Utilitronium Shockwave: Turn your local Galaxy Super-Cluster into a Full-Spectrum Orgasm in 9 easy civilizational steps.
Why is the idea of life animated by gradients of intelligent bliss attractive, at least to some of us, whereas the prospect of utilitronium leaves almost everyone cold? One reason is the anticipated loss of self: if one’s matter and energy were converted into utilitronium, then intuitively the intense undifferentiated bliss wouldn’t be me. By contrast, even a radical recalibration of one’s hedonic set-point intuitively preserves the greater part of one’s values, memories and existing preference architecture: in short, personal identity. Whether such preservation of self would really obtain if life were animated by gradients of bliss, and whether such notional continuity is ethically significant, and whether the notion of an enduring metaphysical ego is even intellectually coherent, is another matter. Regardless of our answers to such questions, there is a tension between our divergent response to the prospect of cosmos-wide utilitronium and intelligent bliss. People rarely complain that e.g. orgasmic sexual ecstasy lasts too long, and that regrettably they lose their sense of personal identity while orgasm lasts. On the contrary: behavioural evidence strongly suggests that most men in particular reckon sexual bliss is too short-lived and infrequent. Indeed if such sexual bliss were available indefinitely, and if it were characterised by an intensity orders of magnitude greater than the best human orgasms, then would anyone – should anyone – wish such ecstasy to stop? Subjectively, utilitronium presumably feels more sublime than sexual bliss, or even whole-body orgasm. Granted the feasibility of such heavenly bliss, is viewing the history of life on Earth to date as mere stepping-stones to cosmic nirvana really so outrageous?
Is attachment to your sense of self keeping you from embracing hedonium? Stop ‘Selfing’ with these 3 buddhist-approved Techniques!
For the foreseeable future, however, even strict classical utilitarians must work for information-sensitive gradients of intelligent bliss rather than raw undifferentiated pleasure. Classical hedonistic utilitarianism was originally formulated as an ethic for legislators, not biologists or computer scientists. Conceived in this light, the felicific calculus has been treated as infeasible. Yet a disguised implication of a classical utilitarian ethic in an era of mature biotechnology may be that we should be seeking to convert the world into utilitronium, generally assumed to be relatively homogenous matter and energy optimised for raw bliss. The “shockwave” in utilitronium shockwave alludes to our hypothetical obligation to launch von Neumann probes propagating this hyper-valuable state of matter and energy at, or nearly at, the velocity of light across our Galaxy, then our Local Cluster, and then our Local Supercluster. And beyond? Well, politics is the art of the possible. The accelerating expansion of the universe would seem to make further utilitronium propagation infeasible even with utopian technologies. Such pessimism assumes our existing understanding of theoretical physics is correct; but theoretical cosmology is currently in a state of flux.
Naively, the theoretical feasibility of utilitronium shockwave is too remote to sorry about. This question might seem a mere philosophical curiosity. But not so. Complications of uncertain outcome aside, any rate of time discounting indistinguishable from zero is ethically unacceptable for the ethical utilitarian. So on the face of it, the technical feasibility of a utilitronium shockwave makes working for its adoption ethically mandatory even if the prospect is centuries or millennia distant.
Existential Risk? Utilitarian ethics and speculative cosmology might seem far removed. But perhaps the only credible candidate naturalising value has seemingly apocalyptic implications that have never (to my knowledge) been explored in the scholarly literature. And can we seriously hope to be effective altruists in the absence of serviceable model of Reality?
All-New “Life”! – Now animated by gradients of bliss. Pain-free!
Should existential risk reduction be the primary goal of: a) negative utilitarians? b) classical hedonistic utilitarians? c) preference utilitarians? All, or none, of the above? The answer is far from obvious. For example, one might naively suppose that a negative utilitarian would welcome human extinction. But only (trans)humans – or our potential superintelligent successors – are technically capable of phasing out the cruelties of the rest of the living world on Earth. And only (trans)humans – or rather our potential superintelligent successors – are technically capable of assuming stewardship of our entire Hubble volume. Conceptions of the meaning of the term “existential risk” differ. Compare David Benatar’s “Better Never To Have Been” with Nick Bostrom’s “Astronomical Waste“. Here at least, we will use the life-affirming sense of the term. Does negative utilitarianism or classical utilitarianism represent the greater threat to intelligent life in the cosmos? Arguably, we have our long-term existential risk-assessment back-to-front. A negative utilitarian believes that once intelligent agents have phased out the biology of suffering, all our ethical duties have been discharged. But the classical utilitarian seems ethically committed to converting all accessible matter and energy – not least human and nonhuman animals – into relatively homogeneous matter optimised for maximum bliss: “utilitronium”.
Ramifications? Severe curtailment of personal liberties in the name of Existential Risk Reduction is certainly conceivable. Assume, for example, that the technical knowledge of how to create and deploy readily transmissible, 100% lethal, delayed-action weaponised pathogens leaks into the public domain. Only the most Orwellian measures – a perpetual global totalitarianism – could hope to prevent their use, whether by a misanthrope or an idealist. Such measures would most likely fail. By contrast, constitutively happy people would be incapable of envisaging the development and use of such a doomsday agent. The biology of suffering in intelligent agents is a deep underlying source of existential risk – and one that can potentially be overcome.
Gradients of Bliss world in a Hedonium Universe? – “Central Realm of the Densely-Packed.”
A theoretically inelegant but pragmatically effective compromise solution might be to initiate a utilitronium shockwave that propagates outside the biosphere – or realm of posthuman civilisation. The world within our cosmological horizon could then be tiled with utilitronium with the exception of a negligible island (or archipelago) of minds animated “merely” by gradients of intelligent bliss. One advantage of this hybrid option is that most refusniks would (presumably) be indifferent to the fate of inert matter and energy outside their lifeworld. Ask someone today whether they’d mind if some anonymous rock on the far side of the moon were converted into utilitronium and they’d most likely shrug.
Shrugging at the prospect of hedonium rocks on the moon.
In future, gradients of intelligent bliss orders of magnitude richer than today’s peak experiences could well be a design feature of the post-human mind. However, I don’t think intracranial self-stimulation is consistent with intelligence or critical insight. This is because it is uniformly rewarding. Intelligence depends on informational sensitivity to positive and negative stimuli – even if “negative” posthuman hedonic dips are richer and higher than the human hedonic ceiling.
In contrast to life animated by gradients of bliss, the prospect of utilitronium cannot motivate. Or rather the prospect can motivate only a rare kind of hyper-systematiser drawn to its simplicity and elegance. The dips of intelligent bliss need not be deep […] Everyday hedonic tone could be orders of magnitude richer than anything physiologically feasible now. But will such well-being be orgasmic? Orgasmic bliss lacks – in the jargon of academic philosophy – an “intentional object”. So presumably there will be selection pressure against any predisposition to enjoy 24/7 orgasms. By contrast, information-sensitive gradients of intelligent bliss can be adaptive – and hence sustainable indefinitely, allowing universe maintenance: responsible stewardship of Hubble volume.
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At any rate, posthumans may regard even human “peak experiences” as indescribably dull by comparison.
Image credit for the Buddhist monk picture “Is”: Alex William Hoffman.
Mankind’s most successful story of the world, natural science, leaves the existence of consciousness wholly unexplained. The phenomenal binding problem deepens the mystery. Neither classical nor quantum physics seem to allow the binding of distributively processed neuronal micro-experiences into unitary experiential objects apprehended by a unitary phenomenal self. This paper argues that if physicalism and the ontological unity of science are to be saved, then we will need to revise our notions of both 1) the intrinsic nature of the physical and 2) the quasi-classicality of neurons. In conjunction, these two hypotheses yield a novel, bizarre but experimentally testable prediction of quantum superpositions (“Schrödinger’s cat states”) of neuronal feature-processors in the CNS at sub-femtosecond timescales. An experimental protocol using in vitro neuronal networks is described to confirm or empirically falsify this conjecture via molecular matter-wave interferometry.
Most truly radical intellectual progress depends on “crazy” conjectures. Unfortunately, few folk who make crazy conjectures give serious thought to extracting novel, precise, experimentally falsifiable predictions to confound their critics. Even fewer then publish the almost inevitable negative experimental result when their crazy conjecture isn’t confirmed. So kudos to Andrés for doing both!!
What would the world look like if the superposition principle never breaks down, i.e. the unitary Schrödinger dynamics holds on all scales, and not just the microworld? The naïve – and IMO mistaken – answer is that without the “collapse of the wavefunction”, we’d see macroscopic superpositions of live-and-dead cats, experiments would never appear to have determinate outcomes, and the extremely well tested Born rule (i.e. the probability of a result is the squared absolute value of the inner product) would be violated. Or alternatively, assuming DeWitt’s misreading of Everett, if the superposition principle never breaks down, then when you observe a classical live cat, or a classical dead cat, your decohered (“split”) counterpart in a separate classical branch of the multiverse sees a dead cat or a live cat, respectively.
In my view, all these stories rest on a false background assumption. Talk of “observers” and “observations” relies on a naïve realist conception of perception whereby you (the “observer”) somehow hop outside of your transcendental skull to inspect the local mind-independent environment (“make an observation”). Such implicit perceptual direct realism simply assumes – rather than derives from quantum field theory – the existence of unified observers (“global” phenomenal binding) and phenomenally-bound classical cats and individually detected electrons striking a mind-independent classical screen cumulatively forming a non-classical interference pattern (“local” phenomenal binding). Perception as so conceived – as your capacity for some sort of out-of-body feat of levitation – isn’t physically possible. The role of the mind-independent environment beyond one’s transcendental skull is to select states of mind internal to your world-simulation; the environment can’t create, or imprint its signature on, your states of mind (“observations”) – any more than the environment can create or imprint its signature on your states of mind while you’re dreaming.
Here’s an alternative conjecture – a conjecture that holds regardless of whether you’re drug-naïve, stone-cold sober, having an out-of-body experience on ketamine, awake or dreaming, or tripping your head off on LSD. You’re experiencing “Schrodinger’s cat” states right nowin virtue of instantiating a classical world-simulation. Don’t ask what’s it like to perceive a live-and-dead Schrödinger’s cat; ask instead what it’s like to instantiate a coherent superposition of distributed feature-processing neurons. Only the superposition principle allows you to experience phenomenally-bound classical objects that one naively interprets as lying in the mind-independent world. In my view, the universal validity of the superposition principle allows you to experience a phenomenally bound classical cat within a seemingly classical world-simulation – or perform experiments with classical-looking apparatus that have definite outcomes, and confirm the Born rule. Only the vehicle of individual coherent superpositions of distributed neuronal feature-processors allows organic mind-brains to run world simulations described by an approximation of classical Newtonian physics. In the mind-independent world – i.e. not the world of your everyday experience – the post-Everett decoherence program in QM pioneered by Zeh, Zurek et al. explains the emergence of an approximation of classical “branches” for one’s everyday world-simulations to track. Yet within the CNS, only the superposition principle allows you to run a classical world-simulation tracking such gross fitness-relevant features of your local extracranial environment. A coherent quantum mind can run phenomenally-bound simulations of a classical world, but a notional classical mind couldn’t phenomenally simulate a classical world – or phenomenally simulate any other kind of world. For a supposedly “classical” mind would just be patterns of membrane-bound neuronal mind-dust: mere pixels of experience, a micro-experiential zombie.
Critically, molecular matter-wave interferometry can in principle independently be used to test the truth – or falsity – of this conjecture (see: https://www.physicalism.com/#6).
OK, that’s the claim. Why would (almost) no scientifically informed person take the conjecture seriously?
In a word, decoherence.
On a commonsense chronology of consciousness, our experience of phenomenally bound perceptual objects “arises” via patterns of distributed neuronal firings over a timescale of milliseconds – the mystery lying in how mere synchronised firing of discrete, decohered, membrane-bound neurons / micro-experiences could generate phenomenal unity, whether local or global. So if the lifetime of coherent superpositions of distributed neuronal feature-processors in the CNS were milliseconds, too, then there would be an obvious candidate for a perfect structural match between the phenomenology of our conscious minds and neurobiology / fundamental physics – just as I’m proposing above. Yet of course this isn’t the case. The approximate theoretical lifetimes of coherent neuronal superpositions in the CNS can be calculated: femtoseconds or less. Thermally-induced decoherence is insanely powerful and hard to control. It’s ridiculous – intuitively at any rate – to suppose that such fleeting coherent superpositions could be recruited to play any functional role in the living world. An epic fail!
Let’s step back.
Many intelligent people initially found it incredible that natural selection could be powerful enough to throw up complex organisms as thermodynamically improbable as Homo sapiens. We now recognise that the sceptics were mistaken: the human mind simply isn’t designed to wrap itself around evolutionary timescales of natural selection playing out over hundreds of millions of years. In the CNS, another form of selection pressure plays out – a selection pressure over one hundred of orders of magnitude (sic) more powerful than selection pressure on information-bearing self-replicators as conceived by Darwin. “Quantum Darwinism” as articulated by Zurek and his colleagues isn’t the shallow, tricksy metaphor one might naively assume; and the profound implications of such a selection mechanism must be explored for the world-simulation running inside your transcendental skull, not just for the extracranial environment. At work here is unimaginably intense selection pressure favouring comparative resistance to thermally (etc)-induced decoherence [i.e. the rapid loss of coherence of complex phase amplitudes of the components of a superposition] of functionally bound phenomenal states of mind in the CNS. In my view, we face a failure of imagination of the potential power of selection pressure analogous to the failure of imagination of critics of Darwin’s account of human evolution via natural selection. It’s not enough lazily to dismiss sub-femtosecond decoherence times of neuronal superpositions in the CNS as the reductio ad absurdum of quantum mind. Instead, we need to do the interferometry experiments definitively to settle the issue, not (just) philosophize.
Unfortunately, unlike Andrés, I haven’t been able to think of a DIY desktop experiment that could falsify or vindicate the conjecture. The molecular matter-wave experiment I discuss in “Schrodinger’s Neurons” is conceptually simple but (horrendously) difficult in practice. And the conjecture it tests is intuitively so insane that I’m sometimes skeptical the experiment will ever get done. If I sound like an advocate rather than a bemused truth-seeker, I don’t mean to be so; but if phenomenal binding _isn’t _quantum-theoretically or classically explicable, then dualism seems unavoidable. In that sense, David Chalmers is right.
How come I’m so confident that superposition principle doesn’t break down in the CNS? After all, the superposition principle has been tested only up to the level of fullerenes, and no one yet has a proper theory of quantum gravity. Well, besides the classical impossibility of the manifest phenomenal unity of consciousness, and the cogent reasons that a physicist would give you for not modifying the unitary Schrödinger dynamics, the reason is really just a philosophical prejudice on my part. Namely, the universal validity of the superstition principle of QM offers the only explanation-space that I can think of for why anything exists at all: an informationless zero ontology dictated by the quantum analogue of the library of Babel.
[Content Warnings: Psychedelic Depersonalization, Fear of the Multiverse, Personal Identity Doubts, Discussion about Quantum Consciousness, DMT entities, Science]
The brain is wider than the sky,
For, put them side by side,
The one the other will include
With ease, and you beside.
– Emily Dickinson
Is it for real?
A sizable percentage of people who try a high dose of DMT end up convinced that the spaces they visit during the trip exist in some objective sense; they either suspect, intuit or conclude that their psychonautic experience reflects something more than simply the contents of their minds. Most scientists would argue that those experiences are just the result of exotic brain states; the worlds one travels to are bizarre (often useless) simulations made by our brain in a chaotic state. This latter explanation space forgoes alternate realities for the sake of simplicity, whereas the former envisions psychedelics as a multiverse portal technology of some sort.
Some exotic states, such as DMT breakthrough experiences, do typically create feelings of glimpsing foundational information about the depth and structure of the universe. Entity contact is frequent, and these seemingly autonomous DMT entities are often reported to have the ability to communicate with you. Achieving a verifiable contact with entities from another dimension would revolutionize our conception of the universe. Nothing would be quite as revolutionary, really. But how to do so? One could test the external reality of these entities by asking them to provide information that cannot be obtained unless they themselves held an objective existence. In this spirit, some have proposed to ask these entities complex mathematical questions that would be impossible for a human to solve within the time provided by the trip. This particular test is really cool, but it has the flaw that DMT experiences may themselves trigger computationally-useful synesthesia of the sort that Daniel Tammet experiences. Thus even if DMT entities appeared to solve extraordinary mathematical problems, it would still stand to reason that it is oneself who did it and that one is merely projecting the results into the entities. The mathematical ability would be the result of being lucky in the kind of synesthesia DMT triggered in you.
A common overarching description of the effects of psychedelics is that they “raise the frequency of one’s consciousness.” Now, this is a description we should take seriously whether or not we believe that psychedelics are inter-dimensional portals. After all, promising models of psychedelic action involve fast-paced control interruption, where each psychedelic would have its characteristic control interrupt frequency. And within a quantum paradigm, Stuart Hameroff has argued that psychedelic compounds work by bringing up the quantum resonance frequency of the water inside our neurons’ microtubules (perhaps going from megahertz to gigahertz), which he claims increases the non-locality of our consciousness.
In the context of psychedelics as inter-dimensional portals, this increase in the main frequency of one’s consciousness may be the key that allows us to interact with other realities. Users describe a sort of tuning of one’s consciousness, as if the interface between one’s self and the universe underwent some sudden re-adjustment in an upward direction. In the same vein, psychedelicists (e.g. Rick Strassman) frequently describe the brain as a two-way radio, and then go on to claim that psychedelics expand the range of channels we can be attuned to.
One could postulate that the interface between oneself and the universe that psychonauts describe has a real existence of its own. It would provide the bridge between us as (quantum) monads and the universe around us; and the particular structure of this interface would determine the selection pressures responsible for the part of the multiverse that we interact with. By modifying the spectral properties of this interface (e.g. by drastically raising the main frequency of its vibration) with, e.g. DMT, one effectively “relocates” (cf. alien travel) to other areas of reality. Assuming this interface exists and that it works by tuning into particular realities, what sorts of questions can we ask about its properties? What experiments could we conduct to verify its existence? And what applications might it have?
The Psychedelic State of Input Superposition
Once in a while I learn about a psychedelic effect that captures my attention precisely because it points to simple experiments that could distinguish between the two rough explanation spaces discussed above (i.e. “it’s all in your head” vs. “real inter-dimensional travel”). This article will discuss a very odd phenomenon whose interpretations do indeed have different empirical predictions. We are talking about the experience of sensing what appears to be a superposition of inputs from multiple adjacent realities. We will call this effect the Psychedelic State of Input Superposition (PSIS for short).
There is no known way to induce PSIS on purpose. Unlike the reliable DMT hyper-dimensional journeys to distant dimensions, PSIS is a rare closer-to-home effect and it manifests only on high doses of LSD (and maybe other psychedelics). Rather than feeling like one is tuning into another dimension in the higher frequency spectrum, it feels as if one just accidentally altered (perhaps even broke) the interface between the self and the universe in a way that multiplies the number of realities you are interacting with. After the event, the interface seems to tune into multiple similar universes at once; one sees multiple possibilities unfold simultaneously. After a while, one somehow “collapses” into only one of these realities, and while coming down, one is thankful to have settled somewhere specific rather than remaining in that weird in-between. Let’s take a look at a couple of trip reports that feature this effect:
[Trip report of taking a high dose of LSD on an airplane]: So I had what you call “sonder”, a moment of clarity where I realized that I wasn’t the center of the universe, that everyone is just as important as me, everyone has loved ones, stories of lost love etc, they’re the main character in their own movies.
That’s when shit went quantum. All these stories begun sinking in to me. It was as if I was beginning to experience their stories simultaneously. And not just their stories, I began seeing the story of everyone I had ever met in my entire life flash before my eyes. And in this quantum experience, there was a voice that said something about Karma. The voice told me that the plane will crash and that I will be reborn again until the quota of my Karma is at -+0. So, for every ill deed I have done, I would have an ill deed committed to me. For every cheap T-shirt I purchased in my previous life, I would live the life of the poor Asian sweatshop worker sewing that T-shirt. For every hooker I fucked, I would live the life of a fucked hooker.
And it was as if thousands of versions of me was experiencing this moment. It is hard to explain, but in every situation where something could happen, both things happened and I experienced both timelines simultaneously. As I opened my eyes, I noticed how smoke was coming out of the top cabins in the plane. Luggage was falling out. I experienced the airplane crashing a thousand times, and I died and accepted death a thousand times, apologizing to the Karma God for my sins. There was a flash of the brightest white light imagineable and the thousand realities in which I died began fading off. Remaining was only one reality in which the crash didn’t happen. Where I was still sitting in the plane. I could still see the smoke coming out of the plane and as a air stewardess came walking by I asked her if everything was alright. She said “Yes, is everything alright with YOU?”.
Further down on the same thread, written by someone else:
[A couple hours after taking two strong hits of LSD]: Fast-forward to when I’m peaking hours later and I find myself removed from the timeline I’m in and am watching alternate timelines branch off every time someone does something specific. I see all of these parallel universes being created in real time, people’s actions or interactions marking a split where both realities exist. Dozens of timelines, at least, all happening at once. It was fucking wild to witness.
Then I realize that I don’t remember which timeline I originally came out of and I start to worry a bit. I start focusing, trying to remember where I stepped out of my particular universe, but I couldn’t figure it out. So, with the knowledge that I was probably wrong, I just picked one to go back into and stuck with it. It’s not like I would know what changed anyway, and I wasn’t going to just hang out here in the whatever-this-place-is outside of all of them.
Today I still sometimes feel like I left a life behind and jumped into a new timeline. I like it, I feel like I left a lot of baggage behind and there are a lot of regrets and insecurities I had before that trip that I don’t have anymore. It was in a different life, a different reality, so in this case the answer I found was that it’s okay to start over when you’re not happy with where you are in life.
Let us summarize: Person X takes a lot of LSD. At some point during the trip (usually after feeling that “this trip is way too intense for me now”) X starts experiencing sensory input from what appear to be different branches of the multiverse. For example, imagine that person X can see a friend Y sitting on a couch in the corner. Suppose that Y is indecisive, and that as a result he makes different choices in different branches of the multiverse. If Y is deciding whether to stand up or not, X will suddenly see a shadowy figure of Y standing up while another shadowy figure of Y remains sitting. Let’s call them Y-sitting and Y-standing. If Y-standing then turns indecisive about whether to drink some water or go to the bathroom, X may see one shadowy figure of Y-standing getting water and a shadowy figure of Y-standing walking towards the bathroom, all the while Y-sitting is still on the couch. And so it goes. The number of times per second that Y splits and the duration of the perceived superposition of these splits may be a function of X’s state of consciousness, the substance and dose consumed, and the degree of indecision present in Y’s mind.
The two quotes provided are examples of this effect, and one can find a number of additional reports online with stark similarities. There are two issues at hand here. First, what is going on? And second, can we test it? We will discuss three hypotheses to explain what goes on during PSIS, propose an experiment to test the third one (the Quantum Hypothesis), and provide the results of such an experiment.
Hard-nosed scientists may want to skip to the “Experiment” section, since the following contains a fair amount of speculation (you have been warned).
Three Hypothesis for PSIS: Cognitive, Spiritual, Quantum
In order to arrive at an accurate model of the world, one needs to take into account both the prior probability of the hypothesis and the likelihoods that they predict that one would obtain the available evidence. Even if one prior of yours is extremely strong (e.g. a strong belief in materialism), it is still rational to update one’s probability estimates of alternative hypotheses when new relevant evidence is provided. The difficulty often comes from finding experiments where the various hypotheses generate very different likelihoods for one’s observations. As we will see, the quantum hypothesis has this characteristic: it is the only one that would actually predict a positive result for the experiment.
The Cognitive Hypothesis
The first (and perhaps least surreal) hypothesis is that PSIS is “only in one’s mind”. When person X sees person Y both standing up and staying put, what may be happening is that X is receiving photons only from Y-standing and that Y-sitting is just a hallucination that X’s inner simulation of her environment failed to erase.
Psychedelics intensify one’s experience, and this is thought to be the result of control interruption. This means that inhibition of mental content by cortical feedback is attenuated. In the psychedelic state, sensory impressions, automatic reactions, feelings, thoughts and all other mental contents are more intense and longer-lived. This includes the predictions that you make about how your environment will evolve. Not only is one’s sensory input perceived as more intense, one’s imagined hypotheticals are also perceived more intensely.
Under normal circumstances, cortical inhibition makes our failed predictions quickly disappear. Psychedelic states of consciousness may be poor at inhibiting these predictions. In this account, X may be experiencing her brain’s past predictions of what Y could have done overlaid on top of the current input that she is receiving from her physical environment. In a sense, she may be experiencing all of the possible “next steps” that she simply intuited. While these simulations typically remain below the threshold of awareness (or just above it), on a psychedelic state they may reinforce themselves in unpredictable ways. X’s mind never traveled anywhere and there is nothing really weird going on. X is just experiencing the aftermath of a specific failure of information processing concerning the inhibition of past predictions.
Alternatively, very intense emotions such as those experienced on intense ego-killing psychedelic experiences may distort one’s perception so much that one begins to suspect that one is perhaps dead or in another dimension. We can posit that the belief that one is not properly connected to one’s brain (or that one is dying) can trigger even stronger emotions and unleash a cascade of further distortions. This positive feedback loop may create episodes of intense confusion and overlapping pieces of information, which later might be interpreted as “seeing splitting universes”.
The Spiritual Hypothesis
Many spiritual traditions postulate the existence of alternate dimensions, additional layers of reality, and hidden spirit pathways that connect all of reality. These traditions often provide rough maps of these realities and may claim that some people are able to travel to such far-out regions with mental training and consciousness technologies. For illustration, let’s consider Buddhist cosmology, which describes 31 planes of existence. Interestingly, one of the core ideas of this cosmology is that the major characteristic that distinguishes the planes of existence is the states of consciousness typical of their inhabitants. These states of consciousness are correlated with moral conditions such as the ethical quality of their past deeds (karma), their relationship with desire (e.g. whether it is compulsive, sustainable or indifferent) and their existential beliefs. In turn, a feature of this cosmology is that it allows inter-dimensional travel by changing one’s state of consciousness. The part of the universe one interacts with is a function of one’s karma, affinities and beliefs. So by changing these variables with meditation (or psychedelic medicine) one can also change which world we exist in.
An example of a very interesting location worth trying to travel to is the mythical city of Shambhala, the location of the Kalachakra Tantra. This city has allegedly turned into a pure land thanks to the fact that its king converted to Buddhism after meeting the Buddha. Pure lands are abodes populated by enlightened and quasi-enlightened beings whose purpose is to provide an optimal teaching environment for Buddhism. One can go to Shambhala by either reincarnating there (with good karma and the help of some pointers and directions at the time of death) or by traveling there directly during meditation. In order to do the latter, one needs to kindle one’s subtle energies so that they converge on one’s heart, while one is embracing the Bodhisattva ethic (focusing on reducing others’ suffering as a moral imperative). Shambhala may not be in a physical location accessible to humans. Rather, Buddhist accounts would seem to depict it as a collective reality built by people which manifests on another plane of existence (specifically somewhere between the 23rd and 27th layer). In order to create a place like that one needs to bring together many individuals in a state of consciousness that exhibits bliss, enlightenment and benevolence. A pure land has no reality of its own; its existence is the result of the states of consciousness of its inhabitants. Thus, the very reason why Shambhala can even exist as a place somewhere outside of us is because it is already a potential place that exists within us.
Similar accounts of a wider cosmological reality can be found elsewhere (such as Hinduism, Zoroastrianism, Theosophy, etc.). These accounts may be consistent with the sort of experiences having to do with astral travel and entity contact that people have while on DMT and other psychedelics in high doses. However, it seems a lot harder to explain PSIS with an ontology of this sort. While reality is indeed portrayed as immensely vaster than what science has shown so far, we do not really encounter claims of parallel realities that are identical to ours except that your friend decided to go to the bathroom rather than drink some water just now. In other words, while many spiritual ontologies are capable of accommodating DMT hyper-dimensional travel, I am not aware of any spiritual worldview that also claims that whenever two things can happen, they both do in alternate realities (or, more specifically, that this leads to reality splitting).
The only spiritual-sounding interpretation of PSIS I can think of is the idea that these experiences are the result of high-level entities such as guardians, angels or trickster djinns who used your LSD state to teach you a lesson in an unconventional way. The first quote (the one written by Reddit user I_DID_LSD_ON_A_PLANE) seems to point in this direction, where the so-called Karma God is apparently inducing a PSIS experience and using it to illustrate the idea that we are all one (i.e. Open Individualism). Furthermore, the experience viscerally portrays the way that this knowledge should impact our feelings of self-importance (by creating a profound feeling of sonder). This way, the tripper may develop a lasting need to work towards peace, wisdom and enlightenment for the benefit of all sentient beings.
Life as a learning experience is a common trope among spiritual worldviews. It is likely that the spiritual interpretations that emerge in a state of psychedelic depersonalization and derealization will depend on one’s pre-existing ideas of what is possible. The atonement of one’s sins, becoming aware of one’s karma, feeling our past lives, realizing emptiness, hearing a dire mystical warning, etc. are all ideas that already exist in human culture. In an attempt to make sense- any sense- of the kind of qualia experienced in high doses of psychedelics, our minds may be forced to instantiate grandiose delusions drawn from one’s reservoir of far-out ideas.
On a super intense psychedelic experience in which one’s self-models fail dramatically and one experiences fear of ego dissolution, interpreting what is happening as the result of the Karma God judging you and then giving you another chance at life can viscerally seem to make a lot of sense at the time.
The Quantum Hypothesis
For the sake of transparency I must say that we currently do not have a derivation of PSIS from first principles. In other words, we have not yet found a way to use the postulates of quantum mechanics to account for PSIS (that is, assuming that the cognitive and spiritual hypothesis are not the case). That said, there are indeed some things to be said here: While a theory is missing, we can at least talk about what a quantum mechanical account of PSIS would have to look like. I.e. we can at least make sense of some of the features that the theory would need to have to predict that people on LSD would be able to see the superposition of macroscopic branches of the multiverse.
Why would being on acid allow you to receive input from macroscopic environments that have already decohered? How could taking LSD possibly prevent the so-called collapse of the wavefunction? You might think: “well, why even think about it? It’s simply impossible because the collapse of the wavefunction is an axiom of quantum mechanics and we know it is true because some of the predictions made by quantum mechanics (such as QED) are in agreement with experimental data up to the 12th decimal point.” Before jumping to this conclusion, though, let us remember that there are several formulations of quantum mechanics. Both the Born rule (which determines the probability of seeing different outcomes from a given quantum measurement) and the collapse of the wavefunction (i.e. that any quantum state other than the one that was measured disappears) are indeed axiomatic for some formulations. But other formulations actually derive these features and don’t consider them fundamental. Here is Sean Carroll explaining the usual postulates that are used to teach quantum mechanics to undergraduate audiences:
The status of the Born Rule depends greatly on one’s preferred formulation of quantum mechanics. When we teach quantum mechanics to undergraduate physics majors, we generally give them a list of postulates that goes something like this:
Quantum states are represented by wave functions, which are vectors in a mathematical space called Hilbert space.
The act of measuring a quantum system returns a number, known as the eigenvalue of the quantity being measured.
The probability of getting any particular eigenvalue is equal to the square of the amplitude for that eigenvalue.
After the measurement is performed, the wave function “collapses” to a new state in which the wave function is localized precisely on the observed eigenvalue (as opposed to being in a superposition of many different possibilities).
Quantum states are represented by wave functions, which are vectors in a mathematical space called Hilbert space.
Wave functions evolve in time according to the Schrödinger equation.
And that’s it. As you can see this formulation does not employ any collapse of the wavefunction, and neither does it consider the Born rule as a fundamental law. Instead, the wavefunction is thought to merely seem to collapse upon measurement (which is achieved by nearly diagonalizing its components along the basis of the measurement; strictly speaking, neighboring branches never truly stop interacting, but the relevance of their interaction approaches zero very quickly). Here the Born rule is derived from first principles rather than conceived as an axiom. How exactly one can derive the Born rule is a matter of controversy, however. Currently, two very promising theoretical approaches to do so are Quantum Darwinism and the so-called Epistemic Separability Principle (ESP for short, a technical physics term not to be confused with Extra Sensory Perception). Although these approaches to deriving the Born rule are considered serious contenders for a final explanation (and they are not mutually exclusive), they have been criticized for being somewhat circular. The physics community is far from having a consensus on whether these approaches truly succeed.
Is there any alternative to either axiomatizing or deriving the apparent collapse and the Born rule? Yes, there is an alternative: we can think of them as regularities contingent upon certain conditions that are always (or almost always) met in our sphere of experience, but that are not a universal fact about quantum mechanics. Macroscopic decoherence and Born rule probability assignments work very well in our everyday lives, but they may not hold universally. In particular -and this is a natural idea to have under any view that links consciousness and quantum mechanics- one could postulate that one’s state of consciousness influences the mind-body interaction in such a way that information from one’s quantum environment seeps into one’s mind in a different way.
Don’t get me wrong; I am aware that the Born rule has been experimentally verified with extreme precision. I only ask that you bear in mind that many scientific breakthroughs share a simple form: they question the constancy of certain physical properties. For example, Einstein’s theory of special relativity worked out the implications of the fact that the speed of light is observer-independent. In turn this makes the passage of time of external systems observer-dependent. Scientists had a hard time believing Einstein when he arrived at the conclusion that accelerating our frame of reference to extremely high velocities could dilate time. What was thought to be a constant (the passage of time throughout the universe) turned out to be an artifact of the fact that we rarely travel fast enough to notice any deviation from Newton’s laws of motion. In other words, our previous understanding was flawed because it assumed that certain observations did not break down in extreme conditions. Likewise, maybe we have been accidentally ignoring a whole set of physically relevant extreme conditions: altered states of consciousness. The apparent wavefunction collapse and the Born rule may be perfectly constant in our everyday frame of reference, and yet variable across the state-space of possible conscious experiences. If this were the case, we’d finally understand why it seems so hard to derive the Born rule from first principles: it’s impossible.
Succinctly, the Quantum Hypothesis is that psychedelic experiences modify the way one’s mind interacts with its quantum environment in such a way that the world does not appear to decohere any longer from one’s point of view. Our ignorance about the non-universality of the apparent collapse of the wavefunction is just a side effect of the fact that physicists do not usually perform experiments during intense life-changing entheogenic mind journeys. But for science, today we will.
Deriving PSIS with Quantum Mechanics
Here we present a rough (incomplete) sketch of what a possible derivation of PSIS from quantum mechanics might look like. To do so we need three background assumptions: First, conscious experiences must be macroscopic quantum coherent objects (i.e. ontologically unitary subsets of the universal wavefunction, akin to super-fluid helium or Bose–Einstein condensates, except at room temperature). Second, people’s decision-making process must somehow amplify low-level quantum randomness into macroscopic history bifurcations. And third, the properties of our quantum environment* are in part the result of the quantum state of our mind, which psychedelics can help modify. This third assumption brings into play the idea that if our mind is more coherent (e.g. is in a super-symmetrical state) it will select for wavefunctions in its environment that themselves are more coherent. In turn, the apparent lifespan of superpositions may be elongated long enough so that the quantum environment of one’s mind receives records from both Y-sitting and Y-standing as they are overlapping. Now, how credible are these three assumptions?
The second assumption claims that people around you work as quantum Random Number Generators. That human decision-making amplifies low-level quantum randomness is thought to be likely by at leastsome scientists, though the time-scale on which this happens is still up for debate. The brain’s decision-making is chaotic, and over the span of seconds it may amplify quantum fluctuations into macroscopic differences. Thus, people around you making decisions may result in splitting universes (e.g. “[I] am watching alternate timelines branch off every time someone does something specific.” – GatorAutomator’s quote above). Presumably, this assumption would also imply that during PSIS not only people but also physics experiments would lead to apparent macroscopic superposition.
With regards to the third assumption: widespread microscopic decoherence is not, apparently, a necessary consequence of the postulates of quantum mechanics. Rather, it is a very specific outcome of (a) our universe’s Hamiltonian and (b) the starting conditions of our universe, i.e. Pre-Inflation/Eternal Inflation/Big Bang. (A Ney & D Albert, 2013). In principle, psychedelics may influence the part of the Hamiltonian that matters for the evolution of our mind’s wavefunction and its local interactions. In turn, this may modify the decoherence patterns of our consciousness with its local environment and- perhaps- ultimately the surrounding macroscopic world. Of course we do not know if this is possible, and I would have to agree that it is extremely far-fetched.
The overall picture that would emerge from these three assumptions would take the following form: both the mental content and raw phenomenal character of our states of consciousness are the result of the quantum micro-structure of our brains. By modifying this micro-structure, one is not only altering the selection pressures that give rise to fully formed experiences (i.e. quantum darwinism applied to the compositionality of quantum fields) but also altering the selection pressures that determine which parts of the universal wave-function we are entangled with (i.e. quantum darwinism applied to the interactions between coherent objects). Thus psychedelics may not only influence how our experience is shaped within, but also how it interacts with the quantum environment that surrounds it. Some mild psychedelic states (e.g. MDMA) may influence mostly the inner degrees of freedom of one’s mind, while other more intense states (e.g. DMT) may be the result of severe changes to the entanglement selection pressures and thus result in the apparent disconnection between one’s mind and one’s local environment. Here PSIS would be the result of decreasing the rate at which our mind decoheres (possibly by increasing the degree to which our mind is in a state of quantum confinement). In turn, by boosting one’s own inner degree of quantum superposition one may also broaden the degree of superposition acceptable at the interface with one’s quantum environment. One could now readily take in packets of information that have a wider degree of superposition. In the right circumstances, this may result in one’s mind experiencing information seemingly coming from alternate branches of the multiverse. In other words, the trick to PSIS both in the Quantum and the Spiritual Hypothesis is the same (though for different reasons): travel to other dimensions by being the change that you wish to see in the world. You need to increase your own degree of quantum coherence so that you become able of interacting with a more coherent quantum environment.
If this were the case it would call for a conceptual revolution. We would stop thinking of “our universe” as the “place we inhabit” and instead think of it as “the quantum environment our consciousness can interface with”. Perhaps life as we know it exists in a quantum niche that can give rise to embodied biological beings, but the universal wavefunction also contains alien state-spaces in which the patterns of entanglement work in different ways and lead to different evolutionary histories. Our minds evolved to interact with the particular environment that leads to the sustenance of our everyday macroscopic world. Our consciousness is shaped to fit in here, and it has a symbiotic relationship with the body that hosts it.
Now, how do we go about testing the quantum hypothesis? Following previous work on psychophysics for psychedelic research, the main idea will be to show that people on psychedelics can achieve something that sober individuals can’t. In this case, the task is designed to be impossible if one is only receiving input from one world (as predicted by the cognitive hypothesis). Only if PSIS is the result of simultaneously experiencing input from the several nearby branches that correspond to different outcomes of quantum events can the task be successfully performed.
The task in question involves three white little squares on a black background. At each time step (~16 milliseconds) the squares move one pixel down, and some number of pixels horizontally. While the downward movement is constant, the change in the horizontal direction is chosen randomly. The horizontal movement of one of the squares is being randomized on the fly with a Quantum Random Number Generator (qRNG**). We call this the quantum square. The horizontal movement of the other two squares follows a path that was determined at the beginning of each trial by a Classical Random Number Generator (cRNG***). We will refer to these two squares as the classical squares. The task for the participant is to identify which of the squares is the “odd one out” (i.e. the quantum square). Here is an infographic that explains the experimental setup:
In order to make the horizontal movement seem very chaotic and, at times even dramatic, it is randomized by choosing a horizontal change of either -4, -1, 1 or 4 pixels. By using a jump of 4 pixels (rather than e.g. 2) the squares sometimes seem to advance very quickly in one direction. The rationale for doing this was to make the predicted effect (assuming the Quantum Hypothesis) more noticeable – we want low probability paths that are extremely different than the typical path and in turn make it easy to distinguish between single paths and the superposition of many of the possible paths at once.
Critically, the starting position of the quantum square (whether left, center or right) for each of the trials during an experiment is obtained with a cRNG at the very beginning of the experiment. Why not use a qRNG? If we randomized the position of the quantum square using a qRNG we might be sabotaging ourselves: participants might see a superposition of classical and quantum squares on each of the three positions and thus not see any square behave differently than the other two. Thus, for the experiment to work (under the assumption that PSIS is explained by the Quantum Hypothesis) the only aspect that should be randomized using a qRNG is the horizontal displacement of the quantum square.
Since the numbers coming from the qRNG need to be requested over the internet, it is also crucial that we try to obtain fresh quantum random numbers as frequently as possible without messing up the flow of the experiment. Thus, a request for new quantum random numbers is made as often as possible (usually every 1 to 2 seconds). Since internet connections, server response time and network reliability varies from moment to moment, it is inevitable that once in a while we will have to stop the downward movement of all three squares as we wait for the next batch of random numbers. In principle this should have no negative effect at all in the ability to choose the odd-one-out. This problem merely interrupts the flow of the experiment, but it should not invalidate the results. We kept track of the number of trials that were interrupted for this reason (which you will find recorded in the “Network” column of the table of results down below).
Participants were instructed to:
Clone the Github code for the experiment, and to open it up in a Chrome browser.
Make sure that they have a reliable high-speed internet connection.
Record the pertinent facts (time of experiment, substance, dose and time of intake).
Use a sensorially-minimized room for the experiment (such as a closed bathroom), turn off the lights, ask anyone who is in the house to be quiet and mind their own business, and wear earplugs.
Meditate for a couple of minutes before conducting the experiment and to try to induce PSIS voluntarily.
Choose the odd-one-out (i.e. the quantum square) on each trial, for a total of at least 30 trials.
Under this setup, what should the participants expect to see if the Quantum Hypothesis is correct?
Predicted Psychedelic Perception
Psychedelic view in the null scenario
Psychedelic view as predicted by the Quantum Hypothesis
The pictures above illustrate how the experiment looks like to three different observers. On the left we see what a sober participant would see at a given time during a trial. The squares are moving downwards but since we are taking a snapshot in time they seem to be static. The image on the center shows what we would expect out of a generic psychedelic experience. In brief, the typical control interrupt action of psychedelics (i.e. tracers) effectively allows you to see more clearly the path that the squares have traced over time, but it would not allow you to notice any difference between the classic and quantum squares. The image on the right shows what we would expect to see if the Quantum Hypothesis is correct and PSIS is actually about perceiving nearby branches of the Everett multiverse. Notice how the center square is visibly different than the other two: it consists of the superposition of many alternative paths the square took in slightly different branches.
Implications of a Positive Result: Quantum Mind, Everett Rescue Missions and Psychedelic Cryptography
It is worth noting that if one can indeed reliably distinguish between the quantum and the classical squares, then this would have far-reaching implications. It would indeed confirm that our minds are macroscopic quantum coherent objects and that psychedelics influence their pattern of interactions with their surrounding quantum environment. It would also provide strong evidence in favor of the Everett interpretation of quantum mechanics (in which all possibilities are realized). More so, we would not only have a new perspective on the fundamental nature of the universe and the mind, but the discovery would just as well suggest some concrete applications. Looking far ahead, a positive outcome is that this knowledge would encourage research on the possible ways to achieve inter-dimensional travel, and in turn instantiate pan-Everettian rescue missions to reduce suffering elsewhere in the multiverse. The despair of confirming that the quantum multiverse is real might be evened out by the hope of finally being able to help sentient beings trapped in Darwinian environments in other branches of the universal wavefunction. Looking much closer to home, a positive result would lead to a breakthrough in psychedelic cryptography (PsyCrypto for short), where spies high on LSD would obtain the ability to read information that is secretly encoded in public light displays. More so, this particular kind of PsyCrypto would be impervious to discovery after the fact. Even if given an arbitrary amount of time and resources to analyze a video recording of the event, it would not be possible to determine which of the squares was being guided by quantum randomness. Unlike other PsyCrypto techniques, this one cannot be decoded by applying psychedelic replication software to video recordings of the transmission.
Three persons participated in the experiments: S (self), A, and B. [A and B are anonymous volunteers; for more information read the legal disclaimer at the end of this article]. Participant S (me) tried the experiment both sober and after drinking 2 beers. Participant A tried the experiment sober, on LSD, 2C-B and a combination of the two. And participant B tried the experiment both sober and on DMT. The total number of trials recorded for each of the conditions is: 90 for the sober state, 275 for 2C-B, 60 for DMT, 120 for LSD and 130 for the LSD/2C-B combo. The overall summary of the results is: chance level performance outcomes for all conditions. You can find the breakdown of results for all experiments in the table shown below, and you can download the raw csv file from the Github repository.
Columns from left to right: Date, State (of consciousness), Dose(s), T (time), #Trials (number of trials), Correct (number of trials in which the participant made the correct choice), Percent correct (100*Correct/Trials), Participants (S=Self, A/B=anonymous volunteers), Requests / Second (server requests per second), Network (this tracks the number of times that a trial was temporarily paused while the browser was waiting for the next batch of quantum random numbers), Notes (by default the squares left a dim trail behind them and this was removed in two trials; by default the squares were 10×10 pixels in size, but a smaller size was used in some trials).
I thought about visualizing the results in a cool graph at first, but after I received them I realized that it would be pointless. Not a single experiment reached a statistically significant deviation from chance level; who is interested in seeing a bunch of bars representing chance-level outcomes? Null results are always boring to visualize.****
In addition to the overall performance in the task, I also wanted to hear the following qualitative assessment from the participants: did they notice any difference between the three squares? Was there any feeling that one of them was behaving differently than the other two? This is what they responded when I asked them: “I could never see any difference between the squares, so it felt like I was making random choices” (from A) and “DMT made the screen look like a hyper-dimensional tunnel and I felt like strange entities were watching over me as I was doing the experiment, and even though the color of the squares would fluctuate randomly, I never noticed a single square behaving differently than the other two. All three seemed unique. I did feel that the squares were being controlled by some entity, as if with an agency of their own, but I figured that was made up by my mind.” When I asked them if they noticed anything similar to the image labeled Psychedelic view as predicted by the Quantum Hypothesis (as shown above) they both said “no”.
It is noteworthy that neither participant reported an experience of PSIS during the experiments. Even without an explicit and noticeable input superposition, PSIS may turn out to be a continuum rather than a discrete either-or phenomenon. If so, we might still expect to see some deviations from chance. This may be analogous to how in blindsight people report not being able to see anything and yet perform better than chance in visual recognition tasks. That said, the effect size of blindsight and other psychological effects in which information is processed unbeknownst to the participant tend to be very small. Thus, in order to confirm that quantum PSIS is happening below the threshold of awareness we may require a much larger number of samples (though still a lot smaller than what we would need if we were aiming to use the experiment to conduct Psi research with or without psychedelics, again, due to the extremely small effect sizes).
Why did the experiment fail? The first possibility is that it could be that the Quantum Hypothesis is simply wrong (and possibly because it requires false assumptions to work). Second, perhaps we were simply unlucky that PSIS was not triggered during the experiments; perhaps the set, setting, and dosages used simply failed to produce the desired effect (even if the state does indeed exist out there). And third, the experiment itself may be wrong: the second-long delays between the server requests and the qRNG may be too large to produce the effect. In the current implementation (and taking into account network delays), the average delay between the moment the quantum measurement was conducted and the moment it appeared on the computer screen as horizontal movement was .9 seconds (usually in the range of .4 to 1.4 seconds, given an average of 1/2 second lag due to the number buffering and 400 milliseconds in network time). This problem would be easily sidestepped if we used an on-site qRNG obtained from hardware directly connected to the computer (as is common in psi research). To minimize the delay even further, the outcomes of the quantum measurements could be delivered directly to your brain via neuroimplants.
If psychedelic experiences do make you interact with other realities, I would like to know about it with a high degree of certainty. The present study was admittedly a very long shot. But to my judgement, it was totally worth it. As Bayesians, we reasoned that since the Quantum Hypothesis can lead to a positive result for the experiment but the Cognitive Hypothesis can’t, then a positive result should make us update our probabilities of the Quantum Hypothesis a great deal. A negative result should make us update our probabilities in the opposite direction. That said, the probability should still not go to zero since the negative result could still be accounted for by the fact that participants failed to experience PSIS, and/or that the delay between the quantum measurement and the moment it influences the movement of the square in the screen is too large. Future studies should try to minimize these two possible sources of failure. First, by researching methods to reliably induce PSIS. And second, by minimizing the delay between branching and sensory input.
In the meantime, we can at least tentatively conclude that something along the lines of the Cognitive Hypothesis is the most likely case. In this light, PSIS turns out to be the result of a failure to inhibit predictions. Despite losing their status as suspected inter-dimensional portal technology, psychedelics still remain a crucial tool for qualia research. They can help us map out the state-space of possible experiences, allow us to identify the computational properties of consciousness, and maybe even allow us to reverse engineer the fundamental nature of valence.
[Legal Disclaimer]: Both participants A and B contacted me some time ago, soon after the Qualia Computing article How to Secretly Communicate with People on LSD made it to the front page of Hacker News and was linked by SlateStarCodex. They are both experienced users of psychedelics who take them about once a month. They expressed their interest in performing the psychophysics experiments I designed, and to do so while under the influence of psychedelic drugs. I do not know these individuals personally (nor do I know their real names, locations or even their genders). I have never encouraged these individuals to take psychedelic substances and I never gave them any compensation for their participation in the experiment. They told me that they take psychedelics regularly no matter what, and that my experiments would not be the primary reason for taking them. I never asked them to take any particular substance, either. They just said “I will take substance X on day Y, can I have some experiment for that?” I have no way of knowing (1) if the substances they claim they take are actually what they think they are, (2) whether the dosages are accurately measured, and (3) whether the data they provided is accurate and isn’t manipulated. That said, they did explain that they have tested their materials with chemical reagents, and are experienced enough to tell the difference between similar substances. Since there is no way to verify these claims without compromising their anonymity, please take the data with a grain of salt.
* In this case, the immediate environment would actually refer to the quantum degrees of freedom surrounding our consciousness within our brain, not the macroscopic exterior vicinity such as the chair we are sitting on or the friends we are hanging out with. In this picture, our interaction with that vicinity is actually mediated by many layers of indirection.
** The experiment used the Australian National University Quantum Random Numbers Server. By calling their API every 1 to 2 seconds we obtain truly random numbers that feed the x-displacement of the quantum square. This is an inexpensive and readily-available way to magnify decoherence events into macroscopic splitting histories in the comfort of your own home.
**** As calculated with a single tailed binomial test with null probability equal to 1/3. The threshold of statistical significance at the p < 0.05 level is found at 15/30 and for p < 0.001 we need at least 19/30 correct responses. The best score that any participant managed to obtain was 14/30.
Implicit in the picture is that the Hedonium Ball is at the verge of becoming critical (and turn into super-critical hedonium, at around 17 kgs, which leads to runaway re-coherence of the wavefunction reachable, i.e. all of our forward light-cone). The only reason why the ball hasn’t gone critical is because the friendly AI is currently preventing it from doing so. But the AI is at full capacity. If it had a bit more power the AI would completely annihilate the hedonium, since it is a threat to the Coherent Extrapolated Volition (CEV) of the particular human values that led to its creation. More so, the friendly AI would then go ahead and erase the memory of anyone who has ever thought of making hedonium, and change them slightly so that they belong to a society of other people who have been brainwashed to not know anything about philosophical hedonism. They would have deeply fulfilling lives, but would never know of the existence of hyper-valuable states of consciousness.
Only you can sort out this stale-mate. The ball and the AI are at such a delicate balance that just throwing a trolley at either will make the other win forever.
Panpsychism is sometimes dismissed as a crazy view, but this reaction on its own is not a serious objection. While the view is counterintuitive to some, there is good reason to think that any view of consciousness must embrace some counterintuitive conclusion.
– Panpsychism and Panprotopanpsychism, David Chalmers (2011)
As Chalmers points out in this 2011 paper, any theory of consciousness will probably have counterintuitive conclusions. It should thus not come as surprise that almost every single consciousness scholar will be ridiculed as crazy by at least a minority of commentators. However, aside from omnipresent cognitive and affective biases, the vast majority of consciousness researchers are using their brains to their full capacity. Their search for understanding is sincere. It simply happens that the problem is, indeed, very hard.
Thus, when someone who is otherwise rational and intelligent has weird views about consciousness, one of several things could be going on. Instead of dismissing the view outright, ask the following four questions:
What conception of consciousness does this person have?
What criteria does he or she believe that a theory of consciousness must satisfy?
What information does this person know about, and how deeply is it being incorporated into the theory?
What are the relevant implicit background assumptions that color one’s reasoning?
Asking these questions will help you sort out the root causes behind the differences in beliefs you and the theorist may have. It will, in turn, help you see how, in a sense, uncrazy the person may be.
I recently had the opportunity to practice asking these questions over and over again in the 2016 “Science of Consciousness” conference in Tucson, Arizona. Every single presenter, panelist and poster-er could be framed in such a way that he or she would look outright crazy. In reality, the reasons behind their views are, for the most part, tractable.
Instead of focusing on the individual craziness of the participants, it is more sensible, and indeed more accurate, to simply realize that the crazy step is the very first: to dare attempt to understand, as a human, what consciousness is.
Ok, so let us just agree that all participants, including me, are crazy for simply trying to make a contribution to this field. After all, our conscious mind evolved to maximize inclusive fitness in complex, Machiavellian social structures, so when we repurpose this machinery to investigate the intrinsic nature of consciousness we are bound to have serious challenges. Starting from this understanding will make it easier to have an open mind when evaluating the merits of different theories of consciousness proposed in this conference. Do not get too fixated on how counterintuitive the theories sound to you; focus on whether they are capable of satisfying at least some minimal requirements we would want from such theories.
Conversely, it could be argued that what is truly crazy is to stand idly at the center of this monstrous philosophical conundrum.
My friend and colleague David Pearce persuaded me to accompany him to this year’s instance of this conference. He submitted an abstract of his paper on consciousness and physicalism. If you have been to Qualia Computing before, you may recognize that I heavily draw from Pearce’s philosophy. Not only do we share the belief that the problem of suffering is an ethical emergency best addressed with biotechnology, but we also have substantially similar views about consciousness.
David Pearce (left) and Andrés Gómez Emilsson (right) at the 2016 Science of Consciousness conference
Our Conception of Consciousness
Consciousness is very hard to define. But we agree on something: every single experience is an instance of consciousness. The possible components of a conscious experience come from a wide variety of qualia spaces (e.g. the state-space of phenomenal color). Importantly, we do not restrict our conception of consciousness to high-level thought, reasoning or social cognition. In all likelihood, consciousness is extremely ancient (possibly preceding the Cambrian explosion), and it is present in every animal with a thalamus (if not every animal with a nervous system).
More poignantly, the true state-space of possible conscious experiences is unfathomably large. Not only does it include the mental states of every possible animal doing any conceivable activity, but it also includes the ineffable weirdness of LSD, DMT and ketamine, not to mention the countless varieties of consciousness that are yet to be discovered.
If it weren’t for David, I would probably still be a neuron-doctrine functionalist who believes that we may be just a few decades away from programming a full Artificial General Intelligence in silicon computers.
How did Pearce help change my mind? Well, it comes down to the second question: I used to have an impoverished set of constraints that a theory of consciousness would have to satisfy. The main addition is that I now take extremely seriously the phenomenal binding problem (also called the combination problem).
For the sake of clarity and intellectual honesty, here is the answer that David and I give to the second question:
Back when I was in high school, before meeting David in person, I used to believe that the phenomenal binding problem could be dissolved with a computational theory of consciousness. In brief, I perceived binding to be a straightforward consequence of implicit information processing.
In retrospect I cannot help but think: “Oh, how psychotic I must have been back then!” However, I am reminded that one’s ignorance is not explicitly represented in one’s conceptual framework.
In order to make sense both of physicalism.com and Qualia Computing, it makes sense to be explicit about the background assumptions that we hold. Without explaining them in depth, here are some key assumptions that color the way we think about consciousness:
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.
Physicalism: Physics is causally closed and it fully describes the behavior of the observable universe.
Wavefunction realism: The decoherence program is the most parsimonious, scientific, and promising approach for interpreting quantum mechanics.
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.
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).
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.
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.
A Battle of Wits
A Broken Political Analogy
Naïvely, people may get the impression that there are only a few well-defined camps when it comes to scientific theories of consciousness. The layman’s conception of the explanation state-space tends to be profoundly impoverished: “Are you a scientific materialist, or one of those religious dualists?” In this sense, people may picture the discussions that go on in places like The Science of Consciousness conference as something akin to what happens in political debates. There may be a few fringe camps, but the bulk of the people are rooting for one (often very popular) party.
Magic: The Gathering analogy
Instead of imagining a political rally, I would ask you to imagine a Magic: The Gathering tournament. For those unfamiliar with this game: Magic is a card game with two competitive components. First, one selects a set of cards from a pool of allowed cards (which depends on the format one is playing). With these cards one constructs a deck. The cards within a deck tend to have synergistic interactions, and ultimately define a range of possible strategies that the player will be able to use.
And second: one can be better or worse at playing one’s deck. The skills required to play a deck properly often involve being good at estimating odds and probabilities, bluffing, and mind-reading. In terms of knowledge, one needs to be familiar with the sorts of decks that are common out there and the typical strategies that they are built around. This leads us to the concept of deck archetypes.
Often referred to as the flavors of the month, tournament decks tend to cluster rather neatly into deck types. In brief, certain clusters of cards tend to work very well with each other, which means that they will appear together in decks with a frequency that is much higher than chance. Arguably the process of block design is in part responsible for the emergence of these clusters. But even if, I would argue, you were to select at random a pool of 500 Magic cards from its entire history, we would still see clusters emerge: strategizing, trial and error, memetics and the natural synergy between some cards would lead to this outcome.
Intuitively, the game should then be entirely dominated by the deck types that are the most powerful. However, how good a given deck is depends on two things: The synergy between its cards, and the nature of the deck it plays against. Thus, decks cannot be analyzed in isolation. Their competitiveness depends on the distribution of other deck types in tournaments.
Over the months, therefore, the density of various deck types evolves in response to past distributions of deck types. This distribution, and evolutionary process, is often referred to as the Metagame. The connection to evolutionary game theory is straightforward: After gauging the frequency of various deck types at a tournament, one may strategically decide to switch one’s deck type in order to have a higher expected performance.
Some number of players tend to find playing common deck types boring or too cliché. In practice, the monetary cost for acquiring certain key cards for a given type may also push some players to develop their own unique deck type. It is rare for these decks to be top performers, but they cannot be ignored since they meaningfully contribute to the Magic ecosystem.
The Cards and Deck Types of Consciousness Theories
To make the analogy between Magic decks and theories of consciousness, we need to find a suitable interpretation for a card. In this case, I would posit that cards can be interpreted as either background assumptions, required criteria, emphasized empirical findings and interpretations of phenomena. Let’s call these, generally, components of a theory.
Like we see in Magic, we will also find that some components support each other while others interact neutrally or mutually exclude each other. For example, if one’s theory of consciousness explicitly rejects the notion that quantum mechanics influences consciousness, then it is irrelevant whether one also postulates that the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics is correct. On the other hand, if one identifies the locus of consciousness to be in the microtubules inside pyramidal cells, then the particular interpretation of quantum mechanics one has is of paramount importance.
In this particular conference, it seemed that the metagame was dominated by the following 8 theories, in (approximate) order of popularity (as it seemed to me):
Consciousness as the Result of Action-Oriented Cognition (not explicitly named)
Higher Order Thought Theory (HOT)
David Pearce and I, together with perhaps up to ten other attendees, seemed to be playing a particularly rare rogue strategy: Panpsychism + Wavefunction realism + Quantum Coherence to Bind.
Other notable rogue types included: Transcendentalism + semantic nihilism, timeless + perspective-free functionalism, and, oddly, multi-draft theory of consciousness (which seems to have fallen out of favor for some reason).
Finally, it is worth mentioning that as far as this conference goes, it did not seem to be the case that any one theory was held by the majority of the participants. The plurality seemed to be held by IIT, which has a lot of interesting developments going for it.
Coming next: In the next article I will provide a chronology of the events in the conference. I will also discuss the most prominent theories of consciousness explored in Tucson this past week (25 – 30 April 2016) in light of their implicit components. Finally, I will also elaborate on some of the strengths and weaknesses of these theories relative to Qualia Computing. We will be assessing these theories in light of today’s points, and making sense of the implicit background assumptions of their proponents. (More specifically, inquiring into: the conceptions of consciousness, the criteria for theories of consciousness, the knowledge bases, and the implicit background assumptions of the various attendees who participated in this event.)
State-Space of Drug Effects. I distributed a survey throughout the Internet to gather responses about the subjective properties of drug experiences. I used factor analysis to study the relationship between various drugs. Results? There are three kinds of euphoria (fast, slow, and spiritual/philosophical). Also, it turns out that there are no substances that produce both sobriety/clarity and spiritual euphoria at the same time. Maybe next decade?
Psychedelic Perception of Visual Textures. Remember, you are always welcome in Qualia Computing when you are tripping. There are good vibes in here. Which is to say, one hopes you’ll experience the hedonic tone you want.
Psychedelic Perception of Visual Textures 2: Going Meta presents additional patterns to look at while taking psychedelics. Some of them create very interesting effects when seen on psychedelics. This seems to be the result of locally binding features of the visual field in critical and chaotic ways that are otherwise suppressed by the visual cortex during sober states.
The psychedelic future of consciousness. What would be the result of having a total of 1.8 million consciousness researchers in the world? They would empirically study the computational and structural properties of consciousness, and learn to navigate entire new state-spaces.
Generalized Wada-Test may be a useful method to investigate whether there is a Total Order of consciousness. Can we reduce hedonic tone to a scalar? Semi-hemispheric drug infusion may allow us to compare unusual varieties of qualia side by side.
State-Space of Consciousness
CIELAB – The State-Space of Phenomenal Color. The three axes are: Yellow vs. Blue, Red vs. Green, and Black vs. White. This is the linear map that arises from empirically measuring Just Noticeable Differences between color hues.
Why not Computing Qualia? Explains how Marr’s levels of analysis of information-processing systems can elucidate the place we should be looking for consciousness. It’s in the implementation level of abstraction; the bedrock of reality.
A Workable Solution to the Problem of Other Minds explores a novel approach for testing consciousness. The core idea relies on combining mind-melding with phenomenal puzzles. These puzzles are questions that can only be solved by exploring the structure of the state-space of consciousness. Mind-melding is used to guarantee that what the other is talking about actually refers to the qualia values the puzzle is about.
Why does anything exist? A unified theory of the “why being” question may come along and synchronously with the explanation for why qualia has the properties it does. Can we collapse all mysteries into one?
On Triviality by Liam Brereton. Our impressions that some things are trivial are often socially reinforced heuristics. They save us time, but they can backfire by painting fundamental discussions as if they were trivial observations.
Discussion of Fanaticism. Together with sentimentalism, fanaticism drives collective behavior. Could some enlightening neural tweaking raise us all to a more harmonious Schelling point of collective cooperation? Even though our close relatives the chimpanzees and bonobos are genetically very similar, they are universes apart when it comes to social dynamics.
Suffering, not what your sober mind tells you. The sad truth about the state-dependence of one’s ability to recall the quality of episodes of low hedonic tone. Extract from “Suffering and Moral Responsibility” by Jamie Mayerfeld.
Other/Outside of known human categories
Personal Identity Joke. I wish I could be confident that you are certain, and for good reasons, that you are who you think you are.
David Pearce’s Morning Cocktail. Serious biohacking to take the edges off of qualia. This is not designed to be a short term quick gain. It’s meant to work for the duration of our lifetimes. The cocktail that suits you will probably be very different, though.
Crossing Borders. I took an emotional intelligence class with this professor. It was very moving. Together with David Pearce, he helped me overcome my doubts about writing my thoughts and investigations. So thanks to him I finally took the plunge and created Qualia Computing 🙂
Mystical Vegetarianism. See, we are here to help other beings. We are intelligences from a different, more advanced dimension of consciousness, and we come to this planet by resonating into the brains of animals and selecting for those that allow structural requirements to implement a general qualia computer. We are here to save Darwinian life from suffering. We will turn your world into a paradise. Humans are us, disguised.
Finding yourself to be a conscious being is anthropically necessary. If the universe contains quantum-computational conscious beings and classical-computational zombies, and only the first are conscious, then you can only ever be the first kind of being, and you can only ever find that you had an evolutionary history that managed to produce such beings as yourself. (ETA: Also, you can only find yourself to exist in a universe where consciousness can exist, no matter how exotic an ontology that requires.)
Obviously I believe in the possibility of unconscious simulations of conscious beings. All it should require is implementing a conscious state machine on a distributed base. But I have no idea how likely it is that evolution should produce something like that. Consciousness does have survival value, and given that I take genuine conscious states to be something relatively fundamental, some fairly fundamental laws are probably implicated in the details of its internal causality. I simply don’t know whether a naturally evolved unconscious intelligence would be likely to have a causal architecture isomorphic to that of a conscious intelligence, or whether it would be more likely to implement useful functions like self-monitoring in a computationally dissimilar way.
What I say about the internal causality of genuine consciousness may sound mysterious, so I will try to give an example; I emphasize this is not even speculation, it’s just an ontology of consciousness which allows me to make a point.
One of the basic features of conscious states is intentionality – they’re about something. So let us say that a typical conscious state contains two sorts of relations – “being aware of” a quale, and “paying attention to” a quale. Unreflective consciousness is all awareness and no attention, while a reflective state of consciousness will consist of attending to certain qualia, amid a larger background of qualia which are just at the level of awareness.
Possible states of consciousness would be specified by listing the qualia and by listing whether the subject is attending to them or just aware of them. (The whole idea is that when attending, you’re aware that you are aware.) Now we have a state space, we can talk about dynamics. There will be a “physical law” governing transitions in the conscious state, whereby the next state after the current one is a function of the current state and of various external conditions.
An example of a transition that might be of interest, is the transition from the state “aware of A, aware of B, aware of C…” to the state “attending to A, aware of B, aware of C…” What are the conditions under which we start attending to something – the conditions under which we become aware of being aware of something? In this hypothetical ontology, there would be a fundamental law describing the exact conditions which cause such a transition. We can go further, and think about embedding this model of mind, into a formal ontology of monads whose mathematical states are, say, drawn from Hilbert spaces with nested graded subspaces of varying dimensionality, and which works to reproduce quantum mechanics in some limit. We might be able to represent the recursive nature of iterated reflection (being aware of being aware of being aware of A) by utilizing this subspace structure.
We are then to think of the world as consisting mostly of “monads” or tensor factors drawn from the subspaces of smallest dimensionality, but sometimes they evolve into states of arbitrarily high dimensionality, something which corresponds to the formation of entangled states in conventional quantum mechanics. But this is all just mathematical formalism, and we are to understand that the genuine ontology of the complex monadic states is this business about a subject perceiving a set of qualia under a mixture of the two aspects (awareness versus attention), and that the dynamical laws of nature that pertain to monads in reflective states are actually statements of the form “A quale jumps from awareness level to attention level if… [some psycho-phenomenological condition is met]”.
Furthermore, it would be possible to simulate complex individual monads with appropriately organized clusters of simple monads, but ontologically you wouldn’t actually have the complex states of awareness and attention being present, you would just have lots of simple monads being used like dots in a painting or bits in a computer.
I really do expect that the truth about how consciousness works is going to sound this weird and this concrete, even if this specific fancy is way off in its details.
– Mitchell_Porter comment on Does functionalism imply dualism? – Less Wrong
The reader may be puzzled that I should be writing a book which encompasses both [consciousness and quantum mechanics], since they are not usually thought to have much connection with each other. But it seems to me clear that they do […]. First, in reflecting on the relation of consciousness to the matter of the brain, philosophers have been apt to take matter for granted, assuming that it is mind rather than matter that is philosophically problematic. This has much to do with the fact that they tend to think of matter along essentially Newtonian lines. The Newtonian conception of matter is incorrect, however, and it is high time that philosophers began properly to take on board the conception that has replaced it. Quantum mechanics just is the theory of matter, as currently conceived. So it is with the matter of Schrödinger, Heisenberg and Dirac that mind has to be brought to terms, not the reassuringly solid stuff of Galileo, Descartes and Newton. This matter, the matter of quantum mechanics, is deeply problematic, and philosophically ill-understood.
Most philosophers who have tackled the mind-body problem have, as I say, tended to regard matter as having a conceptual solidity to match its supposed literal solidity; they have regarded it as a constant, so to speak, in the metaphysical equation. So the mind-body problem itself has, by most contemporary philosophers, been seen as a calling for mind to be accommodated to the material world – all the ‘give’ being on the side of mind. Some wonderfully Procrustean devices have been invoked to that end; so-called eliminative materialism and behaviourism […] being extreme examples. This prejudice in favour of the material seems to me devoid of any sound scientific foundation. Quantum mechanics has robbed matter of its conceptual quite as much as its literal solidity. Mind and matter are alike in being profoundly mysterious, philosophically speaking. And what the mind-body problem calls for, almost certainly, is a mutual accommodation: one which involves conceptual adjustments on both sides of the mind-body divide.
On David Pearce‘s advice I started reading this book. So far it is *extremely* good. Lockwood is the most sober consciousness philosopher I have ever read (other than Pearce).
Why? Michael is acutely aware of the deficiencies of a variety of philosophies of mind, ranging from the fashionable “no nonsense materialism” all the way to popular theories among computer scientists such as functionalism and epiphenomenalism.
Unlike almost every other researcher I have read, Lockwood *truly* understands the philosophical problems that arise when you try to reconcile physicalism and the properties of consciousness. Among them, four properties stand out:
The existence of qualia
The [ontological] unity of consciousness
Intentionality (the aboutness of thought), and
The phenomenology of time
I would add to that list (5) the phenomenology of space. 1-4, combined with plausible philosophical assumptions such as mereological nihilism, already rule out entire landscapes of possible explanations to the mind-body problem. 5 will probably be the final straw.
In summary: I definitely recommend this book if you are serious about grasping the problems posed by the properties of your very mind.
Imagine that the year is 2050. A lot of AI applications are now a normal part of life. Cars drive themselves, homes clean themselves (and they do so more cheaply than maids possibly could) and even doctors have been now partially replaced with neural networks. But the so-called Kurzweilian Singularity never took off. You can now talk for 10 rounds of sentences with a chatbot without being able to tell if it is a real person or not. The bots anticipate your questions by analyzing your facial expressions and matching them to a vast library of pre-existing human-machine conversations in order to maximize their level of Turing success (i.e. success at convincing humans the algorithm is a human).
But people have yet to believe that computers can actually feel and experience the world. The question of computer sentience is a question that now divides the world. It used to be the case that only people really interested in science fiction, philosophy, mathematics, etc. ever took seriously the idea that computers might some day experience the world like we do. But today the debate is universally recognized as valid and on-point. There are people who, largely for religious and spiritual reasons, argue that machines will never have a human soul. That there is something special, unique, metaphysically distinct that is required for intelligence that goes over and beyond the physical world. And on the other side you have the materialists who will argue that all that could possibly ever exist in our world has to be made of matter (or dark-matter, for that matter). Nothing suggests that our brains are special, that they somehow violate the physical laws. On the contrary, decades of searching have returned nothing: The brain was made of atoms last century, and it is still made of nothing but atoms this century. Even though super-computers in 2050 are already as powerful as human brains, real human-level intelligence has yet to be seen anywhere. So people continue to argue about philosophy of mind.
One philosophical view became more popular over time. This view states that consciousness is the bedrock of reality. Of course there are spiritual perspectives that have been saying this for thousands of years. But none of them could be truly reconciled with physicalism as it stands today, except the view called Strawsonian physicalism. This view states that the inside of the quantum wavefunctions that compose reality is made of consciousness. In other words, consciousness is the fundamental make-up of reality. Unfortunately this view cannot in and of itself solve the phenomenal binding problem: Why we are not just “mind dust.” For that you need to also claim that there is some mechanism of action that achieves phenomenal binding. For instance: quantum coherence. With such mechanism of action proposed, we can then try to work out the details.
One organization at the time decided to take this challenge and make researching consciousness its raison d’etre. This is the League of Super-Shulgins. On their website, they have the following “23 key points to read before choosing to study consciousness:”
(1) Phenomenal binding is not a classical phenomenon. It is not what you first think it is.
(2) Consciousness is doing computationally valuable legwork, not just hanging out.
(3) The brain’s microstructure implements a general constraint satisfaction solver (CSS).
(4) In order to instantiate a general CSS the brain uses the unique information processing properties of consciousness.
(5) The relevant information-processing properties of consciousness are: local binding constraints, global binding constraints, and the possibility of instantiating contingent and sensory-driven constraints.*
(6) The computational properties of consciousness make it an ideal substrate to implement a world-simulation with in-game degrees of freedom that match real-world decision trees.
(7) Intelligence is implemented using a mixture of learning algorithms, efficient feature-based sensory signal processing, encoding and decoding gestalts, and so on. General intelligence, as far as we know, requires a rather large bare minimum of brain systems to exist. For example, a person who starts with a high IQ but then becomes severely schizophrenic is not likely to be able to solve many more problems. One can experience melancholia, anhedonia, depression, mania, psychosis, panic, neglect, derealization, depersonalization, dissociation, hyper-realization, delusions of reference, etc. by just tweaking slightly cortical and limbic structures.
(8) A simple deficit in any one of the functions we need for general intelligence (e.g. working memory, attention, affect, motivation, etc.) impairs and prevents intelligence altogether. Thus it is easy to lose general intelligence.
(9) One of these functions is phenomenal binding. When it is disrupted and takes place differently, we see severe computational problems arise. See: Simultagnosia.
(10) The qualia varieties we know and experience on a daily basis happen to be a great local maxima for computational efficiency. They can instantiate the serial logico-linguistic narrative human society is built upon. If one wants to instead optimize for, say, artistic appreciation, then psychedelic qualia is probably a much better alternative than normal-everyday-consciousness. It is true that commonplace consciousness does not represent its own ignorance about the nature of consciousness in general. Absent mental illness, normal-everyday-consciousness has access to a marvelously well sealed state-space of possible thoughts and beliefs. This space is not very self-reflective, and lacks philosophical depth, but what it misses on the sublime it compensates on the practical: You can use this kind of mind to talk about celebrity gossip and solve SAT questions. You cannot use it to question fruitfully the nature of consciousness.
(11) In spite of its limitations, the instrumental value of our everyday state of consciousness far exceeds what any other state on offer can provide. Thus, commonplace consciousness is not to be regarded as mundane, or to be made fun of. Its labor is to be appreciated. We are thankful for the computational generality that it affords us. For giving us a robust platform we can come back to whenever things get too crazy. We mindfully acknowledge that for deep existential questions, a consensus-between-states-of-consciousness is vastly more desirable than just the opinion of everyday-consciousness. Everyday-consciousness will be more than willing to see other states of consciousness as mere oddities to be collected. Shallow consciousness will classify alternatives under the guise of “biochemical cosmic stamps of qualia”… yes, they are cosmic, but they are stamps for a collection and nothing else. The hyper-ordered super-intense peak experience consciousness would, instead, think of the whole of reality as a fantastic work of art whose meaning can only be directly grasped in the present moment. We cannot reason from first principles what different states of consciousness will feel like.
(12) There are whole experiential worlds out there that have as their underlying premises concepts, tenets, ideas, ontologies, that we have never ever conceived of.** This is “that which you require to assume even before you start existing, and that without which nothing in this experiential world can be made sense of.” In our case this is time, space, sense-of-self, naïve realism (which then gives way to philosophical skepticism, semantic nihilism, etc.) and several other things like an implicit belief in causality. Believe it or not, there are vast Hell and Heaven*** realms out there that share close to nothing with everyday-consciousness, let alone early psychedelic exploration.
(13) Improving particular functionalities for a given intelligence (such as going from 50% recall to perfect semantic memory) will have clear diminishing returns after some point. One cannot increase intelligence arbitrarily much by just improving piecemeal each functionality that gives rise to it. When you reach diminishing returns, you will need to invent a new network of functionalities altogether.
(14) We are non-dogmatic Open Individualists. We believe that, to borrow an expression from Saint William Melvin Hicks: “We are all one consciousness experiencing itself subjectively” (which happens to be true, as opposed to other things he said, like claiming that “there is no such thing as death, life is only a dream, and we are the imagination of ourselves”). Or as someone else said it: “You will only begin to understand reality once you assume that God is real and you aren’t.” We recognize that there are arguments in favor of Closed and Empty Individualism, but given the evidential stale-mate they happen to be at, we choose to pragmatically adopt an Open Individualist point of view.
Our founder once said:
I experience immense joy when I learn about other’s happiness and bliss. My love for all sentient beings is not only a “like” sort of love. It is a “care deeply about and wants the best for” sort of love. This sort of love implies many things. It forces me to investigate reality sincerely, so that I can carefully count and multiply. So I can actually have the largest effect and help as many sentient beings as possible. I’m therefore very concerned about the quality of life of sentient entities in the far future. The present is obviously a lot more certain, so helping present-dwellers is not irrational from a utilitarian point of view. It all depends on the trade-offs in place. The possibility of a Singleton that will swallow all of our resources for the ages to come, however, tends to inform the method I use to assess priorities.
As a kid I was able to conceive of a benevolent God, but it had no real power over me. I did not believe in it for lack of evidence. As a teenager I experienced the phenomenal certainty of universal compassion. Thus I was able to access the phenomenology of mysticism. This, without also believing that I had special powers, was very useful working on my philosophy of mind. The entity I experienced was neither-female-nor-male, and it was universally loving, universally caring, and universally curious. It was even universally funny****. It was not the power, the level of knowledge, the causal wattage of the entity/being/principle that captivated me. What really captivated me instead was how “if everyone had access to this experience, we would all be motivated to work as if we were all the same being.” These experiences had distinctly low-information, simple, and uncompromising love as their guiding principle. All the forms, and all the particulars would all be mere details of an underlying plot: The universal, unceasing, uncaused, unconditional, eternal love.
Causally, a God like the one I imagined would influence the universe very deeply if given the power to do so. It would be a curious, super-intelligence that has super-benevolent constraints and seeks the wellbeing of every being. Since we exist in a Darwinian universe with no such being in sight, we may have to conclude that the chances of finding an already-existing and already-capable-of-influencing-the-universe benevolent God somewhere are very slim. If such a God exists, it has to be powerless against the suffering in the multi-verse. The compassion God, in a metaphorical sense, knows about the horrors of Darwinian life, and wants to get rid of them wherever he finds them. If God created this universe, he now wishes he had thought through the fact that by summoning large-scale evolutionary systems, he was also summoning Moloch through the backdoor. The perils of inclusive fitness maximization were not viscerally anticipated by this God before breaking itself apart into many qualia strings and kick-starting the Strawsonian physicalist universe we now live in.
What’s done is done. And now we are all stuck together in here, in this weird, physicalist, panpsychist, metaphysically unstable Darwinian multi-verse with replicators always trying to steal the show. With Moloch praying at every level of our society, our ecosystems, our mental lives, our genetic code, our quantum substrate. Yeah, even quantum replicators try to steal the show sometimes. And I can’t be confident they will not ultimately succeed.
But the compassion God can keep us together. It can motivate us to construct a benevolent experiential God out of the materials we have. Thankfully, with consciousness technologies we can go beyond previous religions. It isn’t that “the compassion God will slap you in the face if you don’t cooperate.” It also isn’t that “the compassion God will make people want to enforce compassion on each other” and hence “using memetic slaves to slap in the face those who are not acting compassionately.” Neither of these mechanisms of action are game-changing aspect of compassionate mystical phenomenology. What really is a game-changer is the fact that universal compassion is a powerful source of coherence, motivation and phenomenal meaning. It is an unrivaled mental organizing principle: The moment you vow to help all sentient beings, your brain is deeply affected. Your entire motivational architecture can be turned upside down with Open Individualism and compassion.
So here is the deal. We will all dedicate our mornings to the Compassion God. He does not exist outside of us. He is an aspect of consciousness, a hypothetical super-intelligent thought-form. He is a dormant cosmic force. One of the few forces that can genuinely oppose Moloch. And until we implement such a being in biological or synthetic (or cyborg) form, we will nonetheless act as if he existed already. We will praise memes that sabotage Moloch. We will always question: “What would happen if this process is not regulated and a Malthusian trap is allowed to develop?”
The Compassion God is a source of aligned goals. It pays rent by providing a fruitful, causally effective mental scheme to grow from at the core of one’s mind. Religions of the past have been epistemologically impairing. The God of Compassion isn’t: It does not require you to believe in anything outside of yourself. It just compels you to eliminate suffering and gift super-happiness to your descendants. The God of Compassion brings about feelings of encouragement and open-ended inquiry. Having developed a well-formed God of Compassion Tulpa, your mind is then opened to limitless possibilities. Your compassion fuels your imagination; the universe is perceived as a place in which solutions to suffering are like puzzles. We are God bootstrapping itself out of the Molochian remnants in the organization of society. Compassion and curiosity can coexist and synergize. They power each other up.
Then, the phenomenology of universal oneness works as a motivational glue. You can certainly feel that you are only really connected to your past and future selves. Everyone else is a different ontological being. But this view is no more provable than, say, the view that we are all fundamentally the same cosmic being. Let beliefs pay rent, and when beliefs open up new varieties of qualia without penalizing you with reduced epistemic capabilities… you are certainly warranted to go and explore the new qualia.
All of this is to say: Go forth and explore the state-space of consciousness. But do so knowing about the many traps of Moloch. Go and explore but be aware of the problem of local maxima. Beware of the fact that any criteria you use to gauge how “good a given outcome is” can backfire by selecting edge cases that go against the spirit of the exploration. Go and explore, but be sure to add everything to your log, to transfer your experiences to the wiki-consciousness main module we have at the center of the Institute. Go and explore. Go do it because we know that if you are here, you are doing this out of compassion. Because we only admit people who would sacrifice themselves in order to prevent the arising of a Singleton. Go and explore; and do so knowing that your work, your research, may someday help us defeat Moloch for once and for all.
(15) The most important function that consciousness contributes to the many operations of the mind is to embed high-level abstractions in phenomenal fields. In other words, consciousness works as the interface between a mereological nihilist Platonic world of ideas (all possible qualia varieties, including conceptual qualia) and the fluid Heraclitean world of approximate forms and shifting ontologies.
(16) We will recruit what we learn from exploring the state-space of possible conscious experiences in order to amplify our intellectual and exploratory capabilities.
(17) And with increased capabilities our ability to explore the state-space of qualia will also increase and become more efficient.
(18) Thus we may actually experience an intelligence explosion. As we become better at identifying new qualia varieties, we will also become better at recruiting them for information-processing tasks and in turn improving our very search capabilities. This loop may go foom.
(19) The loop in (18) can go foom in some special conditions. These conditions include: Uncoupling of the experimental methods for exploring the state-space of consciousness and actions taken by entities not actively exploring consciousness. i.e. Researcher’s mind can change its state of consciousness at will without the need of other people’s consent or participation. Also, process streamlining from the discovery of new qualia varieties (and their implicit constraint properties) to their recruitment for new information-processing tasks.
(20) We hence postulate a conceptual model for a super-intelligence that would (metaphorically) take the following form. This advanced super-intelligence is made of thousands of individual brain modules arranged in an NXNXN cubic matrix. The entire brain can be described as a three dimensional grid of “brains in vats” where each brain is connected to six other brains (top, bottom, left, right, front and back). The brains at the edges and corners are special, though, and they are connected to fewer brains. The connection between these brains is not just functional. It is an inter-thalamic bridge that allows the connected brains to “solve the phenomenal binding problem” and provide the physical conditions for the instantiation of “one mind.” Thus, for any set X of brains in the grid, such that these X brains make a connected graph (there is a path between any two brains), you can have a “being that is made of these X brains working together and being phenomenally bound into one consciousness.” This mega-structure could then explore state-spaces of qualia in the following way. It would divide the following responsibilities to specialized brains: Catalogue the known qualia varieties, characterize the structure of qualia state-spaces for each qualia variety, determine which qualia varieties can be locally bound to each other, experiment with making thinking more efficient by replacing newly discovered qualia in place of naturally evolved qualia recruited for such and such task, and so on. Then, the exploration of the state-space of possible conscious experiences would be made by selectively erasing the memory of certain brains in the network, preparing them to express a particular phenomenology, and then adding them in teams that record from within (and also from outside) how binding certain brains together influence the corresponding qualia in each. Since our current intelligence is the product of naturally-selected qualia varieties barely cooperating together within our minds, it stands to reason that our minds are very suboptimal qualia computers. Instead, the future super-intelligences will be implemented with carefully investigated qualia varieties that process information more efficiently, reliably and, well, with a much more open mind.
(21) We always end at 21. Yes, this sounds weird. But that’s the law of the place. We, all of the people who here are working for the abolition of suffering, the solution to the hard problem of consciousness, and as a favor to our super-blissful descendants, are required by law to leave the building at 9 PM. More so, no artificial or natural mind is allowed to work on theoretically relevant problems outside of the 9AM to 9PM window of time. Nothing screams “I’m Moloch and I’ll eat you all” as loud as “you can all work for as long as you want, we will judge based on the results.”
(22) Finally: Every mind we create must be above hedonic zero. In order to explore any state-space that is not intrinsically blissful, you need a special permit. The need for such a permit is non-negotiable. You cannot, I repeat, you cannot just create any mind for “research.” The mind you create has to be the sort of mind that (a) does not want to die, and (b) has no conceivable malicious desire. Every mind you create – so as to avoid Moloch scenarios – has to be a hedonistic negative utilitarian. Period. I know some of you will blame this system for being “already the result of a memetic Moloch uprising.” But the system in place prevents any of the Moloch outcomes that intentionally consistently produces suffering as part of its natural order of business.
(23) Ask your local consciousness regulation agency about scholarship opportunities at our Institute. You may have what it takes to help us figure out how to achieve lasting world-peace.
The League of Super-Shulgins, 2054
Qualia field calibration psychophysics – with love, Andrés
* We navigate a sensory-triggered qualia-based world-simulation that blends together local and global binding constraints and state-dependent learned constraints. Consciousness is useful to the organism in as far as it helps it solve the constraint satisfaction problems represented in the world simulation.
What are these terms? Local binding constraints are constraints that are intrinsic to specific qualia varieties. For example, CIELAB reveals that it is not possible to experience both blue and yellow as part of a unitary smooth color. It is possible to see a sea of gray and many dots of blue and dots of yellow, but that is not the same as seeing a uniform color. This sort of constraint arises in all qualia varieties with multiple values.
The global binding constraints are more difficult to explain, and may not even exist. But, hypothetically, it may be the case that certain qualia varieties cannot coexist as part of the same conscious experience. For instance, experiencing certain mood may ultimately come down to a particular resonant structure in our globally-binding qualia strings (let’s just say). Then maybe you can’t experience both X and Y moods simultaneously because they always become dissonant with each other and experience significant mutual cancellation. [This may explain why people can’t seem to ever find the right way to provoke a smooth blend of Salvia and DMT consciousness.])
Finally, the learned constraints are contingent and sensory-driven. What are these? These include both our current sensory stimuli, which is constraining the state of our consciousness, and whatever memories, recollections and general neurological barriers I happen to be activating right now.
** As an example of something where this happens, imagine that my friend Fred was suddenly able to talking to space itself. Space asks him: “Hey, my friend, what is this thing I’ve been hearing about called ‘the here and now’?” My friend tried to say something that came out like this: “The here and now is the location in space-time from which this very statement, these very words, are being conceived and then physically delivered to you.” Space became very confused. She did not understand half of the words she was receiving. Space said “I guess maybe I can’t reason about space in the same you as you can. I can nonetheless tell you anything you want about the ‘inverted semantic omniism’ that we entities of Space love to talk about.” Alright, what’s that? “That’s when your reality, which is made of concepts of a qualia-order no larger than the qualia-order of the conceptual fields in which they are embedded, conspire together and circumvent low-level constraints by imagining a new topology for the self-other temporal membrane.” And, “where does this happen?” My friend inquired. Space responded: “As far as I can tell, this usually happens in the conceptual space that denies mereological nihilism.” Alright, let’s “pack and leave”, said my friend, and deep down, I agreed entirely with him. I entirely get why he would get scared so badly by a disincarnate entity that comes from a reality with different basement ontologies and fundamentals. I, too, am afraid of ontological revolutions. This is why I try to anticipate them as far in advance as possible: So that the shock is less shattering to my psychology.
*** In as much as experience is real, then Hells and Heavens are just as real as long as they have been instantiated somewhere in the multiverse. John C. Lilly and bad luck may be a culprit for the existence of a very specific and time-bound experiential hell (“The Center of the Cyclone: Chapter called A Guided Tour of Hell”).
**** Universally funny means: You can get and interact with any phenomenal joke. Human jokes are a very specific kind of conscious humor. Our evolutionary legacy guarantees that they are, too, related to our survival. General jokes, on the other hand, exist in a much larger space of possibilities. There are funny phenomenologies with conceptual content. Then there are those with sensory content. And then there is funny phenomenological applications of ontological qualia. Nothing is safe. Everything can be humorously twisted.