Thoughts on the ‘Is-Ought Problem’ from a Qualia Realist Point of View

tl;dr If we construct a theory of meaning grounded in qualia and felt-sense, it is possible to congruently arrive at “should” statements on the basis of reason and “is” claims. Meaning grounded in qualia allows us to import the pleasure-pain axis and its phenomenal character to the same plane of discussion as factual and structural observations.

Introduction

The Is-Ought problem (also called “Hume’s guillotine”) is a classical philosophical conundrum. On the one hand people feel that our ethical obligations (at least the uncontroversial ones like “do not torture anyone for no reason”) are facts about reality in some important sense, but on the other hand, rigorously deriving such “moral facts” from facts about the universe appears to be a category error. Is there any physical fact that truly compels us to act in one way or another?

A friend recently asked about my thoughts on this question and I took the time to express them to the best of my knowledge.

Takeaways

I provide seven points of discussion that together can be used to make the case that “ought” judgements often, though not always, are on the same ontological footing as “is” claims. Namely, that they are references to the structure and quality of experience, whose ultimate nature is self-intimating (i.e. it reveals itself) and hence inaccessible to those who lack the physiological apparatus to instantiate it. In turn, we could say that within communities of beings who share the same self-intimating qualities of experience, the is/ought divide may not be completely unbridgeable.


Summaries of Question and Response

Summary of the question:

How does a “should” emerge at all? How can reason and/or principles and/or logic compel us to follow some moral code?

Summary of the response:

  1. If “ought” statements are to be part of our worldview, then they must refer to decisions about experiences: what kinds of experiences are better/worse, what experiences should or should not exist, etc.
  2. A shared sense of personal identity (e.g. Open Individualism – which posits that “we are all one consciousness”) allows us to make parallels between the quality of our experience and the experience of others. Hence if one grounds “oughts” on the self-intimating quality of one’s suffering, then we can also extrapolate that such “oughts” must exist in the experience of other sentient beings and that they are no less real “over there” simply because a different brain is generating them (general relativity shows that every “here and now” is equally real).
  3. Reduction cuts both ways: if the “fire in the equations of physics” can feel a certain way (e.g. bliss/pain) then objective causal descriptions of reality (about e.g. brain states) are implicitly referring to precisely that which has an “ought” quality. Thus physics may be inextricably connected with moral “oughts”.
  4. If one loses sight of the fact that one’s experience is the ultimate referent for meaning, it is possible to end up in nihilistic accounts of meaning (e.g. such as Quine’s Indeterminacy of translation and Dennett’s inclusion of qualia within that framework). But if one grounds meaning in qualia, then suddenly both causality and value are on the same ontological footing (cf. Valence Realism).
  5. To see clearly the nature of value it is best to examine it at its extremes (such as MDMA bliss vs. the pain of kidney stones). Having such experiences illuminates the “ought” aspect of consciousness, in contrast to the typical quasi-anhedonic “normal everyday states of consciousness” that most people (and philosophers!) tend to reason from. It would be interesting to see philosophers discuss e.g. the Is-Ought problem while on MDMA.
  6. Claims that “pleasure and pain, value and disvalue, good and bad, etc.” are an illusion by long-term meditators based on the experience of “dissolving value” in meditative states are no more valid than claims that pain is an illusion by someone doped on morphine. In brief: such claims are made in a state of consciousness that has lost touch with the actual quality of experience that gives (dis)value to consciousness.
  7. Admittedly the idea that one state of consciousness can even refer to (let alone make value judgements about) other states of consciousness is very problematic. In what sense does “reference” even make sense? Every moment of experience only has access to its own content. We posit that this problem is not ultimately unsolvable, and that human concepts are currently mere prototypes of a much better future set of varieties of consciousness optimized for truth-finding. As a thought experiment to illustrate this possible future, consider a full-spectrum superintelligence capable of instantiating arbitrary modes of experience and impartially comparing them side by side in order to build a total order of consciousness.

Full Question and Response

Question:

I realized I don’t share some fundamental assumptions that seemed common amongst the people here [referring to the Qualia Research Institute and friends].

The most basic way I know how to phrase it, is the notion that there’s some appeal to reason and/or principles and/or logic that compels us to follow some type of moral code.

A (possibly straw-man) instance is the notion I associate with effective altruism, namely, that one should choose a career based on its calculable contribution to human welfare. The assumption is that human welfare is what we “should” care about. Why should we? What’s compelling about trying to reconfigure ourselves from whatever we value at the moment to replacing that thing with human welfare (or anything else)? What makes us think we can even truly succeed in reconfiguring ourselves like this? The obvious pitfall seems to be we create some image of “goodness” that we try to live up to without ever being honest with ourselves and owning our authentic desires. IMO this issue is rampant in mainstream Christianity.

More generally, I don’t understand how a “should” emerges within moral philosophy at all. I understand how starting with a want, say happiness, and noting a general tendency, such as I become happy when I help others, that one could deduce that helping others often is likely to result in a happy life. I might even say “I should help others” to myself, knowing it’s a strategy to get what I want. That’s not the type of “should” I’m talking about. What I’m talking about is “should” at the most basic level of one’s value structure. I don’t understand how any amount of reasoning could tell us what our most basic values and desires “should” be.

I would like to read something rigorous on this issue. I appreciate any references, as well as any elucidating replies.

Response:

This is a very important topic. I think it is great that you raise this question, as it stands at the core of many debates and arguments about ethics and morality. I think that one can indeed make a really strong case for the view that “ought” is simply never logically implied by any accurate and objective description of the world (the famous is/ought Humean guillotine). I understand that an objective assessment of all that is will usually be cast as a network of causal and structural relationships. By starting out with a network of causal and structural relationships and using logical inferences to arrive at further high-level facts, one is ultimately bound to arrive at conclusions that themselves are just structural and causal relationships. So where does the “ought” fit in here? Is it really just a manner of speaking? A linguistic spandrel that emerges from evolutionary history? It could really seem like it, and I admit that I do not have a silver bullet argument against this view.

However, I do think that eventually we will arrive at a post-Galilean understanding of consciousness, and that this understanding will itself allow us to point out exactly where- if at all- ethical imperatives are located and how they emerge. For now all I have is a series of observations that I hope can help you develop an intuition for how we are thinking about it, and why our take is original and novel (and not simply a rehashing of previous arguments or appeals to nature/intuition/guilt).

So without further ado I would like to lay out the following points on the table:

  1. I am of the mind that if any kind of “ought” is present in reality it will involve decision-making about the quality of consciousness of subjects of experience. I do not think that it makes sense to talk about an ethical imperative that has anything to do with non-experiential properties of the universe precisely because there would be no one affected by it. If there is an argument for caring about things that have no impact on any state of consciousness, I have yet to encounter it. So I will assume that the question refers to whether certain states of consciousness ought to or ought not to exist (and how to make trade offs between them).
  2. I also think that personal identity is key for this discussion, but why this is the case will make sense in a moment. The short answer is that conscious value is self-intimating/self-revealing, and in order to pass judgement on something that you yourself (as a narrative being) will not get to experience you need some confidence (or reasonable cause) to believe that the same self-intimating quality of experience is present in other narrative orbits that will not interact with you. For the same reasons as (1) above, it makes no sense to care about philosophical zombies (no matter how much they scream at you), but the same is the case for “conscious value p. zombies” (where maybe they experience color qualia but do not experience hedonic tone i.e. they can’t suffer).
  3. A very important concept that comes up again and again in our research is the notion that “reduction cuts both ways”. We take dual aspect monism seriously, and in this view we would consider the mathematical description of an experience and its qualia two sides of the same coin. Now, many people come here and say “the moment you reduce an experience of bliss to a mathematical equation you have removed any fuzzy morality from it and arrived at a purely objective and factual account which does not support an ‘ought ontology'”. But doing this mental move requires you to take the mathematical account as a superior ontology to that of the self-intimating quality of experience. In our view, these are two sides of the same coin. If mystical experiences are just a bunch of chemicals, then a bunch of chemicals can also be a mystical experience. To reiterate: reduction cuts both ways, and this happens with the value of experience to the same extent as it happens with the qualia of e.g. red or cinnamon.
  4. Mike Johnson tends to bring up Wittgenstein and Quine to the “Is-Ought” problem because they are famous for ‘reducing language and meaning’ to games and networks of relationships. But here you should realize that you can apply the concept developed in (3) above just as well to this matter. In our view, a view of language that has “words and objects” at its foundation is not a complete ontology, and nor is one that merely introduces language games to dissolve the mystery of meaning. What’s missing here is “felt sense” – the raw way in which concepts feel and operate on each other whether or not they are verbalized. It is my view that here phenomenal binding becomes critical because a felt sense that corresponds to a word, concept, referent, etc. in itself encapsulates a large amount of information simultaneously, and contains many invariants across a set of possible mental transformations that define what it is and what it is not. More so, felt senses are computationally powerful (rather than merely epiphenomenal). Consider Daniel Tammet‘s mathematical feats achieved by experiencing numbers in complex synesthetic ways that interact with each other in ways that are isomorphic to multiplication, factorization, etc. More so, he does this at competitive speeds. Language, in a sense, could be thought of as the surface of felt sense. Daniel Dennett famously argued that you can “Quine Qualia” (meaning that you can explain it away with a groundless network of relationships and referents). We, on the opposite extreme, would bite the bullet of meaning and say that meaning itself is grounded in felt-sense and qualia. Thus, colors, aromas, emotions, and thoughts, rather than being ultimately semantically groundless as Dennett would have it, turn out to be the very foundation of meaning.
  5. In light of the above, let’s consider some experiences that embody the strongest degree of the felt sense of “ought to be” and “ought not to be” that we know of. On the negative side, we have things like cluster headaches and kidney stones. On the positive side we have things like Samadhi, MDMA, and 5-MEO-DMT states of consciousness. I am personally more certain that the “ought not to be” aspect of experience is more real than the “ought to be” aspect of it, which is why I have a tendency (though no strong commitment) towards negative utilitarianism. When you touch a hot stove you get this involuntary reaction and associated valence qualia of “reality needs you to recoil from this”, and in such cases one has degrees of freedom into which to back off. But when experiencing cluster headaches and kidney stones, this sensation- that self-intimating felt-sense of ‘this ought not to be’- is omnidirectional. The experience is one in which one feels like every direction is negative, and in turn, at its extremes, one feels spiritually violated (“a major ethical emergency” is how a sufferer of cluster headaches recently described it to me). This brings me to…
  6. The apparent illusory nature of value in light of meditative deconstruction of felt-senses. As you put it elsewhere: “Introspectively – Meditators with deep experience typically report all concepts are delusion. This is realized in a very direct experiential way.” Here I am ambivalent, though my default response is to make sense of the meditation-induced feeling that “value is illusory” as itself an operation on one’s conscious topology that makes the value quality of experience get diminished or plugged out. Meditation masters will say things like “if you observe the pain very carefully, if you slice it into 30 tiny fragments per second, you will realize that the suffering you experience from it is an illusory construction”. And this kind of language itself is, IMO, liable to give off the illusion that the pain was illusory to begin with. But here I disagree. We don’t say that people who take a strong opioid to reduce acute pain are “gaining insight into the fundamental nature of pain” and that’s “why they stop experiencing it”. Rather, we understand that the strong opioid changes the neurological conditions in such a way that the quality of the pain itself is modified, which results in a duller, “asymbolic“, non-propagating, well-confined discomfort. In other words, strong opioids reduce the value-quality of pain by locally changing the nature of pain rather than by bringing about a realization of its ultimate nature. The same with meditation. The strongest difference here, I think, would be that opioids are preventing the spatial propagation of pain “symmetry breaking structures” across one’s experience and thus “confine pain to a small spatial location”, whereas meditation does something different that is better described as confining the pain to a small temporal region. This is hard to explain in full, and it will require us to fully formalize how the subjective arrow of time is constructed and how pain qualia can make copies across it. [By noting the pain very quickly one is, I believe, preventing it from building up and then having “secondary pain” which emerges from the cymatic resonance of the various lingering echoes of pain across one’s entire “pseudo-time arrow of experience”.] Sorry if this sounds like word salad, I am happy to unpack these concepts if needed, while also admitting that we are in early stages of the theoretical and empirical development.
  7. Finally, I will concede that the common sense view of “reference” is very deluded on many levels. The very notion that we can refer to an experience with another experience, that we can encode the properties of a different moment of experience in one’s current moment of experience, that we can talk about the “real world” or its “objective ethical values” or “moral duty” is very far from sensical in the final analysis. Reference is very tricky, and I think that a full understanding of consciousness will do some severe violence to our common sense in this area. That, however, is different from the self-disclosing properties of experience such as red qualia and pain qualia. You can do away with all of common sense reference while retaining a grounded understanding that “the constituents of the world are qualia values and their local binding relationships”. In turn, I do think that we can aim to do a decently good job at re-building from the ground up a good approximation of our common sense understanding of the world using “meaning grounded in qualia”, and once we do that we will be in a solid foundation (as opposed to the, admittedly very messy, quasi-delusional character of thoughts as they exist today). Needless to say, this may also need us to change our state of consciousness. “Someday we will have thoughts like sunsets” – David Pearce.

 

Information-Sensitive Gradients of Bliss

“Normal” or so-called “euthymic” people are inclined to judge that hyperthymics/”optimists” view the world through rose-tinted spectacles. Their central information-processing system is systematically biased. Conversely, hyperthymics see the rest of us as unreasonably pessimistic. Chronic depressives, on the other hand, may view euthymic and hyperthymic people alike as deluded. Indeed victims of melancholic depression may feel the world itself is hateful and meaningless. For evolutionary reasons (cf. rank theory), a genetic predisposition to hyperthymia and euphoric unipolar mania are rarer than dysthymia or unipolar depression. Most of us fall somewhere in between these temperamental extremes, though the distribution is skewed to the southern end of the axis. Genetics plays a key role in determining our hedonic set-point, as does the ceaseless interplay between our genes and environmental stressors. Inadequate diet, imprudent drug use, and severe, chronic, uncontrolled stress can all reset an emotional thermostat at a lower level than its previous norm – though that norm may be surprisingly robust. Unlike recreational euphoriants, delayed-onset antidepressants may restore a lowered set-point to its former norm, or even elevate it. Antidepressants may act to reverse stress-induced hypertrophy of the basolateral amygdala and contrasting stress-induced dendritic atrophy in the hippocampus. Yet no mood-brightener currently licensed for depression reliably induces permanent bliss, whether information-signalling or constant, serene or manic. A genetically-determined ceiling stops our quality of life as a whole getting better.

 

Is the future of mood and motivation in the universe destined to be an endless replay of life’s evolutionary past? Are the same affective filters that were genetically adaptive for our hominid ancestors likely to be retained by our transhuman successors? Will superintelligent life-forms really opt to preserve the architecture of the primordial hedonic treadmill indefinitely? In each case, probably not, though it’s controversial whether designer drugs, neuroelectrodes or gene therapies will make the biggest impact on recalibrating the pleasure-pain axis. In the long-run, perhaps germline genetic engineering will deliver the greatest global enhancement of emotional well-being. For a reproductive revolution of designer babies is imminent. Thanks to genomic medicine, tomorrow’s parents will be able to choose the genetic make-up and personality of their offspring. Critically, parents-to-be will be able to select the emotional dial-settings of their progeny rather than play genetic roulette. In deciding what kind of children to create, tomorrow’s parents will (presumably) rarely opt for dysfunctional, depressive and malaise-ridden kids. Quite aside from the ethical implications of using old corrupt code, children who are temperamentally happy, loving and affectionate are far more enjoyable to bring up.

 

The collective outcome of these individual parental genetic choices will be far-reaching. In the new era of advanced biotechnology and reproductive medicine, a combination of designer drugs, autosomal gene therapies and germline interventions may give rise to a civilisation inhabiting a state-space located further “north” emotionally than present-day humans can imagine or coherently describe. Gradients of heritable, lifelong bliss may eventually become ubiquitous. The worst post-human lows may be far richer than the most sublime of today’s peak experiences. Less intuitively, our superwell descendants may be constitutionally smarter as well as happier than unenriched humans. Aided by synthetic enhancement technologies, fine-textured gradients of intense emotional well-being can play an information-signalling role at least as versatile and sophisticated as gradients of emotional ill-being or pain-sensations today. Simplistically, it may be said that posterity will be “permanently happy”. However, this expression can be a bit misleading. Post-humans are unlikely to be either “blissed out” wireheads or soma-addled junkies. Instead, we may navigate by the gradients of a multi-dimensional compass that’s designed – unlike its bug-ridden Darwinian predecessor – by intelligent agents for their own ends.

 

– Life in the Far North: An Information-Theoretic Perspective on Heaven by David Pearce

 

The Mating Mind

Geoffrey Miller is the author of the “Mating Mind”, a highly interesting book on what evolutionary biology has to say about all of our weird “dating and sexual quirks.” David Pearce highly recommends it, too.

Miller’s talk in this video is just as interesting as Ogi Ogas’ talk about his book “A Billion Wicked Thoughts”. Both talks deal with the evolutionary basis of human sexual desires (yes, even the weird ones… specially the weird ones):

Both use sound empirical methods and develop theories of our sexuality based on genetic, anthropological, and biological analysis of human experience and behavior.

Here is an interesting observation: If we were descendants of a specie that used clones as a way of reproduction (or perhaps formed large asexual social colonies like bees or ants) then we would all love each other unreservedly.

Competition for good genes has made us quasi-psychopathic and selfish. The fall of humanity is not, apparently, the result of sinning against God. But rather, for having evolved in small tribes with heavy in-group genetic biases.

Likewise, our Darwinian origin is responsible for states of low mood, depression, anxiety, and so on. Depression itself, to dive into a specific example, is an adaptive strategy for non-alpha males in the ancestral environment, which predisposes you to keep your head low and reproduce in spite of the presence of an Alpha male who is capable of killing you if you try to challenge him. Additionally, depression is a behavioral response that allows you to passively accept and endure a long-lasting stressor, where “trying to make things right” instead of submitting to the reality of the situation was simply not as genetically adaptive. Of course, since we don’t live in the African Savannah anymore, all of that programming is useless.

Unfortunately, since happiness is itself a sign of status, we are stuck in an awful Moloch scenario: Geoffrey Miller would agree that people are sexually motivated to *pretend that they are happier than they are.*

Forgetting about people with a heavy genetic predisposition to depression who cannot even *conceive of what happiness is*, most people are stuck in recurrent cycles of high, neutral and low moods. And yet, they are anxious to pretend that they are happier than they really are; after all, one’s genes are at stake in this signaling activity.

I have often met highly intelligent people who seem incapable of understanding David Pearce’s Hedonistic Imperative. Although there are many possible causes for this, a very prominent one is the fact that believing that “everyone has a chance to be happy” is itself a happy thought. We run away from depressive worldviews, even if doing so is ethically disastrous.

Let us hope for the best, but plan for the worst.

Yes, we can hope that somehow everyone has a chance to be happy, and sincerely wish that “it really isn’t that bad.” However, let us not act *as if this is true.* We are in a unique position to alleviate and outright exterminate all future suffering in our forward light cone. It would be really sad if we let billions of beings suffer for eons (say, in other galaxies) simply because we entertained too heavily the thought that reality is conspiring in “our” favor (nature, perhaps, is not as kind as it looks when one is in a happy state).

In Praise of Systematic Empathy

Tl;dr: If you are an empathizing utilitarian: Kudos! The world needs more people like you.

You know what? This isn’t about your feelings. A human life, with all its joys and all its pains, adding up over the course of decades, is worth far more than your brain’s feelings of comfort or discomfort with a plan. Does computing the expected utility feel too cold-blooded for your taste? Well, that feeling isn’t even a feather in the scales, when a life is at stake. Just shut up and multiply.

 

Circular Altruism


Empathizing-Systematizing Trade-Offs

The human brain is capable of doing a great deal of things. However, often the tasks it performs are so difficult that full concentration (and sometimes absorption) is necessary to achieve them.

The empathizing-systematizing theory points out that when one is empathizing one’s brain becomes less capable of systematizing. And when one is engaging with problems using a systematizing cognitive style, empathy does not come easy either. In most cases there are trade-offs between these two cognitive styles; they seem to be drawing from the same pool of mental resources.

Even though these traits are negatively correlated with each other, we can still find people around who can quickly switch between these styles.

These rare people, one could argue, have a unique moral responsibility: to harmonize the differences between the systematizing and empathizing mindsets. With great power comes great responsibility.

Doing this is hard, though. It may be inevitable that by trying to find a common ground between these mindsets one will feel morally conflicted:

  1. It is easy to care about those who are around you when you are an empathizer.
  2. It is easy to care about the bulk of all sentient beings when you are a non-empathizing systematizer.
  3. But to be a utilitarian and an empathizer… that’s hard. One needs to ignore, or at least not prioritize, the pain of those around, even though it hurts.

Sample Rationalizations

Example of an empathizer non-systematizer approaching a moral problem: “I love my cat Fluffy. Are you telling me that I should donate to Against Malaria Foundation, a charity that benefits people far, far away, who I have never even met, and whose feelings I can’t perceive… instead of feeding my kitten first-class food? Do you really expect me to trade the warm-fuzzy feelings of having a healthy cat for your cold, abstract logic? No thanks.”

Example of a non-empathizer systematizer approaching a moral problem: “Donating to Against Malaria Foundation instead of having a cat will produce approximately 10,000X Quality-Adjusted Life-Years. Do you really expect me to trade solid, locally sound and perfectly ethical dollars for the supposed wellbeing of a dirty cat? Let’s face it, half of what you care about when you think about your cat is how much he loves you back. Isn’t denying health to tens of children just so you feel loved by a pet incredibly selfish?”

Example of an empathizer systematizer approaching a moral problem the wrong way: “I love Fluffy. I also love all of humanity. Thankfully, everyone can focus on helping the sentient beings that are closest to them. This way we can all be part of a global support network. By helping my cat, and paying for the expensive treatments that he requires to stay healthy, I am doing my own part. Now I just hope everyone else does their part as well.”

Example of an empathizer systematizer approaching the same moral problem, and finally getting it right: “I know that Fluffy needs my love and affection. It pains me to realize that the world is much larger. My feelings tell me ‘just care about those around you, it is to them to whom you have a moral responsibility’. And yet, I cannot pretend that logic and *counting* simply do not matter. It is, in fact, my moral responsibility to ignore my feelings. To sacrifice a few warm-fuzzy human feels for what is, in the end, a much, much bigger sum of warm-fuzzy feels elsewhere.”


The Transhumanist Bodhisattva

Bodhisattvas are mythological entities found in the Mahayana branch of Buddhism. They are great examples of entities that seem to combine both empathizing and systematizing traits, while being motivated by unceasing compassion.

According to buddhist sutras, bodhisattvas are entities who have realized the true nature of suffering (i.e. that it sucks), and achieved a state of mind that manifests as an unshakeable desire to help all sentient beings. And in the wake of their realization, Bodhisattvas have made a vow to dedicate all of their energies to the task of eliminating suffering:

Just as all the previous Sugatas, the Buddhas
Generated the mind of enlightenment
And accomplished all the stages
Of the Bodhisattva training,
So will I too, for the sake of all beings,
Generate the mind of enlightenment
And accomplish all the stages
Of the Bodhisattva training.

– Bodhisattvacaryāvatāra [Translation: Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life], by Śāntideva

These noble beings intend to help all sentient beings become free from suffering by teaching buddhism.* Today, one might hope, they would choose to focus their energies on the development of biotechnologies of bliss.

David Pearce is what we might call a modern, genomic Bodhisattva. He started a movement called Abolitionism (the bioethical stance that we should use technology to eliminate suffering) and he has spearheaded the compassionate branch of transhumanism.

David is a wonderful human being who, in spite of being naturally predisposed to low hedonic tone (i.e. being genetically predisposed to having a bad day, every day, for no good reason whatsoever), dedicates his entire life to the elimination of suffering. And unlike previous incarnations of that desire, he did do his homework: realize that in this universe, suffering has genetic causes.

Pearce has at times mentioned that we should not think of his vision of abolishing suffering as new or particularly original. He likes to point out that the wish to eliminate suffering is extremely ancient, and we can find it as the core objective of many spiritual and religious traditions. Abolitionism is, as he puts it “just providing the implementation details” of what people have been saying for thousands of years. This framing makes Abolitionism more palatable to the average Joe.

Indeed, boundless compassion has been around for a long time. But the ability to kindle it into effective suffering-reducing actions that may work in the long term is only now beginning to be possible.


Empathy is Marvelous… and Double-Edged

Our ability to track the inner state of beings in our lifeworld (our inner experience, including our representations of others) is a marvelous evolutionary innovation: we are the product of a long machiavellian intelligence arms race in which effective mind-reading could make the difference between being an outcast and becoming the tribal leader. Given the selection pressures of our ancestral tribal environment, it is not surprising that our capacity for empathy is highly selective. Our ability to simulate others’ experiences, thus, is to some extent bound to be inclusive fitness-enhancing rather than, what would be more desirable, sentience-wellness enhancing.

It is tough to care about all sentient beings; specially when the ones around you are suffering and you can’t disengage from simulating what it feels like to be them. One’s predisposition to empathize with sentient being is extremely biased towards the local contexts one lives in, one’s family members (and our extended, genetically similar, tribe), and whatever happens to trigger the feeling that your implicit self-models are threatened by the suffering of others (ex. when charity workers use empathy blackmailing to make you feel miserable about not helping their particular -not necessarily effective- ethical cause).

Sad to say, but a strong involuntary empathetic reaction to other’s suffering is a double-edged sword. On the bright side, it allows you to understand the reality of other’s suffering. And on a case by case basis, it also allows you to figure out how exactly to help them (e.g. highly empathetic and agreeable people are great at figuring out what is bugging you). Unfortunately, one’s empathy for others declines with the amount of people one empathizes with. Some studies show that people are more likely to decide to donate to a cause when there is only one person (or nonhuman animal) victimized… as soon as there are more than a few, one’s empathy becomes overwhelmed and you fail to multiply properly.

Additionally, the attention-grabbing and attention-focusing properties of empathy can have intense network effects that make people over-concerned with relatively minor problems. Likewise, this focusing effect makes people unable to revise their moral judgements. They get stuck with silly deontological rationalizations for their non-optimal actions.

Empathy needs to be debugged. Thankfully, we still have the ability to experience and cultivate compassion, along with systematizing abilities without experiencing burnout. Now, this is certainly not a call to eliminate empathy! But as long as we don’t fix its profound biases, we cannot rely on it to make ethical choices. We can only use it to understand the reality of the suffering of others. And when the time is to act, don’t empathize. Just shut up and multiply.

We need to combine systematizing reasoning with compassion. We don’t need to make emotionally-charged calls to action sparked by individual incidents that affect a specially small number of sentient beings in particularly attention-grabbing ways.

In this day and age (what I think is the beginning of the end of the Darwinian era), we need to temporarily migrate from using empathy as the main source of moral motivation into an ecology of abstract and systematic reasoning guided by compassion. One can do this and still experience the warm fuzzy feelings, but it is harder. One needs to rewire one’s brain a little bit. To tell it “no, I am still doing what is best. Don’t tell me I’m a bad person for preferring to focus on the bulk of sentient beings instead of the few I happen to know.” It is truly moving to realize that you can overcome some of the ways in which evolution set us up for failure.

Until we hack our consciousness to represent the world in an unbiased way, we will have to rely on systematizing cognition to guide our ethical reasoning. Only by combining compassion, empathy and a strong systematizing style, can our minds grasp the enormity of the problem of suffering and why our local solutions are doomed to fail. It removes the wishful thinking that comes with empathy.

If, alternatively, we continue praying to the God of Empathy as our only strategy, we will only reap good local success. But this will be at the cost of failing at the cosmic level, and letting billions of sentient beings feel the sinister coldness of Darwinian life.

All of this is to say: if you are a natural empathizer, I want to let you know that I get your inner struggles. If, in spite of what your feelings tell you, you still choose to do the utilitarian action… I can only sing your praises with my sincere heart. Metta to you, my fellow warrior. We will defeat suffering for all; not just those around us.


* If you buy into the Buddhist ontology (no-self, emptiness, ubiquitous suffering, etc.) then dedicating all of your energies over the period of many eons to teach Buddhism makes a lot of sense. It is only when you think about the exact same problem in light of contemporary science (and the neural underpinnings of suffering) that it becomes clear that the modern bodhisattva would choose to be a transhumanist (and try to eliminate suffering using biotechnology).

Ontological Runaway Scenario

Moral innovation

Imagine that you iterate over and add the option of recursing further or just stopping next time. Every time you recurse, more and more people will have to choose not recursing if the number of dilemmas is going to ever stop growing.

If the fraction of people who choose to recurse is higher than the number of dilemmas that are kick-started by your own choice, then this can lead to a moral runaway scenario.

Life Runaway

I’m sure you can tempt people who are explicit classical utilitarian with this schema.

All you need to do is also add the condition that people in the train are having fun. And suddenly, you have a scenario in which you are contemplating the creation of arbitrarily large hedonic pipelines of positive and negative pathways. Supposedly the positive and negative qualities are canceling each other out. Does this sound fun? Does it sound like Jinjang?

Time-Beyond-Time

People with stranger ontologies may also be tempted by the scenario. Think of this concept: “In the ocean of being, all of the mistakes are forgiven. Only the learning remains.” In this scenario, our own reality implies and thus enables the existence of an orthogonal time to ours. And this orthogonal time also implies and enables a further time-beyond-time-beyond-time reality. This is now an ontological runaway scenario.

But if you have a stacked moral and ontological runaway scenario, you can perhaps choose to perpetuate life, with all of its suffering and bad qualities (in addition to the bliss and love in it), for ethical reasons. It is, after all, “the ocean of being” that learns, and if it does not learn in this reality, it will not be able to pass on useful information to the next layer of reality. The first orthogonal time to ours will lack the information that it requires to prevent suffering from its point of view. “The only reason God would have created this universe is so as to prevent an even bigger evil.”

Status Quo Bias

Imagine you traveled to a far-off galaxy and found a planet inhabited by intelligent creatures. They somehow have reverse-engineered their own genetic source-code and discovered how to tweak it so that they can experience life in gradients of bliss. No, that’s not wire-heading. Not uniform bliss. There are ups and downs. It’s just that, no down actually gets below *hedonic zero*. They experience bliss even at their lows… just less bliss than at their highs. That way they maintain the information signaling purpose of hedonic tone.

Would you want to convince them that they should inject some suffering into their society so that they embrace their dark side?

I think that people fetishize suffering as “natural” and somehow “good” or even “metaphysically part of the whole deal” simply because of status quo bias. If you weren’t brought up in a world in which suffering is commonplace, you’d have the (right) reaction of understanding it as inherently a problem that has to be minimized as much as possible, as fast as possible.

Animal suffering, including human’s, is not just “part of life.” It is an *ethical emergency*.

Google Hedonics

 

Happy_Holi

Holi Doodle. It would also be a good Google Hedonics Logo 🙂

Hello my children!
Hello my sons!
Hello my daughters!
Hello my brothers and sisters!

I’m here to tell you that the world’s last unpleasant experience…
Will be a precisely dateable event!

Yes! It will happen in our lifetimes if we commit all of our energy today…

To the task of Paradise Engineering!

– Yacht, Paradise Engineering

(referencing David Pearce’s Hedonistic Imperative)

Google is an amazing company. Not only is the code infrastructure that they use stunning in power and elegance, but the culture they foster is fun-loving, humanistic, and promoting of employees’ creativity. According to many vocal Googlers, the motto “don’t be evil” is not just empty rhetoric. It is an ideal people share and attempt to uphold. Better yet, Google may even be reducing the number of people doing outright evil things, although indirectly.*

Google’s publicly stated mission is to “organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.” This goal will be accomplished with a combination of intensive and extensive approaches, ranging from making the world’s information infrastructure more robust to enabling cheap, widely accessible Internet worldwide.

But Google’s actual technological investments go much further, and there are not only a few, but multiple genuinely futuristic research projects on the table. Among them, most notably, is Calico, a company with the explicit mission to “harness advanced technologies to increase our understanding of the biology that controls lifespan” with the aim of delaying, preventing and ultimately reversing aging altogether.

Now, all of this is not only futuristic. Anyone who is aware of the general ideas pursued in transhumanism will realize that Google is more than futurist: It fosters transhumanist goals.

The three Ss of Transhumanism

Although a precise definition of transhumanism is beyond the scope of this (and any) article, for the time being it will suffice to mention three of its main goals. As seen in this video produced by the British Institute of Posthuman Studies (BIOPS for short), these goals are: Super Intelligence, Super Longevity and Super Happiness.

Using that broad outline of transhumanism, can we say that Google is a transhumanist company?

Super Intelligence

Google is certainly furthering the goal of understanding and engineering Super Intelligence. It is doing so by funding and implementing Artificial Intelligence research projects that aim to make AI tools universally useful and available to everyone. Although this is not the same as understanding conscious intelligence (a controversial topic)**, it is inarguably a huge step forward. By producing high-performing, universally available digital AIs, Google and other AI-focused companies will help us offload a large amount of mental menial work into wearable computers. Indeed, the era of the cyborg is upon us. Embedded neural networks are likely to help us achieve better sensory-processing speeds and raw memory capacities, not to mention instant thought-controlled access to the world’s reserves of knowledge.

Super Longevity

As mentioned earlier, Google is already helping the cause of Super Longevity with Calico and a host of other projects. In particular, Google is accelerating worldwide genetic research with its Google Genomics platform, which presumably will also help fight disease and cause people to live longer.

Super Happiness

What is missing, though, is the use of this genius-level talent, amazing infrastructure, and public-good-oriented culture for the furthering of the goal of Super Happiness.

I propose that Google start a research project called Google Hedonics. Its goal would be to develop a fundamental understanding of the functional, biomolecular, and quantum signatures of pure bliss, and the know-how for instantiating it sustainably in all living organisms (if they so desire). Of course, a grandiose goal like that is not a requirement for a happiness-oriented project: It would suffice if they were to simply focus on reducing, as fast as possible, the incidence of extremely negative experiences.

The hedonic treadmill guarantees that no amount of social reform, universal welfare, access to health care or widespread participation in a culture of art will achieve long-term wellbeing for everyone in society. Depression, anxiety, anhedonia and boredom are bound to stay put unless we tackle the underlying genetic and biochemical causes of negative hedonic tone.

Google Hedonics’ goal would be to sabotage the hedonic treadmill. It would thus combine a variety of psychological, biochemical, psychophysical and genetic research projects to the effect of figuring out how to sustainably raise anyone’s hedonic set point. Google Hedonics would not be pursuing quick shortcuts to happiness, but rather, a deep understanding of the roots of bliss and suffering.

Some people argue that this is the most important task of all. For if we manage to prevent experiences below hedonic zero, nothing will ever quite “go wrong” in the same way it has before.

If we have our way, at any rate, we may someday read “H is for Hedonics” in the Alphabet listing of projects.

Utopian Pharmacology

Contrary to popular opinion, a world in which life-long super bliss is the universal norm is not nearly as bad as it sounds. As discussed in the State-Space of Drug Effects article, human euphoria is not adequately captured by a unidimensional metric. Arguably, the hedonic quality of a given experience is multifaceted and full of complexities. When people imagine widespread happiness, it is common for them to simultaneously project a feeling of shallowness and vanity into such an imagined world. This need not be the case: Surely fast and slow euphoria are not conducive to much depth of feeling and thought, but spiritual and philosophical euphoria is anything but. Empathogens like MDMA and 2C-B often (but not necessarily) produce experiences of great complexity, depth and unfathomable beauty. Likewise, people who have experienced deeply blissful mystical experiences attest that pleasure and the sublime can happily coexist.

Google Hedonics would certainly not limit its scope of research to understanding shallow and vain varieties of happiness. On the contrary, it would place a great deal of resources into understanding what brings wondrous depth to the human experience.

What Google Hedonics is Not

  • Finding quick and dirty shortcuts to euphoria, in a way similar to today’s acute euphoriants (alcohol, cocaine, morphine, etc.)
  • Research limited to bodily euphoria: Although feeling well and healthy is a precondition to fulfilling happiness, it is not enough. Spiritual and philosophical bliss are probably a requirement for satisfactory paradise engineering.
  • An ideology-driven project to impose a belief in a particular philosophy of mind, such as functionalism. It is not possible to successfully tackle the problem of suffering if one’s background assumptions about consciousness are incorrect. Google Hedonics would experimentally investigate various theories of consciousness without a preconceived notion of which one is true (functionalism, panpsychism, dualism, etc.)
  • And, importantly, it would not just be an economics startup! That is to say, its goal would not be to help people find what they want for cheap as informed by hedonic regressions, or even an AI-powered dating website. None of those things would sabotage the hedonic treadmill, and thus are irrelevant for its goal.

What are some example projects Google Hedonics could do?

These are just a few ideas to get your imagination started. They are unlikely to do the trick of instantiating lifelong bliss, but at least they don’t fail by design:

  • Combining ultrasound neurostimulation and neuroplasticity-enhancing drugs on depressed people to induce long-term potentiation in their nucleus accumbens (the so-called “pleasure center”).
  • Studying fMRI activity patterns of hyperthymics (generally happy people) using Google’s cutting-edge machine learning technology. Are there surprising symmetries in their distribution of voxel activation?
  • Using NLP technology to cheaply diagnose depression throughout the world, and identifying activities, substances and environments that would sustainably raise people’s hedonic set point.
  • Measuring the epigenetic changes of people who undergo hedonic tone-enhancing spiritual training (such as metta) to identify the genetic markers of sustainable spiritual bliss.
  • Enhancing and extending healthy loving relationships with oxytocin spray and other empathogenic technology (chemical or not).

Personally, I don’t think any of the above would deliver miraculous therapies that prevent anxiety and depression altogether, but they would each deliver hints of tremendous importance. I trust that at a place like Google a thorough probabilistic cost-benefit analysis of the expected hedonic return of each possible research project would be conducted in earnest.

Effective Altruism

Google recently hosted EA Global. The very thought of this occurring is a great source of hope for me. Finally, altruism and rationality are meeting, and very smart people are spearheading it. The missing piece, as far as I can see, is a theoretically-sound utility function to maximize. The (attempted) use of QALYs in utilitarian calculations is a huge improvement upon hand-wavy head-counting. But hedonic tone is not yet in the picture, much less a truly sound way of measuring it, let alone optimizing for it. Google Hedonics would provide this missing piece and more: An actual solution for not having to ration bliss, by disconnecting it from the limited resources it has, as of now, always been limited by.


*Mary “Missy” Cummings , a roboticist from Duke University, has stated in several interviews that if it wasn’t for Google and other similar companies, organizations like the Department of Defense and military contractors would have and attract top technical talent. Instead, at least in the US, real top technical talent in the area of computing technologies is concentrated in large companies like Google, research universities, and even startups. Thankfully, fewer and fewer bright kids grow up looking at the Defense Department as a great place to build a career. Google’s “don’t be evil” may already be vindicated: There aren’t any more geniuses working for militaristic aims; they now work on futuristic projects that aim to improve the lives of everyone in the world (rather than to merely guarantee brute-force supremacy of one country over another).

**Qualia Computing argues that consciousness can accomplish certain computational tasks that digital computers cannot, even in principle, realize. Phenomenal binding is the key step in the information processing pipeline that distinguishes conscious systems from merely information-processing systems. This, however, is controversial, and I tend to assume that decades will elapse before neuroscientists and AI researchers alike come to a consensus on this matter. If phenomenal binding is indeed necessary for some computational tasks we usually ascribe to intelligence, let alone super-intelligence, we will need more than a revolution in machine learning algorithms to achieve this particular goal of transhumanism. We will need to investigate the quantum substrate of our wetware, our very mind/brains.

 

Solutions to World Problems

What is more likely to induce/achieve/promote sustainable world peace?

1) Homogeneous world ideology
2) Widespread social reform (full justice, rights and healthcare)
3) Universally accessible on-demand mystical experiences
4) Globally available inexpensive hedonic tone recalibration

——

To elaborate: (1) would mean that the world is now ideologically homogeneous. Free-market economy, communism, Judaism, Jainism, Shingoism… any one ideology. Pick one. Would it solve all of our problems, and war?

(2) Implies some sort of socialist-like equal-rights that actually works in a universal way. Be generous with how well this would work theoretically.

(3) Say that we fine-tune and perfect the psychedelic peak experience. We build religions, spiritualities, philosphies, etc. around the one true univerally accessible state-space of possible experiences of the (phenomenologically) divine.

(4) We invent a series of healthy, sustainable effective and inexpensive therapies that allow people to reach any hedonic tone they like. Be it like MDMA, a back rub, falling in love, receiving grace, meditation or plain kindness. Any hedonic quality is freely reachable – and mental super-health is a universal state.

——

Where would you rather live? Which one would solve our problems?

Personal Identity Joke

A “psychological criterion” Closed Individualist and an Open Individualist go into a bar.

The bartender is an Empty Individualist.

Bartender: “Hello, gentlemen, how can the personal time-slices of my (illusory) future self be of use for you two this evening? Should they arrange themselves in a movie-like sequence of this bartender serving gin and tonic to the two recently arrived customers?”

Open Individualist: “Yes, that’s fine with me. Thank you.”

Closed Individualist of the psychological criterion type: “Well, that would be very nice indeed. I must ask, though, before I commit my entire existence to having to deal with an embarrassing episode: What is the reputation of gin and tonic?”

Bartender: “Gin and tonic can make you more aware of who you are: The here and now, my friend. Sadly, the more we talk, the more time-slices get stuck in the interstice of a conversation, and the fewer time slices are peacefully drunk in the here-and-now. Better hurry my drink-making!”

Closed Individualist: “Alright, that sounds good enough. After all, I am trying to forget myself. I am here with my friend -who suffers from delusions of grandeur, you see?- trying to cheer me up. I messed up, I messed up badly. I ruined a birthday surprise. I forgot to bring candles to a friend’s party, and she couldn’t have the experience of blowing over the candles. You know, the candles that give you a sense of the time you have lived, the time you have left. And they all have this symbolism about the impermanence of time, and the beauty of the finite threads we each get to live.”

Bartender: “Ah, yes, the wonderful illusion of interconnectedness! It is a grand mirrage.”

Open Individualist: “Ah, my dear closed, stop this melodramatic scene with one sharp lightning bolt of awakened awareness. And you bartender, I like your straightforward approach, but for the time being you need to let us alone. We are still trying to figure out something. We didn’t define away our problems, sir. So if you let us…

“Closed, look, forgetting a friend’s birthday candles, thus missing out on an opportunity for contemplating the impermanent nature of all phenomena is in some sense ironic, isn’t it? Why do you cry the tears of missing out on an impermanent experience that didn’t happen, whose main metaphorical message would have been that all phenomena is impermanent?  This, of course, including impermanent metaphors about the impermanent just as well. Why feel sad for a reality that wasn’t?”

Closed: “Well, when you put it that way… but I am connected to the people I interact with. Their own conception of self, their views about how time works, and the meaning of death, even that. I am connected to all of that. So when you speak as if looking from above (you’ll have to excuse me, that’s how you come across), I can’t quite relate, because I think of my friend who didn’t blow the candles, and I get stuck. It’s an empathy entanglement: she didn’t get to experience the metaphor of impermanence that she needed. I don’t know why you like to call the awareness of impermanence ‘liberation’ but from my point of view, reflection upon impermanence is the deepest way to form connections with other beings. And that is beautiful… how reality is made of countless beings coming together to connect with one another. Perhaps all of the actions and phenomena are impermanent. But the learning we achieve by being connected to one another is beautiful and much more long-lasting than the phenomena themselves. It is as if by being a tiny impermanent little human, you help those around you and contribute to the collective accumulation of knowledge and discovery. Perhaps death is real and is coming everyday. But perhaps there is also a way of beating it: To make of the time we have something profound.”

“Also… if you truly think of all phenomena in the way you say you do… how come you always come begging me to give you big ass [parental discretion advised] bong rips? If you are enlightened, how come you have this dependence to altered states of consciousness? Why can’t you profess the good news that we are all one and one with the stone without getting stoned and being a stone at the same time?”

Open: “Oh, that’s nothing of the sort! You use a little thread’s quirks and mistakes to judged the nature of the light that be!

“All phenomena are impermanent, yes. But look, this impermanence happens at the level of our experience. In reality, all of the karmic links that unite the web of life are a web of 4-dimensional qualia wavelets. I.e. pieces of self-existing qualia crystals from eternity interlinked in a way that minimizes the energy of the configuration.

“Of course, natural selection has recruited brains that allow the mutual coexistence of qualia crystals with competing alignments and often contradictory 4D unfolding that interfere badly with each other. If it weren’t for the interference of perfect forms with each other that are rendered possible by the quantum properties of the human brain and its oversoul connection, hedonic tone would always be positive. In fact, hedonic tone is just the awareness and surprise of existing. Except that such awareness and surprise gets distracted and therefore, ‘poorly unfolded’ when a person tries to think a beautiful thought.

“The possibility of interference between the perfect forms, though, is an opportunity for exploring systematically the state-space of possible recursive phenomenal binding operations. Via considering all of the local constraints at once, your mind has its horizon of conceivability amplified, and a larger range of…”

Closed: “Where are you going with this again?” -interrupted- “I didn’t ask you to explain to me the nature of life, the universe and everything else, did I?”

Open: “Sorry, please beeaaarrrr… with me. It seems to me clear that there is no way out of the labyrinth of mirrors that confuse you (and the bartender!) that does not, at some point, use a sustained intent to thoroughly self-discover…”

Bartender: “Here you have, gentlemen. Gin and tonic to tone down consciousness. Oh, and before I forget, the past time-slice with whom I am ontologically disconnected, you know, the one who took your orders? He was a good chap. Well, apparently that one is no more, you understand? So please give me your condolences. I am trying to move on now, and never look back to the past. But it’s hard, you know? It’s hard to remember that each moment is the only moment in which I actually exist…”

Open: “THANK YOU… now” -looking at Closed, ignoring the bartender, whose speech was utterly predictable … those empties and their constant funerals – “look, I am trying to say that even though there is the apparent passage of time, in reality all of your building blocks are themselves self-existing eternal jewels stored in a higher dimension. I wouldn’t say this if it weren’t already a verified fact: If you do the right consciousness transformations in your heart, you will see that there is a valve that connects you to the rest of the network of life. Opioids dull that connection, whereas psychedelics revive it. Got it?”

Closed: “But I’m afraid. I’m afraid to listen to you more. Because there are views that I have that I doubt anyone else does. I have unique points of view. My particular life path is irreplaceable, and the special insights I’ve obtained cannot be understood but by me alone.”

Open: “Look, let’s get real. When you think about a point of view that you feel like you alone have, what makes you suspect that such feeling is accurate? With what information do you actually conclude that you have a unique point of view?”

Closed: “Usually because I realize that I have a piece of information that others couldn’t have gotten, for historical, personality or even happenstance reasons. In other words, if in a big discussion I’m completely out of synch with everyone else, and they all have opinions different than mine, I can usually pin-point the source: My incredible brilliance assembled what they know with what I know and made a new model altogether.”

Open: “Alright, so when you obtained that unique point of view, how did you do it? Once you had the pieces of information on the table and you simply had to ‘connect the dots’, how did you do that part?”

Closed: “I just did, spontaneously. I don’t know… Maybe that’s where my personality hides. Where I can’t see it. What makes me do what I do with the ‘style’ with which I do it. My mind went through the possibilities and I got a feeling of things fitting in their appropriate place, no more no less.”

Open: “At that point in time, controlling for all the information available, then, who were you? If someone else with the same information in mind had tried to think what you thought, would she have been able to?”

Closed: “Probably, I mean, I can’t really be sure. I’m don’t know if I really have some kind of original style for thinking, or for working ‘in the dark’ when it comes to the unconscious.”

Open: “Who was there, once you control for the information? Who made the ‘observation’ that makes you special? Who is responsible for making you special? Who made the ‘move’ that somehow put you on a special place within reality?”

Closed: “Well, the universe. I think…”

Open: “You are the boundary of your world. You are the entirety of the universe ‘acting’ -which amounts to managing qualia forces- in the precise time and place that you inhabit.” – Open was standing on the chair, with a finger pointing towards the sky. Well, the ceiling, which wasn’t very clean, since the bartender didn’t want to create time-slices-beings whose sole purpose was that of cleaning a dirty ceiling. He was, clearly, fanatical. Conjuring Wish Substance out of the air.

Closed: “But why do I feel like it is me, and not the universe, the one who acts?”

Bartender: “Why does it feel like what?” -interrupted the Bartender, while ignoring the fanaticism of Open- ” On my side I only feel the present moment. I only fear the present moment. I only act in the present moment. In fact, the present moment is the one that is doing all of the acting!”

Open: “Did we call you into the conversation?”

Bartender: “No, sorry. Here is your check.”

Open: “Thanks. Anyway, what I am trying to get at, is that Closed individualists are trapped in a consciousness manifold of their own making. Because they only know of closed topological boundaries, and have no experience with building blocks well known to open individualists: The Open Source Open Individualist WikiConsciousness collective philosophical fantasy Toolkit! It has strange loops, awakened barriers that notice the differences without compressing judgements, non-judgment sensing, hemispherical neglect, feeling of normalcy “salvia normal” with neglect of the bizarre, and the technique of “noticing the global phenomenal binding non-barrier” that was invented in the rainbow tribes of the West. Thus, what is easy and intuitive for an Open Individualist, specially one well trained and with years of Open Individualist Strategy videogame playing, can be *inconceivable* to a Closed Individualist. It is far, far outside of the horizon of conceivability for lost Closed ones.”

Closed: “True, I have no idea what those alternative barriers look like. Personally, I am constantly terrified about barriers. I’m the only one in my whole family that is a psychological criterion closed individualist. I just now felt the existential crisis once again. Look, if the psychological criterion is a matter-of-fact, a brute state of affairs, then who are we to decide who we are? I could drink a little bit too much” -Bartender re-fills the gin and tonic of Closed- “and then out of the Blue, simply, disappear. I mean, stop existing.”

Open: “Of course people in that case wouldn’t notice any change, right? You would have crossed your personal identity barrier, by moving sufficiently far from the centroid of your psychological attributes. Then you would stop existing. Functionally, though, the transition would not be detectable. Do you realize you just endorsed the personal identity version of epiphenomenalism? Is that a boundary you are willing to cross?”

Closed: “In general, boundaries are there for a reason. I generally don’t cross them. Talking about boundries, wasn’t this a joke? Doesn’t it have an ending? It certainly had all of the looks of it at the start. Something about two persons going into a bar. Should we close it?”

Open: “Well, if I finish this joke, it would technically be an Open-ended joke, right?”

Closed: “But if I am the one who ends it, I would deliver a punchline, and make it Closed-ended.”

Bartender: “After feeling ignored for a while, I have decided to use this last here-and-now to finalize the plot. Why? Because all of your talk was empty and it looked like fluff.”


Inspired by: David Pearce, Daniel Kolak, Derek Parfit, Buddha, and Krishna. Peace be upon the emptiness.

Generalized Wada Test and the Total Order of Consciousness

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


The Generalized Wada Test

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

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

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


Philosophical Applications of the Generalized Wada Test

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

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

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

With regards to the second possibility…


Is there a Total Order of Subjective Preferences?

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

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

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

But what if we find cycles?


Hedonic Tone

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

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

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

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

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