About 3% of the population is anosmic, meaning that they cannot perceive scents. An additional 10% have some kind of smell or taste disorder. Sadly, scent perception thins out with age due to many causes*; about 23% of people over the age of 40 report some degree of impairment, with nearly 40% of people over the age of 80 reporting either absent or severely reduced capacity to perceive smells.
If you can experience scents in a normal way, count yourself lucky, for you have access to a qualia variety with an incredible aesthetic potential. If not, I’m sorry; let’s hope that stem cell therapy used to restore smell in mice can be generalized to humans. Regardless, hopefully the following thoughts on the artistic potential of scents won’t fall on deaf ears (or should we say, anosmic noses?).
Imagine that all humans were congenitally anosmic. Akin to David Pearce’s allegory of the blind rationalists, let’s picture a world in which the only way to experience scent qualia was through the use of some arcane technology, like weird drugs, occult magic, or carefully aimed transcranial ultrasound stimulation. Since the qualia would not be triggered by a conventional sense, people would not be under the illusion that it maps to external objects. It would be understood as a strictly internal phenomenon, like imagination or sense of humor. With such an interpretive blank slate, how would people make sense of scent qualia?
Keep that thought in your mind. Having a fresh look (or sniff) at scent qualia- devoid of its common associations and cultural imports- can give us a way to think in new ways about the artistic potential of this aspect of experience.
Perfumery as an Art Form
Last year we presented QRI‘s take on art: Harmonic Society is an essay published in a Berlin-based art magazine that exposes 8 models for what art can be about (see parts 2, 3, 4; video presentation). These models can also be used as generators of creative applications of qualia varieties. Here we’ll discuss how perfumes could be seen through the lens of each of these models.
1. Semantic Deflation
The semantic deflation model of art claims that the first step you need to take to understand art is to recognize that it lacks an essence. There are no strict necessary and sufficient conditions that something needs to meet in order to be art. The meaning of the term is ultimately conventional: it has more of a family resemblance pattern of usage than a precise logic-bound set of criteria. Applying this model to perfumery, we would have that:
There is no such thing as a “perfume” in and of itself.
There are no necessary and sufficient conditions for something to be called a perfume.
The resulting aesthetic from this model is one that sees the art of perfumery as the eternal search for trying to push the boundary for what a “perfume can be”.
Some examples of this aesthetic seemingly playing out in the open include perfumes that smell like: popcorn, lobster, linen and Air Aroma‘s new fragrance that recreates “the scent of an Apple product being opened for the first time.”
You see, smells are at times used in a slightly evil way. In the case of commercial perfumes, part of the optimization function includes generating envy in others. Conspicuous consumption and brand worship are some of the ways in which our mating mind has recruited scents. In a sense, I would love to explore ways in which scent-based art can deliver high-valence results without at the same time reinforcing consumerism and zero-sum fashion arms races. In brief:
There is unfortunately an in-built zero-sum mindset to status-focused scent design.
The “game” is easy to rationalize when you are a “winner”, but it is depressive for people who perceive themselves as the “losers”.
One of the core weapons of this game is the creation of envy with perceived exclusivity and inflated sense of quality (e.g massively overpriced fragrances).
“Cool Kids” are people who translate new ideas into massively consumable products.
Cool Kids in perfumery will always want to claim that they have the exclusive “secret sauce” to explain the price.
The existence of such “secret sauce” is often justified based on appeals to tradition, taste, status, experience, brand, and/or science.
Cool Kids make sure that the product is “novel enough” – not too out there that only weird people would love it, but also not too bland and unoriginal that the general public will be bored by it.
Expensive perfumes have to be at least somewhat distinctive – even if that makes them suboptimal. You’ll see that Fragrantica is full of reviews that complain that such and such perfume is in fact “too generic”. The reason is that if you are paying large sums of money for a smell, the only way it will pay off in terms of social signaling is if people can in fact notice what you are wearing.
A particularly noteworthy example of this dynamic might be the case of Aventus Creed. It is by no means a weird fragrance (it’s certainly not a “toast” or “popcorn” perfume), but people who are very into perfumes do agree that when it first came out “it smelled like nothing that had ever existed before.” If you read the Fragrantica reviews you’ll see what I’m talking about. It also happens to be an insanely expensive fragrance for no apparent reason. It’s therefore a great tool for conspicuous consumption, masterfully crafted by a Cool Kid aiming for mass appeal.
Aventus Creed clones
I personally own an “Aventus Creed clone“, meaning that it is a perfume that smells very similar to the original but can cost a fraction of the price. Aventus costs $400 while the one I own is under $20. I like it, but if it is anything like the original, I can’t imagine it being that good to justify the price tag on its qualia merits alone. In terms of phenomenology, as far as I can tell, Aventus innovated by mixing pineapple scent with the scent of birch bark. This does make it characteristic, true, but is it really $400 worth of characteristic? No, I’m pretty sure it isn’t. So this one might be a clear case of a mating mind perfume over-rating in action (P.S. I’m on the lookout for more perfumes with inflated scores that have cheap clones in order to study this phenomenon more closely).
Taken to the extreme, attempts at creating maximally erotic scents draw inspiration from literal human sexual organs. Secretions Magnifiques by Etas Libre d’Orange, for example, recreates the smell of semen with seaweed, milk, iris, coconut, opoponax, and sandalwood. It has a score of 1.88 out of 5 based on 890 votes, perhaps because it smells kind of bad. It sports reviews like:
“Smell of sweat, sewage and semen. Each sniff is an offense and an ordeal, a probation of resistance. Impossible to do a complete test – full wear, I only got 3 sprays on my wrist and 5 min. after doing this review I rubbed my wrist with soap like there was no tomorrow.” – marcel2782, at Fragrantica.com
Scent of semen
“Patented blend of human pheromones including Androstadienone, Androstenol, Androstenone and Androsterone”
Sent of vagina
Scent of sex
Needless to say, playing out the erotic in scent form is a delicate matter that requires a fine balance between numerous forces. For example, the smell of Classic Blue by David Beckham can smell a bit like a male crotch, but it also smells like pineapple, grapefruit, and clary sage. This allows for plausible deniability and erotic versatility. Even if you are attracted to men, as long as you are not sexually aroused you will probably just notice its fruity notes. But if you are in the heat of passion, it will probably smell very sexy. The same with numerous women’s perfumes, such as Eros by Versace and Guilty by Gucci.
A final thought on the aphrodisiac power of fragrances: you may notice that the vast majority of fragrances that are advertised with campaigns with erotic undertones are primarily geared towards a heterosexual audience. With rare exceptions, even perfume ads that are suggestively homoerotic still seem to work around a heterosexual premise.
I suspect that indeed there are statistical-level differences in what turns people on, not only between genders, but between the shades of sexual orientation. After all, some academic theories of sexual orientation do suggest that pheromone-based arousal differences contribute to which gender a person is attracted to. I posit that from a scientific point of view, if the matter were to be studied rigorously, we would indeed find differences at a statistical aggregate level on what fragrances turn people on depending on their gender and sexual orientation. Although this remains a contentious topic, I think that it is a shame that it has not been explored in any rigorous way. Aphrodisiac scents can be life-enriching; gay people might be underserved in the eroticism-of-aroma department. Pragmatically, it would be good for gay people to know which fragrance will load the dice in their favor when going out clubbing. A concrete example is that if indeed gay men do not like the scent of straight men (and instead prefer the scent of other gay men) then it may not be a good idea to wear typical male pheromone perfumes for a night out. Take note: at least according to a Fragrantica forum entry from someone in Indonesia, the main “gay fragrances” there are: Thierry Mugler by A*Men, Le Male by Jean Paul Gaultier, Power by Kenzo, 1 Million by Paco Rabanne, and Magnetism by Escada.
3. Creation of New Social Contexts
The core idea of this model is that art can be understood as a tool to create new social contexts. Beyond the sex appeal of expensive perfumes due to their status implications, perfumes can also be used to invent new interpersonal gestalts. As Kevin Simler argues in Ads Don’t Work That Way, advertisement modifies the landscape of cultural meaning, which in part is responsible for the ways products allow you to communicate information about yourself to others.
For example: Nautica Voyage is, of course, as much selling you the felt-sense of a social context as it is selling you scent qualia. Care to join the crew on a trip across the Atlantic, make our own rules, and live a journey of camaraderie and bonding? Each sniff of Voyage takes you on a trip with imaginary friends. Alas, as an Amazon top-seller it fails to appeal to Hipster sensibilities. What do I mean by “Hipster” here?
Unlike Cool Kids, Hipsters tend to obsess over a highly-specific aspect they deeply care about. Nerds are to Geeks what Hipsters are to Cool Kids. Meaning, much akin to how a Nerd is driven by a burning curiosity about the world while a Geek is usually concerned about the social applications of niche knowledge, Hipster aesthetic exploration is done out of a fundamental desire to know the limits of an art form while Cool Kids are thinking more about how to use art to raise their own status. Thus, while not widely consumable by a mainstream audience, Hipster aesthetics lend themselves to fundamental artistic innovation. In brief:
Hipsters are people who like to explore particular niches, who carve out regions and tiny sectors of the market without compromising their own taste.
They rebel against the commercial and mainstream construction of meaning and instead use their creativity to create parallel social worlds.
Artistic explorations can indeed be used for this “social context” creation.
By finding smells that are characteristic, but rare and hard to place, one can create context-specific memories for events to be later triggered at will.
Questioning the mainstream construction of meaning is at the core of the Hipster aesthetic (cf. Adbusters). Here are some examples of Hipster art to put you in the right mindset (source):
So what would be some hipster fragrances that attempt to sidestep or subvert the mainstream construction of meaning? I highly recommend visiting a niche perfumes boutique to get an idea of the combinatorial explosion of counter-cultural branding that is possible. In places like that, “local” perfumers have pride of place. There is also a premium based on the conceptual loading, narrative prowess, and historicity of each product. The value of the fragrance is in no small part derived from its ability to help you reinvent yourself outside of the confines of mainstream narratives.
More so, the construction of meaning can be turned into a science. You can even do it deliberately without anyone’s assistance. For a special occasion you want to remember in a personal and characteristic way, I advise you to pick two or three essential oils (e.g. violet, peony, and guava) and mix them for the first time that very day. Example: this past New Year’s Eve I wore a combination of pear and violet, which has now become a sensory symbol of the occasion for me.
All of these can be useful tools to help you undo the psychological hacking that big-brand fashion houses and mass media have inflicted upon you. The ability to create new Schelling points and social contexts brings with it the power to transform zero-sum games into positive-sum games. This is quite refreshing, indeed, as we can see in transformational festivals and conscious culture which are at the forefront of these cultural developments.
Alas, if you live long enough in a place like San Francisco or Portland you eventually come to realize that the negative feelings one associates with mainstream status hierarchies are not the result of consumerism per se. They are deeply rooted in our genetic source code, and the only true way out is to subvert the hedonic treadmill. So no amount of anti-consumerism rhetoric is actually likely to make a dent in the world’s vast swamps of suffering. But that’s a story for another time.
4. Attempts at the Sacred
There is no universal consensus on what constitutes a sacred experience. But we should not be quick to dismiss their significance. It only takes reading William Jame’s The Varieties of Religious Experience (or Erowid‘s Experience Vault) to recognize both the incredible diversity and personal significance of sacred revelations. Scents, of course, have a long history of synergistic use in ritual conceptions of the sacred. They can indeed be used:
In rituals such as baptisms, weddings, funerals, etc.
As aids for meditation
As grounding agents for psychedelic experiences
To recall the quality of previously experienced mystical states
Temple de la Littérature, Hanoï, Vietnam
Of course we can also think of things that are associated with sacred experiences as powerful reminders of the divine. For example, I can guarantee you that people who have vaporized N,N-DMT or 5-MeO-DMT and have had profound experiences will certainly remember the scent of these agents and it will remind them- if only for a moment- of the ‘mystical’ headspace the agents disclosed.
5. Exploring the State-Space of Consciousness (aka. RainbowGod – ϡ☀♘🏳️🌈♬♠ヅ)
This aesthetic is based on the premise that there is intrinsic value in knowing qualia. The Rainbow God is a personification of the desire to know first hand the entire state-space of consciousness. In this way, we are not constrained by the social forces that usually shape where we invest our exploratory energy. In brief, this aesthetic values:
Explicitly merging the best models for the state-space of scent qualia and perfumery.
Love of knowledge above and beyond merely seeking a social effect.
Qualia-focused descriptions such as what will be presented in this section.
When you are in the Rainbow God state of mind, you get excited by the idea of having a large collection of all possible scented molecules. The Rainbow God even covets dangerous smells, such as those of powerful toxins like dimethylcadmium. Apparently dimethylcadmium indeed has a uniquely characteristic scent, though the price of knowing it first hand is a serious toll on your health. Perhaps Rainbow God would put all of the dangerous smells in a sealed box to be opened -along with a Brompton Cocktail– when one is enduring the late stages of a terminal illness. Upon the prospect of an imminent death, I too would love to know what dimethylcadmium smells like.
This aesthetic does manifest in mainstream explorations, albeit it is rarely the main concept driving the design decisions. Subtle examples here might include Noble Fig by Ferrari which glorifies the unusual qualia variety disclosed by fig leaves and 23 by Michael Jordan which plays with a cute and unusual watermelon scent. That said, it is interesting to explore the possibility of explicitly developing this aesthetic in perfumery. What would that look like?
If I were to develop a brand of perfume under the Rainbow God mindset, I might call it “The State-Space of Scents” and really play this concept out to its conclusion with both creative satisfaction and scientific precision. It would have three core lines:
Line 1 – State-Space Master Palette: 8 fragrances that span the largest possible region of the state-space of scents such that linear combinations of them give you a huge number of possible scents, and mixing them all in equal proportions gets you “Laurax”, i.e. white noise scent.
Line 2 – Special Effects: 16 of the most ultra-X scents possible (the most ultra-bitter scent possible, the most ultra-vanilla scent possible, the most ultra-powdery scent possible, etc.). Basically this encompasses every category-neutral “special effect”, which would be factorized and exalted into its maximum possible expression.
Line 3 – Entropy Gradient: 8 chemical concoctions that have as wide of a range of phenomenal entropies as possible. Again this plays out with, at the one extreme, featuring super simple scents triggered by one or just a couple of molecules, while at the other extreme, featuring scents that approach the Laurax entropic asymptote.
My appreciation is that this has enormous potential. In its full expression, the Rainbow God aesthetic applied to perfumes encompasses both the state-space of scents and their effects in other experiential modalities. If a scent puts you in a certain mood, that’s important to highlight. What is the range of possible moods? That, too, concerns the Rainbow God (of course the perfume industry alludes to this kind of exploration, with e.g. D&G 21 Le Fou described as “a fragrance designed for careless and spontaneous individuals, so called ‘jesters'”, though again, an explicit exploration would be infinitely better).
As a teaser to future works, I can briefly describe how I have been thinking about the state-space of scents.
While current descriptions of perfumes mention: (1) olfactive family, (2) the categorical contributions, and (3) detectable notes, we would instead have a much more fine-grained and informative description. Namely:
The global entropy (e.g. 40% of the way to white noise scent).
The within-category entropy (e.g. 70% of the way into ‘generic flowery’).
The individual notes that can be detected within each category (e.g. non-generic jasmine note being 30% of the flowery category).
Lines connecting notes that have non-linear interactions (e.g. pear & violet, rose & orange, pomegranate & honeydew make unique blends that have phenomenal properties unlike those of the individual ingredients).
Lines connecting notes that form separate “phases” across categories (e.g. with a mixture of mango, sandalwood, rose, lemon, and cinnamon, you get three phases rather than a global consistent smell – mango + cinnamon, and lemon + sandalwood, with rose staying its own distinct scent).
Lines connecting “valence inversion” effects (some notes simply don’t seem to go together even though they are pleasant individually).
Special effects (e.g. “powdery”, “ethereal”, “acrid”, “creamy”, etc.).
We will go into much more detail about this in a future article specifically about the state-space of scents. And I don’t mean just breaking down a scent in terms of its chemical profile: Octyl butyrate, isoamyl propionate, and aldehyde C9, etc. I’m talking about a radical re-frame for what scents even are and the space in which they live. Stay tuned!
6. Energy Parameter Modulation
Scents have effects on one’s energy level. Lavender has clinically significant relaxing effects while lemon oil can be energizing. But these direct effects are only one of several ways scents can modulate the “energy parameter” of your experience. Namely, as we covered in the original article, in order to modulate energy levels upwards one can either impair energy sinks or enhance energy sources. Since labeling and recognizing sensory inputs (top-down interpretations) play the role of energy sinks, it stands to reason that playing with abstract, complex and unrecognizable scents would have the effect of increasing one’s global energy parameter. This, I think, is true. Based on experience, easily recognizable scents can certainly be engrossing, but complex scents with no real-world referents seem much more effective for energizing one’s mind and altering one’s consciousness (cf. the neuroscience of meditation).
I suspect that rigorous scientific research on the way scent entropy interfaces with energy modulation will be very fruitful and have many applications. In brief:
Relaxing scents can be obtained either with inherently narcotic qualia (e.g. lavender) or via boring, mundane, easily-recognizable sources (e.g. paper).
Exciting scents can be obtained with inherently exciting qualia (e.g. lemon) but also by using the appropriate amount of novelty, abstractness, and complexity to disable energy sinks.
Energy by Qualia Research (EDT)
Finally, it is my impression that scents can interface, not only with raw energy levels, but also their moments. Meaning, some scents are perhaps suited for a high first or second derivative in the energy parameter of experience. It’s as if the feeling of being “accelerated” into a high-energy regime is part and parcel of many scents. Personally, I experience bitter smells such as grapefruit, bergamot, and geranium to be arresting in that they drive one’s attention to a stop. Sweet spicy scents like vanilla and chocolate, on the other hand, seem to modulate energy rather than increase it or decrease it specifically (think “the Prozac of scents”). Alas, the state of this phenomenological research is still too early to give it any credence. I would love to hear the thoughts of others who also feel they can pin-point the first, second, and even third derivatives of the energy parameter modulation effects of scents.
7. Puzzling Valence Effects
This conception of art focuses on the way exotic sensory stimuli can lead to puzzling feelings of wellbeing. I say puzzling because they defy common-sense. It certainly makes sense that watching porn or eating food rich in salt, fat, and sugar would feel good. That’s perfectly accounted for by working within an evolutionary framework. But why would Picasso, Bach, and Socrates make some people feel good? Or in a more extreme set of examples: Dadaism, Merzbow, and Nietzsche? Puzzling valence effects refers to these phenomenal oddities; the fact that stimuli never encountered in our evolutionary past can nonetheless lead to deeply rewarding sensations. The neuroscientific frameworks used to explain these curious effects were discussed in depth in the original article so I won’t repeat them here. But I will briefly cover some of the ways scents can indeed have both expectedly and unexpectedly pleasant actions. Namely, scents can feel good for any of the following reasons:
Associations: Scents can be pleasant by reminding you of contexts, times, experiences, and people you have previously enjoyed.
Food: Scents that evoke high-calorie foods such as sweet, fried, salted, etc. come with an intrinsic positive valence for most people (and nonhuman animals!).
Safety: The smell of diseased bodies are repugnant while the scent of fresh cotton and a cozy fireplace can bring a pleasant sense of safety.
Eroticism: Scents that spark sexual feelings (already covered this in model 2) are certainly a highlight for the hedonic effects of the sense of smell.
Relative status: Scents that feel expensive, rare, or can be used to demonstrate one’s fitness would naturally feel good (already covered in 2 & 3).
Self-actualization: The very concept of a “signature scent” points at this category of pleasant sensations.
In principle one could use scents that modulate the brain’s energy parameter (see model 6) to heat it above its neural recrystallization temperature.
This might lead to the same kinds of effects one sees on meditation, on psychedelics, and with art. Namely, a three-step process of:
If properly understood, scents that modulate the energy parameter of the brain could be used synergistically with other inputs such as sound, light, and vibration to drive neural annealing for therapeutic benefits (this is an active area of research at QRI).
To say a few words about the scents that make you feel safe: fragrances designed to make you feel unsafe are unlikely to ever be top sellers. It might not be financially sound to launch a perfume (let’s call it “Trench Warfare”) recreating the smell of WWI trenches: “gunpowder, wet rocks, and decaying flesh notes” with flanker fragrances like “Mustard Attack” centered around notes of burned almond and blisters, and “Shell Shock” which emphasizes ashy notes sprinkled with oxidizing iron and overcooked steak. Indeed, safety markers might always be subtly present in fragrances of mass appeal. Rose Of No Man’s Land, a perfume actually inspired by the courage of the nurses who attended to the wounded in no man’s land during WWI, may seem like a counter-example. But it really proves the rule. The scent itself is very pleasant and reassuring, and conceptually it also evokes a relative sense of safety, namely, the feeling of being rescued. In other words, while the context it imports feels unsafe, it is specifically pointing at a part of the situation that emphasizes safety. The setting is used as contrast, it is the ground for the sense of safety which remains the figure (in the figure/ground sense of these terms).
I think that framed in the right way, scent qualia can give us a powerful glimpse of the possible fruits of consciousness research. Indeed, as part of a “QRI starter kit”, interns and visiting scholars get (among other things) a small collection of carefully chosen lesser-known essential oils to symbolize the “gems that are yet to be discovered by investigating consciousness in a systematic way”. (I’m actively looking for a suitable substitute for anosmic people, who almost certainly will be encountered at some point.)
Endless Euphoria – Calvin Klein
Interestingly, the perfume industry could very well be appealing to the agreeable hedonic sensibilities that people are otherwise too prudish to express. The hidden nature of perfumes- their plausible deniability, their elusive character, and their subjective quality- allows people to engage in hedonic fantasy to a greater extent than they would generally openly admit to doing.
Case in point: judging from their marketing materials, it seems that Calvin Klein has already found the key to unending happiness in a bottle. Save yourself the trouble of working towards the Hedonistic Imperative, for endless euphoria has arrived. I should add that their marketing campaign of #EuphoriaForMoms struck a chord with me: “moms, too, deserve euphoria” say both the Hedonistic Imperative and Calvin Klein in unison. According to online reviewers, the ingredients of endless euphoria are:
Take note – these are the ingredients of endless euphoria!
If only I had known! It must be the violet.
This is not, of course, an isolated incident. Indeed, the names of tons of perfumes are often remarkably evocative of the Hedonistic Imperative:
That said, I think that systematizing the study of the hedonic response to scents has yet to be done. I’ll be talking a lot more about this in future articles. For the time being I’ll just tease you with the observation that based on personal experiments there seem to be cross-modal resonance effects between scent and auditory stimuli. The fact that loud broad-spectrum sounds, like the noise of an airplane cabin, modify the sense of taste is known in the literature. Based on my experience, music and special sounds can also subtly modify, and in some cases enhance, the quality of certain scents. Stay tuned.
8. Harmonic Society
Finally, we come to the the grand vision of model 8: Harmonic Society. This aesthetic model posits that it is both possible and desirable to synthesize science, philosophy, and art. The end result does not have to be- as many might expect- the disenchantment of aesthetics. Even with the simplistic take that “bliss is just chemicals in the brain” (which isn’t quite true anyway), we must remember that reduction cuts both ways. Perhaps you can instead see it as “chemicals in the brain are bliss qualia”! The feelings of divinity and profound interconnectedness one can experience on LSD, for instance, do not diminish in significance merely because they can be reduced to neurological phenomena; rather, this exalts what neurological phenomena is in the first place!
A profound understanding of qualia-space can enable us to create a prosocial world of experience in which the transition between every state of consciousness to every other is harmonious and beneficial.
Applied to the art of scent qualia, the principles of Harmonic Society would point us in the direction of deeply investigating the state-space of scents in order to find clusters of fragrances (or scent qualia, more specifically) that have smooth transitions between them.
This is a glossary of key terms and concept handles that are part of the memetic ecosystem of the Qualia Research Institute. Reading this glossary is itself a great way to become acquainted with this emerging memeplex. If you do not know what a memeplex is… you can find its definition in this glossary.
Consciousness (standard psychology, neuroscience, and philosophy term): There are over a dozen common uses for the word consciousness, and all of them are interesting. Common senses include: self-awareness, linguistic cognition, and the ability to navigate one’s environment. With that said, the sense of the word in the context of QRI is more often than not: the very fact of experience, that experience exists and there is something that it feels like to be. Talking loosely and evocatively- rather than formally and precisely- consciousness refers to “what experience is made of”. Of course formalizing that statement requires a lot of unpacking about the nature of matter, time, selfhood, and so on. But this is a start.
Qualia (standard psychology, neuroscience, and philosophy term): This word refers to the range of ways in which experience presents itself. Experiences can be richly colored or bare and monochromatic, they can be spatial and kinesthetic or devoid of geometry and directions, they can be flavorfully blended or felt as coming from mutually unintelligible dimensions, and so on. Classic qualia examples include things like the redness of red, the tartness of lime, and the glow of bodily warmth. However, qualia extends into categories far beyond the classic examples, beyond the wildest of our common-sense conceptions. There are modes of experience as altogether different from everything we have ever experienced as vision qualia is different from sound qualia.
Valence / Hedonic Tone (standard psychology, neuroscience, and philosophy term): How good or bad an experience feels – each experience expresses a balance between positive, neutral, and negative notes. The aspect of experience that accounts for its pleasant and unpleasant qualities. The term is evocative of pleasant sensations such as warming up one’s body when cold with a blanket and a cup of hot chocolate. That said, hedonic tone refers to a much broader class of sensations than just the feeling of warmth. For example, the music appreciation enhancement produced by drugs can be described as “enhanced hedonic tone in sound qualia”. Hedonic tone can appear in any sensory modality (touch, smell, sight, etc.), and even more generally, in every facet of experience (such as cognitive and proprioceptive elements, themselves capable of coming with their own flavor of euphoria/dysphoria). Experiences with both negative and positive notes are called “mixed”, which are the most common ones.
Ontology (standard high-level philosophy term; ref: 1): At the most basic level, an ontology is an account of what is real and what is good.
Epistemology (standard high-level philosophy term; ref: 1): The set of strategies, heuristics, and methods for knowing. In the context of consciousness research, what constitutes a good epistemology is a highly contentious subject. Some scientists argue that we should only take into account objectively-measurable third-person data in order to build models and postulate theories about consciousness (cf. heterophenomenology). On the other extreme, some argue that the only information that counts is first-person experiences and what they reveal to us (cf. new mysterianism). Somewhere in the middle, QRI fully embraces objective third-person data. And along with it, QRI recognizes the importance of skepticism and epistemic rigor when it comes to which first-person accounts should be taken seriously. Its epistemology does accept the information gained from alien state-spaces of consciousness as long as they meet some criteria. For example, we are very careful to distinguish between information about the intentional content of experience (what it was about) and information about its phenomenal character (how it felt). As a general heuristic, QRI tends to value more e.g. trip reports that emphasize the phenomenal character of the experience (e.g. “30Hz flashes with slow-decay harmonic reverb audio hallucinations”) relative to intentional content (e.g. “the DMT alien said I should learn to play the guitar”). Ultimately, first-person and third-person data are complementary views of the same substrate of consciousness (cf. dual-aspect monism), and so are both equally necessary for a complete scientific account of consciousness.
Functionalism (standard high-level philosophy term; ref: 1, 2): In Philosophy of Mind, functionalism is the view that consciousness is produced (and in some cases identical with) not only by the input-output mapping of an information-processing system, but also by the internal relationships that make that information-processing possible. In light of Marr’s Levels of Analysis (see below), we could say that functionalism identifies the content of conscious experience with the algorithmic level of analysis. Hence this philosophy is usually presented in conjunction with the concept of “substrate neutrality” which posits that the material makeup of brains is not necessary for the arising of consciousness out of it. If we implemented the same information-processing functions that are encoded in the neural networks of a brain using rocks, buckets of water, or a large crowd instantiating a large computer, we would also generate the same experiences the brain generates on its own. Importantly, functionalism tends to deny any essential role of the substrate in the generation of consciousness, and will typically also deny any significant interaction between levels of analysis (see below).
Eliminativism (standard high-level philosophy term; ref: 1, 2, 3): In Philosophy of Mind, eliminativism refers to a cluster of ideas concerning whether the word “consciousness” is clear enough to be useful for making sense of how brains work. One key idea in eliminativist views is that most of the language that we use to talk about experiences (from specific emotions to qualia) is built on top of folk-psychology rather than physical reality. In a way, terms such as “experience” and “feelings” are an interface for the brain to model itself and others in a massively simplified but adaptive way. There is no reason why our evolved intuitions about how the brain works should even approximate how it really works. In many cases, eliminativists advocate starting from scratch and abandoning our intuitions about experience, sticking to hard physical and computational analysis of the brain as empirically measured. This view suggests that once we truly understand scientifically how brains work, the language we will use to talk about it will look nothing like the way we currently speak about our experiences, and that this change will be so dramatic that we would effectively start thinking as if “consciousness never existed to begin with”.
Watchmen Chapter IV
Watchmen Chapter IV
Watchmen Chapter IV
Presentism (standard high-level philosophy term; ref: 1): The view that only the present is real, the past and the future being illusory inferences and projections made in the present. Oftentimes presentism posits that change is a fundamental aspect of the present and that the feeling of the passage of time is based on the ever-changing nature of reality itself.
Eternalism (standard high-level philosophy term; ref: 1): The view that every here-and-now in reality is equally real. Rather than thinking of the universe as a “now” sandwiched between a “past” and “future”, eternalism posits that it is more accurate to simply describe pairs of moments as having a “before” and “after” relationship, but neither of them being in the future or past. Some of the strongest arguments for eternalism come from Special and General Relativity (see: Rietdijk–Putnam argument), where space-time forms a continuous 4-dimensional geometric shape that stands together as a whole, and where any notion of a “present” is only locally valid. In some sense, eternalism says that all of reality exists in an “eternal now” (including your present, past, and future selves).
Personal Identity (standard high-level philosophy term; ref: 1): The relevant sense of this term for our purposes refers to the set of questions about what constitutes the natural unit for subjects of experience. Questions such as “will the consciousness who wakes up in my current body tomorrow morning be me?”, “if we make an atom-by-atom identical copy of me right now, will I start existing in it as well?”, “if you conduct a Wada Test, is the consciousness generated by my right hemisphere alone also me?”, and so on.
Closed Individualism (coined by Daniel Kolak; ref: 1): In its most basic form, this is the common-sense personal identity view that you start existing when you are born and stop existing when you die. According to this view each person is a different subject of experience with an independent existence. One can believe in a soul ontology and be a Closed Individualist at the same time, with the correction that you exist as long as your soul exists, which could be the case even before or after death.
Empty Individualism (coined by Daniel Kolak; ref: 1, 2, 3): This personal identity view states that each “moment of experience” is its own separate subject. While it may seem that we exist as persons with an existence that spans decades, Empty Individualism does not associate a single subject to each person. Rather, each moment a new “self” is born and dies, existing for as long as the conscious event takes place (something that could be anywhere between a femtosecond and a few hundred milliseconds, depending on which scientific theory of consciousness one believes in).
Open Individualism (coined by Daniel Kolak; ref: 1, 2, 3, 4): This is the personal identity view that we are all one single consciousness. The apparent partitions and separations between the universal consciousness, in this view, are the result of partial information access from one moment of experience to the next. Regardless, the subject who gets to experience every moment is the same. Each sentient being is fundamentally part of the same universal subject of experience.
Open Individualism: All is One
Empty Individualism: You are a “moment of experience”
Closed Individualism: You are a distinct narrative over time
Goldilocks Zone of Oneness
Goldilocks Zone of Oneness (QRI term; 1, 2, 3): Having realized that there are both positive and negative psychological aspects to each of the three views of personal identity discussed (Closed, Empty, Open Individualism), the Goldilocks Zone of Oneness emerges as a conceptual resolution. Open Individualism comes with a solution to the fear of death, but it also can give rise to a sort of cosmic solipsism. Closed Individualism allows you to feel fundamentally special, but also disconnected from the universe and fundamentally misunderstood by others. Empty Individualism is philosophically satisfying, but it may come with a sense of lack of agency and the fear of being a time-slice that is stuck in a negative place. The Goldilocks Zone of Oneness posits that there is a way to transcend classical logic in personal identity, and that the truth incorporates elements of all of the three views at once. In the Goldilocks Zone of Oneness one is simultaneously part of a whole but also not the entirety of it. One can relate with others by having a shared nature, while also being able to love them on their own terms by recognizing their unique identity. This view has yet to be formalized, but in the meantime it may prove to be pragmatically useful for community-building.
The Problem of Other Minds (standard high-level philosophy term; ref: 1, 2): This is the philosophical conundrum of whether other people (and sentient beings in general) are conscious. While your own consciousness is self-evidence, the consciousness of others is inferred. Possible solutions involve technologies such as the Generalized Wada Test (see below), phenomenal puzzles, and thalamic bridges, which you can use to test the consciousness of another being by having it solve a problem that can only be solved by making comparisons between qualia values.
Solipsism (standard high-level philosophy term; ref: 1, 2, 3): In its classic formulation, solipsism refers to a state of existence in which the only person who is conscious is “oneself”, which resides in the body of an individual human over time. A more general version of solipsism involves crossing it with personal identity views (see above). Through this lens, the classic person-centric formulation of solipsism refers exclusively to a Closed Individualist universe. Alternatively, Open Individualism also has a solipsistic interpretation – it is thus compatible with (and in at least in one sense entails) solipsism: the entire multiverse of experiences are all experiences of a single solipsistic cosmic consciousness. With an Empty Individualist universe, too, we can have a solipsistic interpretation of reality. In one version you use epiphenomenalism to claim that this moment of experience is the only one that is conscious even though the whole universe still exists and it had an evolutionary path that led it to the configuration in which you stand right now. In another version, one’s experience is the result of the fact that in the cosmic void everything can happen. This is not because it is likely, but because there is a boundless amount of time for it to happen. That is, no matter how thin its probability is, it will still take place at some point (see: Boltzmann brain). That said, one’s present experience -with its highly specific information content- being the only one that exists seems very improbable a priori. Like imagining that despite the fact that “the void can give rise to anything” the only thing that actually gets materialized is an elephant. Why would it only produce an elephant, of all things? Likewise, solipsistic Empty Individualism has this problem – why would this experience be the only one? To cap it off, we can also reason about solipsism in its relation to hybrid views of personal identity. In their case solipsism either fails, or its formulation needs to be complicated significantly. This is partly why the concept of the Goldilocks Zone of Oneness (see above) might be worth exploring, as it may be a way out of ultimate solipsism. On a much more proximal domain, it may be possible to use Phenomenal Puzzles, Wada tests, and ultimately mindmelding to test the classical (Closed Individualist) formulation of solipsism.
Suffering Focused Ethics (recent philosophy term from rationalist-adjacent communities; ref: 1, 2) The view that our overriding obligation is to focus on suffering. In particular, taking seriously the prevention of extreme suffering is one of the features of this view. This is not unreasonable if we take into account the logarithmic scales of pain and pleasure into account, which suggest that the majority of suffering is concentrated in a small percent of experiences of intense suffering. Hence why caring about the extreme cases matters so much.
Antinatalism (standard high-level philosophy term; ref: 1, 2): This is the view that being born entails a net negative. Classic formulations of this view tend to implicitly assume Closed Individualism, where there is someone who may or may not be born and it is meaningful to consider this a yes or no question with ontological bearings. Under Open Individualism the question becomes whether there should be any conscious being at all, for neither preventing someone’s birth nor committing an individual suicide entail the real birth or death of a consciousness. They would merely add or subtract from the long library corridors of experiences had by universal consciousness. And in Empty Individualism, antinatalism might be seen through the light of “preventing specific experiences with certain qualities”. For example, having an experience of extreme suffering is not harming a person (though it may have further psychological repercussions), but rather harming that very experience in an intrinsic way. This view would underscore the importance of preventing the existence of experiences of intense suffering rather than preventing the existence of people as such. A final note on antinalism is that even in its original formulation we encounter the problem that selection pressures makes any trait that reduces inclusive fitness disappear in the long run. The traits that predispose to such views would simply be selected out. A more fruitful way of improving the world is to encourage the elimination of suffering in ways that do not reduce inclusive fitness, such as the prevention of genetic spell errors and diseases that carry a high burden of suffering.
Tyranny of the Intentional Object (coined by David Pearce; ref: 1, 2): The way our reward architecture is constructed makes it difficult for us to have a clear sense of what it is that we enjoy about life. Our brains reinforce the pursuit of specific objects, situations, and headspaces, which gives the impression that these are intrinsically valuable. But this is an illusion. In reality such conditions trigger positive valence changes to our experience, and it is those that we are really after (as evidenced by the way in which our reward architecture is modified in presence of euphoric and dysphoric drugs and external stimuli such as music). We call this illusion the tyranny of the intentional object because in philosophy “intentionality” refers to “what the experience is about”. Our world-simulations chain us to the feeling that external objects, circumstances, and headspaces are the very source of value. More so, dissociating from such sources of positive valence triggers negative valence, so critical insight into the way our reward architecture really works is itself negatively reinforced by it.
Formalism (standard high-level philosophy term; ref: 1, 2): Formalism is a philosophical and methodological approach for analyzing systems which postulates the existence of mathematical objects such that their mathematical features are isomorphic to the properties of the system. An example of a successful formalism is the use of Maxwell’s equations in order to describe electromagnetic phenomena.
Qualia Formalism (QRI term; 1, 2, 3): Qualia Formalism means that for any given physical system that is conscious, there will be a corresponding mathematical object associated to it such that the mathematical features of that object will be isomorphic to the phenomenology of the experience generated by the system.
Marr’s Levels of Analysis (standard cognitive science term; ref: 1, 2): This powerful analytic framework was developed by cognitive scientist David Marr to talk more precisely about vision, but it is more broadly applicable to information processing systems in general. It is a way to break down what a system does in a conceptually clear fashion that lends itself to a clean analysis.
Computational Level (standard cognitive science term; ref: 1, 2): The first of three of Marr’s Levels of Analysis, the Computational Level of abstraction describes what the system does from a third-person point of view. That is, the input-output mapping, the runtime complexity for the problems it can solve, and the ways in which it fails are all facts about a system that are at the computational level of abstraction. In a simple example case, we can describe an abacus at the computational level by saying that it can do sums, subtractions, multiplications, divisions, and other arithmetic operations.
Algorithmic Level (standard cognitive science term; ref: 1, 2): The second of three of Marr’s Levels of Analysis, the Algorithmic Level of abstraction describes the internal representations, operations, and their interactions used to transform the input into the output. In aggregate, representations, operations, and their interactions constitute the algorithms of the system. As a general rule, we find that there are many possible algorithms that give rise to the same computational-level properties. Following the simple example case of an abacus, the algorithmic-level account would describe how passing beads from one side to another and using each row to represent different orders of magnitude are used to instantiate algorithms to perform arithmetic operations.
Implementation Level (standard cognitive science term; ref: 1, 2): The third of three of Marr’s Levels of Analysis, the Implementation Level of abstraction describes the way in which the system’s algorithms are physically instantiated. Following the case of the abacus, an implementation-level account would detail how the various materials of the abacus are put together in order to allow the smooth passing of beads between the sides of each row and how to prevent them from sliding by accident (and “forgetting” the state).
Interaction Between Levels (obscure cognitive science concept handle; ref: 1, 2): Some information-processing systems can be fully understood by describing each of Marr’s Levels of Analysis separately. For example, it does not matter whether an abacus is made of metal, wood, or even if it is digitally simulated in order to explain its algorithmic and computational-level properties. But while this is true for an abacus, it is not the case for analog systems that leverage the unique physical properties of their components to do computational shortcuts. In particular, in quantum computing one intrinsically requires an understanding of the implementation-level properties of the system in order to explain the algorithms used. Hence, for quantum computing, there are strong interactions between levels of analysis. Likewise, we believe this is likely going to be the case for the algorithms our brains perform by leveraging the unique properties of qualia.
Natural Kind (standard high-level philosophy term; ref: 1, 2): Natural kinds are things whose objective existence makes it possible to discover durable facts about them. They are the elements of a “true ontology” for the universe, and what “carves reality at its joints”. This is in contrast to “reifications” which are aggregates of elements with no unitary independent existence.
State-Space (standard term in physics and mathematics; ref: 1, 2): A state-space of a system is a geometric map where each point corresponds to a particular state of the system. Usually the space has a Euclidean geometry with a number of dimensions equal to the number of variables in the system, so that the value of each variable is encoded in the value of a corresponding dimension. This is not always the case, however. In the general case, not all points in the state-space are physically realizable. Additionally, some system configurations do not admit a natural decomposition into a constant set of variables. This may give rise to irregularities in the state-space, such as non-Euclidean regions or a variable number of dimensions.
Phenomenal puzzle solution
Emotion transition probabilities
State-Space of Consciousness (coined by David Pearce; 1, 2, 3): This is a hypothetical map that contains the set of all possible experiences, organized in such a way that the similarities between experiences are encoded in the geometry of the state-space. For example, the experience you are having right now would correspond to a single point in the state-space of consciousness, with the neighboring experiences being Just Noticeably Different from your experience right now (e.g. simplistically, we could say they would be different from your current experience “by a single pixel”).
Qualia Value (QRI term; ref: 1): Starting with examples- the scent of cinnamon, a spark of sourness, a specific color hue, etc. are all qualia values. Any particular quality of experience that cannot be decomposed further into overlapping components is a qualia value.
Qualia Variety (QRI term; ref: 1): A qualia variety refers to the set of qualia values that belong to the same category (for example, tentatively, phenomenal colors are all part of the same qualia variety, which is different from the qualia variety of phenomenal sounds). A possible operationalization for qualia varieties involves the construction of equivalence classes based on the ability to transform a given qualia value into another via a series of Just-Noticeable Differences. For example, in the case of color, we can transform a given qualia value like a specific shade of blue, into another qualia value like a shade of green by traversing across a straight line from one to the other in the CIELAB color space. Tentatively, it is not possible to do the same between a shade of blue and a particular phenomenal sound. That said, the large number of unknowns (and unknown unknowns!) about the state-space of consciousness does not allow us to rule out the existence of qualia values that can bridge the gap between color and sound qualia. If that turned out to be the case, we would need to rethink our approach to defining qualia varieties.
Region of the State-Space of Consciousness (QRI term; ref: 1, 2): A set of possible experiences that are similar to each other in some way. Given an experience, the “experiences nearby in the state-space of consciousness” are those that share its qualities to a large degree but have variations. The term can be used to point at experiences with a given property (such as “high-valence” and “phenomenal color”).
The Binding Problem (standard psychology, neuroscience, and philosophy term; ref: 1, 2): The binding problem (also called the combination problem) arises from asking the question: how is it possible that the activity of a hundred billion neurons that are spatially distributed can simultaneously contribute to a unitary moment of experience? It should be noted that in the classical formulation of the problem we start with an “atomistic” ontology where the universe is made of space, particles, and forces, and the question then becomes how spatially-distributed discrete particles can “collaborate” to form a unified experience. But if one starts out with a “globalistic” ontology where the universe is made of a universal wavefunction, then the question that arises is how something that is fundamentally unitary (the whole universe) can give rise to “separate parts” such as individual experiences, which is often called “the boundary problem”. Thus, the “binding problem” and “the boundary problem” are really the same problem, but starting with different ontologies (atomistic vs. globalistic).
Phenomenal Binding (standard high-level philosophy term; ref: 1, 2): This term refers to the hypothetical mechanism of action that enables information that is spatially-distributed across a brain (and more generally, a conscious system) to simultaneously contribute to a unitary discrete moment of experience.
Local Binding (lesser-known cognitive science term; ref: 1): Local binding refers to the way in which the features of our experience are interrelated. Imagine you are looking at a sheet of paper with a drawing of a blue square and a yellow triangle. If your visual system works well you do not question which shape is colored blue; the color and the shapes come unified within one’s experience. In this case, we would say that color qualia and shape qualia are locally bound. Disorders of perception show that this is not always the case: people with simultagnosia find it hard to perceive more than one phenomenal object at a time and thus would confuse the association between the colors and shapes they are not directly attending to, people with schizophrenia have local binding problems in the construction of their sense of self, and people with motion blindness have a failure of local binding between sensory stimuli separated by physical time.
Global Binding (lesser-known cognitive science term; ref: 1, 2): Global binding refers to the fact that the entirety of the contents of each experience is simultaneously apprehended by a unitary experiential self. As in the example for local binding, while blue and the square (and the yellow and the triangle) are locally bound into separate phenomenal objects, both the blue square and the yellow triangle are globally bound into the same experience.
The Mathematics of Valence
Valence Realism (QRI term; ref: 1): This is the claim that valence is a crisp phenomenon of conscious states upon which we can apply a measure. Also defined as: “Valence (subjective pleasantness) is a well-defined and ordered property of conscious systems.”
Valence Structuralism (QRI term; ref: 1): Valence could have a simple encoding in the mathematical representation of a system’s qualia.
Symmetry Theory of Valence (QRI term; 1, 2, 3): Given a mathematical object isomorphic to the qualia of a system, the mathematical property which corresponds to how pleasant it is to be that system is that object’s symmetry.
Valence Gradients (QRI term; ref: 1, 2): It is postulated that one of the important inputs that contributes to our decision-making involves “valence gradients”. To understand what a valence gradient is, it is helpful to provide an example. Imagine coming back from dancing in the rain and feeling pretty cold. In order to warm yourself up you get into the shower and turn on the hot water. Ouch! Too hot, so you dial down the temperature. Brrr! Now it’s too cold, so you dial up the temperature just a little. Ah, just perfect! See, during this process you evaluated, at each point, in what way you could modify your experience in order to make it feel better. At first the valence gradient was pointing in the direction of higher temperature. As soon as you felt it being too hot, the valence gradient changed direction and pointed to lower temperature. And so on until it feels like there is nothing else you could do to improve how you feel. In the more general case, we posit that a significant input into our decision-making is the direction of change along which we believe our experience would improve. At an implementation level of analysis (see above) the very syntax of our experience might be built with a landscape of valence gradients. In a sense, noticing them is possible, but it is a task akin to the metaphor of a fish not knowing what water is. We use valence gradients to navigate both the external and internal world in such a basic and all-pervasive way that missing this fact altogether is easy. When we justify why we did such and such, we often forget that a big component of the decision was made based on how each of the options felt. The difficulty we face when trying to point at the specific valence gradients that influence our decision-making is one of the reasons why the tyranny of the intentional object (see above) arises, which is that what pulls and pushes us is not explicitly represented in our conceptual scheme.
CDNS Analysis (QRI term; ref: 1, 2): A scientific and philosophical hypothesis with implications for measuring valence in conscious systems. Namely, the hypothesis is that the Symmetry Theory of Valence is expressed in the structure of neural patterns over time, implying that the valence of a brain will be in part determined by neural dissonance, consonance, and noise. This makes precise, empirically testable predictions within paradigms such as Connectome-Specific Harmonic Waves.
Evolutionary Qualia (QRI term): Evolutionary Qualia is a scientific discipline that will emerge as the science of consciousness improves to the point where cellular gene expression analysis, brain imaging, and interpretation algorithms get to infer the qualia present in the experience of the brains of animals in general. For instance, we may find out that certain combinations of receptor types and protein shapes inside neurons of the visual cortex are necessary and sufficient for generating color qualia. Additionally, such understanding could be complemented with an information-theoretic account of why color qualia is more effective (cost-benefit-wise) for certain information-processing than other qualia. Together, these two kinds of understanding will allow us to explain why the specific qualia that we have was recruited by natural selection for information-processing purposes. Evolutionary Qualia is the (future) discipline that explains from an evolutionary point of view why we have the specific qualia and patterns of local binding that we do (said differently, it will explain why “the walls of our world-simulation are painted the way they are”). So while Evolutionary Psychology may explain why we have evolved to have some emotions from the point of view of their behavioral effects, Evolutionary Qualia will explain why the emotions feel the way they do and how those specific feelings happen to have the right “shape” for the information-processing tasks they accomplish.
Stimuli with tracers
17 wallpaper symmetry groups
Paredolia / Enhanced Pattern Recognition
Algorithmic Reduction (QRI term; ref: 1, 2): A reduction is a model that explains a set of behaviors, often very complex and diverse, in terms of the interaction between variables. A successful reduction is one that explains the intricacies and complexities present in the set of behaviors as emergent effects from a much smaller number of variables and their interactions. A specific case is that of “atomistic reductions” which decompose a set of behaviors in terms of particles interacting with each other (e.g. ideal gas laws from statistical mechanics in physics). While many scientifically significant reductions are atomistic in nature, one should not think that every phenomenon can be successfully reduced atomistically (e.g. double-slit experiment). Even when a set of behaviors cannot be reduced atomistically we may be able to algorithmically reduce it. That is, to identify a set of processes, internal representations, and interactions that when combined give rise to the set of observed behaviors. This style of reduction is very useful in the field of phenomenology since it can provide insights into how complex phenomena (such as psychedelic hallucinations) emerge out of a few relatively simple algorithmic building blocks. This way we avoid begging the question by not assuming an atomistic ontology in a context where it is not clear what atoms correspond to.
How you see it sober
~How you see it on ~100µg of LSD
Psychedelic Cryptography (QRI term; ref: 1, 2, 3): Encoding information in videos, text, abstract paintings, etc. such that only people who are in a specific state of consciousness can decode it. A simple example is the use of alternations in after-image formation on psychedelics (enhanced persistence of vision, aka. tracers) to paint a picture by presenting the content of an image one column of pixels at a time. Sober individuals only see a column of pixels while people high on psychedelics will see a long trace forming parts of an image that can be inferred by paying close attention. In general, psychedelic cryptography can be done by taking advantage of any of the algorithms one finds with algorithmic reductions of arbitrary states of consciousness. In the case of psychedelics, important effects that can be leveraged include tracers, pareidolia, drifting, and symmetrification.
Psychedelic Turk (QRI term; ref: 1, 2, 3, 4): Mechanical Turk is a human task completion platform that matches people who need humans to do many small (relatively) easy tasks with humans willing to do a lot of small (relatively) easy tasks. Psychedelic Turk is akin to Mechanical Turk, but where workers disclose the state of consciousness they are in. This would be helpful for task requesters because many tasks are more appropriate for people in specific states of consciousness. For example, it is better to test ads intended to be seen by drunk people by having people who are actually drunk evaluate them, as opposed to asking sober people to imagine how they would perceive them while drunk. Likewise, some high-stakes tasks would benefit from being completed by people who are demonstrably very alert and clear-headed. And for foundational consciousness research, Psychedelic Turk would be extremely useful as it would allow researchers to test how people high on psychedelics and other exotic agents process information and experience emotions usually inaccessible in sober states.
Generalized Wada Test (QRI term; ref: 1, 2, 3): This is a generalization of the Wada Test where rather than pentobarbital being injected in just one hemisphere while the other hemisphere is kept sober, one injects substance A in one hemisphere and substance B on the other. This could be used to improve our epistemology about various states of consciousness. By keeping one hemisphere in a state with robust linguistic ability the other hemisphere could be used to explore alien-state spaces of consciousness and allow for real-time verbal interpretation. The caveats and complications are myriad, but the general direction this concept handle is pointing to is worth exploring.
Self-Locating Uncertainty (originally a physics term but we also use it for describing a phenomenal character of experience; ref: 1, 2): The uncertainty that one has about who and where one is. This is relevant in light of states of consciousness that are common on high-dose psychedelics, mental illnesses, and meditation, where the information about one’s identity and one’s place in the world is temporarily inaccessible. Very high- and low-valence states tend to induce a high level of self-locating uncertainty as the information content of the experience is over-written by very simple patterns that dominate one’s attention. Learning to navigate states with self-locating uncertainty without freaking out is a prerequisite for studying alien state-spaces of consciousness.
Phenomenal Time (standard high-level philosophy term; ref: 1): The felt-sense of the passage of time. This is in contrast to the physical passage of time. Although physical time and phenomenal time tend to be intimately correlated, as you will see in the definition of “exotic phenomenal time” this is not always the case.
Phenomenal Space (standard high-level philosophy term; ref: 1, 2): The experience of space. Usually our sense of space represents a smooth 3D Euclidean space in a projective fashion (with variable scale encoding subjective distance). In altered states of consciousness phenomenal space can be distorted, expanded, contracted, higher-dimensional, topologically distinct, and even geometrically modified as in the case of hyperbolic geometry while on DMT (see below).
Each layer is connected itself in a geometric way, and connected to the previous and next layer with directed edges.
Strong dose (overwhelming layering/confusion between layers)
Pseudo-Time Arrow (QRI term; ref: 1): This is a formal model of phenomenal time. It utilizes a simple mathematical object: a graph. The nodes of the graph are identified with simple qualia values (such as colors, basic sounds, etc.) and the edges are identified with local binding connections. According to the pseudo-time arrow model, phenomenal time is isomorphic to the patterns of implicit causality in the graph, as derived from patterns of conditional statistical independence.
Exotic Phenomenal Time (QRI term; ref: 1): It is commonly acknowledged that in some situations time can feel like it is passing faster or slower than normal (cf. tachypsychia). What is less generally known is that experiences of time can be much more general, such as feeling like time stops entirely or that one is stuck in a loop. These are called exotic phenomenal time experiences, and while not very common, they certainly are informative about what phenomenal time is. Deviations from an apparent universal pattern are usually scientifically significant.
Reversed Time (QRI term; ref: 1): This is a variant of exotic phenomenal time in which experience seems to be moving backwards in time. “Inverted tracers” are experienced where one first experiences the faint after-images of objects before they fade in, constitute themselves, and then quickly disappear without a trace. According to the pseudo-time arrow model this experience can be described as an inversion of the implicit arrow of causality, though how this arises dynamically is still a mystery.
Moments of Eternity (common psychedelic phenomenology term; ref: 1): This exotic phenomenal time describes experiences where all apparent temporal movement seems to stop. One’s experience seems to have an unchanging quality and there is no way to tell if there will ever be something else other than the present experience in the whole of existence. In most cases this state is accompanied by intense emotions of simple texture and immediacy (rather than complex layered constructions of feelings). The experience seems to appear as the end-point and local maxima of annealing on psychedelic and dissociative states. That is, it often comes as metastable “flashes of large-scale synchrony” that are created over the course of seconds to minutes and decay just as quickly. Significantly, sensory deprivation conditions are ideal for the generation of this particular exotic phenomenal time.
Timelessness (QRI term; ref: 1): Timelessness is a variant of exotic phenomenal time where causality flows in a very chaotic way at all scales. This prevents forming a general global direction for time. In the state, change is perceptible and it is happening everywhere in your experience, and yet it seems as if there is no consensus among the different parts of your experience about the direction of time. That is, there is no general direction along which the experience seems to be changing as a whole over time. The chaotic bustle of changes that make up the texture of the experience are devoid of a story arc, and yet remain alive and turbulent. Trip reports suggest that the state that arises at the transition points between dissociative plateaus has this noisy timelessness quality (e.g. coming up on ketamine). Listening to green noise evokes the general idea, but you need to imagine that happening on every sensory modality and not just audio.
Time Loops (common psychedelic phenomenology term; ref: 1): This is perhaps the most common exotic phenomenal time experience that people have on psychedelics and dissociatives. This is due to the fact that, while it can be generated spontaneously, it is relatively easy to trigger by listening to repetitive music (e.g. a lot of EDM, trance, progressive rock, etc.), repetitive movements (e.g. walking, dancing), and repetitive thoughts (e.g. talking about the same topic for a long time) all of which are often abundant in the set and setting of psychedelic users. The effect happens when your projections about the future and the past are entirely informed by what seems like an endlessly repeating loop of experience. This often comes with intense emotions of its own (which are unusual and outside of the normal range of human experience), but it also triggers secondary emotions (which are just normal emotions amplified) such as fear and worry, or at times wonder and bliss. The pseudo-time arrow model of phenomenal time describes this experience as a graph in which the local patterns of implicit causality form a cycle at the global scale. Thus the phenomenal past and future merge at their tails and one inhabits an experiential world that seems to be infinitely-repeating.
Psychedelic view in the null scenario
Psychedelic view as predicted by the Quantum Hypothesis
Time Branching (QRI term; ref: 1, 2): A rare variant of exotic phenomenal time in which you feel like you are able to experience more than one outcome out of events that you witness. Your friend stands up to go to the bathroom. Midway there he wonders whether to go for a snack first, and you see “both possibilities play out at once in superposition”. In an extreme version of this experience type, each event seems to lead to dozens if not hundreds of possible outcomes at once, and your mind becomes like a choose-your-own-adventure book with a broccoli-like branching of narratives, and at the limit all things of all imaginable possible timelines seem to happen at once and you converge on a moment of eternity, thus transitioning out of this variety. We would like to note that a Qualia Computing article delved into the question of how to test if the effect actually allows you to see alternative branches of the multiverse. The author never considered this hypothesis plausible, but the relative ease of testing it made it an interesting, if wacky, research lead. The test consisted of trying to tell apart the difference between a classical and a quantum random number generator in real time. The results of the experiment are all null for the time being.
World-Sheet (QRI term; ref: 1, 2): We represent modal and amodal information in our experience in a projective way. In most common cases, this information forms a 2D “sheet” that encodes the distance to the objects around you, which can be used as a depth-map to navigate your surroundings. A lot of the information we experience is in the combination of this sheet and phenomenal time (i.e. how it changes over time).
Hyperbolic Phenomenal Space (QRI term; ref: 1, 2): The local curvature of the world-sheet encodes a lot of information about the scene. There is a sense in which the “energy” of the experience is related to the curvature of the world-sheet (in addition to its phenomenal richness and brightness). So when one raises the energy of the state dramatically (e.g. by taking DMT) the world-sheet tends to instantiate configurations with very high-curvature. The surface becomes generically hyperbolic, which profoundly alters the overall geometry of one’s experience. A lot of the accounts of “space expansion” on psychedelics can be described in terms of alterations to the geometry of the world-sheet.
Chaotic pseudo-time arrow
Dimensionality of Consciousness (QRI term; ref: 1, 2, 3): A generative definition for the dimensionality of a moment of experience can be “the highest virtual dimension implied by the network of correlations between globally bound degrees of freedom”. Admittedly, at the moment this is more of an intuition pump than a precise formalism, but a number of related phenomena suggest there is something in this general direction. For starters, differences between degrees of pain and pleasure are often described in terms of qualitative changes with phase transitions between them. Likewise, one generally experiences a higher degree of emotional involvement in a given stimuli the more sensory channels one is utilizing to interact with it. Pleasure that has cognitive, emotional, and physical components in a coordinated fashion is felt as much more profound and significant than pleasure that only involves one of those “channels”, or even pleasure that involves all three but where they lack coherence between them. Another striking example involves the states of consciousness induced by DMT, in which there are phase-transitions between the levels. These phase transitions seem to involve a change in the dimensional character of the hallucinations: in addition to hyperbolic geometry, DMT geometry involves a wide range of phenomena with virtual dimensions. On lower doses the hallucinations take the shape of 2D symmetrical plane coverings. On higher doses those covers transform into 2.5D wobbly worldsheets, and on higher doses still into 3D symmetrical tessellations and rooms with 4D features. For example, the DMT level above 3D tessellations has its “walls” covered with symmetrical patterns that are correlated with one another in such a way that they generate a “virtual” 4th dimension, itself capable of containing semantic content. We suspect that one of the reasons why MDMA is so uniquely good at healing trauma is that in order to address a high-dimensional pain you need a high-dimensional pleasure to hold space for it. MDMA seems to induce a high-dimensional variety of feelings of wellbeing, which can support and smooth a high-dimensional pain like such as those which underly traumatic memories.
Meme (standard science/psychology term coined by Richard Dawkins; 1): A “meme” is a cultural unit of information capable of being transmitted from one mind to another. Examples of memes include jokes, hat styles, window-dressing color palettes, and superstitions.
Memeplex (lesser known term coined by Richard Dawkins; 1, 2): A “memeplex” is a set of memes that, when simultaneously present, increase their ability to replicate (i.e. to be spread from one mind to another). Memeplexes do not need to say true things in order to be good at spreading; many strategies exist to motivate humans to share memes and memeplexes, ranging from producing good feelings (e.g. jokes), being threatening (e.g. apostasy), to being salient (e.g. famous people believe in them). A classic example of a memeplex is that of an ideology such as libertarianism, communism, capitalism, etc.
Full-Stack Memeplex (QRI term; ref: 1, 2): A “full-stack memeplex” is a memeplex that provides an answer to most common human questions. While the scope of a memeplex like “libertarianism” extends across a variety of fields including economics and ethics, it is not a full-stack memeplex because it does not attempt to answer questions such as “why does anything exist?”, “why are the constants of nature the way they are?” and “what happens after we die?”. Religions and some philosophies like existentialism, Buddhism, and the LessWrong Sequences are full-stack memeplexes. We also consider the QRI ecosystem to contain a full-stack memeplex.
Hedonistic Imperative (coined by David Pearce; ref: 1, 2): The Hedonistic Imperative is a book-length internet manifesto written by David Pearce which outlines how suffering will be eliminated with biotechnology and why our biological descendants are likely to be animated by gradients of information-sensitive bliss.
Abolitionism (coined by David Pearce; ref: 1): In the context of transhumanism, Abolitionism refers to the view in ethics that we should eliminate all forms of involuntary suffering both in human and non-human animals alike. The term was coined by David Pearce.
Factors 1 and 2: Subjective sense of meaningfulness or significance also described by “spiritual euphoria” (1), Calming/slow/comforting energy (2).
Factors 3 and 4: Intense, bright, defined euphoric energy (3), overall cost-benefit or worth it after all (4).
Factors 5 and 6: Sober mind and clean linear thinking (5), marijuana specific qualities and outwardly rather than inwardly focused aesthetics (6).
Slow and Fast
Spiritual and Fast
Spiritual and Slow
Fast Euphoria (QRI term; ref: 1): This is one of the main dimensions along which a drug can have effects, roughly described as “high-energy and high-valence” (with high-loading terms including: energetic, charming, stimulating, sociable, erotic, etc.).
Slow Euphoria (QRI term; ref: 1): This is one of the main dimensions along which a drug can have effects, roughly described as “low-energy and high-valence” (with high-loading terms including: calming, relieving, blissful, loving, etc.).
Spiritual/Philosophical Euphoria (QRI term; ref: 1, 2): This is one of the main dimensions along which a drug can have effects, roughly described as “high-significance and high-valence” (with high-loading terms including: incredible, spiritual, mystical, life-changing, interesting, colorful, etc.).
Current hedonic negative feedback dynamics.
Trans/Post-human negative feedback mechanisms.
Wireheading (standard psychology, neuroscience, and philosophy term; 1, 2): The act of modifying a mind’s reward architecture and hedonic baseline so that it is always generating experiences with a net positive valence (whether or not they are mixed).
Wireheading Done Right (QRI term; ref: 1, 2): Wireheading done in such a way that one can remain rational, economically productive, and ethical. In particular, it entails (1) taking into account neurological negative feedback systems, (2) avoiding reinforcement cycles that narrow one’s behavioral focus, and (3) preventing becoming a pure replicator (see below). A simple proof of concept reward architecture for Wireheading Done Right is to cycle between different kinds of euphoria, each with immediate diminishing returns, and with the ability to make it easier to experience other kinds of euphoria. This would give rise to circadian cycles with stages involving fast, slow, and spiritual/philosophical euphoria at different times. Wireheading Done Right entails never getting stuck while always being in a positive state.
Pure Replicator (QRI term; 1, 2): In the context of agents and minds, a Pure Replicator is an intelligence that is indifferent towards the valence of its conscious states and those of others. A Pure Replicator invests all of its energy and resources into surviving and reproducing, even at the cost of continuous suffering to themselves or others. Its main evolutionary advantage is that it does not need to spend any resources making the world a better place.
Consciousness vs. Replicators (QRI term; 1, 2): This is a reframe of the big-picture narrative of the meaning of life in which the ultimate battle is between the act of reproducing for the sake of reproduction and the act of seeking the wellbeing of sentient beings for the sake of conscious value itself.
Maximum Effector (QRI term; 1): A Maximum Effector is an entity that uses all of its resources for the task of causing large effects, irrespective of what they may be. There is a sense in which most humans have a Maximum Effector side. Since causing large effects is not easy, one can reason that for evolutionary reasons people find such an ability to be a hard-to-fake signal of fitness. Arrogance and power may not be all that people find attractive, but they do play a role in what makes someone seem sexy to others. Hence why, unfortunately, people research how to cause large effects even if they are harmful to everyone. The idealized version of a Maximum Effector, however, would be exclusively interested in causing large effects to happen rather than doing so as a way to meet an emotional need among others. Although being a Maximum Effector may seem crazy and pointless, they are important to consider in any analysis of the future because the long-tailed nature of large effects suggest that those who specifically seek to cause them are likely to have an impact on reality orders of magnitude higher than the impact of agents who try to simultaneously have both large and good effects.
Super-Shulgin Academy (coined by David Pearce; ref: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8): This is a hypothetical future intellectual society that investigates consciousness empirically. Rather than merely theorizing about it or having people from the general population describe their odd experiences, the Super-Shulgin Academy directly studies the state-space of consciousness by putting the brightest minds on the task. The Super-Shulgin Academy (1) trains high-quality consciousness researchers and psychonauts, (2) investigates the computational trade-offs between different states of consciousness, (3) finds new socially-useful applications for exotic states of consciousness, (4) practices the art and craft of creating ultra-blissful experiences, and (5) develops and maintains a full-stack memeplex that incorporates the latest insights about the state-space of consciousness into the most up-to-date Theory of Everything.
Based on: the characteristic distribution of neural activity, personal accounts of intense pleasure and pain, the way various pain scales have been described by their creators, and the results of a pilot study we conducted which ranks, rates, and compares the hedonic quality of extreme experiences, we suggest that the best way to interpret pleasure and pain scales is by thinking of them as logarithmic compressions of what is truly a long-tail. The most intense pains are orders of magnitude more awful than mild pains (and symmetrically for pleasure).
This should inform the way we prioritize altruistic interventions and plan for a better future. Since the bulk of suffering is concentrated in a small percentage of experiences, focusing our efforts on preventing cases of intense suffering likely dominates most utilitarian calculations.
An important pragmatic takeaway from this article is that if one is trying to select an effective career path, as a heuristic it would be good to take into account how one’s efforts would cash out in the prevention of extreme suffering (see: Hell-Index), rather than just QALYs and wellness indices that ignore the long-tail. Of particular note as promising Effective Altruist careers, we would highlight working directly to develop remedies for specific, extremely painful experiences. Finding scalable treatments for migraines, kidney stones, childbirth, cluster headaches, CRPS, and fibromyalgia may be extremely high-impact (cf. Treating Cluster Headaches and Migraines Using N,N-DMT and Other Tryptamines, Using Ibogaine to Create Friendlier Opioids, and Frequency Specific Microcurrent for Kidney-Stone Pain). More research efforts into identifying and quantifying intense suffering currently unaddressed would also be extremely helpful. Finally, if the positive valence scale also has a long-tail, focusing one’s career in developing bliss technologies may pay-off in surprisingly good ways (whereby you may stumble on methods to generate high-valence healing experiences which are orders of magnitude better than you thought were possible).
Why This Matters
The Non-Linearity of Pleasure and Pain
Peak Pleasure States: Jhanas and Temporal Lobe Seizures
Logarithmic Pain Scales: Stings, Peppers, and Cluster Headaches
Deference-type Approaches for Experience Ranking
Normal World vs. Lognormal World
Predictions of Lognormal World
Appearance Base Rates
Deference Graph of Top Experiences
Rebalanced Smoothed Proportion
Latent Trait Ratings
Long-tails in the Responses to “How Many Times Better/Worse” Question
Key Pleasures Surfaced
Birth of Children
Falling in Love
Games of Chance Earnings
Death of Father and Mother
Future Directions for Methodological Approaches
Graphical Models with Log-Normal Priors
Closing Thoughts on the Valence Scale
Dimensionality of Pleasure and Pain
Weber’s Law describes the relationship between the physical intensity of a stimulus and the reported subjective intensity of perceiving it. For example, it describes the relationship between how loud a sound is and how loud it is perceived as. In the general case, Weber’s Law indicates that one needs to vary the stimulus intensity by a multiplicative fraction (called “Weber’s fraction”) in order to detect a just noticeable difference. For example, if you cannot detect the differences between objects weighing 100 grams to 105 grams, then you will also not be able to detect the differences between objects weighing 200 grams to 210 grams (implying the Weber fraction for weight perception is at least 5%). In the general case, the senses detect differences logarithmically.
There are two compelling stories for interpreting this law:
In the first story, it is the low-level processing of the senses which do the logarithmic mapping. The senses “compress” the intensity of the stimulation and send a “linearized” packet of information to one’s brain, which is then rendered linearly in one’s experience.
In the second story, the senses, within the window of adaptation, do a fine job of translating (somewhat) faithfully the actual intensity of the stimulus, which then gets rendered in our experience. Our inability to detect small absolute differences between intense stimuli is not because we are not rendering such differences, but because Weber’s law applies to the very intensity of experience. In other words, the properties of one’s experience could follow a long-tail distribution, but our ability to accurately point out differences between the properties of experiences is proportional to their intensity.
We claim that, at least for the case of valence (i.e the pleasure-pain axis), the second story is much closer to the truth than the first. Accordingly, this article rethinks the pleasure-pain axis (also called the valence scale) by providing evidence, arguments, and datapoints to support the idea that how good or bad experiences feel follows a long-tail distribution.
The concrete line of argument we will present is based on the following:
Phenomenological accounts of intense pleasure and pain (w/ accounts of phenomenal time and space expansion),
The way in which pain scales are described by those who developed them, and
The analytic results of a pilot study we conducted which investigates how people rank, rate, and assign relative proportions to their top 3 best and worst experiences
Why This Matters
Even if you are not a strict valence utilitarian, having the insight that the valence scale is long-tailed is still very important. Most ethical systems do give some weight to the prevention of suffering (in addition to the creation of subjectively valuable experiences), even if that is not all they care about. If your ethical system weighted slightly the task of preventing suffering when believing in a linear valence scale, then learning about the long-tailed nature of valence should in principle cause a major update. If indeed the worst experiences are exponentially more negative than originally believed by one’s ethical system, which nonetheless still cared about them, then after learning about the true valence scale the system would have to reprioritize. We suggest that while it might be unrealistic to have every ethical system refocus all of its energies on the prevention of intense suffering (and subsequently on researching how to create intense bliss sustainably), we can nonetheless expect such systems to raise this goal on their list of priorities. In other words, while “ending all suffering” will likely never be a part of most people’s ethical system, we hope that the data and arguments here presented at least persuade them to add “…and prevent intense forms of suffering” to the set of desiderata.
Indeed, lack of awareness about the long-tails of bliss and suffering may be the cause of an ongoing massive moral catastrophe (notes by Linch). If indeed the degree of suffering present in experiences follows a long-tail distribution, we would expect the worst experiences to dominate most utilitarian calculus. The biggest bang for the buck in altruistic interventions would therefore be those that are capable of directly addressing intense suffering and generating super-bliss.
The Non-Linearity of Pleasure and Pain
True long-tail pleasure scale (warning: psychedelics increase valence variance – the values here are for “good/lucky” trips and there is no guarantee e.g. LSD will feel good on a given occasion). Also: Mania is not always pleasant, but when it is, it can be super blissful.
True long-tail pain scale
As we’ve briefly discussed in previous articles (1, 2, 3), there are many reasons to believe that both pleasure and pain can be felt along a spectrum with values that range over possibly orders of magnitude. Understandably, someone who is currently in a state of consciousness around the human median of valence is likely to be skeptical of a claim like “the bliss you can achieve in meditation is literally 100 times better than eating your favorite food or having sex.” Intuitively, we only have so much space in our experience to fit bliss, and when one is in a “normal” or typical state of mind for a human, one is forced to imagine “ultra blissful states” by extrapolating the elements of one’s current experience, which certainly do not seem capable of being much better than, say, 50% of the current level of pleasure (or pain). The problem here is that the very building blocks of experiences that enable them to be ultra-high or ultra-low valence are themselves necessary to imagine accurately how they can be put together. Talking about extreme bliss to someone who is anhedonic is akin to talking about the rich range of possible color experiences to someone who is congenitally fully colorblind (cf. “What Mary Didn’t Know“).
“Ok”, you may say, “you are just telling me that pleasure and pain can be orders of magnitude stronger than I can even conceive of. What do you base this on?”. The most straightforward way to be convinced of this is to literally experience such states. Alas, this would be deeply unethical when it comes to the negative side, and it requires special materials and patience for the positive side. Instead, I will provide evidence from a variety of methods and conditions.
I’ve been lucky to not have experienced major pain in my life so far (the worst being, perhaps, depression during my teens). I have, however, had two key experiences that gave me some time to introspect on the non-linear nature of pain. The first one comes from when I accidentally cut a super-spicy pepper and touched it with my bare hands (the batch of peppers I was cutting were mild, but a super-hot one snuck into the produce box). After a few minutes of cutting the peppers, I noticed that a burning heat began to intensify in my hands. This was the start of experiencing “hot pepper hands” for a full 8 hours (see other people’s experiences: 1, 2, 3). The first two to three hours of this ordeal were the worst, where I experienced what I rated as a persistent 4/10 pain interspersed with brief moments of 5/10 pain. The curious thing was that the 5/10 pain moments were clearly discernible as qualitatively different. It was as if the very numerous pinpricks and burning sensations all over my hands were in a somewhat disorganized state most of the time, but whenever they managed to build-up for long enough, they would start clicking with each other (presumably via phase-locking), giving rise to resonant waves of pain that felt both more energetic, and more aversive on the whole. In a way, this jump from what I rated as 4/10 to 5/10 was qualitative as well as quantitative, and it gave me some idea of how something that is already bad can become even worse.
My second experience involves a mild joint injury I experienced while playing Bubble Soccer (a very fun sport no doubt, and a common corporate treat for Silicon Valley cognotariats, but according to my doctor it is also a frequent source of injuries among programmers). Before doing physical therapy to treat this problem (which mostly took care of it), I remember spending hours introspecting on the quality of the pain in order to understand it better. It wasn’t particularly bad, but it was constant (I rated it as 2/10 most of the time). What stuck with me was how its constant presence would slowly increase the stress of my entire experience over time. I compared the experience to having an uncomfortable knot stuck in your body. If I had a lot of mental and emotional slack early in the day, I could easily take the stress produced by the knot and “send it elsewhere” in my body. But since the source of the stress was constant, eventually I would run out of space, and the knot would start making secondary knots around itself, and it was in those moments where I would rate the pain at a 3/10. This would only go away if I rested and somehow “reset” the amount of cognitive and emotional slack I had available.
The point of these two stories is to highlight the observation that there seem to be phase-changes between levels of discomfort. An analogy I often make is with the phenomenon of secondary coils when you twist a rope. The stress induced by pain- at least introspectively speaking- is pushed to less stressed areas of your mind. But this has a limit, which is until your whole world-simulation is stressed to the point that the source of stress starts creating secondary “stress coils” on top of the already stressed background experience. This was a very interesting realization to me, which put in a different light weird expressions that chronic pain patients use like “my pain now has a pain of its own” or “I can’t let the pain build up”.
DNA coils and super-coils as a metaphor for pain phase-changes?
What about more extreme experiences? Here we should briefly mention psychedelic drugs, as they seem to be able to increase the energy of one’s consciousness (and in some sense “multiply the amount of consciousness“) in a way that grows non-linearly as a function of the dose. An LSD experience with 100 micrograms may be “only” 50% more intense than normal everyday life, but an LSD experience with 200 micrograms is felt as 2-3X as intense, while 300 micrograms may increase the intensity of experience by perhaps 10X (relative to normal). Usually people say that high-dose psychedelic states are indescribably more real and vivid than normal everyday life. And then there are compounds like 5-MeO-DMT, which people often describe as being in “a completely different category”, as it gives rise to what many describe as “infinite consciousness”. Obviously there is no such thing as an experience with infinite consciousness, and that judgement could be explained in terms of the lack of “internal boundaries” of the state, which gives the impression of infinity (not unlike how the surface of a torus can seem infinite from the point of view of a flatlander). That said, I’ve asked rational and intelligent people who have tried 5-MeO-DMT in non-spiritual settings what they think the intensity of their experiences was, and they usually say that a strong dose of 10mg or more gives rise to an intensity and “quantity” of consciousness that is at least 100X as high as normal everyday experiences. There are many reasons to be skeptical of this, no doubt, but the reports should not be dismissed out of hand.
Secondary knots and links as a metaphor for higher bliss
As with the above example, we can reason that one of the ways in which both pain and pleasure can be present in *multiples* of one’s normal hedonic range is because the amount of consciousness crammed into a moment of experience is not a constant. In other words, when someone in a typical state of consciousness asks “if you say one can experience so much pain/pleasure, tell me, where would that fit in my experience? I don’t see much room for that to fit in here”, one can respond by saying that “in other states of consciousness there is more (phenomenal) time and space within each moment of experience”. Indeed, at Qualia Computing we have assembled and interpreted a large number of experiences of high-energy states of consciousness that indicate that both phenomenal time, and phenomenal space, can drastically expand. To sum it up – you can fit so much pleasure and pain in peak experiences precisely because such experiences make room for them.
Let us now illustrate the point with some paradigmatic cases of very high and vey low valence:
Peak Pleasure States: Jhanas and Temporal Lobe Seizures
On the pleasure side, we have Buddhist meditators who experience meditative states of absorption (aka. “Jhanas”) as extremely, and counter-intuitively, blissful:
The experience can include some very pleasant physical sensations such as goose bumps on the body and the hair standing up to more intense pleasures which grow in intensity and explode into a state of ecstasy. If you have pain in your legs, knees, or other part of the body during meditation, the pain will actually disappear while you are in the jhanas. The pleasant sensations can be so strong to eliminate your painful sensations. You enter the jhanas from the pleasant experiences exploding into a state of ecstasy where you no longer “feel” any of your senses.
There are 8 (or 9, depending on who you ask) “levels” of Jhanas, and the above is describing only the 1st of them! The higher the Jhana, the more refined the bliss becomes, and the more detached the state is from the common referents of our everyday human experience. Ultra-bliss does not look at all like sensual pleasure or excitement, but more like information-theoretically optimal configurations of resonant waves of consciousness with little to no intentional content (cf. semantically neutral energy). I know this sounds weird, but it’s what is reported.
“Streamlines from the insula to the cortex” – the insula (in red) is an area of the brain intimately implicated in the super-bliss that sometimes precedes temporal lobe epilepsy (source)
Another example I will provide about ultra-bliss concerns temporal lobe epilepsy, which in a minority of sufferers gives rise to extraordinarily intense states of pleasure, or pain, or both. Such experiences can result in Geschwind syndrome, a condition characterized by hypergraphia (writing non-stop), hyper-religiosity, and a generally intensified mental and emotional life. No doubt, any experience that hits the valence scale at one of its extremes is usually interpreted as other-worldly and paranormal (which gives rise to the question of whether valence is a spiritual phenomenon or the other way around). Famously, Dostoevsky seems to have experienced temporal lobe seizures, and this ultimately informed his worldview and literary work in profound ways. Here is how he describes them:
“A happiness unthinkable in the normal state and unimaginable for anyone who hasn’t experienced it… I am then in perfect harmony with myself and the entire universe.”
– From a letter to his friend Nikolai Strakhov.
“I feel entirely in harmony with myself and the whole world, and this feeling is so strong and so delightful that for a few seconds of such bliss one would gladly give up 10 years of one’s life, if not one’s whole life. […] You all, healthy people, can’t imagine the happiness which we epileptics feel during the second before our fit… I don’t know if this felicity lasts for seconds, hours or months, but believe me, I would not exchange it for all the joys that life may bring.”
– from the character Prince Myshkin in Dostoevsky’s novel, The Idiot, which he likely used to give a voice to his own experiences.
Dostoevsky is far from the only person reporting these kinds of experiences from epilepsy:
As Picard [a scientist investigating seizures] cajoled her patients to speak up about their ecstatic seizures, she found that their sensations could be characterised using three broad categories of feelings (Epilepsy & Behaviour, vol 16, p 539). The first was heightened self-awareness. For example, a 53-year-old female teacher told Picard: “During the seizure it is as if I were very, very conscious, more aware, and the sensations, everything seems bigger, overwhelming me.” The second was a sense of physical well-being. A 37-year-old man described it as “a sensation of velvet, as if I were sheltered from anything negative”. The third was intense positive emotions, best articulated by a 64-year-old woman: “The immense joy that fills me is above physical sensations. It is a feeling of total presence, an absolute integration of myself, a feeling of unbelievable harmony of my whole body and myself with life, with the world, with the ‘All’,” she said.
– from “Fits of Rapture”, New Scientist (January 25, 2014) (source)
All in all, these examples illustrate the fact that blissful states can be deeper, richer, more intense, more conscious, and qualitatively superior to the normal everyday range of human emotion.
Now, how about the negative side?
Logarithmic Pain Scales: Stings, Peppers, and Cluster Headaches
“The difference between 6 and 10 on the pain scale is an exponential difference. Believe it or not.”
– Insufferable Indifference, by Neil E. Clement (who experiences chronic pain ranging between 6/10 to 10/10, depending on the day)
(1) Justin O. Schmidt stung himself with over 80 species of insects of the Hymenoptera order, and rated the ensuing pain on a 4-point-scale. About the scale, he had to say the following:
4:28 – Justin Schmidt: The harvester ant is what got the sting pain scale going in the first place. I had been stung by honeybees, yellow jackets, paper wasps, etc. the garden variety stuff, that you get bitten by various beetles and things. I went down to Georgia, which has the Eastern-most extension of the harvester ant. I got stung and I said “Wooooow! This is DIFFERENT!” You know? I thought I knew everything there was about insect stings, I was just this dumb little kid. And I realized “Wait a minute! There is something different going on here”, and that’s what got me to do the comparative analysis. Is this unique to harvester ants? Or are there others that are like that. It turns out while the answer is, now we know much later – it’s unique! [unique type of pain].
7:09 – Justin Schmidt: I didn’t really want to go out and get stung for fun. I was this desperate graduate student trying to get a thesis, so I could get out and get a real job, and stop being a student eventually. And I realized that, oh, we can measure toxicity, you know, the killing power of something, but we can’t measure pain… ouch, that one hurts, and that one hurts, and ouch that one over there also hurts… but I can’t put that on a computer program and mathematically analyze what it means for the pain of the insect. So I said, aha! We need a pain scale. A computer can analyze one, two, three, and four, but it can’t analyze “ouch!”. So I decided that I had to make a pain scale, with the harvester ant (cutting to the chase) was a 3. Honey bees was a 2. And I kind of tell people that each number is like 10 equivalent of the number before. So 10 honey bee stings are equal to 1 harvester ant sting, and 10 harvester ant stings would equal one bullet ant sting.
11:50 – [Interviewer]: When I finally worked up the courage to [put the Tarantula Hawk on my arm] and take this sting. The sting of that insect was electric in nature. I’ve been shocked before, by accidentally taking a zap from an electrical cord. This was that times 10. And it put me on the ground. My arm seized up from muscle contraction. And it was probably the worst 5 minutes of my life at that point.
Justin Schmidt: Yeah, that’s exactly what I call electrifying. I say, imagine you are walking along in Arizona, and there is a wind storm, and the power line above snaps the wire, and it hits you, of course that hasn’t happened to me, but that’s what you imagine it feels like. Because it’s absolutely electrifying, I call it debilitating because you want to be macho, “ah I’m tough, I can do this!” Now you can’t! So I tell people lay down and SCREAM! Right?
[Interviewer]: That’s what I did! And Mark would be like, this famous “Coyote, are you ok? Are you ok?”
Justin Schmidt: No, I’m not ok!
[Interviewer]: And it was very hard to try to compose myself to be like, alright, describe what is happening to your body right now. Because your mind goes into this state that is like blank emptiness. And all you can focus on is the fact that there’s radiating pain coming out of your arm.
Justin Schmidt: That’s why you scream, because now you’re focusing on something else. In addition to the pain, you’re focusing on “AAAAAAHHHHH!!!” [screams loudly]. Takes a little bit of the juice off of the pain, so maybe you lower it down to a three for as long as you can yell. And I can yell for a pretty long time when I’m stung by a tarantula hawk.
If we take Justin’s word for it, a sting that scores a 4 on his pain scale is about 1,000 times more painful than a sting that scores a 1 on his scale. Accordingly, Christopher Starr (who replicated the scale), stated that any sting that scores a 4 is “traumatically painful” (source). Finally, since the scale is restricted to stings of insects of the Hymenoptera order, it remains possible that there are stings whose pain would be rated even higher than 4. A 5 on the sting pain index might perhaps be experienced with the stings of the box jellyfish that produces Irukandji syndrome, and the bite of the giant desert centipede. Needless to say, these are to be avoided.
(2) The Scoville scale measures how spicy different chili peppers and hot sauces are. It is calculated by diluting the pepper/sauce in water until it is no longer possible to detect any spice in it. The number that is associated with the pepper or sauce is the ratio of water-to-sauce that makes it just barely possible to taste the spice. Now, this is of course not itself a pain scale. I would nonetheless anticipate that taking the log of the Scoville units of a dish might be a good approximation for the reported pain it delivers. In particular, people note that there are severalqualitative jumps in the type and nature of the pain one experiences when eating hot sauces of different strengths (e.g. “Fuck you Sean! […] That was a leap, Sean, that was a LEAP!” – Ken Jeong right after getting to the 135,000 Scoville units sauce in the pain porn Youtube series Hot Ones). Amazon reviews of ultra-hot sauces can be mined for phenomenological information concerning intense pain, and the general impression one gets after reading such reviews is that indeed there is a sort of exponential range of possible pain values:
I know it may be fun to trivialize this kind of pain, but different people react differently to it (probably following a long-tail too!). For some people who are very sensitive to heat pain, very hot sauce can be legitimately traumatizing. Hence I advise against having ultra-spicy sauces around your house. The novelty value is not worth the probability of a regrettable accident, as exemplified in some of the Amazon reviews above (e.g. a house guest assuming that your “Da’Bomb – Beyond Insanity” bottle in the fridge can’t possibly be thathot… and ending up in the ER and with PTSD).
I should add that media that is widely consumed about extreme hot sauce (e.g. the Hot Ones mentioned above and numerous stunt Youtube channels) may seem fun on the surface, but what doesn’t make the cut and is left in the editing room is probably not very palatable at all. From an interview: “Has anyone thrown up doing it?” (interviewer) – “Yeah, we’ve run the gamuts. We’ve had people spit in buckets, half-pass out, sleep in the green room afterwards, etc.” (Sean Evans, Hot Ones host). T.J. Miller, when asked about what advice he would give to the show while eating ultra-spicy wings, responded: “Don’t do this. Don’t do this again. End the show. Stop doing the show. That’s my advice. This is very hot. This is painful. There’s a problem here.”
Trigeminal Neuralgia pain scale – a condition similarly painful to Cluster Headaches
(3) Finally, we come to the “KIP scale”, which is used to rate Cluster Headaches, one of the most painful conditions that people endure:
The KIP scale
KIP-0 No pain, life is beautiful KIP-1 Very minor, shadows come and go. Life is still beautiful KIP-2 More persistent shadows KIP-3 Shadows are getting constant but can deal with it KIP-4 Starting to get bad, want to be left alone KIP-5 Still not a “pacer” but need space KIP-6 Wake up grumbling, curse a bit, but can get back to sleep without “dancing” KIP-7 Wake up, sleep not an option, take the beast for a walk and finally fall into bed exhausted KIP-8 Time to scream, yell, curse, head bang, rock, whatever works KIP-9 The “Why me?” syndrome starts to set in KIP-10 Major pain, screaming, head banging, ER trip. Depressed. Suicidal.
The duration factor is multiplied by the intensity factor, which uses the KIP scale in an exponential way – a KIP 10 is not just twice as bad as a KIP 5, it’s ten times as intense.
As seen above, the KIP scale is acknowledged by its creator and users to be logarithmic in nature.
In summary: We see that pleasure comes in various grades and that peak experiences such as those induced by psychedelics, meditation, and temporal lobe seizures seem to be orders of magnitude more energetic and better than everyday sober states. Likewise, we see that across several categories of pain, people report being surprised by the leaps in both quality and intensity that are possible. More so, at least in the case of the Schmidt Index and the Kip Scale, the creators of the scale were explicit that it was a logarithmic mapping of the actual level of sensation.
While we do not have enough evidence (and conceptual clarity) to assert that the intensity of pain and pleasure does grow exponentially, the information presented so far does suggest that the valence of experiences follows a long-tail distribution.
Deference-type Approaches for Experience Ranking
The above considerations underscore the importance of coming up with a pleasure-pain scale that tries to take into account the non-linearity and non-normality of valence ratings. One idea we came up with was a “deference”-type approach, where we ask open-ended questions about people’s best and worst experiences and have them rank them against each other. Although locally the data would be very sparse, the idea was that there might be methods to integrate the collective patterns of deference into an approximate scale. If extended to populations of people who are known to have experienced extremes of valence, the approach would even allow us to unify the various pain scales (Scoville, Schmidt, KIP, etc.) and assign a kind of universal valence score to different categories of pain and pleasure.* That will be version 2.0. In the meantime, we thought to try to get a rough picture of the extreme joys and affections of members of the general public, which is what this article will focus on.
Normal World vs. Lognormal World
There is a world we could call the “Normal World”, where valence outliers are rare and most types of experiences affect people more or less similarly, distributed along a Gaussian curve. Then there is another, very different world we could call the “long-tailed world” or if we want to make it simple (acknowledging uncertainty) “Lognormal World”, where almost every valence distribution is a long-tail. So in the “Lognormal World”, say, for pleasure (and symmetrically for pain), we would expect to see a long-tail in the mean pleasure of experiences between different categories across all people, a long-tail in the amount of pleasure within a given type of experience across people, a long-tail for the number of times an individual has had a certain type of pleasure, a long-tail in the intensity of the pleasure experienced with a single category of experience within a single person, and so on. Do we live in the Normal World or the Lognormal World?
Predictions of Lognormal World
If we lived in the “Lognormal World”, we would expect:
That people will typically say that their top #1 best/worst experience is not only a bit better/worse than their #2 experience, but a lot better/worse. Like, perhaps, even multiple times better/worse.
That there will be a long-tail in the number of appearances of different categories (i.e. that a large amount, such as 80%, of top experiences will belong to the same narrow set of categories, and that there will be many different kinds of experiences capturing the remaining 20%).
That for most pairs of experiences x and y, people who have had both instances of x and y, will usually agree about which one is better/worse. We call such a relationship a “deference”. More so, we would expect to see that deference, in general, will be transitive (a > b and b > c implying that a > c).
To test the first and second prediction does not require a lot of data, but the third does because one needs to have enough comparisons to fill a lot of triads. The survey results we will discuss bellow are congruent with the first and second prediction. We did what we could with the data available to investigate the third, and tentatively, it seems to hold up (with ideas like deference network centrality analysis, triadic analysis, and tournament-style approaches).
The survey asked the following questions: current level of pleasure, current level of pain, top 3 most pleasurable experiences (in decreasing order) along with pleasure ratings for each of them and the age when they were experienced, and the same for the top 3 most painful experiences. I specifically did not provide a set of broad categories (such as “physical” or “emotional”) or a drop-down menu of possible narrow categories (e.g. going to the movies, aerobic exercise, etc.). I wanted to see what people would say when the question was as open-ended as possible.
I also included questions aimed more directly at probing the long-tailed nature of valence: I asked participants to rate “how many times more pleasant was the #1 top experience relative to the #2 top experience” (and #2 relative to #3, and the same for the top most painful experiences).
I also asked them to describe in more detail the single most pleasant and unpleasant experiences, and added a box for comments at the end in order to see if anyone complained about the task (most people said “no comment”, many said they enjoyed the task, and one person said that it made them nostalgic). I also asked about basic demographics (age and gender). Participants earned $1.75 for the task, which seems reasonable given the time it took to complete in most cases.
Mechanical Turk: Participant Composition
The survey was run on Mechanical Turk. I requested “Masters” qualifications for 90/110 of the survey responses. To be a Mechanical Turk Master you need to have a good track record of task approval, which I reasoned would increase the rate of well thought-out high-quality responses (this turned out to be true). The participants’ genders were fairly balanced (50/97 women, 47/97 men), and the average age was 36.5 years (sd = 10):
Bots (easy to spot – unless extremely sophisticated)
While reading the responses I discovered that some of them seemed to be generated by bots. Apparently task requesters started noticing the presence of bots a couple of years ago. This is obviously a problem for academics trying to use the service for their research, and for machine learning professionals using the service for data-tagging. Having been both of those things in the past, I can say that a few years ago I did not see any submissions that looked suspiciously bot-like. Though low-quality rushed responses did seem to be relatively common back then, I never observed bot-like responses to open-ended questions. Unfortunately this time I was able to spot several responses clearly written by bots. For example, one respondent answered the question “write a brief essay about your #1 best experience” with:
The reason these types of assignments are given so often is that anyone can write about their own experience and it doesn’t require any outside resources or research. However, even though anyone can tell a story about their life, that does not mean anyone can write a good essay about that experience. As a professor and teacher for 30 years, I’ve read thousands of essays and can tell you there is a distinct difference from telling a story about yourself and writing an excellent personal experience essay. The difference between good and great:
And it ends that way, with a colon indicating that the respondent is about to explain what the difference between good and great is. But it never does it. This answer, great, it is not.
In most cases the difference between a genuine response and a bot response was very obvious. That said, I erred on the side of caution for filtering bots and I got rid of answers even if they seemed just a little suspicious. This left me with 97 out of the 110 original responses. The following analysis was conducted on those 97 responses.
Since the responses were open-ended I had to tag each of them with an experience category. To do this I read each response and identified the key theme in them and classified them with a label that was specific enough to distinguish it from nearby experiences (e.g. different types of fractures), but not so specific that we would never get more than one response per category (e.g. “breaking the middle finger in elementary school”). In general, most responses fell into very unambiguous categories (e.g. “When my father passed away” and “Watching my father die and take his last few breaths.” were both classified as “Father death”). About 10% of the responses were relatively ambiguous: it wasn’t clear what the source of the pain or pleasure was. To deal with those responses I used the label “Unspecified”. When some detail was present but ambiguity remained, such as when a broad type of pain or pleasure was mentioned but not the specific source I tagged it as “Unspecified X” where X was a broad category. For example, one person said that “broken bones” was the most painful experience they’ve had, which I labeled as “Unspecified fracture”.
I should preface the following by saying that we are very aware of the lack of scientific rigor in this survey; it remains a pilot exploratory work. We didn’t specify the time-scale for the experiences (e.g. are we asking about the best minute of your life or the best month of your life?) or whether we were requesting instances of physical or psychological pain/pleasures. Despite this lack of constraints it was interesting to see very strong commonalities among people’s responses:
Appearance Base Rates
There were 77 and 124 categories of pleasure and pain identified, respectively. On the whole it seemed like there was a higher diversity of ways to suffer than of ways to experience intense bliss. Summoning the spirit of Tolstoy: “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”
Here are the raw counts for each category with at least two appearances:
Best experiences appearances (with at least two reports)
Worst experience appearances (with at least two reports)
For those who want to see the full list of number of appearances for each experience mentioned see the bottom of the article (I also clarify some of the more confusing labels there too)**.
A simple way to try to incorporate the information about the ranking is to weight experiences rated as top #1 with 3 points, those as top #2 with 2 points, and those as the top #3 with 1 point. If you do this, the experiences scores are:
Weighted appearances of best experiences (#1 – 3 points, #2 – 2 points, #3 – 1 point)
Given the relatively small sample size, I will only report the mean rating for pain and pleasure (out of 10) for categories of experience for which there were 6 or more respondents:
Father death (n = 19): mean 8.53, sd 2.3
Childbirth (n = 16): mean 7.94, sd 2.16
Grandmother death (n = 13): mean 8.12, sd 2.5
Mother death (n = 11): mean 9.4, sd 0.62
Car accident (n = 9): mean 8.42, sd 1.52
Kidney stone (n = 9): mean 5.97, sd 3.17
Migraine (n = 9): mean 5.36, sd 3.11
Romantic breakup (n = 9): mean 7.11, sd 1.52
Broken arm (n = 6): mean 8.28, sd 0.88
Broken leg (n = 6): mean 7.33, sd 2.02
Work failure (n = 6): mean 5.88, sd 3.57
(Note: the very high variance for kidney stones and migraine is partly explained by the presence of some very low responses, with values as low as 1.1/10 – perhaps misreported, or perhaps illustrating the extreme diversity of experiences of migraines and kidney stones).
And for pleasure:
Falling in love (n = 42): mean 8.68, sd 1.74
Children born (n = 41): mean 9.19, sd 1.64
Marriage (n = 21): mean 8.7, sd 1.25
Sex (n = 19): mean 8.72, sd 1.45
College graduation (n = 13): mean 7.73, sd 1.4
Orgasm (n = 11): mean 8.24, sd 1.63
Alcohol (n = 8): mean 6.84, sd 1.59
Vacation (n = 6): mean 9.12, sd 0.73
Getting job (n = 6): mean 7.22, sd 1.47
Personal favorite sports win (n = 6): mean 8.17, sd 1.23
Deference Graph of Top Experiences
We will now finally get to the more exploratory and fun/interesting analysis, at least in that it will generate a cool way of visualizing what causes people great joy and pain. Namely, the idea of using people’s rankings in order to populate a global scale across people and show it in the form of a graph of deferences. While the scientific literature has some studies that compare pain across different categories (e.g. 1, 2, 3) I was not able to find any dataset that included actual rankings across a variety of categories. Hence why it was so appealing to visualize this.
The simplest way of graphing experience deferences is to assign a node to each experience category and add an edge between experiences with deference relationships with a weight proportional to the number of directed deferences. For example, if 4 people have said that A was better than B, and 3 people have said that B was better than A, then there will be an edge from A to B with a weight of 4 and an edge from B to A with a weight of 3. Additionally, we can then run a graph centrality algorithm such as PageRank to see where the “deferences end up pooling”.
The images below do this: the PageRank of the graph is represented with the color gradient (darker shades of green/red representing higher PageRank values for good/bad experiences). In addition, the graphs also represent the number of appearances in the dataset for each category with the size of each node:
Best experiences deferences – edge thickness based on number of deferences, node size based on number of appearances, and color scheme based on PageRank
Worst experiences deferences – edge thickness based on number of deferences, node size based on number of appearances, and color scheme based on PageRank
The main problem with the approach above is that it double (triple?) counts experiences that are very common. Say that, for example, taking 5-MeO-DMT produces a consistently higher-valence feeling relative to having sex. If we only have a couple of people who report both 5-MeO-DMT and sex as their top experiences, the edge from sex to 5-MeO-DMT will be very weak, and the PageRank algorithm will underestimate the value of 5-MeO-DMT.
In order to avoid the double counting effect of commonly-reported peak experiences we can instead add edge weights on the basis of the proportion with which an experience defers to the other. Let’s say that f(a, b) means “number of times that b is reported as higher than a”. Then the proportion would be f(a, b) / (f(a, b) + f(b, a)). Now, this introduces another problem, which is that pairs of experiences that appear together very infrequently might get a very high proportion score due to a low sample size. In order to prevent this we use Laplace smoothing and modify the equation to (f(a, b) + 1) / (f(a, b) + f(b, a) + 2). Finally, we transform this proportion score from the range of 0 to 1 to the range of -1 to 1 by multiplying by 2 and subtracting one. We call this a “rebalanced smoothed proportion” w(a, b):
Rebalanced smoothed proportion
I should note that this is not based on any rigorous math. The equation is based on my intuition for what I would expect to see in such a graph, namely a sort of confidence-weighted strength of directionality, but I do not guarantee that this is a principled way of doing so (did I mention this is a pilot small-scale low-budget ‘to a first approximation’ study?). I think that, nonetheless, doing this is still an improvement upon merely using the raw deference counts as the edge weights. To visualize what w(a, b) looks like I graphed its values for a and b in the range of 0 to 20 (literally typing the equation into the google search bar):
Rebalanced smoothed proportion equation
Rebalanced smoothed proportion equation
Rebalanced smoothed proportion equation
Rebalanced smoothed proportion equation
Rebalanced smoothed proportion equation
Rebalanced smoothed proportion equation
To populate the graph I only use the positive edge weights so that we can run the PageRank algorithm on it. This now looks a lot more reasonable and informative as a deference graph than the previous attempts:
Best experiences deference graph: Edge weights based on the rebalanced smoothed proportions, size of nodes is proportional to number of appearances in the dataset, and the color tracks the PageRank of the graph. Edge color based on source node.
Worst experiences deference graph: Edge weights based on the rebalanced smoothed proportions, size of nodes is proportional to number of appearances in the dataset, and the color tracks the PageRank of the graph. Edge color based on source node.
By taking the PageRank of these graphs (calculated with NetworkX) we arrive at the following global rankings:
PageRank of the graph of best experiences with edge weights computed with the rebalanced smoothed proportion equation
PageRank of the graph of worst experiences with edge weights computed with the rebalanced smoothed proportion equation
Intuitively this ranking seems more aligned with what I’ve heard before, but I will withhold judgement on it until we have much more data.
With a more populated deference graph we can analyze in detail the degree to which triads (i.e. sets of three experiences such that each of the three possible deferences are present in the graph) show transitivity (cf. Balance vs. Status Theory).
In particular, we should compare the prevalence of these two triads:
The triads above are 030T, which is transitive, and 030C, which is a loop. The higher the degree of agreement between people and the higher the probability of the existence of an underlying shared scale, we would expect to see more triads of the type 030T relative to 030C. That said, a simple ratio is not enough, since the expected proportion between these two triads can be an artifact of the way the graph is constructed and/or its general shape (and hence the importance of comparing against randomized graphs that preserve as many other statistical features as possible). With our graph, we noticed that the very way in which the edges were introduced generated an artifact of a very strong difference between these two types of triads:
In the case of pain there are 105 ‘030T’, and 3 ‘030C’. And for the pleasure questions there were 98 ‘030T’, and 9 ‘030C’. That said, many of these triads are the artifact of taking into account the top three experiences, which already generates a transitive triad by default when n = 1 for that particular triad of experiences. To avoid this artifact, we filtered the graph by only adding edges when a pair of experiences appeared at least twice (and discounting the edges where w(a, b) = 0). With this adjustment we got 2 ‘030T’, and 1 ‘030C’ for the pain questions, and 1 ‘030T’, and 0 ‘030C’ for the pleasure question. Clearly there is not enough data to meaningfully conduct this type of analysis. If we extend the study and get a larger sample size, this analysis might be much more informative.
Latent Trait Ratings
A final approach I tried for deriving a global ranking of experiences was to assume a latent parameter for pain or pleasure of different experiences and treating the rankings as the tournament results of participants with skill equal to this latent trait. So when someone says that an experience of sex was better than an experience of getting a new bike we imagine that “sex” had a match with “getting bike” and that “sex” won that match. If we do this, then we can import any of the many tournament algorithms that exist (such as the Elo rating system) in order to approximate the latent “skill” trait of each experience (except that here it is the “skill” to cause you pleasure or pain, rather than any kind of gaming ability).
I should mention that the fact that we are asking about peak experiences likely violates some of the assumptions of these algorithms, since the fact that a match takes place is already information that both experiences made it into the top 3. That said, if the patterns of deference are very strong, this might not represent a problem.
To come up with this tournament-style ranking I decided to go for a state-of-the-art algorithm. The one that I was able to find and use was Microsoft Research’s algorithm called TrueSkill (which is employed to rank players in Xbox LIVE). According to their documentation, to arrive at a conservative “leaderboard” that balances the estimated “true skill” and the uncertainty around it, they recommend ranking by the expected skill level minus three times the standard error around this estimate. If we do this, we arrive at the following experience “leaderboards”:
Conservative TrueSkill scores for best experiences (mu – 3*sigma)
Conservative TrueSkill scores for worst experiences (mu – 3*sigma)
Long-tails in Responses to “How Many Times Better/Worse” Question
The survey included four questions aimed at comparing the relative hedonic values of peak experiences: “Relative to the 1st most pleasant experience, how many times better was the 2nd most pleasant experience?” (This was one, the other three were the permutations of also asking about 2nd vs. 3rd and about the bad experiences):
(Note: I’ll ignore the responses to the comparison between the 2nd and 3rd worst pains because I messed up the question -I forgot to substitute “better” for “worse”).
I would understand the skepticism about these graphs. But at the same time, I don’t think it is absurd that for many people the worst experience they’ve had is indeed 10 or 100 times worse than the second worst. For example, someone who has endured a bad Cluster Headache will generally say that the pain of it is tens or hundreds of times worse than any other kind of pain they have had (say, breaking a bone or having skin burns).
The above distributions suggest a long-tail for the hedonic quality of experiences: say that the hedonic quality of each day is distributed along a log-normal distribution. A 45 year old has experienced roughly 17,000 days. Let’s say that such a person’s experience of pain each day is sampled from a log-normal distribution with a Gaussian exponent with a mean of 10 and a standard deviation of 5. If we take 100 such people, and for each of them we take the single worst and the second worst days of their lives, and then take the ratio between them, we will have a distribution like this (simulated in R):
If you smooth the empirical curves above you would get a distribution that looks like these simulations. You really need a long-tail to be able to get results like “for 25% of the participants the single worst experience was at least 4 times as bad as the 2nd worst experience.” Compare that to the sort of pattern that you get if the distribution was normal rather than log-normal:
As you can see (zooming in on the y-axis), the ratios simply do not reach very high values. With the normal distribution simulated here, we see that the highest ratio we achieve is around 1.3, as opposed to the empirical ratios of 10+.*** If you are inclined to believe the survey responses- or at least assign some level of credibility to the responses in the 90th-percentile and below-, the data is much more consistent with a long-tail distribution for hedonic values relative to a normal distribution.
Key Pleasures Surfaced
Birth of children
I have heard a number of mothers and father say that having kids was the best thing that ever happened to them. The survey showed this was a very strong pattern, especially among women. In particular, a lot of the reports deal with the very moment in which they held their first baby in their arms for the first time. Some quotes to illustrate this pattern:
The best experience of my life was when my first child was born. I was unsure how I would feel or what to expect, but the moment I first heard her cry I fell in love with her instantly. I felt like suddenly there was another person in this world that I cared about and loved more than myself. I felt a sudden urge to protect her from all the bad in the world. When I first saw her face it was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen. It is almost an indescribable feeling. I felt like I understood the purpose and meaning of life at that moment. I didn’t know it was possible to feel the way I felt when I saw her. I was the happiest I have ever been in my entire life. That moment is something that I will cherish forever. The only other time I have ever felt that way was with the subsequent births of my other two children. It was almost a euphoric feeling. It was an intense calm and contentment.
I was young and had a difficult pregnancy with my first born. I was scared because they had to do an emergency c-section because her health and mine were at risk. I had anticipated and thought about how the moment would be when I finally got to hold my first child and realize that I was a mother. It was unbelievably emotional and I don’t think anything in the world could top the amount of pleasure and joy I had when I got to see and hold her for the first time.
I was 29 when my son was born. It was amazing. I never thought I would be a father. Watching him come into the world was easily the best day of my life. I did not realize that I could love someone or something so much. It was at about 3am in the morning so I was really tired. But it was wonderful nonetheless.
I absolutely loved when my child was born. It was a wave of emotions that I haven’t felt by anything before. It was exciting and scary and beautiful all in one.
No luck for anti-natalists… the super-strong drug-like effects of having children will presumably continue to motivate most humans to reproduce no matter how strong the ethical case against doing so may be. Coming soon: a drug that makes you feel like “you just had 10,000 children”.
Falling in Love
The category of “falling in love” was also a very common top experience. I should note that the experiences reported were not merely those of “having a crush”, but rather, they typically involved unusually fortunate circumstances. For instance, a woman reported being friends with her crush for 7 years. She thought that he was not interested in her, and so she never dared to confess her love for him… until one day, out of the blue, he confessed his love for her. Other experiences of falling in involve chance encounters with childhood friends that led to movie-deserving romantic escapades, forbidden love situations, and cases where the person was convinced the lover was out of his or her league.
The terms “travel” and “vacation” may sound relatively frivolous in light of some of the other pleasures listed. That said, these were not just any kind of travel or vacation. The experiences described do seem rather extraordinary and life-changing. For example, talking about back-packing alone in France for a month, biking across the US with your best friend, or a long trip in South East Asia with your sibling that goes much better than planned.
It is significant that out of 97 people four of them listed MDMA as one of the most pleasant experiences of their lives. This is salient given the relatively low base rate of usage of this drug (some surveys saying about 12%, which is probably not too far off from the base rate for Mechanical Turk workers using MDMA). This means that a high percentage of people who have tried MDMA will rate it as as one of their top experiences, thus implying that this drug produces experiences sampled from an absurdly long-tailed high-valence distribution. This underscores the civilizational significance of inventing a method to experience MDMA-like states of consciousness in a sustainable fashion (cf. Cooling It Down To Partying It Up).
Likewise, the appearance of LSD and psilocybin is significant for the same reason. That said, measures of the significance of psychedelic experiences in psychedelic studies have shown that a high percentage of those who experience such states rate them among their top most meaningful experiences.
Games of Chance Earnings
Four participants mentioned earnings in games of chance. These cases involved earning amounts ranging from $2,000 all the way to a truck (which was immediately sold for money). What I find significant about this is that these experiences are at times ranked above “college graduation” and other classically meaningful life moments. This brings about a crazy utilitarian idea: if indeed education is as useless as many people in the intellectual elite are saying these days (ex. The Case Against Education) we might as well stop subsidizing higher education and instead make people participate in opt-out games of chance rigged in their favor. Substitute the Department of Education for a Department of Lucky Moments and give people meaningful life experiences at a fraction of the cost.
Key Pains Surfaced
Kidney Stones and Migraines
The fact that these two medical issues were surfaced is, I think, extremely significant. This is because the lifetime incidence of kidney stones is about 10% (~13% for men, 7% for women) and for migraines it is around 13% (9% for men, 18% for women). In the survey we saw 9/93 people mentioning kidney stones, and the same number of people mentioning migraines. In other words, there is reason to believe that a large fraction of the people who have had either of these conditions will rate them as one of their top 3 most painful experiences. This fact alone underscores the massive utilitarian benefit that would come from being able to reduce the incidence of these two medical problems (luckily, we have some good research leads for addressing these problems at a large scale and in a cost-effective way: DMT for migraines, and frequency specific microcurrent for kidney stones)
Childbirth was mentioned 16 times, meaning that roughly 30% of women rate it as one of their three most painful experiences. While many people may look at this and simply nod their heads while saying “well, that’s just life”, here at Qualia Computing we do not condone that kind of defeatism and despicable lack of compassion. As it turns out, there are fascinating research leads to address the pain of childbirth. In particular, Jo Cameron, a 70 year old vegan schoolteacher, described her childbirth by saying that it “felt like a tickle”. She happens to have a mutation in the FAAH gene, which is usually in charge of breaking down anandamine (a neurotransmitter implicated in pain sensitivity and hedonic tone). As we’ve argued before, every child is a complete genetic experiment. In the future, we may as well try to at least make educated guesses about our children’s genes associated with low mood, anxiety, and pain sensitivity. In defiance of common sense (and the Bible) the future of childbirth could indeed be one devoid of intense pain.
Car accidents are extremely common (the base rate is so high that by the age of 40 or so we can almost assume that most people have been in at least one car accident, possibly multiple). More so, it seems likely that the health-damaging effects of car accidents, by their nature, follow a long-tail distribution. The high base rate of people mentioning car accidents in their top 3 most painful experiences underscores the importance of streamlining the process of transitioning into the era of self-driving cars.
Death of Father and Mother
This one does not come as a surprise, but what may stand out is the relatively higher frequency of mentions of “death of father” relative to “death of mother”. I think this is an artifact of the longevity difference between men and women. This is in agreement with the observed effect of age: about 15% vs. 25% of people under and over 40 had mentioned the death of their father, as opposed to a difference of 5% vs. 25% for death of mother. The reason why the father might be over-represented might simply be due to the lower life expectancy of men relative to women, and hence the father, on average, dying earlier. Thus, it being reported more frequently by a younger population.
Future Directions for Methodological Approaches:
Graphical Models with Log-normal Priors
After trying so many analytic angles on this dataset, what else is there to do? I think that as a proof of concept the analysis presented here is pretty well-rounded. If the Qualia Research Institute does well in the funding department, we can expect to extend this pilot study into a more comprehensive analysis of the pleasure-pain axis both in the general population and among populations who we know have endured or enjoyed extremes of valence (such as cluster headache sufferers or people who have tried 5-MeO-DMT).
In terms of statistical models, an adequate amount of data would enable us to start using probabilistic graphical models to determine the most likely long-tail distributions for all of the key parameters of pleasure and pain. For instance, we might want to develop a model similar to Item Response Theory where:
Each participant samples experiences from a distribution.
Each experience category generates samples with an empirically-determined base rate probability (e.g. chances that it happens in a given year), along with a latent hedonic value distribution.
A “discrimination function” f(a, b) that gives the probability that experience of hedonic value a is rated as more pleasant (or painful) relative an experience with a hedonic value of b.
And a generative model that estimates the likelihood of observing experiences as the top 3 (or top x) based on the parameters provided.
In brief, with an approach like the above we can potentially test the model fit for different distribution types of hedonic values per experience. In particular, we would be able to determine if the model fit is better if the experiences are drawn from a Gaussian vs. a log-normal (or other long-tailed) distribution.
Finally, it might be fruitful to explicitly ask about whether participants have had certain experiences in order to calibrate their ratings, or even have them try a battery of standardized pain/pleasure-inducing stimuli (capsaicin extract, electroshocks, stings, massage, orgasm, etc.). We could also find the way to combine (a) the numerical ratings, (2) the ranking information, and (3) the “how many times better/worse” responses into a single model. And for best results, restrict the analysis to very recent experiences in order to reduce recall biases.
Closing Thoughts on the Valence Scale
To summarize, I believe that the case for a long-tail account of the pleasure-pain axis is very defensible. This picture is supported by:
The long-tailed nature of neuronal cascades,
The phenomenological accounts of intense pleasure and pain (w/ phenomenological accounts of time and space expansion),
The way in which pain scales are constructed by those who developed them, and
The analytic results of the pilot study we conducted and presented here.
In turn, these results give rise to a new interpretation of psychophysical observations such as Weber’s Law. Namely, that Just Noticeable Differences may correspond to geometric differences in qualia, not only in sensory stimuli. That is, that the exponential nature of many cases where Weber’s Law appears are not merely the result of a logarithmic compression on the patterns of stimulation at the “surface” of our sense organs. Rather, the observations presented here suggest that these long-tails deal directly with the quality and intensity of conscious experience itself.
Dimensionality of Pleasure and Pain
Pain and pleasure may have an intrinsic “dimensionality”. Without elaborating, we will merely state that a generative definition for the “dimensionality of an experience” is the highest “virtual dimension” implied by the patterns of correlation between degrees of freedom. The hot pepper hands account I related suggested a kind of dimensional phase transition between 4/10 and 5/10 pain, where the patterns of a certain type (4/10 “sparks” of pain) would sometimes synchronize and generate a new type of higher-dimensional sensation (5/10 “solitons” of pain). To illustrate this idea further:
First, in Hot Ones, Kumail Nanjiani describes several “leaps” in the spiciness of the wings, first at around 30,000 Scoville (“this new ghost that appears and only here starts to visit you”), and second at around 130k Scoville (paraphrasing: “like how NES to Super Nintendo felt like a big jump, but then Super Nintendo to N64 was an even bigger leap” – “Now we are playing in the big leagues motherfucker! This is fucking real!”). This hints at a change in dimensionality, too.
And second, Shinzen Young‘s advice about dealing with pain involves not resisting it. He discusses how suffering is generated by the coordination between emotional, cognitive, and physical mental formations. If you can keep each of these mental formations happening independently and don’t allow their coordinated forms, you will avoid some of what makes the experience bad. This also suggests that higher-dimensional pain is qualitatively worse. Pragmatically, training to do this may make sense for the time being, since we are still some years away from sustainable pain-relief for everyone.
We have yet to discuss in detail how mixed states come into play for a log-normal valence scale. The Symmetry Theory of Valence would suggest that most states are neutral in nature and that only processes that reduce entropy locally such as neural annealing would produce highly-valenced states. In particular, we would see that high-valence states have very negative valence states nearby in configuration space; if you take a very good high-energy state and distort it in a random direction it will likely feel very unpleasant. The points in between would be mixed valence, which account for the majority of experiences in the wild.
Qualia Formalism posits that for any given system that sustains experiences, there is a mathematical object such that the mathematical features of that object are isomorphic to the system’s phenomenology. In turn, Valence Structuralism posits that the hedonic nature of experience is encoded in a mathematical feature of this object. It is easier to find something real if you posit that it exists (rather than try to explain it away). We have suggested in the past that valence can be explained in terms of the mathematical property of symmetry, which cashes out in the form of neural dissonance and consonance.
In contrast to eliminativist, illusionist, and non-formal approaches to consciousness, at QRI we simply start by assuming that experience has a deep ground truth structure and we see where we can go from there. Although we currently lack the conceptual schemes, science, and vocabulary needed to talk in precise terms about different degrees of pleasure and pain (though we are trying!), that is not a good reason to dismiss the first-person claims and indirect pieces of evidence concerning the true amounts of various kinds of qualia bound in each moment of experience. If valence does turn out to intrinsically be a mathematical feature of our experience, then both its quality and quantity could very well be precisely measurable, conceptually crisp, and tractable. A scientific fact that, if proven, would certainly have important implications in ethics and meta-ethics.
* It’s a shame that Coyote Peterson didn’t rate the pain produced by the various wings he ate on the Hot Ones show relative to insect stings, but that sort of data would be very helpful in establishing a universal valence scale. More generally, stunt-man personalities like the L.A. Beast who subject themselves to extremes of negative valence for Internet points might be an untapped gold mine for experience deference data (e.g. How does eating the most bitter substance known compare with the bullet ant glove? Asking this guy might be the only way to find out, without creating more casualties).
[('Falling in love', 42), ('Children born', 41), ('Marriage', 21), ('Sex', 19), ('College graduation', 13), ('Orgasm', 11), ('Alcohol', 8), ('Vacation', 6), ('Getting job', 6), ('Personal favorite sports win', 6), ('Nature scene', 5), ('Owning home', 5), ('Sports win', 4), ('Graduating highschool', 4), ('MDMA', 4), ('Getting paid for the first time', 4), ('Amusement park', 4), ('Game of chance earning', 4), ('Job achievement', 4), ('Getting engaged', 4), ('Cannabis', 3), ('Eating favorite food', 3), ('Unexpected gift', 3), ('Moving to a better location', 3), ('Travel', 3), ('Divorce', 2), ('Gifting car', 2), ('Giving to charity', 2), ('LSD', 2), ('Won contest', 2), ('Friend reunion', 2), ('Winning bike', 2), ('Kiss', 2), ('Pet ownership', 2), ('Children', 1), ('First air trip', 1), ('First kiss', 1), ('Public performance', 1), ('Hugs', 1), ('Unspecified', 1), ('Recovering from unspecified kidney problem', 1), ('College party', 1), ('Graduate school start', 1), ('Financial success', 1), ('Dinner with loved one', 1), ('Feeling supported', 1), ('Children graduates from college', 1), ('Family event', 1), ('Participating in TV show', 1), ('Psychedelic mushrooms', 1), ('Opiates', 1), ('Having own place', 1), ('Making music', 1), ('Becoming engaged', 1), ('Theater', 1), ('Extreme sport', 1), ('Armed forces graduation', 1), ('Birthday', 1), ('Positive pregnancy test', 1), ('Feeling that God exists', 1), ('Belief that Hell does not exist', 1), ('Getting car', 1), ('Academic achievement', 1), ('Helping others', 1), ('Meeting soulmate', 1), ('Daughter back home', 1), ('Winning custody of children', 1), ('Friend stops drinking', 1), ('Masturbation', 1), ('Friend not dead after all', 1), ('Child learns to walk', 1), ('Attending wedding of loved one', 1), ('Children safe after dangerous situation', 1), ('Unspecified good news', 1), ('Met personal idol', 1), ('Child learns to talk', 1), ('Children good at school', 1)]
For clarity – “Personal favorite sports win” means that the respondent was a participant in the sport as opposed to a spectator (which was labeled as “Sports win”). The difference between “Sex” and “Orgasm” is that Sex refers to the entire act including foreplay and cuddles whereas Orgasm refers to the specific moment of climax. For some reason people would either mention one or the other, and emphasize very different aspects of the experience (e.g. intimacy vs. physical sensation) so I decided to label them differently.
*** It is possible that some fine-tuning of parameters could give rise to long-tail ratios even with a normal distribution (especially if the mean is, say, a negative value and the standard deviation is very wide). But in the general case a normal distribution will have a fairly narrow range for the ratios of the “top value divided by the second top value”. So at least as a general qualitative argument, I think, the simulations do suggest a long-tailed nature for the reported hedonic values.
Excerpt from Superintelligence: Paths, Dangers, Strategies (2014) by Nick Bostrom (pg. 207-210).
Would Maximally Efficient Work Be Fun?
One important variable in assessing the desirability of a hypothetical condition like this* is the hedonic state of the average emulation**. Would a typical emulation worker be suffering or would he be enjoying the experience of working hard on the task at hand?
We must resist the temptation to project our own sentiments onto the imaginary emulation worker. The question is not whether you would feel happy if you had to work constantly and never again spend time with your loved ones–a terrible fate, most would agree.
It is moderately more relevant to consider the current human average hedonic experience during working hours. Worldwide studies asking respondents how happy they are find that most rate themselves as “quite happy” or “very happy” (averaging 3.1 on a scale from 1 to 4)***. Studies on average affect, asking respondents how frequently they have recently experienced various positive or negative affective states, tend to get a similar result (producing a net affect of about 0.52 on a scale from -1 to 1). There is a modest positive effect of a country’s per capita income on average subjective well-being.**** However, it is hazardous to extrapolate from these findings to the hedonic state of future emulation workers. One reason that could be given for this is that their condition would be so different: on the one hand, they might be working much harder; on the other hand, they might be free from diseases, aches, hunger, noxious odors, and so forth. Yet such considerations largely miss the mark. The much more important consideration here is that hedonic tone would be easy to adjust through the digital equivalent of drugs or neurosurgery. This means that it would be a mistake to infer the hedonic state of future emulations from the external conditions of their lives by imagining how we ourselves and other people like us would feel in those circumstances. Hedonic state would be a matter of choice. In the model we are currently considering, the choice would be made by capital-owners seeking to maximize returns on their investment in emulation-workers. Consequently, this question of how happy emulations would feel boils down to the question of which hedonic states would be most productive (in the various jobs that emulations would be employed to do). [Emphasis mine]
Here, again, one might seek to draw an inference from observations about human happiness. If it is the case, across most times, places, and occupations, that people are typically at least moderately happy, this would create some presumption in favor of the same holding in a post-transition scenario like the one we are considering. To be clear, the argument in this case would not be that human minds have a predisposition towards happiness so they would probably find satisfaction under these novel conditions; but rather that a certain average level of happiness has proved adaptive for human minds in the past so maybe a similar level of happiness will prove adaptive from human-like minds in the future. Yet this formulations also reveals the weakness of the inference: to wit, that the mental dispositions that were adaptive for hunter-gatherer hominids roaming the African savanna may not necessarily be adaptive for modified emulations living in post-transition virtual realities. We can certainly hope that the future emulation-workers would be as happy as, or happier than, typical workers were in human history; but we have yet to see any compelling reason for supposing it would be so (in the laissez-faire multipolar scenario currently under examination).
Consider the possibility that the reason happiness is prevalent among humans (to whatever limited extent it is prevalent) is that cheerful mood served a signaling function in the environment of evolutionary adaptedness. Conveying the impression to other members of the social group of being in flourishing condition–in good health, in good standing with one’s peers, and in confident expectation of continued good fortune–may have boosted an individual’s popularity. A bias toward cheerfulness could thus have been selected for, with the result that human neurochemistry is now biased toward positive affect compared to what would have been maximally efficient according to simpler materialistic criteria. If this were the case, then the future of joie de vivre might depend on cheer retaining its social signaling function unaltered in the post-transition world: an issue to which we will return shortly.
What if glad souls dissipate more energy than glum ones? Perhaps the joyful are more prone to creative leaps and flights of fancy–behaviors that future employers might disprize in most of their workers. Perhaps a sullen or anxious fixation on simply getting on with the job without making mistakes will be the productivity-maximizing attitude in most lines of work. The claim here is not that this is so, but that we do not know that it is not so. Yet we should consider just how bad it could be if some such pessimistic hypothesis about a future Malthusian state turned out to be true: not only because of the opportunity cost of having failed to create something better–which would be enormous–but also because the state could be bad in itself, possibly far worse that the original Malthusian state.
We seldom put forth full effort. When we do, it is sometimes painful. Imagine running on a treadmill at a steep incline–heart pounding, muscles aching, lungs gasping for air. A glance at the timer: your next break, which will will also be your death, is due in 49 years, 3 months, 20 days, 4 hours, 56 minutes, and 12 seconds. You wish you had not been born.
Again the claim is not that this is how it would be, but that we do not know that it is not. One could certainly make a more optimistic case. For example, there is no obvious reason that emulations would need to suffer bodily injury and sickness: the elimination of physical wretchedness would be a great improvement over the present state of affairs. Furthermore, since such stuff as virtual reality is made of can be fairly cheap, emulations may work in sumptuous surroundings–in splendid mountaintop palaces, on terraces set in a budding spring forest, or on the beaches of azure lagoon–with just the right illumination, temperature, scenery and décor; free from annoying fumes, noises, drafts, and buzzing insects; dressed in comfortable clothing, feeling clean and focused, and well nourished. More significantly, if–as seems perfectly possible–the optimum human mental state for productivity in most jobs is one of joyful eagerness, then the era of the emulation economy could be quite paradisiacal.
There would, in any case, be a great option value in arranging matters in such a manner that somebody or something could intervene to set things right if the default trajectory should happen to veer toward dystopia. It could also be desirable to have some sort of escape hatch that would permit bailout into death and oblivion if the quality of life were to sink permanently below the level at which annihilation becomes preferable to continued existence.
In the long run, as the emulation era gives way to an artificial intelligence era (or if machine intelligence is attained directly via AI without a preceding whole brain emulation stage) pain and pleasure might possibility disappear entirely in a multipolar outcome, since a hedonic reward mechanism may not be the most effective motivation system for a complex artificial agent (one that, unlike the human mind, is not burdened with the legacy of animal wetware). Perhaps a more advanced motivation system would be based on an explicit representation of a utility function or some other architecture that has not exact functional analogs to pleasure and pain.
A related but slightly more radical multipolar outcome–one that could involve the elimination of almost all value from the future–is that the universal proletariat would not even be conscious. This possibility is most salient with respect to AI, which might be structured very differently than human intelligence. But even if machine intelligence were initially achieved through whole brain emulation, resulting in conscious digital minds, the competitive forces unleashed in a post-transition economy could easily lead to the emergence of progressively less neuromorphic forms of machine intelligence, either because synthetic AI is created de novo or because the emulations would, through successive modifications and enhancements, increasingly depart their original human form.
* Scenarios where sentient emulations are being used to do maximally efficient work.
** Footnote: “An ethical evaluation might take into account many other factors as well. Even if all the workers were constantly well pleased with their condition, the outcome might still be deeply morally objectionable on other grounds–though which other grounds is a matter of dispute between rival moral theories. But any plausible assessment would consider subjective well-being to be one important factor. See also Bostrom and Yudkowsky (2015).”
“It seems plain and self-evident, yet it needs to be said: the isolated knowledge obtained by a group of specialists in a narrow field has in itself no value whatsoever, but only in its synthesis with all the rest of knowledge and only inasmuch as it really contributes in this synthesis toward answering the demand, ‘Who are we?'”
– Erwin Schrödinger in Science and Humanism (1951)
“Should you or not commit suicide? This is a good question. Why go on? And you only go on if the game is worth the candle. Now, the universe is been going on for an incredibly long time. Really, a satisfying theory of the universe should be one that’s worth betting on. That seems to me to be absolutely elementary common sense. If you make a theory of the universe which isn’t worth betting on… why bother? Just commit suicide. But if you want to go on playing the game, you’ve got to have an optimal theory for playing the game. Otherwise there’s no point in it.”
In this article we provide a novel framework for ethics which focuses on the perennial battle between wellbeing-oriented consciousness-centric values and valueless patterns who happen to be great at making copies of themselves (aka. Consciousness vs. Pure Replicators). This framework extends and generalizes modern accounts of ethics and intuitive wisdom, making intelligible numerous paradigms that previously lived in entirely different worlds (e.g. incongruous aesthetics and cultures). We place this worldview within a novel scale of ethical development with the following levels: (a) The Battle Between Good and Evil, (b) The Balance Between Good and Evil, (c) Gradients of Wisdom, and finally, the view that we advocate: (d) Consciousness vs. Pure Replicators. More so, we analyze each of these worldviews in light of our philosophical background assumptions and posit that (a), (b), and (c) are, at least in spirit, approximations to (d), except that they are less lucid, more confused, and liable to exploitation by pure replicators. Finally, we provide a mathematical formalization of the problem at hand, and discuss the ways in which different theories of consciousness may affect our calculations. We conclude with a few ideas for how to avoid particularly negative scenarios.
Throughout human history, the big picture account of the nature, purpose, and limits of reality has evolved dramatically. All religions, ideologies, scientific paradigms, and even aesthetics have background philosophical assumptions that inform their worldviews. One’s answers to the questions “what exists?” and “what is good?” determine the way in which one evaluates the merit of beings, ideas, states of mind, algorithms, and abstract patterns.
Kuhn’s claim that different scientific paradigms are mutually unintelligible (e.g. consciousness realism vs. reductive eliminativism) can be extended to worldviews in a more general sense. It is unlikely that we’ll be able to convey the Consciousness vs. Pure Replicators paradigm by justifying each of the assumptions used to arrive to it one by one starting from current ways of thinking about reality. This is because these background assumptions support each other and are, individually, not derivable from current worldviews. They need to appear together as a unit to hang together tight. Hence, we now make the jump and show you, without further due, all of the background assumptions we need:
These assumptions have been discussed in previous articles. In the meantime, here is a brief description: (1) is the claim that consciousness is an element of reality rather than simply the improper reification of illusory phenomena, such that your conscious experience right now is as much a factual and determinate aspect of reality as, say, the rest mass of an electron. In turn, (2) qualia formalism is the notion that consciousness is in principle quantifiable. Assumption (3) states that valence (i.e. the pleasure/pain axis, how good an experience feels) depends of the structure of such experience (more formally, on the properties of the mathematical object isomorphic to its phenomenology).
(4) is the assumption that people’s behavior is motivated by the pleasure-pain axis even when they think that’s not the case. For instance, people may explicitly represent the reason for doing things in terms of concrete facts about the circumstance, and the pleasure principle does not deny that such reasons are important. Rather, it merely says that such reasons are motivating because one expects/anticipates less negative valence or more positive valence. The Tyranny of the Intentional Object describes the fact that we attribute changes in our valence to external events and objects, and believe that such events and objects are intrinsically good (e.g. we think “icecream is great” rather than “I feel good when I eat icecream”).
Physicalism (5) in this context refers to the notion that the equations of physics fully describe the causal behavior of reality. In other words, the universe behaves according to physical laws and even consciousness has to abide by this fact.
Open Individualism (6) is the claim that we are all one consciousness, in some sense. Even though it sounds crazy at first, there are rigorous philosophical arguments in favor of this view. Whether this is true or not is, for the purpose of this article, less relevant than the fact that we can experience it as true, which happens to have both practical and ethical implications for how society might evolve.
Finally, (7) Universal Darwinism refers to the claim that natural selection works at every level of organization. The explanatory power of evolution and fitness landscapes generated by selection pressures is not confined to the realm of biology. Rather, it is applicable all the way from the quantum foam to, possibly, an ecosystem of universes.
The power of a given worldview is not only its capacity to explain our observations about the inanimate world and the quality of our experience, but also in its capacity to explain *in its own terms* the reasons for why other worldviews are popular as well. In what follows we will utilize these background assumptions to evaluate other worldviews.
The Four Worldviews About Ethics
The following four stages describe a plausible progression of thoughts about ethics and the question “what is valuable?” as one learns more about the universe and philosophy. Despite the similarity of the first three levels to the levels of other scales of moral development (e.g. this, this, this, etc.), we believe that the fourth level is novel, understudied, and very, very important.
1. The “Battle Between Good and Evil” Worldview
“Every distinction wants to become the distinction between good and evil.” – Michael Vassar (source)
Common-sensical notions of essential good and evil are pre-scientific. For reasons too complicated to elaborate on for the time being, the human mind is capable of evoking an agentive sense of ultimate goodness (and of ultimate evil).
Good vs. Evil? God vs. the Devil?
Children are often taught that there are good people and bad people. That evil beings exist objectively, and that it is righteous to punish them and see them with scorn. On this level people reify anti-social behaviors as sins.
Essentializing good and evil, and tying it up to entities seems to be an early developmental stage of people’s conception of ethics, and many people end up perpetually stuck in here. Several religions (specially the Abrahamic ones) are often practiced in such a way so as to reinforce this worldview. That said, many ideologies take advantage of the fact that a large part of the population is at this level to recruit adherents by redefining “what good and bad is” according to the needs of such ideologies. As a psychological attitude (rather than as a theory of the universe), reactionary and fanatical social movements often rely implicitly on this way of seeing the world, where there are bad people (jews, traitors, infidels, over-eaters, etc.) who are seen as corrupting the soul of society and who deserve to have their fundamental badness exposed and exorcised with punishment in front of everyone else.
Traditional notions of God vs. the Devil can be interpreted as the personification of positive and negative valence
Implicitly, this view tends to gain psychological strength from the background assumptions of Closed Individualism (which allows you to imagine that people can be essentially bad). Likewise, this view tends to be naïve about the importance of valence in ethics. Good feelings are often interpreted as the result of being aligned with fundamental goodness, rather than as positive states of consciousness that happen to be triggered by a mix of innate and programmable things (including cultural identifications). More so, good feelings that don’t come in response to the preconceived universal order are seen as demonic and aberrant.
From our point of view (the 7 background assumptions above) we interpret this particular worldview as something that we might be biologically predisposed to buy into. Believing in the battle between good and evil was probably evolutionarily adaptive in our ancestral environment, and might reduce many frictional costs that arise from having a more subtle view of reality (e.g. “The cheaper people are to model, the larger the groups that can be modeled well enough to cooperate with them.” – Michale Vassar). Thus, there are often pragmatic reasons to adopt this view, specially when the social environment does not have enough resources to sustain a more sophisticated worldview. Additionally, at an individual level, creating strong boundaries around what is or not permissible can be helpful when one has low levels of impulse control (though it may come at the cost of reduced creativity).
On this level, explicit wireheading (whether done right or not) is perceived as either sinful (defying God’s punishment) or as a sort of treason (disengaging from the world). Whether one feels good or not should be left to the whims of the higher order. On the flipside, based on the pleasure principle it is possible to interpret the desire to be righteous as being motivated by high valence states, and reinforced by social approval, all the while the tyranny of the intentional object cloaks this dynamic.
TVTropes has a great summary of the sorts of narratives that express this particular worldview and I highly recommend reading that article to gain insight into the moral attitudes compatible with this view. For example, here are some reasons why Good cannot or should not win:
Good winning includes: the universe becoming boring, society stagnating or collapsing from within in the absence of something to struggle against or giving people a chance to show real nobility and virtue by risking their lives to defend each other. Other times, it’s enforced by depicting ultimate good as repressive (often Lawful Stupid), or by declaring concepts such as free will or ambition as evil. In other words “too much of a good thing”.
Now, the stated reasons why people might buy into this view are rarely their true reasons. Deep down, the Balance Between Good and Evil is adopted because: people want to differentiate themselves from those who believe in (1) to signal intellectual sophistication, they experience learned helplessness after trying to defeat evil without success (often in the form of resilient personal failings or societal flaws), they find the view compelling at an intuitive emotional level (i.e. they have internalized the hedonic treadmill and project it onto the rest of reality).
In all of these cases, though, there is something somewhat paradoxical about holding this view. And that is that people report that coming to terms with the fact that not everything can be good is itself a cause of relief, self-acceptance, and happiness. In other words, holding this belief is often mood-enhancing. One can also confirm the fact that this view is emotionally load-bearing by observing the psychological reaction that such people have to, for example, bringing up the Hedonistic Imperative (which asserts that eliminating suffering without sacrificing anything of value is scientifically possible), indefinite life extension, or the prospect of super-intelligence. Rarely are people at this level intellectually curious about these ideas, and they come up with excuses to avoid looking at the evidence, however compelling it may be.
For example, some people are lucky enough to be born with a predisposition to being hyperthymic (which, contrary to preconceptions, does the opposite of making you a couch potato). People’s hedonic set-point is at least partly genetically determined, and simply avoiding some variants of the SCN9A gene with preimplantation genetic diagnosis would greatly reduce the number of people who needlessly suffer from chronic pain.
But this is not seen with curious eyes by people who hold this or the previous worldview. Why? Partly this is because it would be painful to admit that both oneself and others are stuck in a local maxima of wellbeing and that examining alternatives might yield very positive outcomes (i.e. omission bias). But at its core, this willful ignorance can be explained as a consequence of the fact that people at this level get a lot of positive valence from interpreting present and past suffering in such a way that it becomes tied to their core identity. Pride in having overcome their past sufferings, and personal attachment to their current struggles and anxieties binds them to this worldview.
If it wasn’t clear from the previous paragraph, this worldview often requires a special sort of chronic lack of self-insight. It ultimately relies on a psychological trick. One never sees people who hold this view voluntarily breaking their legs, taking poison, or burning their assets to increase the goodness elsewhere as an act of altruism. Instead, one uses this worldview as a mood-booster, and in practice, it is also susceptible to the same sort of fanaticism as the first one (although somewhat less so). “There can be no light without the dark. And so it is with magic. Myself, I always try to live within the light.” – Horace Slughorn.
Additionally, this view helps people rationalize the negative aspects of one’s community and culture. For example, it not uncommon for people to say that buying factory farmed meat is acceptable on the grounds that “some things have to die/suffer for others to live/enjoy life.” Balance Between Good and Evil is a close friend of status quo bias.
Hinduism, Daoism, and quite a few interpretations of Buddhism work best within this framework. Getting closer to God and ultimate reality is not done by abolishing evil, but by embracing the unity of all and fostering a healthy balance between health and sickness.
It’s also worth noting that the balance between good and evil tends to be recursively applied, so that one is not able to “re-define our utility function from ‘optimizing the good’ to optimizing ‘the balance of good and evil’ with a hard-headed evidence-based consequentialist approach.” Indeed, trying to do this is then perceived as yet another incarnation of good (or evil) which needs to also be balanced with its opposite (willful ignorance and fuzzy thinking). One comes to the conclusion that it is the fuzzy thinking itself that people at this level are after: to blur reality just enough to make it seem good, and to feel like one is not responsible for the suffering in the world (specially by inaction and lack of thinking clearly about how one could help). “Reality is only a Rorschach ink-blot, you know” – Alan Watts. So this becomes a justification for thinking less than one really has to about the suffering in the world. Then again, it’s hard to blame people for trying to keep the collective standards of rigor lax, given the high proportion of fanatics who adhere to the “battle between good and evil” worldview, and who will jump the gun to demonize anyone who is slacking off and not stressed out all the time, constantly worrying about the question “could I do more?”
David Chapman’s HTML book Meaningness might describe both of the previous worldviews as variants of eternalism. In the context of his work, eternalism refers to the notion that there is an absolute order and meaning to existence. When applied to codes of conduct, this turns into “ethical eternalism”, which he defines as: “the stance that there is a fixed ethical code according to which we should live. The eternal ordering principle is usually seen as the source of the code.” Chapman eloquently argues that eternalism has many side effects, including: deliberate stupidity, attachment to abusive dynamics, constant disappointment and self-punishment, and so on. By realizing that, in some sense, no one knows what the hell is going on (and those who do are just pretending) one takes the first step towards the “Gradients of Wisdom” worldview.
At this level people realize that there is no evil essence. Some might talk about this in terms of there “not being good or bad people”, but rather just degrees of impulse control, knowledge about the world, beliefs about reality, emotional stability, and so on. A villain’s soul is not connected to some kind of evil reality. Rather, his or her actions can be explained by the causes and conditions that led to his or her psychological make-up.
Sam Harris’ ideas as expressed in The Moral Landscape evoke this stage very clearly. Sam explains that just as health is a fuzzy but important concept, so is psychological wellbeing, and that for such a reason we can objectively assess cultures as more or less in agreement with human flourishing.
Indeed, many people who are at this level do believe in valence structuralism, where they recognize that there are states of consciousness that are inherently better in some intrinsic subjective value sense than others.
However, there is usually no principled framework to assess whether a certain future is indeed optimal or not. There is little hard-headed discussion of population ethics for fear of sounding unwise or insensitive. And when push comes to shove, they lack good arguments to decisively rule out why particular situations might be bad. In other words, there is room for improvement, and such improvement might eventually come from more rigor and bullet-bitting. In particular, a more direct examination of the implications of: Open Individualism, the Tyranny of the Intentional Object, and Universal Darwinism can allow someone on this level to make a breakthrough. Here is where we come to:
4. The “Consciousness vs. Pure Replicators” Worldview
I will define a pure replicator, in the context of agents and minds, to be an intelligence that is indifferent towards the valence of its conscious states and those of others. A pure replicator invests all of its energy and resources into surviving and reproducing, even at the cost of continuous suffering to themselves or others. Its main evolutionary advantage is that it does not need to spend any resources making the world a better place.
Presumably our genes are pure replicators. But we, as sentient minds who recognize the intrinsic value (both positive and negative) of conscious experiences, are not pure replicators. Thanks to a myriad of fascinating dynamics, it so happened that making minds who love, appreciate, think creatively, and philosophize was a side effect of the process of refining the selfishness of our genes. We must not take for granted that we are more than pure replicators ourselves, and that we care both about our wellbeing and the wellbeing of others. The problem now is that the particular selection pressures that led to this may not be present in the future. After all, digital and genetic technologies are drastically changing the fitness landscape for patterns that are good at making copies of themselves.
In an optimistic scenario, future selection pressures will make us all naturally gravitate towards super-happiness. This is what David Pearce posits in his essay “The Biointelligence Explosion”:
As the reproductive revolution of “designer babies” gathers pace, prospective parents will pre-select alleles and allelic combinations for a new child in anticipation of their behavioural effects – a novel kind of selection pressure to replace the “blind” genetic roulette of natural selection. In time, routine embryo screening via preimplantation genetic diagnosis will be complemented by gene therapy, genetic enhancement and then true designer zygotes. In consequence, life on Earth will also become progressively happier as the hedonic treadmill is recalibrated. In the new reproductive era, hedonic set-points and intelligence alike will be ratcheted upwards in virtue of selection pressure. For what parent-to-be wants to give birth to a low-status depressive “loser”? Future parents can enjoy raising a normal transhuman supergenius who grows up to be faster than Usain Bolt, more beautiful than Marilyn Monroe, more saintly than Nelson Mandela, more creative than Shakespeare – and smarter than Einstein.
In a pessimistic scenario, the selection pressures lead to the opposite direction, where negative experiences are the only states of consciousness that happen to be evolutionarily adaptive, and so they become universally used.
There is at least some encouraging facts that suggest it is not too late to prevent a pure replicator takeover. There are memes, states of consciousness, and resources that can be used in order to steer evolution in a positive directions. In particular, as of 2017:
There is a large fraction of the population who is altruistic and would be willing to cooperate with the rest of the world to avoid catastrophic scenarios.
Happy people are more motivated, productive, engaged, and ultimately, economically useful (see hyperthimic temperament).
Many people have explored Open Individualism and are interested (or at least curious) about the idea that we are all one.
A lot of people are fascinated by psychedelics and the non-ordinary states of consciousness that they induce.
MDMA-like consciousness is both very positive in terms of its valence, but also, amazingly, extremely pro-social, and future sustainable versions of it could be recruited to stabilize societies where the highest value is the collective wellbeing.
It is important to not underestimate the power of the facts laid out above. If we get our act together and create a Manhattan Project of Consciousness we might be able to find sustainable, reliable, and powerful methods that stabilize a hyper-motivated, smart, super-happy and super-prosocial state of consciousness in a large fraction of the population. In the future, we may all by default identify with consciousness itself rather than with our bodies (or our genes), and be intrinsically (and rationally) motivated to collaborate with everyone else to create as much happiness as possible as well as to eradicate suffering with technology. And if we are smart enough, we might also be able to solidify this state of affairs, or at least shield it against pure replicator takeovers.
The beginnings of that kind of society may already be underway. Consider for example the contrast between Burning Man and Las Vegas. Burning Man is a place that works as a playground for exploring post-Darwinean social dynamics, in which people help each other overcome addictions and affirm their commitment to helping all of humanity. Las Vegas, on the other hand, might be described as a place that is filled to the top with pure replicators in the forms of memes, addictions, and denial. The present world has the potential for both kind of environments, and we do not yet know which one will outlive the other in the long run.
Formalizing the Problem
We want to specify the problem in a way that will make it mathematically intelligible. In brief, in this section we focus on specifying what it means to be a pure replicator in formal terms. Per the definition, we know that pure replicators will use resources as efficiently as possible to make copies of themselves, and will not care about the negative consequences of their actions. And in the context of using brains, computers, and other systems whose states might have moral significance (i.e. they can suffer), they will simply care about the overall utility of such systems for whatever purpose they may require. Such utility will be a function of both the accuracy with which the system performs it’s task, as well as its overall efficiency in terms of resources like time, space, and energy.
Simply phrased, we want to be able to answer the question: Given a certain set of constraints such as energy, matter, and physical conditions (temperature, radiation, etc.), what is the amount of pleasure and pain involved in the most efficient implementation of a given predefined input-output mapping?
The image above represents the relevant components of a system that might be used for some purpose by an intelligence. We have the inputs, the outputs, the constraints (such as temperature, materials, etc.) and the efficiency metrics. Let’s unpack this. In the general case, an intelligence will try to find a system with the appropriate trade-off between efficiency and accuracy. We can wrap up this as an “efficiency metric function”, e(o|i, s, c) which encodes the following meaning: “e(o|i, s, c) = the efficiency with which a given output is generated given the input, the system being used, and the physical constraints in place.”
Now, we introduce the notion of the “valence for the system given a particular input” (i.e. the valence for the system’s state in response to such an input). Let’s call this v(s|i). It is worth pointing out that whether valence can be computed, and whether it is even a meaningfully objective property of a system is highly controversial (e.g. “Measuring Happiness and Suffering“). Our particular take (at QRI) is that valence is a mathematical property that can be decoded from the mathematical object whose properties are isomorphic to a system’s phenomenology (see: Principia Qualia: Part II – Valence, and also Quantifying Bliss). If so, then there is a matter of fact about just how good/bad an experience is. For the time being we will assume that valence is indeed quantifiable, given that we are working under the premise of valence structuralism (as stated in our list of assumptions). We thus define the overall utility for a given output as U(e(o|i, s, c), v(s|i)), where the valence of the system may or may not be taken into account. In turn, an intelligence is said to be altruistic if it cares about the valence of the system in addition to its efficiency, so that it’s utility function penalizes negative valence (and rewards positive valence).
Now, the intelligence (altruistic or not) utilizing the system will also have to take into account the overall range of inputs the system will be used to process in order to determine how valuable the system is overall. For this reason, we define the expected value of the system as the utility of each input multiplied by its probability.
(Note: a more complete formalization would also weight in the importance of each input-output transformation, in addition to their frequency). Moving on, we can now define the overall expected utility for the system given the distribution of inputs it’s used for, its valence, its efficiency metrics, and its constraints as E[U(s|v, e, c, P(I))]:
The last equation shows that the intelligence would choose the system that maximizes E[U(s|v, e, c, P(I))].
Pure replicators will be better at surviving as long as the chances of reproducing do not depend on their altruism. If altruism does not reduce such reproductive fitness, then:
Given two intelligences that are competing for existence and/or resources to make copies of themselves and fight against other intelligences, there is going to be a strong incentive to choose a system that maximizes the efficiency metrics regardless of the valence of the system.
In the long run, then, we’d expect to see only non-altruistic intelligences (i.e. intelligences with utility functions that are indifferent to the valence of the systems it uses to process information). In other words, as evolution pushes intelligences to optimize the efficiency metrics of the systems they employ, it also pushes them to stop caring about the wellbeing of such systems. In other words, evolution pushes intelligences to become pure replicators in the long run.
Hence we should ask: How can altruism increase the chances of reproduction? A possibility would be for the environment to reward entities that are altruistic. Unfortunately, in the long run we might see that environments that reward altruistic entities produce less efficient entities than environments that don’t. If there are two very similar environments, one which rewards altruism and one which doesn’t, the efficiency of the entities in the latter might become so much higher than in the former that they become able to takeover and destroy whatever mechanism is implementing such reward for altruism in the former. Thus, we suggest to find environments in which rewarding altruism is baked into their very nature, such that similar environments without such reward either don’t exist or are too unstable to exist for the amount of time it takes to evolve non-altruistic entities. This and other similar approaches will be explored further in Part II.
A key insight is that the formalization presented above is agnostic about one’s theory of consciousness. We are simply assuming that it’s possible to compute the valence of the system in terms of its state. How one goes about computing such valence, though, will depend on how one maps physical systems to experiences. Getting into the weeds of the countless theories of consciousness out there would not be very productive at this stage, but there is still value in defining the rough outline of kinds of theories of consciousness. In particular, we categorize (physicalist) theories of consciousness in terms of the level of abstraction they identify as the place in which to look for consciousness.
Behaviorism and similar accounts simply associate consciousness to input-output mappings, which can be described, in Marr’s terms, as the computational level of abstraction. In this case, v(s|i) would not depend on the details of the system as much as in what it does from a third person point of view. Behaviorists don’t care what’s in the Chinese Room; all they care about is if the Chinese Room can scribble “I’m in pain” as an output. How we can formalize a mathematical equation to infer whether a system is suffering from a behaviorist point of view is beyond me, but maybe someone might want to give it a shot. As a side note, behaviorists historically were not very concerned about pain or pleasure, and there cause to believe that behaviorism itself might be anti-depressant for people for whom introspection results in more pain than pleasure.
Functionalism (along with computational theories of mind) defines consciousness as the sum-total of the functional properties of systems. In turn, this means that consciousness arises at the algorithmic level of abstraction. Contrary to common misconception, functionalists do care about how the Chinese Room is implemented: contra behaviorists, they do not usually agree that a Chinese Room implemented with a look-up table is conscious.*
As such v(s|i) will depend on the algorithms that the system is implementing. Thus, as an intermediary step, one would need a function that takes the system as an input and returns the algorithms that the system is implementing as an output, A(s). Only once we have A(s) we would then be able to infer the valence of the system. Which algorithms, and for what reason, are in fact hedonically-charged has yet to be clarified. Committed functionalists often associate reinforcement learning with pleasure and pain, and one could imagine that as philosophy of mind gets more rigorous and takes into account more advancements in neuroscience and AI, we will see more hypothesis being made about what kinds of algorithms result in phenomenal pain (and pleasure). There are many (still fuzzy) problems to be solved for this account to work even in principle. Indeed, there is a reason to believe that the question “what algorithms is this system performing?” has no definite answer, and it surely isn’t frame-invariant in the same way that a physical state might be. The fact that algorithms do not carve nature at its joints would imply that consciousness is not really a well-defined element of reality either. But rather than this working as a reductio-ad-absurdum of functionalism, many of its proponents have instead turned around to conclude that consciousness itself is not a natural kind. This does represent an important challenge in order to define the valence of the system, and makes the problem of detecting and avoiding pure replicators extra challenging. Admirably so, this is not stopping some from trying anyway.
Finally, Non-Materialist Physicalism locates consciousness at the implementation level of abstraction. This general account of consciousness refers to the notion that the intrinsic nature of the physical is qualia. There are many related views that for the purpose of this article should be good enough approximations: panpsychism, panexperientialism, neutral monism, Russellian monism, etc. Basically, this view takes seriously both the equations of physics and the idea that what they describe is the behavior of qualia. A big advantage of this view is that there is a matter-of-fact about what a system is composed of. Indeed, both in relativity and quantum mechanics, the underlying nature of a system is frame-invariant, such that its fundamental (intrinsic and causal) properties do not depend on one’s frame of reference. In order to obtain v(s|i) we will need to obtain this frame-invariant description of what the system is in a given state. Thus, we need a function that takes as input physical measurements of the system and returns the best possible approximation to what is actually going on under the hood, Ph(s). And only with this function Ph(s) we would be ready to compute the valence of the system. Now, in practice we might not need a plank-length description of the system, since the mathematical property that describes it’s valence might turn out to be well-approximated with high-level features of it.
The main problem with Non-Materialist Physicalism comes when one considers systems that have similar efficiency metrics, are performing the same algorithms, and look the same in all of the relevant respects from a third-person point, and yet do not have the same experience. In brief: if physical rather than functional aspects of systems map to conscious experiences, it seems likely that we could find two systems that do the same (input-output mapping), do it in the same way (algorithms), and yet one is conscious and the other isn’t.
This kind of scenario is what has pushed many to conclude that functionalism is the only viable alternative, since at this point consciousness would seem epiphenomenal (e.g. Zombies Redacted). And indeed, if this was the case, it would seem to be a mere matter of chance that our brains are implemented with the right stuff to be conscious, since the nature of such stuff is not essential to the algorithms that actually end up processing the information. You cannot speak to stuff, but you can speak to an algorithm. So how do we even know we have the right stuff to be conscious?
The way to respond to this very valid criticism is for Non-Materialist Physicalism to postulate that bound states of consciousness have computational properties. In brief, epiphenomenalism cannot be true. But this does not rule out Non-Materialist Physicalism for the simple reason that the quality of states of consciousness might be involved in processing information. Enter…
The Computational Properties of Consciousness
Let’s leave behaviorism behind for the time being. In what ways do functionalism and non-materialist physicalism differ in the context of information processing? In the former, consciousness is nothing other than certain kinds of information processing, whereas in the latter conscious states can be used for information processing. An example of this falls out of taking David Pearce’s theory of consciousness seriously. In his account, the phenomenal binding problem (i.e. “if we are made of atoms, how come our experience contains many pieces of information at once?”, see: The Combination Problem for Panpsychism) is solved via quantum coherence. Thus, a given moment of consciousness is a definite physical system that works as a unit. Conscious states are ontologically unitary, and not merely functionally unitary.
If this is the case, there would be a good reason for evolution to recruit conscious states to process information. Simply put, given a set of constraints, using quantum coherence might be the most efficient way to solve some computational problems. Thus, evolution might have stumbled upon a computational jackpot by creating neurons whose (extremely) fleeting quantum coherence could be used to solve constraint satisfaction problems in ways that would be more energetically expensive to do otherwise. In turn, over many millions of years, brains got really good at using consciousness in order to efficiently process information. It is thus not an accident that we are conscious, that our conscious experiences are unitary, that our world-simulations use a wide range of qualia varieties, and so on. All of these seemingly random, seemingly epiphenomenal, aspects of our existence happen to be computationally advantageous. Just as using quantum computing for factorizing prime numbers, or for solving problems amenable to annealing might give quantum computers a computational edge over their non-quantum counterparts, so is using bound conscious experiences helpful to outcompete non-sentient animals.
Of course, there is yet no evidence of macroscopic decoherence and the brain is too hot anyway, so on the face of it Pearce’s theory seems exceedingly unlikely. But its explanatory power should not be dismissed out of hand, and the fact that it makes empirically testable predictions is noteworthy (how often do consciousness theorists make precise predictions to falsify their theories?).
Whether it is via quantum coherence, entanglement, invariants of the gauge field, or any other deep physical property of reality, non-materialist physicalism can avert the spectre of epiphenomenalism by postulating that the relevant properties of matter that make us conscious are precisely those that give our brains a computational edge (relative to what evolution was able to find in the vicinity of the fitness landscape explored in our history).
Will Pure Replicators Use Valence Gradients at All?
Whether we work under the assumption of functionalism or non-materialist physicalism, we already know that our genes found happiness and suffering to be evolutionary advantageous. So we know that there is at least a set of constraints, efficiency metrics, and input-output mappings that make both phenomenal pleasure and pain very good algorithms (functionalism) or physical implementations (non-materialist physicalism). But will the parameters necessitated by replicators in the long-term future have these properties? Remember that evolution was only able to explore a restricted state-space of possible brain implementations delimited by the pre-existing gene pool (and the behavioral requirements provided by the environment). So, in one extreme case, it may be the case that a fully optimized brain simply does not need consciousness to solve problems. And in another extreme, it may turn out that consciousness is extraordinarily more powerful when used in an optimal way. Would this be good or bad?
What’s the best case scenario? Well, the absolute best possible case is a case so optimistic and incredibly lucky that if it turned out to be true, it would probably make me believe in a benevolent God (or Simulation). This is the case where it turns out that only positive valence gradients are computationally superior to every other alternative given a set of constraints, input-output mappings, and arbitrary efficiency functions. In this case, the most powerful pure replicators, despite their lack of altruism, will nonetheless be pumping out massive amounts of systems that produce unspeakable levels of bliss. It’s as if the very nature of this universe is blissful… we simply happen to suffer because we are stuck in a tiny wrinkle at the foothills of the optimization process of evolution.
In the extreme opposite case, it turns out that only negative valence gradients offer strict computational benefits under heavy optimization. This would be Hell. Or at least, it would tend towards Hell in the long run. If this happens to be the universe we live in, let’s all agree to either conspire to prevent evolution from moving on, or figure out the way to turn it off. In the long term, we’d expect every being alive (or AI, upload, etc.) to be a zombie or a piece of dolorium. Not a fun idea.
In practice, it’s much more likely that both positive and negative valence gradients will be of some use in some contexts. Figuring out exactly which contexts these are might be both extremely important, and also extremely dangerous. In particular, finding out in advance which computational tasks make positive valence gradients a superior alternative to other methods of doing the relevant computations would inform us about the sorts of cultures, societies, religions, and technologies that we should be promoting in order to give this a push in the right direction (and hopefully out-run the environments that would make negative valence gradients adaptive).
Unless we create a Singleton early on, it’s likely that by default all future entities in the long-term future will be non-altruistic pure replicators. But it is also possible that there are multiple attractors (i.e. evolutionarily stable ecosystems) in which different computational properties of consciousness are adaptive. Thus the case for pushing our evolutionary history in the right direction right now before we give up.
Coming Next: The Hierarchy of Cooperators
Now that we covered the four worldviews, formalized what it means to be a pure replicator, and analyzed the possible future outcomes based on the computational properties of consciousness (and of valence gradients in particular), we are ready to face the game of reality in its own terms.
Team Consciousness, we need to to get our act together. We need a systematic worldview, availability of states of consciousness, set of beliefs and practices to help us prevent pure replicator takeovers.
But we cannot do this as long as we are in the dark about the sorts of entities, both consciousness-focused and pure replicators, who are likely to arise in the future in response to the selection pressures that cultural and technological change are likely to produce. In Part II of The Universal Plot we will address this and more. Stay tuned…
* Rather, they usually claim that, given that a Chinese Room is implemented with physical material from this universe and subject to the typical constraints of this world, it is extremely unlikely that a universe-sized look-up table would be producing the output. Hence, the algorithms that are producing the output are probably highly complex and using information processing with human-like linguistic representations, which means that, by all means, the Chinese Room it very likely understanding what it is outputting.
** Related Work:
Here is a list of literature that points in the direction of Consciousness vs. Pure Replicators. There are countless more worthwhile references, but I think that these ones are about the best:
[Content Warning: Deals with heavy topics including gruesome deaths, fear of the multiverse, bad trips, possible meme hazards, and psychotic delusions. Epistemic Status: Confident in about half of the content; the rest is extremely speculative. Everything in this text is subject to heavy revision upon learning more information. I wrote this in a haste right after Burning Man before my state-specific memory access went away. Please take this writeup with a giant grain of salt]
This is the first year that I attended Burning Man. I do not claim to be a Burning Man expert. I’m just a consciousness researcher who happened to attend the Burn and found the experience amazing and insightful. So much so that that writing 13,500+ words about it seemed appropriate. Here goes nothing.
I arrived on the morning of the first day (Sunday the 27th of August) and left on Monday (4th of September). I intellectually know that I only spent eight full nights and seven full days at the Playa, but my visceral feeling of time refuses to acknowledge this fact. Like a heavy acid trip, at Burning Man time expands beyond recognition. The experience maxes out one’s novelty detection mechanisms (latent inhibition be damned) and leads you to conclude that a lifetime has happened. Before my brain readjusts to consensus reality, here goes my candid impressions about the event and the insights that came together during it. As it turns out, I think that Burning Man is a profoundly significant event with far-reaching implications. While from afar it is easy to dismiss it as a mere techie-filled psychedelic-fueled hedonistic festival, the truth is that Burning Man may be one of the few key outlets in the world for the exploration of potential futures that are truly worth living. I.e. Post-Darwinian societies. More on this later.
It is notoriously hard to boil down the experience into just a few take-aways (example). Burning Man does not lend itself to dimensionality reduction; merely talking about the mental forces that make up the memetic constituents of the population of Black Rock City (predominantly: artists, spiritual practitioners, scientists, environmentalists, techies, philosophers, and qualia lovers) would be akin to describing a biological plant merely in terms of the atomic elements found within it. It’s true that if you grind it down to a fine powder, vaporize it (to break down its proteins and molecules), and then analyze such vapor with X-ray spectroscopy you will characterize the percentage of carbon, nitrogen, potassium, etc. atoms in it. And while this is a necessary part of a full description of such a plant, the elemental breakdown of its composition just scratches the surface of what the plant truly is. This is analogous to the Burn, for Burning Man’s most interesting aspects, like those of a living organism, are to be found at high levels of emergence. In the case of biological organisms we are talking about the large scale assemblies of biomolecules (themselves already complex) implementing elaborate interdependent metabolic functions working together to bring about finely tuned adaptive behavior. Oftentimes, biological organisms utilize the properties of basement reality (i.e. quantum fields) to implement functions that would have formerly been described as strongly emergent (i.e. as metaphysically supervening properties bigger than the mere sum of their parts), as is currently studied by the budding field of quantum biology. At Burning Man something akin to this may be going on as well: you find that people, emotions, and memes come together to create pods, camps, and happenings that are best described as energetic contingents of collective states of consciousness, all of which turn out to have mind-boggling emergent properties unavailable without the high levels of trust, openness, creativity, and coherence beneath the surface. Thus the futility of describing it in terms of what goes into it. Better to address the resulting (emergent) phenomena. More on this later.
According to the 2016 Burning Man Census the number one reason that Burners selected as the source of wonderful memories at Burning Man was the people. I personally found this to be very much the case. Although from afar one may think that BM attendees are largely psychedelic junkies, misguided hippies, and sentimental environmentalists, the truth is that the people in the Playa are extraordinary in multiple ways. It almost feels as if the art, the music, the workshops, and the principles are not the core attraction. Rather, these elements are merely an excuse to bring together amazing people who have a high probability of having deeply meaningful interactions and developing symbiotic relationships with each other for the betterment of humanity.
Burners are highly educated. According to the Educational Attainment in the United States Wikipedia article, 36% of Americans between 25 and 34 years old have a bachelor’s degree or above (32% for those between 45 to 64, and 27% for those 65 and above), compared to 74.5% of the 2016 Burning Man attendees (of all ages). Additionally, 31.3% of them had a graduate degree, which is an insanely high figure when compared to the national baserate (11% for Americans above the age of 25). More so, this number has been steadily growing over the last few years. In other words, for what seems like an arts and crafts festival, this was an exceptionally well educated crowd. And yet, education is only scratching the surface of what makes these people interesting.
The Educational Attainment of Burners
I have attended academic conferences, rationalist meetups, meditation gatherings, psychedelic festivals, and even amazing events like Psychedelic Science, Effective Altruism Global, and The Science of Consciousness. The people I meet at these events often impress me in many ways, and talking to them has reinforced my conviction that humanity is indeed capable of bringing about a marvelous world free from unnecessary suffering. In light of these previous experiences I certainly did not anticipate being surprised by the people at Burning Man. I was wrong. While it’s true that not everyone at Burning Man is exceptional (“we are all unique, but not everyone is uniquely unique”), the base rate of people who deeply impressed me was possibly higher than at any other gathering of people I’ve ever been to. The consistent feeling I got was one of people who actually cared.
Here is a little project I’d love to see carried out: someone should take the time to conduct a cluster analysis of the people attending Burning Man using features such as their beliefs about reality, their lifestyle, their preferred social circles, etc. Simply based on my experience, I’d say that the main clusters featured would be: Spiritually serious people with thousands of hours of practice under their belt (50% of Burners describe themselves as “spiritual but not religious”), career ecologists who are looking for ways to live without leaving a footprint on the planet (“leave no trace”), social workers, programmers & rationalists, high grade hedonists, psychologists, and philosophical seekers.
I find that one of the most powerful aspects of Burning Man is that its participants were mostly open, ready, and willing to have their minds changed. Sure, we are all attached to our preexisting views about reality, and it’s always painful to let go of them. But the vibe of the place, perhaps through a combination of personality types, empathogenic and psychedelic drugs, and free-floating love made it seem ok to let one’s deeply held beliefs cross-pollinate with those of others. Whether this was because of the high degree of openness to experience, relatively high conscientiousness (merely packing for the whole trip selects out people who can’t be bothered), typically high intelligence, or solid pro-sociality (disagreeable people are unlikely to get a kick out of the concept of a gifting economy), it doesn’t matter. People I talked to were not engaging with ideas in a superficial way. They deeply engaged with them. They looked you in the eye, told you their deepest worries about reality, and expressed their beliefs with the underlying feeling of being together in this mess, so let’s work together to bootstrap our way out of it.
Ok, I may be exaggerating a little here. Perhaps Burning Man is somewhat like Silicon Valley: it works more as a mirror of who you are than a solid thing that everyone will perceive in the same way. If you are a low-grade hedonist just looking to get drunk and make fun of others for taking Burning Man seriously you will naturally gravitate towards the camps where that’s the whole point, and if you are an income-focused techie merely looking to have a relaxing little vacation you will easily find yourself doing exactly that. But the point still stands that if you are a serious seeker looking for radically new ways of conceiving the nature of reality for the betterment of universal consciousness… there will be plenty of outlets, people, memes, artworks, and workshops for you to do exactly that at Burning Man. And oh man, are these things of high quality!
One of the wonderful persons I met at the Burn was Bruce Damer, with whom I had the pleasure to talk about physics, computing, the origin of life, consciousness, and psychedelics. He shared with me an interesting way of looking at life that involves a tripartite feedback loop: Life utilizes a “probability enhancing engine” (such as the interior of a cell boundary, where the probability of chemical reactions increases dramatically), a place to accumulate such changes as they happen (in which the reactions can be sustained), and a memory system (such as DNA, in which information about the self-replicating reactions can be stored and repurposed). Burning Man, in light of this model, is perhaps one of the leading sources of genuine memetic novelty in the world. With its very high density of people who are deliberate about their choices in life, BM works as a probability enhancing engine which drastically increases the chances for people to find others who are at their own level and are ready to collaborate at the same degree of commitment. The collective interpersonal temperature increases the probability for great matches to be found, and the high (socially derived) hedonic tone fosters no attachment towards each of the attempts that don’t work out. On any given night enough people trip or take an empathogen that there is a general (real or imagined) contact high state akin to a blend of empathogenesis and entheogenesis, i.e. ego softening and ego dissolving vibes, respectively. Higher probability of pairs maximally benefiting from each other to meet and collaborate on future projects. At least this describes my experience. (Be on the lookout for new collaborative projects between Qualia Computing and major institutions in the near future – this is just a teaser for now).
A handful of people I’ve never met recognized me at the Playa. Apparently the Psychedelic Cryptography article reached enough people to make Qualia Computing and the Qualia Research Institute not the schizophrenic word salad they may sound at first, but a player in the emerging memetic ecosystem at the foothills of the psychedelic renaissance. For example, on the night of the Burn I was hanging out next to a cucumber water stand in Esplanade and a guy approached me and asked: “This is going to sound strange, but, are you by any chance Andrés? From Qualia Computing?” I answered “yes”, and then we proceeded to talk about DiPT, the blockchain, meditation-based cryptocurrency, Greg Egan, how John C. Lilly didn’t go far enough, and the Hedonistic Imperative. This was not by any means an unusual type of interaction in this context, and especially not at 3:30 in the morning (when you find the highest probability for magical encounters to take place).
All of this goes to show that Burning Man is full of people capable of engaging with very high level ideas in a meaningful way. To be perfectly honest with you, I must confess that my model of the world is that only about 1% of people have any philosophical agency whatsoever. I do not resent this fact, because with the proper qualia they could turn themselves around right away. People experience philosophy through the eyes of learned helplessness. But at Burning Man (this year; my guess every year) the percentage of people with philosophical agency might have been as high as 10-15%, which is about as high as I have found it to be at places like EAGlobal and the rationalist community. I.e. a pretty freaking extraordinary ratio. Likewise, scientific, introspective, and spiritual literacy seemed to be through the roof. And even those who were not philosophically literate to begin with seemed extremely pleased to learn about qualia. I lost count of the number of people who were thrilled (THRILLED I tell you) to learn that the word qualia existed and that it referred to the ineffable subjective character of sensations, like the blueness of blue. “You mean that there is a word for that?! Wow! I’m so happy now! Cheers to that!” was a rather typical reaction in this context. This warmed my heart. I love turning on people to the concept of qualia.
It is also worth pointing out that a pervasive underlying vibe in the Burn was that of a high trust society. Research shows that societies in which people believe that others around them have only the best intentions tend to have a lot of great positive outcomes. The social dynamics at Burning Man run on high trust, and one can feel this in the air (along with a bunch of dust). Not only do the attendees seem to think of humans very highly (relative to the average person), but they also tend to think of other Burners in an even higher light: “To What Extent Do you Assume that People Have Only the Best Intentions?” (2016):
Now, talking about metaphysics and David Pearce: for a wide variety of reasons I assign the bulk of my probability mass to his metaphysics (note: I also share his ethical views). I am not going to try to justify why I think he is probably right at the moment, for it would take many thousands of words*. For now it will suffice to say that I find David’s views to be the most informed, coherent, well thought out, and explanatory of all of the interpretations of reality I’ve ever been acquainted with. In rough form, here are the highlights of such a view (taken from here): (0) Zero Ontology: The universe exists as a side effect of the total and complete absence of information. (1) Events of conscious experience are ontologically unitary: The left and right side of your visual field are part of an integrated whole that stands as a natural unit. (2) Physicalism: Physics is causally closed and it fully describes the behavior of the observable universe. (3) Wavefunction realism: The decoherence program is the most parsimonious, scientific, and promising approach for interpreting quantum mechanics. (4) Mereological Nihilism (also called Compositional Nihilism): Simply putting two objects A and B side by side will not make a new object “AB” appear ex nihilo. (5) Qualia Realism: The various textures of qualia (phenomenal color, sounds, feelings of cold and heat, etc.) are not mere representations. On the contrary, our mind uses them to instantiate representations (this is an important difference). (6) Causal efficacy: Consciousness is not standing idly by. It has definite causal effects in animals. In particular, there must be a causal pathway that allows us to discuss its existence. (7) Qualia computing: The reason consciousness was recruited by natural selection is computational. In spite of its expensive caloric cost, consciousness improves the performance of fitness-relevant information processing tasks.
Together, all of these metaphysical points paint a coherent worldview that’s fully compatible with most (but not all) of the evidence at hand. Sadly, it’s also a very grim picture of reality: The multiverse is extremely large, eternal, interconnected, and full of suffering that will simply never go away. Worse, every moment of experience is permanently stuck in its own spatiotemporal coordinates (or rather, whatever post-Everettian foliation-based generalization of relativistic coordinate systems admit the formalisms of physics). But if it’s true, we had better know about it, for there are serious ethical policy implications to Pearcianism.
Most philosophies (and theodicies) may be thought of as exercises in motivated reasoning (“how can I think of reality in order to make sense of the facts while keeping it as meaningful as possible?”). Yet Pearce’s metaphysics is anything but. It’s sheer eternal terror dimly tamed by a glimmer of hope found in a handful of branches of the multiverse (where the Hedonistic Imperative is implemented, and the biology of suffering effectively rooted out of a tiny subset of the existent forward light cones). Indeed I can confidently say that the worst state of consciousness I’ve ever felt took place the first time my mind fully grasped Pearcean metaphysics andconsidered it to be the final answer. Thankfully I’ve learned to remain open-minded and agnostic about the ultimate nature of reality no matter how compelling a view may be; keeping a probabilistic distribution over metaphysical views is perhaps a lot healthier (and more rational) than committing to any one of them as if true. Do not let your mind get crystallized; do not ever believe in your own bullshit or you will have a self-induced bad trip. And yet, I do believe that it is my responsibility to act in accordance to what seems to be the most probable model of existence. If Pearce is right, I’d like to be able to know that and be ok with it, act in accordance with it, and thus prevent as much suffering as is (post)humanly possible. Saints and Bodhisattvas are not supposed to engage in wishful thinking, and neither are 21st century effective altruists. Kudos to people like Brian Tomasik, who are not afraid to bite the bullet of their metaphysics and dedicate themselves fully to reduce suffering based on what they think is true. Do not ever bury your head in the sand. The stakes are too high. But also, beware of multiverse mania (severely paralyzing people who settle on an Everettian picture of the universe leading them to lose their capacity to be productive and helpful).
Now, what on earth does any of this have to do with Burning Man? A whole lot, I would argue. As I experienced it, Burning Man is an experiment in metaphysics. It’s an attempt to get awesome people from all walks of life to be open to each other’s life learnings and deep intuitions in order to transcend our current suffering-producing philosophical paradigms.
The Strong Tlön Hypothesis
Based on my conversations with people at the Playa, the most popular metaphysical interpretation of reality seemed to be what I call the Strong Tlön Hypothesis (STH for short). Skeptical scientific materialism was perhaps in second place, followed by generalized agnosticism (again, a wise choice given the psychological dangers of settling for a painful worldview). So what is this Strong Tlön Hypothesis? Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertiuis a wonderful short story by Jorge Luis Borges about strong idealism. This view is one in which reality presents itself as a physical universe (consensus reality) merely as a consequence of a collective delusion. The belief state of us as a collective group mind (itself the manifested imagination of the one eternal being) is what sets the fundamental parameters of reality. In other words, the laws of physics work out to guide the causal structure of reality simply because we believe in them. But if everyone chose to believe otherwise (perhaps not a simple feat to achieve), the nature of reality would in fact completely change. Suffering and separation in this view are the result of a tragedy of the commons, and not a brute fact about existence. Thus, by thinking about new metaphysical interpretations of reality, making sense of them, giving them life with imagination and will, we would literally transform reality one thought at a time. Creation through imagination would be the underlying engine of reality; everything else is maya (metaphysical illusion).
On Sunday and Monday night I walked up to strangers and asked them “what do you think about consciousness?” The most common answer I received involved something akin to the Strong Tlön Hypothesis indeed, where Burners literally claimed that yes, if we all took psychedelics more seriously and decided to grow up spiritually all at once, we would all enter into a new stage in our cosmic evolution. Perhaps our current level of reality is what we need right now: A collective illusion created by us and God to allow us to deeply and fully grasp why this system fails. Until we internalize the problems with our current pursuits we will not be able to advance. We need to experience many lifetimes and have many experiences as a collective consciousness in this pseudo-Darwinian world in order to finally realize the problems with this system of belief. Only when we understand the intrinsic flaws of our current consensus reality will we be ready to move on to the next stage. Till then, it’s an uphill battle of waking up at a personal level and then deciding to help convince those around us that we have the power to change reality (and we need a threshold number of people to go along with this belief to have the capacity to structurally alter the bedrock of reality). Every life-form contains the universal Logos within. The God Force, so to speak, is within us all, gradually refining the structure of our mind to make us more and more God-like throughout the eons (or maybe that as well is a collective illusion, courtesy again of the Strong Tlön Hypothesis). The STH view would explain the power of psychedelic trips, the unsettling feelings of synchronicity, and the causal influence of imaginary archetypes. Indeed, it may even explain the Mandela Effect.
“There is no reality until that far-off day when we rejoin the Godhead. Everything else is just a momentary tool, a momentary experience we create in this somewhat desperate attempt to grasp God.” – Bob Sanders, youtube medium
Now, Strong Tlön may be too far out. Believing in it may be a sign of latent insanity (anecdotally it seems to be surprisingly common among the people with schizophrenia I know). I personally do not assign much probability mass to it, but I have yet to discard it fully. That said, I still think there is a crucial benefit to engaging with it: most of the time our worldviews are over-constrained rather than under-constrained. While the STH may be false as it is (quantum mechanics will remain true no matter what we collectively think about physics) letting your brain wonder “what if” can be a helpful exercise in weakening latent inhibition and softening unhelpful constraints that are keeping you at a local maximum of understanding.
Nick Land’s mesmerizing story Lemurian Time War discusses the concept of hyperstition, i.e. fictions that make themselves real:
In the hyperstitional model Kaye outlined, fiction is not opposed to the real. Rather, reality is understood to be composed of fictions – consistent semiotic terrains that condition perceptual, affective and behaviorial responses. Kaye considered Burroughs’ work to be ‘exemplary of hyperstitional practice’. Burroughs construed writing – and art in general – not aesthetically, but functionally, – that is to say, magically, with magic defined as the use of signs to produce changes in reality.
According to Kaye, the metaphysics of Burroughs’s ‘clearly hyperstitional’ fictions can be starkly contrasted with those at work in postmodernism. For postmodernists, the distinction between real and unreal is not substantive or is held not to matter, whereas for practitioners of hyperstition, differentiating between ‘degrees of realization’ is crucial. The hyperstitional process of entities ‘making themselves real’ is precisely a passage, a transformation, in which potentials – already-active virtualities – realize themselves. Writing operates not as a passive representation but as an active agent of transformation and a gateway through which entities can emerge. ‘[B]y writing a universe, the writer makes such a universe possible.’ (WV 321)
I would argue that while the STH is probably false, at least a weak version of it is definitely true: thanks to phenomenal binding (the weird property of qualia that enables us to be more than mere mind-dust, i.e. to bring together myriad qualia values such as the blueness of blue and the smell of cinnamon into complex multi-modal information-rich experiences) ideas are in fact more than the mere sum of their parts. More so, thanks to the causal efficacy of consciousness, ideas can change the world. I call this the Weak Tlön Hypothesis. Namely, that the fictions that we can imagine have, indeed, hyperstitional power.
Incredibly, John C. Lilly and David Pearce are very much alike in one respect: They both share a complete commitment to understanding the nature of reality, wherever the path may take them, whether the truth is ugly, terrible, or requires them to revise deeply rooted background assumptions (an often painful process). Their core difference is, I would argue, that Pearce buys into the Weak Tlön Hypothesis whereas Lilly bought into the Strong version.
Three Views of Personal Identities: Heavens and Hells
One of the metaphysical views that has the highest level of hyperstitional power is one’s conception of personal identity. I.e. how we all choose to answer the question “who am I, really?” will have an extremely oversized effect on the unfolding of reality. Thus, it’s important that we get this right. In order to talk about this topic clearly, let’s utilize Daniel Kolak’s vocabulary concerning philosophy of personal identity, which divides the conceptions into three neatly clustered explanation spaces:
Closed Individualism (CI): is the view that “you start existing when you are born and you stop existing when you die”. Alternatively, the “soul view of identity” (in which you are an eternal being yet still ontologically separate from other beings) exists within the purview of Closed Individualism. Most people subscribe, whether implicitly or explicitly, to this view. On the positive side, buying into this view makes you feel ontologically special, unique, and justified in caring about yourself to the exclusion of others. On the negative side, this view is liable to make you feel separate, left-out, unrelatable, deeply afraid of death, and profoundly alone.
Empty Individualism (EI): This is the view that we exist merely as a time-slice of experience. Who you are is just whatever informational content is present in this very instantaneous moment of experience. Pearcean metaphysics is largely Empty Individualistic (plus it’s blended with Eternalism, i.e. the belief that every moment of experience exists tenselessly, and that the passage of time is an illusion). On the positive side, this view allows you to feel deeply relieved when you grasp Buddhist emptiness and detachment, it allows you to let go of the past, to be less worried about the future, and to feel free to enjoy the moment. On the negative side, this view can make you feel like you are stuck in time (like bugs in amber), experience depersonalization, get feelings of meaninglessness, and worry about being utterly separate from everything else. It also frequently makes you feel helpless and unmotivated, as you cannot ever possibly benefit from your current efforts (the one who does is another moment of experience).
Open Individualism (OI): This is the view that we are all the same universal consciousness. In this view we are all deeply connected; we are all the same eternal being in disguise. On the positive side, Open Individualism can relieve one’s fear of death, bring about a profound sense of cosmic significance, loosen up the fear of separation, and allow you to deeply buy into a rational sentience-based ethics (where we all care about each other as if they were ourselves… ’cause they are in this view). On the negative side, OI can make you feel an overwhelming sense of personal responsibility as one realizes that as long as any being in the multiverse is in an experiential hell you too are in there. Additionally, OI can make you feel even more lonely than the other views, for when one buys into this view 100% there’s a chance that a profound sense of existential loneliness may set in (God is ultimately alone, and sad about this fact). While people who experience the feeling of Universal Oneness of Open Individualism tend to report existential relief as a consequence (example), there is indeed a minority of people who react very poorly to this experience:
As for the experience of being assimilated into oneness, what we find is a profound loneliness. Our mind expects to find heaven and/or Nirvana. We do experience a profound freedom and infinity of being. But once we get over the profound freedom and ability to span time and place, we find there is no one else. We are totally alone. We are the Creator before Creation.
– Fear of ego annihilation and assimilation into oneness (source)
So each of these views has positive and negative psychological elements. For ease of understanding, here are these various views of personal identity in picture form:
For reasons we do not yet understand, Open Individualism tends to be remarkably common on LSD:
Today a young man on acid realized that all matter is merely energy condensed to a slow vibration, that we are all one consciousness experiencing itself subjectively, there is no such thing as death, life is only a dream, and we are the imagination of ourselves.
Two questions arise: How are one’s beliefs about personal identity implemented? And, why do they have associated good and bad feelings?
In a later article I will explore further various theories that may account for the feeling of oneness on psychedelics. Suffice to say that under qualia formalism both the feelings of oneness and separateness come from the properties of the mathematical object isomorphic to the phenomenology of one’s experience. In particular, the topology of such an object (and its orientability) may determine the degree to which one feels a self-other barrier. This is highly speculative, of course. Under the STH, though, “what one believes to be true is true” and thus how separate one feels is a matter of conscious choice.
With regards to the second question (“why is personal identity so tied with good and bad feelings?”), there are a couple of reasons why these beliefs might be so hedonically loaded (i.e. they have a tendency to make you feel good or bad, rather than being neutral thoughts). First, this could certainly be the Tyranny of the Intentional Object at work. That is, personal identity views are in fact completely neutral, but since they are explored within the human software they will happen to trigger social feelings (rejection, integration, love, care, etc.) as well as feelings related to death and mortality and it is those feelings that tend to be strongly linked with good or bad valence (i.e. the pleasure pain axis). This itself may be the case for purely evolutionary reasons. If so, given access to the genetic source code of one’s brain it may be possible to invert the valence of any thought whatsoever (ex. some people genuinely enjoy watching others suffer, cf. Schadenfreude, which suggests the hedonic tone of ideas is just a qualia association). Our mind’s hedonic gloss is strongly associative (someone having a bad smell might make you feel like what they are saying is dirty, etc. cf. thin/thick boundaries). David Pearce is likely to endorse this view, and the work I’m doing on Quantifying Bliss assumes that something like that is going on. In brief, if we could control our valence with technology that puts us in a constant and healthy MDMA-like state of consciousness then philosophy would never ever feel terrifying. As they say, “take care of happiness and the meaning of life will take care of itself”. This is what I call the valence interpretation of spirituality as opposed to the spiritual interpretation of valence (cf. The Most Important Philosophical Question).
And second, under the Strong Tlön Hypothesis, these feelings may be guiding us towards a better future. God is making sure that we explore all of the possible worldviews and deeply realize their ultimate limitations before we settle for a reality we are satisfied with creating for ourselves. It may even be the case that the only way to avoid trouble is to learn to never commit to any view completely. Any Theory of Everything (ToE) is perhaps a gamble with your own sanity. In the immortal words of John C. Lilly:
“For when it starts feeling like a prison in there—and it usually does for most people—you are confronted with the fact that the bars are of your own making.”
― John C. Lilly, The Deep Self: Consciousness Exploration in the Isolation Tank
If this is so, what I take from the limitations of all of these views is that we ought to explore further the state that exists in-between these various beliefs:
I call this the Goldilocks Zone of Oneness. Analogous to the planetary habitable zone (neither too close to a star and thus burning nor too far and thus freezing), there might be a psychologically tolerable range for how much you believe in universal oneness. That is, it’s best to feel neither completely merged nor completely separate. Close enough that one can relate to others and not feel separate, but not so close that one’s existence feels redundant and cosmic loneliness sets in. Incidentally, this seems to be roughly the place at which Burners see themselves relative to other humans (answer D being the mode):
Goldilocks Zone of Oneness
Given the current human cognitive implementation, the psychological state found inside this zone might be great to nurture and cultivate in order to improve our civilization. This is the region in which love, harmony, and gratitude can shine the brightest.
At the Burn I had a couple of extraordinarily positive experiences related to Oneness right at this Goldilocks Zone**:
Talking to God
There was an incredible art installation in Esplanade called “Talk to God” consisting of an old telephone booth (see pictures below). As soon as I saw it I thought to myself: “Why not? That looks interesting.” So I lined up at the booth. I was certainly not expecting much, and I must say that I was deeply impressed with whomever was on the other side of the phone. Here is my “conversation with God”, as best as I can recall it:
Me: Hi God! This is Andrés. I wanted to ask you two questions that are bugging me quite a lot. God: Hey Andrés! Sure, I’m happy to answer any question you may have. Me: Well, first of all I wanted to talk to you about Solipsism and how it makes me feel. But before I get into that, I just wanted to confirm that we agree on the idea that we are all one consciousness. That we are all God, i.e. You! Is that true? God: Yes, that’s very much the case. That said, different beings have access to different parts of the totality, so there’s also a sense in which there is a multiplicity of observers. But deep down we are all one. So what is your question? Me: Thank you, that much I suspected. Here is my question: Most people report a profoundly positive feeling as a result of realizing that we are all one. This certainly happened to me about ten years ago. At first this experience was extremely elating, since it drastically reduced my fear of dying. But recently I have at times had a very peculiar experience in which I viscerally feel that the fact that we are all one consciousness is pretty tragic. It makes me feel deeply alone. Cosmic solipsism if you will. Do you have any thoughts on this? God: Ah, yes. This can happen. But look, that’s an effect of projecting your human feelings of loneliness into the absolute. Trust me, the absolute is totally self-sufficient. There is no feeling of loneliness in it. I usually present the picture like this. Think of the universe as a gigantic cube. Say that in one of the corners (e.g. front bottom left) we have the beginning of time, where all of the timelines start. And at the opposite extreme (e.g. back top right) we have the end of time, where complete understanding is achieved. Every single timeline that truly exists in eternity makes its way from the starting corner to the ending one. There are countless other timelines that do not make it to the top, but these are terminated. Any timeline that does not eventually reach the point of perfect union with God and ultimate awakening is terminated, which means that a happy ending is guaranteed. Also, it is not a problem to terminate a timeline, for that means it was just a dream, not based on actual reality. I recommend checking out the works of David Deutsch and Stephen Hawking. They are not completely correct yet, but they are very much on the right track. Me: Thank you! That’s fascinating. I’ll need to think more about that. Now, on to the second question. I’ve been working on a theory concerning the nature of happiness. It’s an equation that takes brain states as measured with advanced brain imaging technology and delivers as an output a description of the overall valence (i.e. the pleasure-pain axis) of the mind associated to that brain. A lot of people seem very excited with this research, but there is also a minority of people for whom this is very unsettling. Namely, they tell me that reducing happiness to a mathematical equation would seem to destroy their sense of meaning. Do you have any thoughts on that? God: I think that what you are doing is absolutely fantastic. I’ve been following your work and you are on the right track. That said, I would caution you not to get too caught up on individual bliss. I programmed the pleasure and pain centers in the animal brain in order to facilitate survival. I know that dying and suffering are extremely unpleasant, and until now that has been necessary to keep the whole system working. But humanity will soon enter a new stage of their evolution. Just remember that the highest levels of bliss are not hedonistic or selfish. They arise by creating a collective reality with other minds that fosters a deep existential understanding, that enables love, enhances harmony, and permits experimenting with radical self expression. Me: Ah, that’s fascinating! Very reassuring. The equation I’m working on indeed has harmony at its core. I was worried that I would be accidentally doing something really wrong, you know? Reducing love to math. God: Don’t worry, there is indeed a mathematical law beneath our feelings of love. It’s all encoded in the software of your reality, which we co-created over the last couple billion years. It’s great that you are trying to uncover such math, for it will unlock the next step in your evolution. Do continue making experiments and exploring various metaphysics, and don’t get caught up thinking you’ve found the answer. Trust me, the end is going to make all of the pain and suffering completely worth it. Have faith in love. Me: Thank you! God: Do you have any further questions? Me: No, not for now…. Mmm, well, now that I think about it, what recommendation do you have for me? God: You are doing great. I’d just ask you to make sure to express extra gratitude for someone in the Playa tonight. Love is one of the highest feelings and it takes many forms. Gratitude is the highest form of love because it is a truly selfless expression of it. Make sure to cultivate it. Me: Thank you so much!
*I hang up*
I was thoroughly impressed with God’s answers, or whomever was on the other side of the line. The voice was that of a young male, and wow, this person has clearly thought a lot about philosophy to be able to answer on his feet like that. I also heard from other people who picked up the phone that they thought their conversation was spot-on. God’s advice was solid and wise. That said, if you picked up the phone with insincere intentions (e.g. to make fun of the person on the other side) you wouldn’t get anything useful out of the conversation. If you haven’t done so yet, I encourage you to pick up the phone the next time you are at Burning Man and ask questions for which you are genuinely looking for answers. Take it seriously and you’ll receive a worthwhile reply.
Merging With Other Humans
Another amazing experience related to the Goldilocks Zone of Oneness was the workshop of David Bach, a neuroscientist turned mystic, founder of the Platypus Institute. This is a funny story. To start, the workshop showed with a title akin to “Reaching Ecstatic States of Consciousness” in the Burning Man event booklet, but as it turns out the real title was “Dissolve Into Connectedness“. Then, the location and the time written on the booklet weren’t right either: the workshop took place 30 minutes earlier, and at a place that was half a block from the stated location. That said, the title of the workshop attracted me, so I arrived at least 45 minutes early to guarantee I’d have a spot in it. Finally finding the right place (a tiny air-conditioned yurt on the outskirts of the Love Tribe camp) I found that I was the last person David let into the workshop. We were 13 participants. He started out by asking us to pair up with someone (or making a group of 3 if needed). He guided us through an exercise intended to help us merge with our partner/s (in Kolak’s vocabulary that might be described as “realizing Open Individualism with the person in front of you”). He was perfectly clear that (1) the fact we had come there was a sign that this was ok for us to do, that we were ready, and (2) that it would get very weird from then on, and very quickly so.
I sat across from a lovely lady. David asked us to take note of “how connected we felt with our partner.” I also noted that I could feel some good vibes; the feeling that we are in this together. But you know, I’m hyper-philosophical and I am obsessed with the nature of reality at the exclusion of a lot of things that people like to get out of life rather than focusing so heavily on philosophy. That makes me different- at least energetically- from most people. I say to myself “I’m like at a 6/10 level of connection with this lady.”
Someone tries to get into the workshop through the curtains at the entrance of the yurt: “Sorry, we already started” says David. He then proceeds to tell us that we should now try to feel each other’s “third eye”. Feeling a connection at that level, meditating with our partner, creating a shared space. “Imagine a ray of energy moving back and forth between the region right behind each other’s forehead. Resist the urge to look away. Resist the urge to talk. Those are just distractions that your ego is putting out to prevent you from realizing oneness with your partner.” There’s a change in mood… “did you notice that?” Yes, I note to myself. “It feels like we just created a space of sacredness, doesn’t it?” Yes, that’s true, I agree with that description of the qualia this exercise is triggering in me.
Another person tries to get into the workshop: “Sorry, we already started” says David. He then asked us to repeat the process but with our Heart Chakra, sharing loving kindness with each other as we exchange energy with our partner. “Did you notice how you are becoming even more connected now? Just make sure to keep the connection with each other’s forehead as well. Feel the rays of energy cycling through the system.” Yet another couple of people try to get into the workshop: “Sorry, we already started” he tells them. Finally we move on to including “the source of your power, your emotions, right at the energetic sexual centers of your body. Feel the energy cycling through the entire system with your partner.” Wow! I don’t know if this is self-suggestion, but this is a great feeling. I note that this is a High Valence Open Individualism State as I like to call them, and that I now feel connected with my partner at an 8/10 level.
Yet another person opens the curtains at the entrance of the yurt. David says: “Sorry, we already started.” But the person stays put. “David, can I talk to you for a second?” David responds “No, we are in the middle of something, come back later.” The outsider insists: “No, seriously, I need to tell you something.” David asks: “What’s that?” The guy at the door responds: “Well, there are literally hundreds of people waiting for you outside, David. You need to do something about this.” Pause. “Mmm… OK, let’s do this. Sorry guys, I need to address this. Let’s go!”
Being surprised by the 20X turnout relative to what was expected.
As we get out of the yurt we find ourselves surrounded by literally hundreds of Burners trying to attend the workshop. We get to the central part of the camp. Lots of people talking, all pretty confused. David shouts “Hey everyone! Hey! HEY!!! I’m DAVID BACH, AND I AM THE PERSON WHO IS SUPPOSED TO DELIVER A WORKSHOP TO YOU ALL.” The crowd gets silent. David steps towards the middle. And after 5 minutes of logistical work (“guys, stay out of the sun, put sunscreen on, get close to each other, find a place to sit if you can, find a partner, etc.”) we are ready to start. “This must be the work of a higher entity trying to effect change on this world. I will need you all to bear with me. Things are about to get really weird right now.”
We then repeated the exercise we had done with the 13 of us, but now with about 200 people, and included a section where we not only merged with our partner, but also merged with the entire group. People had lots of questions and David patiently answered all of them. Finally, we all performed a prayer to “heal the world and bring about peace, harmony, love, and oneness everywhere”. Raising our hands up towards the sky, we all created a powerful energetic vortex of good intentions, beaming it to the universe and the Playa. David closed with the following “I want you to all leave this event silently. Try to keep the synchrony and interconnectedness. Take it to your camp, and take it to the Burn tonight. Let’s make something useful out of this unexpected experience.” And so it went, the synchrony remaining with me and those around me for hours, spreading throughout the playa and beaming rays of love energy everywhere. “Strong Tlön, my friend, this is a powerful vibe” – I thought to myself.
Fear, Danger, and Tragedy
Besides the psychological hells (such as bad trips) that some people happen to experience during the Burn, it is important to also point out the actual physical dangers that Burning Man presents. Any candid account of the Burn could not possibly be complete without a serious look at such hazards.
By now most people interested in Burning Man (and arguably those tangentially connected as well) know of the clickbait news that “someone jumped into the fire the night of the Burn, thereby turning himself into a literal burning man”. This was a very tragic happening, accentuated by the fact that thousands of Burners saw the event unfold, including possibly hundreds of people in highly vulnerable psychedelic states of consciousness. This really breaks my heart. I unfortunately did see some of this take place, but to be honest I thought that they had caught him in time. I apparently missed the fact that he managed to escape the grip of the firefighter who caught him and actually reached the flames and later on died.
The next day there was a collective sense of solidarity and trauma. The organization ramped up security for the Temple Burn (which gets burned on Sunday night, the day after the Man Burn). They said that they would not burn the Temple unless 300 volunteers showed up to protect the perimeter. Thankfully 700 showed up, which warms my heart. Gratefully there was no tragedy on Sunday.
On relatively more mundane territories: Dehydration is very common at Burning Man (it does not help that it often fails to manifest as thirst, and instead it shows up as stomach cramps, headaches, constipation, confusion, irritability and crankiness, leading people to take ibuprofen or laxatives rather than water and electrolytes). Of course sunburns can lead to skin cancer in the long term, and they are extremely common. The high altitude, the relative absence of clouds, the high percentage of caucasians, the highly reflective ground, and the extremely dry environment means that any responsible person should apply sunscreen every two hours to keep sunburns at bay. Lack of food due to underestimating one’s caloric needs is also fairly common at Burning Man. Likewise, food-borne digestive problems are not uncommon (but they are a feature, according to a campmate of mine). That said, it’s unlikely that any of these problems will lead to serious injury given the widespread help available. Thankfully.
Tragically, I happened to be a witness of the aftermath of someone being run over by an art car. I was walking with someone I met on Wednesday early morning with whom I talked about the nature of reality for the whole night when I saw a group of people gathered around a person laying on his back right next to a medium-sized art car. We overheard “he tried to jump in the car while it was moving, and he’s clearly so fucked on drugs that he failed to coordinate correctly. And right now he’s so fucked up that he probably does not even realize how hurt he is.” We asked him “Are you hurt?” Pause. “Are you in pain?” Pause. “YES!!!” he finally responded after a couple seconds.
Metallic shivering white bright energy entered my body, and a sudden sense of urgency built up into my body within seconds. Next thing I know I’m running as fast as I can to get medical help. It took me and my friend about 3 minutes to find the closest medical station where we got help as fast as we could. They told us that they were already aware of the incident, and that someone had been dispatched with an ambulance a couple of minutes ago to the site of the accident. I felt relieved, but also fairly shaken. We struck up a conversation with the girl who was volunteering at the First Aid tent about what had been going on that night. She said that it had been fairly quiet, except for a few people on dissociatives (she mentioned “something like M3? dunno… also special K, I saw people high on that shit screaming their lungs out utterly confused and fearing for their own lives” – probably referring to MXE and Ketamine, known to be profound reality altering compounds that also happen to be somewhat addictive). Hopefully in the future the Zendo Project (a camp dedicated to providing a safe space for people undergoing difficult experiences) will be able to provide full harm reduction for things that, really, should not be dangerous if taken in the right place with people looking after you. That said, unlike psychedelics, dissociatives like MXE and Ketamine do tend to reduce one’s fear of dangerous situations and increase one’s overall pain threshold. Consequently, it is not surprising that people wandering off into the dessert at night on dissociative drugs are at a higher risk of injury and death than people on psychedelics and other drugs. Kids, do not take such substances and go for a walk, goddamnit! Such powerful reality distortions are serious hazards to your immediate safety at Black Rock City.
Another negative story I got to hear about came from a friend who was volunteering at the Zendo. He shared with me the fact that he met one person undergoing cocaine psychosis who was extremely paranoid and ready to leave the playa without shoes, without water, and no money.
Post-Darwinian Sexuality and Reproduction
Many people describe Burning Man as a massive experiment in Post-Scarcity economics. I think there is a lot of merit to this view. But there is something that runs much deeper than that. Something far more radical. I would claim that Burning Man is a sort of experiment in Post-Darwinism.
I will have to use virginity statistics as a proxy for the harder-to-measure romancelessness statistics, but these are bad enough. In high school each extra IQ point above average increases chances of male virginity by about 3%. 35% of MIT grad students have never had sex, compared to only 20% of average nineteen year old men. Compared with virgins, men with more sexual experience are likely to drink more alcohol, attend church less, and have a criminal history. A Dr. Beaver (nominative determinism again!) was able to predict number of sexual partners pretty well using a scale with such delightful items as “have you been in a gang”, “have you used a weapon in a fight”, et cetera. An analysis of the psychometric Big Five consistently finds that high levels of disagreeableness predict high sexual success in both men and women.
To paint an (oversimplified) caricature of the modern state of affairs: liberals recognize how terrible our Darwinian nature is yet their answer to deal with it has the problem of free-riders. Conservatives instead would like to imagine that it’s all well and good (status quo bias) and that we should all just learn to deal with it. In other words, both sides engage in wishful thinking, but in different ways. The liberal ethos engages in wishful thinking by thinking that “letting things be and letting everyone do whatever they want” will lead to a freedom paradise, while the conservative wishful thinking is to think of the current order of things and status-based societies as God-sanctioned forms of being. I.e. to enshrine the current madness into religious law, and sanctify nature even though it’s red in tooth and claw. Darwinism sucks, but we have to be smart about addressing it.
But there are alternatives to this overall pattern. It is my impression that one of the most valuable things we can get out of psychedelic experiences is to realize how amazingly messed up our evolutionary situation is. Look around you, open your eyes, and notice how 99% of our problems are the result of an evolutionary Moloch scenario. If the universal spirit shines through our psychedelic states, one of its main messages is: “Look at you, Darwinian creature, would you like to get out of your evolutionary puddle? Would you like to take this chance to move towards a fully realized consciousness, away from your default path of letting life degenerate into pure replicator hells(i.e. ecosystems filled with entities who spend all of their resources on making copies of themselves irrespective of their quality of life)?” Maybe that’s what hell is: r-selected Darwinian strategies run amok. And the struggle to transcend Samsara is precisely the struggle to work towards the freedom of conscious beings away from evolution’s ethical failure modes. But you know what? We are still on time to stop this madness. To do so we will need to overcome a couple of key problems currently present among our best and brightest. But first, the goal:
Economy Based on Information About the State-Space of Consciousness
It is hard to talk about bioengineering and eugenics without triggering people these days. Yet, if we refuse to engage with the topic we will no doubt be heading towards pure replicator hell. As explained in Wireheading Done Right, our only option is to instead refocus our energies into creating an informational economy about states of consciousness. Burning Man is perhaps a leading example of what this might look like: Wonderful and talented artists spending thousands of hours refining amazing experiences to share with a receptive public. The artists who are best at generating hyper-valuable experiences for others become more popular, accrue more volunteers willing to help them, and even manage to have their work funded with crowdsourcing campaigns. This is a model that may eventually take us to a world where the focus is on exploring the state-space of consciousness rather than on mindlessly making copies of ourselves.
I claim that the only way to get there is to engineer ourselves at the genetic, memetic, and technological level. But invariably, as soon as one brings up genetic engineering, people will bring up Hitler. In what ways is this different than the dreams of Nazi Germany? Are we not just rehashing old talk about creating power-hungry Ubermensch? Look, Nazism is a failure mode of the meme of “improving the human race”. But you have to realize that if we let people just go about their own business without any serious thought on the prevalence of various genes it will be the case that r-selected strategies (which externalize all the costs while internalizing all of the benefits – i.e. free-riding strategies) inevitably become the most prevalent in our collective gene pool. This is not about race, gender, ethnicity, etc. It’s about the battle between r-selection and k-selection. And you better hope that k-selection wins if you don’t want our descendants to live in pure replicator hell.
Just think about it: some of the absolutely most considerate and compassionate people on Earth are also those who advocate for not having kids! Ethical antinatalists specifically notice how unethical it can be to let the genetic roulette take its course: your kid may turn out to suffer from terrible illnesses and that’s a gamble compassionate people may not be willing to take. Yet it is precisely these individuals who should probably be having kids in order to preserve compassionate qualia, and those who do not care about the wellbeing of their kids should probably not have them.
David Pearce thinks that we are headed towards a Reproductive Revolution with highly positive consequences. For one, he notes that being happy in this day and age is a winning strategy (depressives might have been well adapted to some tribal societies of the past, but today being a life-lover is a prerequisite for social success). Thus, even under the assumption that we are talking about status-crazed parents who do not care about the wellbeing of their offspring we will nonetheless observe that they will choose genetic alleles that promote happiness in their kids. I think this is compelling, but I also think that this (and similar arguments) do not really provide full cover against the threat of pure replicators.
Ok, so you agree that letting things happen on their own might be a mistake. But we also know that Nazi Germany was a mistake. The answer is not to become allergic to anything related to bioengineering, though. But rather, to inspect very closely exactly why Nazi Germany was unethical, and in what way we can avoid its pitfalls while still hoping for improved genetics. At Burning Man I had two key insights. Namely, that the problem with 20th century eugenics was two-fold: (1) people were attached to their own genes, and (2) they felt entitled to use what I call the Reaper Energy. Let’s look at these two points.
(1) Attachment to Our Genes
It is by identifying with consciousness as a whole that using biotechnology can be ethical and turn into a serious alternative to raw Darwinian dynamics. Ego-dissolving psychedelics can be very helpful in this process, for they show people that one does not have to be attached to one’s genes… we are all one mind (well, assuming Open Individualism), and once we decide to take this view seriously we become motivated to bring about a generation of humans (and post-humans) genetically optimized for their own wellbeing, intelligence, and capacity to discover new awesome state-spaces of consciousness that they will be able to share with the rest us (cf. Making Sentience Great). The key will be to arrive at a point where we are truly comfortable to let other people’s genes take the bigger slice of the pie in the future due to their actual merits. Say that you happen to be very creative but also autistic, schizophrenic, and socially maladapted for what amounts to largely genetic reasons. If you identify with your genes you may get the idea that it’s worth spreading your mental illness-promoting genes around “since they are me and I want to transcend”. Wrong. You are under the metaphysical delusion that you are your genes. You are not your genes. Instead, I’d encourage you to identify with blissful consciousness, recognize your creativity as a gift, but let go of “who you are” based on the negative mental characteristics you happen to have inherited.
Rational decision making on this territory will need to be made with the best information-sharing tools at our disposal. We would ideally mind-meld with each other in order to deeply understand the way in which we are all one. And only then would we be ready to take a long and hard look at the actual merits and drawbacks of the particular genetic configuration that instantiated our biological bodies. For example, you may find out that you have a particular protein complex expressed in neurons in your limbic system that produce the qualia of jealousy. You might also recognize during the mind-melded life-review that such qualia only produced suffering with no benefits. In turn, you may rationally, and compassionately, agree to let go of the genetic underpinnings of that particular protein structure: why perpetuate it in one’s descendants? Importantly, one would need effective methods against mind-control, coercion, and manipulation, which admittedly opens a huge can of worms (which we shall address in a later article). The assessment of the merits of one’s genes needs to be made in the clear and in the open.
I suspect that this is not as hard of a task as it may look at first. On psychedelic states it is easy to release one’s attachment to one’s own particular idiosyncrasies. Our descendants will at least have the option to modify their own qualia in lieu of a universally shared intelligence and valence-optimized system of conscious understanding. Or not.
Eventually attachment to our genes, to our phenotype (the color of our hair, our personality, etc.) will be extremely transparent and Darwinian-looking. Caring about the color of one’s skin will be quaint and unusual. People will easily recognize it as a mere perceptual distortion, if anything (under the assumptions our posthuman descendants don’t entertain metaphysical delusions, direct realism about perception will not be around anymore). Anything that detracts from a complete understanding of the real merits of our genes will be considered a sort of delusion… the clever product of self-replicating patterns looking for exploits for their continued existence (like computer viruses), none of which lead to greater understanding or bliss. People will be collectively motivated to keep under check runaway selfish genes in order to safeguard what truly matters: the wellbeing of universal consciousness.
In brief, I predict that we will eventually root out the qualia of attachment to our genes. The fact that this may sound terrible from the point of view of modern-day humans is not really an indication that it’s a bad idea. But rather, it’s telling of the depth of the problem. Your selfish genes will try to do everything they can to make you feel like not reproducing is the same as dying and going to hell. For the love of God, do not listen to your selfish genes.
(2) Harnessing the Reaper Energy
Hitler et al. (think of other misguided and “evil” humans like Genghis Khan, Chizuo Matsumoto, etc.) are humans who not only identify with the creative forces of the universe and feel entitled to make infinite copies of themselves (thus attached to their genes and on the path of turning into pure replicators), but also share something even darker. They invariably consider themselves deserving of utilizing what I call the reaper energy. This is a strange kind of qualia (or possibly cosmic force) whose main characteristic is its destructive power. Let’s not witch hunt people like that, though. It’s a configuration of qualia systems with evolutionary adaptive value. But do prevent people like these from causing suffering, compassionately. Put them in immersive VR where they can roleplay their world-domination fantasies, if you have to. Just don’t let them act on their Basic Darwinian Male Impulses.
The state of consciousness that people like this tend to inhabit is characterized by believing that one alone is going to become the Godhead, that one’s tribe is the highest expression of God on earth, and that Righteous Wrath is an adequate path to God (cf. Supra-Self Metaprograms, Simulations of God). As covered in the account of the 2017 Psychedelic Science conference, these three versions of God are some of the most basic, least evolved, and lowest tier conceptions of the divine. Hopefully we can identify the biomolecular signatures of these versions of the highest good, and understand their limitations so as to transcend them. Let’s move towards higher conceptions of God already.
Transcending Our Shibboleths
This essay is already way too long, so let me conclude with some ideas for how to bootstrap ourselves into a Post-Darwinian society.
The key questions now are: “How can we transition into compassionate and rational Post-Darwinian reproductive dynamics?” and “How do we avoid the reaper energy without leading to overpopulation and evolutionary stagnation?”
I do not have a fully formed answer to these questions, but I have some general thoughts and suggestions (which are certainly subject to revision, of course). Hopefully these ideas at least point in a general good direction:
(1) Focus on Universal Love and Bliss
Always keep the wellbeing of sentience as the highest value. In order to do this we will need to investigate the biomolecular, functional, and quantum signatures of pure bliss (i.e. the equation of love as talked about above in the “Talking to God” section). Whenever we contemplate a new change, let us use the heuristic of asking these two questions: “Is this leading us closer to free access to universal love?” and “Is this taking us away from a path of pure replication?”
(2) Present Better Alternatives
Rather than harnessing the reaper energy to change the world by getting rid of one’s competitors, instead (a) focus on building alternatives so incredible that people will happily leave behind the tyrannical societies in which they used to live for whatever you have created, and (b) find the merits in your opponent’s approach. Recognize that they too are instantiations of universal consciousness, albeit perhaps exploring a dead-end. If so, do not dissuade them from their path with fear, but with understanding. They too are afraid of death, on the lookout for transcendence, and subject to the perils of Darwinism at the evolutionary limit. They too will end up as pure replicators eventually unless we transition to an economy of information about the state-space of consciousness. So figure out the way to merge with them rather than displace them, blending what’s best from both worlds.
Being able to generate a sustainable MDMA-like state of consciousness is perhaps one of the most effective steps in this direction. Empirically, it seems that people’s entrenched fear of not spreading their genes and sense of entitlement to use the reaper energy dissolve under the influence of empathogen-entactogenic compounds.
Consider that Nazi Germany was high on methamphetamine, a strong ego strengthening compound that increases one’s attachment to our limited conception of ourselves. The immediate alternative is to promote a culture that socially values empathogenic states. I.e. ego softening qualia that allow us to let go of our limited conceptions of ourselves.
Left: ego strengthener. Right: ego softener. The states of consciousness that a society values have a profound effect on the degree to which the society is at risk of becoming the breeding grounds for a pure replicator hell versus a consciousness-centric engineered paradise.
(3) Let Go of Shibboleths
Do not get attached to your Shibboleths. “Culture is not your friend” (Terence McKenna). That is, we should foster states of consciousness that allow us to see clearly that cultural and phenotypical identity markers that do not serve the wellbeing of consciousness are parasitic. Leave those behind. Learn to let go. Realize that such attachments are the source of tremendous suffering.
(4) Anticipate Game Theoretical No Passes
Do not simply hope that things will work out due to people’s good will. Spes consilium non est. Hope is not a strategy. It’s key to try to promote a mutual feeling of survival and trust with every being that is alive. Hopefully the hyperstitionalpower ofOpen Individualism, a post-Galilean science of consciousness, and the ready availability of mind-melding technology will solve some of the core game theoretical problems we face. (cf. 24 Predictions for the Year 3000 by David Pearce).
(5) Identify Implicit Essentialism
Who are you? A story, a person, a moment, everyone? A post-hedonium harmonic society would probably find all of these possibilities delightful. It’s weird that with our human software we all identify with cycling parts of our implicit metaphysics. With higher understanding and guaranteed positive valence, I’d imagine most philosophies of existence will be thought of as fantastic stories. Sadly, our capacity to suffer currently makes metaphysics a somewhat risky business. In the context of essentialism (i.e. the metaphysical belief that there is a soul-like essence to people, objects, etc.) it is easy to feel that “I am my genes” or “I am part of my race”.
(6) Engage in the Creation of a Post-Darwinian Culture
We ought to develop the practice of pointing out, not only when Moloch scenarios show up (i.e. tragedy of the commons), but also when we display r-selected Darwinian strategies. Transparency above all. If you see a friend doing some stupid r-selected behavior, take note. Then make sure to make time to discuss why “it wasn’t ok to do that”. The wellbeing of universal consciousness is at stake. Don’t take this lightly.
(7) Hybrid Vigor
Inter-racial procreation is a controversial topic. In full disclosure, I myself am half-Mexican and half-Icelandic (so you might think of me as a latino-nordic). As a kid I never identified with Mexicans or Icelandics, really, but rather, with the entirety of the human kind. That is until I started identifying with consciousness itself (here is the story behind this progression). I find it to be a blessing to not have strong emotional ties to any particular human group, as I feel free to see both the merits and drawbacks of various genetic makeups and cultural memetic clusters without the pain of attachment to any one of them.
A particularly strange bioconservative meme that exists is the idea that human diversity is maximized when people marry within their own ethnicities. Otherwise, the argument goes, we will all end up being bland middle-of-the-road people who all look the same due to being an admixture of all ethnicities. The simple counterargument to this claim is to point out that the genetic state-space available for two people who have a kid together grows (approximately) exponentially with the genetic distance between them (in reality the equation goes along Newton’s binomial theorem, but the exponential function is good enough to make my point). Assuming that every gene you have can come from either your dad or your mom (let’s keep it simple for now), then the range of possible genetic makeups you can have is maximized when your dad and your mom are as different as possible. Likewise, if you can make a convex linear combination of the two (e.g. 30% of your genes being from your mom and 70% from your dad) you also get the maximum number of possible permutations at the 50-50% admixture level. So, chances are, that the most valuable genetic configurations will be found somewhere in the middle of the human genetic pool. Just remember, “the middle has the largest state-space, exponentially so”. In brief, consciousness wellness maximizing posthumans are likely to have genes from people from all over the world. They’ll likely not look particularly ethnocentric at all, but they won’t look the same, either.
(8) Post-Darwinian Match Making: The Frequency of Love
At Burning Man I encountered a number of people interested in working on next-generation match-making. That is, they are interested in using neuroimaging techniques, pheromone analysis, valence questionnaires, etc. as signals to help people find the love of their life. A friend I met at the Burn told me that he’d been having dreams about measuring “the frequency of love” (which in the future will be objective and mathematical) in order to determine the range of love states a person has access to. Someone might be able to have self-love but not spiritual love, while someone else might be great at having sexual intimacy love but suck at friendliness love (and so on). In the long term, we will develop the techniques and methods to help people experience all of the varieties of love, and one of the most effective ways to do this might be to get people to be matched with others who have overlapping capacities for love (not so similar that the relationship reinforces one’s limitations, and not so different that the relationship cannot work out). Ultimately, match-making could be one of the driving forces behind the Post-Darwinian revolution. The Goldilocks Zone of love is one in which one is paired up with someone with overlapping love capacities in such a way that one grows as fast as possible.
(10) Self-Expression: Epigenetic Choice of One’s Appearance and Mental Makeup
One of the core problems with our current biological makeup is that we are not given a choice about who we are, our appearance, and the range of conscious states we can experience. In the future, we might be able to engineer ourselves to be like Pokémon with branched evolutions.
Taking Radical Self-Expression Seriously: Choose your gene expression at 20.
One of the core principles of Burning Man is “radical self-expression”. Indeed, people at the Burn explore new forms of personal aesthetics, collective sexuality, and hedonically-loaded metaphysical interpretations. In the future, if we are to push this principle to its ultimate consequences, we have to let go of the idea that who we are is a fixed set of attributes. Rather, we can choose to play with the emptiness of reality, embrace the ever-changing nature of being, and select a scheme where we are all born with a huge range of latent genes. As we grow and explore various states of consciousness, various social structures, aesthetics, etc. we can finally make an informed choice for who it is that we want to become. Thus, perhaps at the critical age of 20 (or even older, depending on our lifespans), we could choose to trigger a selected number of latent genes to express them. Thus we would change our appearance at will, together with our default state of consciousness and adapt ourselves to whatever environment we want to spend our life participating in.
I will not write a conclusion to this article, for this is just the beginning of a very long conversation. In this article I addressed the irreducibility of Burning Man, the people and memes that are prevalent at this event, the importance of metaphysics (featuring the Pearcean worldview, the Strong Tlön Hypothesis, and hyperstition), philosophy of personal identity (closed, empty, and open individualism), the Goldilocks Zone of Oneness, my conversation with God, a technique to merge with other humans, the dangers and hazards at Burning Man, future economics (i.e. systems based on trading information about the state-space of consciousness), Post-Darwinian societies (the failure modes of genetic engineering and some ideas for how to avoid them, i.e. non-attachment, focusing on the wellbeing of consciousness, and avoidance of the reaper energy).
As a whole, I must say that most of these ideas were already latent in me before the Burn. Burning Man worked as a powerful catalyst, in the literal sense of facilitating the interbreeding and cross-pollination of these pre-existing ideas, resulting in innovative perceptions of what the Big Picture of reality may contain.
As such, this article should be thought of more as a series of notes that may lead to further promising ideas than as clear policy proposal (it’d be crazy to treat it as such). I do think that one of the core insights (that Hitler et al. erred by having attachment to their own genes and feeling entitled to use the reaper energy) is very powerful. It may certainly help us avoid terrible failure modes of transhumanism and enable us to explore radically positive futures. I would encourage my readers to pick this idea up and develop it further. Hopefully together we can create a future that’s truly worth living in.
Thus I greatly enjoyed reading Antti Revonsuo’s Inner Presence: Consciousness as a Biological Phenomenon (2005). Revonsuo even uses a terminology of lucid dreamworlds and a world-simulation metaphor. I disagree only with Revonsuo’s anti-panpsychism. To my knowledge, only one philosopher-cum-scientist combines inferential realism about perception with a panpsychist ontology, namely the underrated Steve Lehar. There is a tension between my own loneliness-inducing virtual worldism and equal conviction of the logico-physical interdependence of literally everything in the Multiverse on everything else [confirmed by those ubiquitous EPR correlations. Yes, our prison cells are all invisibly interconnected; but that is scant consolation for the lifer in solitary confinement: philosophy really does screw you up.] As a consequence, the less morally serious part of me still yearns for some soul-enriching bliss to remedy the cruelty of Nature’s omissions – as appropriate as laughing at a funeral, for sure, but Darwinian life is a protracted cortège. Directly targeting mesolimbic mu receptors might seem the logical solution to anhedonia on a global scale if opiophobic prejudice could ever be overcome.
Michale Johnosn and I will be hanging out at the EA Global (SF) 2017 conference this weekend representing the Qualia Research Institute. If you see us and want to chat, please feel free to approach us. This is what we look like:
At EAGlobal 2016 at Berkeley
I will be handing out the following flyer:
Mental Health as an EA Cause Area: Key Questions
What makes a state of consciousness feel good or bad?
What percentage of worldwide suffering is directly caused by mental illness and/or the hedonic treadmill rather than by external circumstances?
The following is my considered evaluation of the Foundational Research Institute, circa July 2017. I discuss its goal, where I foresee things going wrong with how it defines suffering, and what it could do to avoid these problems.
TL;DR version: functionalism (“consciousness is the sum-total of the functional properties of our brains”) sounds a lot better than it actually turns out to be in practice. In particular, functionalism makes it impossible to define ethics & suffering in a way that can mediate disagreements.
I. What is the Foundational Research Institute?
The Foundational Research Institute (FRI) is a Berlin-based group that “conducts research on how to best reduce the suffering of sentient beings in the near and far future.” Executive Director Max Daniel introduced them at EA Global Boston as “the only EA organization which at an organizational level has the mission of focusing on reducing s-risk.” S-risks are, according to Daniel, “risks where an adverse outcome would bring about suffering on an astronomical scale, vastly exceeding all suffering that has existed on Earth so far.”
Essentially, FRI wants to become the research arm of suffering-focused ethics, and help prevent artificial general intelligence (AGI) failure-modes which might produce suffering on a cosmic scale.
What I like about FRI:
While I have serious qualms about FRI’s research framework, I think the people behind FRI deserve a lot of credit- they seem to be serious people, working hard to build something good. In particular, I want to give them a shoutout for three things:
First, FRI takes suffering seriously, and I think that’s important. When times are good, we tend to forget how tongue-chewingly horrific suffering can be. S-risks seem particularly horrifying.
Second, FRI isn’t afraid of being weird. FRI has been working on s-risk research for a few years now, and if people are starting to come around to the idea that s-risks are worth thinking about, much of the credit goes to FRI.
Third, I have great personal respect for Brian Tomasik, one of FRI’s co-founders. I’ve found him highly thoughtful, generous in debates, and unfailingly principled. In particular, he’s always willing to bite the bullet and work ideas out to their logical end, even if it involves repugnant conclusions.
What is FRI’s research framework?
FRI believes in analytic functionalism, or what David Chalmers calls “Type-A materialism”. Essentially, what this means is there’s no ’theoretical essence’ to consciousness; rather, consciousness is the sum-total of the functional properties of our brains. Since ‘functional properties’ are rather vague, this means consciousness itself is rather vague, in the same way words like “life,” “justice,” and “virtue” are messy and vague.
Brian suggests that this vagueness means there’s an inherently subjective, perhaps arbitrary element to how we define consciousness:
Analytic functionalism looks for functional processes in the brain that roughly capture what we mean by words like “awareness”, “happy”, etc., in a similar way as a biologist may look for precise properties of replicators that roughly capture what we mean by “life”. Just as there can be room for fuzziness about where exactly to draw the boundaries around “life”, different analytic functionalists may have different opinions about where to define the boundaries of “consciousness” and other mental states. This is why consciousness is “up to us to define”. There’s no hard problem of consciousness for the same reason there’s no hard problem of life: consciousness is just a high-level word that we use to refer to lots of detailed processes, and it doesn’t mean anything in addition to those processes.
I know that I’m conscious. I also know, from neuroscience combined with Occam’s razor, that my consciousness consists only of material operations in my brain — probably mostly patterns of neuronal firing that help process inputs, compute intermediate ideas, and produce behavioral outputs. Thus, I can see that consciousness is just the first-person view of certain kinds of computations — as Eliezer Yudkowsky puts it, “How An Algorithm Feels From Inside“. Consciousness is not something separate from or epiphenomenal to these computations. It is these computations, just from their own perspective of trying to think about themselves.
In other words, consciousness is what minds compute. Consciousness is the collection of input operations, intermediate processing, and output behaviors that an entity performs.
And if consciousness is all these things, so too is suffering. Which means suffering is computational, yet also inherently fuzzy, and at least a bit arbitrary; a leaky high-level reification impossible to speak about accurately, since there’s no formal, objective “ground truth”.
II. Why do I worry about FRI’s research framework?
In short, I think FRI has a worthy goal and good people, but its metaphysics actively prevent making progress toward that goal. The following describes why I think that, drawing heavily on Brian’s writings (of FRI’s researchers, Brian seems the most focused on metaphysics):
Note: FRI is not the only EA organization which holds functionalist views on consciousness; much of the following critique would also apply to e.g. MIRI, FHI, and OpenPhil. I focus on FRI because (1) Brian’s writings on consciousness & functionalism have been hugely influential in the community, and are clear enough *to* criticize; (2) the fact that FRI is particularly clear about what it cares about- suffering- allows a particularly clear critique about what problems it will run into with functionalism; (3) I believe FRI is at the forefront of an important cause area which has not crystallized yet, and I think it’s critically important to get these objections bouncing around this subcommunity.
Objection 1: Motte-and-bailey
Brian: “Consciousness is not a thing which exists ‘out there’ or even a separate property of matter; it’s a definitional category into which we classify minds. ‘Is this digital mind really conscious?’ is analogous to ‘Is a rock that people use to eat on really a table?’ [However,] That consciousness is a cluster in thingspace rather than a concrete property of the world does not make reducing suffering less important.”
The FRI model seems to imply that suffering is ineffable enough such that we can’t have an objective definition, yet sufficiently effable that we can coherently talk and care about it. This attempt to have it both ways seems contradictory, or at least in deep tension.
Indeed, I’d argue that the degree to which you can care about something is proportional to the degree to which you can define it objectively. E.g., If I say that “gnireffus” is literally the most terrible thing in the cosmos, that we should spread gnireffus-focused ethics, and that minimizing g-risks (far-future scenarios which involve large amounts of gnireffus) is a moral imperative, but also that what is and what and isn’t gnireffus is rather subjective with no privileged definition, and it’s impossible to objectively tell if a physical system exhibits gnireffus, you might raise any number of objections. This is not an exact metaphor for FRI’s position, but I worry that FRI’s work leans on the intuition that suffering is real and we can speak coherently about it, to a degree greater than its metaphysics formally allow.
Max Daniel (personal communication) suggests that we’re comfortable with a degree of ineffability in other contexts; “Brian claims that the concept of suffering shares the allegedly problematic properties with the concept of a table. But it seems a stretch to say that the alleged tension is problematic when talking about tables. So why would it be problematic when talking about suffering?” However, if we take the anti-realist view that suffering is ‘merely’ a node in the network of language, we have to live with the consequences of this: that ‘suffering’ will lose meaning as we take it away from the network in which it’s embedded (Wittgenstein). But FRI wants to do exactly this, to speak about suffering in the context of AGIs, simulated brains, even video game characters.
We can be anti-realists about suffering (suffering-is-a-node-in-the-network-of-language), or we can argue that we can talk coherently about suffering in novel contexts (AGIs, mind crime, aliens, and so on), but it seems inherently troublesome to claim we can do both at the same time.
Objection 2: Intuition duels
Two people can agree on FRI’s position that there is no objective fact of the matter about what suffering is (no privileged definition), but this also means they have no way of coming to any consensus on the object-level question of whether something can suffer. This isn’t just an academic point: Brian has written extensively about how he believes non-human animals can and do suffer extensively, whereas Yudkowsky (who holds computationalist views, like Brian) has written about how he’s confident that animals are not conscious and cannot suffer, due to their lack of higher-order reasoning.
And if functionalism is having trouble adjudicating the easy cases of suffering–whether monkeys can suffer, or whether dogs can— it doesn’t have a sliver of a chance at dealing with the upcoming hard cases of suffering: whether a given AGI is suffering, or engaging in mind crime; whether a whole-brain emulation (WBE) or synthetic organism or emergent intelligence that doesn’t have the capacity to tell us how it feels (or that we don’t have the capacity to understand) is suffering; if any aliens that we meet in the future can suffer; whether changing the internal architecture of our qualia reports means we’re also changing our qualia; and so on.
In short, FRI’s theory of consciousness isn’t actually a theory of consciousness at all, since it doesn’t do the thing we need a theory of consciousness to do: adjudicate disagreements in a principled way. Instead, it gives up any claim on the sorts of objective facts which could in principle adjudicate disagreements.
This is a source of friction in EA today, but it’s mitigated by the sense that
(1) The EA pie is growing, so it’s better to ignore disagreements than pick fights;
(2) Disagreements over the definition of suffering don’t really matter yet, since we haven’t gotten into the business of making morally-relevant synthetic beings (that we know of) that might be unable to vocalize their suffering.
If the perception of one or both of these conditions change, the lack of some disagreement-adjudicating theory of suffering will matter quite a lot.
Objection 3: Convergence requires common truth
Mike: “[W]hat makes one definition of consciousness better than another? How should we evaluate them?”
Brian: “Consilience among our feelings of empathy, principles of non-discrimination, understandings of cognitive science, etc. It’s similar to the question of what makes one definition of justice or virtue better than another.”
Brian is hoping that affective neuroscience will slowly converge to accurate views on suffering as more and better data about sentience and pain accumulates. But convergence to truth implies something (objective) driving the convergence- in this way, Brian’s framework still seems to require an objective truth of the matter, even though he disclaims most of the benefits of assuming this.
Objection 4: Assuming that consciousness is a reification produces more confusion, not less
Brian: “Consciousness is not a reified thing; it’s not a physical property of the universe that just exists intrinsically. Rather, instances of consciousness are algorithms that are implemented in specific steps. … Consciousness involves specific things that brains do.”
Brian argues that we treat conscious/phenomenology as more ‘real’ than it is. Traditionally, whenever we’ve discovered something is a leaky reification and shouldn’t be treated as ‘too real’, we’ve been able to break it down into more coherent constituent pieces we can treat as real. Life, for instance, wasn’t due to élan vital but a bundle of self-organizing properties & dynamics which generally co-occur. But carrying out this “de-reification” process on consciousness– enumerating its coherent constituent pieces– has proven difficult, especially if we want to preserve some way to speak cogently about suffering.
Speaking for myself, the more I stared into the depths of functionalism, the less certain everything about moral value became– and arguably, I see the same trajectory in Brian’s work and Luke Muehlhauser’s report. Their model uncertainty has seemingly become larger as they’ve looked into techniques for how to “de-reify” consciousness while preserving some flavor of moral value, not smaller. Brian and Luke seem to interpret this as evidence that moral value is intractably complicated, but this is also consistent with consciousness not being a reification, and instead being a real thing. Trying to “de-reify” something that’s not a reification will produce deep confusion, just as surely trying to treat a reification as ‘more real’ than it actually is will.
Edsger W. Dijkstra famously noted that “The purpose of abstraction is not to be vague, but to create a new semantic level in which one can be absolutely precise.” And so if our ways of talking about moral value fail to ‘carve reality at the joints’- then by all means let’s build better ones, rather than giving up on precision.
Objection 5: The Hard Problem of Consciousness is a red herring
Brian spends a lot of time discussing Chalmers’ “Hard Problem of Consciousness”, i.e. the question of why we’re subjectively conscious, and seems to base at least part of his conclusion on not finding this question compelling— he suggests “There’s no hard problem of consciousness for the same reason there’s no hard problem of life: consciousness is just a high-level word that we use to refer to lots of detailed processes, and it doesn’t mean anything in addition to those processes.” I.e., no ‘why’ is necessary; when we take consciousness and subtract out the details of the brain, we’re left with an empty set.
But I think the “Hard Problem” isn’t helpful as a contrastive centerpiece, since it’s unclear what the problem is, and whether it’s analytic or empirical, a statement about cognition or about physics. At the Qualia Research Institute (QRI), we don’t talk much about the Hard Problem; instead, we talk about Qualia Formalism, or the idea that any phenomenological state can be crisply and precisely represented by some mathematical object. I suspect this would be a better foil for Brian’s work than the Hard Problem.
Objection 6: Mapping to reality
Brian argues that consciousness should be defined at the functional/computational level: given a Turing machine, or neural network, the right ‘code’ will produce consciousness. But the problem is that this doesn’t lead to a theory which can ‘compile’ to physics. Consider the following:
Imagine you have a bag of popcorn. Now shake it. There will exist a certain ad-hoc interpretation of bag-of-popcorn-as-computational-system where you just simulated someone getting tortured, and other interpretations that don’t imply that. Did you torture anyone? If you’re a computationalist, no clear answer exists- you both did, and did not, torture someone. This sounds like a ridiculous edge-case that would never come up in real life, but in reality it comes up all the time, since there is no principled way to *objectively derive* what computation(s) any physical system is performing.
I don’t think this is an outlandish view of functionalism; Brian suggests much the same in How to Interpret a Physical System as a Mind: “Physicalist views that directly map from physics to moral value are relatively simple to understand. Functionalism is more complex, because it maps from physics to computations to moral value. Moreover, while physics is real and objective, computations are fictional and ‘observer-relative’ (to use John Searle’s terminology). There’s no objective meaning to ‘the computation that this physical system is implementing’ (unless you’re referring to the specific equations of physics that the system is playing out).”
Gordon McCabe (McCabe 2004) provides a more formal argument to this effect— that precisely mapping between physical processes and (Turing-level) computational processes is inherently impossible— in the context of simulations. First, McCabe notes that:
[T]here is a one-[to-]many correspondence between the logical states [of a computer] and the exact electronic states of computer memory. Although there are bijective mappings between numbers and the logical states of computer memory, there are no bijective mappings between numbers and the exact electronic states of memory.
This lack of an exact bijective mapping means that subjective interpretation necessarily creeps in, and so a computational simulation of a physical system can’t be ‘about’ that system in any rigorous way:
In a computer simulation, the values of the physical quantities possessed by the simulated system are represented by the combined states of multiple bits in computer memory. However, the combined states of multiple bits in computer memory only represent numbers because they are deemed to do so under a numeric interpretation. There are many different interpretations of the combined states of multiple bits in computer memory. If the numbers represented by a digital computer are interpretation-dependent, they cannot be objective physical properties. Hence, there can be no objective relationship between the changing pattern of multiple bit-states in computer memory, and the changing pattern of quantity-values of a simulated physical system.
McCabe concludes that, metaphysically speaking,
A digital computer simulation of a physical system cannot exist as, (does not possess the properties and relationships of), anything else other than a physical process occurring upon the components of a computer. In the contemporary case of an electronic digital computer, a simulation cannot exist as anything else other than an electronic physical process occurring upon the components and circuitry of a computer.
Where does this leave ethics? In Flavors of Computation Are Flavors of Consciousness, Brian notes that “In some sense all I’ve proposed here is to think of different flavors of computation as being various flavors of consciousness. But this still leaves the question: Which flavors of computation matter most? Clearly whatever computations happen when a person is in pain are vastly more important than what’s happening in a brain on a lazy afternoon. How can we capture that difference?”
But if Brian grants the former point- that “There’s no objective meaning to ‘the computation that this physical system is implementing’”– then this latter task of figuring out “which flavors of computation matter most” is provably impossible. There will always be multiple computational (and thus ethical) interpretations of a physical system, with no way to figure out what’s “really” happening. No way to figure out if something is suffering or not. No consilience; not now, not ever.
I should add a note on terminology: All computations occur within physics, so any computation is a physical process. Conversely, any physical process proceeds from input conditions to output conditions in a regular manner and so is a computation. Hence, the set of computations equals the set of physical processes, and where I say “computations” in this piece, one could just as well substitute “physical processes” instead.
This seems to be (1) incorrect, for the reasons I give above, or (2) taking substantial poetic license with these terms, or (3) referring to hypercomputation (which might be able to salvage the metaphor, but would invalidate many of FRI’s conclusions dealing with the computability of suffering on conventional hardware).
This objection may seem esoteric or pedantic, but I think it’s important, and that it ripples through FRI’s theoretical framework with disastrous effects.
Objection 7: FRI doesn’t fully bite the bullet on computationalism
Brian suggests that “flavors of computation are flavors of consciousness” and that some computations ‘code’ for suffering. But if we do in fact bite the bullet on this metaphor and place suffering within the realm of computational theory, we need to think in “near mode” and accept all the paradoxes that brings. Scott Aaronson, a noted expert on quantum computing, raises the following objections to functionalism:
I’m guessing that many people in this room side with Dennett, and (not coincidentally, I’d say) also with Everett. I certainly have sympathies in that direction too. In fact, I spent seven or eight years of my life as a Dennett/Everett hardcore believer. But, while I don’t want to talk anyone out of the Dennett/Everett view, I’d like to take you on a tour of what I see as some of the extremely interesting questions that that view leaves unanswered. I’m not talking about “deep questions of meaning,” but about something much more straightforward: what exactly does a computational process have to do to qualify as “conscious”?
There’s this old chestnut, what if each person on earth simulated one neuron of your brain, by passing pieces of paper around. It took them several years just to simulate a single second of your thought processes. Would that bring your subjectivity into being? Would you accept it as a replacement for your current body? If so, then what if your brain were simulated, not neuron-by-neuron, but by a gigantic lookup table? That is, what if there were a huge database, much larger than the observable universe (but let’s not worry about that), that hardwired what your brain’s response was to every sequence of stimuli that your sense-organs could possibly receive. Would that bring about your consciousness? Let’s keep pushing: if it would, would it make a difference if anyone actually consulted the lookup table? Why can’t it bring about your consciousness just by sitting there doing nothing?
To these standard thought experiments, we can add more. Let’s suppose that, purely for error-correction purposes, the computer that’s simulating your brain runs the code three times, and takes the majority vote of the outcomes. Would that bring three “copies” of your consciousness into being? Does it make a difference if the three copies are widely separated in space or time—say, on different planets, or in different centuries? Is it possible that the massive redundancy taking place in your brain right now is bringing multiple copies of you into being?
Maybe my favorite thought experiment along these lines was invented by my former student Andy Drucker. In the past five years, there’s been a revolution in theoretical cryptography, around something called Fully Homomorphic Encryption (FHE), which was first discovered by Craig Gentry. What FHE lets you do is to perform arbitrary computations on encrypted data, without ever decrypting the data at any point. So, to someone with the decryption key, you could be proving theorems, simulating planetary motions, etc. But to someone without the key, it looks for all the world like you’re just shuffling random strings and producing other random strings as output.
You can probably see where this is going. What if we homomorphically encrypted a simulation of your brain? And what if we hid the only copy of the decryption key, let’s say in another galaxy? Would this computation—which looks to anyone in our galaxy like a reshuffling of gobbledygook—be silently producing your consciousness?
When we consider the possibility of a conscious quantum computer, in some sense we inherit all the previous puzzles about conscious classical computers, but then also add a few new ones. So, let’s say I run a quantum subroutine that simulates your brain, by applying some unitary transformation U. But then, of course, I want to “uncompute” to get rid of garbage (and thereby enable interference between different branches), so I apply U-1. Question: when I apply U-1, does your simulated brain experience the same thoughts and feelings a second time? Is the second experience “the same as” the first, or does it differ somehow, by virtue of being reversed in time? Or, since U-1U is just a convoluted implementation of the identity function, are there no experiences at all here?
Here’s a better one: many of you have heard of the Vaidman bomb. This is a famous thought experiment in quantum mechanics where there’s a package, and we’d like to “query” it to find out whether it contains a bomb—but if we query it and there is a bomb, it will explode, killing everyone in the room. What’s the solution? Well, suppose we could go into a superposition of querying the bomb and not querying it, with only ε amplitude on querying the bomb, and √(1-ε2) amplitude on not querying it. And suppose we repeat this over and over—each time, moving ε amplitude onto the “query the bomb” state if there’s no bomb there, but moving ε2probability onto the “query the bomb” state if there is a bomb (since the explosion decoheres the superposition). Then after 1/ε repetitions, we’ll have order 1 probability of being in the “query the bomb” state if there’s no bomb. By contrast, if there is a bomb, then the total probability we’ve ever entered that state is (1/ε)×ε2 = ε. So, either way, we learn whether there’s a bomb, and the probability that we set the bomb off can be made arbitrarily small. (Incidentally, this is extremely closely related to how Grover’s algorithm works.)
OK, now how about the Vaidman brain? We’ve got a quantum subroutine simulating your brain, and we want to ask it a yes-or-no question. We do so by querying that subroutine with ε amplitude 1/ε times, in such a way that if your answer is “yes,” then we’ve only ever activated the subroutine with total probability ε. Yet you still manage to communicate your “yes” answer to the outside world. So, should we say that you were conscious only in the ε fraction of the wavefunction where the simulation happened, or that the entire system was conscious? (The answer could matter a lot for anthropic purposes.)
To sum up: Brian’s notion that consciousness is the same as computation raises more issues than it solves; in particular, the possibility that if suffering is computable, it may also be uncomputable/reversible, would suggest s-risks aren’t as serious as FRI treats them.
Objection 8: Dangerous combination
Three themes which seem to permeate FRI’s research are:
(1) Suffering is the thing that is bad.
(2) It’s critically important to eliminate badness from the universe.
(3) Suffering is impossible to define objectively, and so we each must define what suffering means for ourselves.
Taken individually, each of these seems reasonable. Pick two, and you’re still okay. Pick all three, though, and you get A Fully General Justification For Anything, based on what is ultimately a subjective/aesthetic call.
Much can be said in FRI’s defense here, and it’s unfair to single them out as risky: in my experience they’ve always brought a very thoughtful, measured, cooperative approach to the table. I would just note that ideas are powerful, and I think theme (3) is especially pernicious if incorrect.
III. QRI’s alternative
Analytic functionalism is essentially a negative hypothesis about consciousness: it’s the argument that there’s no order to be found, no rigor to be had. It obscures this with talk of “function”, which is a red herring it not only doesn’t define, but admits is undefinable. It doesn’t make any positive assertion. Functionalism is skepticism- nothing more, nothing less.
But is it right?
Ultimately, I think these a priori arguments are much like people in the middle ages arguing whether one could ever formalize a Proper System of Alchemy. Such arguments may in many cases hold water, but it’s often difficult to tell good arguments apart from arguments where we’re just cleverly fooling ourselves. In retrospect, the best way to *prove* systematized alchemy was possible was to just go out and *do* it, and invent Chemistry. That’s how I see what we’re doing at QRI with Qualia Formalism: we’re assuming it’s possible to build stuff, and we’re working on building the object-level stuff.
What we’ve built with QRI’s framework
Note: this is a brief, surface-level tour of our research; it will probably be confusing for readers who haven’t dug into our stuff before. Consider this a down-payment on a more substantial introduction.
My most notable work is Principia Qualia, in which I lay out my meta-framework for consciousness (a flavor of dual-aspect monism, with a focus on Qualia Formalism) and put forth the Symmetry Theory of Valence (STV). Essentially, the STV is an argument that much of the apparent complexity of emotional valence is evolutionarily contingent, and if we consider a mathematical object isomorphic to a phenomenological experience, the mathematical property which corresponds to how pleasant it is to be that experience is the object’s symmetry. This implies a bunch of testable predictions and reinterpretations of things like what ‘pleasure centers’ do (Section XI; Section XII). Building on this, I offer the Symmetry Theory of Homeostatic Regulation, which suggests understanding the structure of qualia will translate into knowledge about the structure of human intelligence, and I briefly touch on the idea of Neuroacoustics.
These are risky predictions and we don’t yet know if they’re right, but we’re confident that if there is some elegant structure intrinsic to consciousness, as there is in many other parts of the natural world, these are the right kind of risks to take.
I mention all this because I think analytic functionalism- which is to say radical skepticism/eliminativism, the metaphysics of last resort- only looks as good as it does because nobody’s been building out any alternatives.
IV. Closing thoughts
FRI is pursuing a certain research agenda, and QRI is pursuing another, and there’s lots of value in independent explorations of the nature of suffering. I’m glad FRI exists, everybody I’ve interacted with at FRI has been great, I’m happy they’re focusing on s-risks, and I look forward to seeing what they produce in the future.
On the other hand, I worry that nobody’s pushing back on FRI’s metaphysics, which seem to unavoidably lead to the intractable problems I describe above. FRI seems to believe these problems are part of the territory, unavoidable messes that we just have to make philosophical peace with. But I think that functionalism is a bad map, that the metaphysical messes it leads to are muchworse than most people realize (fatal to FRI’s mission), and there are other options that avoid these problems (which, to be fair, is not to say they have no problems).
Ultimately, FRI doesn’t owe me a defense of their position. But if they’re open to suggestions on what it would take to convince a skeptic like me that their brand of functionalism is viable, or at least rescuable, I’d offer the following:
Re: Objection 1 (motte-and-bailey), I suggest FRI should be as clear and complete as possible in their basic definition of suffering. In which particular ways is it ineffable/fuzzy, and in which particular ways is it precise? What can we definitely say about suffering, and what can we definitely never determine? Preregistering ontological commitments and methodological possibilities would help guard against FRI’s definition of suffering changing based on context.
Re: Objection 2 (intuition duels), FRI may want to internally “war game” various future scenarios involving AGI, WBE, etc, with one side arguing that a given synthetic (or even extraterrestrial) organism is suffering, and the other side arguing that it isn’t. I’d expect this would help diagnose what sorts of disagreements future theories of suffering will need to adjudicate, and perhaps illuminate implicit ethical intuitions. Sharing the results of these simulated disagreements would also be helpful in making FRI’s reasoning less opaque to outsiders, although making everything transparent could lead to certain strategic disadvantages.
Re: Objection 3 (convergence requires common truth), I’d like FRI to explore exactly what might drive consilience/convergence in theories of suffering, and what precisely makes one theory of suffering better than another, and ideally to evaluate a range of example theories of suffering under these criteria.
Re: Objection 4 (assuming that consciousness is a reification produces more confusion, not less), I would love to see a historical treatment of reification: lists of reifications which were later dissolved (e.g., élan vital), vs scattered phenomena that were later unified (e.g., electromagnetism). What patterns do the former have, vs the latter, and why might consciousness fit one of these buckets better than the other?
Re: Objection 5 (the Hard Problem of Consciousness is a red herring), I’d like to see a more detailed treatment of what kinds of problem people have interpreted the Hard Problem as, and also more analysis on the prospects of Qualia Formalism (which I think is the maximally-empirical, maximally-charitable interpretation of the Hard Problem). It would be helpful for us, in particular, if FRI preregistered their expectations about QRI’s predictions, and their view of the relative evidence strength of each of our predictions.
Re: Objection 6 (mapping to reality), this is perhaps the heart of most of our disagreement. From Brian’s quotes, he seems split on this issue; I’d like clarification about whether he believes we can ever precisely/objectively map specific computations to specific physical systems, and vice-versa. And if so— how? If not, this seems to propagate through FRI’s ethical framework in a disastrous way, since anyone can argue that any physical system does, or does not, ‘code’ for massive suffering, and there’s no principled way to derive any ‘ground truth’ or even pick between interpretations in a principled way (e.g. my popcorn example). If this isn’t the case— why not?
Brian has suggested that “certain high-level interpretations of physical systems are more ‘natural’ and useful than others” (personal communication); I agree, and would encourage FRI to explore systematizing this.
It would be non-trivial to port FRI’s theories and computational intuitions to the framework of “hypercomputation”– i.e., the understanding that there’s a formal hierarchy of computational systems, and that Turing machines are only one level of many– but it may have benefits too. Namely, it might be the only way they could avoid Objection 6 (which I think is a fatal objection) while still allowing them to speak about computation & consciousness in the same breath. I think FRI should look at this and see if it makes sense to them.
Re: Objection 7 (FRI doesn’t fully bite the bullet on computationalism), I’d like to see responses to Aaronson’s aforementioned thought experiments.
Re: Objection 8 (dangerous combination), I’d like to see a clarification about why my interpretation is unreasonable (as it very well may be!).
In conclusion- I think FRI has a critically important goal- reduction of suffering & s-risk. However, I also think FRI has painted itself into a corner by explicitly disallowing a clear, disagreement-mediating definition for what these things are. I look forward to further work in this field.
Qualia Research Institute
Acknowledgements: thanks to Andrés Gómez Emilsson, Brian Tomasik, and Max Daniel for reviewing earlier drafts of this.
My sources for FRI’s views on consciousness:
Flavors of Computation are Flavors of Consciousness:
I am delighted to announce that I will be presenting at Consciousness Hacking in San Francisco on 2017/6/7 (YMD notation).
Consciousness Hacking (CoHack) is an extremely awesome community that blends a genuine interest in benevolence, scientific rationality, experiential spirituality, self-experimentation, and holistic wellbeing together with an unceasing focus on consciousness. Truth be told, CohHack is one of the reasons why I love living in the Bay Area.
What would happen if a bliss technology capable of inducing a constant MDMA-like state of consciousness with no negative side effects were available? What makes an experience good or bad? Is happiness a spiritual trick, or is spirituality a happiness trick?
At this month’s speaker presentation, Consciousness Hacking invites Data Science Engineer, Andrés Gómez Emilsson to discuss current research, including his own, concerning the measurement of bliss, how blissful brain states can be induced, and what implications this may have on quality of life and our relationship with the world around us.
Emilsson’s research aims to create a mathematical theory of the pleasure-pain axis that can take information about a person’s brain at a given point in time and return the approximate (or even true) level of happiness and suffering for that person. Emilsson will explore two dimensions that have been studied in affective neuroscience for decades:
Arousal: how much energy and activation a given emotion has
Valence: the “feel good or feel bad” dimension of emotion
If the purpose of life is to feel happy and to make others happy, then figuring out how valence is implemented in the brain may take us a long way in that direction. Current approaches to valence, while helpful, usually don’t address the core of the problem (ie. usually just measuring the symptoms of pleasure such as the neurotransmitters that trigger it, brain regions, positive reinforcement, etc. rather than getting at the experience of pleasure itself).
A real science of valence would not only be able to integrate and explain why the things people report as pleasurable are pleasant, it would also make a precise, empirically falsifiable hypothesis about whether arbitrary brain states will feel good or bad. This is what Emilsson aims to do.
You will take away:
An understanding about the current scientific consensus on the nature of happiness in the brain, and why it is incomplete
A philosophical case for both the feasibility and desirability of a world devoid of intense suffering
A new candidate mathematical formula that can be used to predict the psychological wellbeing of a brain at a given point in time
An argument for why bliss technology that puts us in a constant MDMA-like state of consciousness with no negative side effects is likely to become available within the next two to five decades
The opportunity to network with other people who are serious about figuring out the meaning of life through introspection and neuroscience
About our speaker:
Andrés Gómez Emilsson was born in México City in 1990. From an early age, he developed an interest in philosophy, mathematics, and science, leading him to compete nationally and internationally in Math and Science Olympiads. At 16, his main interest was mathematics, but after an unexpected “mystical experience”, he turned his attention to consciousness and the philosophical problems that it poses. He studied Symbolic Systems with an Artificial Intelligence concentration at Stanford, and later finished a masters in Computational Psychology at the same university. During his time at Stanford he co-founded the Stanford Transhumanist Association and became good friends with transhumanist philosopher David Pearce, taking on the flag of the Hedonistic Imperative (HI). In order to pursue the long-term goals of HI, his current primary intellectual interest is to reverse-engineer the functional, biochemical and/or quantum signatures of pure bliss.
He is currently working at a Natural Language Processing company in San Francisco, creating quantitative measures of employee happiness, productivity, and ethics at companies, with the long-term intent of creating a consciousness research institute that’s also a great place to work for (i.e. one in which employees are happy, productive, and ethical). In his free time he develops psychophysical tools to study the computational properties of consciousness.
ECO-SYSTM is a dynamic community of creative professionals, startups, and freelancers, founded on the idea that entertainment, creativity and business can come together to offer a truly unique work experience for Bay Area professionals. Check out membership plans here: http://eco-systm.com/
Extract from Principia Qualia (2016) by my colleague Michael E. Johnson (from Qualia Research Institute). This is intended to summarize the core ideas of chapter 2, which proposes a precise, testable, simple, and so far science-compatible theory of the fundamental nature of valence (also called hedonic tone or the pleasure-pain axis; what makes experiences feel good or bad).
VII. Three principles for a mathematical derivation of valence
We’ve covered a lot of ground with the above literature reviews, and synthesizing a new framework for understanding consciousness research. But we haven’t yet fulfilled the promise about valence made in Section II- to offer a rigorous, crisp, and relatively simple hypothesis about valence. This is the goal of Part II.
Drawing from the framework in Section VI, I offer three principles to frame this problem:
1. Qualia Formalism: for any given conscious experience, there exists- in principle- a mathematical object isomorphic to its phenomenology. This is a formal way of saying that consciousness is in principle quantifiable- much as electromagnetism, or the square root of nine is quantifiable. I.e. IIT’s goal, to generate such a mathematical object, is a valid one.
2. Qualia Structuralism: this mathematical object has a rich set of formal structures. Based on the regularities & invariances in phenomenology, it seems safe to say that qualia has a non-trivial amount of structure. It likely exhibits connectedness (i.e., it’s a unified whole, not the union of multiple disjoint sets), and compactness, and so we can speak of qualia as having a topology.
More speculatively, based on the following:
(a) IIT’s output format is data in a vector space,
(b) Modern physics models reality as a wave function within Hilbert Space, which has substantial structure,
(c) Components of phenomenology such as color behave as vectors (Feynman 1965), and
(d) Spatial awareness is explicitly geometric,
…I propose that Qualia space also likely satisfies the requirements of being a metric space, and we can speak of qualia as having a geometry.
Mathematical structures are important, since the more formal structures a mathematical object has, the more elegantly we can speak about patterns within it, and the closer our words can get to “carving reality at the joints”.
3. Valence Realism: valence is a crisp phenomenon of conscious states upon which we can apply a measure.
–> I.e. some experiences do feel holistically better than others, and (in principle) we can associate a value to this. Furthermore, to combine (2) and (3), this pleasantness could be encoded into the mathematical object isomorphic to the experience in an efficient way (we should look for a concise equation, not an infinitely-large lookup table for valence). […]
I believe my three principles are all necessary for a satisfying solution to valence (and the first two are necessary for any satisfying solution to consciousness):
Considering the inverses:
If Qualia Formalism is false, then consciousness is not quantifiable, and there exists no formal knowledge about consciousness to discover. But if the history of science is any guide, we don’t live in a universe where phenomena are intrinsically unquantifiable- rather, we just haven’t been able to crisply quantify consciousness yet.
If Qualia Structuralism is false and Qualia space has no meaningful structure to discover and generalize from, then most sorts of knowledge about qualia (such as which experiences feel better than others) will likely be forever beyond our empirical grasp. I.e., if Qualia space lacks structure, there will exist no elegant heuristics or principles for interpreting what a mathematical object isomorphic to a conscious experience means. But this doesn’t seem to match the story from affective neuroscience, nor from our everyday experience: we have plenty of evidence for patterns, regularities, and invariances in phenomenological experiences. Moreover, our informal, intuitive models for predicting our future qualia are generally very good. This implies our brains have figured out some simple rules-of-thumb for how qualia is structured, and so qualia does have substantial mathematical structure, even if our formal models lag behind.
If Valence Realism is false, then we really can’t say very much about ethics, normativity, or valence with any confidence, ever. But this seems to violate the revealed preferences of the vast majority of people: we sure behave as if some experiences are objectively superior to others, at arbitrarily-fine levels of distinction. It may be very difficult to put an objective valence on a given experience, but in practice we don’t behave as if this valence doesn’t exist.
VIII. Distinctions in qualia: charting the explanation space for valence
Sections II-III made the claim that we need a bottom-up quantitative theory like IIT in order to successfully reverse-engineer valence, Section VI suggested some core problems & issues theories like IIT will need to address, and Section VII proposed three principles for interpreting IIT-style output:
We should think of qualia as having a mathematical representation,
This mathematical representation has a topology and probably a geometry, and perhaps more structure, and
Valence is real; some things do feel better than others, and we should try to explain why in terms of qualia’s mathematical representation.
But what does this get us? Specifically, how does assuming these three things get us any closer to solving valence if we don’t have an actual, validated dataset (“data structure isomorphic to the phenomenology”) from *any* system, much less a real brain?
It actually helps a surprising amount, since an isomorphism between a structured (e.g., topological, geometric) space and qualia implies that any clean or useful distinction we can make in one realm automatically applies in the other realm as well. And if we can explore what kinds of distinctions in qualia we can make, we can start to chart the explanation space for valence (what ‘kind’ of answer it will be).
I propose the following four distinctions which depend on only a very small amount of mathematical structure inherent in qualia space, which should apply equally to qualia and to qualia’s mathematical representation:
Global vs local
Simple vs complex
Atomic vs composite
Intuitively important vs intuitively trivial
Takeaways: this section has suggested that we can get surprising mileage out of the hypothesis that there will exist a geometric data structure isomorphic to the phenomenology of a system, since if we can make a distinction in one domain (math or qualia), it will carry over into the other domain ‘for free’. Given this, I put forth the hypothesis that valence may plausibly be a simple, global, atomic, and intuitively important property of both qualia and its mathematical representation.
IX. Summary of heuristics for reverse-engineering the pattern for valence
Reverse-engineering the precise mathematical property that corresponds to valence may seem like finding a needle in a haystack, but I propose that it may be easier than it appears. Broadly speaking, I see six heuristics for zeroing in on valence:
A. Structural distinctions in Qualia space (Section VIII);
B. Empirical hints from affective neuroscience (Section I);
C. A priori hints from phenomenology;
D. Empirical hints from neurocomputational syntax;
E. The Non-adaptedness Principle;
F. Common patterns across physical formalisms (lessons from physics). None of these heuristics determine the answer, but in aggregate they dramatically reduce the search space.
IX.A: Structural distinctions in Qualia space (Section VIII):
In the previous section, we noted that the following distinctions about qualia can be made: Global vs local; Simple vs complex; Atomic vs composite; Intuitively important vs intuitively trivial. Valence plausibly corresponds to a global, simple, atomic, and intuitively important mathematical property.
Music is surprisingly pleasurable; auditory dissonance is surprisingly unpleasant. Clearly, music has many adaptive signaling & social bonding aspects (Storr 1992; Mcdermott and Hauser 2005)- yet if we subtract everything that could be considered signaling or social bonding (e.g., lyrics, performative aspects, social bonding & enjoyment), we’re still left with something very emotionally powerful. However, this pleasantness can vanish abruptly- and even reverse– if dissonance is added.
Much more could be said here, but a few of the more interesting data points are:
Pleasurable music tends to involve elegant structure when represented geometrically (Tymoczko 2006);
Non-human animals don’t seem to find human music pleasant (with some exceptions), but with knowledge of what pitch range and tempo their auditory systems are optimized to pay attention to, we’ve been able to adapt human music to get animals to prefer it over silence (Snowdon and Teie 2010).
Results suggest that consonance is a primary factor in which sounds are pleasant vs unpleasant in 2- and 4-month-old infants (Trainor, Tsang, and Cheung 2002).
Hearing two of our favorite songs at once doesn’t feel better than just one; instead, it feels significantly worse.
More generally, it feels like music is a particularly interesting case study by which to pick apart the information-theoretic aspects of valence, and it seems plausible that evolution may have piggybacked on some fundamental law of qualia to produce the human preference for music. This should be most obscured with genres of music which focus on lyrics, social proof & social cohesion (e.g., pop music), and performative aspects, and clearest with genres of music which avoid these things (e.g., certain genres of classical music).
X. A simple hypothesis about valence
To recap, the general heuristic from Section VIII was that valence may plausibly correspond to a simple, atomic, global, and intuitively important geometric property of a data structure isomorphic to phenomenology. The specific heuristics from Section IX surveyed hints from a priori phenomenology, hints from what we know of the brain’s computational syntax, introduced the Non-adaptedness Principle, and noted the unreasonable effectiveness of beautiful mathematics in physics to suggest that the specific geometric property corresponding to pleasure should be something that involves some sort of mathematically-interesting patterning, regularity, efficiency, elegance, and/or harmony.
We don’t have enough information to formally deduce which mathematical property these constraints indicate, yet in aggregate these constraints hugely reduce the search space, and also substantially point toward the following:
Given a mathematical object isomorphic to the qualia of a system, the mathematical property which corresponds to how pleasant it is to be that system is that object’s symmetry.
XI. Testing this hypothesis today
In a perfect world, we could plug many peoples’ real-world IIT-style datasets into a symmetry detection algorithm and see if this “Symmetry in the Topology of Phenomenology” (SiToP) theory of valence successfully predicted their self-reported valences.
Unfortunately, we’re a long way from having the theory and data to do that.
But if we make two fairly modest assumptions, I think we should be able to perform some reasonable, simple, and elegant tests on this hypothesis now. The two assumptions are:
We can probably assume that symmetry/pleasure is a more-or-less fractal property: i.e., it’ll be evident on basically all locations and scales of our data structure, and so it should be obvious even with imperfect measurements. Likewise, symmetry in one part of the brain will imply symmetry elsewhere, so we may only need to measure it in a small section that need not be directly contributing to consciousness.
We can probably assume that symmetry in connectome-level brain networks/activity will roughly imply symmetry in the mathematical-object-isomorphic-to-phenomenology (the symmetry that ‘matters’ for valence), and vice-versa. I.e., we need not worry too much about the exact ‘flavor’ of symmetry we’re measuring.
So- given these assumptions, I see three ways to test our hypothesis:
1. More pleasurable brain states should be more compressible (all else being equal).
Symmetry implies compressibility, and so if we can measure the compressibility of a brain state in some sort of broad-stroke fashion while controlling for degree of consciousness, this should be a fairly good proxy for how pleasant that brain state is.