Open Individualism and Antinatalism: If God could be killed, it’d be dead already

Abstract

Personal identity views (closed, empty, open) serve in philosophy the role that conservation laws play in physics. They recast difficult problems in solvable terms, and by expanding our horizon of understanding, they likewise allow us to conceive of new classes of problems. In this context, we posit that philosophy of personal identity is relevant in the realm of ethics by helping us address age-old questions like whether being born is good or bad. We further explore the intersection between philosophy of personal identity and philosophy of time, and discuss the ethical implications of antinatalism in a tenseless open individualist “block-time” universe.

Introduction

Learning physics, we often find wide-reaching concepts that simplify many problems by using an underlying principle. A good example of this is the law of conservation of energy. Take for example the following high-school physics problem:

An object that weighs X kilograms falls from a height of Y meters on a planet without an atmosphere and a gravity of Zg. Calculate the velocity with which this object will hit the ground.

One could approach this problem by using Newton’s laws of motion and differentiating the distance traveled by the object as a function of time and then obtaining the velocity of the object at the time it has fallen Y meters.

Alternatively, you could simply note that given that energy is conserved, all of the potential energy of the object at a height of X meters will be transformed into kinetic energy at 0 height. Thus the velocity of the object is equivalent to this amount, and the problem is easier to solve.

Once one has learned “the trick” one starts to see many other problems differently. In turn, grasping these deep invariants opens up new horizons; while many problems that seemed impossible can be solved using these principles, it also allows you to ask new questions, which opens up new problems that cannot be solved with those principles alone.

Does this ever happen in philosophy? Perhaps entire classes of difficult problems in philosophy may become trivial (or at least tractable) once one grasps powerful principles. Such is the case, I would claim, of transcending common-sense views of personal identity.

Personal Identity: Closed, Empty, Open

In Ontological Qualia I discussed three core views about personal identity. For those who have not encountered these concepts, I recommend reading that article for an expanded discussion.

In brief:

  1. Closed Individualism: You start existing when you are born, and stop when you die.
  2. Empty Individualism: You exist as a “time-slice” or “moment of experience.”
  3. Open Individualism: There is only one subject of experience, who is everyone.

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Most people are Closed Individualists; this is the default common sense view for good evolutionary reasons. But what grounds are there to believe in this view? Intuitively, the fact that you will wake up in “your body” tomorrow is obvious and needs no justification. However, explaining why this is the case in a clear way requires formalizing a wide range of concepts such as causality, continuity, memory, and physical laws. And when one tries to do so one will generally find a number of barriers that will prevent one from making a solid case for Closed Individualism.

As an example line of argument, one could argue that what defines you as an individual is your set of memories, and since the person who will wake up in your body tomorrow is the only human being with access to your current memories then you must be it. And while this may seem to work on the surface, a close inspection reveals otherwise. In particular, all of the following facts work against it: (1) memory is a constructive process and every time you remember something you remember it (slightly) differently, (2) memories are unreliable and do not always work at will (e.g. false memories), (3) it is unclear what happens if you copy all of your memories into someone else (do you become that person?), (4) how many memories can you swap with someone until you become a different person?, and so on. Here the more detailed questions one asks, the more ad-hoc modifications of the theory are needed. In the end, one is left with what appears to be just a set of conventional rules to determine whether two persons are the same for practical purposes. But it does not seem to carve nature at its joints; you’d be merely over-fitting the problem.

The same happens with most Closed Individualist accounts. You need to define what the identity carrier is, and after doing so one can identify situations in which identity is not well-defined given that identity carrier (memory, causality, shared matter, etc.).

But for both Open and Empty Individualism, identity is well-defined for any being in the universe. Either all are the same, or all are different. Critics might say that this is a trivial and uninteresting point, perhaps even just definitional. Closed Individualism seems sufficiently arbitrary, however, that questioning it is warranted, and once one does so it is reasonable to start the search for alternatives by taking a look at the trivial cases in which either all or none of the beings are the same.

More so, there are many arguments in favor of these views. They indeed solve and usefully reformulate a range of philosophical problems when applied diligently. I would argue that they play a role in philosophy that is similar to that of conservation of energy in physics. The energy conservation law has been empirically tested to extremely high levels of precision, which is something which we will have to do without in the realm of philosophy. Instead, we shall rely on powerful philosophical insights. And in addition, they make a lot of problems tractable and offer a powerful lens to interpret core difficulties in the field.

Open and Empty Individualism either solve or have bearings on: Decision theory, utilitarianism, fission/fusion, mind-uploading and mind-melding, panpsychism, etc. For now, let us focus on…

Antinatalism

Antinatalism is a philosophical view that posits that, all considered, it is better not to be born. Many philosophers could be adequately described as antinatalists, but perhaps the most widely recognized proponent is David Benatar. A key argument Benatar considers is that there might be an asymmetry between pleasure and pain. Granted, he would say, experiencing pleasure is good, and experiencing suffering is bad. But while “the absence of pain is good, even if that good is not enjoyed by anyone”, we also have that “the absence of pleasure is not bad unless there is somebody for whom this absence is a deprivation.” Thus, while being born can give rise to both good and bad, not being born can only be good.

Contrary to popular perception, antinatalists are not more selfish or amoral than others. On the contrary, their willingness to “bite the bullet” of a counter-intuitive but logically defensible argument is a sign of being willing to face social disapproval for a good cause. But along with the stereotype, it is generally true that antinatalists are temperamentally depressive. This, of course, does not invalidate their arguments. If anything, sometimes a degree of depressive realism is essential to arrive at truly sober views in philosophy. But it shouldn’t be a surprise to learn that either experiencing or having experienced suffering in the past predispose people to vehemently argue for the importance of its elimination. Having a direct acquaintance with the self-disclosing nastiness of suffering does give one a broader evidential base for commenting on the matter of pain and pleasure.

Antinatalism and Closed Individualism

Interestingly, Benatar’s argument, and those of many antinatalists, rely implicitly on personal identity background assumptions. In particular, antinatalism is usually framed in a way that assumes Closed Individualism.

The idea that a “person can be harmed by coming into existence” is developed within a conceptual framework in which the inhabitants of the universe are narrative beings. These beings have both spatial and temporal extension. And they also have the property that had the conditions previous to their birth been different, they might not have existed. But how many possible beings are there? How genetically or environmentally different do they need to be to be different beings? What happens if two beings merge? Or if they converge towards the same exact physical configuration over time?

 

This conceptual framework has counter-intuitive implications when taken to the extreme. For example, the amount of harm you do involves how many people you allow to be born, rather than how many years of suffering you prevented.

For the sake of the argument, imagine that you have control over a sentient-AI-enabled virtual environment in which you can make beings start existing and stop existing. Say that you create two beings, A and B, who are different in morally irrelevant ways (e.g. one likes blue more than red, but on average they both end up suffering and delighting in their experience with the same intensity). With Empty Individualism, you would consider giving A 20 years of life and not creating B vs. giving A and B 10 years of life each to be morally equivalent. But with Closed Individualism you would rightly worry that these two scenarios are completely different. By giving years of life to both A and B (any amount of life!) you have doubled the number of subjects who are affected by your decisions. If the gulf of individuality between two persons is infinite, as Closed Individualism would have it, by creating both A and B you have created two parallel realities, and that has an ontological effect on existence. It’s a big deal. Perhaps a way to put it succinctly would be: God considers much more carefully the question of whether to create a person who will live only 70 years versus whether to add a million years of life to an angel who has already lived for a very long time. Creating an entirely new soul is not to be taken lightly (incidentally, this may cast the pro-choice/pro-life debate in an entirely new light).

Thus, antinatalism is usually framed in a way that assumes Closed Individualism. The idea that a being is (possibly) harmed by coming into existence casts the possible solutions in terms of whether one should allow animals (or beings) to be born. But if one were to take an Open or Empty Individualist point of view, the question becomes entirely different. Namely, what kind of experiences should we allow to exist in the future…

Antinatalism and Empty Individualism

I think that the strongest case for antinatalism comes from a take on personal identity that is different than the implicit default (Closed Individualism). If you assume Empty Individualism, in particular, reality starts to seem a lot more horrible than you had imagined. Consider how in Empty Individualism fundamental entities exist as “moments of experience” rather than narrative streams. Therefore, every time that an animal suffers, what is actually happening is that some moments of experience get to have their whole existence in pain and suffering. In this light, one stops seeing people who suffer terrible happenings (e.g. kidney stones, schizophrenia, etc.) as people who are unlucky, and instead one sees their brains as experience machines capable of creating beings whose entire existence is extremely negative.

With Empty Individualism there is simply no way to “make it up to someone” for having had a bad experience in the past. Thus, out of compassion for the extremely negative moments of experience, one could argue that it might be reasonable to try to avoid this whole business of life altogether. That said, this imperative does not come from the asymmetry between pain and pleasure Benetar talks about (which as we saw implicitly requires Closed Individualism). In Empty Individualism it does not make sense to say that someone has been brought into existence. So antinatalism gets justified from a different angle, albeit one that might be even more powerful.

In my assessment, the mere possibility of Empty Individualism is a good reason to take antinatalism very seriously.

It is worth noting that the combination of Empty Individualism and Antinatalism has been (implicitly) discussed by Thomas Metzinger (cf. Benevolent Artificial Anti-Natalism (BAAN)) and FRI‘s Brian Tomasik.

Antinatalism and Open Individualism

Here is a Reddit post and then a comment on a related thread (by the same author) worth reading on this subject (indeed these artifacts motivated me to write the article you are currently reading):

There’s an interesting theory of personal existence making the rounds lately called Open Individualism. See herehere, and here. Basically, it claims that consciousness is like a single person in a huge interconnected library. One floor of the library contains all of your life’s experiences, and the other floors contain the experiences of others. Consciousness wanders the aisles, and each time he picks up a book he experiences whatever moment of life is recorded in it as if he were living it. Then he moves onto the next one (or any other random one on any floor) and experiences that one. In essence, the “experiencer” of all experience everywhere, across all conscious beings, is just one numerically identical subject. It only seems like we are each separate “experiencers” because it can only experience one perspective at a time, just like I can only experience one moment of my own life at a time. In actuality, we’re all the same person.

 

Anyway, there’s no evidence for this, but it solves a lot of philosophical problems apparently, and in any case there’s no evidence for the opposing view either because it’s all speculative philosophy.

 

But if this were true, and when I’m done living the life of this particular person, I will go on to live every other life from its internal perspective, it has some implications for antinatalism. All suffering is essentially experienced by the same subject, just through the lens of many different brains. There would be no substantial difference between three people suffering and three thousand people suffering, assuming their experiences don’t leave any impact or residue on the singular consciousness that experiences them. Even if all conscious life on earth were to end, there are still likely innumerable conscious beings elsewhere in the universe, and if Open Individualism is correct, I’ll just move on to experiencing those lives. And since I can re-experience them an infinite number of times, it makes no difference how many there are. In fact, even if I just experienced the same life over and over again ten thousand times, it wouldn’t be any different from experiencing ten thousand different lives in succession, as far as suffering is concerned.

 

The only way to end the experience of suffering would be to gradually elevate all conscious beings to a state of near-constant happiness through technology, or exterminate every conscious being like the Flood from the Halo series of games. But the second option couldn’t guarantee that life wouldn’t arise again in some other corner of the multiverse, and when it did, I’d be right there again as the conscious experiencer of whatever suffering it would endure.

 

I find myself drawn to Open Individualism. It’s not mysticism, it’s not a Big Soul or something we all merge with, it’s just a new way of conceptualizing what it feels like to be a person from the inside. Yet, it has these moral implications that I can’t seem to resolve. I welcome any input.

 

– “Open individualism and antinatalism” by Reddit user CrumbledFingers in r/antinatalism (March 23, 2017)

And on a different thread:

I have thought a lot about the implications of open individualism (which I will refer to as “universalism” from here on, as that’s the name coined by its earliest proponent, Arnold Zuboff) for antinatalism. In short, I think it has two major implications, one of which you mention. The first, as you say, is that freedom from conscious life is impossible. This is bad, but not as bad as it would be if I were aware of it from every perspective. As it stands, at least on Earth, only a small number of people have any inkling that they are me. So, it is not like experiencing the multitude of conscious events taking place across reality is any kind of burden that accumulates over time; from the perspective of each isolated nervous system, it will always appear that whatever is being experienced is the only thing I am experiencing. In this way, the fact that I am never truly unconscious does not have the same sting as it would to, for example, an insomniac, who is also never unconscious but must experience the constant wakefulness from one integrated perspective all the time.

 

It’s like being told that I will suffer total irreversible amnesia at some point in my future; while I can still expect to be the person that experiences all the confusion and anxiety of total amnesia when it happens, I must also acknowledge that the residue of any pains I would have experienced beforehand would be erased. Much of what makes consciousness a losing game is the persistence of stresses. Universalism doesn’t imply that any stresses will carry over between the nervous systems of individual beings, so the reality of my situation is by no means as nightmarish as eternal life in a single body (although, if there exists an immortal being somewhere in the universe, I am currently experiencing the nightmare of its life).

 

The second implication of this view for antinatalism is that one of the worst things about coming into existence, namely death, is placed in quite a different context. According to the ordinary view (sometimes called “closed” individualism), death permanently ends the conscious existence of an alienated self. Universalism says there is no alienated self that is annihilated upon the death of any particular mind. There are just moments of conscious experience that occur in various substrates across space and time, and I am the subject of all such experiences. Thus, the encroaching wall of perpetual darkness and silence that is usually an object of dread becomes less of a problem for those who have realized that they are me. Of course, this realization is not built into most people’s psychology and has to be learned, reasoned out, intellectually grasped. This is why procreation is still immoral, because even though I will not cease to exist when any specific organism dies, from the perspective of each one I will almost certainly believe otherwise, and that will always be a source of deep suffering for me. The fewer instances of this existential dread, however misplaced they may be, the better.

 

This is why it’s important to make more people understand the position of universalism/open individualism. In the future, long after the person typing this sentence has perished, my well-being will depend in large part on having the knowledge that I am every person. The earlier in each life I come to that understanding, and thus diminish the fear of dying, the better off I will be. Naturally, this project decreases in potential impact if conscious life is abundant in the universe, and in response to that problem I concede there is probably little hope, unless there are beings elsewhere in the universe that have comprehended who they are and are taking the same steps in their spheres of influence. My dream is that intelligent life eventually either snuffs itself out or discovers how to connect many nervous systems together, which would demonstrate to every connected mind that it has always belonged to one subject, has always been me, but I don’t have any reason to assume this is even possible on a physical level.

 

So, I suppose you are mostly right about one thing: there are no lucky ones that escape the badness of life’s worst agonies, either by virtue of a privileged upbringing or an instantaneous and painless demise. They and the less fortunate ones are all equally me. Yet, the horror of going through their experiences is mitigated somewhat in the details.

 

– A comment by CrumbledFingers in the Reddit post “Antinatalism and Open individualism“, also in r/antinatalism (March 12, 2017)

Our brain tries to make sense of metaphysical questions in wet-ware that shares computational space with a lot of adaptive survival programs. It does not matter if you have thick barriers (cf. thick and thin boundaries of the mind), the way you assess the value of situations as a human will tend to over-focus on whatever would allow you to go up Maslow’s hierarchy of needs (or, more cynically, achieve great feats as a testament to signal your genetic-fitness). Our motivational architecture is implemented in such a way that it is very good at handling questions like how to find food when you are hungry and how to play social games in a way that impresses others and leaves a social mark. Our brains utilize many heuristics based on personhood and narrative-streams when exploring the desirability of present options. We are people, and our brains are adapted to solve people problems. Not, as it turns out, general problems involving the entire state-space of possible conscious experiences.

Prandium Interruptus

Our brains render our inner world-simulation with flavors and textures of qualia to suit their evolutionary needs. This, in turn, impairs our ability to aptly represent scenarios that go beyond the range of normal human experiences. Let me illustrate this point with the following thought experiment:

Would you rather (a) have a 1-hour meal, or (b) have the same meal but at the half-hour point be instantly transformed into a simple, amnesic, and blank experience of perfectly neutral hedonic value that lasts ten quintillion years, and after that extremely long time of neither-happiness-nor-suffering ends, then resume the rest of the meal as if nothing had happened, with no memory of that long neutral period?

According to most utilitarian calculi these two scenarios ought to be perfectly equivalent. In both cases the total amount of positive and negative qualia is the same (the full duration of the meal) and the only difference is that the latter also contains a large amount of neutral experience too. Whether classical or negative, utilitarians should consider these experiences equivalent since they contain the same amount of pleasure and pain (note: some other ethical frameworks do distinguish between these cases, such as average and market utilitarianism).

Intuitively, however, (a) seems a lot better than (b). One imagines oneself having an awfully long experience, bored out of one’s mind, just wanting it to end, get it over with, and get back to enjoying the nice meal. But the very premise of the thought experiment presupposes that one will not be bored during that period of time, nor will one be wishing it to be over, or anything of the sort, considering that all of those are mental states of negative quality and the experience is supposed to be neutral.

Now this is of course a completely crazy thought experiment. Or is it?

The One-Electron View

In 1940 John Wheeler proposed to Richard Feynman the idea that all of reality is made of a single electron moving backwards and forwards in time, interfering with itself. This view has come to be regarded as the One-Electron Universe. Under Open Individualism, that one electron is you. From every single moment of experience to the next, you may have experienced life as a sextillion different animals, been 10^32 fleeting macroscropic entangled particles, and gotten stuck as a single non-interacting electron in the inter-galactic medium for googols of subjective years. Of course you will not remember any of this, because your memories, and indeed all of your motivational architecture and anticipation programs, are embedded in the brain you are instantiating right now. From that point of view, there is absolutely no trace of the experiences you had during this hiatus.

The above way of describing the one-electron view is still just an approximation. In order to see it fully, we also need to address the fact that there is no “natural” order to all of these different experiences. Every way of factorizing it and describing the history of the universe as “this happened before this happened” and “this, now that” could be equally inapplicable from the point of view of fundamental reality.

Philosophy of Time

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Presentism is the view that only the present moment is real. The future and the past are just conceptual constructs useful to navigate the world, but not actual places that exist. The “past exists as footprints”, in a matter of speaking. “Footprints of the past” are just strangely-shaped information-containing regions of the present, including your memories. Likewise, the “future” is unrealized: a helpful abstraction which evolution gave us to survive in this world.

On the other hand, eternalism treats the future and the past as always-actualized always-real landscapes of reality. Every point in space-time is equally real. Physically, this view tends to be brought up in connection with the theory of relativity, where frame-invariant descriptions of the space-time continuum have no absolute present line. For a compelling physical case, see the Rietdijk-Putnam argument.

Eternalism has been explored in literature and spirituality extensively. To name a few artifacts: The EggHindu and Buddhist philosophy, the videos of Bob Sanders (cf. The Gap in Time, The Complexity of Time), the essays of Philip K. Dick and J. L. Borges, the poetry of T. S. Eliot, the fiction of Kurt Vonnegut Jr (TimequakeSlaughterhouse Five, etc.), and the graphic novels of Alan Moore, such as Watchmen:

Let me know in the comments if you know of any other work of fiction that explores this theme. In particular, I would love to assemble a comprehensive list of literature that explores Open Individualism and Eternalism.

Personal Identity and Eternalism

For the time being (no pun intended), let us assume that Eternalism is correct. How do Eternalism and personal identity interact? Doctor Manhattan in the above images (taken from Watchmen) exemplifies what it would be like to be a Closed Individualist Eternalist. He seems to be aware of his entire timeline at once, yet recognizes his unique identity apart from others. That said, as explained above, Closed Individualism is a distinctly unphysical theory of identity. One would thus expect of Doctor Manhattan, given his physically-grounded understanding of reality, to espouse a different theory of identity.

A philosophy that pairs Empty Individualism with Eternalism is the stuff of nightmares. Not only would we have, as with Empty Individualism alone, that some beings happen to exist entirely as beings of pain. We would also have that such unfortunate moments of experience are stuck in time. Like insects in amber, their expressions of horror and their urgency to run away from pain and suffering are forever crystallized in their corresponding spatiotemporal coordinates. I personally find this view paralyzing and sickening, though I am aware that such a reaction is not adaptive for the abolitionist project. Namely, even if “Eternalism + Empty Individualism” is a true account of reality, one ought not to be so frightened by it that one becomes incapable of working towards preventing future suffering. In this light, I adopt the attitude of “hope for the best, plan for the worst”.

Lastly, if Open Individualism and Eternalism are both true (as I suspect is the case), we would be in for what amounts to an incredibly trippy picture of reality. We are all one timeless spatiotemporal crystal. But why does this eternal crystal -who is everyone- exist? Here the one-electron view and the question “why does anything exist?” could both be simultaneously addressed with a single logico-physical principle. Namely, that the sum-total of existence contains no information to speak of. This is what David Pearce calls “Zero Ontology” (see: 1, 2, 3, 4). What you and I are, in the final analysis, is the necessary implication of there being no information; we are all a singular pattern of self-interference whose ultimate nature amounts to a dimensionless unit-sphere in Hilbert space. But this is a story for another post.

On a more grounded note, Scientific American recently ran an article that could be placed in this category of Open Individualism and Eternalism. In it the authors argue that the physical signatures of multiple-personality disorder, which explain the absence of phenomenal binding between alters that share the same brain, could be extended to explain why reality is both one and yet appears as the many. We are, in this view, all alters of the universe.

Personal Identity X Philosophy of Time X Antinatalism

Sober, scientifically grounded, and philosophically rigorous accounts of the awfulness of reality are rare. On the one hand, temperamentally happy individuals are more likely to think about the possibilities of heaven that lie ahead of us, and their heightened positive mood will likewise make them more likely to report on their findings. Temperamental depressives, on the other hand, may both investigate reality with less motivated reasoning than the euthymic and also be less likely to report on the results due to their subdued mood (“why even try? why even bother to write about it?”). Suffering in the Multiverse by David Pearce is a notable exception to this pattern. David’s essay highlights that if Eternalism is true together with Empty Individualism, there are vast regions of the multiverse filled with suffering that we can simply do nothing about (“Everett Hell Branches”). Taken together with a negative utilitarian ethic, this represents a calamity of (quite literally) astronomical proportions. And, sadly, there simply is no off-button to the multiverse as a whole. The suffering is/has/will always be there. And this means that the best we can do is to avoid the suffering of those beings in our forward-light cone (a drop relative to the size of the ocean of existence). The only hope left is to find a loop-hole in quantum mechanics that allows us to cross into other Everett branches of the multiverse and launch cosmic rescue missions. A counsel of despair or a rational prospect? Only time will tell.

Another key author that explores the intersection of these views is Mario Montano (see: Eternalism and Its Ethical Implications and The Savior Imperative).

A key point that both of these authors make is that however nasty reality might be, ethical antinatalists and negative utilitarians shouldn’t hold their breath about the possibility that reality can be destroyed. In Open Individualism plus Eternalism, the light of consciousness (perhaps what some might call the secular version of God) simply is, everywhere and eternally. If reality could be destroyed, such destruction is certainly limited to our forward light-cone. And unlike Closed Individualist accounts, it is not possible to help anyone by preventing their birth; the one subject of existence has already been born, and will never be unborn, so to speak.

Nor should ethical antinatalists and negative utilitarians think that avoiding having kids is in any way contributing to the cause of reducing suffering. It is reasonable to assume that the personality traits of agreeableness (specifically care and compassion), openness to experience, and high levels of systematizing intelligence are all over-represented among antinatalists. Insofar as these traits are needed to build a good future, antinatalists should in fact be some of the people who reproduce the most. Mario Montano says:

Hanson calls the era we live in the “dream time” since it’s evolutionarily unusual for any species to be wealthy enough to have any values beyond “survive and reproduce.” However, from an anthropic perspective in infinite dimensional Hilbert space, you won’t have any values beyond “survive and reproduce.” The you which survives will not be the one with exotic values of radical compassion for all existence that caused you to commit peaceful suicide. That memetic stream weeded himself out and your consciousness is cast to a different narrative orbit which wants to survive and reproduce his mind. Eventually. Wanting is, more often than not, a precondition for successfully attaining the object of want.

Physicalism Implies Existence Never Dies

Also, from the same essay:

Anti-natalists full of weeping benignity are literally not successful replicators. The Will to Power is life itself. It is consciousness itself. And it will be, when a superintelligent coercive singleton swallows superclusters of baryonic matter and then spreads them as the flaming word into the unconverted future light cone.

[…]

You eventually love existence. Because if you don’t, something which does swallows you, and it is that which survives.

I would argue that the above reasoning is not entirely correct in the large scheme of things*, but it is certainly applicable in the context of human-like minds and agents. See also: David Pearce’s similar criticisms to antinatalism as a policy.

This should underscore the fact that in its current guise, antinatalism is completely self-limiting. Worryingly, one could imagine an organized contingent of antinatalists conducting research on how to destroy life as efficiently as possible. Antinatalists are generally very smart, and if Eliezer Yudkowsky‘s claim that “every 18 months the minimum IQ necessary to destroy the world drops by one point” is true, we may be in for some trouble. Both Pearce’s, Montano’s, and my take is that even if something akin to negative utilitarianism is the case, we should still pursue the goal of diminishing suffering in as peaceful of a way as it is possible. The risk of trying to painlessly destroy the world and failing to do so might turn out to be ethically catastrophic. A much better bet would be, we claim, to work towards the elimination of suffering by developing commercially successful hedonic recalibration technology. This also has the benefit that both depressives and life-lovers will want to team up with you; indeed, the promise of super-human bliss can be extraordinarily motivating to people who already lead happy lives, whereas the prospect of achieving “at best nothing” sounds stale and uninviting (if not outright antagonistic) to them.

An Evolutionary Environment Set Up For Success

If we want to create a world free from suffering, we will have to contend with the fact that suffering is adaptive in certain environments. The solution here is to avoid such environments, and foster ecosystems of mind that give an evolutionary advantage to the super-happy. More so, we already have the basic ingredients to do so. In Wireheading Done Right I discussed how, right now, the economy is based on trading three core goods: (1) survival tools, (2) power, and (3) information about the state-space of consciousness. Thankfully, the world right now is populated by humans who largely choose to spend their extra income on fun rather than on trips to the sperm bank. In other words, people are willing to trade some of their expected reproductive success for good experiences. This is good because it allows the existence of an economy of information about the state-space of consciousness, and thus creates an evolutionary advantage for caring about consciousness and being good at navigating its state-space. But for this to be sustainable, we will need to find the way to make positive valence gradients (i.e. gradients of bliss) both economically useful and power-granting. Otherwise, I would argue, the part of the economy that is dedicated to trading information about the state-space of consciousness is bound to be displaced by the other two (i.e. survival and power). For a more detailed discussion on these questions see: Consciousness vs. Pure Replicators.

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Can we make the benevolent exploration of the state-space of consciousness evolutionarily advantageous?

In conclusion, to close down hell (to the extent that is physically possible), we need to take advantage of the resources and opportunities granted to us by merely living in Hanson’s “dream time” (cf. Age of Spandrels). This includes the fact that right now people are willing to spend money on new experiences (especially if novel and containing positive valence), and the fact that philosophy of personal identity can still persuade people to work towards the wellbeing of all sentient beings. In particular, scientifically-grounded arguments in favor of both Open and Empty Individualism weaken people’s sense of self and make them more receptive to care about others, regardless of their genetic relatedness. On its natural course, however, this tendency may ultimately be removed by natural selection: if those who are immune to philosophy are more likely to maximize their inclusive fitness, humanity may devolve into philosophical deafness. The solution here is to identify the ways in which philosophical clarity can help us overcome coordination problems, highlight natural ethical Schelling points, and ultimately allow us to summon a benevolent super-organism to carry forward the abolition of as much suffering as is physically possible.

And only once we have done everything in our power to close down hell in all of its guises, will we be able to enjoy the rest of our forward light-cone in good conscience. Till then, us ethically-minded folks shall relentlessly work on building universe-sized fire-extinguishers to put out the fire of Hell.


* This is for several reasons: (1) phenomenal binding is not epiphenomenal, (2) the most optimal computational valence gradients are not necessarily located on the positive side, sadly, and (3) wanting, liking, and learning are possible to disentangle.

Person-moment affecting views

by Katja Grace (source)

[Epistemic status: sloppy thoughts not informed by the literature. Hoping actual population ethicists might show up and correct me or point me to whoever has already thought about something like this better.]

Person-affecting views say that when you are summing up the value in different possible worlds, you should ignore people who only exist in one of those worlds. This is based on something like the following intuitions:

  1. World A can only be better than world B insofar as it is better for someone.
  2. World A can’t be better than world B for Alice, if Alice exists in world A but not world B.

The further-fact view says that after learning all physical facts about Alice and Alice’—such as whether Alice’ was the physical result of Alice waiting for five seconds, or is a brain upload of Alice, or is what came out of a replicating machine on Mars after Alice walked in on Earth, or remembers being Alice—there is still a further meaningful question of whether Alice and Alice’ are the same person.

I take the further-fact view to be wrong (or at least Derek Parfit does, and I think we agree the differences between Derek Parfit and I have been overstated). Thinking that the further-fact view is wrong seems to be a common position among intellectuals (e.g. 87% among philosophers).

If the further-fact view is wrong, then the what we have is a whole lot of different person-moments, with various relationships to one another, which for pragmatic reasons we like to group into clusters called ‘people’. There are different ways we could define the people, and no real answer to which definition is right. This works out pretty well in our world, but you can imagine other worlds (or futures of our world) where the clusters are much more ambiguous, and different definitions of ‘person’ make a big difference, or where the concept is not actually useful.

Person-affecting views seem to make pretty central use of the concept ‘person’. If we don’t accept the further-fact view, and do want to accept a person-affecting view, what would that mean? I can think of several options:

  1. How good different worlds are depends strongly on which definition of ‘person’ you choose (which person moments you choose to cluster together), but this is a somewhat arbitrary pragmatic choice
  2. There is some correct definition of ‘person’ for the purpose of ethics (i.e. there is some relation between person moments that makes different person moments in the future ethically relevant by virtue of having that connection to a present person moment)
  3. Different person-moments are more or less closely connected in ways, and a person-affecting view should actually have a sliding scale of importance for different person-moments

Before considering these options, I want to revisit the second reason for adopting a person-affecting view: If Alice exists in world A and not in world B, then Alice can’t be made better off by world A existing rather than world B. Whether this premise is true seems to depend on how ‘a world being better for Alice’ works. Some things we might measure would go one way, and some would go the other. For instance, we could imagine it being analogous to:

  1. Alice painting more paintings. If Alice painted three paintings in world A, and doesn’t exist in world B, I think most people would say that Alice painted more paintings in world A than in world B. And more clearly, that world A has more paintings than world B, even if we insist that a world can’t have more paintings without somebody in particular having painted more paintings. Relatedly, there are many things people do where the sentence ‘If Alice didn’t exist, she wouldn’t have X’.
  2. Alice having painted more paintings per year. If Alice painted one painting every thirty years in world A, and didn’t exist in world B, in world B the number of paintings per year is undefined, and so incomparable to ‘one per thirty years’.

Suppose that person-affecting view advocates are right, and the worth of one’s life is more like 2). You just can’t compare the worth of Alice’s life in two worlds where she only exists in one of them. Then can you compare person-moments? What if the same ‘person’ exists in two possible worlds, but consists of different person-moments?

Compare world A and world C, which both contain Alice, but in world C Alice makes different choices as a teenager, and becomes a fighter pilot instead of a computer scientist. It turns out that she is not well suited to it, and finds piloting pretty unsatisfying. If Alice_t1A is different from Alice_t1C, can we say that world A is better than world C, in virtue of Alice’s experiences? Each relevant person-moment only exists in one of the worlds, so how can they benefit?

I see several possible responses:

  1. No we can’t. We should have person-moment affecting views.
  2. Things can’t be better or worse for person-moments, only for entire people, holistically across their lives, so the question is meaningless. (Or relatedly, how good a thing is for a person is not a function of how good it is for their person-moments, and it is how good it is for the person that matters).
  3. Yes, there is some difference between people and person moments, which means that person-moments can benefit without existing in worlds that they are benefitting relative to, but people cannot.

The second possibility seems to involve accepting the second view above: that there is some correct definition of ‘person’ that is larger than a person moment, and fundamental to ethics – something like the further-fact view. This sounds kind of bad to me. And the third view doesn’t seem very tempting without some idea of an actual difference between persons and person-moments.

So maybe the person-moment affecting view looks most promising. Let us review what it would have to look like. For one thing, the only comparable person moments are the ones that are the same. And since they are the same, there is no point bringing about one instead of the other. So there is never reason to bring about a person-moment for its own benefit. Which sounds like it might really limit the things that are worth intentionally doing. Isn’t making myself happy in three seconds just bringing about a happy person moment rather than a different sad person moment?

Is everything just equally good on this view? I don’t think so, as long as you are something like a preference utilitarian: person-moments can have preferences over other person-moments. Suppose that Alice_t0A and Alice_t0C are the same, and Alice_t1A and Alice_t1C are different. And suppose that Alice_t0 wants Alice_t1 to be a computer scientist. Then world A is better than world C for Alice_t0, and so better overall. That is, person-moments can benefit from things, as long as they don’t know at the time that they have benefited.

I think an interesting  feature of this view is that all value seems to come from meddling preferences. It is never directly good that there is joy in the world for instance, it is just good because somebody wants somebody else to experience joy, and that desire was satisfied. If they had instead wished for a future person-moment to be tortured, and this was granted, then this world would apparently be just as good.

So, things that are never directly valuable in this world:

  • Joy
  • Someone getting what they want and also knowing about it
  • Anything that isn’t a meddling preference

On the upside, since person-moments often care about future person-moments within the same person, we do perhaps get back to something closer to the original person-affecting view. There is often reason to bring about or benefit a person moment for the benefit of previous person moments in the history of the same person, who for instance wants to ‘live a long and happy life’. My guess after thinking about this very briefly is that in practice it would end up looking like the ‘moderate’ person-affecting views, in which people who currently exist get more weight than people who will be brought into existence, but not infinitely more weight. People who exist now mostly want to continue existing, and to have good lives in the future, and they care less, but some, about different people in the future.

So, if you want to accept a person-affecting view and not a further-fact view, the options seem to me to be something like these:

  1. Person-moments can benefit without having an otherworldly counterpart, even though people cannot. Which is to say, only person-moments that are part of the same ‘person’ in different worlds can benefit from their existence. ‘Person’ here is either an arbitrary pragmatic definition choice, or some more fundamental ethically relevant version of the concept that we could perhaps discover.
  2. Benefits accrue to persons, not person-moments. In particular, benefits to persons are not a function of the benefits to their constituent person-moments. Where ‘person’ is again either a somewhat arbitrary choice of definition, or a more fundamental concept.
  3. A sliding scale of ethical relevance of different person-moments, based on how narrow a definition of ‘person’ unites them with any currently existing person-moments. Along with some story about why, given that you can apparently compare all of them, you are still weighting some less, on grounds that they are incomparable.
  4. Person-moment affecting views

None of these sound very good to me, but nor do person-affecting views in general, so maybe I’m the wrong audience. I had thought person-moment affecting views were almost a reductio, but a close friend says he thought they were the obvious reasonable view, so I am curious to hear others’ takes.



An interesting thing to point out here is that what Katja describes as the further-fact view is terminologically equivalent to what we here call Closed Individualism (cf. Ontological Qualia). This is the common-sense view that you start existing when you are born and stop existing when you die (which also has soul-based variants with possible pre-birth and post-death existence). This view is not very philosophically tenable because it presupposes that there is an enduring metaphysical ego distinct for every person. And yet, the vast majority of people still hold strongly to Closed Individualism. In some sense, in the article Katja tries to rescue the common-sense aspect of Closed Individualism in the context of ethics. That is, by trying to steel-man the common-sense notion that people (rather than moments of experience) are the relevant units for morality while also negating further-fact views, you provide reasons to keep using Closed Individualism as an intuition-pump in ethics (if only for pragmatic reasons). In general, I consider this kind of discussions to be a very fruitful endeavor as they approach ethics by touching upon the key parameters that matter fundamentally: identity, value, and counterfactuals.

As you may gather from pieces such as Wireheading Done Right and The Universal Plot, at Qualia Computing we tend to think the most coherent ethical system arises when we take as a premise that the relevant moral agents are “moments of experience”. Contra Person-affecting views, we don’t think it is meaningless to say that a given world is better than another one if not everyone in the first world is also in the second one. On the contrary – it really does not matter who lives in a given world. What matters is the raw subjective quality of the experiences in such worlds. If it is meaningless to ask “who is experiencing Alice’s experiences now?” once you know all the physical facts, then moral weight must be encoded in such physical facts alone. In turn, it could certainly happen then that the narrative aspect of an experience may turn out to be irrelevant for determining the intrinsic value of a given experience. People’s self-narratives may certainly have important instrumental uses, but at their core they don’t make it to the list of things that intrinsically matter (unlike, say, avoiding suffering).

A helpful philosophical move that we have found adds a lot of clarity here is to analyze the problem in terms of Open Individualism. That is, assume that we are all one consciousness and take it from there. If so, then the probability that you are a given person would be weighted by the amount of consciousness (or number of moments of experience, depending) that such person experiences throughout his or her life. You are everyone in this view, but you can only be each person one at a time from their own limited points of view. So there is a sensible way of weighting the importance of each person, and this is a function of the amount of time you spend being him or her (and normalize by the amount of consciousness that person experiences, in case that is variable across individuals).

If consciousness emerges victorious in its war against pure replicators, then it would make sense that the main theory of identity people would hold by default would be Open Individualism. After all, it is only Open Individualism that aligns individual incentives and the total wellbeing of all moments of experience throughout the universe.

That said, in principle, it could turn out that Open Individualism is not needed to maximize conscious value – that while it may be useful instrumentally to align the existing living intelligences towards a common consciousness-centric goal (e.g. eliminating suffering, building a harmonic society, etc.), in the long run we may find that ontological qualia (the aspect of our experience that we use to represent the nature of reality, including our beliefs about personal identity) has no intrinsic value. Why bother experiencing heaven in the form of a mixture of 95% bliss and 5% ‘a sense of knowing that we are all one’, if you can instead just experience 100% pure bliss?

At the ethical limit, anything that is not perfectly blissful might end up being thought of as a distraction from the cosmic telos of universal wellbeing.

No-Self vs. True Self

This is one of those questions that tends to arise when Hinduism or Christianity come in contact with Buddhism. However, perhaps it should arise more when Buddhism is thinking about itself. I include this discussion here because it addresses some points that are useful for later and previous discussions. True Self and no-self are actually talking about the same thing, just from different perspectives. Each can be useful, but each is an extreme. Truly, the truth is a Middle Way between these and is indescribable, but I will try to explain it anyway in the hope that it may support actual practice. It may seem odd to put a chapter that deals with the fruits of insight practices in the middle of descriptions of the samatha jhanas, but hopefully when you read the next chapter you will understand why it falls where it does.

For all you intellectuals out there, the way in which this chapter is most likely to support practice is to be completely incomprehensible and thus useless. Ironically, I have tried to make this chapter very clear, and in doing so have crafted a mess of paradoxes. In one of his plays, Shakespeare puts philosophers on par with lawyers. In terms of insight practice, a lawyer who is terrible at insight practices but tries to do them anyway is vastly superior to a world-class philosopher who is merely an intellectual master of this theory but practices not at all.

Remember that the spiritual life is something you do and hopefully understand but not some doctrine to believe. Those of you who are interested in the formal Buddhist dogmatic anti-dogma should check out the particularly profound Sutta 1, “The Root of All Things“, in The Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha, as well as Sutta 1, “The Supreme Net (What the Teaching is Not)“, in The Long Discourses of the Buddha.

Again, realize that all of this language is basically useless in the end and prone to not making much sense. Only examination of our reality will help us to actually directly understand this, but it will not be in a way accessible to the rational mind. Nothing in the content of our thoughts can really explain the experience of the understanding I am about to point to, though there is something in the direct experience of those thoughts that might reveal it. Everything that I am about to try to explain here can become a great entangling net of useless views without direct insight.

Many of the juvenile and tedious disputes between the various insight traditions result from fixation on these concepts and inappropriate adherence to only one side of these apparent paradoxes. Not surprisingly, these disputes between insight traditions generally arise from those with little or no insight. One clear mark of the development of true insight is that these paradoxes lose their power to confuse and obscure. They become tools for balanced inquiry and instruction, beautiful poetry, intimations of the heart of the spiritual life and of one’s own direct and non-conceptual experience of it.

No-self teachings directly counter the sense that there is a separate watcher, and that this watcher is an “I” that is in control, observing reality or subject to the tribulations of the world. Truly, this is a useful illusion to counter. However, if misunderstood, this teaching can produce a shadow side that reeks of nihilism, disengagement with life and denial. People can get all fixated on eliminating a “self”, when the emphasis is supposed to be on the words “separate” and “permanent,” as well as on the illusion that is being created. A better way to say this would be, “stopping the process of mentally creating the illusion of a separate self from sensations that are inherently non-dual, utterly transient and thus empty of any separate, permanent self.”

Even if you get extremely enlightened, you will still be here from a conventional point of view, but you will also be just an interdependent and intimate part of this utterly transient universe, just as you actually always have been. The huge and yet subtle difference is that this will be known directly and clearly. The language “eliminating your ego” is similarly misunderstood most of the time.

You see, there are physical phenomena and mental phenomena, as well as the “consciousness” or mental echo of these, which is also in the category of mental phenomena. These are just phenomena, and all phenomena are not permanent, separate self, as they all change and are all intimately interdependent. They are simply “aware,” i.e. manifest, where they are without any observer of them at all. The boundaries that seem to differentiate self from not-self are arbitrary and conceptual, i.e. not the true nature of things. Said another way, reality is intimately interdependent and non-dual, like a great ocean.

There is also “awareness”, but awareness is not a thing or localized in a particular place, so to even say “there is also awareness” is already a tremendous problem, as it implies separateness and existence where none can be found. To be really philosophically correct about it, borrowing heavily from Nagarjuna, awareness cannot be said to fit any of the descriptions: that it exists, that it does not exist, that it both exists and does not exist, that it neither exists nor doesn’t exist. Just so, in truth, it cannot be said that: we are awareness, that we are not awareness, that we are both awareness and not awareness, or even that we are neither awareness nor not awareness. We could go through the same pattern with whether or not phenomena are intrinsically luminous.

For the sake of discussion, and in keeping with standard Buddhist thought, awareness is permanent and unchanging. It is also said that, “All things arise from it, and all things return to it,” though again this implies a false certainty about something which is actually impenetrably mysterious and mixing the concept of infinite potential with awareness is a notoriously dangerous business. We could call it “God”, “Nirvana”, “The Tao”, “The Void”, “Allah”, “Krishna”, “Intrinsic Luminosity”, “Buddha Nature”, “Buddha”, “Bubba” or just “awareness” as long as we realize the above caveats, especially that it is not a thing or localized in any particular place and has no definable qualities. Awareness is sometimes conceptualized as pervading all of this while not being all of this, and sometimes conceptualized as being inherent in all of this while not being anything in particular. Neither is quite true, though both perspectives can be useful.

If you find yourself adopting any fixed idea about what we are calling “awareness” here, try also adopting its logical opposite to try to achieve some sense of direct inquisitive paradoxical imbalance that shakes fixed views about this stuff and points to something beyond these limited concepts. This is incredibly useful advice for dealing with all teachings about “Ultimate Reality.” I would also recommend looking into the true nature of the sensations that make up philosophical speculation and all sensations of questioning.

While phenomena are in flux from their arising to their passing, there is awareness of them. Thus, awareness is not these objects, as it is not a thing, nor is it separate from these objects as there would be no experience if this were so. By examining our reality just as it is, we may come to understand this.

Further, phenomena do not exist in the sense of abiding in a fixed way for any length of time, and thus are utterly transitory, and yet the laws that govern the functioning of this utter transience hold. That phenomena do not exist does not mean that there is not a reality, but that this reality is completely inconstant, except for awareness, which is not a thing. This makes no sense to the rational mind, but that is how it is with this stuff.

One teaching that comes out of the Theravada that can be helpful is that there are Three Ultimate Dharmas or ultimate aspects of reality: materiality (the sensations of the first five sense doors), mentality (all mental sensations) and Nirvana (though they would call it “Nibbana,” which is the Pali equivalent of the Sanskrit). In short, this is actually it, and “that” which is beyond this is also it. Notice that “awareness” is definitely not on this list. It might be conceptualized as being all three (from a True Self point of view), or quickly discarded as being a useless concept that solidifies a sense of a separate or localized “watcher” (from the no-self point of view).

Buddhism also contains a strangely large number of True Self teachings, though if you told most Buddhists this they would give you a good scolding. Many of these have their origins in Hindu Vedanta and Hindu Tantra. All the talk of Buddha Nature, the Bodhisattva Vow, and that sort of thing are True Self teachings. True Self teachings point out that this “awareness” is “who we are,” but isn’t a thing, so it is not self. They also point out that we actually are all these phenomena, rather than all of these phenomena being seen as something observed and thus not self, which they are also as they are utterly transient and not awareness. This teaching can help practitioners actually examine their reality just as it is and sort of “inhabit it” in a honest and realistic way, or it can cause them to cling to things as “self” if they misunderstand this teaching. I will try again…

You see, as all phenomena are observed, they cannot possibly be the observer. Thus, the observer, which is awareness and not any of the phenomena pretending to be it, cannot possibly be a phenomenon and thus is not localized and doesn’t exist. This is no-self. However, all of these phenomena are actually us from the point of view of non-duality and interconnectedness, as the illusion of duality is just an illusion. When the illusion of duality permanently collapses in final awakening, all that is left is all of these phenomena, which is True Self, i.e. the lack of a separate self and thus just all of this as it is. Remember, however, that no phenomena abide for even an instant, and so are empty of permanent abiding and thus of stable existence.

This all brings me to one of my favorite words, “non-dual,” a word that means that both duality and unity fail to clearly describe ultimate reality. As “awareness” is in some way separate from and unaffected by phenomena, we can’t say that that unity is the true answer. Unitive experiences arise out of strong concentration and can easily fool people into thinking they are the final answer. They are not.

That said, it is because “awareness” is not a phenomena, thing or localized in any place that you can’t say that duality is true. A duality implies something on both sides, an observer and an observed. However, there is no phenomenal observer, so duality does not hold up under careful investigation. Until we have a lot of fundamental insight, the sense that duality is true can be very compelling and can cause all sorts of trouble. We extrapolate false dualities from sensations until we are very highly enlightened.

Thus, the word “non-dual” is an inherently paradoxical term, one that confounds reason and even our current experience of reality. If we accept the working hypothesis that non-duality is true, then we will be able to continue to reject both unitive and dualistic experiences as the true answer and continue to work towards awakening. This is probably the most practical application of discussions of no-self and True Self.

No-self and True Self are really just two sides of the same coin. There is a great little poem by one Kalu Rinpoche that goes something like:

We live in illusion
And the appearance of things.
There is a reality:
We are that reality.
When you understand this,
You will see that you are nothing.
And, being nothing,
You are everything.
That is all.

There are many fine poems on similar themes presented in Sogyal Rinpoche’s The Tiberan Book of Living and Dying. It is because we are all of this that compassionate action for all beings and ourselves is so important. To truly understand this moment is to truly understand both, which is the Middle Way between these two extremes (see Nisargadatta’s I Am That for a very down-to-earth discussion of these issues). While only insight practices will accomplish this, there are some concentration attainments (the last four jhanas or Formless Realms) that can really help put things in proper perspective, though they do not directly cause deep insight and awakening unless the true nature of the sensations that make them up is understood.

Quote from Mastering the Core Teachings of the Buddha: An Unusually Hardcore Dharma Book by Daniel M. Ingram (pages 182-187)


Cf. Ontological Qualia: The Future of Personal Identity (for a discussion about how the experience of identity might change in the future), The Manhattan Project of Consciousness (for speculative writing about the potential social benefits of combining bliss technologies with qualia that make us experience oneness in a reliably way), and this essay about Burning Man (which introduces the concept of the Goldilocks Zone of Oneness which refers to the experience of “feeling neither one with everything nor ontologically separate from the rest of reality” in which wonderful things like love, gratitude, and meaning can thrive).

Traps of the God Realm

From Opening the Heart of Compassion by Martin Lowenthal and Lar Short (pages 132-136).

Seeking Oneness

In this realm we want to be “one with the universe.” We are trying to return to a time when we felt no separation, when the world of our experience seemed to be the only world. We want to recover the experience and comfort of the womb. In the universe of the womb, everything was ours without qualification and was designed to support our existence and growth. Now we want the cosmos to be our womb, as if it were designed specifically for our benefit.

We want satisfaction to flow more easily, naturally and automatically. This seems less likely when we are enmeshed in the everyday affairs of the world. Therefore, we withdraw to the familiar world of what is ours, of what we can control, and of our domain of influence. We may even withdraw to a domain in the mind. Everything seems to come so much easier in the realm of thought, once we have achieved some modest control over our minds. Insulating ourselves from the troubles of others and of life, we get further seduced by the seeming limitlessness of this mental world. 

In this process of trance formation, we try to make every sound musical, every image a work of art, and every feeling pleasant. Blocking out all sources of irritation, we retreat to a self-proclaimed “higher” plane of being. We cultivate the “higher qualities of life,” not settling for a “mundane” life.

Masquerade of Higher Consciousness

The danger for those of us on a spiritual path is that the practices and the teachings can be enlisted to serve the realm rather than to dissolve our fixations and open us to truth. We discover that we can go beyond sensual pleasure and material beauty to refined states of consciousness. We achieve purely mental pleasures of increasing subtlety and learn how to maintain them for extended periods. We think we can maintain our new vanity and even expand it to include the entire cosmos, thus vanquishing change, old age, and death. Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche called this process “spiritual materialism.”

For example, we use a sense of spaciousness to expand our consciousness by imposing our preconception of limitlessness on the cosmos. We see everything that we have created and “it is good.” Our vanity in the god realm elevates our self-image to the level of the divine–we feel capable of comprehending the universe and the nature of reality.

We move beyond our contemplation of limitless space, expanding our consciousness to include the very forces that create vast space. As the creator of vast space, we imagine that we have no boundaries, no limits, and no position. Our mind can now include everything. We find that we do not have concepts for such images and possibilities, so we think that the Divine or Essence must be not any particular thing we can conceive of, must be empty of conceptual characteristics.

Thus our vain consciousness, as the Divine, conceives that it has no particular location, is not anything in particular, and is itself beyond imagination. We arrive at the conclusion that even this attempt to comprehend emptiness is itself a concept, and that emptiness is devoid of inherent meaning. We shift our attention to the idea of being not not any particular thing. We then come to the glorious position that nothing can be truly stated, that nothing has inherent value. This mental understanding becomes our ultimate vanity. We take pride in it, identify as someone who “knows”, and adopt a posture in the world as someone who has journeyed into the ultimate nature of the unknown.

In this way we create more and more chains that bind us and limit our growth as we move ever inward. When we think we are becoming one with the universe, we are only achieving greater oneness with our own self-image. Instead of illuminating our ignorance, we expand its domain. We become ever more disconnected from others, from communication and true sharing, and from compassion. We subtly bind ourselves ever more tightly, even to the point of suffocation, under the guise of freedom in spaciousness.

Spiritual Masquerades of Teachers and Devoted Students

As we acquire some understanding and feel expansive, we may think we are God’s special gift to humanity, here to teach the truth. Although we may not acknowledge that we have something to prove, at some level we are trying to prove how supremely unique and important we are. Our spiritual life-style is our expression of that uniqueness and significance.

Spiritual teachers run a great danger of falling into the traps of the god realm. If a teacher has charisma and the ability to channel and radiate intense energy, this power may be misused to engender hope in students and to bind them in a dependent relationship. The true teacher undermines hope, teaches by the example of wisdom and compassion, and encourages students to be autonomous by investigating truth themselves, checking their own experience, and trusting their own results more than faith.

The teacher is not a god but a bridge to the unknown, a guide to the awareness qualities and energy capacities we want for our spiritual growth. The teacher, who is the same as we are, demonstrates what is possible in terms of aliveness and how to use the path of compassion to become free. In a sense, the teacher touches both aspects of our being: our everyday life of habits and feelings on the one hand and our awakened aliveness and wisdom on the other. While respect for and openness to the teacher are important for our growth and freedom, blind devotion fixates us on the person of the teacher. We then become confined by the limitations of the teacher’s personality rather than liberated by the teachings.

False Transcendence

Many characteristics of this realm–creative imagination, the tendency to go beyond assumed reality and individual perspectives, and the sense of expansiveness–are close to the underlying dynamic of wonderment. In wonder, we find the wisdom qualities of openness, true bliss, the realization of spaciousness within which all things arise, and alignment with universal principles. The god realm attitude results in superficial experiences that fit our preconceptions of realization but that lack the authenticity of wonder and the grounding in compassion and freedom.

Because the realm itself seems to offer transcendence, this is one of the most difficult realms to transcend. The heart posture of the realm propels us to transcend conflict and problems until we are comfortable. The desire for inner comfort, rather than for an authentic openness to the unknown, governs our quest. But many feelings arise during the true process of realization. At certain stages there is pain and disorientation, and at others a kind of bliss that may make us feel like we are going to burst (if there was something or someone to burst). When we settle for comfort we settle for the counterfeit of realization–the relief and pride we feel when we think we understand something.

Because we think that whatever makes us feel good is correct, we ignore disturbing events, information, and people and anything else that does not fit into our view of the world. We elevate ignorance to a form of bliss by excluding from our attention everything that is non-supportive.

Preoccupied with self, with grandiosity, and with the power and radiance of our own being, we resist the mystery of the unknown. When we are threatened by the unknown, we stifle the natural dynamic of wonder that arises in relation to all that is beyond our self-intoxication. We must either include vast space and the unknown within our sense of ourselves or ignore it because we do not want to feel insignificant and small. Our sense of awe before the forces of grace cannot be acknowledged for fear of invalidating our self-image.

Above the Law

According to our self-serving point of view, we are above the laws of nature and of humankind. We think that, as long as what we do seems reasonable to us, it is appropriate. We are accountable to ourselves and not to other people, the environment, or society. Human history is filled with examples of people in politics, business, and religion who demonstrated this attitude and caused enormous suffering.

Unlike the titans who struggle with death, we, as gods, know that death is not really real. We take comfort in the thought that “death is an illusion.” The only people who die are those who are stuck and have not come to the true inner place beyond time, change, and death. We may even believe that we have the potential to develop our bodies and minds to such a degree that we can reverse the aging process and become one of the “immortals.”

A man, walking on a beach, reaches down and picks up a pebble. Looking at the small stone in his hand, he feels very powerful and thinks of how with one stroke he has taken control of the stone. “How many years have you been here, and now I place you in my hand.” The pebble speaks to him, “Though to you, I am only a grain of sand in your hand, you, to me, are but a passing breeze.”