examples). And by incredible luck, it turned out that there were simple antidotes to most of these states of agony, all of them small enough to fit in a single light necklace. So it was determined that subsidizing Get-Out-Of-Hell-Free Necklaces was a no-brainer as a cost-effective altruistic intervention.
By 2050 safe and cheap genetic vaccines against almost all of these unpleasant states of consciousness had been discovered. This, in turn, made the use of the Get-Out-Of-Hell-Free Necklaces unnecessary. But many who benefited from it- who had been unlucky enough to have needed it- kept it on for many years. The piece was thought of as a symbol to commemorate humanity’s progress in the destruction of hell. An achievement certainly worth celebrating.
* Admittedly, a more refined index would also distinguish between the intensity of different types of pain/suffering above 20 in the McGill Pain Index (or equivalent). Such index would try to integrate a fair “total amount of hellish qualia” by adding up the pain of each state weighted by its most likely “true intensity” as determined by a model, and then do so for each model you have and weight the contribution of each model by its likelihood. E.g. do both a quadratic and an exponential conversion of values in the 0 to 10 visual analogue scale into dolors per second, and then do a likelihood-weighted average to combine those results into a final value.
[Epistemic Status: Fiction; see related non-fiction Burning Man articles – 1, 2, 3; See part 1/2 here.]
What follows is (the second part of) the result of an exercise in considering the questions: “Which novel memes, and meme-plexes, will be alive 10 years from now? And, what new worldviews will have a ‘full-stack’ account of where humanity is at, and where it is headed?” Hope this sparks interesting discussions.
The elucidation of the origin of qualia-rich subjectivity is important not only as an activity in the natural sciences, but also as a foundation and the ultimate justification of the whole world of the liberal arts. Bridging the gap between the two cultures (C. P. Snow) is made possible only through a clear understanding of the origin of qualia and subjectivity.
Qualia symbolize the essential intellectual challenge for humanity in the future. The impact of its elucidation will not be limited to the natural sciences. The liberal arts, religion, and the very concept of what a man is will be reassessed from their very foundations.
You wake up at 10AM, in what you feel is a surprisingly good mood given the fact you rolled last night. You still notice that your mind is a bit zonked. Taking LSD, MDMA, and Ketamine within the span of two days is not something you’ve done before, and it makes sense that they would each contribute their own distinct aftermath. If acute drug effects can be synergistic (as it was for MDMA + K), could hangover types also be synergistic? It doesn’t feel that way, but then again, you remember that by most accounts the “real MDMA hangover” happens 36 to 48 hours after taking it, not the morning after. So you figure that right now you are probably experiencing the afterglow and staving off tiredness with the psychostimulant metabolites of MDMA. With regards to the acid, you can’t really tell if there is any hang-over from it, so you figure that your feeling of being a bit discombobulated comes from the mixing of K and MDMA last night. “Oh, that! This reminds me- I should try to figure out what on earth was the massive life-energy ball I felt last night”- you think to yourself, reflecting on the fact that you had never experienced anything like it before.
You prepare a large bowl of fresh fruits and vegetables. Conveniently your camp still has many fruits and veggies in the collective dry-ice cooler that Astro Burrito is prototyping. He got his playa name because his power of invention is such that people claim that he would be able to figure out how to make a burrito from scratch in zero-g; after all he served hot burritos to the entire camp during the intense day-long dust storm of BM 2025, which is something everyone still remembers. You eat two carrots, an apple, a pear, some celery, two raw tomatoes, and a ton of grapes. Once you feel satiated, you sit down to chill for a bit at your camp’s shared shade structure.
Galaxy Fox and Cardamom join you to chill for a bit. They each have a mango slushy they got from Camp Glacier Breeze next door, and share some with you. You ask them if they have ever experienced giant life-energy balls on Ketamine and/or MDMA. Galaxy Fox admits she does not know what you are talking about, but Cardamom’s eyes brighten. She says: “I used to take ketamine weekly in my twenties, until I had some bladder problems and stopped. I remember a lot of wild visions. I’m an atheist, but man, some of these visions had a strong mystical quality to them. Perhaps the strongest experience I had was the one time I combined LSD and ketamine right after coming back from a neuroscience conference. I recall hallucinating a cast of famous neuroscientists whose work I’ve read and who I’ve interacted with over the years; almost as if I could access their soul and connect with them on a deep level. We all went on a quest to figure out the essence of life as a group of friends- naked in front of the mystery of life- rather than with all of the social pretense that inevitably comes with academic prestige. At the peak of the experience, we all witnessed this huge ball of light that looked like a sun coming down and telling us to ‘hang in there, life will make sense soon’ and ‘keep trying to make sense of it all, you will soon see the big picture’. I tried to dismiss this experience after the fact, but the feeling was very compelling. I still think about it every once in a while.” This more or less fits your experience, but you don’t recall the life-energy ball telling you anything specific. It was more like a sense of what could be possible if we all saw our underlying unity; but no words or concepts, at least not humanly recognizable. They finish the mango slushy and take off. You take a nap in a recliner, and wake up at noon, hungry again.
You eat a handful of mixed nuts, almond milk, hemp milk, macadamia milk, and electrolytes. Half a MealCube. You get ready to explore and by 1PM go on your way. You keep under shade and walk alone this time. After all you are sober and won’t be experimenting with anything tonight, and your best friends are who knows where by now. You stop a couple of blocks down, as the sign attracts you: Camp Super Intelligence.
The camp is mostly composed of a large central dome. Inside is dark and cool. There are water coolers, fans, and plenty of “mist projectors”. It also has walls with fabrics of two colors only (green and blue), which strikes you as a rather conservative aesthetic in a place like this. Some people are chilling, a few are in pairs, and there is a circle of people halfway between the center and the north corner hanging out and talking fast, and clear.
You ask if you can join them, and they say “definitely!”, and they ask your name. Then they continue their conversation, as if you weren’t there: “I thought Friston’s book was really easy to understand” – the girl in blue says. “Yes, even my mom seemed to understand it when I explained it to her.” – replies the guy in red. From what you gather, people here are obsessed with the prospect of digital Artificial General Intelligence. But rather than discussing the substance of the problem, they seem more interested in asking each other about what their “timeline is”, meaning, when they think it will happen. For better or for worse, you conclude they do not have a vision of the future – the AGI scenario interrupts their thoughts about what the future sans AGI could hold (with e.g. “mere” recursively self-improving genetic engineering).
Interestingly, one of the topics they touch on is psychopharmacology. Everyone in the circle is on some or another psychiatric drug. They have, moreover, discovered that if you combine cholinergic nootropics (e.g. oxiracetam, pramiracetam, etc.) with adenosine agonists (cf. ‘anti-caffeine’ rutaecarpine) you can discuss philosophy without being bothered by questions about consciousness. They tell you that once you get used to it, you think back to the time you used to worry about consciousness as a time you were crazy in inscrutable ways. “It puzzles you that you used to fall in that trap, but once you ‘transition’, you know better”- a kid with grey eyes says. He continues: “You internalize the fact that, as Graziano puts it, ‘there is no subjective impression; there is only information in a data-processing device’ [source].”
They take purely causal approaches to reality, and in fact disregard subjectivity explicitly. Sometimes you feel you must be too tired to understand them, because you don’t believe what they tell you. You don’t believe that someone is trying to reconstruct intelligence without ever mentioning consciousness, experience, or qualia. But your friend- many hours later- reassures you that you had heard correctly. Indeed, that camp is known for saying things of this sort, and challenge each other to say it loudly, as a sort of memetic purity test.
From your point of view, you wonder whether they’ve turned into philosophical zombies in some sense, or if they have experienced a reframing of their approach to language at the very core. They now seem to lack introspective access to the intrinsic referent of experience they used to have. Alas, they say that didn’t exist to begin with; it was the “illusion that emerges from a system modeling its own attentional dynamics“. Their system is self-consistent, and seemingly complete from the inside. But from the outside you can see they are missing a critical piece. Or so it seems to you.
They tell you that getting rid of the concept of consciousness is a necessary step to take if you want to move on to actually solving the problem of intelligence. But you resist their persuasion. It somehow feels rude… in light of what you’ve experienced the last couple of days. You think to yourself just how much there is to talk about concerning what you experienced recently, and how much this knowledge has expanded your understanding of how large the world of experience truly is. You try to share some of your recent experiences with them. They look at each other, and one of them says “I feel like every time we hear the stories from people who’ve taken drugs, the story always boils down to ‘these peeps were on drugs and something crazy happened’.” They all laugh, and agree. You sense they are not interested- anywhere in their minds- about what you may have to say.
Is this what it feels like to have a serotonin dip, from the inside? Being convinced that the people around you are choosing uncooperative strategies? Or are these guys really being that unkind to me? They feel rude. “But never-mind, go ahead, we are listening”- says the same guy. They were kidding; they did want to hear your story after all. It turns out they became quite intrigued by some of your observations, including how you felt at the Pleasure Palace- I mean- what was it called? (you realize your memory is not as sharp as it usually is, mmm… wonder why). Camp Valence. They hadn’t heard of Camp Valence, or Camp State-Space of Consciousness. They seem to use Burning Man as a sort of complex interpersonal tension resolution event, and usually don’t interact much with others at the event, but do take drugs and go to see the art. Interestingly, they claim this makes them more productive during the rest of the year; it resolves the conflicts between them like nothing else. They are not very open to being changed from the outside, though, so to speak. Their behavior at Burning Man seems to be governed by a closed system and has a goal-oriented focus. You would much rather come at it with radical openness, but other forms of experiencing this place are valid, right?
You thank them for their company, stand up, and walk around. The place has tons of hammocks, reactive LED tables, and rationalist fiction lying around. Their art was geeky stuff like a dodecahedral metal-frame supporting an icosahedral “dual” internal metal-frame, itself supporting another dodecahedral frame and so on for several iterations. They also had a “statue” of a giant robotic “stuffed bear” that would vibrate if you gave it a hug with the right pressure and length. In a way, this statue was, gently, teaching you how to give pleasant hugs to others. You gave it a biiiig hug… putting all your heart into it. But it does nothing. The screen reads: “Try giving shorter hugs.” This makes you feel sad.
A girl who happens to have seen your disappointing interaction with the statue runs to you, saying “you can change the settings. How about we try ‘hug explosion’? It vibrates in a monotonically-increasing way as a function of the amount of time you keep hugging it.” It was incredible how this little act of kindness made you feel included and appreciated. You hugged her and she hugged you back for over a minute. Your mind somehow made you think about that time a kid in Korea ran up a crane to hug Michael Jackson during one of his concerts. You don’t know why your mind makes this association with what’s happening- the symbolism escapes you- but you choose to just let it be.
The camp’s entrance has a chart about humbling yourself and accepting the fact that the world is full of people who are intellectually more capable than you at essentially any task you can come up with. This wasn’t made in a way that was meant to be a put-down in any way. Rather, it was a call to look around you for people who can help you in surprisingly efficient ways. We don’t need to reinvent the wheel everywhere, and collectively we benefit if we share what we can do, sustainably, really well.
You feel tired by 6PM. Again, you were artificially energized for two consecutive days; it makes sense you would feel the need to rest tonight. You nonetheless dance for 20 minutes at a near-by major soundcamp on your way back listening to throw-back 90’s rap, check out some art, and chill with a campmate near your camp’s kitchen in a retractable chair until you feel compelled to sleep, which you do without trouble at 11PM. It’s cold tonight, really cold.
Friday: Camp Replicator – “Live Your Fantasy at Porky’s”
You wake up at 9AM and feel well rested, and hungry. Your mood is pensive, but you look forward to going out with friends tonight. One of your campmates, Lasagna Man, is preparing a batch of clean meat dishes for people to try. The sampler includes beef steak, octopodes in lemon juice, fried insects, and a James Franco BBQ.
The Keynote Ingredient of your Friday breakfast
Actor James Franco arrives at the Golden Globe Awards Sunday, Jan. 16, 2011, in Beverly Hills, Calif. (AP Photo/Matt Sayles)
You try each dish with a lot of curiosity. It is a bit disconcerting, to be honest, considering you’ve been vegetarian for over 12 years, and you feel compelled to verify it isn’t market meat. Either way, it is delicious, and you swallow the lab meats along with banana bread, coconut water, a 100mg capsule of 5-HTP, and 4000 fibrin units of nattokinase (as suggested by Longevity Camp to prevent cardiovascular events in periods of recovery). Satiated, you casually comment to your campmates: “I didn’t realize eating a celebrity was a hidden fantasy of mine.” Upon hearing this, Lasagna Man says: “Have you been to Replicator Camp? I think this year they call it Porky’s. It’s a place where you are compelled to live your hidden fantasies.” Galaxy Fox adds: “Strongly recommended. It’s a trip, and you do not need drugs.” Determined to check it out, you get ready by putting your Friday costume on (a tight-fitting dress inspired by the ThunderCats) and head over.
They say that “Porky’s” is just what you need to hear in this lifetime, in this branch of the multiverse, today. In reality this camp transcends this timeline, this place, this eon, this branch. It is an eternal Platonic concept which repeats itself at all scales of reality. If something exists, there were causes and conditions that gave rise to its form and quality. What people at this camp call “Generalized Darwinism” suggests that even before “the reproduction of the fittest” you have “the survival of the stable” as a primary trivial implication of time moving forward. What we see is driven by patterns trying to make copies of themselves, and being stable is a way of “making copies of yourself in the future” with an n of 1. But this is not relevant to you right now. The camp has a full-fledged metaphysical theory of the universe- and it self-describes as a spiritual camp- but in practice it looks nothing like it. Their explicit mission is to help you “experience an unrealized mental need”, and what this looks like is a bunch of actors playing a scenario for you, where you do something you’ve really been craving for a long time but have been unable to do due to the constraints of the real world.
Why would this be “spiritual”? You inquire about it with a girl that is wearing a swan costume and who seemingly volunteers at this camp. She tells you that the point is to help people fulfill an earthly craving of theirs so they can move on to their core mission in life. Most people will have a reaction of self-loathing once they finally scratch that itch, upon the realization that it wasn’t that big of a deal after all. It makes you realize that you would have been willing to throw a big chunk of your life away for what is essentially a side dish. Better to find that out in a simulacrum than risk your career, family, health, etc. with a terrible life decision, right?
At the entrance there is a menu of options that lists the role-playing scenarios they can do for you. There is a “custom” option for which you need to sign-up days in advance. They do not agree to about half of the custom requests because they exceed the bounds of what actors can feel comfortable role-playing, so there are limits as to how deep and dark your fantasy can be. The default options themselves are pretty shocking, though. The list contains things that range from adultery and incest all the way to abuse of power scenarios. Some of them are so R-rated that they make the rest of Burning Man seem conservative in comparison; heck they make the Orgy Dome seem conservative in comparison. Interestingly, the most requested role-playing scenarios among the options are completely family-friendly. For example, “work acknowledgment” fantasies account for 30% of the requests, and a whole other 25% involve receiving affection from neglectful family members.
You think to yourself: “I suppose I do feel undervalued at work, and I sometimes use outlets like Burning Man to find a place where people value me for who I am.” So you choose the “have a real conversation with your boss” option. You tell the attendant that you made up your mind, and she goes to the back of the room to inform the actors of your choice, and then proceeds to ask you for details about the scenario.
You tell her that you have been working as a journalist at a technology magazine for about 7 years. Your coworkers like you, and you are highly praised by your immediate manager, who thinks that you are a whiz kid and loves to “sell your work” to upper management. The thing is, you have a feeling that he does not represent you very well, and since you’ve been passed over for promotion already for four consecutive years, you sense that he is somehow taking credit for your work. He is very warm, and it is hard to think badly of him when he is around. He has a sort of professional candor that makes you feel rapport with him. The thought that he may be screwing you behind your back despite his warm relationship adds to the psychological torture. You tell her all of this and then she asks a few follow-up questions, mostly details like his first name, the name of a couple coworkers, and the ways the people at work refer to you such as nicknames and phrases they may use. She tells you to stand in line, that the actors will be ready in about 15 minutes.
When it’s your turn, she takes you to the backroom and tells you to be “ready for a wild ride”.
The backroom has a number of props appropriate for your job. You sit at the desk, and stare at the computer in front of you. Then an actor comes in, pretending to be your boss:
Howdy Steve! How’s it going? I was just passing by and thought I should say hi. I also remembered you mentioned you’d have the deliverable today, and it isn’t in my desk, so I thought checking wouldn’t hurt.
That’s right. He says “howdy”; this is already starting to bother you, reminding you of the pinched nerves you were experiencing less than a week ago at your job. He continues:
Don’t worry about it. There is always another tomorrow. Hey, I’ve gotta tell you something. Promotion rounds are coming up- this time around, I promise, you will get promoted. As I always say: “We’re getting there, you and me, together” [winks].
That phrase irks you horribly. You feel your blood pressure go up. The girl was right, this is really wild. How did the actor know how to emulate his demeanor? You thank him, and mention that you are hopeful and determined to get the promotion this time. Then he leaves for a minute. When he comes back, he is wearing a different attire, as if it was a different day:
Howdy Steve! I’ve gotta share something with you. Look. Sorry… they passed you up again. See, I think it’s the changing times, because the… how do you say it? They said your lateness on many assignments demonstrated lack of commitment to the company. They want you to take on a bit more responsibility before we can move you up next year. But hey, remember: “we’re getting there, you and me, together” [winks].
You feel your blood pressure sky-rocket; you feel rage boiling inside you. Or was it there all along and you are only now becoming aware of its depth? You decide to confront him. You mention how in each of the last four years you have seen him go out to conferences and present your ideas as if they were his. That you have seen him get the credit in meetings. And that once, a middle manager accidentally copied you on an email where he was bragging about how well the story youwrote did online without ever mentioning your name in the writeup. He falls silent for 5 seconds. He looks serious now. He says:
“Yes, it’s true, I stole your work, ok?! I told my wife, and she said I should always deny, deny, deny, no matter what, that she being pregnant meant that we couldn’t risk not getting the next bonus. Can you blame me screwing you to benefit my family? Are we not all like that in the end?”
Fuck! You knew it. You’ve known this for over three years, intuitively. Your boss’ kid is soon going to be entering preschool. Your head trembles and you feel your heart rate go up, crazy. After a pause he adds:
I can’t be responsible for the fact that you are a sucker. That you let yourself be taken advantage of. Darwin Awards, anyone?
The rage becomes a steam of hellfire inside you, and you feel yourself getting ready to shout and scream and kick him and bite him. But there is something stopping you. You know you could go all out on this poor fellow, and rub it in his face how the family excuse is completely bogus (it’s unsettling that the family thing is exactly the sort of rapport-congruent thing that he would actually say to justify himself), and it’s infuriating how many times you gave him a graceful exit despite your dark suspicions. You know you could hit him where it hurts most. But you instead choose the high road. “I am not like him” – you tell yourself. Silence for 10 seconds as you breath in and out, calming yourself. You say:
That one time you had me stay in the office on a Friday I had requested off a month in advance broke my heart. I missed a camping trip with my friends to satisfy your careerist hunger. But you are right, I am a sucker. Yes, being well adapted to a deeply sick social environment is not a sign of mental health. This is it. I quit. I will see you when I see you. Good bye.
“And Cut!”- a girl behind the curtain shouts. She runs up to you: “You did well! How did it feel?” But you can’t respond. The experience is cathartic, and you cry, folded upon your knees on the floor.
You notice internal boundaries dissolve. It is now clear that over the years you’ve built barriers inside yourself; some kind of protective field around your inner representation of your boss and his warm demeanor. You didn’t allow yourself to think bad thoughts about him; you empathized with him deeply. Why? Why did you make yourself blind to all of the evidence, to the fact that he was screwing you? You realize that your sense of worth has been tied to his praise for so long that it feels like part of your professional grain. If it wasn’t for him, would you even have a job? You can’t stop crying. As you let those feelings come and go, a feeling of empowerment begins to run through your body; feeling vindicated and validated by yourself is something you are not used to. Especially not concerning professional matters. But now you feel… like you are worth it. The addiction to his praise is something of your own making, you now realize. You placed conditions on your own happiness; you had it in you to love yourself all along.
The girl brings you a box of tissues. She tell you that it is common to experience a rollercoaster of emotions. She said to come back if you needed additional support. You exit Camp Replicator. You feel good. Tired, but good… and relaxed.
It feels like the image of your boss has a lot less power over you, and this process has “released” a lot of energy – you feel like your own self again- how strange. With this weight off your shoulders, you wander aimlessly… looking for something to find.
As you walk along the streets you begin to imagine your mind as an ecosystem of agents with disparate inclinations. You wonder: “And what is the distribution of ‘power’ among my subagents?” It stands to reason that, given that subagent interactions form a complex system, subagent power would follow the same distribution that income, citations, and social influence have, i.e. a power law. Your subagents compete for a place of influence within you. And the one who (temporarily) holds power tends to have substantially more mental resources than the second next one. At the bottom you have thousands of tiny subagents – like the time you wonder “should I do x?” where x is only congruent with a small part of all of your motivations. MDMA, you figure, changes this power distribution during its acute effects; the “harmonization of your experience” (as Camp Valence might call it) is not only about your sensory impressions and emotions, but also about the causal power of your sub-agents. It is fascinating to see that in ego-softened states- such as the one you are having thanks to the recent catharsis- one can see one’s highest subagent give in to the concerns of the ones below, and start a representative assembly of subagents trying to arrive at a much more fair global distribution of power that satisfies as many subagents’ preferences as possible.
The experience of having two conflicting subagents have equal degrees of power is very peculiar; one feels that, somehow, one’s future is “truly up in the air”. You wonder: “Is this agent power distribution annealing?” Within the multiplicity of subagents bidding for your attention on a daily basis, which ones of those have purely replicator objectives, and which ones are trying to increase the subjective wellbeing of people (including your own)?
You come across a little bike handing out Whisky to passersby. You pass on your cup, and receive a shot; not because you feel the need to, but because you like it. You savor the Whisky very slowly.
On the way back you come across a Chindogu Hands-on Exhibit, which you find incredibly entertaining. It makes you feel like a kid again. You start wondering about your next career. Mentally you already disconnected from your boss’ authority, though you suspect that the full consequences of having done this will only be revealed over the next days and weeks. How to break it to him? What should you work on next?
Upon arriving to your camp you get ready to go out by putting on a spiral LED hat and glow gloves. Astro Burrito and Cardamom join you, and you walk for many hours until 2:30AM, wandering from art to art, and talking to strangers, and asking them about what they do for a living… perhaps you’ll get inspired. You cap the night with James Franco left-overs- which you turn into a sandwich-, a mango, and a handful of supplements (BCAA, Magnesium Citrate, Quercetin, Turmeric, Aminoglycotetraquinone, Ashwagandha, and L-Theanine). You write some notes, and quickly pass out by 3:30AM.
Saturday: Camp Anti-Replicator
A 1980s throwback art-car driving by your camp wakes you up at 11AM. You feel refreshed, and happy. The first thought that comes to mind is “today is the day the Man burns.” You processed so much pent-up emotion yesterday it’s unreal to you. You feel light, and energized. You then remember that you have a tested 25mg 2C-B tablet, which you had intended to use the night of the Burn. You check yourself emotionally and physically to decide whether you will go ahead and take 2C-B tonight, and all of the signs are good (blood pressure is good, VO2 Max is good, mobile ECG looks good). You feel good about the prospect of tripping today. You will be heading out to see the Man burn with your campmates at 7PM. What to do till then? You get a “shower” at the Human Carcass Wash, drink a cocoa Soylent, eat dried apricots, and devour a sun-heated bean & rice burrito. It is now 2PM so you have about 4 hours to explore before you have to get back and prepare to head out to see the Burn. What should you do? For reasons you don’t yet know, you feel an urge to take the 2C-B right now. You rationalize this decision based on the feeling that you should not stay up too late tonight if you intend to look for theme-camps tomorrow. Great press secretary internal monologue you have there.
So you wander into the Playa with a borrowed bike looking for camps you haven’t even noticed yet in order to get the most surprising and novel stimuli possible. Along your way you see a surprisingly large number of sculptures of beasts and wild animals. You stop at a place in which you see about 50 people meditating quietly in front of a 3m-tall caterpillar statue, which intrigues you deeply. A sign close to the bike racks reads: “Camp Anti-Replicator.” At this very point you feel the first sign of the 2C-B come-up. You get off the bike and look around for someone to interact with. You check behind a blue wooden wall decorated with ʻaʻā clinkers arranged to form the shape of a mandala, whose center is an endless knot. A few people dressed in magenta robes are talking quietly on the floor, seating on cushions and drinking tea. When they notice you, they invite you to have tea with them.
They look like monks, and they emit a rather serene but lively vibe. They explain that Camp Replicator is their “sister camp”. Replicator is designed to help people identify the most gnarly karma bundle of samskaras in one’s energy body, which is the first step in untangling them. To put it in a secular way: living your deep fantasies and unmet emotional needs helps identify the most emotionally imprinted memories that haunt you behind the scenes. Empirically, working on these bundles in a psychologically safe container is useful. Away from civilization, one can more directly address repressed impressions in a safe psychic environment.
One of the persons there pours you a cup of rooibos, while another one asks you if you know why you are here. Puzzled, you reply in the negative.
They say that Burning Man is one of the seven Pure Lands on this planet- one for each of the karmic clusters of the human species. These are places where catalytic tools for spiritual potential are plentiful. There are many scattered groups of humans around the globe doing intense spiritual development work, but when it comes to transformations happening at a large scale, this is one of the seven core locations. Each of these Pure Lands serves between 10,000 to 100,000 people a year. Burning Man, they say, is not what it looks like at first sight. The physical component of the temporary community is just a superficial facade of the spiritual processes that are being catalyzed under the surface. They explain that this is why when you go there the place becomes a new location for your dreams in which to take place; Burning Man is alive all-year round, but on the etheric level of reality, which can be accessed in a variety of states of consciousness including meditation, dreaming, and psychedelics. Indeed, many benefit from this Pure Land without ever attending, though having been there secures a karmic link to it. They say that there are some really important Light Workers here, whom you will be working with when you are ready. They say that you are not yet ready for that. But you are ready for something else.
You ask them where they are getting all of this- implausible-sounding- information. They say that their philosophy- and thus their understanding of what Burning Man is about- is the result of a synthesis of Buddhism, Metamodernism, and Martinus’s Philosophy. Their camp members tend to come from families with what they call “new religious energy”. Often they will have been born in religions such as Unitarian Universalism, Theosophy, Integral Theory, and New Age, to name a few. Based on the synthesis of these disparate sources, together with experiments they have conducted, and the download of information from spirit guides, they can affirm in consensus that this world is currently at the boundary between the immanent energy of the animal world and the human kingdom levels of consciousness. The monk who looks the youngest, around 18 years old, begins:
“You see, the cosmological principle states that, when seen on a sufficiently large scale, the universe looks regular and uniform. Locally, you see many different kinds of planets, stars, nebulae, brown dwarves, neutron stars, and so on. But on a grand scale there is asymptotically the same amount of matter, energy, dark matter, and dark energy, in large volumes of space. Similarly, the surrounding spiritual dimensions, locally, are very heterogeneous, but they are not a representative of the entirety of the multiverse. While evil can win within a given pocket of reality, on a large scale good prevails…. Well, it prevails in about 99.7% of the multiverse as far as we can determine with our spiritual telescopes.”
Then the person in the circle who looks the oldest, around 70 years old and with a heavy Swedish accent, continues:
“There are uncountably many flavors of consciousness, but they can all be placed on a cyclic evolutionary timeline. Buddhism divides the multiverse into six regions, each hosting beings who share the same main karmic signature: Gods, Titans, Human, Animal, Hungry Ghost, and Hell.”
A girl who looks of Indian descent, who is around 35 years old takes over: “Martinus’s philosophy claims that there are six basic energies of God. Each of us is an offspring of God, a soul/monad that reflects and diffracts divine light. The six stages are: plant kingdom, followed by the animal kingdom, then the real human kingdom, the kingdom of wisdom, the divine world, and the kingdom of bliss [source]. The cycle never ends, and it is driven by a principle of hunger and satiation.”
“In cases like earth, there are two energies with roughly comparable power over the beings who inhabit here. Although the keynote of the universe is Love with a capital L, locally, other energies tend to dominate.”
Martinus’ Philosophy: plant kingdom (red), followed on the right by the animal kingdom (orange), then the real human kingdom (yellow), the kingdom of wisdom (green), the divine world (blue) and the kingdom of bliss (light indigo)
“Metamodernism”- the one who is bald and has a French accent, says- “asks us to consider how new forms of democracy and collective action can take place in light of an emerging cluster of people who have reached advanced psychological developmental stages (e.g. Kegan level 5). In the context of global spiritual transformation this is very relevant. What do we do as more people begin to pass over the threshold of 50% human consciousness? We are developing secular implementations of spiritual liquid democracy in order to overcome the game-theoretical short-comings of the current democratic system.”
You ask them if this is a common view. You had never heard of this kind of syncretism. They tell you that the overall picture has been developed in Scandinavia and is gradually getting exported to other places in the world. After all, the Nordics are a culturally interesting corner of Europe in a somewhat similar way to California being a culturally interesting corner of America.
You ask them why you are hearing all of this. They said they were waiting for you. Incredulous, you start standing up to leave, but the Indian girl says:
“We all saw you the other day. You were a bright star on Wednesday night. We saw you saying hi to your grandfather, and then visiting the palace of light and its dome. We knew you would come over here later this week.”
“You mean that what I experienced on the God Helmet, MDMA, and later on with ketamine was not an illusion?” – you ask, shocked. She winks at you in response.
The man with the Swedish accent pours you another cup of rooibos. He says that at this camp shamans of consciousness gather to help you see through as many of your internal demons as possible. The atmosphere here is completely unlike the mental health institutions most people know. Here people don’t show any kind of learned helplessness (internally wondering “is there really anything that can be done in this situation?”). People here are trained technicians of consciousness. They have sharpened psychological tools to break into your psychological stress points and help you release anxiety about your life-decisions and embrace an open-ended forgiving approach to thinking about the future. Leaving your attachments is not a sacrifice when you are trading them for options that feel both good and more real.
On the table there is a book that you pick up and open at random. A pamphlet that was inside the book falls on the tea table, and you decide on reading the pamphlet instead: “[I]f enough people gather in these tents, our shamans can do efficient combinatoric searches for pairs of people in the group that can help each other grow as fast as possible in the span of 1 hour. The clock is ticking, and there is tremendous pressure and conviction that a breakthrough will happen.” The people at the table mention that a significant percentage of people who come to this camp are on serotonergic psychedelics, but the majority go sober. More than half are people who have been here before and had a breakthrough, and want to go and take more advanced classes. People remark on the intense contact-high of this particular region of the playa. Typically, people say that they had an inexplicable urge to come over to this camp, and they find ways of rationalizing it.
One of the techniques listed on the pamphlet is called “deprogramming meta-programmers”. You take a moment to let that sink in. “This sounds like a cult; only the CIA would get away with calling something ‘deprogramming’ and not sound like a cult.” – you think to yourself. “I thought Rainbow God was a cult, but this?”
But at this very moment you realize that you are, and have always been, a prisoner of your reward architecture. You’ve been programmed by evolution to execute adaptations you are not even aware of. These animal urges… they don’t feel like yours. “What is going on?”- you wonder. From the inside, certain things feel right and others feel wrong and you don’t even know why. Sure, you can justify your feelings by claiming direct and exclusive access to the universe’s utility function. “What is this?”- You look at your hands and you have a tremendous vision of your hands being like claws. You imagine all of the terrible things for which human hands have been used throughout history.
You start identifying with the abstract human rather than with yourself as a particular human. The vision of all humans sharing a divine essence comes over you. But why do you have these animal feelings? You feel in you the demon-like cast of emotions that allows the persecution, bullying, and torturing of other sentient beings. You experience profound disgust at the realization that these underly many of your dearly coveted self-concepts.
“Am I experiencing a bad trip?” – you ask them. “No, what is happening to you is that you are at the fence between animal energies and the human kingdom. You seem to be hovering close to the very middle, and you recently crossed the threshold where 51% of you can contain human kingdom energies. The interference is highly uncomfortable, of that we are aware. But do not fear.” – You ask: “Are you killing my ego?” – They say: “No, your ego is committing suicide. You are about to cross over, and that’s why you are here.”
“What happens when you have 51% of human kingdom energy?”- you wonder out loud, tripping pretty hard by this point. “Well, that is a milestone of sorts, because it forces some realignments inside you. There is some risk of falling into Messiah complexes, manic states, and self-harm. With regards to self-harm, it is important to acclimatize you to the fact that the craving for non-existence is itself one of the animal energies. Given reincarnation and the oneness of consciousness, self-harm is strictly counter-productive. Philosophies like negative utilitarianism and antinatalism are fantasies of systematizers who are, precisely, craving non-existence to such an extent that they create a worldview to relieve that craving.”
They tell you that you have also been imprinted with quasi-parental figures primarily concerned with the replication of their attachments and vices throughout your life, be it teachers, advisors, company CEOs, or even your boss. Your imprinting will determine whether you emphasize fast or slow reproductive strategies (cf. evolutionary psychopathology). The people in Camp Replicator helped you figure out who has imprinted you. The mock confrontation with your boss was a psychological technique that effectively works by helping your System 1 come to terms with the fact that your quasi-parental figures are almost certainly constraining your behavior out of neuroticism rather than thought-through rational analysis and altruism. Camp Anti-Replicator, now, is helping you with a push in contextualizing your suffering in a larger picture that allows you to identify with spirit rather than with your animal reproductive drive.
“We are not a religion; we are a diaspora of students of the spiritual sciences. We don’t need dogma, because we have Abhijñā (‘direct knowledge’).”- says the 18 year old.
He continues: One of the most important sociological theories they deploy involves realizing that social movements work by providing an internal voice for people to be able to deal with their internalized authority figures. No social movement starts out from the altruistic desires of people, at least not on people dominated by animal consciousness. Beyond social signaling theory (cf. Mating Mind, Elephant in the Brain), the human mind has many tricks up its sleeves to transmute growth-oriented energy into the execution of replicator strategies. The true reason for this involves the relative low density of dark energy in this part of the universe, which biases physical evolution towards entropic finite games and away from negentropic infinite games.
“God of the Old Testament was really a Wrathful Deity. Marcionism and Catharism knew this truth, but it was suppressed by the more dominant replicator-based and politically powerful conservative spirit of the time, which sanctified the God of the Old Testament and pretended it was the same being as Jesus.” – Says the Indian girl. “Jesus was a Bodhisattva world-redeemer who came here to break a link in the chain of tit-for-tat karma of the animal consciousness level.”
You open the pamphlet again. The section is titled “The stages of spiritual evolution”:
– 1. Nature spiritism/shamanism
– 2. Multi-god religions
– 3. Mono-theistic religions
– 4. Hollow mono-theism (“hey man, nobody believes this nonsense about the virgin birth anyways but we just pretend to go along”)
– 5. Cynical materialism/atheism (money and power and NO re-incarnation)
– 6. Humane materialism (“Let’s all be friends but there is still no God”)
– 7. Low quality spirituality/New Age (“Peace, man. Let’s all be friends and smoke weed and not do anything practical. SOMETHING grander is going on. But we don’t have a clue about it.”)
– 8. Mature spiritual instinct. Religions, atheism and New Age now all seem a bit childish. Deep inner growing seed of spiritual knowing. The divine is real but undefined. Interest in mystics like Martinus emerge.
– 9. Cosmic glimpses. One sees the divine workings behind the veil for brief moments but still too immature to put the pieces together.
– 10. Full blown cosmic consciousness. Like Martinus, Buddha and most likely Jesus Christ. Everything is completely intuitive. You are one with God, it all makes sense and you can tap into any answer about the cosmos at any time.
The guy with the Swedish accent says: “Good, you are reading about the stages. I’d say the world is now roughly between #4 and #5, with some regional variations. For example, places like Denmark and Norway are centered around #5 and #6, whereas places like Saudi Arabia are on average between #3 and #4. Burning Man and the other Pure Lands are designed to concentrate people who are between #6 and #7, and moving towards #8.”
They said that you now know what you needed to know. You are free to hang out and ask more questions, but to feel free to walk out any time. You feel a high level of energy coursing through your veins, purifying your sense of self, making it more humane. You decide to continue reading the pamphlet:
“When Professor Christopher M. Bache was asked what was the most important thing that he learned from taking LSD in high doses in silent darkness more than 70 times, he responded:
The most important? That the universe is the manifest body of a Divine Being of unimaginable intelligence, compassion, clarity, and power, that we are all aspects of this Being, never separated from it for a moment, that we are growing ever-more aware of this connection, that physical reality emerges out of Light and returns to Light continuously, that Light is our essential nature and our destiny, that all life moves as One, that reincarnation is true, that there is a deep logic and significance to the circumstances of our lives, that everything we do contributes to the evolution of the whole, that our awareness continues in an ocean of time and a sea of bliss when we die, that we are loved beyond measure and that humanity is driving towards an evolutionary breakthrough that will change us and life on this planet at the deepest level. Take your pick.
This is just one of the tens of thousands of people who reached level #9 in the last 50 years, and in the coming century we expect a few million people to get there.”
You save the pamphlet in your camelback, thank everyone at the table, drink the last bit of rooibos, and start taking off. “One more thing” – the 18 year old says – “you will confront a difficult moral dilemma tonight. Keep your heart open.”
As you leave, you pass by the same place where people were meditating in front of the caterpillar statue. But the statue is not there anymore, and the people who are there are now completely different. More so, they are now facing the opposite direction… meditating in front of a 4m-tall butterfly statue, which you swear wasn’t anywhere to be seen when you arrived.
You hurry up and try to get back to your camp before people leave to see the Man burn. On your way back, you overhear a conversation between two 20-something girls who happen to be biking in the same direction as you for what seems like an eternity. One of the girls points out that she went to Burning Man with the intention of having fun and maybe some casual sex with older men. But she is now feeling a bit disgusted with her original intention, that she feels drawn to starting a family with a beta boy who, she now realizes, she has been in love with for years but wouldn’t admit it to herself. The other girl kept saying to speak louder, that the acid was making it hard for her to make out the words of what she was saying. Soon enough they turn right at a junction as you continue forward, riding fast to make sure you don’t miss your campmates. You notice you came across a large number of Human-shaped sculptures. Where are the beasts? You don’t see them anywhere.
You arrive late by a couple minutes. Thankfully Astro Burrito is still there, and he informs you that there is a second wave of people who will be departing in half an hour. You quickly eat some granola bars, drink a protein shake, and swallow some dried apricots, and to add some hydration, drink the last soda water can left in the cooler. Astro Burrito hands you some mixed nuts and orange slices. You refill your camelback, and join the group of people right outside the camp who will be the second wave. 5 minutes later you all start walking towards the Man as a group.
You are still a little high from the 2C-B, but you feel yourself coming down. You walk alongside Astro Burrito, and you share with him some of the things you experienced at Camp Anti-Replicator.
Astro Burrito tells you to consider the fact that Burning Man is a breeding ground for meme-plexes that reproduce in an ecosystem of people in altered states of consciousness open to be infected by new memes. “What survives in here is mood congruent… so you shouldn’t be surprised to experience extremely compelling theme-camps with a worldview to- subtly or otherwise- pass on to you.”- He says. You reply: “I guess there is a lot of memetic evolution going on here.” He responds: “Yeah, right? Somebody should write an article about what Burning Man theme camps will be like in, er… 10 years from now. I’m really curious about that myself.”
“But how about the apparent independent memetic convergence of people who meditate and take psychedelics over the course of many years? The pamphlet of Camp Anti-Replicator talked about how this convergence is happening throughout the world even in places not exposed to those memes.” – you ask him.
“You really have to wonder about the extent to which pre-existing beliefs, inclinations, and wishes for a satisfying positive view of reality figure in a person’s psychedelic revelations. Indeed, as we know from Steve Lehar’s epic trip reports, not being confused with implicit direct realism about perception protects you from reaching spiritual conclusions. Direct realists about perception, admittedly, probably have the wildest trips.” He then goes on into a complex narrative about how you can think of communities of people as metal alloys. “Think of a certain type of people with characteristic cognitive and personality traits as being analogues to atoms of a certain type. When you bind together many of those atoms as a group, the material has some unique properties. But as soon as you sprinkle atoms from a different metal, the overall properties of the resulting alloy can be radically different than the pure version. The same happens with meme-plexes. Burning Man allows new memetic alloys… which can have unexpectedly sticky qualities you wouldn’t easily predict from the contents alone. Be wary of things that sound too good to be true.”
At the half-way point between Esplanade and the Man your campmates stop at some port-a-potties for a bathroom break. After you pee, you join your campmates in waiting for everyone to be done. Out of the corner of your eye you see rapidly-blinking lights and hear loud laughter. Turning in that direction, you notice a large group of college-aged chaotic neutral ravekids playing with an interactive sculpture. You have a bad feeling about this. They seem to be climbing it in unsafe ways, and playfully daring each other to interact with it creatively. They are clearly too excited, intoxicated, and unaware of the potential danger… and nobody is looking after them. You tell your campmates that you will stay there to look after them. Astro Burrito tells you that if you stay there you won’t be able to see the Man burn with them. “There is a sea of people out there, don’t you remember? You won’t be able to find us if you don’t come with us.” Determined, you insist. Astro Burrito says: “It’s your call. See you back at the Camp late, later tonight, or tomorrow, as the case may be.”
Your campmates continue onwards towards the Man as you stay behind, watching over the guys. One of them reaches the top and shouts: “This is freedom!” and opens his arms wide, making a Titanic pose. “This is Fre…” he shouts, but loses equilibrium, and falls six meters towards the ground, landing on his left leg, which snaps, and then landing on his torso on his left side, breaking a couple ribs. The poor guy starts screaming in agony. “Fuck! I knew this was going to happen” – you think to yourself. You run to him, but realize that’s not useful, and course-correct towards the nearest Ranger post, which is about 250 meters away. The ranger jumps on a Jeep and drives with you to the site to confirm the location, then backs out and drives to the closest medical center. There they dispatch a medical unit, and you stay there. From afar, you can start to see the Man being set alight. You feel shaken, but in your heart you feel like you did the right thing. The Man gets fully covered in flames as the medical unit comes back with the ravekid with a twisted leg, biting a pacifier and looking slightly less distressed than before. The friends thank you for watching over them, and gift you some Kandi.
You climb a nearby platform, and watch the Man burn slowly. Then a powerful feeling overtakes you: “Oh dear… the Man is not being burned… it’s being illuminated! Dear heaven! I now realize Burning Man was a Symbol of the dawn of the Human Kingdom all along!”
You walk over to your camp, processing what happened today. Your body is resonating to an energy you are not used to. It’s as if the burden of competition… the drive to prove yourself to others, has exited every cell of your body. Green etheric energy and a sense of connection to Gaia electrifies your body. “I feel like I can appreciate anew the point of view where all of life is one, and we are all connected at the root” – you think to yourself.
Galaxy Fox is at the camp, and she is applying make-up to herself, and is wearing a gorgeous butterfly costume. She didn’t go see the Man because she wanted to watch it from the highest place in the playa, which was a five-story-tall tower at 4:00 and E. She said it looked amazing, and she also sensed a deep connection to the planet and all life while watching it burn. She then hands you a vegan alcosynthgrasshopper, and you both chill for a bit. You then hit a THC vape pen, and decide to go for a long walk and admire art you haven’t yet seen. It all feels ethereal, like you are in a dream. Perhaps the veil of reality is lifting? Is reality a collective hallucination? The levity of being overwhelms you. You hold hands with Galaxy Fox from time to time, in a friendly way, and dance with her whenever an art car drives by. At 4AM both of you are exhausted, and you return to your tent. You pass out immediately after laying on your sleeping bag.
(Second) Sunday: Continuity Camp
Our identity is that which we seek to preserve.
– William Eden (HT Divia Caroline)
Your first thought upon waking up: “Did yesterday really happen?” You glance over your luggage and sure enough, there is the Kandi the ravekids gave you. Your recollection of last night feels very dreamy and ethereal, not to speak of your visit to Camp Anti-Replicator. That said, the pamphlet you took is still on your camelback. You open it at random and start reading it. “Once you cross the threshold of 51% human kingdom consciousness vibration energy in your body, you will feel the need to go back and fix the troubles you have caused to others during your life, as well as try to eliminate all suffering throughout the living world. This is a very heavy burden for many people to bear, and subconsciously you are likely to suppress some of your insights for this reason. Have faith; insight comes in waves. Do not be alarmed if you can’t reach that magical place in the near future. It always comes back, eventually. And with each wave, the human kingdom energy plants deeper roots in your mind, body, and soul.” You feel at peace. But in addition to this inner peace, you notice that your desire for new experiences isn’t gone. You should hurry up and get ready to explore before all theme-camps pack their stuff!
You know that many people are leaving today, and you need to start packing up yourself. Come to think of it, you don’t really know whether any theme-camp is still up and running. But you will look for it. You borrow a bike and from 1PM to 2:30PM you bike around looking for an active camp. The outer rings of the city are starting to look a bit deserted, and even the Esplanade is starting to empty out. Between C and 5:15, though, you spot a camp that’s still looking quite active. It is leaving a little later than the rest. The camp is called “Continuity Camp”. It turns out they make it a point to provide shelter for people who need to stay Sunday night. Many people miss their ride, or have some kind of car problem, or are too exhausted to pack and leave. The reasons are myriad, and inevitably a few hundred people find themselves lost Sunday night. To remedy this, the camp doubles as a shelter Sunday night for people who’ve experienced any planning mishap and need to stay the night to sort it out. That said, the camp’s core structures are coming down, and you can tell that some of the sculptures are already gone, given the visible craters on the ground.
You park the bike, and venture in. There is a kitchen still open under a large shade structure. In the background, pieces by classical Mexican composers are playing (Arturo Márquez, Miguel Bernal Jiménez, José Pablo Moncayo, and others). You also notice that the walls are decorated with strange symbols with eyes of different sizes, fire rings, rainbows, plants, etc.
They welcome you with a plate of black beans, tortillas buttered with coconut oil, cacao nibs, and fresh slices of avocado. They also give you a cinnamon horchata agua fresca. You look around at the tables and see a group of people having a friendly discussion, so you ask them if you can join them, and when they say yes you sit down and start eating.
One of the persons in the group is part of the camp. She explains that this camp’s theme is centered around the the concept of continuity, which in turn gives rise to questions about personal identity. How do you truly know that you will wake up in your body tomorrow? How about a couple of seconds ago? Are you the same “subject of experience” as your past and future self? And how about others?
Closed Individualism: You are a distinct narrative over time
Open Individualism: All is One
Empty Individualism: You are a “moment of experience”
She goes on: “There are three main views of personal identity. First you have Closed Individualism, which is the view that you are a person, that is, whose existence is limited to a linear narrative or a story over time. Most people are Closed Individualists, and identify with their bodies, memories, or some kind of transcendent individual soul. Then you have Empty Individualism, which is the view that you are just a moment of experience, and that in some ways you only exist for a tiny slice of time and then disappear… though this gets complicated by what your theory of time is… so some say you really are just there forever, like a Platonic experience in the sea of conscious possibilities. Then you have Open Individualism, which is the view that we are all, on some fundamental level, One. All of us, as apparent separate beings, are different facets or projections of the one universal consciousness.”
She points you to the symbols hanging on the walls. “The first three symbols over there represent each of these views. The one with a ring of plants and as many eyes as individual lines represents Closed Individualism. Each being has a different size, shape, and lifetime. Like trees, identities are messy and complicated; each bearing its own unique temporally-extended narrative. The symbol with a large eye in the center and a rainbow represents Open Individualism. It is the consciousness of All Is One, which has a full-spectrum rainbow flavor. And the one on the right is Empty Individualism. Each moment of experience is its own unbridgeable monad, separated from every other monad by the fundamental fire of differentiation.”
You ponder about it for a moment, and then ask her: “What are the pros and cons of these views? Why should someone believe one over another?” To which she says: “There are good philosophical arguments for each of these views. Contrary to what most people believe, it is not like the common-sense view has as much solid backing as we feel it does by default. Aside from the philosophical question of which one is true, there are game-theoretical implications as well as psychological effects on people from each of these views. Most commentators agree that Open Individualism solves a lot of game-theoretical problems, and if we could make society more Open Individualistic we would generally experience more interest in solving current coordination impasses. That said, people who take a given view very seriously tend to experience some archetypical effects. Open Individualists tend to become either solipsistic or messianic, which are both usually dysfunctional states in the long-term. Closed Individualists feel isolated, and generally experience intense fear of death. And when someone believes in Empty Individualism too strongly at a gut level, they tend to experience a sort of motivational collapse. So there are pragmatic considerations when it comes to adopting some of these views.”
As you finish your food and drink, someone comes over to ask you if you want dessert. You agree, and they give you some quince paste (“ate“) and tequila lime ice-cream, which they sprinkle with some Miguelito. You take a minute to delight in this engrossing mixture of flavors. You then tune back into the conversation:
“Then there are people who have what we might call ‘hybrid’ views on personal identity. Really, to get there you need to give some credence to, well, paraconsistent logic people.”
Someone overhearing the conversation becomes startled. He turns around and asks: “Wait, are paraconsistent logic people real?”
And she responds: “Well, yes and no.” – people laugh. She pauses for a moment. She then goes on- “For people who hold two of those views at once, you could think of what is going on as them experiencing a bistable representation for their metaphysics. Insofar as language cannot fully specify a worldview, what remains undecidable from your linguistic axioms is fundamentally ambiguous. More strongly, some people assert that reality itself (rather than just their representations of it) is fundamentally ambiguous at the most basic level. Personally, I’ve gotten a lot of mileage from exploring that view. After all, questions like ‘why is there something rather than not?’ seem very robust against classical logic accounts.”
She goes on to explain how computational theories of identity have open, closed, and empty versions. Even philosophy of physics ultimately faces the same questions as philosophy of mind, she says, as physicists struggle to define boundaries between physical events, and grasp at straws like quantum decoherence to identify ‘natural kinds’.
“Hybrid views are more common than you may realize. Look over there, those three symbols represent the three possible hybrid mixtures of two accounts of personal identity.”
Open-Closed: Common-sense spirituality; all is one but we are all personal souls or “sons of God”
Empty-Closed: People as coalitions of moments of experience
“I think that the most common hybrid view is Closed Individualism + Open Individualism, the symbol on the left. This view is extremely common in spiritual communities. Basically, this is the view of people who somehow combine the existence of an ultimate God who connects us all at the root of our being, and individual souls that carry our karma around. Outside of esoteric Buddhism and other obscure spiritual philosophies, few religious communities really take Empty Individualism seriously. For them, the continuity from one moment to the next is not questioned, so a ‘soul’ ontology is usually the philosophical backdrop of their worldview.”
“Interestingly, physicists are perhaps the people who are most likely to be Open + Empty Individualists, the symbol in the middle. Namely, they will assign to each moment of experience an eternal here-and-now spatio-temporal coordinate while also recognizing the fundamental unity of reality in the form of a universal quantum field. Monistic physicalism entails that consciousness is the fire that breaths life into the equations of physics, so to monists who take quantum mechanics seriously reality is equivalently describable as the total wave-function, or the collection of topologically-bound quantum coherent bundles. Two sides of one coin: either the universe is a collection of connected coherent bundles, or it is a unified field whose dynamic generates coherent pockets of energy. So for them, you have the symbol in the middle, which combines a central observer and countless ‘individual reflectors’ of the central light corresponding to bundles of coherent energy.”
“What about the one on the right?” – asks a fully-dusted naked man, who recently sat down with a bowl of black beans. She says: “That’s a very rare view to have. In some ways people who are functionalists in that they believe that consciousness is the result of the internal dynamics of information-processing systems are drawn towards this view. They, for example, imagine consciousness as having two facets: the instantaneous state of the system and at the same time the entire range of possible configurations of the system, which is what determines the meaning of a particular state. A system’s state is meaningless without the context of counterfactual states it might have been in, is a common trope in this view. A neighboring view is the one which says that the essence of a conscious system is its utility function (aka. its ‘values’), which again gives rise to a co-dependent relationship between the individual states and the completebeing.”
The dusted man says: “That’s how I think of my life. Sure, I experience many different things over, say, even a single day, and there is a sense in which each of those experiences are separate. But they all share a common theme- they are part of a life-arc with definite goals and obstacles. So each moment is strung together with the other ones in a coherent way.”
She adds: “For example, when you are in your room, look at the decorations and objects around you. Each portrait, each drawing, blanket, pillow, furniture and even the overall feng shui of the space, can be attributed to the decisions and actions of experiences that exist as moments in your life. You could think of what they left behind as a monument to a moment of your life. It helps to try to feel grateful to “them”. They are there, really, truly, existing, just like you now, just elsewhere in space-time. And they generated intentions for you now, for the chain of future moments of experience. One can feel gratitude for all of those moments of experience over there in the past trying to build a good future for you here. When you have a moment of peace, and feel love and gratitude to all who helped you be where you are now, send them a message: ‘This level of creation and kindness will eventually carry you to the success you are looking for. Thank you, friend.'”
“What about the big symbol over there?” – you ask, pointing to the largest image, which is hanging from the ceiling and prominently displayed. She says: “We are fans of the idea of ‘transcending and including’ worldviews. Many of us have converged on a view of identity that could be described as the paraconsistent superposition of Open, Closed, and Empty Individualism.”
“Contrary to common-sense views, this one takes as granted that you can exist in multiple places, times, and scales at once. Open Individualism already takes the view that you are all beings in existence. But the Promethean state, as we call it, goes further by acknowledging the seriousness of the topological folds that create the simultaneous reality of differentiated beings and universal consciousness. You are an eddy in the universal wavefunction of quantum mechanics, and your personal self is also an eddy but at a higher topological level of organization. So in reality each moment of experience is topologically distinct, each human or animal being is also topologically distinct, and the field upon which this happens is the shared ground of being. You are a topologically enclosed eddy in the life-flux of the universe. So all of Open, Closed, and Empty Individualism are true in their own terms, and yet without negating each other.”
“This brings us to the Prime Radiant. You can experience self-interference patterns of the one universal mind while on peak LSD states, for instance. Here, read this transcript” – she hands everyone a little card that reads:
Prime Radiant is the concept that all that exists in physicality is one point of life, whizzing around at such speed, and with such freedom, that it creates all that we see in the universe. Now what that means is there’s one ‘atom’, if you like, and it whizzes around the universe, the whole universe, at incredible speed, such that it appears almost to cross itself sometimes, as it is going around, it does it so quickly it will come back to itself and appear to almost create a second point, and it goes around to create a third point, and so on, and that, believe it or not, is what creates everything that you see in our whole galaxy. It is doing it at such speed, this one tiny point of life, it is going around at such speed, that it is creating everything that you can see, not only Planet Earth, not only every blade of grass, every animal, every grain of sand, every person, but every planet, every star, every thing in the whole universe, all being created [nearly] instantly from this one tiny point of life.
Difficult to believe, but it is apparently so.
Now, this is true, but the story is a lot more complicated than that. In that there is a Prime Radiant for every person alive. Each and every person has their version of Prime Radiant, which operates under the control of their consciousness forming the universe in which they live. That is why no two people have identical lives. In other words, you probably understood, but what they are saying is, that for every person alive on the Planet Earth at the moment, I think there are about 7 billion people, there are 7 billion Prime Radiants, whizzing about, creating the universe exclusive to that one person, each person has a unique aspect whizzing around creating what they see and appreciate.
It may be difficult to imagine that you create a universe that is unique to you, but it is further complicated by the fact that by common agreement people can join their thoughts and agree to create similar universes or parts of universes in order to try to make sense of Life. But even that is not always quite the same. We have stated that in the case of a crime if the police asks witnesses what they saw, the descriptions can vary widely. That this is because we all create our versions of life and so we may not all see the same things. We might all see a crime but do not all see the same event.
“Do you just have these cards on hand all the time?” – you ask. “Yes, we print them in many different colors and shapes”- she responds. The dusted man sneezes, which causes a dust cloud to lift around him, which settles over 20 or so seconds as people laugh and stand up to undust themselves.
She continues: “Many colors and shapes… but they all say the same thing. Well, perhaps they say it in different words, and using unique metaphors, but there are many ways of saying the same thing. The Promethean view of identity is beyond any particular qualia, particular points in time and space, particular causes and conditions. Since reference to a particular is not necessary to express the view, as it posits the non-conflict between instantaneous, personal, and cosmic identity, one can think of this philosophy as a universally-accessible Schelling point in concept-space. There are innumerable ways of expressing it in concrete form. Mythically, we could say that this is the ultimate referent of any conversation to have ever taken place, if only had such conversation been extended for long enough to catch its own tail. This is the ultimate view when it comes to the progression of transcending and including worldviews, as it points to the asymptote of synthesis at the limit of the development of the concept of Self.”
A young guy who recently sat down mentions: “Sadly, this view entails that you are, in a very non-trivial way, the non-human animals suffering in factory farms.” She agrees to that. The discussion is then wrapped up with an exposition of the Buddhist notion of the interpenetration of all 10 realms and how this also applies to interpenetrations of philosophies of personal identity. Analogous to how Tiantai Buddhism proclaims that: “One thought contains three thousand worlds”, so does Continuity Camp proclaim that oneness, individuality, and instantaneous separation are inter-dependent ontological states.
You figure that the religion of this camp- trying to articulate it in as few words as possible- could be expressed thus: “The universal essence devoid of inherent properties was clever to create a reality in which questions of self, time, space, and continuity are fundamentally ambiguous. The engine of creation is not a lawful and dependable ground of being, but rather, it is what emerges out of the compromises that inconsistent ontologies need to make in order to coexist.”
On your way out you ask people why they were so keen on pushing an artistic vibe of the 20th Century Mexican intelligentsia. Not that you had anything against it, but it certainly seemed random to you. They tell you conflicting stories. One person says that this is an artistic style chosen to ground people and help them ease their way back into civilization where people have strong identities and attachments. That a good way to ease your way into the madness that is ego-identification in modern cities is to show you a defunct artistic expression with which a lot of people used to identify at some point in the past. Alternatively, the second person explains, the vibe is used as a form of meditation into a computational theory of identity. Namely, that in some accounts of identity, semantic and episodic memories fall on a secondary position relative to the preponderance of felt-sense. If you can set alight the essence of a past aesthetic, you are, quite literally- and perhaps in the only sense that matters– reviving the people of that historical period. Thus, they all meditate into becoming the life-force which identified with 20th Century Mexican Nationalism as a philosophy of identity, and use that experience to feel, process, and let go of the pain of identification. Alas, this second person seemed high as a kite, so you figure “who knows how much he actually knew about what was going on?”.
You bike back to your camp, eat a protein bar, drink coconut water, and have some white tea. You don’t feel very hungry for some reason, but you put some high-calorie foods into a bag for later, just in case. You walk towards the Temple with the two thirds of your camp that haven’t departed and aren’t actively involved in taking down structures at the moment.
When you arrive at the ring of people around the structure you feel peaceful, pensive, and puzzled. Your campmates also seem to share your general state of solemn satisfied exhaustion. You have been exposed to so many views over the last week that you don’t know where to start. How to put all these views together into a global worldview? Do you even have to?
You realize that every camp has its own way of painting itself as the “final point of view”. As if rehearsing, you utter quietly: “A meme is a unit of cultural meaning that can be passed around from mind to mind. A particular joke is a meme. A particular name is a meme. Most memes make references to other memes. This right here is a meme. When a large bundle of memes support each other we call those meme-plexes. For example, religions and ideologies are meme-plexes because they use memes that fit well together.” You still remember giving that presentation in middle-school, where you introduced your classmates to memes. “No, not the things your parents and older siblings share online in Internet 2.0 social media. The concept of a ‘meme’ is a much more profound and wide-reaching idea.” – you still remember other students passing around Internet memes (i.e. image macros) of you explaining what a “meme really was.”
Your thoughts are interrupted when you notice that the Temple is being prepared to be burned. A campmate who was involved in building the Temple this year tells you that the theme for the structure is “Temple of Courage” (cf. Temple Themes). You weren’t aware that the Temple has a theme each year. You had visited the Temple this year, and the thought crossed your mind that it takes courage to visit it, considering the depth of grief and sorrow that is often felt in it. At the same time, you feel that you have been courageous during this visit, too. You set the goal of visiting a different camp each day and deeply engaging with its worldview. In retrospect, you realize that it really takes courage to delve into new meme-plexes, let alone full-stack ones. Being presented with compelling views that, if you were to take seriously, would mean the radical restructuring of your mind could be a dodgy matter.
This week you consciously chose to be as open as possible to every new worldview you encountered. You were seriously shaken by more than one of these visits, but it currently feels that this has been for the better. A courageous move to expand yourself, whose consequences are yet to be seen.
You now wonder about what makes a meme-plex “full-stack”. If you recall correctly, meme-plexes are “full-stack” when they can generate a defensible and stable response to most questions humans would ask, including how the universe was made, what is love, and what it means to laugh. Usually they provide an account of what is, and what is good (i.e. valuable). Full-stack meme-plexes are immensely more powerful than other meme-plexes, because as such they do not have ‘any cracks’ from the point of view of people who buy into them; they seem “air-tight from the inside”, so to speak.
So what is the big-picture story of the camps you visited this week? Well, Camp Longevity has the mindset of assigning infinite weight to your own life and trying to survive personally and promote personal survival for others. Rainbow God wants to explore the entire state-space of consciousness. Camp Valence wants to eliminate suffering and maximize bliss, which in practice may involve ultra-blissful drugs and brain modifications. Camp Superintelligence considers intelligence intrinsically valuable and is concerned with the arms races that may ensue with drastically new intelligence coming online. Camp Replicator says that we are bound by our subconscious desires and express them in unproductive ways. We can address them directly, unleash all the built-up tension, and become free from self-replicating patterns. The Anti-Replicator Camp would say we are on a spiritual path of development which uses replicators as a means for learning. Ultimately, we will be grown out of replicator desires and focus our spiritual energy on loving each other. And finally, Continuity Camp would say that we are not who we think we are; being individual humans is an illusion. It is evolutionarily adaptive, but in order to save the world we need to agree on an expanded sense of identity.
Life is not like Scrabble… you need to know the meaning of the concepts in order to win. In that sense, to play ideological rock-paper-scissors you need a good model of each ideology both on its own terms and in the terms of other ideologies. You ask yourself: How would each of these meme-plexes think of each other?
Longevity can be attacked by Continuity by emphasizing that Open Individualism (i.e. oneness) suggests we should not put all our eggs in the basket of personal survival. Longevity can attack Superintelligence by saying that working on AI is to betray humanity. In here, Rainbow God can come in and argue that both Longevity and Superintelligence are working on the same goals, but they do not realize that yet. More so, that the goals of Rainbow God are a super-set of all that could be achieved by both Longevity and Superintelligence. That is, mapping out the state-space of consciousness gets you both the ability to understand what survival even means, and also access to states of consciousness critical for sentient superintelligence.
Interestingly, the pair of Anti-Replicator and Valence seem to have fundamental disagreements. Anti-Replicator will tell you that good comes from our spiritual development and the Love with a capital L that emerges out of that. Valence would say that love, capital letter or not, is a label used to identify positive qualia related to pair-bonding, family, friendship and other evolutionarily adaptive social behaviors. In turn, what makes love valuable is the high valence that such states of consciousness tend to exhibit. MDMA imbues high valence across your entire world-simulation. The fact that you describe this experience with words like “I love the world and the world loves me” is the result of trying to put the experience into words. But high-valence is what is behind the “magic” of the state when it comes down to scientific fact. Anti-Replicator would simply say that such a point of view exists in people who are close to the boundary between animal and human realms, such that they try to make sense of love in materialistic ways. The conclusions are always wrong because the ontology they start with is incorrect (love as high valence which corresponds to particular material configurations). Each paradigm can explain the other by including it. There are converts in both directions. These worldviews are experienced as bistable perceptions to some people. Camp Continuity could come and say that their views are complementary rather than contradictory. Each experience is a mixture of Empty, Open, and Closed ontologies, and high-valence is achieved when there is the right balance between them. Thus love is fundamentally connected to the act of defeating duality of self, which involves undoing ancient symmetry breaking operations. Thus love is both the result of mathematical harmony, and a metaphysical quality associated with selfless giving.
The highest expression of God, as it were, is not the one that incorporates the most diverse range of qualia, but rather, the one that incorporates the largest amount of coherent energy in a state of harmony.
– Camp Valence
Now, Rainbow God and Valence would probably also have a complicated relationship. In truth, having access to high-valence states enables you to have the hyper-motivation necessary to explore the state-space of consciousness. And doing such explorations, in turn, leads to discoveries about how to create better high-valence states. Rainbow God, on the one hand, will continue on exploring as long as there is more to be found. Camp Valence might retort that learning about each of the possible varieties of beetles is not rational considering the opportunity cost. Why not leave aside variety for variety’s sake, and focus on making high-tech bliss instead? Rainbow God would feel defensive here. It would say that the whole is more than the sum of its parts. So far, pursuing full-spectrum experiences seem to be exhilarating and wonderful. Valence might then say that this could be an illusion caused by endogenous opioid release in response to novelty. Not everyone seems to enjoy exploring consciousness for its own sake, and doing so is correlated with general openness to experience. As an axis of human variability, this would suggest that people are more or less drawn towards novelty. So rather than fixating on novelty, we should investigate what makes novelty in some people feel so good. Despite these misgivings, Valence would still be open to there being a fundamental connection between valence and diversity of qualia. Both camps would agree that there might be a possible dual relationship between the symmetry of the mathematical object isomorphic to a person’s experience and the rainbowey-ness of the experience. As such, both meme-plexes would keep an eye on each other and cooperate insofar as it is mutually beneficial.
What about Porky’s? Porky’s (i.e. Camp Replicator) could argue that people going to every other camp is merely expressing and projecting their unmet psychological needs. People will be drawn towards the ideas that fulfill a certain void in them. So for example, people who support Continuity Camp have a higher existential distress baseline than the average person such that belonging to a community that reassures them of the survival of oneself-as-consciousness fulfills the need they started with. Porky’s wouldn’t necessarily disagree about key memes of other meme-plexes, but it would nonetheless be cynical about the typical motivations that draw people to these meme-plexes. Longevity is in fact a social club for people of all ages who enjoy the company of young-looking people. Valence responds to people who empathize too strongly with others. Superintelligence is a club for people insecure about their own intelligence who want to compare themselves against other smart people. Anti-replicator is dual with Porky’s; they emphasize the same facts but interpret them with complementary metaphysics.
A friend hands you an electrum necklace, and tells you that it is meant to materialize this very moment, as you receive it. The Temple is set alight as you are tying it to put around your neck. This moment. This moment. This moment. Are we counting moments, or are we counting selves? You get lost in a long now.
Your mind is surprisingly clear for being so cluttered with memes and meme-plexes. The image comes to you that your mind right now is working as a council, or general assembly, of seven tulpas representing each of the seven meme-plexes.
The meme-plex convention.
The experience felt odd. All your life you’ve identified with a given point of view, especially as it pertains to your view of the world. But right now your experience is simultaneously hosting meme-plexes in what feels like an impartial space. The task at hand is not the competition between the meme-plexes in order to take over center-stage, but their incorporation into a meta-space which can simultaneously host each meme-plex.
In a sense, you feel like seven people at once. Each of these beings being your answer to the question “who would I become if I were to have this meme-plex as my default view?” You remember the following quote:
We aren’t afraid of dying, we’re afraid of living while never doing anything of value.
– Hi There
You make a prayer. The prayer is to be free from fear when considering alternate worldviews. You hear some chanting in the background, and after a few more minutes the Temple collapses. Everyone cheers, and then people go quiet again. The now-flat incandescent surface burns slowly but steadily. It seems like the tulpas are learning to coexist in your mind. They are learning to be there and trying to provide value without overtaking your world-model, at least not without your permission. Are the tulpas friends? Not really. But they also are not hostile against each other. Rather, they personify rational worldviews open to new evidence and arguments. If you try to imagine them, they feel like large statues of peaceful Gods minding their own business. They are all open to being asked questions and to meet each other for conversation. This feels good. It feels peaceful.
You overhear a campmate say: “I took a microdose of 2C-G-5 three days ago, and I can still feel it. I like it, but it made sleeping really hard last night.” This is the cue that makes you aware that your campmates are getting ready to leave. You take a last long look at the fire and wonder about how many selves watched this event. You walk back to your camp with your campmates. People are now really engaged in dismantling structures and cleaning. The last remaining structure is the roofed dance area, which has cushions and blankets for the people who will take it down tomorrow, and a hexayurt for those who will do the final MOOP sweep on Tuesday. You decline some nitrous and get ready to leave.
You wake up and load your vehicle with grey water from the camp along with all of your stuff. You look around and decide to make one more bike trip before taking off. You bike around with a borrowed bike. The place is about 90% deserted, which makes navigating a lot harder as the landmarks you got used to over the last week are gone. You bike towards the Temple. You notice a shiny dot at the distance, which you use as a guide. You arrive there and pick it up. It is an electrum necklace identical to the one you got last night. You then notice that you don’t have that necklace on. This must be it, you found your necklace and you weren’t even searching for it. In that moment you remember that the necklace was a symbol of the precise moment in which you received it. Paradoxically, both now and that time feel just as real. Perhaps, you wonder, this is my own proof that I exist over time. But you fail to translate your newfound intuition into words.
You then bike back to your car, and take off.
Thanks to: Mike Johnson, Romeo Stevens, David Pearce, Anders Amelin, Liam Brereton, Enrique Bojorques, Andrés Silva Ruiz, Alfredo Valverde, Duncan Wilson, Mac Davis, Mario Montano, Lauge, and playa friends Tryp, Special, Expo, Nectar, Daphne, Frank, Victor, and many others for the conversations that led to ideas featured in this text (both part 1 & 2).
Note: Apparently Buddhists did make Rainbow Body a core practice and got phenomenological mileage out of doing that.
Greetings, and may this letter find you at peace and in prosperity! Forgive
my writing to you out of the blue. Though you and I have never met, we are
not strangers. We are, in a certain sense, the closest of kin. I am one of your
I hope you will become me. Should fortune grant this wish, then I am not
just a possible future of yours, but your actual future: a coming phase of you,
like the full moon that follows a waxing crescent, or like the flower that
follows a seed.
I am writing to tell you about my life – how good it is – that you may choose
it for yourself.
Although this letter uses the singular, I am really writing on behalf of all
my contemporaries, and we are addressing ourselves to all of your
contemporaries. Amongst us are many who are possible futures of your
people. Some of us are possible futures of children you have not yet given
birth to. Still others are possible artificial persons that you might one day
create. What unites us is that we are all dependent on you to make us real.
You can think of this note as if it were an invitation to a ball that will take
place only if folks turn up.
We call the lives we lead here “Utopia”.
How can I tell you about Utopia and not leave you mystified? What words
could convey the wonder? What inflections express our happiness? What
points overcome your skepticism? My pen, I fear, is as unequal to the task as
if I had tried to use it against a charging elephant.
But the matter is so important that we must try even against long odds.
Maybe you will see through the inadequacies of my exposition.
Have you ever known a moment of bliss? On the rapids of inspiration,
maybe, where your hands were guided by a greater force to trace the shapes
of truth and beauty? Or perhaps you found such a moment in the ecstasy of
love? Or in a glorious success achieved with good friends? Or in splendid
conversation on a vine-overhung terrace one star-appointed night? Or
perhaps there was a song or a melody that smuggled itself into your heart,
setting it alight with kaleidoscopic emotion? Or during worship?
If you have experienced such a moment, experienced the best type of such a
moment, then a certain idle but sincere thought may have presented itself to
you: “Oh Heaven! I didn’t realize it could feel like this. This is on a
different level, so very much more real and worthwhile. Why can’t it be like
this always? Why must good times end? I was sleeping; now I am awake.”
Yet behold, only a little later, scarcely an hour gone by, and the softly-falling
soot of ordinary life is already piling up. The silver and gold of exuberance
lose their shine. The marble becomes dirty.
Every way you turn it’s the same: soot, casting its veil over all glamours and
revelries, despoiling your epiphany, sodding up your white pressed collar and
shirt. And once again that familiar beat is audible, the beat of numbing
routine rolling along its tracks. The commuter trains loading and unloading
their passengers… sleepwalkers, shoppers, solicitors, the ambitious and the
hopeless, the contented and the wretched… like human electrons shuffling
through the circuitry of civilization.
We do so easily forget how good life can be at its best – and how bad at its
worst. The most outstanding occasion: barely is it over before the sweepers
move in to clean up the rice. Yellowing photos remain.
And this is as it should be. We are in the business of living, and life must go
on. Special moments are out-of-equilibrium experiences in which our
puddles are stirred up and splashed about; yet when normalcy returns we are
usually relieved. We are built for mundane functionality, not lasting bliss.
So the door that was ajar begins to close, disappearing hope’s sliver behind
an insensate scab.
Quick, stop that door! Look again at your yellowing photos, search for a
clue. Do you not see it? Do you not feel it, the touch of the possible? You
have witnessed the potential for a higher life, and you hold the fading proof
in your hands. Don’t throw it away. In the attic of your mind, reserve a
drawer for the notion of a higher state of being. In the furnace of your heart,
keep an aspiring ember alive.
I am summoning this memory of your best experience – to what end? In the
hope of kindling in you a desire to share my happiness.
And yet, what you had in your best moment is not close to what I have now
– a beckoning scintilla at most. If the distance between base and apex for
you is eight kilometers, then to reach my dwellings requires a million lightyear ascent. The altitude is outside moon and planets and all the stars your
eyes can see. Beyond dreams. Beyond imagination.
My consciousness is wide and deep, my life long. I have read all your
authors – and much more. I have experienced life in many forms and from
many angles: jungle and desert, gutter and palace, heath and suburban creek
and city back alley. I have sailed the high seas of cultures, and swum, and
dived. Quite some marvelous edifice builds up over a million years by the
efforts of homunculi, just as the humble polyps amass a reef in time. And
I’ve seen the shoals of colored biography fishes, each one a life story,
scintillate under heaving ocean waters.
The whole exceeds the sum of its parts. What I have is not merely more of
what is available to you now. It isn’t just the particular things, the paintings
and toothpaste-tube designs, the record covers and books, the epochs, lives,
leaves, rivers, and random encounters, the satellite images and the hadron
collider data – it is also the complex relationships between these particulars
that make up my mind. There are ideas that can be formed only on top of
such a wide experience base. There are depths that can be fathomed only
with such ideas.
You could say I am happy, that I feel good. You could say that I feel
surpassing bliss. But these are words invented to describe human
experience. What I feel is as far beyond human feeling as my thoughts are
beyond human thought. I wish I could show you what I have in mind. If
only I could share one second of my conscious life with you!
But you don’t have to understand what I think and feel. If only you bear in
mind what is possible within the present human realm, you will have enough
to get started in the right direction, one step at a time. At no point will you
encounter a wall of blinding light. At no point will you have to jettison
yourself over an end-of-the-world precipice. As you advance, the horizon
will recede. The transformation is profound, but it can be as gradual as the
growth that made the baby you were into the adult you think you are.
You will not achieve this through any magic trick or hokum, nor by the
power of wishful thinking, nor by semantic acrobatics, meditation,
affirmation, or incantation. And I do not presume to advise you on matters
theological. I urge on you nothing more, nothing less, than reconfigured
The challenge before you: to become fully what you are now only in hope
and potential. New capacities are needed if you wish to live and play on my
To reach Utopia, you must first discover the means to three fundamental
The First Transformation: Secure life!
Your body is a deathtrap. This vital machine and mortal vehicle, unless it
jams first or crashes, is sure to rust anon. You are lucky to get seven decades
of mobility; eight if you be Fortuna’s darling. That is not sufficient to get
started in a serious way, much less to complete the journey. Maturity of the
soul takes longer. Why, even a tree-life takes longer!
Death is not one but a multitude of assassins. Do you not see them? They
are coming at you from every angle. Take aim at the causes of early death –
infection, violence, malnutrition, heart attack, cancer. Turn your biggest
gun on aging, and fire. You must seize control of the biochemical processes
in your body in order to vanquish, by and by, illness and senescence. In
time, you will discover ways to move your mind to more durable media.
Then continue to improve the system, so that the risk of death and disease
continues to decline. Any death prior to the heat death of the universe is
premature if your life is good.
Oh, it is not well to live in a self-combusting paper hut! Keep the flames at
bay and be prepared with liquid nitrogen, while you construct yourself a
better habitation. One day you or your children should have a secure home.
Research, build, redouble your effort!
The Second Transformation: Upgrade cognition!
Your brain’s special faculties: music, humor, spirituality, mathematics,
eroticism, art, nurturing, narration, gossip! These are fine spirits to pour
into the cup of life. Blessed you are if you have a vintage bottle of any of
these. Better yet, a cask! Better yet, a vineyard!
Be not afraid to grow. The mind’s cellars have no ceilings!
What other capacities are possible? Imagine a world with all the music dried
up: what poverty, what loss. Give your thanks, not to the lyre, but to your
ears for the music. And ask yourself, what other harmonies are there in the
air, that you lack the ears to hear? What vaults of value are you witlessly
debarred from, lacking the key sensibility?
Had you but an inkling, your nails would be clawing at the padlock in sacred
Your brain must grow beyond the bounds of any genius of humankind, in its
special faculties as well as its general intelligence, so that you may better
learn, remember, and understand, and so that you may apprehend your own
Mind is a means: for without insight you will get bogged down or lose your
way, and your journey will fail.
Mind is also an end: for it is in the spacetime of awareness that Utopia will
exist. May the measure of your mind be vast and expanding.
Oh, stupidity is a loathsome corral! Gnaw and tug at the posts, and you will
slowly loosen them up. One day you’ll break the fence that held your
forebears captive. Gnaw and tug, redouble your effort!
The Third Transformation: Elevate well-being!
What is the difference between indifference and interest, boredom and thrill,
despair and bliss?
Pleasure! A few grains of this magic ingredient are dearer than a king’s
treasure, and we have it aplenty here in Utopia. It pervades into everything
we do and everything we experience. We sprinkle it in our tea.
The universe is cold. Fun is the fire that melts the blocks of hardship and
creates a bubbling celebration of life.
It is the birth right of every creature, a right no less sacred for having been
trampled upon since the beginning of time.
There is a beauty and joy here that you cannot fathom. It feels so good that
if the sensation were translated into tears of gratitude, rivers would overflow.
I reach in vain for words to convey to you what it all amounts to… It’s like a
rain of the most wonderful feeling, where every raindrop has its own unique
and indescribable meaning – or rather a scent or essence that evokes a whole
world… And each such evoked world is subtler, richer, deeper, more
palpable than the totality of what you have experienced in your entire life.
I will not speak of the worst pain and misery that is to be got rid of; it is too
horrible to dwell upon, and you are already aware of the urgency of
palliation. My point is that in addition to the removal of the negative, there
is also an upside imperative: to enable the full flourishing of enjoyments that
are currently out of reach.
The roots of suffering are planted deep in your brain. Weeding them out
and replacing them with nutritious crops of well-being will require advanced
skills and instruments for the cultivation of your neuronal soil. But take
heed, the problem is multiplex! All emotions have a natural function. Prune
carefully lest you reduce the fertility of your plot.
Sustainable yields are possible. Yet fools will build fools’ paradises. I
recommend you go easy on your paradise-engineering until you have the
wisdom to do it right.
Oh, what a gruesome knot suffering is! Pull and tug on those loops, and you
will gradually loosen them up. One day the coils will fall, and you will
stretch out in delight. Pull and tug, and be patient in your effort!
May there come a time when rising suns are greeted with joy by all the living
creatures they shine upon.
How do you find this place? How long will it take to get here?
I can pass you no blueprint for Utopia, no timetable, no roadmap. All I can
give you is my assurance that there is something here, the potential for a
If you could visit me here for but a day, you would henceforth call this place
your home. This is the place where you belong. Ever since one hairy
creature picked up two flints and began knocking them together to make a
tool, this has been the direction of your unknown aspiration. Like Odysseus
you must journey, and never cease journeying, until you arrive upon this
“Arrive?” you say; “But isn’t the journey the destination? Isn’t Utopia a
place that doesn’t exist? And isn’t the quest for Utopia, as witnessed
historically, a dangerous folly and an incitement to mischief?”
Friend, that is not such a bad way for you to think about it. To be sure,
Utopia is not a location or a form of social organization.
The blush of health on a convalescent’s cheek. The twinkling of the eye in a
moment of wit. The smile of a loving thought… Utopia is the hope that the
scattered fragments of good that we come across from time to time in our
lives can be put together, one day, to reveal the shape of a new kind of life.
The kind of life that yours should have been.
I fear that the pursuit of Utopia will bring out the worst in you. Many a
moth has been incinerated in its pursuit of a brighter future.
Seek the light! But approach with care – swerve if you smell your wingtips
singeing. Light is for seeing, not dying.
When you embark on this quest, you will encounter rough seas and hard
problems. To prevail will take your best science, your best technology, and
your best politics. Yet each problem has a solution. My existence breaks no
law of nature. The materials are all there. Your people must become
master builders, and then you must use these skills to build yourselves up
without crushing your cores.
What is Suffering in Utopia? Suffering is the salt trace left on the cheeks of those
who were around before.
What is Tragedy in Utopia? There is tragedy in Snowman’s melting. Mass
murders are not required.
What is Imperfection in Utopia? Imperfection is the measure of our respect for
things as they are and for their history.
What is Body in Utopia? Body is a pair of legs, a pair of arms, a trunk and a
head, all made of flesh. Or not, as the case may be.
What is Society in Utopia? Society is a never-finished tapestry, its weavers equal
to its threads – the parts and patterns an inexhaustible bourne of beauty.
What is Death in Utopia? Death is the darkness that ultimately surrounds all
What is Guilt in Utopia? Guilt is our knowledge that we could have created
We love life here every instant. Every second is so good that it would blow
our minds had their amperage not been previously increased. My
contemporaries and I bear witness, and we request your aid. Please, help us
come into existence! Please, join us! Whether this tremendous possibility
becomes reality depends on your actions. If your empathy can perceive at
least the outlines of the vision I am describing, then your ingenuity will find a
way to make it real.
Human life, at its best, is fantastic. I’m asking you to create something even
greater. Life that is truly humane.
Alas, despite Bostrom’s far-reaching contributions, many argue that Nick’s most important impact has been in the field of AI Alignment (cf. Superintelligence: Paths, Dangers, Strategies). In 2009 AI safety research was perceived to be a fringe concern of sci-fi aficionados and weirdos. Today, partly thanks to Bostrom (along with Yudkowsky, Chalmers, and others), many top journals publish serious work in this area.
I worry that this is not as good as it may seem. Nick Bostrom’s name is first and foremost associated with AI safety, followed by the Simulation Argument and Existential Risk, and only later by his extensive work on all other areas of transhumanism. For example, if you search Youtube for his name, you will see that of the top 20 results, 15 concern AI safety/digital superintelligence. Of the remaining 5, 3 are about the Simulation Argument, 1 is about agnosticism, and 1 is CGP Grey’s Dragon-Tyrant video. Where are the Triple-S videos?
I remembered that I encountered the work of both David and Nick when I was 16, googling terms like consciousness, AI, psychedelics, and far future. I was drawn to both of them, though I particularly liked David’s focus on ending suffering as a priority and his acknowledgment of the scientific significance of altered states of consciousness. I thought that their work was complementary rather than redundant. Alas, Bostrom is far more well known than Pearce, perhaps due to his success as both a fringe philosopher and a mainstream academic. In contrast, David dropped out of Oxford out of frustration with the academic community; the analytic philosophy of the time was not empirical, and it focused on language use rather than real philosophical questions, including the nature of suffering, psychedelics, and physical causality (e.g. “Philosophy may in no way interfere with the actual use of language, it can in the end only describe it. For it cannot give it any foundation either. It leaves everything as it is. It also leaves mathematics as it is, and no mathematical discovery can advance it.” – Wittgenstein). Bostrom, unlike Pearce, has the blessing of Ra, the God of optionality, superlativity, status legibility, and groundless prestige. And yet, it was David’s conversation with Nick that gave rise to the creation of the World Transhumanist Association, and provided one of the most important memetic Schelling points of the early 2000s. Alas, David is not focused on AI Safety. Why?
People in the transhumanist community accuse David of not getting it. David, after all, is not a mathematician, computer scientist, or physicist; he is merely a philosopher. I must confess that the very first time I met David Pearce in person I got the sense that (1) he was an incredibly well-read and creative genius in most areas of philosophy, and yet (2) naïve and unenlightened in the field of AI. As a fan of his work, and having co-founded the Stanford Transhumanist Association a couple of months earlier, I thought to invite him to give a talk at Stanford (see: David Pearce at Stanford – 2011).
David Pearce and the officers of the Stanford Transhumanist Association (December 1st 2011) at Palo Alto’s Chinese Vegan restaurant Garden Fresh, before David’s talk.
We had a lively conversation while eating dinner at a Chinese vegan restaurant before the event along with other members of the Association. I recall that he checked all of the right boxes when it came to personal identity (Open/Empty Individualism), ethics (consequentialism), physics (Everettian multiverse), psychedelia (they disclose new varieties of qualia), evolution (modern synthesis; selfish gene), social signaling theory (Mating Mind and sexual selection theory), and more (see his Reddit AMA). And yet, how could he dare to say that a digital computer would never be conscious? Meeting a brilliant thinker who had a better grasp of my favorite topics than I did and yet would try to hit on one of my core load-bearing beliefs was uncomfortable and unexpected. I dismissed his take on AI as that of a fuzzy thinker (at least in this area); I reassured myself by recalling that it was me who was studying AI academically at a top US institution and not him. Little did I know that over the next few years, and after hanging out with him in person for over 20 cumulative hours, he would finally change my mind- and worldview- concerning this whole field. If it wasn’t for him, I suspect I would have jumped on the bandwagon of AI-as-the-top-priority (cf. Altruists Should Prioritize Artificial Intelligence). Thankfully, I was already extremely interested in consciousness and didn’t have it in me to dismiss it. Additionally, my interest in personal identity reduced my (relative) interest in longevity research (at least as the top priority), for if we are all one consciousness, dying is more akin to forgetting a timeline than a true ontological death. The instrumental value of intelligence, however, ought not to be taken for granted, which is why I now advocate for a twin approach of improving subjective wellbeing while retaining critical insight. Figuring out that consciousness required more than digital computation utterly transformed my approach to transhumanism, and I largely credit this change to my conversations with David.
AI safety is sexy. If you are a smart, industrious, open-minded, and systematizing undergraduate, studying AI gives you access to a wide circle of really fun people to hang out in. It also signals intelligence, sober-mindedness, and stoicism. It gives you both an in into smart cool kid circles, and a profitable career in Silicon Valley. It allows you to straddle the world of normies and cutting-edge thinkers.
But, crucially, you have to consider the opportunity cost that comes from directing such a large fraction of hyper-intelligent young altruistic systematizers to this problem. The field is plagued with misconceptions about pleasure and value; Eliezer Yudkowsky’s Fun Theory suffers from the severe delusion that value comes from the intentional object of experience, rather than from its phenomenal character. Brian Tomasik’s (admittedly tongue-in-cheek) People for the Ethical Treatment of Reinforcement Learners is seemingly unaware of the fact that neuroscience has found that pleasure/suffering and reinforcement learning are doubly dissociated. Pleasure is not reinforcement, and until you grasp this, your ethical models will output nonsense.
Tongue-in-cheek, perhaps AI risk is a real threat. Not because of the usual reasons, but because it siphons out top brain power into a relatively sterile field, leaving vast amounts of unclaimed marginal value in the fields of rejuvenation research and valence technologies by the wayside.
In light of all of this, I would want to advocate for the reinvigoration of the broader transhumanist meme-plex, now updated with a post-Galilean understanding of consciousness. Writers, animators, Youtubers, and philosophers ought to collaborate in creating more balanced Triple-S Transhumanist outreach in the form of widely consumable media. This, I think, is the path forward.
Life could be wonderful. Genetically phasing out suffering in favour of hardwired happiness ought to be mainstream. Today, it’s a fringe view. It’s worth asking why.
Perhaps the first scientifically-literate blueprint for a world without suffering was written by Lewis Mancini. “Brain stimulation and the genetic engineering of a world without pain” was published in the journal Medical Hypotheses in 1990. As far as I can tell, the paper sunk almost without a trace. Ignorant of Mancini’s work, I wrote The Hedonistic Imperative (HI) in 1995. I’ve plugged away at the theme ever since. Currently, a small, scattered minority of researchers believe that replacing the biology of suffering with gradients of genetically preprogrammed well-being is not just ethical but obviously so.
Alas, perceptions of obviousness vary. Technically, at least, the abolitionist project can no longer easily be dismissed as science fiction. The twenty-first century has already witnessed the decoding of the human genome, the development and imminent commercialisation of in vitro meat, the dawn of CRISPR genome-editing and the promise of synthetic gene drives. Identification of alleles and allelic combinations governing everything from pain-sensitivity to hedonic range and hedonic set-points is complementing traditional twin studies. The high genetic loading of subjective well-being and mental ill-health is being deciphered. The purely technical arguments against the genetic feasibility of creating a happy living world are shrinking. But genetic status quo bias is deeply entrenched. The sociopolitical obstacles to reprogramming the biosphere are daunting.
1) Timescales. Lewis Mancini reckons that completion of the abolitionist project will take thousands of years. HI predicts that the world’s last unpleasant experience will occur a few centuries hence, perhaps in some obscure marine invertebrate. If, fancifully, consensus existed for a global species-project, then 100 – 150 years (?) might be a credible forecast. Alas, such a timescale is wildly unrealistic. No such consensus exists or is plausibly in prospect. For sure, ask people a question framed on the lines of “Do you agree with Gautama Buddha, ‘May all that have life be delivered from suffering’?” and assent might be quite high. Some kind of quantified, cross-cultural study of radical Buddhist or Benthamite abolitionism would be interesting. Yet most people balk at what the scientific implementation of such a vision practically entails – if they reflect on abolitionist bioethics at all. “That’s justBrave New World” is a common response among educated Westerners to the idea of engineering “unnatural” well-being. Typically, EAs are focused on measurable results in foreseeable timeframes in areas where consensus is broad and deep, for instance the elimination of vector-borne disease. Almost everyone agrees that eliminating malaria will make the world a better place. Malaria can be eradicated this century.
2)TheHedonic Treadmill. In recent decades, popular awareness of the hedonic treadmill has grown. Sadly, most nonbiological interventions to improve well-being may not have the dramatic long-term impact we naïvely hope. However, awareness of the genetic underpinnings of the hedonic treadmill is sketchy. Knowledge of specific interventions we can plan to subvert its negative feedback mechanisms is sketchier still. Compared to more gross and visible ills, talk of “low hedonic set-points” (etc) is nebulous. Be honest, which would you personally choose if offered: a vast national lottery win (cf. How Winning The Lottery Affects Happiness) or a modestly higher hedonic set-point? Likewise, the prospect of making everyone on Earth prosperous sounds more effectively altruistic (cf. Can “effective altruism” maximise the bang for each charitable buck?) than raising their hedonic defaults – even if push-button hedonic uplift were now feasible, which it isn’t, or at least not without socially unacceptable consequences.
3)The Spectre of Eugenics. Any confusion between the racial hygiene policies of the Third Reich and the project of genetically phasing out suffering in all sentient beings ought to be laughable. Nonetheless, many people recoil at the prospect of “designer babies”. Sooner or later, the ”e”-word crops up in discussions of genetic remediation and enhancement. If we assume that bioconservative attitudes to baby-making will prevail worldwide indefinitely, and the reproductive revolution extends at best only to a minority of prospective parents, then the abolitionist project will never happen. What we call the Cambrian Explosion might alternatively be classified as the Suffering Explosion. If we don’t tackle the biological-genetic roots of suffering at source – “eugenics”, if you will – then pain and suffering will proliferate until Doomsday. Without eugenics, the world’s last unpleasant experience may occur millions or even billions of years hence.
5) Organisation and Leadership. Both secular and religious organizations exist whose tenets include the outright abolition of suffering. EAs can and do join such groups. However, sadly, I don’t know of a single organisation dedicated to biological-genetic solutions to the problem of suffering. Among transhumanists, for instance, radical life-extension and the prospect of posthuman superintelligence loom larger than biohappiness – though article 7 of the Transhumanist Declaration is admirably forthright: a commitment to the well-being of all sentience. Also, I think we need star power: the blessing of some charismatic billionaire or larger-than-life media celebrity. “Bill Gates says let’s use biotechnology to phase out the genetic basis of suffering” would be a breakthrough. Or even Justin Bieber.
For my part, I’m just a writer/researcher. We have our place! My guess is that this century will see more blueprints and manifestos and grandiose philosophical proposals together with concrete, incremental progress from real scientists. The genetic basis of suffering will eventuallybe eradicated across the tree of life, not in the name of anything “hedonistic” or gradients of intelligent bliss, and certainly not in the name of negative utilitarianism, but perhaps under the label of the World Health Organisation’s definition of health (cf. Constitution of WHO: principles). Taken literally, the constitution of the WHO enshrines the most daringly ambitious vision of the future of sentience ever conceived. Lifelong good health (“complete physical, mental and social well-being”) for all sentient beings is a noble aspiration. Regardless of race or species, all of us deserve good health as so defined. A biology of information-sensitive gradients of physical, mental and social well-being (HI) is more modest and workable thanks to biotech. Optimistically, life on Earth has only a few more centuries of misery and malaise to go.
The whole experience last year was very eye-opening, and as a result I wrote an (extremely) long essay about it. The essay introduces a wide range of entirely new concepts, including “The Goldillocks Zone of Oneness” and “Hybrid Vigor in the context of post-Darwinian ethics.” It also features a section about my conversation with God at Burning Man.
If you are attending Burning Man and would like to meet with me, I will be available for chatting and hanging out right after my talk (call it the Qualia Research Institute Office Hours at Burning Man).
Andrés Gómez Emilsson-Consciousness vs Replicators
Date and Time: Wednesday, August 29th, 2018, 3 PM – 4:30 PM
Located at Camp: Camp Soft Landing (8:15 & C (Cylon). Mid-block on C, between 8 and 8:30.)
Patterns that are good at making copies of themselves are not necessarily good from an ethical point of view. We call Pure Replicators, in the context of brains and minds, those beings that use all of their resources for the purpose of replicating. In other words, beings that replicate without regards for their own psychological wellbeing (if they are conscious) or the wellbeing of others. In as much as we believe that value is presented in the quality of experience, perhaps to be “ethical” is to be stewards and advocates for the wellbeing of as many of the “moments of experience” that exist in reality as one can. We will talk about how an “economy of information about the state-space of consciousness” can be a helpful tool in preventing pure-replicator take-over. Lastly, we will announce the existence of a novel test of consciousness that can be used to identify non-sentient artifacts or robots passing for humans within the crowd.
[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.
Bolded titles mean that the linked article is foundational: it introduces new concepts, vocabulary, heuristics, research methods, frameworks, and/or thought experiments that are important for the overall project of consciousness research. These tend to be articles that also discuss concepts in much greater depth than other articles.
The “long” tag means that the post has at least 4,000 words. Most of these long articles are in the 6,000 to 10,000 word range. The longest Qualia Computing article is Burning Man Theme-Camps of the Year 2029: From Replicator to Rainbow God (2/2) at ~16,000 words. The second longest article is the first post about Burning Man which is about 13,500 words long (and also happens to be foundational as it introduces many new frameworks and concepts).
Quotes and transcripts are usually about: evolutionary psychology, philosophy of mind, ethics, neuroscience, physics, meditation, and/or psychedelic phenomenology. By far, David Pearce is the most quoted person on Qualia Computing.
“Everyone takes the limits of his own vision for the limits of the world.” (Schopenhauer)
All that matters is the pleasure-pain axis. Pain and pleasure disclose the world’s inbuilt metric of (dis)value. Our overriding ethical obligation is to minimise suffering. After we have reprogrammed the biosphere to wipe out experience below “hedonic zero”, we should build a “triple S” civilisation based on gradients of superhuman bliss. The nature of ultimate reality baffles me. But intelligent moral agents will need to understand the multiverse if we are to grasp the nature and scope of our wider cosmological responsibilities. My working assumption is non-materialist physicalism. Formally, the world is completely described by the equation(s) of physics, presumably a relativistic analogue of the universal Schrödinger equation. Tentatively, I’m a wavefunction monist who believes we are patterns of qualia in a high-dimensional complex Hilbert space. Experience discloses the intrinsic nature of the physical: the “fire” in the equations. The solutions to the equations of QFT or its generalisation yield the values of qualia. What makes biological minds distinctive, in my view, isn’t subjective experience per se, but rather non-psychotic binding. Phenomenal binding is what consciousness is evolutionarily “for”. Without the superposition principle of QM, our minds wouldn’t be able to simulate fitness-relevant patterns in the local environment. When awake, we are quantum minds running subjectively classical world-simulations. I am an inferential realist about perception. Metaphysically, I explore a zero ontology: the total information content of reality must be zero on pain of a miraculous creation of information ex nihilo. Epistemologically, I incline to a radical scepticism that would be sterile to articulate. Alas, the history of philosophy twinned with the principle of mediocrity suggests I burble as much nonsense as everyone else.
[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.
Michale Johnosn and I will be hanging out at the EA Global (SF) 2017 conference this weekend representing the Qualia Research Institute. If you see us and want to chat, please feel free to approach us. This is what we look like:
At EAGlobal 2016 at Berkeley
I will be handing out the following flyer:
Mental Health as an EA Cause Area: Key Questions
What makes a state of consciousness feel good or bad?
What percentage of worldwide suffering is directly caused by mental illness and/or the hedonic treadmill rather than by external circumstances?