Evolutionary qualia suggests our inner world-simulations are not merely painted with different colors, but have different soundtracks, aesthetics, narrative themes, and walk-on character status. Cilantro tasting like soap to ~10% of people is merely the canary in the coal-mine. Our differences in qualia (and consciousness more broadly) probably involve modes of experience you and I don’t even know exist.
Excerpt from Global Brain (2000) by Howard Bloom (Pgs. 143 – 146). [Emphasis mine]
Our brains differ as much as our bodies. Indeed, they may differ more. One part of the brain, the anterior commissure […] varies seven-fold in area between one person and the next. Another part, the massa intermedia […], is not found at all in one in four people. The primary visual cortex can vary three-fold in area. Something called our amygdala (it is responsible for our fears and loves) can vary two-fold in volume – as can something called our hippocampus (involved in memory). Most surprisingly, our cerebral cortex varies in non-learning impaired people nearly two-fold in volume.
– Dr. John Robert Skoyles
Thanks to Plato, we have what purport to be records of the conversations of a human Cuisinart of concepts, an eclectic sage whose roughly fifty-year-long intellectual life bracketed the Periclean Golden Age (443-429 B.C.). This all-purpose conceptual chopper and blender was that son of a socially high-placed family, Socrates. Experts and neophytes agree that it’s impossible to tell how many of the words Plato ascribes to this self-appointed gadfly were authentic and how many were simply Plato’s way of getting his own notions into the public eye. But one thing is generally accepted as accurate – the names of the folks from whom Socrates extracted opinions before shredding them with the quiz mastering which now bears his name (Socratic dialogue). The cast of characters palavering with Socrates in Plato’s Dialogs, says learned reasoning, was too well known in Athens for Plato to have fudged.
Just who were the fonts of learned conversation whose wisdom Socrates whipped and whirled? Socrates’ interlocutors were frequently famous thinkers from distant cities, each of which specialized in a different manner of plucking goods from its surroundings and injecting them into the circulatory system through which the trade of the Mediterranean and the Black Sea swirled. Socrates was a student of Anaxagoras, who came from the Ionian city of Clazomenae on the coast of today’s Turkey. He was also a disciple of Archelaus, another Ionian import. The Socratic dialogues Plato “chronicled” included those with Protagoras from the Balkan city of Abdera, Hippias from Peloponnesian Elis, Parmenides from Italy’s Elea, and Gorgias from Sicily’s Leontini. Each visiting intellect had been shaped by contact with a unique group of surrounding tribes, and by the exigencies imposed on city structure, domestic habit, and vested interest by distinctive forms of enterprise. One result: each arrival presented a philosophy which appealed to a very different configuration of the human mind.
To understand how philosophy couples with the mind’s biology, let’s track the complex adaptive system’s best-concealed constituent to its hiding place. The five elements of the complex adaptive system are conformity enforcers, diversity generators, inner-judges, resources shifters, and intergroup tournaments. Inner-judges may be the most unusual of the crew, for they are physiological built-ins which work deep inside the body to transform a bacterium, a lizard, a baboon, a me, or a you into a module of a larger learning machine. The basic rule of learning machines is one we’ve already seen: turn on the juice to components which have a grip on the problem at hand and turn off the power to those components which just can’t seem to understand. Inner-judges help decide whether the components in which they reside will be enriched or will be denied, then they aid in carrying out the sentence. The irony is that these evaluators, prize givers, and executioners are built into their victims biologically. On the microlevel, inner-judges work through “programmed cell death” – apoptosis – a molecular chain reaction deep within the genes which ends in cellular suicide. In higher animals the inner-judges dole out interior punishments which range from overdoses of stress hormones to emotional miseries. Or they grant internal bonuses of zest and confidence to those of us fulfilling our group’s needs.
When we feel like kicking ourselves around the block or curling up and disappearing, our condemnation comes from inner-judges like guilt and shame. What’s a good deal harder to realize is that behind the scenes our inner-judges sicken us and dumb us down quite literally. If they sense we’re a drag on the collective intelligence, inner-judges down shift our immune system and neurochemically cloud our ability to perceive. They induce a narcotic haze by swamping our system with endorphins, the body’s self-produced equivalent of morphine*. And they flood us with glucocorticoids which kill off both brain cells and lymphocytes – critical cells in our fight against disease.
Inner-judges measure our contribution to the social learning machine by two yardsticks: (1) our personal sense of mastery; and (2) the hints we get from those around us telling us whether they want us eagerly or couldn’t care less if we disappeared like a blackhead from the face of decent society.
Mastery is a useful gauge. It measures whether we’re coping with the trials tossed our way, and whether our example can help steer others in their trip through choppy seas. Popularity is an equally practical yardstick. It measures the extent to which we’re feeding others’ physical, organizational, and/or emotional needs.
Nestled deep within our neuroendocrine complex, inner-judges operate on a sliding scale. By adjusting our mix of neurotransmitters like serotonin, dopamine, norepinephrine, and acetylcholine, or the balance between the gloomy right and sunny left side of the brain, they shift us from fear to daring, from misery to happiness, from grouchiness to charm, from timid silence to expansive speech, from deflation to elation, from pain to ecstasy, from confusion to insight, and from listlessness to lust or to the resolute pursuit of goals.
Some of us are born with inner-judges whose verdicts are perpetually harsh. The result is depression, shyness, and heightened susceptibility to pain. Others arrive from the womb with inner-judges preset to treat us generously, endowing us with energy, few inhibitions, a deep sense of security, and little sense of guilt or shame. But most of us are in the middle – our inner-judges sentence us sternly or magnanimously depending on the snugness with which we fit our social network’s needs.
Those born with inner-judges excessively lenient or severe have taught us much about the secrets of mental and emotional diversity. Harvard University researcher Jerome Kagan has probably never heard the term “inner-judges,” yet he may have done more than any other psychologist to uncover their capabilities. To understand what Kagan hath wrought, a background briefing is in order.
The early-twentieth-century psychoanalytic thinker Carl Jung, says Kagan, originated the concept of introverted and extroverted personalities. Jung also believed that each had a slightly different brain structure. Kagan feels that in his own way, he has proven Jung right. He’s found that 10 to 15 percent of infants are born with a tendency to be fearful and withdrawn, while another 10 to 15 percent are born with a flair for dauntless spontaneity. During the last few decades of the twentieth century, Kagan performed numerous experiments and accumulated large amounts of data demonstrating his concept’s validity.
He refers to facts like these:
In studies of Japanese and American newborns, some infants took the removal of the nipple from their mouths calmly, while others went into emotional fits. The babies as yet had had no opportunity to learn these reactions from their parents. The tendencies were those they’d brought with them from the isolation of the uterus. At fourteen months, the babies who’d been easily upset at birth were still so oversensitive that they often broke out crying when the sight of a stranger loomed. On another test, babies who became upset at birth when they were switched suddenly from water to a sugar solution squalled hysterically at the age of one or two when their mothers left the room, but babies who had taken the change in beverage casually did not. In addition, a study of 113 children showed that those who had a hard time handling the unexpected when they were one year old were still shy and withdrawn by the time they reached six.
This tendency toward variation in personality was not limited to human beings. According to Kagan, it appeared in dogs, mice, rats, wolves, cats, cows, monkeys, and paradise fish. Some of these animals were fascinated by novelty. Others were terrified by anything the least bit out of place.
Fifteen percent of cats steered clear of strangers and even avoided attacking rats. This was remarkably close to the percentage of humans frozen by anxiety attacks.
Kagan traces these differences to genes, which can help set off a lifelong domino effect in the brain. The production of key manufacturing enzyme for the stimulant norepinephrine, says Kagan, is controlled by a single pair of genes, making norepinephrine levels highly heritable. Norepinephrine – which is also a potent stress hormone – shows up very early in the development of the embryo, making the hippocampus oversensitive to the unfamiliar, and hyperactivating the amygdala, which jolts us with the warning signal we call fear. The hippocampus and amygdala – as we’ve seen earlier – are central shapers of the memory bank we call reality. They are also key to the inner-judges’ machinery.
Later in life the products of a prebirth norepinephrine cascade are timid children, who, in carefully controlled studies, are alert to slight changes in tones or brightness of light that other children miss. In other words, these children literally see and hear their world in ways others would not recognize. According to Kagan, the constitutionally frightened are endowed with a limbic system hair-triggered to curse them with a sense of imminent catastrophe. As a consequence, shy children attempt to escape punishment by hiding from everyday events which threaten to torment them hideously. Uninhibited children, on the opposite end of the scale, have underaroused limbic systems and demand a deluge of entertainment to dodge boredom’s intolerability. Their craving for excitement can sometimes wear their parents to a frazzle.
Kagan’s shy children are condemned to solitude and pain by hanging judges in their own biology. Kagan’s uninhibited kids are gifted with indulgent inner-judges predisposed by the limbic system to offer such unearned rewards as boldness and social dexterity. But most of the animals and humans Kagan has studied avoid these two extremes. Seventy percent remain in the middle, their inner-judges handing out positive and negative verdicts according to the rules of the learning machine.
*”Endorphin” is a contraption of the term “endogenous morphine.
The God-like perspective-taking faculty of a full-spectrum superintelligence doesn’t entail distinctively human-friendliness any more than a God-like superintelligence could promote distinctively Aryan-friendliness. Indeed it’s unclear how benevolent superintelligence could want omnivorous killer apes in our current guise to walk the Earth in any shape or form. But is there any connection at all between benevolence and intelligence? Pre-reflectively, benevolence and intelligence are orthogonal concepts. There’s nothing obviously incoherent about a malevolent God or a malevolent – or at least a callously indifferent – Superintelligence. Thus a sceptic might argue that there is no link whatsoever between benevolence – on the face of it a mere personality variable – and enhanced intellect. After all, some sociopaths score highly on our [autistic, mind-blind] IQ tests. Sociopaths know that their victims suffer. They just don’t care.
However, what’s critical in evaluating cognitive ability is a criterion of representational adequacy. Representation is not an all-or-nothing phenomenon; it varies in functional degree. More specifically here, the cognitive capacity to represent the formal properties of mind differs from the cognitive capacity to represent the subjective properties of mind. Thus a notional zombie Hyper-Autist robot running a symbolic AI program on an ultrapowerful digital computer with a classical von Neumann architecture may be beneficent or maleficent in its behaviour toward sentient beings. By its very nature, it can’t know or care. Most starkly, the zombie Hyper-Autist might be programmed to convert the world’s matter and energy into heavenly “utilitronium” or diabolical “dolorium” without the slightest insight into the significance of what it was doing. This kind of scenario is at least a notional risk of creating insentient Hyper-Autists endowed with mere formal utility functions rather than hyper-sentient full-spectrum superintelligence. By contrast, full-spectrum superintelligence does care in virtue of its full-spectrum representational capacities – a bias-free generalisation of the superior perspective-taking, “mind-reading” capabilities that enabled humans to become the cognitively dominant species on the planet. Full-spectrum superintelligence, if equipped with the posthuman cognitive generalisation of mirror-touch synaesthesia, understands your thoughts, your feelings and your egocentric perspective better than you do yourself.
Could there arise “evil” mirror-touch synaesthetes? In one sense, no. You can’t go around wantonly hurting other sentient beings if you feel their pain as your own. Full-spectrum intelligence is friendly intelligence. But in another sense yes, insofar as primitive mirror-touch synaesthetes are prey to species-specific cognitive limitations that prevent them acting rationally to maximise the well-being of all sentience. Full-spectrum superintelligences would lack those computational limitations in virtue of their full cognitive competence in understanding both the subjective and the formal properties of mind. Perhaps full-spectrum superintelligences might optimise your matter and energy into a blissful smart angel; but they couldn’t wantonly hurt you, whether by neglect or design.
More practically today, a cognitively superior analogue of natural mirror-touch synaesthesia should soon be feasible with reciprocal neuroscanning technology – a kind of naturalised telepathy. At first blush, mutual telepathic understanding sounds a panacea for ignorance and egotism alike. An exponential growth of shared telepathic understanding might safeguard against global catastrophe born of mutual incomprehension and WMD. As the poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow observed, “If we could read the secret history of our enemies, we should find in each life sorrow and suffering enough to disarm all hostility.” Maybe so. The problem here, as advocates of Radical Honesty soon discover, is that many Darwinian thoughts scarcely promote friendliness if shared: they are often ill-natured, unedifying and unsuitable for public consumption. Thus unless perpetually “loved-up” on MDMA or its long-acting equivalents, most of us would find mutual mind-reading a traumatic ordeal. Human society and most personal relationships would collapse in acrimony rather than blossom. Either way, our human incapacity fully to understand the first-person point of view of other sentient beings isn’t just a moral failing or a personality variable; it’s an epistemic limitation, an intellectual failure to grasp an objective feature of the natural world. Even “normal” people share with sociopaths this fitness-enhancing cognitive deficit. By posthuman criteria, perhaps we’re all quasi-sociopaths. The egocentric delusion (i.e. that the world centres on one’s existence) is genetically adaptive and strongly selected for over hundreds of millions of years. Fortunately, it’s a cognitive failing amenable to technical fixes and eventually a cure: full-spectrum superintelligence. The devil is in the details, or rather the genetic source code.
Event Name: QRI & Friends: “Cause X” – what will the new shiny EA cause be?
Time: Saturday, January 19, 2019 at 4 PM – 1 AM
Description: This event will consist of 4-minute presentations from attendees about what the “new EA cause area should be” (from 4pm to 6pm) followed by a casual and chill hangout for the rest of the evening.
There are 10 slots for the presentations, and we encourage you to sign up for one before they run out. If you want to give a presentation please fill out this form: [deleted link]
If you want to see people’s presentations please show up before 4:15pm (we will start the presentations at 4:30 sharp). Each participant will be given 4 minutes to present and 1 minute for Q&A. We will be strict on time. You should come prepared to defend your cause with logic, data, etc.
Everyone who sees the presentations will get to vote* at the end for the following three categories:
Most likely to prevent as much suffering as possible with 1 million dollars of funding
Most fun to think about
Most likely to be the plan of a super-villain
There will be real prizes for each of these three categories!!!**
If you just want to come and hang out for the evening please show up from 6:30pm onwards. Vegetarian/vegan food and drinks will be served at around 7:30pm. Feel free to bring vegan/vegetarian food/drinks too.
As usual, feel free to invite people who are curious about consciousness and EA (but please let me know in advance so I can make a head-count for the event).
*Voting was carried out with Approval Voting (where every person can vote for as many presentations as they want and the ones with the highest number of votes win). This was chosen based on the assumption that some presentations might be similar, which would lead to an unfair penalty on similar presentations based on the spoiler effect. Additionally, voters who are undecided between more than one presentation can communicate their uncertainty via this type of voting rather than having that useful information be discarded.
**Prizes were announced the day of the event. For category (1) the prizes were “a fully-equipped first-aid kit plus a 16-bottle essential oils kit”. The winner of category (2) received a prize consisting of “a 3D Mirascope and an Ivy Cube“. And category (3) had as its prize an “Apollo Tools 39 piece general tool set (DT9706)“. These prizes were, of course, highly symbolic of their respective categories.
With the permission of the participants, here is what each of the winners presented:
For (1) two presenters tied in first place:
– Natália Mendonça presented about “Using smartphones to improve well-being measures in order to aid cause prioritization research” (link to presentation). She argued that the experience sampling paradigms that made waves in the 2000s and early 2010s happened at a time when relatively few people had smartphones. Since today smartphone adoption in developing countries has exploded we could use an experience sampling app to determine the major causes of suffering throughout the world in a way that wasn’t possible before. She specifically mentioned “comparing how bad different illnesses feel” in order to help us guide policy decision for cause prioritization.
– An anonymous attendee presented about “Psychedelic Drug Decriminalization“. Some of the core ideas involved taking a look at the effect sizes of the benefits of MDMA, LSD, psilocybin, etc. on various mental illnesses and comparing them against current alternatives. Also looking at the potential downsides they estimated that these only account for about 10% of the benefit, so cost-benefit wise it is very positive. They didn’t cover the entire presentation due to time – more details and a contact email can be found at https://enthea.net.
For (2) the winner was:
– Matthew Barnet who presented about “Timeloop Concept as Cause X” (link – slides don’t have much content; they were used just to keep the presentation on track). Matthew looked at the recent Qualia Computing article about the “Pseudo-Time Arrow” and wondered whether the importance of agents from an ethical point of view should be weighted at least in part based on their subjective time-structure. It’s true that 99% of experiences are experienced as having a linear causal time arrow, but this is not the case for the general space of possible experiences (e.g. including “moments of eternity”, “time loops”, “atemporal states”, etc. common on altered states of consciousness). He posited that perhaps time loop experiences have a much bigger moral importance because from the inside it feels like they never end. A discussion about infinite ethics and the quantification of consciousness ensued.
For (3) the winner was:
– Yev Barkalov, who proposed that rather than trying to endlessly battle in favor of digital privacy… how about we “just give up” and instead refocus the absence of digital privacy for social good. He mentioned China’s social credit score as a possible bad implementation of what he had in mind (“they have poisoned the well of the no-privacy camp by doing it so poorly”). Part of his argument was that technologies such as adblockers, crypto tokens, and the dark net further arms races in which advertisers, financial institutions, and governments become more clever at displaying ads, making you sign up for credit cards, and forcing citizens to abide by the law. Since arms races are dangerous and may lead to draconian systems while also being a waste of resources (due to their zero-sum nature), he suggested that we at least consider the alternative of seeing how a privacy-less world could work in practice. He posited that this could allow people to find quality collaborators more easily thanks to enhanced “people search” capabilities made available to the general population.
For completeness, the remaining presentations included:
– Collective internet identities to replace countries
– The researching of possible Cause Xs as itself Cause X
– Automatic Truth Discovery neo-Wikipedia: like the current Wikipedia but with meta-analytic tools embedded into it, which provide confidence intervals for each claim based on the statistical robustness of the empirical findings that support it. And…
– A critique of utilitarianism that was more of a rant than a specific proposal (???)
Finally, I would like to add here some additional possible Causes X that I have thought about. These did not participate in the event because the organizers were not allowed to present (due to fairness and also because I didn’t want to “win a prize” that I bought myself):
Subsidizing/sponsoring the use of HEPA filters in every house
Distributing DMT vape pens that dispense in 4mg doses to deal with unexpected cluster headaches (this deserves an article of its own; cf. “Hell Must Be Destroyed“)
Building a model that takes in genetic data and returns hedonic set point (and/or tells you which recreational drugs you are most likely to respond positively to).
In brief, (1) above might be a highly effective way of improving the health-span of a country’s population in a cost-effective fashion. As Robin Hanson has argued over the years, if we truly cared about the health of people, we would be spending more resources on the top 4 drivers of health (diet, exercise, sleep, and clean air) rather than on extravagant medical interventions designed to convince us that “an attempt was made.” Clean air, in particular, seems easy to influence at a rather minimal cost. HEPA filters capable of providing clean air to entire apartments (reducing by 10X the PM2.5 concentrations in the apartment) can cost as little as $70, with an upkeep of about $30 a year for renewing filters, and about $20 a year for electricity. Fermi calculation would indicate this would cut the average person’s daily PM2.5 exposure by half. I haven’t worked out the math concerning the amount of micromorts prevented per dollar this way, but the numbers seem extremely promising.
For (2) the rationale is that inhaling tiny doses of DMT aborts a cluster headache within about 3 seconds. Given the fact that about 0.1% of people will suffer from a cluster headache at least once in their lifetimes, and the fact that they are considered one of the most painful experiences possible, having a DMT vape pen within reach at all times as an insurance against spontaneous hellish levels of pain might be perfectly justified. A dedicated article about this specific topic will be posted soon.
The term “Transhumanism” has many senses. It is a social movement, a philosophy, a set of technologies, and a conceptual rallying flag. David Pearce pins down the core sentiment behind the term like this:
If we get things right, the future of life in the universe can be wonderful beyond the bounds of human imagination: a “triple S” civilisation of superlongevity, superintelligence and superhappiness.
The concept of a “triple S” civilization is very widely applicable. For example, one can imagine future smart homes designed with it in mind. Such smart homes would have features to increase your longevity (HEPA filters, humidity control, mold detectors, etc.), increase your intelligence (adaptive noise-canceling, optimal lighting, smart foods), and happiness (mood-congruent lighting, music, aromas, etc.). Since there are trade-offs between these dimensions, one could specify how much one values each of them in advance, and the smart home would be tasked with maximizing a utility function based on a weighted average between the three S’s.
Likewise, one could apply the “triple S” concept to medical care, lifestyle choices, career development, governance, education, etc. In particular, one could argue that a key driver for the realization of a triple S civilization would be what I’d like to call “triple S genetic counseling.” In brief, this is counseling for prospective parents in order to minimize the risks of harming one’s children by being oblivious to the possible genetic risk for having a reduced longevity, intelligence, or happiness. Likewise, in the more forward-looking transhumanist side of the equation, triple S genetic counseling would allow parents to load the genetic dice in their kid’s favor in order to make them as happy, long-lived, and smart as possible.
Genetic counseling, as an industry, is indeed about to explode (cf. Nature’s recent article: Prospective parents should be prepared for a surge in genetic data). Predictably, there will be a significant fraction of society that will question the ethics of e.g. preimplantation genetic diagnosis for psychological traits. In practice, parents who are able to afford it will power ahead, for few prospective parents truly don’t care about the (probabilistic) well-being of their future offspring. My personal worry is not so much that this won’t happen, but that the emphasis will be narrow and misguided. In particular, both predicting health and intelligence based on sequenced genomes are very active areas of research. I worry that happiness will be (relatively) neglected. Hence the importance of emphasizing all three S’s.
In truth, I think that predicting the hedonic set-point of one’s potential future kids (i.e. the average level of genetically-determined happiness) is a relatively more important project than predicting IQ (cf. A genome-wide association study for extremely high intelligence; BGI). In addition, I anticipate that genetic-based models that predict a person’s hedonic set-point will be much more accurate than those that predict IQ. As it turns out, IQ is extremely polygenetic, with predictors diffused across the entire genome, and it is a very evolutionary recent axis of variance across the population. Predictors of hedonic-set point (such as the “pain-knob gene” SCN9A and it’s variants), on the other hand, are ancient and evolutionarily preserved across the phylogenetic tree. This makes baseline happiness a likely candidate for having a straight-forward universal physiological implementation throughout the human population. Hence my prediction that polygenetic scores of hedonic-set point will be much more precise than those for IQ (or even longevity).
Given all of the above, I would posit that a great place to start would be to develop a model that predicts hedonic set-point using all of the relevant SNPs offered by 23andMe*. Not only would this be “low-hanging fruit” in the field of genetic counseling, it may also be a project that is way up there, close to the top of the “to do” list in Effective Altruism (cf. Cause X; Google Hedonics).
I thought about this because I saw that 23andMe reports on health predispositions based on single SNPs. From a utilitarian point of view, of particular interest are SNPs related to the SCN9A gene. For example, I found that 23andMe has the rs6746030 SNP, which some studies show can account for a percentage of the variance associated with pain in Parkinson’s and other degenerative diseases. The allele combination A/A is bad, making you more prone to experience pain intensely. This is just one SNP, though, and there ought to be a lot of other relevant SNPs, not only of the SCN9A gene but elsewhere too (e.g. involved in MAO enzymes, neuroplasticity, and pleasure centers innervation).
Concretely, the task would involve making two models and then combining them:
The first model uses people’s responses to 23andMe surveys to come up with a good estimate of a person’s hedonic set-point. Looking at some of the questions they ask, I would argue that there are more than enough dimensions to model how people vary in their hedonic set-point. They ask about things such as perception of pain, perception of spiciness, difficulty sleeping, stress levels, whether exercise is pleasant, etc. From a data science point of view, the challenge here is that number of responses provided by each participant is very variable; some power users respond to every question (and there are hundreds and hundreds), while most people respond to a few questions only, and a substantial minority respond to no questions at all. Most likely, the distribution of responses per participant follows a power law. So the model to build here has to be resilient against absent data. This is not an insurmountable problem, though, considering the existence of Bayesian Networks, PGMs, and statistical paradigms like Item Response Theory. For this reason, the model would need to both predict the most likely hedonic set-point of each participant, and provide confidence intervals specific to the participant based on the quality and relevance of the questions answered.
The second model would involve clustering and dimensionality reduction applied to the SNPs that are likely to be relevant for hedonic set-point. For example, one dimension would likely be a cluster of SNPs that are associated with “maximum intensity of pain”, another might be “how quickly pain subsides once it’s stimulated”, another “how much does pleasure counter-balance pain”, and so on. Each of these dimensions is likely to be determined by different neural circuits, and interact in non-linear ways, so they deserve their own separate dimension.
And finally, one would make a third model that combines the two models above, which predicts the hedonic set-point of a person derived from the first model using the genetic dimensions found by the second model. If you are an up-and-coming geneticist, I would like to nudge you in the direction of looking into this. As a side effect, you might as well get filthy rich in the process, as the genetic counseling field explodes in the next decade.
Bonus Content: What About Us?
Admittedly, many people will note that predicting a fraction of the variance of people’s hedonic set point with commercial DNA testing products will only really alleviate suffering in the medium to long term. The people who will benefit from this technology haven’t been born yet. In the meantime, what do we do about the people who currently have low hedonic set-points? Here is a creative, politically incorrect, and enticing idea:
Let’s predict which recreational drugs have the best cost-benefit profile for individuals based on their genetic makeup.
It is no secret that people react differently to drugs. 23andMe, among others, is currently doing research to predict your particular reaction to a drug based on your genetic makeup (cf. 23andMe can now tell you how you’ll react to 50+ common drugs). Unfortunately for people with anxiety, depression, chronic pain, and other hedonic tone illnesses, most psychiatric drugs are rather subtle and relatively ineffective. No wonder, compared to heroin, an SSRI is not likely to make you feel particularly great. As David Pearce argued in his essay Future Opioids, there is substantial evidence that many people who become addicts are driven to take recreational substances due to the fact that their endogenous opioid system is dysfunctional (e.g. they may have bad variants of opioid receptors, too many endorphin-degrading enzymes, etc.). The problem with giving people hard drugs is not that they don’t work in the short term; it is that they tend to backfire in the long-term and have cumulative negative health effects. As an aside, from the pharmaceutical angle, my main interest is the development of Anti-tolerance Drugs, which would allow hard drugs to work as mood-enhancers indefinitely.
This is not to say that there aren’t lucky people for whom the cost-benefit ratio of taking hard drugs is, in fact, rather beneficial. In what admittedly must have been a tongue-in-cheek marketing move, in the year 2010 the genetic interpretation company Knome (now part of Tute Genomics) studied Ozzy Osbourne‘s entire genome in order to determine how on earth he has been able to stay alive despite the gobs and gobs of drugs he’s taken throughout his life. Ozzy himself:
“I was curious, [g]iven the swimming pools of booze I’ve guzzled over the years—not to mention all of the cocaine, morphine, sleeping pills, cough syrup, LSD, Rohypnol…you name it—there’s really no plausible medical reason why I should still be alive. Maybe my DNA could say why.”
Tentatively, Knome scientists said, Ozzy’s capacity to drink entire bottles of Whisky and Gin combined with bowlfuls of cocaine and multiple packs of cigarettes over the course of… breakfast… without ending up in the hospital may be due to novel mutations in his alcohol dehydrogenase gene (ADH4), as well as, potentially, the gene that codes for CLTCL1, a protein responsible for the intake of extra-cellular material into the cell’s inside. These are wild speculations, to be clear, but the general idea is brilliant.
Indeed, not everyone reacts in the same way to recreational drugs. A recent massive study on the health effects of alcohol funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (cf. No amount of alcohol is good for your overall health) suggests that alcohol is bad for one’s health at every dosage. This goes against the common wisdom backed up with numerous studies that light-drinkers (~1 alcohol unit a day) live longer and healthier lives than teetotalers. The new study suggests that this is not a causal effect of alcohol. Rather, it so happens that a large fraction of teetotalers are precisely the kind of people who react very badly to alcohol as a matter of poor metabolism. Hence, teetotalers are not unhealthy because they avoid alcohol; they avoid alcohol because they are unhealthy, which explains their shorter life expectancy on average. That said, the study did show that 1 alcohol unit a day is, although damaging, very minimally so:
Anyhow, the world’s cultural fascination with alcohol is bizarre to me, considering the existence of drugs that have a much better hedonic and cost-benefit profile (cf. State-Space of Drug Effects). Perhaps finding out with genetic testing that you are likely to be an above-average alcohol metabolizer might be good to lessen your worry about having a couple of drinks now and then. But the much bigger opportunity here would be to allow you to find drugs that you are particularly compatible with. For example, a genetic test might determine based on a polygenetic score that you might benefit a whole lot from taking small amounts of e.g. Khat (or some such obscure and relatively benign euphoriant). That is, that your genetic make-up is such that Khat will be motivation enhancing, empathy-increasing, good for your heart and lungs, reduce the rate of dopamine neuron death, etc. while at the same time producing little to no hangovers, no irritability, no sleep issues, or social dysfunction. Even though you may have thought that you are “not an uppers person”, perhaps that’s because, genetically, every other upper you have ever tried is objectively terrible for your health. But Khat wouldn’t be. Wouldn’t this information be useful? Indeed, I would posit, this might be a great step in the right direction in order to achieve the goal of Wireheading Done Right.
*23andMe is here used as a shorthand for services in general like this (including Ancestry, Counsyl, Natera, etc.)
[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.
I am delighted to announce that I will be presenting at Consciousness Hacking in San Francisco on 2017/6/7 (YMD notation).
Consciousness Hacking (CoHack) is an extremely awesome community that blends a genuine interest in benevolence, scientific rationality, experiential spirituality, self-experimentation, and holistic wellbeing together with an unceasing focus on consciousness. Truth be told, CohHack is one of the reasons why I love living in the Bay Area.
What would happen if a bliss technology capable of inducing a constant MDMA-like state of consciousness with no negative side effects were available? What makes an experience good or bad? Is happiness a spiritual trick, or is spirituality a happiness trick?
At this month’s speaker presentation, Consciousness Hacking invites Data Science Engineer, Andrés Gómez Emilsson to discuss current research, including his own, concerning the measurement of bliss, how blissful brain states can be induced, and what implications this may have on quality of life and our relationship with the world around us.
Emilsson’s research aims to create a mathematical theory of the pleasure-pain axis that can take information about a person’s brain at a given point in time and return the approximate (or even true) level of happiness and suffering for that person. Emilsson will explore two dimensions that have been studied in affective neuroscience for decades:
Arousal: how much energy and activation a given emotion has
Valence: the “feel good or feel bad” dimension of emotion
If the purpose of life is to feel happy and to make others happy, then figuring out how valence is implemented in the brain may take us a long way in that direction. Current approaches to valence, while helpful, usually don’t address the core of the problem (ie. usually just measuring the symptoms of pleasure such as the neurotransmitters that trigger it, brain regions, positive reinforcement, etc. rather than getting at the experience of pleasure itself).
A real science of valence would not only be able to integrate and explain why the things people report as pleasurable are pleasant, it would also make a precise, empirically falsifiable hypothesis about whether arbitrary brain states will feel good or bad. This is what Emilsson aims to do.
You will take away:
An understanding about the current scientific consensus on the nature of happiness in the brain, and why it is incomplete
A philosophical case for both the feasibility and desirability of a world devoid of intense suffering
A new candidate mathematical formula that can be used to predict the psychological wellbeing of a brain at a given point in time
An argument for why bliss technology that puts us in a constant MDMA-like state of consciousness with no negative side effects is likely to become available within the next two to five decades
The opportunity to network with other people who are serious about figuring out the meaning of life through introspection and neuroscience
About our speaker:
Andrés Gómez Emilsson was born in México City in 1990. From an early age, he developed an interest in philosophy, mathematics, and science, leading him to compete nationally and internationally in Math and Science Olympiads. At 16, his main interest was mathematics, but after an unexpected “mystical experience”, he turned his attention to consciousness and the philosophical problems that it poses. He studied Symbolic Systems with an Artificial Intelligence concentration at Stanford, and later finished a masters in Computational Psychology at the same university. During his time at Stanford he co-founded the Stanford Transhumanist Association and became good friends with transhumanist philosopher David Pearce, taking on the flag of the Hedonistic Imperative (HI). In order to pursue the long-term goals of HI, his current primary intellectual interest is to reverse-engineer the functional, biochemical and/or quantum signatures of pure bliss.
He is currently working at a Natural Language Processing company in San Francisco, creating quantitative measures of employee happiness, productivity, and ethics at companies, with the long-term intent of creating a consciousness research institute that’s also a great place to work for (i.e. one in which employees are happy, productive, and ethical). In his free time he develops psychophysical tools to study the computational properties of consciousness.
ECO-SYSTM is a dynamic community of creative professionals, startups, and freelancers, founded on the idea that entertainment, creativity and business can come together to offer a truly unique work experience for Bay Area professionals. Check out membership plans here: http://eco-systm.com/
Extract from Geoffrey Miller’s essay “Political peacocks”
Humans are ideological animals. We show strong motivations and incredible capacities to learn, create, recombine, and disseminate ideas. Despite the evidence that these idea-processing systems are complex biological adaptations that must have evolved through Darwinian selection, even the most ardent modern Darwinians such as Stephen Jay Gould, Richards Dawkins, and Dan Dennett tend to treat culture as an evolutionary arena separate from biology. One reason for this failure of nerve is that it is so difficult to think of any form of natural selection that would favor such extreme, costly, and obsessive ideological behavior. Until the last 40,000 years of human evolution, the pace of technological and social change was so slow that it’s hard to believe there was much of a survival payoff to becoming such an ideological animal. My hypothesis, developed in a long Ph.D. dissertation, several recent papers, and a forthcoming book, is that the payoffs to ideological behavior were largely reproductive. The heritable mental capacities that underpin human language, culture, music, art, and myth-making evolved through sexual selection operating on both men and women, through mutual mate choice. Whatever technological benefits those capacities happen to have produced in recent centuries are unanticipated side-effects of adaptations originally designed for courtship.
The predictions and implications
The vast majority of people in modern societies have almost no political power, yet have strong political convictions that they broadcast insistently, frequently, and loudly when social conditions are right. This behavior is puzzling to economists, who see clear time and energy costs to ideological behavior, but little political benefit to the individual. My point is that the individual benefits of expressing political ideology are usually not political at all, but social and sexual. As such, political ideology is under strong social and sexual constraints that make little sense to political theorists and policy experts. This simple idea may solve a number of old puzzles in political psychology. Why do hundreds of questionnaires show that men more conservative, more authoritarian, more rights-oriented, and less empathy-oriented than women? Why do people become more conservative as the move from young adulthood to middle age? Why do more men than women run for political office? Why are most ideological revolutions initiated by young single men?
None of these phenomena make sense if political ideology is a rational reflection of political self-interest. In political, economic, and psychological terms, everyone has equally strong self-interests, so everyone should produce equal amounts of ideological behavior, if that behavior functions to advance political self-interest. However, we know from sexual selection theory that not everyone has equally strong reproductive interests. Males have much more to gain from each act of intercourse than females, because, by definition, they invest less in each gamete. Young males should be especially risk-seeking in their reproductive behavior, because they have the most to win and the least to lose from risky courtship behavior (such as becoming a political revolutionary). These predictions are obvious to any sexual selection theorist. Less obvious are the ways in which political ideology is used to advertise different aspects of one’s personality across the lifespan.
In unpublished studies I ran at Stanford University with Felicia Pratto, we found that university students tend to treat each others’ political orientations as proxies for personality traits. Conservatism is simply read off as indicating an ambitious, self-interested personality who will excel at protecting and provisioning his or her mate. Liberalism is read as indicating a caring, empathetic personality who will excel at child care and relationship-building. Given the well-documented, cross-culturally universal sex difference in human mate choice criteria, with men favoring younger, fertile women, and women favoring older, higher-status, richer men, the expression of more liberal ideologies by women and more conservative ideologies by men is not surprising. Men use political conservatism to (unconsciously) advertise their likely social and economic dominance; women use political liberalism to advertise their nurturing abilities. The shift from liberal youth to conservative middle age reflects a mating-relevant increase in social dominance and earnings power, not just a rational shift in one’s self-interest.
More subtley, because mating is a social game in which the attractiveness of a behavior depends on how many other people are already producing that behavior, political ideology evolves under the unstable dynamics of game theory, not as a process of simple optimization given a set of self-interests. This explains why an entire student body at an American university can suddenly act as if they care deeply about the political fate of a country that they virtually ignored the year before. The courtship arena simply shifted, capriciously, from one political issue to another, but once a sufficient number of students decided that attitudes towards apartheid were the acid test for whether one’s heart was in the right place, it became impossible for anyone else to be apathetic about apartheid. This is called frequency-dependent selection in biology, and it is a hallmark of sexual selection processes.
What can policy analysts do, if most people treat political ideas as courtship displays that reveal the proponent’s personality traits, rather than as rational suggestions for improving the world? The pragmatic, not to say cynical, solution is to work with the evolved grain of the human mind by recognizing that people respond to policy ideas first as big-brained, idea-infested, hyper-sexual primates, and only secondly as concerned citizens in a modern polity. This view will not surprise political pollsters, spin doctors, and speech writers, who make their daily living by exploiting our lust for ideology, but it may surprise social scientists who take a more rationalistic view of human nature. Fortunately, sexual selection was not the only force to shape our minds. Other forms of social selection such as kin selection, reciprocal altruism, and even group selection seem to have favoured some instincts for political rationality and consensual egalitarianism. Without the sexual selection, we would never have become such colourful ideological animals. But without the other forms of social selection, we would have little hope of bringing our sexily protean ideologies into congruence with reality.
David Pearce asked me ages ago to make accesible videos about transhumanism, consciousness and the abolitionist project. Well, here is a start
In this video I outline the core philosophy and objectives of Qualia Computing. There are three main goals here:
Catalogue the entire state-space of consciousness
Identify the computational properties of each experience (and its qualia components), and
Reverse engineer valence (i.e. to discover the function that maps formal descriptions of states of consciousness to values in the pleasure-pain axis)
While describing the 1st objective I explain that we start by realizing that consciousness is doing something useful (or evolution would not have been able to recruit it for information-processing purposes). I also go on to explain the difference between qualia varieties (e.g. phenomenal color, smell, touch, thought, etc.) and qualia values (i.e. the specific points in the state-spaces defined by the varieties, such as “pure phenomenal blue” or the smell of cardamom).
With regards to the 2nd objective, I explain that our minds actually use the specific properties of each qualia variety in order to represent information states and then to solve computational problems. We are only getting started in this project.
And 3rd, I argue that discovering exactly what makes an experience “worth living” in a formal and mathematical way is indeed ethically urgent. With a fundamental understanding of valence we can develop precise interventions to reduce (even prevent altogether) any form of suffering without messing up with our capacity to think and explore the state-space of consciousness (at least the valuable part of it).
I conclude by pointing out that the 1st and 2nd research programs actually interact in non-trivial ways: There is a synergy between them which may lead us to a recursively self-improving intelligence (and do so in a far “safer” way than trying to build an AGI through digital software).
Wireheads are beings who have changed their reward architecture in order to be happy all the time. Unfortunately few people are making a serious effort to steel man the case for wireheading. The concept of wireheading tends to be a conversation stopper, and is frequently used as a reductio-ad-absurdum for valence utilitarianism. Hedonism is a low-status philosophy at the time, but this may be the result of what amounts to dumb reasons (i.e. going against it signals intellectual sophistications). Let’s be meta-contrarian for a moment and think critically about it. What would a good case for wireheading look like? In what follows I will (1) provide an account of what is known about emotional dynamics over time, (2) discuss the known pitfalls of current wireheading methods, (3) propose a system to overcome these pitfalls, and (4) make the case that combining wireheading (done right) with a systematic exploration of the state-space of consciousness might ultimately be our saving grace against the perils of Darwinism at the evolutionary limit.
Let us begin by enriching our understanding of the nature of bliss and its temporal dynamics:
The Cube of Euphoria
A little over a year ago I conducted a study to figure out the main dimensions along which psychotropic drugs influence people. The State-Space of Drug Effects consists of six main dimensions: fast euphoria, slow euphoria, spiritual euphoria, clarity, perception of overall value, and external vs. internal source of interest. The first three dimensions are directly related to pleasure, which makes them relevant for our current discussion.
Slow | Fast
Spiritual | Fast
Spiritual | Slow
Fast euphoria is what you get when you take stimulants, exercise or anticipate that something great is about to happen. Slow euphoria is what you experience if you take opioids or depressants, receive massages or hug a loved one. Spiritual/philosophical euphoria changes less frequently relative to the daily comings and goings of the other two. It is a state of consciousness related to the way we represent “the big picture”. Those who seek it try to induce it by methods that include philosophical thinking, spiritual practices and/or psychedelic drug use.
Two out of these three dimensions are equivalent to the well-studied emotion classification space of valence and arousal (also called core affect). Valence is how good the experience feels, whereas arousal deals with the intensity of the experience. It turns out that one can get the slow-fast projection of the cube of euphoria by changing the basis used to represent the valence-arousal space. You can get the valence-arousal space simply by rotating the slow-fast euphoria projection by 45 degrees:
The valence-arousal dimensional classification of emotions.
A change of basis by turning the space 90 degrees. Fast and Slow euphoria are two of three dimensions of the cube of euphoria.
As we can see, fast euphoria is equivalent to “high-valence high-arousal” while slow euphoria is equivalent to “high-valence low-arousal”. This basis is not uncommon in affective psychology, and when used the axes are usually labeled “positive and negative activation”. We will use a yellow-red circle to represent fast euphoria and a blue-green circle to represent slow euphoria. I chose this color-coding by reasoning that warm colors are a better representation of ecstatic states of consciousness whereas cool colors illustrate better the feelings of cooling off and relaxing. I happen to prefer the fast-slow basis because it highlights the different kinds of euphoria in a helpful way that captures behavioral differences. This will be important when we get to steel-manning wireheading later on.
Formalizing the Hedonic Treadmill: Negative Feedback Mechanisms
It is well known that in the long run the things that happen to you have a surprisingly small effect on your overall level of happiness. One tends to always orbit around one’s hedonic set-point(our mean valence and arousal values). Although our average sense of wellbeing does change from context to context (in response to variables such as stress, novelty, drug regimens, accomplishments, and opportunities for meaningful relationships), the environmental effect usually washes out over time by one’s internal negative feedback mechanisms. The ability to achieve lasting happiness, it turns out, was not as evolutionarily adaptive in our ancestral environment as the robust re-centering of affective dynamics that ended up governing our patterns of wellbeing. Thankfully, though unfairly, we are not all equally miserable; some people are lucky to be born hyperthymic and enjoy life the majority of the time. Genetically-determined pain-thresholds do not only influence how one responds to physical discomfort, but also predict the size of one’s social network (presumably by making social rejection less taxing).
Less well known is that people have different values for their valence-arousal correlation. According to a 2007 study by Peter Kuppens, the conventional wisdom in affective psychology that valence and arousal are uncorrelated is not quite correct. For 30% of people valence is negatively correlated with arousal, for 30% it is the opposite and for the remaining 40% there is no correlation between these two dimensions.
This means that some people usually experience high valence (i.e. feel good) at the same time as being in an up-beat high energy state, and when they feel bad they tend to also have low levels of energy. On the other extreme there are those who experience bliss by tuning the energy down and relaxing, and primarily experience bad feelings in the form of high-energy states (such as irritation, worry and anger).
The study showed that the correlation between valence and arousal was person-specific (negative for ~30%, positive for ~30%, no correlation for ~40% of people).
What else is variable across people? As it turns out, the transition patterns of core affect are related to personality factors. People’s level of variance in the valence dimension is an important component of neuroticism. Although most neurotics tend to hang out in low-valence states, there are indeed very happy neurotics whose problem is not that they feel bad, but that great feelings are too short-lasting and unpredictable. It is the unpredictability of valence rather than its absolute value that results in the coping mechanisms typical of this dimension. Likewise, higher variability in arousal is a component of extraversion, SEE I AM SCREAMING NOW (for example). Openness to experience can be understood in terms of novelty-triggered increases in valence, so that more open individuals are more likely to experience euphoria of all kinds when learning new information relative to people who describe themselves as conventional. Conscientious individuals feel very rewarded when they complete a laborious task (but may experience more intense shame if they do not finish it on time). Agreeableness is undeniably connected to a positive perception of other people. If one feels that others are right and deserve to exist one is more likely to cooperate. The way to have positive perceptions of others is to increase the hedonic tone of the interpersonal representations. In brief, core affect dynamics can be used to capture otherwise hard-to-describe properties of the various personality factors. They each have a signature behavior in the valence-arousal space.
In a paper titled A Hierarchical Latent Stochastic Differential Equation Model for Affective Dynamics, Oravecz, Tuerlinckx, and Vandekerckhove applied the Ornstein–Uhlenbeck process to the dynamics of core affect. Their model takes into account many important features that had previously been overlooked for the sake of simplicity. As mentioned in the previous paragraph, these features turn out to be important signatures of personality factors, so having a model that incorporates them may be very useful to understand the differences between people. Their model describes people as having: a latent home base (hedonic set point), variance (for both components), a correlation between valence and arousal, an average speed, and a time-dependent relocation of the home base determined by the hour of the day. The model allows you to estimate person-specific parameters (using as input a sequence of self-reported emotional states). In turn, once you have determined someone’s latent parameters, the model can help you predict their future affect based on their current state.
The “how fast you are pushed towards your baseline” vector field.
Two example walks over time in core affect space having different hedonic set-points.
The effect of parameters
This model is perhaps as good as it gets if you are restricted by a Markov assumption and given only the valence and arousal dimensions of the participants over time. The state-space of emotion is far more granular, though. Even increasing the number of dimensions by one (e.g. by including the dimension of spiritual euphoria) may go a long way in clarifying the nature of unexpected emotional transitions. What explains the sometimes very large effect of philosophical discoveries, religious conversions, and personal epiphanies?
A Map of Emotion Attractors: Studying 176X176 Transition Probabilities
Back between 2012 to 2014 I worked on modeling the dynamics of emotion transitions. I did this first as part of a research project for a company I worked for (thanks Kanjoya!) and it then transformed into the topic of my masters’ thesis. If you are interested in reading about it you can find some more on a paper I wrote with colleagues on predicting future emotions based on a sequence of previous ones (together with social cues).*
The analysis I worked on was made on a sample of hundreds of thousands of users of the now-defunct (but still browsable) Experience Project social network. Participants would have the option to record their mood on the landing page: they would select an emotion from a list of 176 words, say how intense this emotion was at the time (from 1 to 5) and explain why they feel the way they do (open text; optional). I analyzed the transition probability between each ordered pair of emotions for different intervals of time and compressed it into a score that describes the overall flow of people between them. This results in a flow graph that we can analyze with tools from graph theory. I explored many ways of clustering this graph and ultimately settled on a method that generated the best predictive power on a model to forecast future emotions. This method consisted of grouping the emotions in such a way that each emotion would maximize its mean transition probability to other emotions in the same group (relative to other groups). For the paper I made this graph with all of the emotions (nodes), the transition probabilities between them (edge thickness) and the resulting clusters (colors):
A weighted directed graph with 176 nodes, each representing a distinct state of consciousness. The edges represent the (directed) compressed transition probability between each ordered pair of states. The size of each node approximates the base rate at which the emotion occurs in the sample.
Each color represents a given “emotion attractor”. At a high level, we can say that whenever you are experiencing an emotion that is e.g. green you are more likely to transition to other emotions that are also green (relative to what would be expected from choosing an emotion randomly). This analysis is ultimately consistent with Oravecz et al.’s model in the sense that both analysis study the dynamic way in which people tend to get in and out of their home base. However, the granularity afforded by the 176 different options also allowed me to examine the deviations from this pattern. I investigated the question: “Which emotions take you to places that are inconsistent with the general trend of stochastically moving towards the central hedonic set-point?”
It turns out that some emotions behave in interesting ways. Some are what we called “hubs”: common stopping points that work as a route between any two colors. For example, “calm” and “tired” are hubs, and they do not give you much information about past or future emotions. Some other emotions behave like ‘gateways’ in the sense that they tend to indicate a jump from a particular color to another. For example, ‘hopeful’ and ‘relieved’ are two ‘gateway’ emotions: they work as stepping stones from blue (depressive) emotions to green (positive) ones.
Some emotions challenge the hedonic treadmill by virtue of predicting unexpectedly long-lasting stays on a given color. For example, the words “blessed”, “blissful” and “loved” were great predictors of long-lasting green emotions. By examining the text of these mood updates we determined that on average the people listing religious and spiritual themes as the cause of their feelings were more likely to stay for longer periods of time in the zone of positive emotions than most other people in the sample. I suppose that people’s spiritual euphoria may hack the pattern of hedonic habituation to some extent in a few lucky ones. I personally do not think that this is a scalable solution for everyone, though, since not everyone is spiritually oriented or has their endogenous opioid system wired up properly for meditation. The outstanding effect sizes we may see in some people who benefit from a particular e.g. meditation technique rarely generalize to everyone else. That said, it is certainly neat to see some evidence of some (spiritual/philosophical) sabotage at the mill.
How can we feel better in the long term?
A few years ago I abandoned hope in the idea that psychological interventions are sufficient to increase our wellbeing (philosophy, spirituality and exposure therapy can only take you so far in making you feel better). So what is next? The trick will be to combine psychological, chemical, electrical and genetic methods together in a balanced and healthy way and forget about relying on a single method. Can we be happy all the time? Let us move on to the subject of wireheading more directly. Given what we have discussed about core affect, emotion dynamics and the resilience of the hedonic set-point, is it possible to wirehead oneself in a non-regrettable way? I think that the answer is yes, but we will need to avoid some crucial dangers…
Wireheading Done Wrong I: Forgetting About the Negative Feedback
Fast and slow euphoria can be reliably triggered by sensorial or chemical methods. However, doing so quickly kick-starts two negative feedback mechanisms.
Current hedonic negative feedback dynamics.
The first one is that the effect is reduced (shown in the image as the little loops with a minus sign) with each use. And the second one is that withdrawing from these euphoric states kindles circuits that do the opposite of what was intended (as shown by the arrows with a positive sign). Too much of something that calms you is going to bring about a long and withdrawn state of constant low-level anxiety. Too much of anything that makes you up-beat and ecstatic is going to induce a long and withdrawn state of low-level depression.
Amphetamines, traditional opioids, barbiturates and empathogens can be ruled out as wise tools for positive hedonic recalibration. They are not comprehensive life enrichers precisely because it is not possible (at least as of 2016) to control the negative feedback mechanism that they kick-start. Simply pushing the button of pleasure and hoping it will all be alright is not an intelligent strategy given our physiological implementation. The onset of this negative feedback often triggers addictive behavior and physiological changes that shape the brain to expect the substance.
The case of spiritual/philosophical euphoria is a lot trickier. It is clear that there is a negative feedback that may be described (more or less) as a sort of philosophical boredom. Psychedelics are capable of changing our brain so as to increase the range of possible valence (i.e. they can enable states of extreme pleasure but also extreme suffering) in a way that sidesteps the need to directly interact with our pleasure centers. I think it is extremely important to figure out the mechanism of action of psychedelic bliss. We will in fact address it in another article. For now it will suffice to say that psychedelic pleasure does not seem to induce cravings or withdrawal. We should take a close look at it because it may be the key to understanding how to produce unlimited positive valence with no negative repercussions. Unfortunately, producing philosophical, spiritual and psychedelic bliss nowadays is still more of an art than a science; these methods are unreliable and can backfire tremendously.
In summary, we might say that if one is oblivious to negative feedback, then meth addiction is an attempt at fast euphoria wireheading, whereas opioid dependence is the result of trying (ineffectively) to obtain boundless slow euphoria. Spiritual euphoria wireheading attempts usually involve activities such as philosophy, meditation, prayer and psychedelic drug use. Even though attempting spiritual euphoria wireheading on oneself is a hell of a lot healthier than doing meth or heroin, it is certainly not free from possible psychological side effects (such as acquiring bizarre beliefs or experiencing events- sometimes profoundly distressing- of spiritual dysphoria and unwanted changes in one’s belief system).
Wireheading Done Wrong II: Seduced by a World of Your Own
One simple approach to wireheading effectively is to remove either one or both of the negative feedback mechanisms shown in the image above. Wiring electrodes into one’s pleasure centers does the trick just fine, since it apparently removes both. It turns out that the mechanism for generating physiological tolerance is bypassed by direct electric (rather than chemical) stimulation to the nucleus accumbens. Bliss obtained this way does not seem to stop pouring nor diminish in greatness over time. Unfortunately this method has profound pitfalls. Most salient of all is that if given the choice, mice (and some but not all people) will continuously self-stimulate this way as frequently and as intensely as possible, neglecting both physiological needs (like food and sleep) and social demands (like feeding one’s children or paying taxes). In the case of humans, people feel compelled to self-stimulate when suffering, but under normal circumstances (if feeling good already) they can hold off from pressing the button in order to carry out other activities. Admittedly this is an improvement over drugs, which make you feel terrible in the long run and in turn make you seek relief with the same method that brought you there. With electrical rather than chemical stimulation we can at least avoid this pitfall. That said, people do not like to have objects implanted in their brain, and our infection-prone future will thank us for not developing an addictive technology that requires a constant stream of ineffective antibiotics to keep it plugged in place. Thankfully future wireheading may be minimally invasive. Attractive alternatives to old-fashioned electrodes include body-powered wireless implants, optogenetics, and genetically encoded magnetic triggers of neural activity.
A much more subtle way to try to improve one’s hedonic set point is by counteracting the activation of the post-pleasure dysphoria only. Anti-depressants of the SSRI variety and the less well-known fast-acting aminoguanidine agmatine help prevent gross kindling of circuits that produce unpleasant sensations. This method may ultimately come down to increasing the amount of noise in the entire system** and thus reducing the survivability of highly-ordered states (such as pain and pleasure) in one’s consciousness. Preventing withdrawal by this method comes at the cost of blunting high-valence states, unfortunately. Prolonged SSRI use often makes people anhedonic and feel like they have lost all zest for life. In contrast, Ibogaine and low-dose opioid antagonists are promising chemical avenues to attack the same problem in a very different way without such side-effects. These compounds work by rebalancing one’s proportion of the various opioid receptor subtypes and in turn driving one’s hedonic capacity upwards (for some reason I don’t understand).
A whole generation of people will probably be “lost” to what I call single euphoria wireheading: let’s say that you have mastered the ability to experience a high level of fast euphoria in a sustainable way. You can in principle stop at any point and come down without feeling like you are missing out. But whenever you do activate the fast euphoria you are about ten times more motivated to go out, explore the world, work on projects and meet great people who also share your newfound interests and values. You may end up choosing to join a community of other people who value living fast and staying hyper-motivated, just as you do now.
Super-symmetric states may maximize valence locally. Whether their continuous instantiation is evolutionarily adaptive is still up unknown.
A World of Your Own: If you can modify the parameters of your own qualia values, you can perceive yourself as being in the best possible world.
Fast euphoria in particular is extremely tricky to program correctly, since it deals so directly with behavioral reinforcement. Many people get hooked on meth + X rather than on just meth: whether X is music, gaming, sex, gambling, porn and/or alcohol, during a meth binge people often end up doing the exact same repetitive but pleasant task for tens of hours. In other words, fast euphoria not only reinforces itself, but it also reinforces whatever activity you do while you experience it, and this is especially the case if the activity is more enjoyable as a result of the fast euphoria. Stimulant addiction, deep brain stimulation and manic states in bipolar sufferers share a core personality-changing effect driven by an excessive interest in a few rewarding activities at the expense of all other interests and responsibilities. It is extremely tricky to rationally use one’s reinforcement system directly in order to recalibrate one’s hedonic tone. Without (as-of-yet-uninvented) safeguards, doing so tends to increase impulsivity in the long term and mess up one’s preference architecture.
We could in principle block the metabolic pathways that lead to changes in one’s motivational system as a response to fast euphoria. If we did this, then people might be able to master side-effect-free hyper-motivation. Does this mean that a straightforward road to Super-Happiness is short-cutting to perpetual motivation?
The main problem is that motivation and one’s implicit notion of our self-in-time interact in unpredictable ways. One of the very mechanisms of action by which something like meth can transform your preference architecture is by forcibly redefining your self-model (cf. Ontological Qualia). Fast euphoria brings one’s attention towards the present moment and present happenings. In high amounts, it brings you face to face with your own presence in the eternal now. From that point of view, it feels as if that very moment is who you are, and one’s normal state of consciousness is re-interpreted as a mere jumping platform at the service of the few and far apart moments of real joy. To have an episode of feeling “truly alive” and returning to typical human conditions can unquestionably be felt as a sort of death -one not of the biological body but of the fleeting self-models that inhabited such sharper and subjectively more worthwhile state-spaces of consciousness.
If one’s implicit self-model is not robust against sudden changes in one’s level of fast euphoria, then one will not be good at surviving and being productive in a social economy. Let us say that person A is able to identify herself with her future self in 2059 and save for retirement, but person A on meth has a very hard time thinking of herself in any other terms than “me, right now, for as long as I can stay in this state of mind, 3 to 9 hours, give or take, depending on whether I redose.” The present moment, the immediate future and the pleasure opportunities available in it can be so salient that they eclipse one’s every other interest. If we do not find a way to prevent this shift in perspective it may be impossible to safeguard rationality when showered with streams of high-grade fast euphoria.
How about sloweuphoria wireheading? I suspect that it is in principle possible to master hyper-relaxation without being incapacitated. In the meantime, trying to slow down too much does seem to reduce one’s productivity by a good margin, so wireheading of the slow euphoria type is not currently advisable. That said, achieving hedonic recalibration by guaranteeing a minimum of slow euphoria is, as I see it, a lot more feasible than doing so through fast euphoria. Slow euphoria does not have the explosive effects on one’s motivational architecture and self-models that fast euphoria does. On the contrary, relaxation can allow us to reconceive of ourselves as beings who inhabit much longer timelines (to really grasp our decades-long lifespan and know how to pace ourselves rather than feeling pressed to identify with our present moment exclusively).
Spiritual euphoria may or may not necessarily imply changes in one’s belief structure. Currently, peak spiritual/philosophical states (including high levels of psychedelia) are a rather different kind of subjective wellbeing than the other two that dominate our everyday life. This bliss is often associated with extreme changes in the quality of one’s conceptualization of reality, which limits its effective incorporation into a rational and economically productive being. Unless, of course… one is producing useful information in those states. More about this further below.
In summary: If a device is ever discovered that allows people to enjoy fast, slow or spiritual euphoria without implicitly influencing their worldview and economic capacity, then that device will probably become a staple of life. Issues of authorship and agency aside, single euphoria wireheading without serious engineering to counter its problems is a road to oblivion from the point of view of evolution. Whether controlled single euphoria wireheading can be adaptive is still up for debate.
Wireheading Done Wrong III: Becoming a Pure Replicator (Even If You Love It)
Look, we are all friends here. We are trying to delay for as long as possible the development of a Singleton (i.e. a state of complete control by one system), while we also try to keep at bay the problem of Moloch*** (i.e. complete lack of control). We are trying to find a sustainable solution against both extremes. In our ideal world, all beings should have the freedom to explore the state-space of consciousness however they want (or live in an Archipelago of societies at the very least). We need to work together on designing the future to avoid evolutionary extremes and safeguard freedom of consciousness. Now, who is the enemy?
The Threat of Pure Replicators
I will define a pure replicator, in the context of agents and minds, to be an intelligence that is indifferent towards the valence of its conscious states and those of others. A pure replicator invests all of its energy and resources into surviving and reproducing, even at the cost of continuous suffering to themselves or others. Its main evolutionary advantage is that it does not need to spend any resources making the world a better place.
If given the choice, please don’t become a pure replicator and throw under the bus all the hard work that people throughout history have put into making the world not an entirely horrible place. Pure replicators may come in many guises. While the term pure replicator may invoke images of cockroaches and viruses in one’s mind, the truth is that your modafinil-fueled income-maximizing coworker may already be on the path of turning into one. Wait, what did you just read?
Considering that the dimension of spiritual euphoria is the most intense (and subjectively profound) source of conscious value, it would be a shame if our society exclusively optimized for linear logico-linguistic “high clarity” states of consciousness. Of all the drugs available, when balancing side effects and overall effectiveness, it is likely that modafinil-like compounds (e.g. custom nootropics) give you the single largest economic edge within this society. Caffeine is already available to everyone, speed slowly kills you and micro-dosed LSD makes you (believe it or not) too creative for most paying jobs. Is it possible to make the interesting and valuable states of consciousness the ones that are economically rewarded? Are we going to let the economic incentives in our society silently maximize the presence of modafinil-like states of consciousness?
There is no known substance that enhances both “clarity” and “spiritual/philosophical euphoria” at the same time. It would be a shame if all the economy cared about was your level of clarity, for that would mean that modafiniljunkiesusers will rule the world. (Oh, wait…). At the limit, such a world may be impervious to conceptual revolutions or caring about valence research. Image Source.
In practice, unless digital AGI pans out or nanotechnology takes over, pure replicators are going to need to interface with human and posthuman markets to gain any power. Although fashionable to think about nowadays, exotic nanotech and/or AI pure replicators may ultimately be far easier to stop than pure replicators that disguise themselves as humans (i.e. people who turn into empty shells of their former selves by embracing hyper-competitive Moloch memes and their associated technologies). As we will see, the nature of future economic selection pressures may be the most important factor in whether or not we are taken over by armies of pure replicators.
Aren’t we all pure replicators already?
Tautologically, natural selection can only produce pure replicators. But this would be to think of the term in an unhelpful way that is not true to the spirit of the idea. This is why we defined pure replicators in terms of indifference towards conscious states. Most animals do indeed care a great deal about the valence of their own consciousness; after all, the motivational power of the pleasure-pain axis is the very reason why evolution recruited conscious valence to begin with. More so, sexual selection happens to have recruited introspection, aesthetics, benevolence and intelligence as fitness-indicators (which explains why we are so keen on advertising these traits). Brian Tomasik calls our times the Age of Spandrelsbecause we live in a period that is reaping the benefits of surplus production (still being below carrying capacity) while silly non-optimal aesthetics inherited from our evolutionary past still survive. Interpersonal love, sexually selected hedonistic social rituals and ingrained prosocial implicit values may be evolutionary spandrels in the context of our economy, but (surprisingly) they are still part of our society. Hence, we today can enjoy watching movies, making love and thinking about philosophy. Our drive to delight in life is powerful enough to distract us from optimal economic participation, and our emotional wellbeing (which affects our economic participation) is still linked to events dealing with our level of pleasure outside work.
In contrast, the intelligent agents of the future may not be constrained to using the pleasure-pain axis to implement goal-oriented behaviors. One could envision scenarios like Robin Hanson’s Age of EM in which the most productive (and abundant) minds do 99.9999% of the work, and this work is boring 99.9999% of the time. These minds may work while in near-neutral states of consciousness that have either negligibly positive or even outright negative valence. The employees of this massive workforce are those individuals who are willing to do whatever they are told for 0.00001% vacation time and the opportunity to stay alive and multiply (in this case by copying the minds in digital servers). The employers may themselves not be particularly happy because they are also competing against other companies that cut down on costs as much as possible. If smiling does not increase one’s productivity at one’s job but it does waste precious calories and units of attention, then smiling will be abolished for purely economic reasons. In this scenario everyone is either employed and miserable (relative to our current standards), or unemployed and dying of starvation. We can thank those entities who were willing to completely sacrifice their own psychological depth (and freedom to explore the state-space of consciousness) for the sake of merely existing. The world now fails to produce any actual value in the form of meaningful states of consciousness and is over-saturated with modafinil-like consciousness.
Singleton and Moloch end-of-times scenarios tend to look pretty terrible because the worlds they present don’t seem to contain reasons for anyone to care about valence.
A desirable Singleton should at the very least care about states of high-valence and avoid negative valence states as much as possible. In a future article we will discuss some ideas for how to design an economic system based on cooperation that increases our chances of having ecologies of sustainable conscious entities who have the following properties: (1) they are free to explore the state-space of consciousness, (2) are social, and (3) have access to practically unlimited positive valence. But what if we are headed towards a perpetual Moloch (failure of cooperation) scenario?
Surviving in the Sundown of the Age of Spandrels
‘[I]n Time any being that is spontaneous and alive will wither and die like an old joke.’
What would be a list of desirable traits that we want to have after acquiring complete control over our individual pleasure-pain axis? David Pearce doesn’t get tired of pointing out that the future does not belong to anti-natalists. Their compassionate genes will be weeded out of the gene pool, and it will be their own compassionate sentimental fault. Similarly, full-blown single euphoria wireheading (as discussed above) is destined for oblivion unless it also happens to give you marketable skills.
We want to be able to both feel good and at the same time remain economically competitive (or we are going to be crowded out by pure replicators). Here is a list of traits that would help us have lives worth living without sacrificing our economic value:
Always in a positive valence state (i.e. remaining above hedonic zero).
Faithful/good enough internal simulation of one’s environment (both physical and social).
Free to explore at will the known state-space of consciousness.
Capable of producing socially-useful information.
Free from unconscious bonds and protected against mind control.
Capable of exiting attractor states (affective, cognitive, social e.g. thought loops).
Able to make others happier in ways they did not know were possible.
Trans/Post-human negative feedback mechanisms. It is a virtuous cycle that delivers hearty amounts of euphoria but with no craving as a result. What’s reinforced is the flow between the types of euphoria rather than each kind on its own.
The first trait matters for ethical reasons: one needs to guarantee that the entities you bring into existence will always be happy to be alive. One should never compromise on the wellbeing of the beings one designs and gives birth to. If someone does, then we are again off to the races against pure replicators willing to suffer for a chance to exist.
The second trait is a requirement to survive in a physical world and a social economy (for obvious reasons).
The third trait is motivated by both ethical and practical reasons: as I understand it, having the ability to explore the known state-space of consciousness guarantees that you yourself can benefit from whatever awesome things people have made and discovered already. It guarantees that each individual will be able to experience the most valuable states (as judged by themselves at the time) without a preconceived notion of which states are the most ideal before experimenting on their own.
Being capable of experiencing any state of consciousness already discovered and understood will hopefully also turn out to be economically desirable. In order to be of relevance in the market of information about the state-space of consciousness you yourself will need to be an explorer and be up to date with what is in vogue. This opens up the possibility of a full-fledged qualia economy: when people have spare resources and are interested in new states of consciousness, anyone good at mining the state-space for precious gems will have an economic advantage.
In principle the whole economy may eventually be entirely based on exploring the state-space of consciousness and trading information about the most valuable contents discovered doing so. The traits 4 through 7 are intended to address the complications that arise from the need to have social competence to survive in such an economy.
Society may ultimately converge into a system in which people are constantly in hyper-valuable states and the only way to become powerful is to invent new ways to improve upon the already highly-optimal state-spaces people are free to roam all the time. In this economy, people would also be motivated to help others succeed: Everyone benefits from making discoveries since every discovered state is made accessible to everyone.
How could we implement a conscious mind with these attributes? The task is indeed extremely demanding, and billions of dollars in R&D will have to be invested before we have a silver-bullet genetic intervention that takes us in that direction. In the next centuries we are likely to see hundreds of thousands of researchers experimenting with various cocktails, implants and genetic vectors hacking themselves in order to reliably improve their hedonic tone while also increasing their economic value.
In order to have any chance at living in such a society we need to make sure we won’t be overrun by pure replicators in any of their gazillion different guises. To do so, we need to make sure we do not fall prey to any of the wireheading mistakes outlined above. And we also need to make sure that we can give back to the world more than we take, so that the world is happy to have us around.
Wireheading Done Right: Stay Positive Without Going Insane
To remain economically relevant and subvert the rise of pure replicators, it is quintessential that one’s capacity to explore the state-space of consciousness is a marketable skill. Your imagination (if we choose to call it that way), should therefore work at an acceptable depth and pace from the point of view of the current economy of social relationships.
Be like my friends Leona and Link. They have a balanced routine of many varieties of experiential wellbeing and euphoria. They are hyper-motivated in the morning (fast euphoria), go crazy creative and spiritual in the afternoon (spiritual euphoria), and go to sleep in delightful oceans of cool sensations (slow euphoria). They are genetically engineered to live the good life without getting stuck in bad loops.
The diagram above illustrates the main idea: we want to rewire our reward architecture in such a way that as each kind of euphoria is instantiated a different one becomes more accessible.
For example, we may want to wirehead ourselves in such a way that our ability to experience fast euphoria is gated by slow euphoria. Until you have not “satiated” your psychological need for resting you will not be allowed to feel hyper-motivated. Our desires are already state-specific, but the current network of transition probabilities between emotions facilitates the reinforcement of toxic local attractors (also called “death spirals” like states of depression or generalized anxiety). By re-engineering the network of transition probabilities between emotions and extracting out the dysphoric components we might be able to guarantee a continuous flow between functionally and phenomenologically distinct modes of wellbeing. Wireheading done right consists of having wonderful experiences all the time, but in such a way that you never feel compelled to stay where you are for too long. In addition, a good wireheading procedure should also allow you to keep learning useful information about the state-space of consciousness. Wireheading should not imply the end of learning. In brief, we suggest that we should change our brains so that by feeling great in a certain way you temporarily reduce the response to that particular kind of euphoria but also make it easier to enjoy some other kind. One would thus be incentivized to keep moving, and to never give up or to get stuck in loops.
Naturally one may be skeptical that perpetual (but varied) bliss is at all possible. After all, shouldn’t we be already there if such states were actually evolutionarily advantageous? The problem is that the high-valence states we can experience evolved to increase our inclusive fitness in the ancestral environment, and not in an economy based on gradients of bliss. Experiences are calorically expensive; in the African Savannah it may cost too many calories to keep people in novelty-producing hyperthymic states (even if one is kept psychologically balanced) relative to the potential benefits of having our brains working at the minimal acceptable capacity. In today’s environment we have a surplus of calories which can be put to good use, i.e. to explore the state-space of consciousness and have a chance at discovering socially (and hedonically) valuable states. Exploring consciousness may thus not only be aligned with real value (cf. valence realism) but it might also turn out to be a good, rational time investment if you live in an experience-oriented economy. We are not particularly calorie-constrained nowadays; our states of consciousness should be enriched to reflect this fact.
Link and Leona (whom you may recognize from a previous article) are two successful wireheads who are now happier than ever. They chose to have the following feedback network for their valence: fast makes it easier to feel spiritual, spiritual makes it easier to feel slow, and slow makes it easier to feel fast. Their primary state of consciousness cycles over a period of 24 hours. Here is their routine: They wake up and experience intense zest for life and work at full capacity making others happy and having fun. Then they go crazy creative in the afternoon, usually spending that time alone or with friends, and explore (and share) strange but always awesome psychedelic-like states of consciousness. Finally, at night they just relax to the max (the healthy and genetically encoded phenomenological equivalent of shooting heroin). They report having more agency than before, since now they feel that there is time to do everything they want, and moving from one activity to the next is easy and spontaneous. This kind of wireheading allows them to avoid loops, drops in motivation or impoverished creativity and introspection. The only thing they had to accept was that “hey, you don’t need to have all of the euphorias at once all the time”. By enjoying them one at a time you can guarantee a healthy mind, a healthy social life and a healthy economic output.
Positive Wireheading at the Evolutionary Limit
One of the main insights of evolutionary game theory is that strategies that have the best shot at being dominant for long periods of time have three properties: (1) they do well on average against other strong strategies, (2) do well against themselves, and (3) have an immune system against custom anti-strategies. This last condition may be skipped if we are not going to play for too long, but in the long run it is absolutely necessary. Custom anti-strategies may themselves be terrible against other strong strategies and even against themselves, so you may not realize they exist at first. For a while your strategy may be dominating the space with no signs of anything changing. But then you may start noticing that a tiny population of contrarians are beginning to grow exponentially. In no time you are defeated and the world breaks into chaos (since the contrarians may not be good at holding power). A classical illustration of this phenomenon comes from the evolutionary setup of the Iterated Prisoner’s Dilemma. Here we can find some strategies that satisfy (1) and (2) but do not have a good immune system against free-loading strategies. The strategy always-defect is surprisingly effective in an ecosystem dominated by always-cooperate. Likewise the Pavlov strategy can exploit the vulnerabilities of tit-for-tat-with-forgiveness, (though improved versions can counter it). Over time we see sporadical population booms and busts caused by cycles of cooperative eras collapsing under parasitic breakthroughs.
I posit that an ecology of wirehead minds that dedicate themselves to explore (“mine”) the state-space of consciousness can be economically powerful if other people are willing to pay for the information about how to instantiate the high-valence qualia discovered during these explorations. A large group of cooperators that help each other explore the state-space of consciousness satisfies condition (2) from the previous paragraph. But in order to satisfy condition (1) we need an environment in which knowledge about consciousness is marketable. The Super-Shulgin Academies (i.e. rational psychonautic collectives) of the future may concentrate all the qualia research talent in the world and reap the highest economic benefits while producing the largest amount of value, but they will only be able to do so if the surrounding society values their output. A society of pure replicators has no use for Super-Shulgin Academies, let alone Manhattan Projects of Consciousness (i.e. global concerted efforts to find and recruit benevolence-enhancing states of consciousness). But given the moral and hedonistic pursuits of our fellow humans we may still have a chance: making people happier than they currently are is a trillion-dollar industry nowadays, and Super-Shulgin Academies may capitalize on this demand by selling valence-enhancing technologies to the masses.
With regards to (3) we may happen to be lucky this time: Knowing all there is to know about the state-space of consciousness is the best way to prevent oneself from being outsmarted. Super-Shulgin Academies would invest heavily in researching ways to defend themselves against pure replicators. As part of its immune system, a Super-Shulgin Academy should only admit benevolent individuals as researchers. Benevolence, perhaps, is best implemented at the level of ontological qualia: someone who believes that we are all the same consciousness is a lot less dangerous to others than someone who is solipsistic or self-centered. “Technology is destructive only in the hands of people who do not realize they are one and the same process as the universe.” (Alan Watts). Rational agency and super-sentience in the hands of Open Individualists (i.e. people who believe that we are all the same subject of experience) could eventually allow us to bring about a good qualia and valence-centric Singleton.
But to bootstrap our way there we need to make sure that the organization would not die out even in an economy that isn’t already completely focused on consciousness (i.e. to fulfill condition 1).
We are very lucky to live in the Age of Spandrels. We take for granted the fact that people around us like to watch movies, go to sports events, read novels, get drunk, listen to music, have sex, etc. without realizing they could be investing all of that energy in figuring out how to make clones. We don’t usually realize that people’s atavistic inefficient hedonism is in fact our saving grace. (As an aside, I hope I am not inspiring anyone to go wild into the arts and do silly non-optimal things. My readership is capable of much more than that. Let us do silly non-optimal things in the most optimal way possible, by which I mean, let’s try to ensure that future beings care about valence and consciousness.) We should be thankful that we still have residual sexually-selected preferences for experientially rich lifestyles over pure and efficient dullness.
Wiki-consciousness. The state-space of consciousness library is accessible to everyone free of charge.
As long as we make intelligent use of today’s collective interest in exploring consciousness (in all of its guises e.g. art, philosophy, drugs) we still have a chance to create a sustainable economy of well-rounded wireheads that is worth living. The wirehead psychonaut collective would obtain most of its economic power via the revenue coming from the discoveries made during the systematic exploration of the state-space of consciousness. If the public consumes these discoveries, then the strategy may be perfectly self-sustaining. The process itself would be beneficial, as we would discover new ways to make people happy, bring the radical freedom to inhabit any known state of consciousness and increase our understanding of the universe.
One can even imagine that if Super-Shulgin Academies become the most powerful economic forces in the world, they may choose to create a massive “wiki-consciousness”: a library of all known states of consciousness completely accessible to anyone free of charge. Why would they do this given that their power comes from being able to sell this information? On the one hand it stabilizes people’s ability to gain power over each other (since the only way to gain power in such an economy is to sell information about the state-space). This incentivizes people to actually find something new and valuable for everyone if they are aiming to become more powerful. And on the other hand, making the information freely available would also increase the quality of prospective members of the psychonaut collective due to widespread consciousness literacy.
If we play our cards right we may still have a chance of avoiding the pure replicators, Molochs and Singletons that lurk ahead in our forward light-cone. But to do so we need to stay grounded and avoid the pitfalls here discussed.
If we are to have a chance at surviving with a good quality of life in the sundown of the Age of Spandrels we will need to preemptively outcompete pure replicators. To do so we must avoid wireheading traps and take seriously future economic selection pressures, as they will determine who or what survives at the evolutionary limit. It is imperative that we take advantage of the current collective demand for valence and information about consciousness to fund ambitious consciousness research programs. Such programs will capitalize on this demand and kick-start a valence-centric market. In turn, scientific breakthroughs in this area may increase the percentage of the economy that is dedicated to exploring consciousness, which may reduce the opportunities for pure replicators to participate in the economy.
We need to act fast: if the economic demand for valence technologies disappears (or is low enough), we will find ourselves in a world in which exploring the state-space of consciousness is not profitable and pure replicators win.
“Intelligence” is a folk concept. The phenomenon is not well-defined – or rather any attempt to do so amounts to a stipulative definition that doesn’t “carve Nature at the joints”. The Cattell-Horn-Carroll (CHC) psychometric theory of human cognitive abilities is probably most popular in academia and the IQ testing community. But the Howard Gardner multiple intelligences model, for example, differentiates “intelligence” into various spatial, linguistic, bodily-kinaesthetic, musical, interpersonal, intrapersonal, naturalistic and existential intelligence rather than a single general ability (“g“). Who’s right? As it stands, “g” is just a statistical artefact of our culture-bound IQ tests. If general intelligence were indeed akin to an innate scalar brain force, as some advocates of “g” believe, or if intelligence can best be modelled by the paradigm of symbolic AI, then the exponential growth of digital computer processing power might indeed entail an exponential growth in intelligence too – perhaps leading to some kind of Super-Watson. Other facets of intelligence, however, resist enhancement by mere acceleration of raw processing power.
One constraint is that a theory of general intelligence should be race-, species-, and culture-neutral. Likewise, an impartial conception of intelligence should embrace all possible state-spaces of consciousness: prehuman, human, transhuman and posthuman.
The non-exhaustive set of criteria below doesn’t pretend to be anything other than provisional. They are amplified in the sections to follow.
Full-Spectrum Superintelligence entails:
the capacity to solve the Binding Problem, i.e. to generate phenomenally unified entities from widely distributed computational processes; and run cross-modally matched, data-driven world-simulations of the mind-independent environment. (cf. naive realist theories of “perception” versus the world-simulation or “Matrix” paradigm. Compare disorders of binding, e.g. simultanagnosia (an inability to perceive the visual field as a whole), cerebral akinetopsia (“motion blindness”), etc. In the absence of a data-driven, almost real-time simulation of the environment, intelligent agency is impossible.)
a self or some non-arbitrary functional equivalent of a person to which intelligence can be ascribed. (cf. dissociative identity disorder (DID or “multiple personality disorder”), or florid schizophrenia, or your personal computer: in the absence of at least a fleetingly unitary self, what philosophers call “synchronic identity”, there is no entity that is intelligent, just an aggregate of discrete algorithms and an operating system.)
a “mind-reading” or perspective-taking faculty; higher-order intentionality (e.g. “he believes that she hopes that they fear that he wants…”, etc): social intelligence. The intellectual success of the most cognitively successful species on the planet rests, not just on the recursive syntax of human language, but also on our unsurpassed “mind-reading” prowess, an ability to simulate the perspective of other unitary minds: the “Machiavellian Ape” hypothesis. Any ecologically valid intelligence test designed for a species of social animal must incorporate social cognition and the capacity for co-operative problem-solving. So must any test of empathetic superintelligence.
a metric to distinguish the important from the trivial. (Our theory of significance should be explicit rather than implicit, as in contemporary IQ tests. What distinguishes, say, mere calendrical prodigies and other “savant syndromes” from, say, a Grigori Perelman who proved the Poincaré conjecture? Intelligence entails understanding what does – and doesn’t – matter. What matters is of course hugely contentious.)
a capacity to navigate, reason logically about, and solve problems in multiple state-spaces of consciousness [e.g. dreaming states (cf. lucid dreaming), waking consciousness, echolocatory competence, visual discrimination, synaesthesia in all its existing and potential guises, humour, introspection, the different realms of psychedelia (cf. salvia space, “the K-hole” etc)] including realms of experience not yet co-opted by either natural selection or posthuman design for tracking features of the mind-independent world. Full Spectrum Superintelligence will entail cross-domain goal-optimising ability in all possible state-spaces of consciousness. And finally
“Autistic”, pattern-matching, rule-following, mathematico-linguistic intelligence, i.e. the standard, mind-blind cognitive tool-kit scored by existing IQ tests. High-functioning “autistic” intelligence is indispensable to higher mathematics, computer science and the natural sciences. High-functioning autistic intelligence is necessary – but not sufficient – for a civilisation capable of advanced technology that can cure ageing and disease, systematically phase out the biology of suffering, and take us to the stars. And for programming artificial intelligence.
We may then ask which facets of full-spectrum superintelligence will be accelerated by the exponential growth of digital computer processing power? Number six, clearly, as decades of post-ENIAC progress in computer science attest. But what about numbers one-to-five? Here the picture is murkier.