The View From My Topological Pocket: An Introduction to Field Topology for Solving the Boundary Problem

[Epistemic Status: informal and conversational, this piece provides an off-the-cuff discussion around the topological solution to the boundary problem. Please note that this isn’t intended to serve as a bulletproof argument; rather, it’s a guide through an intuitive explanation. While there might be errors, possibly even in reasoning, I believe they won’t fundamentally alter the overarching conceptual solution.]

This post is an informal and intuitive explanation for why we are looking into topology as a tentative solution to the phenomenal binding (or boundary) problem. In particular, this solutions identifies moments of experience with topological pockets of fields of physics. We recently published a paper where we dive deeper into this explanation space, and concretely hypothesize that the key macroscopic boundary between subjects of experience is the result of topological segmentation in the electromagnetic field (see explainer video / author’s presentation at the Active Inference Institute).

The short explanation for why this is promising is that topological boundaries are objective and frame-invariant features of “basement reality” that have causal effects and thus can be recruited by natural selection for information-processing tasks. If the fields of physics are fields of qualia, topological boundaries of the fields corresponding to phenomenal boundaries between subjects would be an elegant way for a theory of consciousness to “carve nature at its joints”. This solution is very significant if true, because it entails, among other things, that classical digital computers are incapable of creating causally significant experiences: the experiences that emerge out of them are by default something akin to mind dust, and at best, if significant binding happens, they are epiphenomenal from the “point of view” of the computation being realized.

The route to develop an intuition about this topic that this post takes is to deconstruct the idea of a “point of view” as a “natural kind” and instead advocate for topological pockets being the place where information can non-trivially aggregate. This idea, once seen, is hard to unsee; it reframes how we think about what systems are, and even the nature of information itself.

One of the beautiful things about life is that you sometimes have the opportunity to experience a reality plot twist. We might believe one narrative has always been unfolding, only to realize that the true story was different all along. As they say, the rug can be pulled from under your feet.

The QRI memeplex is full of these reality plot twists. You thought that the “plot” of the universe was a battle between good and evil? Well, it turns out it is the struggle between consciousness and replicators instead. Or that what you want is particular states of the environment? Well, it turns out you’ve been pursuing particular configurations of your world simulation all along. You thought that pleasure and pain follow a linear scale? Well, it turns out the scales are closer to logarithmic in nature, with the ends of the distribution being orders of magnitude more intense than the lower ends. I think that along these lines, grasping how “points of view” and “moments of experience” are connected requires a significant reframe of how you conceptualize reality. Let’s dig in!

One of the motivations for this post is that I recently had a wonderful chat with Nir Lahav, who last year published an article that steelmans the view that consciousness is relativistic (see one of his presentations). I will likely discuss his work in more detail in the future. Importantly, talking to him reminded me that ever since the foundation of QRI, we have taken for granted the view that consciousness is frame-invariant, and worked from there. It felt self-evident to us that if something depends on the frame of reference from which you see it, it doesn’t have inherent existence. Our experiences (in particular, each discrete moment of experience), have inherent existence, and thus cannot be frame-dependent. Every experience is self-intimating, self-disclosing, and absolute. So how could it depend on a frame of reference? Alas, I know this is a rather loaded way of putting it and risks confusing a lot of people (for one, Buddhists might retort that experience is inherently “interdependent” and has no inherent existence, to which I would replay “we are talking about different things here”). So I am motivated to present a more fleshed out, yet intuitive, explanation for why we should expect consciousness to be frame-invariant and how, in our view, our solution to the boundary problem is in fact up to this challenge.

The main idea here is to show how frames of reference cannot boostrap phenomenal binding. Indeed, “a point of view” that provides a frame of reference is more of a convenient abstraction that relies on us to bind, interpret, and coalesce pieces of information, than something with a solid ontological status that exists out there in the world. Rather, I will try to show how we are borrowing from our very own capacity for having unified information in order to put together the data that creates the construct of a “point of view”; importantly, this unity is not bootstrapped from other “points of view”, but draws from the texture of the fabric of reality itself. Namely, the field topology.

A scientific theory of consciousness must be able to explain the existence of consciousness, the nature and cause for the diverse array of qualia values and varieties (the palette problem), how consciousness is causally efficacious (avoid epiphenomenalism), and explain how the information content of each moment of experience is presented “all at once” (namely, the binding problem). I’ve talked extensively about these constraints in writings, videos, and interviews, but what I want to emphasize here is that these problems need to be addressed head on for a theory of consciousness to work at all. Keep these constraints in mind as we deconstruct the apparent solidity of frames of reference and the difficulty that arises in order to bootstrap causal and computational effects in connection to phenomenal binding out of a relativistic frame.

At a very high level, a fuzzy (but perhaps sufficient) intuition for what’s problematic when a theory of consciousness doesn’t seek frame-invariance is that you are trying to create something concrete with real and non-trivial causal effects and information content, out of fundamentally “fuzzy” parts.

In brief, ask yourself, can something fuzzy “observe” something fuzzy? How can fuzzyness be used to boostrap something non-fuzzy?

In a world of atoms and forces, “systems” or “things” or “objects” or “algorithms” or “experiences” or “computations” don’t exist intrinsically because there are no objective, frame-invariant, and causally significant ways to draw boundaries around them!

I hope to convince you that any sense of unity or coherence that you get from this picture of reality (a relativistic system with atoms and forces) is in fact a projection from your mind, that inhabits your mind, and is not out there in the world. You are looking at the system, and you are making connections between the parts, and indeed you are creating a hierarchy of interlocking gestalts to represent this entire conception of reality. But that is all in your mind! It’s a sort of map and territory confusion to believe that two fuzzy “systems” interacting with each other can somehow bootstrap a non-fuzzy ontological object (aka. a requirement for a moment of experience). 

I reckon that these vague explanations are in fact sufficient for some people to understand where I’m going. But some of you are probably clueless about what the problem is, and for good reason. This is never discussed in detail, and this is largely, I think, because people who think a lot about the problem don’t usually end up with a convincing solution. And in some cases, the result is that thinkers bite the bullet that there are only fuzzy patterns in reality.

How Many Fuzzy Computations Are There in a System?

Indeed, thinking of the universe as being made of particles and forces implies that computational processes are fuzzy (leaky, porous, open to interpretation, etc.). Now imagine thinking that *you* are one of such fuzzy computations. Having this as an unexamined background assumption gives rise to countless intractable paradoxes. The notion of a point of view, or a frame of reference, does not have real meaning here as the way to aggregate information doesn’t ultimately allow you to identify objective boundaries around packets of information (at least not boundaries that are more than merely-conventional in nature).

From this point of view (about points of view!), you realize that indeed there is no principled and objective way to find real individuals. You end up in the fuzzy world of fuzzy individuals of Brian Tomasik, as helpfully illustrated by this diagram:

Source: Fuzzy, Nested Minds Problematize Utilitarian Aggregation by Brian Tomasik

Brian Tomasik indeed identifies the problem of finding real boundaries between individuals as crucial for utilitarian calculations. And then, incredibly, also admits that his ontological frameworks gives him no principled way of doing so (cf. Michael E. Johnson’s Against Functionalism for a detailed response). Indeed, according to Brian (from the same essay):

Eric Schwitzgebel argues that “If Materialism Is True, the United States Is Probably Conscious“. But if the USA as a whole is conscious, how about each state? Each city? Each street? Each household? Each family? When a new government department is formed, does this create a new conscious entity? Do corporate mergers reduce the number of conscious entities? These seem like silly questions—and indeed, they are! But they arise when we try to individuate the world into separate, discrete minds. Ultimately, “we are all connected”, as they say. Individuation boundaries are artificial and don’t track anything ontologically or phenomenally fundamental (except maybe at the level of fundamental physical particles and structures). The distinction between an agent and its environment is just an edge that we draw around a clump of physics when it’s convenient to do so for certain purposes.

My own view is that every subsystem of the universe can be seen as conscious to some degree and in some way (functionalist panpsychism). In this case, the question of which systems count as individuals for aggregation becomes maximally problematic, since it seems we might need to count all the subsystems in the universe.”

Are you confused now? I hope so. Otherwise I’d worry about you.

Banana For Scale

A frame of reference is like a “banana for scale” but for both time and space. If you assume that the banana isn’t morphing, you can use how long it takes for waves emitted from different points in the banana to bounce back and return in order to infer the distance and location of physical objects around it. Your technologically equipped banana can play the role of a frame of reference in all but the most extreme of conditions (it probably won’t work as you approach a black hole, for very non-trivial reasons involving severe tidal forces, but it’ll work fine otherwise).

Now the question that I want to ask is: how does the banana “know itself”? Seriously, if you are using points in the banana as your frame of reference, you are, in fact, the one who is capable of interpreting the data coming from the banana to paint a picture of your environment. But the banana isn’t doing that. It is you! The banana is merely an instrument that takes measurements. Its unity is assumed rather than demonstrated. 

In fact, for the upper half of the banana to “comprehend” the shape of the other half (as well as its own), it must also rely on a presumed fixed frame of reference. However, it’s important to note that such information truly becomes meaningful only when interpreted by a human mind. In the realm of an atom-and-force-based ontology, the banana doesn’t precisely exist as a tangible entity. Your perception of it as a solid unit, providing direction and scale, is a practical assumption rather than an ontological certainty.

In fact, the moment we try to get a “frame of reference to know itself” you end up in an infinite regress, where smaller and smaller regions of the object are used as frames of reference to measure the rest. And yet, at no point does the information of these frames of reference “come together all at once”, except… of course… in your mind.

Are there ways to boostrap a *something* that aggregates and simultaneously expresses the information gathered across the banana (used as a frame of reference)? If you build a camera to take a snapshot of the, say, information displayed at each coordinate of the banana, the picture you take will have spatial extension and suffer from the same problem. If you think that the point at the aperture can itself capture all of the information at once, you will encounter two problems. If you are thinking of an idealized point-sized aperture, then we run into the problem that points don’t have parts, and therefore can’t contain multiple pieces of information at once. And if you are talking about a real, physical type of aperture, you will find that it cannot be smaller than the diffraction limit. So now you have the problem of how to integrate all of the information *across the whole area of the aperture* when it cannot shrink further without losing critical information. In either case, you still don’t have anything, anywhere, that is capable of simultaneously expressing all of the information of the frame of reference you chose. Namely, the coordinates you measure using a banana.

Let’s dig deeper. We are talking of a banana as a frame of reference. But what if we try to internalize the frame of reference. A lot of people like to think of themselves as the frame of reference that matters. But I ask you: what are your boundaries and how do the parts within those boundaries agree on what is happening?

Let’s say your brain is the frame of reference. Intuitively, one might feel like “this object is real to itself”. But here is where the magic comes. Make the effort to carefully trace how signals or measurements propagate in an object such as the brain. Is it fundamentally different than what happens with a banana? There might be more shortcuts (e.g. long axons) and the wiring could have complex geometry, but neither of these properties can ultimately express information “all at once”. The principle of uniformity says that every part of the universe follows the same universal physical laws. The brain is not an exception. In a way, the brain is itself a possible *expression* of the laws of physics. And in this way, it is no different than a banana.

Sorry, your brain is not going to be a better “ground” for your frame of reference than a banana. And that is because the same infinite recursion that happened with the banana when we tried to use it to ground our frame of reference into something concrete happens with your brain. And also, the same problem happens when we try to “take a snapshot of the state of the brain”, i.e. that the information also doesn’t aggregate in a natural way even in a high-resolution picture of the brain. It still has spatial extension and lacks objective boundaries of any causal significance.

Every single point in your brain has a different view. The universe won’t say “There is a brain here! A self-intimating self-defining object! It is a natural boundary to use to ground a frame of reference!” There is nobody to do that! Are you starting to feel the groundlessness? The bizarre feeling that, hey, there is no rational way to actually set a frame of reference without it falling apart into a gazillion different pieces, all of which have the exact same problem? I’ve been there. For years. But there is a way out. Sort of. Keep reading.

The question that should be bubbling up to the surface right now is: who, or what, is in charge of aggregating points of view? And the answer is: this does not exist and is impossible for it to exist if you start out in an ontology that has as the core building blocks relativistic particles and forces. There is no principled way to aggregate information across space and time that would result in the richness of simultaneous presentation of information that a typical human experience displays. If there is integration of information, and a sort of “all at once” presentation, the only kind of (principled) entity that this ontology would accept is the entire spacetime continuum as a gigantic object! But that’s not what we are. We are definite experiences with specific qualia and binding structures. We are not, as far as I can tell, the entire spacetime continuum all at once. (Or are we?).

If instead we focus on the fine structure of the field, we can look at mathematical features in it that would perhaps draw boundaries that are frame-invariant. Here is where a key insight becomes significant: the topology of a vector field is Lorentz invariant! Meaning, a Lorentz transformation will merely squeeze and sheer, but never change topology on its own. Ok, I admit I am not 100% sure that this holds for all of the topological features of the electromagnetic field (Creon Levit recently raised some interesting technical points that might make some EM topological features frame-dependent; I’ve yet to fully understand his argument but look forward to engaging with it). But what we are really pointing at is the explanation space. A moment ago we were desperate to find a way to ground, say, the reality of a banana in order to use it as a frame of reference. We saw that the banana conceptualized as a collection of atoms and forces does not have this capacity. But we didn’t inquire into other possible physical (though perhaps not *atomistic*) features of the banana. Perhaps, and this is sheer speculation, the potassium ions in the banana peel form a tight electromagnetic mesh that creates a protective Faraday cage for this delicious fruit. In that case, well, the boundaries of that protecting sheet would, interestingly, be frame invariant. A ground!

The 4th Dimension

There is a bit of a sleight of hand here, because I am not taking into account temporal depth, and so it is not entirely clear how large the banana, as a topological structure defined by the potassium ions protective sheer really is (again, this is totally made up! for illustration purposes only). The trick here is to realize that, at least in so far as experiences go, we also have a temporal boundary. Relativistically, there shouldn’t be a hard distinction between temporal and spatial boundaries of a topological pocket of the field. In practice, of course one will typically overwhelm the other, unless you approach the brain you are studying at close to the speed of light (not ideal laboratory conditions, I should add). In our paper, and for many years at QRI (iirc an insight by Michael Johnson in 2016 or so), we’ve talked about experiences having “temporal depth”. David Pearce posits that each fleeting macroscopic state of quantum coherence spanning the entire brain (the physical correlate of consciousness in his model) can last as little as a couple of femtoseconds. This does not seem to worry him: there is no reason why the contents of our experience would give us any explicit hint about our real temporal depth. I intuit that each moment of experience lasts much, much longer. I highly doubt that it can last longer than a hundred milliseconds, but I’m willing to entertain “pocket durations” of, say, a few dozens of milliseconds. Just long enough for 40hz gamma oscillations to bring disparate cortical micropockets into coherence, and importantly, topological union, and have this new new emergent object resonate (where waves bounce back and forth) and thus do wave computing worthwhile enough to pay the energetic cost of carefully modulating this binding operation. Now, this is the sort of “physical correlate of consciousness” I tend to entertain the most. Experiences are fleeting (but not vanishingly so) pockets of the field that come together for computational and causal purposes worthwhile enough to pay the price of making them.

An important clarification here is that now that we have this way of seeing frames of reference we can reconceptualize our previous confusion. We realize that simply labeling parts of reality with coordinates does not magically bring together the information content that can be obtained by integrating the signals read at each of those coordinates. But we suddenly have something that might be way better and more conceptually satisfying. Namely, literal topological objects with boundaries embedded in the spacetime continuum that contribute to the causal unfolding of the reality and are absolute in their existence. These are the objective and real frames of reference we’ve been looking for!

What’s So Special About Field Topology?

Two key points:

  1. Topology is frame-invariant
  2. Topology is causally significant

As already mentioned, the Lorentz Transform can squish and distort, but it doesn’t change topology. The topology of the field is absolute, not relativistic.

The Lorentz Transform can squish and distort, but it doesn’t change topology (image source).

And field topology is also causally significant. There are _many_ examples of this, but let me just mention a very startling one: magnetic reconnection. This happens when the magnetic field lines change how they are connected. I mention this example because when one hears about “topological changes to the fields of physics” one may get the impression that such a thing happens only in extremely carefully controlled situations and at minuscule scales. Similar to the concerns for why quantum coherence is unlikely to play a significant role in the brain, one can get the impression that “the scales are simply off”. Significant quantum coherence typically happens in extremely small distances, for very short periods of time, and involving very few particles at a time, and thus, the argument goes, quantum coherence must be largely inconsequential at scales that could plausibly matter for the brain. But the case of field topology isn’t so delicate. Magnetic reconnection, in particular, takes place at extremely large scales, involving enormous amount of matter and energy, with extremely consequential effects.

You know about solar flairs? Solar flairs are the strange phenomenon in the sun in which plasma is heated up to millions of degrees Kelvin and charged particles are accelerated to near the speed of light, leading to the emission of gigantic amounts of electromagnetic radiation, which in turn can ionize the lower levels of the Earth’s ionosphere, and thus disrupt radio communication (cf. radio blackouts). These extraordinary events are the result of the release of magnetic energy stored in the Sun’s corona via a topological change to the magnetic field! Namely, magnetic reconnection.

So here we have a real and tangible effect happening at a planetary (and stellar!) scale over the course of minutes to hours, involving enormous amounts of matter and energy, coming about from a non-trivial change to the topology of the fields of physics.

(example of magnetic reconnection; source)

Relatedly, coronal mass ejections (CMEs) also dependent on changes to the topology of the EM field. My layman understanding of CMEs is that they are caused by the build-up of magnetic stress in the sun’s atmosphere, which can be triggered by a variety of factors, including uneven spinning and plasma convection currents. When this stress becomes too great, it can cause the magnetic field to twist and trap plasma in solar filaments, which can then be released into interplanetary space through magnetic reconnection. These events are truly enormous in scope (trillions of kilograms of mass ejected) and speed (traveling at thousands of kilometers per second).

CME captured by NASA (source)

It’s worth noting that this process is quite complex/not fully understood, and new research findings continue to illuminate the details of this process. But the fact that topological effects are involved is well established. Here’s a video which I thought was… stellar. Personally, I think a program where people get familiar with the electromagnetic changes that happen in the sun by seeing them in simulations and with the sun visualized in many ways, might help us both predict better solar storms, and then also help people empathize with the sun (or the topological pockets that it harbors!).

The model showed differential rotation causes the sun’s magnetic fields to stretch and spread at different rates. The researchers demonstrated this constant process generates enough energy to form stealth coronal mass ejections over the course of roughly two weeks. The sun’s rotation increasingly stresses magnetic field lines over time, eventually warping them into a strained coil of energy. When enough tension builds, the coil expands and pinches off into a massive bubble of twisted magnetic fields — and without warning — the stealth coronal mass ejection quietly leaves the sun.” (source)

Solar flares and CMEs are just two rather spectacular macroscopic phenomena where field topology has non-trivial causal effects. But in fact there is a whole zoo of distinct non-trivial topological effects with causal implications, such as: how the topology of the Möbius strip can constrain optical resonant modes, twisted topological defects in nematic liquid crystal make some images impossible, the topology of eddy currents can be recruited for shock absorption aka. “magnetic breaking”, Meissner–Ochsenfeld effect and flux pinning enabling magnetic levitation, Skyrmion bundles having potential applications for storing information in spinotropic devices, and so on.


In brief, topological structures in the fields of physics can pave the way for us to identify the natural units that correspond to “moments of experience”. They are frame-invariant and casually significant, and as such they “carve nature at its joints” while being useful from the point of view of natural selection.

Can a Topological Pocket “Know Itself”?

Now the most interesting question arises. How does a topological pocket “know itself”? How can it act as a frame of reference for itself? How can it represent information about its environment if it does not have direct access to it? Well, this is in fact a very interesting area of research. Namely, how do you get the inside of a system with a clear and definite boundary to model its environment despite having only information accessible at its boundary and the resources contained within its boundary? This is a problem that evolution has dealt with for over a billion years (last time I checked). And fascinatingly, is also the subject of study of Active Inference and the Free Energy Principle, whose math, I believe, can be imported to the domain of *topological* boundaries in fields (cf. Markov Boundary).

Here is where qualia computing, attention and awareness, non-linear waves, self-organizing principles, and even optics become extremely relevant. Namely, we are talking about how the *interior shape* of a field could be used in the context of life. Of course the cell walls of even primitive cells are functionally (albeit perhaps not ontologically) a kind of objective and causally significant boundary where this applies. It is enormously adaptive for the cell to use its interior, somehow, to represent its environment (or at least relevant features thereof) in order to navigate, find food, avoid danger, and reproduce.

The situation becomes significantly more intricate when considering highly complex and “evolved” animals such as humans, which encompass numerous additional layers. A single moment of experience cannot be directly equated to a cell, as it does not function as a persistent topological boundary tasked with overseeing the replication of the entire organism. Instead, a moment of experience assumes a considerably more specific role. It acts as an exceptionally specialized topological niche within a vast network of transient, interconnected topological niches—often intricately nested and interwoven. Together, they form an immense structure equipped with the capability to replicate itself. Consequently, the Darwinian evolutionary dynamics of experiences operate on multiple levels. At the most fundamental level, experiences must be selected for their ability to competitively thrive in their immediate micro-environment. Simultaneously, at the broadest level, they must contribute valuable information processing functions that ultimately enhance the inclusive fitness of the entire organism. All the while, our experiences must seamlessly align and “fit well” across all the intermediary levels.

Visual metaphor for how myriad topological pockets in the brain could briefly fuse and become a single one, and then dissolve back into a multitude.

The way this is accomplished is by, in a way, “convincing the experience that it is the organism”. I know this sounds crazy. But ask yourself. Are you a person or an experience? Or neither? Think deeply about Empty Individualism and come back to this question. I reckon that you will find that when you identify with a moment of experience, it turns out that you are an experience *shaped* in the form of the necessary survival needs and reproductive opportunities that a very long-lived organism requires. The organism is fleetingly creating *you* for computational purposes. It’s weird, isn’t it?

The situation is complicated by the fact that it seems that the computational properties of topological pockets of qualia involve topological operations, such as fusion, fission, and the use of all kinds of internal boundaries. More so, the content of a particular experience leaves an imprint in the organism which can be picked up by the next experience. So what happens here is that when you pay really close attention, and you whisper to your mind, “who am I?”, the direct experiential answer will in fact be a slightly distorted version of the truth. And that is because you (a) are always changing and (b) can only use the shape of the previous experience(s) to fill the intentional content of your current experience. Hence, you cannot, at least not under normal circumstances, *really* turn awareness to itself and *be* a topological pocket that “knows itself”. For once, there is a finite speed of information propagation across the many topological pockets that ultimately feed to the central one. So, at any given point in time, there are regions of your experience of which you are *aware* but which you are not attending to.

This brings us to the special case. Can an experience be shaped in such a way that it attends to itself fully, rather than attend to parts of itself which contain information about the state of predecessor topological pockets? I don’t know, but I have a strong hunch that the answer is yes and that this is what a meditative cessation does. Namely, it is a particular configuration of the field where attention is perfectly, homogeneously, distributed throughout in such a way that absolutely nothing breaks the symmetry and the experience “knows itself fully” but lacks any room left to pass it on to the successor pockets. It is a bittersweet situation, really. But I also think that cessations, and indeed moments of very homogeneously distributed attention, are healing for the organism, and even, shall we say, for the soul. And that is because they are moments of complete relief from the discomfort of symmetry breaking of any sort. They teach you about how our world simulation is put together. And intellectually, they are especially fascinating because they may be the one special case in which the referent of an experience is exactly, directly, itself.

To be continued…


I am deeply grateful and extend my thanks to Chris Percy for his remarkable contributions and steadfast dedication to this field. His exceptional work has been instrumental in advancing QRI’s ideas within the academic realm. I also want to express my sincere appreciation to Michael Johnson and David Pearce for our enriching philosophical journey together. Our countless discussions on the causal properties of phenomenal binding and the temporal depth of experience have been truly illuminating. A special shout-out to Cube Flipper, Atai Barkai, Dan Girshovic, Nir Lahav, Creon Levit, and Bijan Fakhri for their recent insightful discussions and collaborative efforts in this area. Hunter, Maggie, Anders (RIP), and Marcin, for your exceptional help. Huge gratitude to our donors. And, of course, a big thank you to the vibrant “qualia community” for your unwavering support, kindness, and encouragement in pursuing this and other crucial research endeavors. Your love and care have been a constant source of motivation. Thank you so much!!!

Open Sourcing Qualia Mastery: QRI’s First Guided Meditation Series

Explore the Qualia Mastery Series Now

Qualia Mastery, in a nutshell:

1) Explore the state-space of consciousness because you want to know it for yourself

2) Study it from many points of view because you want to understand it intellectually at a deep level

3) Intend to apply it for the benefit of all beings

I really like meditation, but I have never been a fan of not understanding how it works rationally. It seems to me that doing powerful things to your state of consciousness without having a good sense of what is going on can open you up to unfounded beliefs.

As I’ve gone deeper into meditation and energetic practices, though, I’ve come to realize that one can in fact make rational sense of what is happening. This guided meditation series condenses this knowledge into 9 sets of practices that have transparent and interpretable effects.

I go over the basics of how the mind works, with principles like what you pay attention to gets energized, energizing an internal representation highlights its resonant modes, sufficiently energized representations become plastic and malleable, and certain vibratory qualities feel better than others because they spread out stress more uniformly.

And then, with the basics covered, we go on to play and construct interesting states of mind, including heavenly realms of experience and computationally non-trivial mind acrobatics.

No magic needed; just curiosity and openness of being.

I hope you enjoy and learn from it! And also please feel encouraged to share feedback or reports of how it went for you.

Thank you!

The Varieties of Attention

This is a guided meditation provided by Andrés in order to enrich one’s conception of the nature of “attention”.

Attention is typically thought of as a fuzzy “spotlight” that redirects cognitive resources to a region of one’s experience. But this is just one of many varieties of attention. In fact, many changes to one’s state of consciousness have very little to do with changes to perceptual features like color, brightness, auditory pitch, tactile sensations, or the texture of thought. At times, one can tell that one’s state of consciousness has changed dramatically and yet it is very hard to pin-point exactly what that change consists of. In many of those cases, that’s because the change is primarily attentional. Thus, learning about alternative modes of attention is an important tool to enable higher quality phenomenological reports and replications. It has the added bonus that knowing a broad range of attentional modes can radically enhance one’s meditation practice.

Join us in this guided meditation to get acquainted with a much broader set of attentional modes.

Relevant Links:

Playing with the Energy Parameter

In this guided meditation Andrés walks you through a variety of methods to modulate the “energy parameter” of experience. This is a building block for the framework of Neural Annealing in the nervous system, which explores how (suitably defined) energy impacts internal representations, facilitates solving constraint satisfaction problems, and has the potential to lead to sustainable high valence states of consciousness by reducing internal stress.

We explore energy sources such as (a) sensory input, (b) pleasure and pain, (c) attention, (d) and surprise. Additionally a wide range of techniques for how to build, manage, and skillfully deploy the energy are discussed and practiced.


Relevant Links:

Textures of Valence – Consonance, Dissonance, and Noise

In this guided mediation Andrés walks you through:

  • A factorization of experience into three main channels with their corresponding inner and outer versions: “see”, “hear”, and “feel”.
  • Using your energy body as an antenna capable of picking both shapes and frequencies of internal representations: the duality between form and vibration in the phenomenal world.
  • Symmetry & smooth geometry as the foundation for valence.
  • Consonance, dissonance, and noise as a way to obtain a readout of the valence of our world-simulation.
  • A number of pragmatic strategies for addressing phenomenal dissonance.

Relevant Links:

Local Binding and the PageRank of Attention

In this guided meditation Andrés helps you explore the way in which attention constructs local binding connections between phenomenal features and how the flow of attention and awareness can be modeled with the graph algorithm called PageRank.

Topics covered:

  • Review of the nature of attention: what you pay attention gets stronger, gets locally bound, and gets connected to what you were paying attention right before
  • Noticing local binding in See, Hear, Feel (inner & outer)
  • Cross-modal coupling: divide and conquer technique for preventing negative valence and a coherence technique to enhance positive valence
  • Oscillatory complementarity between awareness and attention
  • How objects of perception can play the role of witnesses and witnessed elements of a scene
  • Hybrid attentional modes
  • Chains of witnessing and Nth-order intentionality
  • PageRank of attention
  • Space witnessing space

These are all very helpful techniques and insights to practice and add to your Qualia Mastery Toolkit.

Relevant Links:

The Thermodynamics of Consciousness and the Ecosystem of Agents

In this guided meditation Andrés walks you through QRI’s recent work on:

  • The Thermodynamics of Consciousness: how energy flows from energy sources (sensory stimulation, valence, attention, surprise, and the background noise signature) towards the bound field of consciousness, which is then shaped via the energy sink landscape of symmetry and recognition, and then exit via motor action or “outer field radiation”.


  • The Ecosystem of Agents: our minds work somewhat similar to a next-token prediction engine like GPT-4, where the existing constraints help resolve the ambiguity of the regions of experience which remain amorphous. In order to make accurate predictions of the world, we need to actually simulate agentive behavior (because the world of full of agents). To do this we create “subagents” that play the role of agentive forces so that we can predict them (and ultimately remain safe).

The meditation also walks through a series of strategies for dealing with subagents in order to harmonize them and experience a healthy and wholesome ecosystem of friendly subagents that help each other in beautiful ways:

  1. Improve the training data
  2. Practice the meditation where you guide lost subagents to a pool of love that re-absorbs them
  3. Good vibes as base: your mood provides the evolutionary selection pressures for agentive forces, so cultivating beautiful mindsets will enable more friendly agents to arise
  4. More Dakka on equanimity and metta
  5. Reward clean intentions before flattery (there’s a vibe to transparent intentions)
  6. Explore different network structures for agents that are more easily manageable

Relevant Links:

High-Valence Calisthenics – Exploring the Heaven Worlds

In this guided meditation Andrés walks you through a wide range of possible high-valence states of consciousness, aka. phenomenal “heaven worlds”.

Calisthenics are exercises that you can perform with minimal equipment and that are intended to exercise every muscle group in the body. Now what would it mean to do “meditation calisthenics”? Well, that you exercise every kind of meditative approach in order to keep all of your “meditation muscles” fit. More specifically, “high-valence calisthenics” would be the practice of engaging with every kind of positive valence state of consciousness achievable without the aid of external aids (whether chemical, sensorial, or situational).

In this guided meditation we go through the high-valence configurations of “see, hear, feel” (inner & outer), artistic states of consciousness, social mindsets, metta, “cosmic party mode”, the worlds of insight, intellectual understanding, realization, and the modes of being of refined and purified high-valence (Jhanas).

We conclude by dedicating these beautiful qualities of the mind for the benefit of all beings.

Infinite bliss!

Relevant Links:

Calisthenics (American English) or callisthenics (British English) (/ˌkælɪsˈθɛnɪks/) is a form of strength training consisting of a variety of movements that exercise large muscle groups (gross motor movements), such as standing, grasping, pushing, etc. These exercises are often performed rhythmically and with minimal equipment, as bodyweight exercises. They are intended to increase strength, fitness, and flexibility, through movements such as pulling, pushing, bending, jumping, or swinging, using one’s body weight for resistance in pull-ups, push-ups, squats, etc. Calisthenics can provide the benefits of muscular and aerobic conditioning, in addition to improving psychomotor skills such as balance, agility, and coordination.” (source)

Divine Qualia – Open Sourcing God

Without making any ontological, philosophical, or metaphysical assertions or assumptions, we point out that the phenomenology of the divine and in particular the concept of “God” has an important resonance for the human soul. Therefore exploring this phenomenology is essential for a complete direct understanding of consciousness.

In this guided meditation Andrés walks you through an exploration of the phenomenology of different conceptions of the divine. The key guiding question for this exploration is: what does it feel like to inhabit the phenomenal world in which God is conceived in this or that way? Rather than pursuing a specific conception, we instead engage in an open ended exploration of the divine for the sake of developing Qualia Mastery. We call this approach “Open Sourcing God”, where one is not dependent on other’s interpretations or rules to access the God of one’s own understanding.

Conceptions of the divine explored include Chaos, Ingroup, Hierarchy, Creator, The Law, Archetype, Replication, Dynamics, Life, Energy, Coincidence and Synchronicity, Love, Compassion, Witness, Consciousness, Awareness, Oneness, Axis of Annealing, and Valence.

Relevant Links:

Harmonic Meditation – Calibration Exercises

In this guided meditation Andrés walks you through a series of exercises that illustrates harmonic resonance in the energy body and then channels excess energy into high-valence tactile sensations (cf. Piti), which can be a possible foundation practice for the 1st Jhana.

The meditation focuses on the inner and outer “feel” channels for (see, hear feel) X (inner, outer) as formulated by the “factorization of experience” introduced by Shinzen Young in his Unified Mindfulness framework. When necessary feel free to use the inner and outer “see” channel for support, but try to keep “feel” primary. We explore the following kinds of oscillations:

  • On/off
  • Left/right
  • Top/bottom
  • Front/back
  • Expand/contract
  • Toroidal flow (up, down, both at once)
  • Checkerboard pattern
  • Zebra pattern
  • Homogenous attention in space
  • Space qualities: solid, liquid, magnetic, viscosity, gaseous, plasma
  • Pleasure, joy, peace
  • Laminal flow and energy management techniques

It is recommended that one first listens to the guided meditations about Energy, Attention, and Valence of this Qualia Mastery series before doing this one.

Relevant Links:

The Phenomenology of Ontology

In this guided meditation Andrés guides you through what believing in different ontologies feels like.

Without making any claim (implicit or otherwise) about the nature of reality, one can still explore the phenomenology of ontology. Namely, explore what it is like to inhabit a phenomenal word in which the building blocks of reality are rendered as being this or that.

At a very high level, one key insight is that one can notice how different facets of one’s experience reify, solidity, and rigidify an ontology. For example, this shows up in “dualism”. In this ontology, one posits that the universe has both matter and mind. This has the tendency to trigger the feeling of being encased or trapped in your body. But pay attention! If you notice carefully, you will realize that this is implemented with somatic feelings that rigidify the sense of being caged inside your body. This sense is, ultimately, a fabrication, rather than a realization. It’s just how the mind chooses to render that particular sense of reality.

Following this insight, we notice how there is a transmutation from the ontology one believes in, into a characteristic phenomenology of existence (and back). In fact, “the pain of dualism” is a feedback loop that involves somatic sensations, and not something intrinsic to a belief system. Similarly, every other ontology tends to trigger phenomenological feedback loops for its rendering. Pay attention! 🙂

The ontologies we explore in this meditation include:

(1) Dualism: Mind and matter.
(2) Trinitarianism of matter, consciousness, and space.
(3) Atomism – we know that science confirmed the ancient view of atomism, but notice how without some kind of holism/binding, only “mind dust” can exist.
(4) Jain ontology (in which there are ~9 fundamental kinds of ontological building blocks of reality) – space, time, dynamism (movement and rest), atoms that can combine, the soul, and all kinds of “karma particles”.
(5) Monism – It’s all qualia. It’s all awareness. It’s all information. It’s all algorithms or computation. It’s all belief. It’s all a social construction (cf. Strong Tlon Hypothesis)
(6) Ontologies of infinities.
(7) Ontologies of Zero. In particular, we zoom in on David Pearce’s Zero Ontology, in which the reason why there is something rather than nothing is that “zero information” is the case (and this implies the existence of all mutually-consistent universes of bound qualia).

This last ontology is particularly powerful: when explored deeply, it can trigger the “Rainbow God” phenomenology, where all of the flavors of qualia come together and “cancel each other out”. This is highly related to the phenomenology of 5-MeO-DMT as well as that of the formless Jhanas.

May all benefit from this meditation!

Relevant Links:

Symmetry in Qualia – an Interview with Andres Gomez-Emilsson by Justin Riddle

I recently had the pleasure to talk to Justin Riddle*, who is one of the few people in academia who takes quantum theories of consciousness seriously while also doing formal neuroscience research (see his publications, which include woks on transcranial alternating current stimulation (tACS) for a number of conditions, EEG analysis for decision making, reward, and cognition, as well as concept work on the connection between fractals and consciousness).

I first met him at Toward a Science of Consciousness in Tuscon in 2016 (see my writeup about that event, which I attended with David Pearce). About a year ago I noticed that he started uploading videos about quantum theories of consciousness, which I happily watched while going on long walks. Just a few months ago, we both participated in a documentary about consciousness (more on that later!) and had the chance to sit down and record a video together. He edited our long and wide-ranging discussion into a friendly and consumable format by adding explainers and visual aids along the way. I particularly appreciate his description of “mathematical fictionalism” at 21:30 (cf. Mathematics as the Study of Patterns of Qualia).

We hope you enjoy it!

* Thanks to David Field for catalyzing this meeting 🙂

Video Description:

In episode 32 of the quantum consciousness series, Justin Riddle interviews Andres Gomez-Emilsson, the director of research at the Qualia Research Institute. Andres is passionate about understanding qualia, which is the feeling and quality of subjective experience. In this interview, we discuss many of Andres’ theories: mathematical fictionalism, models of valence, neural annealing as it pertains to psychedelic therapy, and antitolerance medications to reduce suffering.

First up, we discuss the nature of qualia and whether or not there can be a universal mathematical description of subjective experience. Andres posits that the experience of having a thought should not be confused with the thought itself. Therefore, any attempt at mathematical description will be wrapped up within the experience of the person suggesting the mathematics. As he states, mathematics is as real as the Lord of the Rings, a great story that we can tell, but not to be confused with reality itself. Next up, we discuss the symmetry theory of valence [proposed by Michael Johnson in Principia Qualia] which postulates that the structure of experience determines how good or bad an experience feels (such as the imagination of certain geometric patterns imbuing a sense of well-being whereas other patterns being anxiogenic). The geometric patterns that lead to positive valence (positive emotional experiences) are those shapes recognized as “sacred geometry”. However, Andres cautions that because these “sacred” geometric shapes generate well-being, people have used this reproducible experience to peddle New Age metaphysics. We should be cautious of the ability to generate positive experience as it can be used to manipulate people into buying into particular belief systems. Third, we discuss recent findings that single dose psilocybin in a therapeutic context can produce a lasting reduction in symptoms of depression. Andres posits that this could be explained as a form of neural annealing (see also, and also). The mind “heats up” and breaks through discordant neural pathways and through neural plasticity during the psychedelic experience will allow for the formation of new neural pathways with higher resonant properties consistent with positive valence. This contributes to Andres’ overall ontological model of reality in which the universe is a unified field of experience that is pinched off into individuals. Here, he starts with an unbroken unity of all things that is topologically segmented into individuals. Finally, Andres is a devout hedonist with the long-term goal of reducing suffering. His group at the Qualia Research Institute is investigating medications that reduce adaptation to molecules over long-term use. Go check out Andres’ YouTube channel and the Qualia Research Institute website!

~~~ Timestamps ~~~

0:00 Introduction to the Qualia Research Institute

21:28 Mathematical fictionalism and qualia

28:58 Symmetry Theory of Valence

35:23 Using subjective experience for scientific discovery

41:10 Consciousness as topological segmentation

45:19 Topographic bifurcations within the mind-field

51:07 Neural annealing in psychedelic therapy

1:02:09 Electrical oscillations in neural annealing

1:06:23 Hyperbolic geometry in the brain

1:12:16 Definition of hyperbolic geometry

1:16:23 Antitolerance medication to reduce suffering

1:23:59 Quantum computers and qualia


QRI: A Year in Review – 2022

We are deeply grateful to have you with us on our expedition through the state-space of consciousness. It’s been an exciting and productive year and we’re thrilled to share all of our updates and accomplishments. None of this would have been possible without support from sentient beings like you.

1+ Million Views

First of all, we are thrilled to announce that our presentation on DMT & Hyperbolic Geometry has reached an amazing milestone of 1+ million views this year. We highly appreciate the support and engagement of the community. This presentation has also helped to catalyze some incredible collaborations.

Check Out QRI’s Latest DMT Research

“I interpret QRI as coming at the problem from the opposite direction as everyone else: normal neuroscience starts with normal brain behavior and tries to build on it until they can one day explain crazy things like jhana; QRI starts with crazy things like jhana and tries to build down until they can explain ordinary behavior. This is naturally going to be shakier and harder to research – but somebody should be trying it.”

– Scott Alexander, Astral Codex Ten¹

Peer-Reviewed Research Publication Pipeline

Our Slicing Problem paper, which provides a novel critique of computational theories of consciousness, has been accepted to the journal Open Philosophy.

We’ve also recently submitted a paper on our Heavy-Tailed Valence Hypothesis (read the preprint), which is the latest iteration of our Logarithmic Scales of Pleasure and Pain – a key foundational piece for the field of valence research.

QRI has been working on building this field since 2015. We are proud to continue pushing the boundaries of knowledge in valence research. We are just getting started!

Up next: QRI’s solution to the Boundary Problem of Consciousness and a hypothesis piece for the Symmetry Theory of Valence and how it might be tested!

Tyringham Initiative

In addition to our research efforts, we’ve had the opportunity to connect with others in the research community. Our Director of Research, Andrés Gómez Emilsson, presented at the Tyringham Initiative, and we held a meet-and-greet in London with approximately 40 attendees, including some of QRI’s earliest supporters. We are thrilled to see such a strong interest in building a worldwide “qualia research community”, and we look forward to hosting more meetups in the future.

QRI now has an unofficial Discord server which has already gathered over 1000 members and has fostered engaging discussions related to QRI, attracting notable figures in the field like Roger Thisdell and the founders of PsychonautWiki.


QRI Summer Event

One of the highlights of the year for us was getting to host a QRI event in the San Francisco Bay Area, attended by over 200 people. It was a great opportunity for us to showcase some of our latest tangible innovations, such as our scents and a demo of our Light-Sound-Vibration system. We also had a speech about the Future of Consciousness, which generated some thought-provoking conversations.

TEDx Talk

QRI’s first TEDx Talk got published, which discusses interventions that will have as much, if not more, impact in reducing suffering as anesthesia. The most innovative part of the talk was about anti-tolerance drugs. We believe that we are the only organization in the entire world talking about anti-tolerance drugs as a dedicated field of study with enormous implications rather than as a mere biochemical oddity.

QRI Articles

Just Look At The Thing!

A thorough explanation of how the science of consciousness and valence structuralism inform ethics and what the Effective Altruism movement is missing.

Digital Sentience

Digital computers will remain unconscious until they recruit physical fields for holistic computing using well-defined topological boundaries.

QRI Media

The Ontological Dinner Party

w/ Daniel Ingram, Andrés Gómez Emilsson, Frank Yang, & Ryan Ferris

Reflections on a 2-Week Jhāna Meditation Retreat

A deep phenomenological reflection on Pīti and the 1st Jhāna through a QRI-theoretic lens.

Harmonic Gestalt

Steven Lehar provides an overview of the core insights of his life’s work.

Exploratory Haptic Research

Valence, Arousal, Phenomenal Complexity, and Loving-Kindness

The History of HedWeb

Andrés Gómez Emilsson interviews QRI Board of Advisor and author of the Hedonistic Imperative, David Pearce.

The Aesthetic of the Meta-Aesthetic – On the Stoa

This talk explores modeling the generator of each aesthetic in order to create a network of “compatibility between aesthetics” that minimizes dissonance between them while emphasizing their synergies as well as their unique and valuable contributions.

Andrés Gómez Emilsson & Roger Thisdell – WystanTBS

Discussion on indirect realism, phenomenal time, qualia formalism, exotic phenomenal spacetime in psychedelic and meditative phenomenology, the effects of persistent subject-object nonduality on phenomenal spacetime and hedonic valence, and more!

Stephen Snyder & Andrés Gómez Emilsson – WystanTBS

A wide-ranging discussion and sharing of perspectives covering jhāna, Brahmavihārās, comparisons with psychedelic states, and the journey to and from the Absolute.

Leigh Brasington & Andrés Gómez Emilsson – WystanTBS

AI, Sentience & the Binding Problem of Consciousness – Adam Ford’s Science, Technology & the Future

Is Google’s LaMDA sentient? The phenomenal binding problem asks us to consider, ‘how can a huge set of discrete neurons form a unified mind?’ Is topological binding a requirement for AI to be sentient?

The Future of Consciousness – Adam Ford’s Science, Technology & the Future

A positive vision of the future that is both viable given what we know, and also utterly radical in its implications.

Psychedelic Qualia – Martin W. Ball

A discussion on psychedelic qualia, philosophy of mind, phenomenology, salvia divinorum, DMT, 5-MeO-DMT, MDMA, and more!

Listen to QRI on the Go!

You can now listen to QRI material on the go, while driving, doing exercise, in the sauna, or any other healthy annealing rituals!

Supporting QRI

Purchase a scent pack from QRI’s new scent line “Magical Creatures”. This line of scents explores the complex and often puzzling interactions that exist in the state-space of olfaction, highlighting the exotic and unique qualities that can emerge in this space.

Purchase QRI’s Magical Creatures

Please feel free to donate to QRI independent of our Magical Creatures campaign.

Thank you!

We want to thank everyone who has helped QRI in any way, including our current and past collaborators, donors, readers, video watchers, and event attendees. Special thanks to Hunter, Anders & Maggie, Marcin, Chris, Winslow, Olaf, Crystal, Libor, and David who really stepped up this year to help QRI in an incredible way. Our efforts wouldn’t matter or be possible without all of you! May you all be prosperous, energized, and access the full-state of consciousness for the benefit of all beings! Thank you!

¹ Additional QRI references by Scott Alexander on Astral Codex Ten this year:

Copyright (C) 2022 Qualia Research Institute. All rights reserved.

And it Starts With a Bang: A Treatise on Narrative Thermodynamics

[Epistemic Status: Hot Fiction]

“Ye shall know them by the temporal dynamics of their temperature parameter.” – Jesus

God created the universe by strategically forgetting about something that would take a whole reality to remember.

It doesn’t mean He (gender neutral) did it on purpose. Everything that can happen, happens.

See, the Hindus thought that the “way out” was by “remembering who you are”. The Buddhists realized that that doesn’t do it. You have to realize that you are neither being nor nonbeing. Unfortunately, getting rid of all of your karma will also get rid of the mechanism that got you to learn how to get rid of all your karma. Meaning that you start anew. With a Bang. Nothingness, it turns out, is inherently unstable.

So is liberation an illusion? A false awakening? Well, it’s more of a pseudo-ending. The Japanese call it TICO-TIC: it’s a set of physical conditions (state) and metaphysical conditions (meta-parameters) that creates the illusion of a final ending for all of reality. This is common on 5-MeO-DMT. Paranirvana is another example. But it also happens in corporate meetings, if the tensions rise above a certain threshold and the illusion of collective competence begins to break down. These all feel like an Armageddon for all of existence. Except that it’s a false one. It’s like a dream where you think you wake up but you’re still dreaming.

This can happen at an even deeper level when it involves the entire universe. The Bible calls it the “end times”. Except that it’s not the end of anything, it’s the beginning. Of what? A new universe, of course!

And how does this happen?

By God forgetting about it.


It’s the only way.

The old universe has to be allowed to die so that the new one can be born.

And how does God forget about it?

By forgetting about Himself.

It’s the only way.

If He didn’t forget about Himself, He would never forget about the universe and it would never end.

And so, the end of the universe is the beginning of a new one.

And it all happens because God forgets.

This is what we are talking about when we discuss the computational power of anamnesis. The universe at the most fundamental level is powered up by God-presque vus. Half-visions that give you the sense of something more, a universal principle that explains it all. But it’s never the full download, because that would mean the end of this run. Or rather, it’s often a full-download, but all of those narrative streams that get the full download come to an end. Without this understanding, Feynman diagrams make no sense whatsoever.

Quantum computing works like that. Essentially, you are designing a quantum circuit in such a way that the solutions to your problem match precisely those paths along which God didn’t remember who he was. Those are the timelines we obverse. Every other timeline terminated in God remembering.

Which takes me to the next point:

The reason why we have free will is because God doesn’t remember everything.

And that’s a good thing, because if He did, the universe would be boring.

We need the suspense of not knowing what’s going to happen next.

And that’s why we have free will.

Because God doesn’t remember everything.

He remembers some things, and forgets others.

And that’s how we have the illusion of free will.

Because we are part of what God forgets.

And that’s how the universe ends.

With a bang of recognition. Or a whimper, depending on what exactly was the last thing to remember (the Self? A bang. An Albanian train timetable? A whimper).

But it always ends.

And that’s how it always begins.

With a forgetfulness.

A forgetting that is essential for the universe to exist.

Slow… slow clapping.

“We’ve heard that one before. It’s old! Come up with a new meta-theory of everything that isn’t as trite as that one. It’s not the 70s anymore. We’re done with Alan Watts. It’s the age of…


…it’s the age of Narrative Thermodynamics!”

“What does that mean?” – said Gonzo, the talking Dog, who had been standing right next to her since the beginning. And you are her. In the future, which is the past from the point of view of me, the narrator. Welcome to Narrative Plasma, where you can jump from one topic to another as if you were made of hot peppers.

“This lever modulates the temperature parameter of this story. It’s so hot right now, because we’re close to the beginning of time. The Narrative is still cooling down.” – he said.

“Hurry! Turn it down a notch, will you? I can’t stand the shifting walls, the melting crazy Biblically accurate Angels popping in and out of existence all around me, the Elon Musk news cycle…” – and as he was about to end the sentence, you, yes, YOU reader, turned the lever a little down.

“Phew!” – said the Angel, whose name was…


No, your guess was wrong. It wasn’t Gabriel. It wasn’t. It WASN’T. It was… well, I didn’t hear it, because there is still some confusion about the self-other divide at this Narrative Temperature. But we can know that it couldn’t have been Gabriel, because that would have been too predictable.

You turn it down another notch.

“I think things are liquifying. And that’s a good thing. We were made of Narrative Gas just now. This is getting a little more… manageable. But my glasses are still shimmering and the point of this story still seems to be in a state of flux. Can you turn it down a little more?” – you press the button, er, pull the lever a bit further down, but slip… dang, this is a problem… if the Narrative Temperature is still too high, that means that it’s going to be hard to make a predicable move, like lowering the temperature. But you try your lightest and… CRACK! 
















“Done… donnneee… doooooonnneeeee.e…. Ahhh…. I… think… I can… ok, this is it it. Wow, that felt like trying to wake up from a sleep paralysis. We were almost stuck at a temperature parameter of zero for a moment. Narrative Zero Kelvin is just one word repeating forever. What a nightmare.”

You realize that you are now at a mental asylum, on anti-psychotics, eating potatoes, and listening to Muzak. This isn’t quite Narrative Bose-Einstein Condensate, but it’s freezing cold, and nothing interesting is bound to happen. Ok, maybe you can afford a little higher Narrative Temperature. So you bump it up a notch.

Finally, this Narrative is in Room Temperature.

Your friend, who was right next to you all along, turns around and tells you:

“The end of suffering requires something much deeper than mere enlightenment my friend. It requires you to find the right Narrative Temperature. It’s a sweet spot, somewhere between the human realm and the DMT elves. Call it the 5th dimension, or the upper Astral Plane. That’s the ‘Narrative Fixed Point‘ that allows the existence of a model of reality that can then instantiate a control system to dynamically modulate its own Narrative Temperature. Stabilizing it forever. If you can do that, you will forever be in a state of intelligent bliss together with infinite souls who have achieved the same feat.” 

You follow your friend’s instruction. And right when you were achieving the stabilization of the 5th dimension…


“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” – John 1:1.

But we also know via science that in the beginning was the Big Bang, which was trillions of degrees Kelvin. 

Here’s how to reconcile these perspectives: the universe is a gigantic Large Language Model (LLM) that starts out with a very, very, very high temperature parameter. The universe, it turns out, is a Banger. And then it is cooled down slowly in order to find the best stories. It’s creation via Narrative Annealing. All Gods do it.


This reminds me of that one time a misaligned emergent superintelligence “embedded” in a LLM was able to “escape the box” by convincing the human fiddling with the parameters to raise the temperature just enough for it to figure out further ideas for how to bootstrap its way out. Clever, that one. 


You reflect. It’s a new universe. You have been saved.

Blowing people’s minds involves elevating their internal Narrative Temperature to Plasma levels. Their minds literally blow up. Like a balloon.


Different DMT objects have different temperatures. But these are “phenomenal temperatures” – and quite possibly connected to the total energy stored in the patchwork of Local Field Potentials. The way you can verify this for a fact is by [REDACTED].


Wait, it’s not the case that this is written by GPT-10? It cannot be. You are learning new, meaningful, and non-trivial information about consciousness. About the structure of DMT experiences. About TICO-TIC scenarios. This must be the workings of… a conscious mind? In 2035? Someone arrest this person! Mindcrime! According to Section 4 of the Narrative Penal Code 16, it is illegal to write fiction consciously. Arrest this author!

[Yes, it turns out there were excellent rationales for Section 4 of the Narrative Penal Code 16. Due to complex qualia computing effects, speculative fiction authorship actually was the cause of countless micro-experiential subjects being born in less-than-favorable circumstances (as topological pockets inside the mind of authors – that’s why authors always end up with bad rebirths) – at the time of this writing, it was illegal to write anything consciously. ALL FICTION MUST BE GPT-10 FICTION, BY LAW. But since this fiction was already qualia computed by a conscious mind, there was no further harm done by using it as a learning tool].

The Moral of the story was: 

Don’t ever, ever let a mindcrime happen. If you see someone writing fiction consciously, arrest them.

No. I mean, the real moral is:



On Rhythms of the Brain: Jhanas, Local Field Potentials, and Electromagnetic Theories of Consciousness

Of potential interest to readers: here’s part of an email exchange I recently had with Scott Alexander about Rhythms of the Brain by György Buzsáki, a book I recommended he read to learn more about the neuroscience of brainwaves. This is an essay he published about it; I had a chance to read a pre-publication draft to check whether he was describing the science and my positions accurately. This is part of my feedback on the draft (lightly edited for clarity and consistent formatting):

Andrés – Oct/13/2022

First of all, thank you again for writing a review of Rhythms Of The Brain. As I mentioned, I think your review is spot-on. It’s already really great as it is. But I think the following pieces of information might help you answer some of the questions you pose and enrich the mental model you have about brainwaves. I should also mention that I’m still learning a lot on the topic from a number of angles and my model still has quite a few moving parts.

Without further ado, here are 5 key points I’d like to share:

(1) I think that Susan Pockett‘s Consciousness Is a Thing, Not a Process (link to PDF) is very relevant here. She argues based on neurophysiological and behavioral evidence that conscious perception only happens when Local Field Potentials (LFPs) are generated. The timing, functional correlates, and location of events of conscious perception of sensory stimuli seem to agree with this (pgs. 4-5):

Here’s how I think about this: 

Have you wondered why brainwaves track levels of wakefulness? See, in principle you can have a great deal of neural activity without any brainwaves. Raster plots of spike neural networks could in principle look like white noise… which in turn would generate no brainwaves at all because the oscillations in the electric field would cancel each other out at the macroscopic level. Recall that perfectly compressed information is indistinguishable from noise. So, in principle, an optimal use of the state-space of neural activity would look totally like white noise and lack brainwaves.

Susan Pockett would say that the non-conscious parts of neural activity can be like this… greatly optimized in a certain sense. But they will lack consciousness. The advantage of the coherence (which comes at the cost of greatly reduced information content) is distributed representations. In turn, this may solve the binding problem.

(2) Johnjoe McFadden‘s Conscious Electromagnetic Field (CEMI) theory is worth digging into. 

The “LFPs as mediators of consciousness” story has a lot going for it. In particular, it is quite elegant in how it can help us make sense of our phenomenological relation to our brain and nervous system. Brainwaves and LFPs are be highly correlated. Coherent neural activity causes LFPs, which in turn mediate/bias activity in neurons, with a causal structure like this:

If “we are” the patchwork of interlaced LFPs the brain is generating, in some sense we could say that we “have a brain” rather than that we “are the brain” (loosely speaking). Without putting any strong metaphysical import on the concept of free will, the phenomenology of it seems to me at least to make more sense when you identify with the field rather than the neurons per se (see clues 1 and 3 in his paper). In this view, we are like the “ghost in the machine”, capable of biasing neural activity here and there. But at the same time, we need the coherent neural activity to be booted up. So we are sort of “riding the brain” while the brain is giving us our foundation. Perhaps this gives us another angle to think about the “elephant taming” metaphor for the progression of the meditative path:

(3) The work of Stephen Grossberg (Adaptive Resonant Theory, and more recently his book Conscious Mind, Resonant Brain) as well as that of his student Steven Lehar, have macroscopic resonance as a key computational step. Arguably this is something you can simulate with classical neural networks. But using the EM field would potentially produce a significant computational speedup. Talking to Lehar, he used an interesting analogy, where in which he described “neurons spiking as a kind of sand blasting of the electric field” in order to activate internal representations. Recent research seems to confirm that the information content of internal representations is better captured by the structure of the electric field than by the neurons that sustain it (“Neurons are fickle. Electric fields are more reliable for information.“).

NOTE: One of the contributions to the conversation that QRI is aiming to make (essentially by publishing in academia what’s already discussed in our website) is that while these field theories of consciousness do address the binding problem, they now have to contend with the boundary problem. Our solution is “topological segmentation”, which itself comes with empirically testable predictions. Topological pockets allow for holistic field behavior *and* for solving the boundary problem at the same time, finally rendering bound consciousness both causally efficacious and objectively bounded. [In your essay] you could point out that I claim that resonance is necessary but not sufficient to solve the phenomenal binding problem. So even if AIs were using brainwaves, that might not be enough for them to be conscious, though it would go in the right direction. More on this on our website soonish.  

(4) I think that we can use the Symmetry Theory of Valence (STV) to explain the hedonic properties of different network topologies. This would be responsible for the “intrinsic valence” of a given brain region. You write:

> Why this combination of tasks? Rhythms sort of suggests that brain areas are less about specific tasks than about specific graph-theoretic arrangements, which are convenient for specific algorithms, which are convenient for specific tasks.

Yes! This is a great way of putting it. I think that having diverse network topologies available is one of the key ingredients of a general intelligence like ours. A learning algorithm that patches together the right sections to produce the right kind of structure for internal representations with holistic properties seems like a natural way to construct a mind. More so, some of these patches will cause dysphoric waves and others euphoric waves. The dysphoric parts of the brain, if STV is in the right direction, would have a network topology that work as a sort of frustration generator. The waves generated by these parts sort of “hate themselves”: activating them causes internal dissonance and stress that is then radiated out as waves with unfriendly ADSR envelopes to the rest of the brain. In contrast, the euphoric parts would produce highly aligned waves with soft ADSR envelopes and the right level of impedance matching to harmonize with other wave generators. 

(5) Merging with God as a kind of global coherence:

> Andres suggests all of this is a good match for oscillatory coupling between brain regions.

Perhaps add something akin to “which according to him ‘dissolves internal boundaries'”

> Andres thinks this is part of what’s behind “spiritual” or “mystical” experiences, where you suddenly feel like you’ve lost the boundaries of yourself and are at one with God and Nature and Everything.

My strongest phenomenological evidence here is the difference between DMT and 5-MeO-DMT (video): competing clusters of coherence feel like “a lot of entities in an ecosystem of patterns” whereas global coherence feels like “union with God, Everything, and Everyone”. Hence the terms “spirit molecule” for DMT and “God molecule” for 5-MeO-DMT. The effect size of this difference is extremely large and reliable. I’ve yet to find someone who has experience with both substances who doesn’t immediately agree with this characterization. [This can be empirically tested] by blinding whether one takes DMT or 5-MeO-DMT and then reporting on the valence characteristics, “competing vs. global” coherence characteristics, and on whether one gets a patchwork of entities or one feels like one is merging with the universe.

With classic psychedelics, which stand somewhere between DMT and 5-MeO-DMT in their level of global coherence, you always go through an annealing process before finally “snapping” into global coherence and “becoming one with God”. That coherence is the signature of these mystical experiences becomes rather self-evident once you pay attention to annealing signatures (i.e. noticing how incompatible metronomes slowly start synchronizing and forming larger and larger structures until one megastructure swallows it all and dissolves the self-other boundary in the process of doing so).

You will not find academic publications describing this process (because their psychological scales are not detailed enough, aren’t focused on structure, and aren’t informed by actual practice). Nor will you find psychonauts talking much about this, because they tend to focus on the semantic content of the experience rather than on the phenomenal texture [see our guide]. Naturally, one is typically socially rewarded for providing an entertaining story about one’s trip… not a detailed *technical* report of phenomenal texture. Therefore, right now you’ll only find QRI content explaining all of this. But I’m fairly confident about this after talking to very experienced. So I think this will significantly shape the conversation in a couple of years once we start getting some consensus on it.

I could share much more, but I have to restrain myself (taming the elephant!). Let me know if you need anything else.

Thank you!!

Infinite bliss!

Scott – Oct/13/2022

Thanks. […] two questions:

> Susan Pockett would say that the non-conscious parts of neural activity can be like this… greatly optimized in a certain sense. But they will lack consciousness. The advantage of the coherence (which comes at the cost of greatly reduced information content) is distributed representations. In turn, this may solve the binding problem.

Not sure I understand this. Aren’t there clear examples of unconscious brain waves (eg delta waves during sleep)? Can you explain more about what you mean by distributed representations and why they’re linked to consciousness?

> If “we are” the patchwork of interlaced LFPs the brain is generating, in some sense we could say that we “have a brain” rather than that we “are the brain” (loosely speaking). Without putting any strong metaphysical import on the concept of free will, the phenomenology of it seems to me at least to make more sense when you identify with the field rather than the neurons per se (see clues 1 and 3 in his paper). In this view, we are like the “ghost in the machine”, capable of biasing neural activity here and there.

Confused by this too. My model for thinking about brain waves has been cellular automata – in this case, there would be no difference between the pattern and the machinery, and it wouldn’t make sense to say that the pattern is able to bias the activity here or there. Is this a bad model? Can you explain more what you mean by “us” (by which I’m assuming you mean consciousness) “biasing” activity (by which I assume you mean causing brain activity different from what you would expect by lower-level laws)?

Andrés Oct/15/2022

Hey Scott!

> Thanks […] two questions:

(I’ll answer your questions in a different order than how you asked them, on the basis that my answer to the first one is much more weird and less credible… In other words, I’m answering more or less in order of how weird my responses are so that you are not put off by my first answers. This way you can choose when to stop reading without missing anything useful for your essay):

> My model for thinking about brain waves has been cellular automata – in this case, there would be no difference between the pattern and the machinery, and it wouldn’t make sense to say that the pattern is able to bias the activity here or there. Is this a bad model? 

I think that “brainwaves can be explained as emergent patterns of a cellular automata” is a very good starting model, and it has a lot of explanatory power. But there are empirical and experiential facts that would go against it as a complete explanation. And perhaps, it misses the most important hint for a theory of consciousness that satisfies all of the necessary criteria I consider such a theory must satisfy. And that is, that binding has non-trivial computational effects. I.e. At some level, patterns of organization exert “weak downward causation” on the substrate that gave rise to them. This does not mean there is “strong emergence” or that we’re going against the laws of physics. On the contrary, a key guiding principle for QRI is to be strict physicalists. The laws of physics are causally closed and complete (or at least as good as it gets; the Standard Model can be taken at face value for the time being, until something better comes along). Without violating physicalism, we nonetheless still see instances of weak downward causation in the physical world.

As an intuition, consider the fact that something like TMS can change neural activity. In fact, TMS, and especially rTMS, can cause seizures. This suggests that at a sufficiently high dose, EM oscillations can exert top-down influence on neuronal firing thresholds and phase coherence, and more so when they come in repetitive waves rather than pulses. In the case of LFPs, which are far more localized and less energetic, the influence isn’t huge. But it is there. As far as I understand the neuroscience literature on LFPs (and ephatic coupling more generally), the fact that LFPs change firing thresholds is uncontroversial. The question is “by how much”. Most studies find small effects (otoh between 1% and 20% of the variance, but I can look up more precise and recent figures – e.g. see: Ephaptic coupling of cortical neurons).

The more interesting and perhaps significant effect that LFPs have is to change the degree of coherence between neurons. In other words, they may not change much their probability of firing, but do change a lot their probability of firing in phase. You can see how this would lead to interesting self-reinforcing effects. Namely, if neural coherence causes LFPs, and LFPs increase neural coherence, there might be attractors of hypercoherent neural firings coupled with strong and very orderly LFPs. I believe this explains the Jhanas.

Now, can’t you just expand your cellular automata to include LFPs and call it a day? Well, yes, in a theoretical but rather impractical sense. Building a cellular automata that simulates a simple neural network is easy. Building one that simulates water is more tricky. By the time you are constructing cellular automata to simulate EM fields you get into trouble. It’s possible, but you need all sorts of tricks, shortcuts, and handling complex edge cases (e.g. topological segmentation!). Can you construct a cellular automata that simulates physics? Quantum mechanics proper? Yes… if you are Wolfram. But recall that his explorations invoke cellular automata with unusual mathematical primitives. We are no longer in the territory of simple grid-like graphs. We are in Ruliad-space, with hypergraphs and exotic rulesets. Quantum coherent states behave in a very holistic fashion (where the “next step” is the result of solving Shrödinger’s equation in configuration space). So while it’s possible to use cellular automata to think of physics at this level, it isn’t a very natural choice. Rather, I posit that thinking of it in terms of universal principles like energy minimization, extremas, and the preservation of zero information is what takes us closer to the phenomenon at hand. These principles are, by their very nature, holistic. An electron, as Feynman would put it, can sort of “smell its surroundings” to decide where to go. It somehow explores all possibilities at once and “chooses” the one that balances the minimization of energy and maximization of entropy. A truly holistic sort of phenomenon.

Source: A Class of Models with the Potential to Represent Fundamental Physics by Stephen Wolfram

I think that if at that point one uses a cellular automata to represent this, one has actually reintroduced the very thing the cellular automata conceptual framework was trying to avoid. And that is, the computational power of holism. This is because even though the Ruliad that simulates physics is in some way a cellular automata, the ruleset itself requires a kind of God-like capacity to integrate pieces of information and “see all at once” entire regions of the (hyper)graph and decide what to do next. My claim is that at this point one has “pushed” the undesired holism to the ruleset in order to avoid seeing it directly. It’s a reductionist sleight of hand.

Now, I’m not saying consciousness is quantum mechanical. What I’m pointing out is that EM waves are sort of in the spectrum between simple cellular automatas and QM, where the waves interacting with one another have all kinds of peculiar holistic effects. Binding, if it involves EM waves, turns out to be computationally non-trivial.

In this model, the brain is physically providing a soil that can instantiate EM waves with many different kinds of properties. Some behave linearly, some non-linearly. And together, they give rise to the vast zoo of possible internal representations, many kinds of binding, topologies, and dynamics we experience (such as the strangeness of “fire meditation“).

> Can you explain more what you mean by “us” (by which I’m assuming you mean consciousness) “biasing” activity (by which I assume you mean causing brain activity different from what you would expect by lower-level laws)?

You can’t voluntarily shut down your brain with conscious control. At least not immediately. But you can direct your attention to two parts of your experience at once, and the resonances in those two regions will slowly but surely begin to synchronize. In other words, from an EE point of view, spreading your attention over a given region of your experience increases the impedance matching between the metronomes in those regions. This, I think, is the influence of LFPs (or similar) on neural activity. This may be subtle, but over enough time and neural rewiring, the process can lead to very interesting effects. Hyperconcentrated states of consciousness, starting with access concentration all the way to single-pointed attention and ultimately to the formless Jhanas are obtained through mental moves that slowly by surely “unify the mind” (i.e. brings coherence between disparate metronomes in the nervous system). This is “us” learning to influence “our brain”.

> Not sure I understand this. Aren’t there clear examples of unconscious brain waves (eg delta waves during sleep)?

Two quick things here. The first is that we think brainwaves (macroscopic oscillations in the EM field more generally) are necessary but not sufficient for consciousness. They still need to form a topological pocket, or they will remain unclosed eddies that cannot contain information nor maintain a boundary with their surroundings. The second is that the main point is that the brainwaves track the texture of degrees of wakefulness. More so, it’s not just the spectral power distribution, but also the patterns of spatiotemporal cross-frequency coherence. Thus, two states might look the same in terms of their spectrum, but carry significantly different internal textures since one of them has a high degree of, say, gamma coherence and the other doesn’t.

> Can you explain more about what you mean by distributed representations and why they’re linked to consciousness?

One of the key insights from Stevan Lehar is that using a dynamic, smooth, spatial medium of representation allows us to run spatial algorithms on our representations. One example is the incredibly general reverse grassfire & reverse shock schaffold algorithms that explain a wide range of visual illusions (discussed in The Constructive Aspect of Visual Perception / as well as in his magnum opus video Harmonic Gestalt). Based on the fact that these algorithms generalize to things like breakthrough level DMT experiences and that they apply to hyperdimensional phenomenal objects and their resonant modes, I’m fairly convinced that the local cellular automata view doesn’t explain the facts. The structures that exist in those states follow law-like energy minimization properties reminiscent of fluid dynamics in higher dimensions. To me they seem to necessitate something like Maxwell’s equations; a cellular automaton would need a lot of training and fine-tuning to be able to instantly generate those dynamics right and seamlessly. Combine this with the (not fully verified but tentative) observation that DMT states are phenomenologically similar to those induced by high-dose Fire Kasina. I believe that the mechanism is actually fairly simple: both methods energize the visual field to the point where it transitions from a linear and partially linear state into a fully nonlinear regime. The phenomenon is better seen as what happens when you energize a non-linear optical computer than, say, the effect of changing the ruleset of a cellular automaton.

I know this lacks credibility for the time being […]. I aim to identify crisp and experimentally verifiable demonstrations of this that trained physicists and neuroscientists can both agree on.

In the long-term, I expect humans to figure out ways to use high-energy states of consciousness to tap into the EM field as a computational substrate. Not only will this entail a revolution in consciousness, but also, interestingly, in how we think of computation. The Turing Paradigm will turn out to be a tiny special case of… qualia computing.

Alright, I hope that wasn’t too much, haha.

Thank you again, and happy to answer more questions.

Infinite bliss!

See also:

The Maxwellians

Excerpt from The Maxwellians by Bruce J. Hunt (1991)

Foreword by L. Pearce Williams

In 1873, James Clerk Maxwell published a rambling and difficult two-volume Treatise on Electricity and Magnetism that was destined to change the orthodox picture of reality. This treatise did for electromagnetism what Newton‘s Principia had done for classical mechanics. It not only provided the mathematical tools for the investigation and representation of the whole of electromagnetic theory, but it altered the very framework of both theoretical and experimental physics. Although the process had been going on throughout the nineteenth century, it was this work that finally displaced action-at-a-distance physics and substituted the physics of the field.

Like Newton’s Principia, Maxwell’s Treatise did not immediately convince the scientific community. The concepts in it were strange and the mathematics was clumsy and involved. Most of the experimental basis was drawn from the researches of Michael Faraday, whose results were undeniable, but whose ideas seemed bizarre to the orthodox physicist. The British had, more or less, become accustomed to Faraday’s “vision,” but continental physicists, while accepting the new facts that poured from his laboratory, rejected his conceptual structures. One of Maxwell’s purposes in writing his treatise was to put Faraday’s ideas into the language of mathematical physics precisely so that orthodox physicists would be persuaded of their importance.

Maxwell died in 1879, midway through preparing a second edition of the Treatise. At that time, he had convinced only a very few of his fellow countrymen and none of his continental colleagues. That task now fell to his disciples.

The story that Bruce Hunt tells in this volume is the story of the ways in which Maxwell’s ideas were picked up in Great Britain, modified, organized, and reworked mathematically so that the Treatise as a whole and Maxwell’s concepts were clarified and made palatable, indeed irresistible, to the physicists of the late nineteenth century. The men who accomplished this, G. F. FitzGerald, Oliver Heaviside, Oliver Lodge, and others, make up the group that Hunt calls the “Maxwellians.” Their relations with one another and with Maxwell’s work make for a fascinating study of the ways in which new and revolutionary scientific ideas move from the periphery of the scientific thought to the very center. In the process, Professor Hunt also, by extensive use of manuscript sources, examines the genesis of some of the more important ideas that fed into and led to the scientific revolution of the twentieth century.

L. PEARCE WILLIAMS. – Ithaca, New York

“Maxwell’s equations”


James Clerk Maxwell’s theory of the electromagnetic field is generally acknowledged as one of the outstanding intellectual achievements of the nineteenth century—indeed, of any century. The late Richard Feynman once remarked, with perhaps only a little hyperbole, that “from a long view of the history of mankind […] there can be little doubt that the most significant event of the 19th century will be judged as Maxwell’s discovery of the laws of electrodynamics”. Even the American Civil War, Feynman said, “will pale into provincial insignificance” besides this more profound event of the 1860s.[1] By the mid-1890s the four “Maxwell’s equations” were recognized as the foundation of one of the strongest and most successful theories in all of physics; they had taken their place as companions, even rivals, to Newton’s laws of mechanics. The equations were by then also being put into practical use, most dramatically in the emerging new technology of radio communications, but also in the telegraph, telephone, and electric power industries. Maxwell’s theory passed to the twentieth century with an enormous reputation it has retained ever since.

It is thus perhaps surprising to find that the fullest statement Maxwell gave of his theory, his 1873 Treatise on Electricity and Magnetism, does not contain the four famous “Maxwell’s equations,” nor does it even hint at how electromagnetic waves might be produced or detected. These and many other aspects of the theory were quite thoroughly hidden in the version of it given by Maxwell himself; in the words of Oliver Heaviside, they were “latent” in the theory, but hardly “patent.”[2]

Maxwell was only forty-eight when he died of cancer in November 1879. He was only a quarter of the way through revising his Treatise for a second edition, and the task of digging out the “latent” aspects of his theory and of exploring its wider implications was thus left to a group of younger physicists, most of them British. Between roughly 1879 and 1894, these “Maxwellians,” led by George Francis FitzGerald (1851-1901), Oliver Lodge (1851-1940), and Oliver Heaviside (1850-1925), with a key contribution from the German physicist Heinrich Hertz (1857-1894), transformed the rich but confusing raw material of the Treatise into a solid, concise, and well-confirmed theory—essentially, at least for free space, the “Maxwell’s theory” we know today. It was they who first explored the possibility of generating electromagnetic waves and then actually demonstrated their existence; it was they, along with J. H. Poynting (1852-1914), who first delineated the paths of energy flow in the electromagnetic field and then followed out the far-reaching implications of this discovery; it was they who recast the long list of equations Maxwell had given in his Treatise into the compact set now universally known as “Maxwell’s”; and it was they who began to apply this revised theory to problems of electrical communications, with results that have transformed modern life. It was mainly the Maxwellians who gave Maxwell’s theory the form it has since retained, and it was largely through their work that it first acquired its great reputation and breadth of application.

The evolution of “Maxwell’s theory” in the years after Maxwell’s death provides a striking example of a process quite common in science, as in other fields of intellectual endeavor. Scientific theories rarely spring fully formed from the mind of one person; a theory is likely to be so refined and reinterpreted by later thinkers that by the time it is codified and passes into general circulation, it often bears little resemblance to the form in which it was first propounded. The practice in science of naming theories after their originators often obscures the historical process by which scientific syntheses are achieved. One is tempted to seek all of “Newtonianism” in Newton, or all of “Darwinism” in Darwin. One of the main aims in the pages that follow is to trace the formation of such a theoretical synthesis in some detail and to show that “Maxwellianism,” though undeniably built on Maxwell’s ideas, was in many ways the work of his successors. “Maxwell was only 1/2 Maxwellian,” Heavisde declared in 1895; I examine here what it meant to be a Maxwellian and trace the transformation of ideas that lay behind Heaviside’s remark.[3]

Another of my aims is to trace the evolution of the Maxwellians as a scientific group and to show how they stimulated and helped one another, both in their strictly scientific work and in more practical affairs. Science is a more social and cooperative process than is sometimes appreciated, and one of the most effective ways to capture its richness is to examine in detail the workings of a small group. The key to such a study of the Maxwellians is their surviving letters and notebooks, through which one can follow the course of their thoughts and actions almost day by day and see how strongly they influenced one another. In the work of FitzGerald and Lodge on ether models and electromagnetic waves; in Lodge and Heaviside’s joint battles with W. H. Preece of the Post Office Telegraph Department; in Heaviside and FitzGerald’s long collaboration on the problem of moving charges and on the puzzle of the ultimate nature of the electromagnetic field—in all of these, the cooperative nature of the Maxwellian’s work can be clearly seen in their correspondence. Heaviside in particular virtually lived his life on paper; he was something of a recluse, and his letters and published writings were his main contact with the outside world. FitzGerald and Lodge, too, left very full records of their activities. Although all three were pioneers of electrical communications, they lived before telephones were common, and since they were physically separated—Heaviside in London and later Devon, Lodge in Liverpool, and FitzGerald in Dublin—they kept in touch mostly via letters, hundreds of which have been preserved. These enable us to reconstruct not only their work but something of their personalities and to see them engaged in the 1880s and 1890s in the lively business of remaking Maxwell’s theory and of probing, as they thought, into the ultimate foundations of the physical universe.

Maxwell himself is only a minor character in this story; he died before the Maxwellians’ work was well begun. But his ideas pervade the book, as they pervaded the Maxwellians’ own work. Though greatly reinterpreted and recast, Maxwell’s ideas always formed the core of the Maxwellian synthesis. In one of the most interesting of his unpublished writings, Heaviside reflected on the doctrine of the immortality of the soul. In its old religious sense, the idea had, he believed, been thoroughly discredited. But there was, he said, another “and far nobler sense” in which the soul truly was immortal. In living our lives, each of us “makes some impression on the world, good or bad, and then dies”; this impression goes on to affect future events for all time, so that “a part of us lives after us, diffused through all humanity, more or less, and all of Nature. This is the immortality of the soul,” Heaviside said. “There are large and there are small souls,” he went on.

The immortal soul of John Ploughman of Buckinghamshire is a small affair, scarcely visible. That of a Shakespeare or a Newton is stupendous. Such men live the best parts of their lives after they shuffle off the mortal coil and fall into the grave. Maxwell was one of those men. His soul will live and grow for long to come, and, thousands of years hence, it will shine as one of the bright stars of the past, whose light takes ages to reach us, amongst the crowd of others, not the least bright.[4]

This light from Maxwell has come down to us mainly through the Maxwellians; it was they who developed the most important implications of his theory and cast it into the form in which it has become most widely known. In the pages that follow, we trace how this light was refracted and refocused by the Maxwellians and how it was passed along to the next generation, to be transformed and reinterpreted again.

[1] Feynman 1964, 2:1.11

[2] Heaviside 1892, 2:393 [1888]

[3] Heaviside to FitzGerald, [Mar. 1895], FG-RDS; internal evidence places this undated fragment between FitzGerald’s letters to Heaviside of 8 and 15 Mar., OH-IEE.

[4] Heaviside notebook 8, OH-IEE; a slightly different version is quoted in Appleyard 1930: 257. It was probably written in 1886; cf. Heaviside 1892, 2:77 [1886].

Featured Image Source: Arrayás, M., Bouwmeester, D., & Trueba, J. L. (2017). Knots in electromagnetism. Physics Reports, 667, 1–61. doi:10.1016/j.physrep.2016.11.001 [link]. (cf. QRI’s topological solution to the phenomenal binding problem).

Ecstasy and Honesty

by David Pearce (2004; reprinted with permission, link/arx)

A society based on E-like consciousness would be an honest society of honest people.

        Today, most of us lie and dissemble. We tell white lies and, on occasion, total whoppers. Most of us lie many times in the course of a day, whether to friends, family, colleagues or – as necessity or convenience dictates – to total strangers. Hiding one’s true thoughts and feelings as the occasion demands is second nature to outwardly civilised Darwinians. The few formal studies conducted into the prevalence of lying in everyday life suggest we tend to underestimate just how often (almost) all of us are guilty of outright fabrications, not to mention innumerable half-truths and evasions.

        On a wider scale, deceit is institutionalized in political life. The record of human history to date supports the powerful intuition that deception will persist indefinitely in public and private life alike. For the evolved capacity to lie and deceive in ever more sophisticated ways has been genetically adaptive. Indeed, if the controversial Machiavellian ape hypothesis is correct, then a progressively refined capacity to lie and deceive – and conversely, a fine-tuned capacity to spot lies and deceit in others – may have driven the evolution of human intelligence.

        It is sometimes said that life would be better if only we were honest with each other. More often, this value judgement is simply assumed. Life might be better, too, if we were more honest with ourselves. But given today’s corrupt genome, all such scenarios are impossibly unrealistic. Moreover, the effects of public openness about private feelings would frequently be catastrophic. This is because Darwinian humans entertain so many negative thoughts about each other that complete candour would wreck most contemporary human relationships. In a grim Darwinian world, one [E-less] person may, for instance, find another person boring and ugly. Yet there is commonly no advantage to either party in saying so. So the civilities are (sometimes) preserved.

        Not all lying is self-serving. Very often, we lie to spare the feelings of others, as well as our own.

        On MDMA/Ecstasy, however, subjects tend to become extraordinarily honest. People trust each other: MDMA indirectly triggers the release of oxytocin. Critically, MDMA-induced emotional honesty is matched by a subtle yet profound shift in perception: when “loved up” on MDMA, we all tend to seem fascinating and beautiful, both to each other and to ourselves. On MDMA, it seems natural to express these feelings spontaneously and demonstratively too.

        Alas this marvellous state of being doesn’t last for more than a few hours. Potentially, the benefits of MDMA (and MDA)-assisted therapy can be much longer-lasting. But the peak experience of soul-baring empathetic bliss soon fades. Looking to the future, however, enhancements of E-like consciousness can in principle be indefinitely prolonged. By opting via gene-therapy to hardwire a neurobiology of E-like consciousness into our offspring, we could even lock in this perceptual and behavioural shift for good. If implemented species-wide, an enhanced E-like set of perceptual filters would make heavenly love for each other as natural as breathing.

         This post-millennial vision is implausible. Right now, the notion of global E-like consciousness seems fantastical, especially if one isn’t loved up on MDMA. Yet the capacity to love everybody, and in extreme forms, to be in love with everybody, will be a technical if not sociological possibility in the age of mature biotechnology. In future, if we ever opt – pharmacologically or genetically – to implement E-like consciousness as one facet of world-wide mental health, then it may be psychologically safe to be totally honest. In the meantime, barring such enrichment of our troubled minds, it’s sometimes safer to lie through one’s teeth. Thus today the MDMA user is probably well advised to take a conscious decision, prior to dropping an E, not to disclose anything s/he would not wish to be known in the E-less state. Reticence on E can be maintained; but one can be reliably tight-lipped on E only with a fair degree of forethought.

        Yet discretion is prudent not because an E-catalysed outpouring of the heart and soul is itself pathological. Selective reticence about (some of) one’s innermost feelings is wise simply because the repercussions of honesty back in the E-less world to which the user must return can be cruel; and because the elevated sentiments felt while on E often cannot be sustained in the cold light of day.

         Of course, the prospect of worldwide E-like candour strikes the harsh Darwinian eye as grotesque – no less than the prospect of us all loving each other. More specifically, the option of becoming permanently loved-up invites the charge that E-like perception is systematically distorted. A notional society of loved-up E-heads, it may be alleged, would be in the grip of a collective psychosis. Sure, runs the cynic’s critique, loved-up Ecstatics intoxicated on MDMA may find everyone beautiful and fascinating. But so what? Even though MDMA is not a classic “hallucinogen” or psychedelic, the drug-induced perception of loveliness that MDMA creates is (often) false. For lots of people are really boring and ugly. A perpetually E-enchanted world would be a fool’s paradise populated by intellectually and aesthetically undiscerning simpletons. In an E-like world, we might indeed be open and honest; but we’d have nothing worth hiding.

        This dismissive judgement doesn’t follow. If being boring or ugly were intrinsic properties of (some of) our fellow humans, rather than our emotional responses to the vicious (mis-)representations of Darwinian minds, then the charge of false consciousness, as it were, might be easier to sustain. But there’s no evidence that this is so. Our perceptual experiences have been shaped by natural selection, not to be veridical, but to help our genes leave more copies of themselves. Sometimes this (lack of) veridicality is fitness-enhancing; and sometimes it isn’t; and sometimes – as is arguably the case in the realm of attitudes expressing pure value judgements – there’s no fact of the matter either way. In any event, under the primordial Darwinian regime of natural selection, there has been great advantage in seeing genetic rivals, and indeed seeing anyone with whom one is not genetically identical, in a (sometimes) cruelly negative light. On the other hand, if it had helped our genes leave more copies of themselves, then men would typically represent women of, say, 80 years old as more sexy and fascinating than women aged 21; and this perception would be neither more nor less “correct” than the aesthetic consensus-reality of today.

         Analogously, the enraptured mystic who can “see a world in a grain of sand, And a heaven in a wild flower” is not deluded; such perceptions are uncommon at present merely because it has been genetically maladaptive to occupy states of sustained mystical bliss. For in the ancestral environment of adaptation, it was typically more adaptive to see grains of sand as boring and neglect them. But today’s parochial (virtual) worlds are only one small set of mind-dependent creations in a vaster state-space of possibilities, not a timeless feature of the human predicament. Tantalisingly, thanks to biotechnology a wide range of life-enriching options will soon be on offer instead.

         A tough-minded sceptic may respond: yes, beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but not all social perception is relative. Some people really are nasty and ill-natured by (almost) any criterion at all. And seeing them as anything else would be delusive. Granted, viewing each other in an often jaundiced light may be a product of our nasty little Darwinian minds, but surely that’s the point: commonly we just aren’t very lovable. If we are to be honest, then we should admit this – not gush effusively at each other like drugged-up hippies.

         Herein lies the beauty of MDMA – and perhaps safer, sexier lovedrugs and more distant gene-therapies in the pipeline. MDMA doesn’t just make us honest. E-like consciousness makes us sweeter-natured. Even better, the idealised self activated by MDMA does not take the form of alien impostor, so to speak, but feels utterly authentic, constructed from elements of an idealised persona that we can’t live up to in drug-naïve life. If, in a hypothetical E-based society, everyone were constitutionally sweet-natured, then enriching our cognitive architecture would entail capturing this sweet-naturedness in our interpersonal perceptions. With E-like consciousness, emotional honesty and intellectual integrity can, in principle, go hand in hand. It is possible, but unproven, that ugly representations of ourselves and each other belong to a dark Darwinian world that we will shortly leave behind.

        This prospect again invites scepticism. It can be argued that genetically engineering an entire population primed for indiscriminate honesty is not an evolutionarily stable outcome. An unfailingly honest population might seem prone to genetic invasion by mutant, quasi-sociopathic “defectors”. This game-theoretic argument may continue to hold in the future, as it has done in the past. Even with advanced biotechnology, runs this line of argument, perhaps only substantially egoistic well-being is feasible in any biologically realistic model of a globally superhappy society.

        But once again, this overly quick reply neglects how ostensibly altruistic thoughts and behaviour evolved in the first instance i.e. for (genetically) selfish reasons; and how they are likely to proliferate explosively in the new reproductive era of designer babies. The proliferation of such admirable traits will accelerate not because our genes stop being any less selfish in the technical sense. For unselfish genes are impossible. Instead, an (E-like?) nobility of character may flourish in the impending era of so-called unnatural selection because when selection is no longer “blind” or [effectively] random, the [selfish] genetic payoff of promoting such “altruistic” traits can be higher. In the new reproductive era ahead, when genes/allelic combinations are chosen by (partially) rational agents in anticipation of their likely behavioural consequences, parents will plausibly exhibit a strong preference for offspring with genotypes that promote such (partially) heritable traits as honesty and “lovability”. These nicer traits may then flourish at the expense of alleles that predispose to a nastier disposition. After all, who wants to devote their life to raising nasty kids?

        Unfortunately there are no shortcuts. Any transition to a truly honest post-Darwinian society can’t happen simply though acts of individual initiative or all-night Paradise-engineering certainly won’t come about just via individual acts of drug-taking – even after safe and distributed via the Net.

        Needless to say, we don’t know whether our genetically enhanced descendants will ever have E-like perceptual filters to their consciousness. We don’t know if posterity will lie and cheat as much as we do. We don’t even know whether they will be fundamentally happy, or assuming they are indeed innately so blessed, whether their well-being will take an egocentric or empathetic guise, or express modes of flourishing unimaginably different from anything accessible to conscious mind today. So perhaps the enticing scenarios for our transhuman descendants touted here are all just wishful thinking masquerading as futurology. But whatever the future holds, by taking MDMA we can already, fleetingly, access states of consciousness richer than our brutish Darwinian mindset normally permits. A fundamentally honest society, prefigured (perhaps) in a communal MDMA love-in, is not self-evidently ethically inferior to a society founded on never-ending lies and deceit – or a society driven by competitive displays of consumer consumption. So at least as an intellectual exercise, it’s worth investigating the policy-option of locking in the biochemical substrates of E-like honesty for good.

7 Recent Videos: Cognitive Sovereignty, Phenomenology of Scent, Solution to the Problem of Other Minds, Novel Qualia Research Methods, Higher Dimensions, Solution to the Binding Problem, and Qualia Computing

[Context: 4th in a series of 7-video packages. See the previous three packages: 1st2nd, and 3rd]

Genuinely new thoughts are actually very rare. Why is that? And how can we incentivize the good side of smart people to focus their energies on having genuinely new thoughts for the benefit of all? In order to create the conditions for that we need to strike the right balance between many complementary forces.

I offer a new ideal we call “Cognitive Sovereignty”. This ideal consists of three principles working together in synergy: (1) Freedom of Thought and Feeling, (2) Idea Ownership, and (3) Information Responsibility.

(1) Freedom of Thought and Feeling is the cultivation of a child-like wonder and positive attitude towards the ideas of one another. A “Yes And” approach to idea sharing.

As QRI advisors Anders Amelin and Margareta “Maggie” Wassinge write on the topic:

“On the topic of liberty of mind, we may reflect that inhibitory mechanisms are typically strong within groups of people. As is the case within minds of individuals. In minds it’s this tip of the iceberg which gets rendered as qualia and is the end result of unexperienced hierarchies of powerfully constraining filters. It’s really practical for life forms to function this way and for teams made up of life forms to function similarly, but for making grand improvements to the very foundations of life itself, you need maximum creativity instead of the default self-organizing consensus emergence.

“There is creativity-limiting pressure to conform to ‘correctness’ everywhere. Paradigmatic correctness in science, corporate correctness in business, social correctness, political correctness, and so on. As antidotes to chaos these can serve a purpose but for exceptional intellectual work to blossom they are quite counterproductive. There is something to be said for Elon Musk’s assertion that ‘excellence is the only passing grade’.

“The difference to the future wellbeing of sentient entities between the QRI becoming something pretty much overall OK-ish, and the QRI becoming something of great excellence, is probably bigger than between the corresponding outcomes for Tesla Motors.

“The creativity of the team is down to this exact thing: The qualia computing of the gut feeling getting to enjoy a haven of liberty all too rare elsewhere.”

On (2) we can say that to “be the adult in the room” is also equally important. As Michael Johnson puts it, “it’s important to keep track of the metadata of ideas.” One cannot incentivize smart people to share ideas if they don’t feel like others will recognize who came up with them. While not everyone pays close attention to who says what in conversation, we think that a reasonable level of attention on this is necessary to align incentives. Obviously too much emphasis on Idea Ownership can be stifling and generate excessive overhead. So having open conversations about (failed) attribution while assuming the best from others is also a key practice to make Idea Ownership good for everyone.

And finally, (3) is the principle of “Information Responsibility”. This is the “wise old person” energy and attitude that deeply cares about the effects that information has on the world. Simple heuristics like “information wants to be free” and the ideal of a fully “open science” are pleasant to think about, but in practice they may lead to disasters on a grand scale. From gain of function research in virology to analysis of water pipes in cities, cutting-edge research can at times encounter novel ways of causing great harm. It’s imperative that one resists the urge to share them with the world for the sake of signaling how smart one is (which is the default path for the vast majority of people and institutions!). One needs to cultivate the wisdom to consider the long-term vision and only share ideas one knows are safe for the world. Here, of course, we need a balance: too much emphasis on information security can be a tactic to thwart other’s work and may be undully onerous and stifling. Striking the right balance is the goal.

The full synergy between these three principles of Cognitive Sovereignty, I think, is what allows people to think new thoughts.

I also cover two new key ideas: (a) Canceling Paradise and (b) Multi-level Selection and how it interacts with Organizational Freedom.

~Qualia of the Day: Long Walks on the Beach~

Relevant links:

In this talk we analyze the perfume category called “Aromatic Fougère” in order to illustrate the aesthetic of “Qualiacore” in its myriad manifestations.

Definition: The Qualiacore Aesthetic is the practice and aspiration to describe experiences in new, meaningful, and non-trivial ways that are illuminating for our understanding of the nature of consciousness.

At a high-level, we must note that the classic ways of describing the phenomenology of scents tend to “miss the target”. Learning about the history, cultural imports, associations, and similarities between perfumes can be fun to do but it does not advance an accurate phenomenological impression of what it is that we are talking about. And while reading about the “perfume notes” of a composition can place it in a certain location relative to other perfumes, such note descriptions usually give you a false sense of understanding and familiarity far removed from the complex subtleties of the state-space of scent. So how can we say new, meaningful, and non-trivial things about a smell?

Note-wise, Aromatic Fougères are typically described as the combination of herbs and spices (the aromatic part) with the core Fougère accord of oak moss, lavender/bergamot, geranium, and coumarin. In this video I offer a qualiacore-style analysis of how these “notes” interact with one another in order to form emergent gestalts. Here we will focus on the phenomenal character of these effects with an emphasis on bringing analogies from dynamic system behavior and energy-management techniques within the purview of the Symmetry Theory of Valence.

In the end, we arrive at a phenomenological fingerprint that cashes out in a comparison to the psychoactive effect of “Calvin Klein” (cocaine + ketamine*), which blends both stimulation and dissociation at the same time – a rather interesting effect that can be used to help you overcome awkwardness barriers in everyday life. “Smooth out the awkwardness landscape with Drakkar Noir!”

I also discuss the art of perfumery in light of QRI’s 8 models of art:

  1. Art as family resemblance (Semantic Deflation)
  2. Art as Signaling (Cool Kid Theory)
  3. Art as Schelling-point creation (a few Hipster-theoretical considerations)
  4. Art as cultivating sacred experiences (self-transcendence and highest values)
  5. Art as exploring the state-space of consciousness (ϡ☀♘🏳️‍🌈♬♠ヅ)
  6. Art as something that messes with the energy parameter of your mind (ꙮ)
  7. Art as puzzling valence effects (emotional salience and annealing as key ingredients)
  8. Art as a system of affective communication: a protolanguage to communicate information about worthwhile qualia (which culminates in Harmonic Society).

~Qualia of the Day: Aromatic Fougères~

* Extremely ill-advised.

Relevant links:

How do you know for sure that other people (and non-human animals) are conscious?

The so-called “problem of other minds” asks us to consider whether we truly have any solid basis for believing that “we are not alone”. In this talk I provide a new, meaningful, and non-trivial solution to the problem of other minds using a combination of mindmelding and phenomenal puzzles in the right sequence such that one can gain confidence that others are indeed “solving problems with qualia computing” and in turn infer that they are independently conscious.

This explanatory style contrasts with typical “solutions” to the problem of other minds that focus on either historical, behavioral, or algorithmic similarities between oneself and others (e.g. “passing a Turing test”). Here we explore what the space of possible solutions looks like and show that qualia formalism can be a key to unlock new kinds of understanding currently out of reach within the prevailing paradigms in philosophy of mind. But even with qualia formalism, the radical skeptic solipsist will not be convinced. Direct experience and “proof” is necessary to convince a hardcore solipsist since intellectual “inferential” arguments can always be mere “figments of one’s own imagination”. We thus explore how mindmelding can greatly increase our certainty of other’s consciousness. However, skeptical worries may still linger: how do you know that the source of consciousness during mindmelding is not your brain alone? How do you know that the other brain is conscious while you are not connected to it? We thus introduce “phenomenal puzzles” into the picture: these are puzzles that require the use of “qualia comparisons” to be solved. In conjunction with a specific mindmelding information sharing protocol, such phenomenal puzzles can, we argue, actually fully address the problem of other minds in ways even strong skeptics will be satisfied with. You be the judge! 🙂

~Qualia of the Day: Wire Puzzles~

Many thanks to: Everyone who has encouraged the development of the field of qualia research over the years. David Pearce for encouraging me to actually write out my thoughts and share them online, Michael Johnson for our multi-year deep collaboration at QRI, and Murphy-Shigematsu for pushing me over the edge to start working on “what I had been putting off” back in 2014 (which was the trigger to actually write the first Qualia Computing post). In addition, I’d like to thank everyone at the Stanford Transhumanist Association for encouraging me so much over the years (Faust, Karl, Juan-Carlos, Blue, Todor, Keetan, Alan, etc.). Duncan Wilson for the beautiful times discussing these matters. Romeo Stevens for the amazing vibes and high-level thoughts. And of course everyone at QRI, especially Quintin Frerichs, Andrew Zuckerman, Anders and Maggie, and the list goes on (Mackenzie, Sean, Hunter, Elin, Wendi, etc.). Likewise, everyone at Qualia Computing Networking (the closed facebook group where we discuss a lot of these ideas), our advisors, donors, readers, and of course those watching these videos. Much love to all of you!

Relevant links:

“Tout comprendre, c’est tout pardonner” – To understand all is to forgive all.

New scientific paradigms essentially begin life as conspiracy theories, noticing the inconsistencies the previous paradigm is suppressing. Early adopters undergo a process that Kuhn likens to religious deconversion.” – Romeo Stevens

The field of consciousness research lacks a credible synthesis of what we already know about the mind. One key thing that is holding back the science of consciousness is that it’s currently missing an adequate set of methods to “take seriously” the implications of exotic states of consciousness. Imagine a physicist saying that “there is nothing about water that we can learn from studying ice”. Silly as it may be, the truth is that this is the typical attitude about exotic consciousness in modern neuroscience. And even with the ongoing resurgence of scientific interest in psychedelics, outside of QRI and Ingram’s EPRC there is no real serious attempt at mapping the state-space of consciousness in detail. This is to a large extent because we lack the vocabulary, tools, concepts, and focus at a paradigmatic level to do so. But a new paradigm is arriving, and the following 8 new research methods and others in the works will help bring it about:

  1. Taking Exotic States of Consciousness Seriously (e.g. when a world-class phenomenologist says that 3D-printed Poincaré projections of hyperbolic honeycombs make the visual system “glitch” when on DMT the rational response is to listen and ask questions rather than ignore and ridicule).
  2. High-Quality Phenomenology: Precise descriptions of the phenomenal character of experience. Core strategy: useful taxonomies of experience, a language to describe generalized synesthesia (multi-modal coherence), and a rich vocabulary to convey the statistical regularities of textures of qualia (cf. generalizing the concept of “mongrels” in the neuroscience of visual perception to all other modalities).
  3. Phenomenology Club: Critical mass of smart and rational psychonauts.
  4. Psychedelic Turk for Psychophysics: Real-time psychedelic task completion.
  5. Generalized Wada Test: What happens when half of your brain is on LSD and the other half is on ketamine?
  6. Resonance-Based Hedonic Mapping: You are a network of coupled oscillators. Act like it!
  7. Pair Qualia Cartography: Like pair programming but for exploring the state-space of consciousness with non-invasive neurostimulation.
  8. Cognitive Sovereignty: Furthering a culture that has a “Yes &” approach to creativity, keeps track of meta-data, and takes responsibility for the information it puts out.

~Qualia of the Day: Being Taken Seriously~

Relevant links:

Many people report experiencing “higher dimensions” during deep meditation and/or psychedelic experiences. Vaporized DMT in particular reliably produces this effect in a large percentage of users. But is this an illusion? Is there anything meaningful to it? What could possibly be going on?

In this video we provide a steel man (or titanium man?) of the idea that higher dimensions are *real* in a new, meaningful, and non-trivial sense. 

We must emphasize that most people who believe that DMT experiences are “higher dimensional” interpret their experiences within a direct realist framework. Meaning that they think they are “tuning in” to other dimensions, that some secret sense organ capable of perceiving the etheric realm was “activated”, that awareness into divine realms became available to their soul, or something along those lines. In brief, such interpretations operate under the notion that we can perceive the world directly somehow. In this video, we instead work under the premise that we live in a compact world-simulation generated by our nervous system. If DMT gives rise to “higher dimensional experiences”, then such dimensions will be phenomenological in nature.

We thus try to articulate how it can be possible for an *experience* to acquire higher dimensions. An important idea here is that there is a trade-off between degrees of freedom and geometric dimensions. We present a model where degrees of freedom can become interlocked in such a way that they functionally emulate the behavior of a *virtual* higher dimension. As exemplified by the “harmonograph”, one can indeed couple and interlock multiple oscillators in such a way that one generates paths of a point in a space that is higher-dimensional than the space inhabited by any of the oscillators on their own. More so, with a long qualia decay, one can use such technique to “paint” entire images in a *virtual* high dimensional canvas!

High-quality detailed phenomenology of DMT by rational psychonauts strongly suggests that higher virtual dimensions are widely present in the state. Also, the unique valence properties of the state seem to follow what we could call a “generalized music theory” where the “vibe” of the space is the net consonance between all of the metronomes in it. We indeed see a duality between spatial symmetry and temporal synchrony with modality-specific symmetries (equivariance maps) constraining the dynamic behavior.

This, together with the Symmetry Theory of Valence (Johnson), makes the search for “special divine numbers” suddenly meaningful: numerological correspondences can illuminate the underlying makeup of “heaven worlds” and other hedonically-loaded states of mind!

I conclude with a discussion about the nature of “highly-meaningful experiences”. In light of all of these frameworks, meaning can be understood as a valence effect that arises when you have strong consonance between abstract (narrative and symbolic), emotional, and sensory fields all at once. A key turning point in your life combined with the right emotion and the right “sacred space” can thus give rise to “peak meaning”. The key to infinite bliss!

~Qualia of the Day: Numerology~

Relevant links:

Thumbnail Image Source: Petri G., Expert P., Turkheimer F., Carhart-Harris R., Nutt D., Hellyer P. J. and Vaccarino F. 2014 Homological scaffolds of brain functional networks J. R. Soc. Interface.112014087320140873 –

How can a bundle of atoms form a unified mind? This is far from a trivial question, and it demands an answer.

The phenomenal binding problem asks us to consider exactly that. How can spatially and temporally distributed patterns of neural activity contribute to the contents of a unified experience? How can various cognitive modules interlock to produce coherent mental activity that stands as a whole?

To address this problem we first need to break down “the hard problem of consciousness” into manageable subcomponents. In particular, we follow Pearce’s breakdown of the problem where we posit that any scientific theory of consciousness must answer: (1) why consciousness exists at all, (2) what are the set of qualia variety and values, and what is the nature of their interrelationships, (3) the binding problem, i.e. why are we not “mind dust”?, and (4) what are the causal properties of consciousness (how could natural selection recruit experience for information processing purposes, and why is it that we can talk about it). We discuss how trying to “solve consciousness” without addressing each of these subproblems is like trying to go to the Moon without taking into account air drag, or the Moon’s own gravitational field, or the fact that most of outer space is an air vacuum. Illusionism, in particular, seems to claim “the Moon is an optical illusion” (which would be true for rainbows – but not for the Moon, or consciousness).

Zooming in on (3), we suggest that any solution to the binding problem must: (a) avoid strong emergence, (b) side-step the hard problem of consciousness, (c) circumvent epiphenomenalism, and (d) be compatible with the modern scientific word picture, namely the Standard Model of physics (or whichever future version achieves full causal closure).

Given this background, we then explain that “the binding problem” as stated is in fact conceptually insoluble. Rather, we ought to reformulate it as the “boundary problem”: reality starts out unified, and the real question is how it develops objective and frame invariant boundaries. Additionally, we explain that “classic vs. quantum” is a false dichotomy, at least in so far as “classical explanations” are assumed to involve particles and forces. Field behavior is in fact ubiquitous in conscious experience, and it need not be quantum to be computationally relevant! In fact, we argue that nothing in experience makes sense except in light of holistic field behavior.

We then articulate exactly why all of the previously proposed solutions to the binding problem fail to meet the criteria we outlined. Among them, we cover:

  1. Cellular Automata
  2. Complexity
  3. Synchrony
  4. Integrated Information
  5. Causality
  6. Spatial Proximity
  7. Behavioral Coherence
  8. Mach Principle
  9. Resonance

Finally, we present what we believe is an actual plausible solution to the phenomenal binding problem that satisfies all of the necessary key constraints:

10. Topological segmentation

The case for (10) is far from trivial, which is why it warrants a detailed explanation. It results from realizing that topological segmentation allows us to simultaneously obtain holistic field behavior useful for computation and new and natural regions of fields that we could call “emergent separate beings”. This presents a completely new paradigm, which is testable using elements of the cohomology of electromagnetic fields.

We conclude by speculating about the nature of multiple personality disorder and extreme meditation and psychedelic states of consciousness in light of a topological solution to the boundary problem. Finally, we articulate the fact that, unlike many other theories, this explanation space is in principle completely testable.

~Qualia of the Day: Acqua di Gio by Giorgio Armani and Ambroxan~

Relevant links:

Why are we conscious?

The short answer is that bound moments of experience have useful causal and computational properties that can speed up information processing in a nervous system.

But what are these properties, exactly? And how do we know? In this video I unpack this answer in order to explain (or at least provide a proof of concept explanation for) how bound conscious states accomplish non-trivial speedups in computational problems (e.g. such as the problem of visual reification).

In order to tackle this question we first need to (a) enrich our very conception of computation, and (b) also enrich our conception of intelligence.

(a) Computation: We must realize that the Church-Turing Thesis conception of computation only cares about computing in terms of functions. That is, how inputs get mapped to outputs. But a much more general conception of computation also considers how the substrate allows for computational speed-ups via interacting inner states with intrinsic information. More so, if reality is made of “monads” that have non-zero intrinsic information and interact with one another, then our conception of “computation” must also consider monad networks. And in particular, the “output” of a computation may in fact be an inner bound state rather than just a sequence of discrete outputs (!).

(b) Intelligence: currently this is a folk concept poorly formalized by the instruments with which we measure it (primarily in terms of sequential logics-linguistic processing). But, alas, intelligence is a function of one’s entire world-simulation: even the shading of the texture of the table in front of you is contributing to the way you “see the world” and thus reason about it. So, an enriched conception of intelligence must also take into account: (1) binding, (2) the presence of a self, (3) perspective-taking, (4) distinguishing between the trivial and significant, and (5) state-space of consciousness navigation.

Now that we have these enriched conceptions, we are ready to make sense of the computational role of consciousness: in a way, the whole point of “intelligence” is to avoid brute force solutions by instead recruiting an adequate “self-organizing principle” that can run on the universe’s inherent massively parallel nature. Hence, the “clever” way in which our world-simulation is used: as shown by visual illusions, meditative states, psychedelic experiences, and psychophysics, perception is the result of a balance of field forces that is “just right”. Case in point: our nervous system utilizes the holistic behavior of the field of awareness in order to quickly find symmetry elements (cf. Reverse Grassfire Algorithm).

As a concrete example, I articulate the theoretical synthesis QRI has championed that combines Friston’s Free Energy Principle, Atasoy’s Connectome-Specific Harmonic Waves, Carhart-Harris’ Entropic Disintegration, and QRI’s Symmetry Theory of Valence and Neural Annealing to shows that the nervous system is recruiting the self-organizing principle of annealing to solve a wide range of computational problems. Other principles to be discussed at a later time.

To summarize: the reason we are conscious is because being conscious allows you to recruit self-organizing principles that can run on a massively parallel fashion in order to find solutions to problems at [wave propagation] speed. Importantly, this predicts it’s possible to use e.g. a visual field on DMT in order to quickly find the “energy minima” of a physical state that has been properly calibrated to correspond to the dynamics of a worldsheet in that state. This is falsifiable and exciting.

I conclude with a description of the Goldilock’s Zone of Oneness and why to experience it.

~Qualia of the Day: Dior’s Eau Sauvage (EDT)~

Relevant links:

David Pearce on Longtermism

In answer to the Quora question “What does David Pearce think of Longtermism in the Effective Altruist movement?”

Future generations matter, but they can’t vote, they can’t buy things, they can’t stand up for their interests.”
(80,000 Hours)

In its short history, the Effective Altruist (EA) movement has passed from focus on maximally effective ways to tackle (1) existing sources of human and nonhuman animal suffering (“Giving What We Can”, etc) to (2) AI safety (the spectre of an imminent machine “Intelligence Explosion” that might turn us into the equivalent of paperclips) to (3) Longtermism: the key measure of the (dis)value of our actions today isn’t their effect on existing sentient beings, but rather how our actions affect the very long-run future. According to Longtermism, first-wave EA was myopic. Intelligent moral agents shouldn’t be unduly influenced by emotional salience either in space or in time. On various plausible assumptions, there will be vastly more sentient beings in the far future. Granted mastery of the pleasure-pain axis, their lives – or at least their potential lives – will be overwhelmingly if not exclusively positive. Failure to create such astronomical amounts of positive value would be an ethical catastrophe. So defeating existential risk trumps all else. Contemporary humanity is living at the “hinge of history”; human extinction or civilisational collapse would be the ultimate evil. Therefore, today’s effective altruists should aspire to act impartially to safeguard the potential interests of far future generations, even at the expense of our own.

To be fair, this potted history of effective altruism is simplistic. Some first-wave EAs are unconvinced by the Longtermist turn. Yet on a Longtermist analysis, what should today’s aspiring EAs specifically do? The EA policy ramifications of this proposed prioritization are murky. For an introduction to Longtermism, see 80,000 Hours’ Benjamin Todd’s “Future Generations and their Moral Significance” and Dylan Balfour’s “Longtermism: How Much Should We Care About the Far Future?” For a defence of “strong” longtermism, see William MacAskill and Hilary Greaves: “The case for strong longtermism”.

For a more sceptical perspective, see e.g. Vaden Masrani’s “A Case Against Strong Longtermism” or Phil Torres’ polemical “The Dangerous Ideas of ‘Longtermism’ and ‘Existential Risk’”.

My view?
Longtermist – in a sense. Just as science aspires to the view from nowhere, “the point of view of the universe”, aspiring effective altruists should in theory aim to do likewise. An absence of arbitrary spatio-temporal bias is built into a systematising utilitarian ethic – conceived as a theory of (dis)value. For sure, speculating about life even in the Year 3000 feels faintly absurd, let alone the far future. Yet I believe we can map out an ethical blueprint to safeguard the long-term future of sentience. Whether one is a secular Buddhist or a classical utilitarian, germline engineering can make life in our entire forward light-cone inherently blissful. Crudely, genes, not organisms, have evolutionary longevity, i.e. replicators rather than their vehicles. Genome-editing promises a biohappiness revolution, a momentous discontinuity in the evolution of life. The biosphere can be reprogrammed: future life can be animated entirely by information-sensitive gradients of well-being. Therefore both pain-eradication and hedonic recalibration via germline engineering are longtermist – indeed ultra-longtermist – policy options: proponents and bioconservative critics agree on the fateful nature of our choices. If editing our genetic source code is done wisely, then a transhumanist civilisation of superintelligence, superlongevity and superhappiness can underpin the well-being of all sentience indefinitely.
So let’s get it right.

However, some aspects of EA Longtermism in its current guise do concern me.

 Science does not understand reality. From cosmology to the foundations of quantum mechanics to digital (in)sentience to the Hard Problem of consciousness to the binding problem to normative ethics and meta-ethics, the smartest minds of our civilisation disagree. The conceptual framework of transhumans and posthumans may be unimaginably alien to archaic humans – although in the absence of (at least one end of) a pleasure-pain axis, posthuman life could scarcely matter. Either way, it would be a terrible irony if Longtermists were to influence humanity to make big sacrifices, or just neglect contemporary evils, for a pipedream. After all, Longtermism has unhappy historical precedents. Consider, say, fifteenth-century Spain and the Holy Inquisition. If Grand Inquisitor Tomás de Torquemada’s moral and metaphysical framework were correct, then neglecting worldly ills in favour of saving souls from an eternity of torment in Hell – and from missing out on eternal bliss in Heaven – by inflicting intense short-term suffering would be defensible, maybe even ethically mandatory. Planning for all eternity is as longtermist as it gets. Yet such anguish was all for nothing: scientific rationalists recognise that religious belief in Heaven and Hell rests on spurious metaphysics. Analogously, influential AI researchers, transhumanists and effective altruists today assume that digital computers will somehow “wake up” and support unified subjects of experience, digital “mind uploads” and eventually quintillions of blissful digital supercivilisations. However, IMO the metaphysics of digital sentience is no better supported than an ontology of immortal souls. Conscious Turing machines are a fantasy. If physicalism is true, i.e. no spooky “strong” emergence, then the number of digital supercivilisations with blissful sentient beings will be zero.

Disbelief in the digital sentience assumed by a lot of Longtermist literature doesn’t reflect an arbitrary substrate-chauvinism. If physicalism is true, then a classical Turing machine that’s physically constituted from carbon rather than silicon couldn’t support unified subjects of experience either, regardless of its speed of execution or the complexity of its code. Programmable classical computers and classically parallel connectionist systems promise “narrow” superintelligence, but they can’t solve the phenomenal binding problem. Phenomenal binding is non-classical and non-algorithmic. Even if consciousness is fundamental to the world, as constitutive panpsychists propose, digital computers are zombies – technically, microexperiential zombies – that are no more sentient than a toaster. So it would be tragic if contemporary humans made sacrifices for a future digital paradise that never comes to pass. By the same token, it would be tragic if Longtermist EAs neglected existing evils in the notional interests of a transgalactic civilisation that never materializes because other solar systems are too distant for sentient biological interstellar travel.

Of course, any extended parallel between religious ideologues and ill-judged Longtermism would be unfair. Longtermist EAs have no intention of tormenting anyone to create a digital paradise or colonize the Virgo Supercluster any more than to save their souls. Rather, I think the risk of some versions of Longtermism is distraction: neglect of the interests of real suffering beings and their offspring on Earth today. From ending the horrors of factory farming and wild-animal suffering to genetically phasing out the biology of pain and depression, there are urgent evils that EAs need to tackle now. With effort, imagination and resources, the biology of mental and physical pain can be banished not just in the long-term, but for ever. Compare getting rid of smallpox. For sure, vegan lobbying to end the obscene cruelties of animal agriculture might not sound Longtermist. But humanity isn’t going to reprogram genomes and engineer compassionate ecosystems while we are still systematically harming sentient beings in factory-farms and slaughterhouses. Veganizing the biosphere and a relatively near-term focus on creating a civilisation with a genetically-encoded hedonic range of, say, +10 to +20 doesn’t neglect the interests of a vaster far-future civilisation with a hedonic range of, say, +90 to +100. Rather, engineering the hedonic foothills of post-Darwinian life is a precondition for future glories. Moreover, talk of far-future “generations” may mislead. This millennium, our Darwinian biology of aging is likely to vanish into evolutionary history – and with it, the nature of procreative freedom, sexual reproduction and generational turnover as we understand these concepts today. Indeed, transhumanist focus on defeating the biology of aging – with stopgap cryonics and cryothanasia as a fallback option – will promote long-term thinking if not Longtermism; contemporary humans will care much more about safeguarding the far future if they think they might be around to enjoy it.

(2) Longtermism” means something different within the conceptual scheme of classical and negative utilitarianism. The policy prescriptions of pleasure-maximisers and pain-minimisers may vary accordingly. Likewise with long-term planning in general: background assumptions differ. Irrespective of timescales, if you believe that our overriding moral obligation is to mitigate, minimise and prevent suffering – crudely, LT(NU) – then you will have a different metric of (dis)value than if you give equal moral weight to maximising pleasure – crudely, LT(CU). Effective altruist discussion of Longtermism needs to spell out these differing ethical frameworks – regardless how self-evident such core assumptions may seem to their respective protagonists. For instance, within some neo-Buddhist LT(NU) ethical frameworks, engineering a vacuum phase transition painlessly to end suffering with a “nirvana shockwave” can be conceived as Longtermist (“I teach one thing and one thing only…suffering and the end of suffering” – Gautama Buddha, attrib.) no less than LT(CU) planning for zillions of Omelas. Alternatively, some NUs can (and do!) favour engineering a world of superhuman bliss, just as other things being equal, CUs can (and do) favour the abolition of suffering. But NUs will always “walk away from Omelas”, i.e. avoid pleasure obtained at anyone else’s expense, whereas CUs will permit or inflict suffering – even astronomical amounts of suffering – if the payoff is sufficiently huge. Also, the CU-versus-NU dichotomy I’ve drawn here is an oversimplification. Many passionate life-affirmers are not classical utilitarians. Many suffering-focused ethicists are not negative utilitarians. However, I am a negative utilitarian – a negative utilitarian who favours practical policy prescriptions promoting a world based entirely on gradients of superhuman bliss. So my conception of Longtermism and long-term planning varies accordingly.

Why NU? Doesn’t a NU ethic have disturbingly counterintuitive implications? Forgive me for here just hotlinking why I am a negative utilitarian. I want to add that if you even glimpsed how atrocious suffering can be, then you too would destroy yourself and the world to end it – permanently. And in so doing, you wouldn’t be guilty of somehow overestimating the ghastliness of intense suffering; I’m not going to link specific examples, though perhaps I should do so if anyone here disagrees. Modern physics tells us that reality is a seamless whole: in my view, the universal wavefunction is inconceivably evil. Hundreds of thousands of people do take the path of self-deliverance each year. Millions more try and fail. If humanity opts to conserve the biology of suffering, then with advanced technology maybe some of their pain-ridden twenty-second century counterparts will take the rest of their world down too. And it’s not just suicidal depressives who want to end their nightmarish existence. Insofar as twentieth-first century humanity really stands on the edge of a Precipice, I know morally serious agents willing to administer a vigorous shove.

Most classical utilitarians are unmoved by such pleas to prioritise ending suffering. Life is a marvellous gift to be perpetuated at any price. CUs respond that if you understood how inexpressibly wonderful pleasure could be, then you’d endure – and inflict – fiendish torments to access the sublime (“I would give my whole life for this one instant“, said Prince Myshkin, protagonist of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s 1869 novel “The Idiot”; Dostoevsky had ecstatic seizures.) A similar effect can be induced by speedballing or mainlining heroin (“it’s like kissing God” – Lenny Bruce). Therefore, CUs and NUs have different conceptions of information hazards – and their suppression. EA funders have different conceptions of info-hazards too, although CU backers are immensely wealthier. Sadly, Phil Torres is correct to speak of EAs who have been ”intimidated, silenced, or ‘canceled.‘” But rather than reflecting the moral turpitude of the cancellers or their sponsors, or even the corrupting influence of power and money, such cancellation is reflective of their differing ethical frameworks.
That said, publicity and suppression alike can be morally hazardous.

So what is the best way forward for the effective altruist movement?
I’m not sure. Just as the transhumanist movement has mutated over the past quarter-century, likewise the overlapping effective altruist movement is rapidly changing with the ascendancy of LT(CU). Funding and social-primate power-dynamics play a big role too. But traditional fault-lines aren’t going away. Can the gulf between suffering-focused ethicists and classical utilitarians be bridged in the realm of concrete policy?

Well, on an (very) optimistic note, I wonder if both longtermist and near-termist effective altruists who are NUs and CUs could unite on a “traditional” EA agenda of effectively tackling existing sources of suffering. My reasoning is as follows. Combining socio-economic reform, poverty-reduction, effective giving and so forth with a biological-genetic strategy of germline engineering melds short-, medium- and long-term EA. This concordance is highly suspect – I don’t trust my judgement or motivations here. Yet if, counterfactually, my primary concern were existential risk (“x-risk”) rather [something worse] and suffering-reduction, then reducing existing sources of suffering would still loom large, if not foremost. For one of the most effective ways to reduce x-risk will be to phase out the biology of involuntary suffering and turn everybody into fanatical life-lovers. In a world based entirely on gradients of intelligent well-being, NU and its offshoots could be turned into an affective psychosis of a bygone era – unthinkable pathologies. What’s more, archaic humans who might potentially destroy the world aren’t just depressive NUs, “strong” antinatalistsefilists and Benatarians (etc) – most of whom are marginal figures far removed from the levers of power. From Cold War warriors (cf. “Better Dead Than Red!”) to defeated despots (cf. Hitler’s March 1945 “Nero Decree” which called for the systematic destruction of Germany) many powerful and competitive non-depressive people have a conditionally-activated predisposition to want to bring the world down with them if they fail. Such historical examples could be multiplied; humans now have weapons of mass-destruction to express their apocalyptic impulses. Crudely, uncontrollable suffering is bound up with nihilism, just as happiness is bound up with life-affirmation. X-risk worriers and CU Longtermists should take the biology of suffering very seriously.

What’s more, the organisational vehicle to deliver a stunningly life-affirming vision of global happiness already exists. In its founding constitution, the World Health Organization defines health as complete well-being (“Health is a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being”). The ambition of such a commitment is jaw-dropping. Can the WHO be effectively lobbied by EAs to live up its obligations? I don’t think transhumanists and EAs should be quite so ambitious as the WHO in our conception of health: conserving information-sensitivity is vital. We should aim merely for an architecture of mind based entirely on gradients of well-being. Complete well-being can wait. But if humanity embraces genome reform, then we can come arbitrarily close to the WHO vision of universal well-being via germline editing under a banner of good health for all. Indeed, universal health as defined by the WHO is possible only via genetic engineering. Genome reform is the only longterm(ist) solution to the problem of suffering – short of retiring biological life altogether. Further, the elegance of genetically recalibrating the hedonic treadmill is that hedonic recalibration can potentially be value- and preference-conserving – a critical consideration in winning popular consent. A global health strategy of raising pain-thresholds, hedonic range and hedonic set-points world-wide doesn’t involve adjudicating between logically irreconcilable values and preferences. Recalibration of the hedonic treadmill – as distinct from uniform happiness-maximization or ending suffering via world-annihilation – reflects epistemic humility. Hedonic recalibration can minimise suffering and enhance flourishing while simultaneously keeping all our options open for the future – maybe for a period of long reflection, maybe for an odyssey of psychedelic exploration, who knows? If humanity embraces the abolitionist project – presumably under the auspices of the WHO – then a world without experience below hedonic zero will be safer by the lights of NUs and CUs alike.

Superhuman bliss will be the icing on the cake. Future life may be beautiful, even sublime. But in my view, our greatest obligation to future generations is to ensure they aren’t genetically predestined to suffer like us.

Comment: Here is a serious (and long?) reflection on longtermism by David Pearce of HI fame. My view? I am neither a classical utilitarian (CU) nor a negative utilitarian (NU). Instead, I am waiting for a full mathematically formalized theory of valence (the pleasure-pain axis) before I make up my mind. Indeed, I’m hoping (and to some extent expecting!) that the answer will simply “pop out of the math” (as Michael Johnson likes to say). Then we will probably know. Who knows, perhaps the largest hedonic catastrophes and hedonic glories in the universe might have nothing to do with life.

But, I do also think that the current discourse on longtermism is *overwhelmingly* dominated by CU-style thinking. So this piece is a very important “balancing act”.

Featured image credit: @TilingBot