+Transhumanism -Signaling: Education Should Be Relevant to Meaningful Work

In response to Quora question What are some dark facts about Khan Academy? by Mario Montano


I loved Khan Academy growing up. I could teach myself linear algebra while still a sophomore in high school. I could learn biology and chemistry during my summer break.

The questions that prop up are:

Why would anyone love that?

What is being achieved?

Was attempting to “get ahead” by learning how to multiply matrices actually useful in life?

Is regurgitation of miscellanea anything more than signaling conscientiousness and intelligence to future employers who mostly create meaningless services and products?

The issue with Khan Academy-style education is that it doesn’t sufficiently challenge present memes. Karl Popper, philosopher of science, emphasized that the creation of knowledge depends on people not merely replicating their culture, but constantly critiquing it.

For all the purported vision of flipping the classroom, Sal was still compromising way too much with our “Prussian, factory-model education system,” as he called it. And yet for all his willingness to utter scathing words, he didn’t advocate for replacing the largely useless education canon. Instead he merely copied and pasted it into digital format.

Is it useful for those who want to stay afloat or get ahead in the current system which is imbued to the brim with arbitrariness that stifles much potential? Yes. Absolutely. It will help you do well on your test. It may also make you feel productive and entertained if your motivational system has learned to derive dopaminergic kicks from knowledge for its own sake.

Is it what the world really needs? Not even close.

In general, education should be more relevant to meaningful work. Khan Academy isn’t attempting to selectively promote that which is Effective Altruist or Longevist or Transhumanist or which is explicitly defined in relation to a cosmic mission of self-betterment; so human capital is wasted. The time hovering above your head is slashed by a bloodletting doctor who misdiagnosed your condition and its treatment. Then the scarlet trickle falls on your skin — that of your loved ones, that of your non-existent future.

Aging, disease, and death beset mankind. And here we were, trying to accumulate more random knowledge than others; trying to beat each other at games that don’t matter. One thing is true: on my deathbed, I will not care about what score I got on some test which wasn’t of my own making.


See also: SSC Gives A Graduation Speech, Rescuing Philosophy, and The Super-Shulgin Academy

Frequency Specific Microcurrent for Kidney-Stone Pain

Excerpt from The Resonance Effect: How Frequency Specific Microcurrent is Changing Medicine (2017) by Carolyn McMakin 

Kidney Stone Pain

Everyone who has ever had a kidney stone will tell you that the kidney-stone pain is the worst. Emergency rooms treat it with morphine, and nothing else seems to touch it.

The phone rang on a summer Sunday morning and I hardly recognized the friend who grunted through gritted teeth to ask if “my machine” could treat kidney-stone pain. I told him that I’d never treated it before, but I’d be willing to try if he could make it to my house. He shuffled from the front door to the couch bent forward at the waist, sweating in pain. I put one wet graphite glove under his back and the other glove on his abdomen. He tried hard not to moan as I covered him with a soft blanket and placed my hand on top of the glove on his abdomen.

Education said that kidney-stone pain had to be about spasm in the ureter, the tube that carries the stone from the kidney to the bladder. The frequency for spasm was 29 hertz on channel A. The frequency for the ureter was 60 hertz on channel B. It did absolutely nothing: no warmth, no relaxation or softening, nothing. Maybe there was bleeding caused by the rough stone shredding the ureter as it traveled? I tried 18 hertz to stop bleeding on channel A. The glove didn’t get warm, and the pain didn’t change.

I really didn’t want my gray-faced friend to be my first failure. Reaching for inspiration, I tried the always-reliable 40 hertz to reduce inflammation. Nothing changed. Desperation amplified the small murmur of my intuition in my head, “Don’t get sloppy! Be thorough.”

There is a sequence of frequencies leading up to inflammation. The sequence was 20 hertz for “pressure or pain reaction,” 30 hertz for irritation, 40 hertz for inflammation. I never ran the whole sequence because 40 hertz always worked and I had no idea what a “pressure or pain reaction” might be. The buttons clicked down from 40 hertz to 20 hertz on channel A, and two things happened in seconds. The glove resting on his abdomen got hot — not just warm, it was hot. His abdomen started to soften. The feeling is hard to describe. It feels like a balloon feels when it has been sitting on the floor overnight. The tissue softens and stays soft while the correct frequency is working, and it returns to normal when the frequency is finished.

His voice was a little slurred when he fell asleep a few minutes later as he said, “Is that supposed to make me feel woozy?” His deep relaxed breathing said he was out of pain.

There are frequencies for the stone, so I tried those after twenty quiet minutes of watching him doze. The glove got hot, the abdomen softened, and ten minutes later he bolted awake and yelped, “The stone’s moving.” True to its promise, 20 hertz on A and 60 hertz on B reduced the pain again and put him back to sleep. Forty minutes later he left, pain-free, and passed the stone that night with no increase in pain.

I told this story at the Advanced Course in Australia a few weeks later, and one of the Australian practitioners reported that she treated her husband for kidney stone pain with 20 hertz on A and 60 hertz on B. He was out of pain in an hour and passed the stone uneventfully.

Every case of kidney stones treated since then has responded exactly the same way. When the patient has gripping lower back pain from lifting suitcases during a long dehydrating flight but treating the muscles doesn’t help, experience finally admits it’s not the muscle. Intuition says, “I wonder if it’s a kidney stone?” The learning curve is very steep and short when the glove gets hot, the muscles begin to relax, the pain goes down in minutes, and the patient falls asleep.

When one specific frequency combination, and only one, works every time anyone uses it, and when it does something that is otherwise impossible, then it can’t be impossible. It’s got to be resonance.

“Letter from Utopia” and Other Triple-S Transhumanist Media

by Nick Bostrom (2010)

Dear Human,

Greetings, and may this letter find you at peace and in prosperity! Forgive
my writing to you out of the blue. Though you and I have never met, we are
not strangers. We are, in a certain sense, the closest of kin. I am one of your
possible futures.

I hope you will become me. Should fortune grant this wish, then I am not
just a possible future of yours, but your actual future: a coming phase of you,
like the full moon that follows a waxing crescent, or like the flower that
follows a seed.

I am writing to tell you about my life – how good it is – that you may choose
it for yourself.

Although this letter uses the singular, I am really writing on behalf of all
my contemporaries, and we are addressing ourselves to all of your
contemporaries. Amongst us are many who are possible futures of your
people. Some of us are possible futures of children you have not yet given
birth to. Still others are possible artificial persons that you might one day
create. What unites us is that we are all dependent on you to make us real.
You can think of this note as if it were an invitation to a ball that will take
place only if folks turn up.

We call the lives we lead here “Utopia”.

*

How can I tell you about Utopia and not leave you mystified? What words
could convey the wonder? What inflections express our happiness? What
points overcome your skepticism? My pen, I fear, is as unequal to the task as
if I had tried to use it against a charging elephant.

But the matter is so important that we must try even against long odds.
Maybe you will see through the inadequacies of my exposition.

Have you ever known a moment of bliss? On the rapids of inspiration,
maybe, where your hands were guided by a greater force to trace the shapes
of truth and beauty? Or perhaps you found such a moment in the ecstasy of
love? Or in a glorious success achieved with good friends? Or in splendid
conversation on a vine-overhung terrace one star-appointed night? Or
perhaps there was a song or a melody that smuggled itself into your heart,
setting it alight with kaleidoscopic emotion? Or during worship?

If you have experienced such a moment, experienced the best type of such a
moment, then a certain idle but sincere thought may have presented itself to
you: “Oh Heaven! I didn’t realize it could feel like this. This is on a
different level, so very much more real and worthwhile. Why can’t it be like
this always? Why must good times end? I was sleeping; now I am awake.”

Yet behold, only a little later, scarcely an hour gone by, and the softly-falling
soot of ordinary life is already piling up. The silver and gold of exuberance
lose their shine. The marble becomes dirty.

Every way you turn it’s the same: soot, casting its veil over all glamours and
revelries, despoiling your epiphany, sodding up your white pressed collar and
shirt. And once again that familiar beat is audible, the beat of numbing
routine rolling along its tracks. The commuter trains loading and unloading
their passengers… sleepwalkers, shoppers, solicitors, the ambitious and the
hopeless, the contented and the wretched… like human electrons shuffling
through the circuitry of civilization.

We do so easily forget how good life can be at its best – and how bad at its
worst. The most outstanding occasion: barely is it over before the sweepers
move in to clean up the rice. Yellowing photos remain.

And this is as it should be. We are in the business of living, and life must go
on. Special moments are out-of-equilibrium experiences in which our
puddles are stirred up and splashed about; yet when normalcy returns we are
usually relieved. We are built for mundane functionality, not lasting bliss.

So the door that was ajar begins to close, disappearing hope’s sliver behind
an insensate scab.

Quick, stop that door! Look again at your yellowing photos, search for a
clue. Do you not see it? Do you not feel it, the touch of the possible? You
have witnessed the potential for a higher life, and you hold the fading proof
in your hands. Don’t throw it away. In the attic of your mind, reserve a
drawer for the notion of a higher state of being. In the furnace of your heart,
keep an aspiring ember alive.

I am summoning this memory of your best experience – to what end? In the
hope of kindling in you a desire to share my happiness.

And yet, what you had in your best moment is not close to what I have now
– a beckoning scintilla at most. If the distance between base and apex for
you is eight kilometers, then to reach my dwellings requires a million lightyear ascent. The altitude is outside moon and planets and all the stars your
eyes can see. Beyond dreams. Beyond imagination.

My consciousness is wide and deep, my life long. I have read all your
authors – and much more. I have experienced life in many forms and from
many angles: jungle and desert, gutter and palace, heath and suburban creek
and city back alley. I have sailed the high seas of cultures, and swum, and
dived. Quite some marvelous edifice builds up over a million years by the
efforts of homunculi, just as the humble polyps amass a reef in time. And
I’ve seen the shoals of colored biography fishes, each one a life story,
scintillate under heaving ocean waters.

The whole exceeds the sum of its parts. What I have is not merely more of
what is available to you now. It isn’t just the particular things, the paintings
and toothpaste-tube designs, the record covers and books, the epochs, lives,
leaves, rivers, and random encounters, the satellite images and the hadron
collider data – it is also the complex relationships between these particulars
that make up my mind. There are ideas that can be formed only on top of
such a wide experience base. There are depths that can be fathomed only
with such ideas.

You could say I am happy, that I feel good. You could say that I feel
surpassing bliss. But these are words invented to describe human
experience. What I feel is as far beyond human feeling as my thoughts are
beyond human thought. I wish I could show you what I have in mind. If
only I could share one second of my conscious life with you!

But you don’t have to understand what I think and feel. If only you bear in
mind what is possible within the present human realm, you will have enough
to get started in the right direction, one step at a time. At no point will you
encounter a wall of blinding light. At no point will you have to jettison
yourself over an end-of-the-world precipice. As you advance, the horizon
will recede. The transformation is profound, but it can be as gradual as the
growth that made the baby you were into the adult you think you are.

You will not achieve this through any magic trick or hokum, nor by the
power of wishful thinking, nor by semantic acrobatics, meditation,
affirmation, or incantation. And I do not presume to advise you on matters
theological. I urge on you nothing more, nothing less, than reconfigured
physical situation.

*

The challenge before you: to become fully what you are now only in hope
and potential. New capacities are needed if you wish to live and play on my
level.

To reach Utopia, you must first discover the means to three fundamental
transformations.

The First Transformation: Secure life!

Your body is a deathtrap. This vital machine and mortal vehicle, unless it
jams first or crashes, is sure to rust anon. You are lucky to get seven decades
of mobility; eight if you be Fortuna’s darling. That is not sufficient to get
started in a serious way, much less to complete the journey. Maturity of the
soul takes longer. Why, even a tree-life takes longer!

Death is not one but a multitude of assassins. Do you not see them? They
are coming at you from every angle. Take aim at the causes of early death –
infection, violence, malnutrition, heart attack, cancer. Turn your biggest
gun on aging, and fire. You must seize control of the biochemical processes
in your body in order to vanquish, by and by, illness and senescence. In
time, you will discover ways to move your mind to more durable media.
Then continue to improve the system, so that the risk of death and disease
continues to decline. Any death prior to the heat death of the universe is
premature if your life is good.

Oh, it is not well to live in a self-combusting paper hut! Keep the flames at
bay and be prepared with liquid nitrogen, while you construct yourself a
better habitation. One day you or your children should have a secure home.
Research, build, redouble your effort!

The Second Transformation: Upgrade cognition!

Your brain’s special faculties: music, humor, spirituality, mathematics,
eroticism, art, nurturing, narration, gossip! These are fine spirits to pour
into the cup of life. Blessed you are if you have a vintage bottle of any of
these. Better yet, a cask! Better yet, a vineyard!

Be not afraid to grow. The mind’s cellars have no ceilings!

What other capacities are possible? Imagine a world with all the music dried
up: what poverty, what loss. Give your thanks, not to the lyre, but to your
ears for the music. And ask yourself, what other harmonies are there in the
air, that you lack the ears to hear? What vaults of value are you witlessly
debarred from, lacking the key sensibility?

Had you but an inkling, your nails would be clawing at the padlock in sacred
frenzy.

Your brain must grow beyond the bounds of any genius of humankind, in its
special faculties as well as its general intelligence, so that you may better
learn, remember, and understand, and so that you may apprehend your own
beatitude.

Mind is a means: for without insight you will get bogged down or lose your
way, and your journey will fail.

Mind is also an end: for it is in the spacetime of awareness that Utopia will
exist. May the measure of your mind be vast and expanding.

Oh, stupidity is a loathsome corral! Gnaw and tug at the posts, and you will
slowly loosen them up. One day you’ll break the fence that held your
forebears captive. Gnaw and tug, redouble your effort!

The Third Transformation: Elevate well-being!

What is the difference between indifference and interest, boredom and thrill,
despair and bliss?

Pleasure! A few grains of this magic ingredient are dearer than a king’s
treasure, and we have it aplenty here in Utopia. It pervades into everything
we do and everything we experience. We sprinkle it in our tea.

The universe is cold. Fun is the fire that melts the blocks of hardship and
creates a bubbling celebration of life.

It is the birth right of every creature, a right no less sacred for having been
trampled upon since the beginning of time.

There is a beauty and joy here that you cannot fathom. It feels so good that
if the sensation were translated into tears of gratitude, rivers would overflow.

I reach in vain for words to convey to you what it all amounts to… It’s like a
rain of the most wonderful feeling, where every raindrop has its own unique
and indescribable meaning – or rather a scent or essence that evokes a whole
world… And each such evoked world is subtler, richer, deeper, more
palpable than the totality of what you have experienced in your entire life.

I will not speak of the worst pain and misery that is to be got rid of; it is too
horrible to dwell upon, and you are already aware of the urgency of
palliation. My point is that in addition to the removal of the negative, there
is also an upside imperative: to enable the full flourishing of enjoyments that
are currently out of reach.

The roots of suffering are planted deep in your brain. Weeding them out
and replacing them with nutritious crops of well-being will require advanced
skills and instruments for the cultivation of your neuronal soil. But take
heed, the problem is multiplex! All emotions have a natural function. Prune
carefully lest you reduce the fertility of your plot.

Sustainable yields are possible. Yet fools will build fools’ paradises. I
recommend you go easy on your paradise-engineering until you have the
wisdom to do it right.

Oh, what a gruesome knot suffering is! Pull and tug on those loops, and you
will gradually loosen them up. One day the coils will fall, and you will
stretch out in delight. Pull and tug, and be patient in your effort!

May there come a time when rising suns are greeted with joy by all the living
creatures they shine upon.

*

How do you find this place? How long will it take to get here?

I can pass you no blueprint for Utopia, no timetable, no roadmap. All I can
give you is my assurance that there is something here, the potential for a
better life.

If you could visit me here for but a day, you would henceforth call this place
your home. This is the place where you belong. Ever since one hairy
creature picked up two flints and began knocking them together to make a
tool, this has been the direction of your unknown aspiration. Like Odysseus
you must journey, and never cease journeying, until you arrive upon this
shore.

“Arrive?” you say; “But isn’t the journey the destination? Isn’t Utopia a
place that doesn’t exist? And isn’t the quest for Utopia, as witnessed
historically, a dangerous folly and an incitement to mischief?”

Friend, that is not such a bad way for you to think about it. To be sure,
Utopia is not a location or a form of social organization.

The blush of health on a convalescent’s cheek. The twinkling of the eye in a
moment of wit. The smile of a loving thought… Utopia is the hope that the
scattered fragments of good that we come across from time to time in our
lives can be put together, one day, to reveal the shape of a new kind of life.
The kind of life that yours should have been.

I fear that the pursuit of Utopia will bring out the worst in you. Many a
moth has been incinerated in its pursuit of a brighter future.

Seek the light! But approach with care – swerve if you smell your wingtips
singeing. Light is for seeing, not dying.

When you embark on this quest, you will encounter rough seas and hard
problems. To prevail will take your best science, your best technology, and
your best politics. Yet each problem has a solution. My existence breaks no
law of nature. The materials are all there. Your people must become
master builders, and then you must use these skills to build yourselves up
without crushing your cores.

*

What is Suffering in Utopia? Suffering is the salt trace left on the cheeks of those
who were around before.

What is Tragedy in Utopia? There is tragedy in Snowman’s melting. Mass
murders are not required.

What is Imperfection in Utopia? Imperfection is the measure of our respect for
things as they are and for their history.

What is Body in Utopia? Body is a pair of legs, a pair of arms, a trunk and a
head, all made of flesh. Or not, as the case may be.

What is Society in Utopia? Society is a never-finished tapestry, its weavers equal
to its threads – the parts and patterns an inexhaustible bourne of beauty.

What is Death in Utopia? Death is the darkness that ultimately surrounds all
life.

What is Guilt in Utopia? Guilt is our knowledge that we could have created
Utopia sooner.

*

We love life here every instant. Every second is so good that it would blow
our minds had their amperage not been previously increased. My
contemporaries and I bear witness, and we request your aid. Please, help us
come into existence! Please, join us! Whether this tremendous possibility
becomes reality depends on your actions. If your empathy can perceive at
least the outlines of the vision I am describing, then your ingenuity will find a
way to make it real.

Human life, at its best, is fantastic. I’m asking you to create something even
greater. Life that is truly humane.

Yours sincerely,
Your Possible Future Self


See also a musicalized video rendition of this piece by Mario Montano: Letter From Utopia


Analysis

Nick Bostrom is a prominent transhumanist philosopher and academic who works at Oxford’s Future of Humanity Institute. An incredibly prolific writer, Nick has a very wide and comprehensive worldview. I find his work extremely valuable and worth diving into. Letter From Utopia is one of my favorite works of his, as it encompasses what David Pearce called “The Three Supers of Transhumanism“: Super-Intelligence, Super-Longevity, and Super-Happiness (cf. Triple-S Genetic Counseling). Bostrom also has other amazing stories and essays (such as The Fable of the Dragon-Tyrant, cf. story video rendition by CGP Grey: video), but Letter From Utopia takes the cake for not leaving behind anything of crucial importance.

Alas, despite Bostrom’s far-reaching contributions, many argue that Nick’s most important impact has been in the field of AI Alignment (cf. Superintelligence: Paths, Dangers, Strategies). In 2009 AI safety research was perceived to be a fringe concern of sci-fi aficionados and weirdos. Today, partly thanks to Bostrom (along with Yudkowsky, Chalmers, and others), many top journals publish serious work in this area.

I worry that this is not as good as it may seem. Nick Bostrom’s name is first and foremost associated with AI safety, followed by the Simulation Argument and Existential Risk, and only later by his extensive work on all other areas of transhumanism. For example, if you search Youtube for his name, you will see that of the top 20 results, 15 concern AI safety/digital superintelligence. Of the remaining 5, 3 are about the Simulation Argument, 1 is about agnosticism, and 1 is CGP Grey’s Dragon-Tyrant video. Where are the Triple-S videos?

nick_bostrom_top_results

I remembered that I encountered the work of both David and Nick when I was 16, googling terms like consciousness, AI, psychedelics, and far future. I was drawn to both of them, though I particularly liked David’s focus on ending suffering as a priority and his acknowledgment of the scientific significance of altered states of consciousness. I thought that their work was complementary rather than redundant. Alas, Bostrom is far more well known than Pearce, perhaps due to his success as both a fringe philosopher and a mainstream academic. In contrast, David dropped out of Oxford out of frustration with the academic community; the analytic philosophy of the time was not empirical, and it focused on language use rather than real philosophical questions, including the nature of suffering, psychedelics, and physical causality (e.g. “Philosophy may in no way interfere with the actual use of language, it can in the end only describe it. For it cannot give it any foundation either. It leaves everything as it is. It also leaves mathematics as it is, and no mathematical discovery can advance it.” – Wittgenstein). Bostrom, unlike Pearce, has the blessing of Ra, the God of optionality, superlativity, status legibility, and groundless prestige. And yet, it was David’s conversation with Nick that gave rise to the creation of the World Transhumanist Association, and provided one of the most important memetic Schelling points of the early 2000s. Alas, David is not focused on AI Safety. Why?

People in the transhumanist community accuse David of not getting it. David, after all, is not a mathematician, computer scientist, or physicist; he is merely a philosopher. I must confess that the very first time I met David Pearce in person I got the sense that (1) he was an incredibly well-read and creative genius in most areas of philosophy, and yet (2) naïve and unenlightened in the field of AI. As a fan of his work, and having co-founded the Stanford Transhumanist Association a couple of months earlier, I thought to invite him to give a talk at Stanford (see: David Pearce at Stanford – 2011).

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David Pearce and the officers of the Stanford Transhumanist Association (December 1st 2011) at Palo Alto’s Chinese Vegan restaurant Garden Fresh, before David’s talk.

We had a lively conversation while eating dinner at a Chinese vegan restaurant before the event along with other members of the Association. I recall that he checked all of the right boxes when it came to personal identity (Open/Empty Individualism), ethics (consequentialism), physics (Everettian multiverse), psychedelia (they disclose new varieties of qualia), evolution (modern synthesis; selfish gene), social signaling theory (Mating Mind and sexual selection theory), and more (see his Reddit AMA). And yet, how could he dare to say that a digital computer would never be conscious? Meeting a brilliant thinker who had a better grasp of my favorite topics than I did and yet would try to hit on one of my core load-bearing beliefs was uncomfortable and unexpected. I dismissed his take on AI as that of a fuzzy thinker (at least in this area); I reassured myself by recalling that it was me who was studying AI academically at a top US institution and not him. Little did I know that over the next few years, and after hanging out with him in person for over 20 cumulative hours, he would finally change my mind- and worldview- concerning this whole field. If it wasn’t for him, I suspect I would have jumped on the bandwagon of AI-as-the-top-priority (cf. Altruists Should Prioritize Artificial Intelligence). Thankfully, I was already extremely interested in consciousness and didn’t have it in me to dismiss it. Additionally, my interest in personal identity reduced my (relative) interest in longevity research (at least as the top priority), for if we are all one consciousness, dying is more akin to forgetting a timeline than a true ontological death. The instrumental value of intelligence, however, ought not to be taken for granted, which is why I now advocate for a twin approach of improving subjective wellbeing while retaining critical insight. Figuring out that consciousness required more than digital computation utterly transformed my approach to transhumanism, and I largely credit this change to my conversations with David.

 

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Later on I met Mike Johnson, Romeo Stevens, and a number of other top thinkers in the field of consciousness who could both understand the genuine problems consciousness poses and at the same time grasp the broader transhumanist meme-plex, transcend it, and include it (cf. Why I think the Foundational Research Institute should rethink its approach). Thus we founded the Qualia Research Institute, in order to bring a new full-stack meme-plex where consciousness – and valence – are front and center. Alas, we have experienced some resistance…

AI safety is sexy. If you are a smart, industrious, open-minded, and systematizing undergraduate, studying AI gives you access to a wide circle of really fun people to hang out in. It also signals intelligence, sober-mindedness, and stoicism. It gives you both an in into smart cool kid circles, and a profitable career in Silicon Valley. It allows you to straddle the world of normies and cutting-edge thinkers.

But, crucially, you have to consider the opportunity cost that comes from directing such a large fraction of hyper-intelligent young altruistic systematizers to this problem. The field is plagued with misconceptions about pleasure and value; Eliezer Yudkowsky’s Fun Theory suffers from the severe delusion that value comes from the intentional object of experience, rather than from its phenomenal character. Brian Tomasik’s (admittedly tongue-in-cheek) People for the Ethical Treatment of Reinforcement Learners is seemingly unaware of the fact that neuroscience has found that pleasure/suffering and reinforcement learning are doubly dissociated. Pleasure is not reinforcement, and until you grasp this, your ethical models will output nonsense.

Tongue-in-cheek, perhaps AI risk is a real threat. Not because of the usual reasons, but because it siphons out top brain power into a relatively sterile field, leaving vast amounts of unclaimed marginal value in the fields of rejuvenation research and valence technologies by the wayside.

In light of all of this, I would want to advocate for the reinvigoration of the broader transhumanist meme-plex, now updated with a post-Galilean understanding of consciousness. Writers, animators, Youtubers, and philosophers ought to collaborate in creating more balanced Triple-S Transhumanist outreach in the form of widely consumable media. This, I think, is the path forward.

Philip K. Dick’s LSD Trip

Scene from Philip K. Dick’s novel “Maze of Death”. According to him, this is a detailed and 100% accurate description of his most intense LSD trip. During this experience he allegedly started speaking out loud religious phrases in perfect Latin even though he had never studied this language in his entire life (he also claimed that a girl was there and can confirm that it really happened, though I haven’t found any direct retelling of this event from her):

Opening The Book at random she walked toward him, and as she walked she read aloud from The Book. “ ‘Hence it can be said,’ ” she intoned, “ ‘that God-in-history shows several phases: (one) The period of purity before the Form Destroyer was awakened into activity. (two) The period of the Curse, when the power of the Deity was weakest, the power of the Form Destroyer the greatest—this because God had not perceived the Form Destroyer and so was taken by surprise. (three) The birth of God-on-Earth, sign that the period of Absolute Curse and Estrangement from God had ended. (four) The period now—’ ”
She had come almost up to him; he stood unmoving, still holding the gun. She continued to read the sacred text aloud. “ ‘The period now, in which God walks the world, redeeming the suffering now, redeeming all life later through the figure of himself as the Intercessor who—’ ”

“Go back with them,” Thugg told her. “Or I’ll kill you.”

“ ‘Who, it is sure, is still alive, but not in this circle. (five) The next and last period—’ ”

A terrific bang boomed at her eardrums; deafened, she moved a step back and then she felt great pain in her chest; she felt her lungs die from the great, painful shock of it. The scene around her became dull, the light faded and she saw only darkness. Seth Morley, she tried to say, but no sound came out. And yet she heard noise; she heard something huge and far off, chugging violently into the darkness.

She was alone.

Thud, thud, came the noise. Now she saw iridescent color, mixed into a light which traveled like a liquid; it formed buzzsaws and pinwheels and crept upward on each side of her. Directly before her the huge Thing throbbed menacingly; she heard its imperative, angry voice summoning her upward. The urgency of its activity frightened her; it demanded, rather than asked. It was telling her something; she knew what it meant by its enormous pounding. Wham, wham, wham, it went and, terrified, filled with physical pain, she called to it. “Libera me, Domine,” she said. “De morte aeterna, in die illa tremenda.”

It throbbed on and on. And she glided helplessly toward it. Now, on the periphery of her vision, she saw a fantastic spectacle; she saw a great crossbow and on it the Intercessor. The string was pulled back; the Intercessor was placed on it like an arrow; and then, soundlessly, the Intercessor was shot upward, into the smallest of the concentric rings.

“Agnus Dei,” she said, “qui tollis peccata mundi.” She had to look away from the throbbing vortex; she looked down and back . . . and saw, far below her, a vast frozen landscape of snow and boulders. A furious wind blew across it; as she watched, more snow piled up around the rocks. A new period of glaciation, she thought, and found that she had trouble thinking—let alone talking—in English “Lacrymosa dies illa,” she said, gasping with pain; her entire chest seemed to have become a block of suffering. “Qua resurget ex favilla, judicandus homo reus.” It seemed to make the pain less, this need to express herself in Latin—a language which she had never studied and knew nothing about. “Huic ergo parce, Deus!” she said. “Pie Jesu Domine, dona eis requiem.” The throbbing continued on.

A chasm opened before her feet. She began to fall; below her the frozen landscape of the hellworld grew closer. Again she cried out, “Libera me, Domine, de morte aeterna!” But still she fell; she had almost reached the hell-world, and nothing meant to lift her up.

Something with immense wings soared up, like a great, metallic dragonfly with spines jutting from its head. It passed her, and a warm wind billowed after it. “Salve me, fons pietatis,” she called to it; she recognized it and felt no surprise at seeing it. The Intercessor, fluttering up from the hellworld, back to the fire of the smaller, inner rings.

Lights, in various colors, bloomed on all sides of her; she saw a red, smoky light burning close and, confused, turned toward it. But something made her pause. The wrong color, she thought to herself. I should be looking for a clear, white light, the proper womb in which to be reborn. She drifted upward, carried by the warm wind of the Intercessor… the smoky red light fell behind and in its place, to her right, she saw a powerful, unflickering, yellow light. As best she could she propelled herself toward that.

The pain in her chest seemed to have lessened; in fact her entire body felt vague. Thank you, she thought, for easing the discomfort; I appreciate that. I have seen it, she said to herself; I have seen the Intercessor and through it I have a chance of surviving. Lead me, she thought. Take me to the proper color of light. To the right new birth.

The clear, white light appeared. She yearned toward it, and something helped propel her. Are you angry at me? she thought, meaning the enormous presence that throbbed. She could still hear the throbbing, but it was no longer meant for her; it would throb on throughout eternity because it was beyond time, outside of time, never having been in time. And—there was no space present, either; everything appeared two-dimensional and squeezed together, like robust but crude figures drawn by a child or by some primitive man. Bright colorful figures, but absolutely flat. . . and touching.

“Mors stupebit et natura,” she said aloud. “Cum resurget creatura, judicanti responsura.” Again the throbbing lessened. It has forgiven me, she said to herself. It is letting the Intercessor carry me to the right light.

Toward the clear, white light she floated, still uttering from time to time pious Latin phrases. The pain in her chest had gone now entirely and she felt no weight; her body had ceased to consume both time and space.

Wheee, she thought. This is marvelous.

Throb, throb, went the Central Presence, but no longer for her; it throbbed for others, now.

The Day of the Final Audit had come for her—had come and now had passed. She had been judged and the judgment was favorable. She experienced utter, absolute joy. And continued, like a moth among novas, to flutter upward toward the proper light.


From a 1979 interview:

I only know of one time where I really took acid. That was Sandoz acid, a giant horse capsule that I got from the University of California, and a friend and I split it. And I don’t know, there must’ve been a whole milligram of it there. It was a gigantic thing, you know, we bought it for five dollars and took it home and we looked at it for a while—looked at it, we were all gonna split it up—and took that, and it was the greatest thing, I’ll tell you.

I went straight to Hell, is what happened. I found myself, you know, the landscape froze over, and there were huge boulders, and there was a deep thrumming, and it was the Day of Wrath, and God was judging me as a sinner, and this lasted for thousands of years and didn’t get any better. It just got worse and worse, and I was in terrible pain, I felt terrible physical pain, and all I could talk was in Latin. Most embarrassing, ‘cause the girl I was with thought I was doing it to annoy her, and I kept saying Libera me domine in die illa. You know, and Agnus dei qui tollis peccata mundi […] and especially, Tremens factus sum ego et timeotimeo meaning “I’m afraid”—and I said Libera me, domine! Whining like some poor dog that’s been left out in the rain all night. Finally, the girl with me said “Oh, barf” and walked out of the room in disgust.

Two more references:

Yes, friends, you, too, can suffer forever; simply take 150 mg [sic] of LSD—and enjoy! If not satisfied, simply mail in—but enough. Because after two thousand years under LSD, participating in the Day of Judgment, one probably will be rather apathetic to asking for one’s five dollars back.

(source)

And:

I perceived Him as a pulsing, furious, throbbing mass of vengeance-seeking authority, demanding an audit (like a sort of metaphysical IRS agent). Fortunately I was able to utter the right words [the “Libera me, Domine” quoted above], and hence got through it. I also saw Christ rise to heaven from the cross, and that was very interesting, too (the cross took the form of a crossbow, with Christ as the arrow; the crossbow launched him at terrific velocity—it happened very fast, once he had been placed in position).

(same as above)


Brief Analysis: Philip K. Dick extensively explored the literary theme of simulationism. This theme posits that the reality that we experience is an illusion; it is not what it originally seemed to be. The fakeness of reality includes not only one’s perception of the world, but also one’s beliefs about oneself. Indeed, it is a narrative staple of a good PKD story for the character to turn out to have been a robot, secret agent, alien, and/or a computer program all along. Oftentimes the fundamental plot twists are layered, multifaceted, recursive, and ultimately undecidable thanks to the presence of contradictory versions of events and narrative ambiguity.

More than almost any other author, PKD indeed explored to a great depth the implications of indirect realism about perception (e.g. in many of his stories the main character discovers that she/he never perceives the world in an unmediated fashion). That the world we perceive is a simulated reality is to be expected in the works of this author; whether this simulation is created by one’s brains or a large cosmic computer is the deeper question that PKD tends to posit again and again and often leaves in fully unresolved terms.

The LSD trip above recounted is interesting in this context. PKD’s trip illustrates just how insidious the reality transformation caused by psychedelics can be, to the point that they can make you doubt fundamental implicit background assumptions you’ve constructed your life around. While PKD remained skeptical of the cosmic significance of most of his life experiences, he seems to have given a very high degree of metaphysical credence to specific intensely emotional events in his life, including the above LSD trip. Perhaps PKD didn’t know at the time that LSD does not merely make you experience weird qualia, but that it also intensifies its emotional power. Psychedelics are interesting in part because they are remarkably effective means to increase the energy of one’s consciousness (via increasing the amplitude of connectome-specific harmonic waves). People describe them as experience intensifiers. Thus, positive, negative, and mixed emotions can be felt in much greater depth. According to our work, this process is related to symmetry and harmony. On psychedelics the pseudo-time arrow of experience elongates and spatial representations cohere on symmetrical shapes (such as wallpaper groups for 2D texture repetition or 3D hyperbolic manifolds on high doses of DMT). The increased level of energy leads to entropic disintegration, and ultimately to neural annealing, a process which is experienced as intensely emotional and full of meaning. Interestingly, PKD’s trip report showcases all of these features in one way or another.

For instance, the thumping/throbbing described is first experienced as intensely unpleasant and only at the end is described as blissful. The existence of this thumping can be accounted for by a process of neural annealing; its initial unpleasantness is the result of the dissonance between the core metronome (“Central Presence”) and the rest of the experience; the final bliss is the result of successful annealing and the high levels of consonance that ensue. The increased subjective time reported can be explained by changes to the pseudo-time arrow, including the eternal-seeming nature of the Central Presence. And so on.

In so far as we choose to reduce spirituality to valence (rather than the other way around) we will expect to find that intense life-altering spiritual experiences will all bear the signatures of high/low valence. That is, it is not that spirituality is emotionally intense. Rather, emotional intensity underlies spirituality. PKD’s account displays this in a very explicit way. The thumping of the Central Presence could certainly have theological significance, but it is not specifically predicted by any kind of formal theology. On the other hand, if the Symmetry Theory of Valence is correct, such thumping (and associated intense emotions) are expected to be found in typical intensely blissful/hellish states. That said, due to the Tyranny of the Intentional Object such intensely valenced states will appear to be reflections of inherently good/bad situations or entities. The emotion comes first. The illusion of grasping the “fundamentally good/bad essence of a being” comes second, as an after-the-fact ideation. Alas, thanks to implicit direct realism about perception, most people fail to attribute the intense emotional character of these experiences to things as impersonal as neural annealing, and instead interpret what happened in terms of metaphysical happenings like meeting God or experiencing telepathy.

The fact that intense emotions masquerade as insight into the fundamental nature of other beings is perhaps one of the most deceptive aspects of the world simulations created by our brains. After all, nothing is good or bad, but the encephalization of phenomenal valence via afferent neural connections from our limbic system’s hedonic hot spots makes it so. While Philip K. Dick managed to be skeptical and cautious about the way he made sense of reality, it is clear that he still somehow took at face value the representational content of intense emotions. Thus, he was still under the spell of a fundamental illusion, and hence at the mercy of gripping mystical visions. In future, however, PKD-like authors imbued with a 21st century science of consciousness shall go even deeper, and explore simulationism in light of, not only indirect realism about perception, but also of the Tyranny of the Intentional Object, egocentric bias, personal identity, and other evolutionarily adaptive shenanigans of our perception.

Lucid LSD Trip Report from an Anonymous Reader

Writer: Anonymous (here substituted as “Bill”)

Dose: 2 blotters

I remember at one point feeling and saying that I was on the “sandy beaches of time.” Normally there are story arcs to events. There’s peak arousal and closure. But the hoffman [“LSD blotter”] was sustained arousal. In an expected upbeat I found a downbeat. All downbeats. So I found myself with extra moments unexpectedly. Moments that normally would have been blank or dim transitions were just as full as the moments they connected. The idea of the “sandy beaches of time” came from the feeling of rolling around in the sand on the inclines. Imagine you’re floating in water and then you wash on shore. Then you’re on the sand. That’s a feeling of unexpected support. You’re lying passively and find yourself on solid ground somehow. That’s how I felt that I found myself (without trying or initiating a thought) supported unexpectedly in additional moments. This reminds me of the experience I had on a stronger dose in 2016 (same number of blotters but higher potency due to freshness) where I always felt “in the middle of my thought.” It’s like there’s a moment of height and openness at the peak of the thought where you expand open to figure out how you’re going to fit together the structural pieces of the highest level of organization of the thought. But I was continually in the middle of the thought and never finishing a thought, I felt. I tried a lot harder to have complete well formed thoughts back then too, so the experience would have been more notable. In general this time I was least excited or interested at all. Quite passive and peaceful, but not exploring with great energy or amusement. It was a lower dose. I thought it was going to be difficult and possibly be my first bad trip, but when I did them I saw as always that psychedelics are nice to me and weed is the only one who occasionally gets medieval. When I figure out my van and living situation I will definitely seek out more hoffmans and things like it, because they have a certain potential to make my mind work better and they don’t seem to make me insane at all. On weed I can picture some bad day it getting me into a fetal position, but on psychedelics I have a relaxed “power pose.”

I also slightly expanded my sense of unifying with the perceptual (and otherwise conceived/imagined) environment. I’m putting on equal footing (there’s that equal footing theme again… In an article (link) the author used the phrase on “equal footing” once.  I had an idea to explain the equal footing phenomenon but I forget what it was). I feel like my implicit understanding of “merge your awareness with the world around you” increased and so I didn’t have to try so hard to figure it out. At this point I started to reflect on the kind of spiritual poverty of the spiritual ideas and theories I had and would often think about. The ideas I have often come from a dim dull state of mind. Anyway the merging came at the same time as understanding objects on their own terms. So rather than forcing a single texture onto two objects to see them both, I would see both objects with their own unique shapes and the only thing bridging them together was my awareness. That felt like the cubism people talk about in psychedelics (by the way Brahms is notoriously full of time distortions and musical cubism and disintegrations. The very long lines and irregular rhythms (implying a much lengthier process to “resolve,” i.e., achieve a full round of symmetry) are like the decreased decay of stuff in the mindstream. You can use sentences, words, sounds, symbols in a way that sustain moments of that openness, the middle-of-the-thought, and use sleight of hand to keep it from compensating or closing back down.). So I’d put on equal footing perceptions and all the notions I had which would be replaced by syntheses. Like I’d see a plane out the window and have a notion of the distance I was from it and then the notion of the angle of the distance line on my body and the plane, maybe picturing the underside of the plane and then the point of view from the plane looking back down, and I thought these images were all valid, and with the cubism going on it seemed to put the plane and the skyspace relationship to me on equal footing as myself, so I would see and not identify with my physical body and it’s vantage point and I would begin to get a sense of omniscience. Normally I’d reject this and say, “Well, look, we can take the pieces of the collage and infer that there’s only one body with eyes who can see and a brain that can think… it’s not like the plane actually sees or thinks” and yet I was going beyond that somehow. The panpsychism I’ve long subscribed to is like particulate panpsychism. It’s just like molecules and atoms have basic building blocks of complicated mechanical chemical processes, likewise simple consciousness properties of the oxygen atom and the carbon atom are modified by complex activities. However, the way I always thought of it wasn’t very smart. It wasn’t distributed consciousness at all. Nor did the consciousnesses of particles grow or interact or form “consciousness molecules” out of consciousness atoms. It was only the ability of surrounding forces to dance upon a carbon atom’s surface that I could imagine some experience arising. As for the human state—there are billions of consciousnesses and you just happen to be the one seeing this or hearing that or having the feeling of talking. In fact, all these examples of phenomenal experience would be vastly too complicated. But it’s no problem when you don’t believe in binding to suppose that I’m not a single person who talks and hears single sounds, but I’m an army of tiny mind particles that contribute their own tiny dust threads to experience… an experience that remains unbound and separate from all the other threads. So something like mind dust.

The cubism, by the way, was like dissociation, except that, like with the sandy beaches of time rushing in to provide an unexpected moment of support, there was always some unexpected maximally abstract unity support rushing in to bridge the disperate cubist pieces. That bridge was found in ongoing openness to find out. It was like an exercise in faith, and, in turn trust and compassion.

Anyway, that’s one kind of panpsychism. Another kind is nihilistic. Something about my coefficients was altered. Something normally was disproportional in my approach to panpsychism. Something similarly was out of place in the approach to open individualism. Well, the hoffman seemed to tune me a bit and adjust the amount of belief and nihilism and so on I was going into it with to give me a fuller experience. It turns out that what I see as “taking at face value” is actually an important state of openness. One doesn’t truly take it at face value because one isn’t ever pretending to have complete knowledge, but one does take something without devoting so much resource to reconceiving it in order to conform to one’s beliefs. The hoffman experience was generally very in favor of bottom up mindfulness. Let go of socially motivated reasoning and imaginary conversations trying to prove yourself to ignorant people with no imaginations who want to ruin everything good… just put your energy into understanding something with openness and then you’ll see it. I got higher understandings or understandings I realized I otherwise wouldn’t get.

The experience really gave me a strong sense of the doom of my life while at the same time making me light hearted about it and trying to show me around. Normally I’m scared that a psychedelic is going to be like weed and be scary, but it never is. In fact the hoffman took me around my room to see that in some areas where there was some mess or something that I projected an ugly identity onto (like I see my shoes and the first thing I think is, “That’s asperger’s shoes. Those are the shoes someone with asperger’s wears.” So I have my social “identity disturbance” imbued into virtually all the objects around me. Any object that signifies someone else in my life is imbued with boogeymen and gremlins of the relationship I have with that person). I’m oppressed by my room and the needless flavoring of everything with stigma and shame… it’s so comprehensive that I’ve lost the sensitivity to it. It’s like a fish in water, I’m drowning in stigma to the point that I take it for granted and no longer realize there’s any other way of being. So the hoffman tried to show me around my room and show me there aren’t any boogey man and reconnect me to the personality I do have which isn’t aspergery and is fine and contradicts the stigmas. Every time I look in the mirror I see someone more attractive than I expected to see. I think this started in middle school. I always always always underestimate my appearance by quite a bit. And I load my self image with all those bad stigmas. Going to the mirror is like a reality check, but it’s worn out because I’m largely desensitized to it. But the hoffman helped me see that being aspergery or any other stigma was an unnecessary self-fulfilling trap I didn’t have to go down because I did have… I was in good standing and nothing meant I had to be aspergers. My posture my voice my skin etc.., all was fine.

But the hoffman did go over my life. I expected it would attack me about my relationship with my family (which I stigmatize myself for… “I must be some kind of deranged monster” is a load I begin every thought on the matter with) and turn me vegan, but it’s never what you expect. It wasn’t a fear based assault but it was really sane and reasonable. It gave me a sense of the trap I’m in. I ordinarily only feel one part of the trap at once, like I’m in a maze going from one dead end to another. But the hoffman gave me a sense of all the traps of my life I’m in at once. Yet I was lighthearted and amused and smiling about it. I was ego dead but I didn’t even know it. It’s like my ego left without making a sound. Another thing is that it isn’t necessarily key to have no ego, but it is key to be in the moment which is often conflated with having no ego. Like if you’re alone walking and having an inner monologue conversation, that’s probably being lost in thought having some imaginary future conversation and that exemplifies the problems and life-of-it’s-own of the ego. But it actually could be that one is checking into the present moment continuously and one is having that conversation for the nobody, for the consciousness. After all, the consciousness divided and packaged into different points of view and bodies in an audience is the same as the consciousness you have, so why not have the conversation before it? I used to regiment being in the moment, a certain grid of checkpoints of checking in. But that top-down systematic way of being mindful doesn’t work because I find shortcuts and seem to be beyond the age where I can keep going back to the beginner’s mind in a subject and question everything I know to the point where I am not allowed those shortcuts. Further those shortcuts are easy to take without knowing it. They masquerade as true mindfulness. So an informal bottom up spontaneous not regimented continuous mindfulness is important. I like the short ego stories mentioned… (to be continued… must use bathroom now)

I like the idea of short duration egos/stories Mike Johnson mentioned in his recent meditation article. I used to have long systematic stories with regimented moderately high frequency check ins with the present moment proportional to what I used to call “salience essentialism” (a silly name, but the idea of making some element of information that’s only found in a state of lots of reflection and skepticism and metacognitions essential). But, as I said, I can’t do that regimentation anymore, so I’m going with Mike Johnson’s idea of short egos linked together. To have short ego stories that remain close to the present it’s key not only to bring a story to a natural end soon but also to not linger on that ending. If you linger on that ending rather than immediately continuing the moment, keep it rolling in a new moment, then you end up just getting lost in a nothingness epilogue to the story. Useless. You can’t end and then stop with nothing to continue with. So key to keeping short ego stories is also continually making them. Always be shedding light on the situation (keep no secrets. The ego performer has no secrets to keep as the actor. Continually to unravel it in any situation it finds itself. Don’t worry about nullifying a previous performance…because the previous performance was never meant to fool you as complete reality. Hold onto no pretense, but continue to act while shedding light always. A dance without deceit.)

Rather than being mindful to grasp the moment, to pas a yes/no test, I be mindful anew each time. Every time I be mindful is a new way of being mindful, and it’s about quickly jumping to the moment. When you’re really mindful like this listening to Beethoven’s cello sonata, you can’t tell if it’s you that’s singing or the cello. It feels like your own mind almost. I used to be a yes/no tester. I would have a preconceived idea of reality I strove for. But now I’m not doing that. I’m letting go of all my notions and quickly coming to the moment with openness.

One more word on the cubism thing. It’s related very much, I think, to the feeling of open individualism as well as the sandy beaches of time thing because each item has with it it’s own competing structure. Normally we resolve things into one system, but this cubism takes different elements on-their-own-terms, which means there are terms and structures and systems and orientations attached to them. In these systems are simulated the ego and its orientation to things. It’s like when you have some words and are deciding what sentence to make of them you ordinarily subordinate certain words to other words (the main verb being at the highest level of organization), but instead this cubism would have competing sentences for different words. It wouldn’t force the collapse of one structure or system for the other. Likewise the feeling of always being in the middle of one’s thought (or the sandy beaches of time) is like the noncollapse of the thought structure. There are many overlapping thoughts, all of them in the middle, rather than one thought with a start and a finish spanning several moments. You see? I think a similar thing can explain the proliferation of selfhood in objects in one’s perceptual/imagined environment. You go beyond your ordinary selfhood sense structure and see no problem attaching it to multiple things, like anthropomorphizing things with your sense of orientation and first person perspective. This gives rise to a sense of perspective that is beyond seeing and hearing and all the ordinary things. Yet what is it? Alas, perspective as a concept is only as advanced as the abstraction of perceptions and imaginations and so on, so we don’t actually have a more advanced concept of perception/perspective-having. What we have is the abstraction that’s forced upon us by the cubism and multiplication of competing perspective-having structures attached to different objects. All we know is that whatever it is must go beyond any individual object and is seen only when you’re continually opening up to the idea by watching the cubism unfold. So it’s easy to understand how this is all just a conceptual trick of the mind, but it has a very good way of taking everything you know and all your beliefs and spinning those into the picture to convince you of something beyond all that still. And I really do like to believe the idea of a perspective that transcends my human situated perspective of sense organs and a center of imaginations. I’d like the floating above everything and seeing the symphony. I see how MC Escher pictures are very evocative here, because you have competing “structures” or competing whatevers…  competing resolutions. MC Escher is a form of cubism in this way.

Another thing I notice is a decrease in bad compulsions. Generally psychedelics relieve anxiety and obsessions and stuff like that. I have this nasty habit of looking at attractive people and getting a pang of pain and loneliness and stuff. My work involves me being on social media all day long, so I often see a lot of attractive people and it’s just a pang of badness. But fighting with the compulsion is no good either. Flee it. I’ve got to stop correcting past mistakes. Short ego story. Don’t go down one road and then smack your forehead and then reverse and go back down another road. Nobody wants to see you back up. It’s not valuable. You’re not submitting or apologizing to anyone. Once you go down one road simply poof out of existence and then poof back into existence on the right road. No ego story of grinding corrections and punishments and obstacles. Just skip ahead to the right spot the moment you notice a better spot. Ordinarily seeing or hearing attractive people makes me tense up and go ouch and feel a dose of desperation and so on. This time I’m not doing that. I find that I’m lucky that I haven’t had that and a state of not clinging and so on is naturally here (I’m not anxiously monitoring my clinging level). I think it’s good to just zip to the right moment, the right thought and not spend time wrestling with the thing trying to undo it explicitly. Learn the habit of bypassing it, not reversing it. Don’t even expedite reversal. There should be no struggle to correct anything. Rather just jump freely to a better state of mind. But that’s easier said than done. I think it’s very hard to see the possibility of freedom in the present when faced with very strong recurrent thoughts or states of mind that one doesn’t want. It feels like the only hope of getting out of there is by contending with it, reversing it. But I’m suggesting that actually one can unlearn ever going down the wrong path in the first place (as opposed to learning to make the mistake and then the correction) and that is found in the present, the elusive present we overlook (or underlook). In fact, the present moment isn’t known to you yet while you’re still trying to struggle to escape the undesirable thought pattern. Trust that it will show you the way and open up to you as you open up to it. It will progressively open up, and you’ll say, “Oh, I see now.” 

So short stories are good, being in the moment is good. The intentional object is particularly tyrannical (ref) when it lives in a long story. Short stories can still have intentional objects. Things can have purposes, there can be a point, but the point should be found in the present (or the very very near future). When you find yourself having imaginary conversations for the future, then quickly start speaking that to the present. Whom are you talking to? Nobody. The nobody of the now (or yourself, or the non-people of the now) is a perfectly interesting audience.  You have within your consciousness basically what any audience can actually supply anyway. Consciousness differentiated through filters of points of view and personality and so on is only just the same as what you have in your “solitary” conversation.

Well anyway, I found myself having a bit of a love for the present. I like knowing that fulfillment is found in the present. It is beautiful and wholesome. I like not being chained to anxieties and compulsions. I like the spontaneousness of the higher rate of mindfulness. I don’t normally have so much mindfulness and trying with much effort to be mindful backfires. As explained above about reversing mistakes, today I was quickly and without making a fuss finding myself snapping back into the present. Rather than trying to make an ordeal of an error report trying to diagnose the lapse in mindfulness and see to it that it doesn’t happen again, I let go of that controlling and just join the present moment “ready to rock” as [person] from [previous job] would put it.

Here’s part of the trip report. I wrote the other half of it in a paper notebook:

5:10PM I recorded everything earlier in a notebook.

Wow so much easier to type fast. Anyway I see how the ego and the self, I created a dark scary world of doubt and fear and shame for this Bill character. It’s just a character. Bring as many emotional resolutions as possible to make the story have as happy an ending as can be, but ultimately just don’t forget it’s all fiction.

And I guess that’s key. The fears of the hellishness of being a “bad human” and so on…all fictions of the Bill story in the world, in consensus reality. Make the story look nice, but see through it. It’s just a story for some TV viewer. I’m so predictable, what I’m paranoid about, what my hang ups are, etc… How the grass is greener on the other side of being social.

But this trip, rather than dipping me in guilt and attacking me with my own problems is actually more like a refresher on how these places aren’t full of boogeymen like I think they are, and if I just realized this I’d have a better day. But ultimately the desperateness and the loneliness and so on…gosh what a drag. On and on and on being upset about my life. I cultivate a sense of loss before fulfilling it. I should instead not have any needs and just pursue excitement… It’s interesting to think about whether you can get anywhere in life or have a very interesting time without those needs and voids held open by fear.

5:19PM I think I watch Minecraft playthroughs as a surrogate for socializing. Now without getting emotional or caught up in the Bill story, let’s just assess whether this is necessary.

5:25PM I’m listening to music. I’m admiring the majesty of some things in it. CPE bach. Just like Huxley said about my nonself being the non self of that chair leg, I identify as a non self with the non self of the grand music at points. Anyway, I notice how a lot of my enjoyment of music is really grinding and unpleasant. Forceful and full of pain like fighting through wounds, forcing your way through barbed wire. It’s senseless, isn’t it? If I can control it and enjoy music without this forceful stuff, this suffering forcefulness and longing and neediness and narrowness.

5:30PM Those headphones cause such misery. I get lost in those things. I’m getting a bit morbid, aren’t I? I’m not coming down but I’m tired and maybe my blood sugar is lower or something.

9:51PM Watched the Terence McKenna in Prague with Ram Das and Shulgin and others (link 1, link 2). Fascinating. Then I listened to this I noticed how this time I did acid my mind didn’t expand very much at all. I feel old and like my brain is stuck in certain ways of seeing things. I do have a gentle calling to feel myself situated in terms of nature and evolution and the mystery of the universe…I just want to see the open night sky like our ancestors did, but not clouded by all these paved roads and jobs and clocks and so on. Missing the moment for some future goal, measured by time and streets and so on. I liked what Watts said about playing a musical instrument for the enjoyment of music and not to do secondary things like make money or impress an audience. Now one could say that their goal is to impress audiences and so one isn’t “playing music” but one is “impressing audiences” and happening to play music. But I like the idea of only playing music in an innocent way because of the pleasure the noise gives. Unlocking the song by learning the music is rewarded by the music as it comes along. Not the prospect of performing or this becoming a dance of your ego or something. That’s kind of the problem. At least not living acts for the present well enough. That’s what I meant a couple weeks ago about having present moment self goals. Have goals for the moment. Don’t do stuff for later. The goal shouldn’t be set on some fulfillment of something later on. Why? Because people who say things like that have broken heads and my head is broken so I say stuff like that. Anyway, when I play music it should be to produce sound. When I try to get a self image, a social ego, a sense of my social personality, it shouldn’t be aimed at a future date. I should be genuine where I am, even if I’m alone. That is the moment. When it happens, it isn’t practice for some future performance. I’m not scripting. Rather, that is it. That was the moment to make the joke or be clever or do something. If I’m alone, that’s who I do it for. I do it for myself and nobody. I don’t do it for anybody, at least nobody to be abstracted and conceived in a later date. What happens happens then…what happens in the moment stays in the moment. Right now, who am I journaling with? Whom am I talking to? Wow, I can’t even believe I’ve got the depth to question that. Above I mentioned how not expanded my mind felt. Well I’m not very reflective, and the fact I just brought up the question who I am journaling for shows that thing. A lot of life has been lived in these journals. Some good, a lot bad. I can imagine myself throwing my journals away. I can imagine my laptop getting stolen or destroyed or lost. I no longer am hoarding up notes on philosophy projects. So what is this all for? Well, it’s all for itself. And right now it feels better. This feels like a good use of my time and a legitimate experience of living. Nothing lacks. I don’t need to add on some need to escape here and strive for a better place. Apples and oranges. This is adequate in itself. What I do, I must enjoy doing for the sake of itself. I don’t read books to build a vocabulary and a wit so I can talk to people. I have to enjoy reading the books and having that vocabulary and wit as the reader. Not for some future moment. The journey of a book isn’t an overture to something else. It is the journey. I need really to start becoming intrinsically motivated by everything I do, see things as ends in themselves. Really end. Not mindfulness to some other place. I make this mistake all the time. I think of the future now, of the future present moment mindfulness state. I’ve got to enjoy the mindfulness I already have before I can progress further…or rather before it can progress to unfold and intensify. I have to appreciate the experience of education I’m getting by reading a book, raw education however unglamorous and rudimentary, before my education can grow and intensify.

Sunk cost is big when trying to improve yourself (referring back to Alan Watts talk there). If I haven’t already implemented these notes about living in the present moment, then why do I think I can? Seems like the game has run stale. I’ve been narrowly focused and in sunk cost and escapism and I need to just let go of the outcome and step back and observe. Just like what I said about the stand-up comedian’s ego filtering out the amount of feedback based on how massively they’d have to renovate their act—they’re unwilling to open themselves up to just assess what’s wrong and fix it because they’re trying to open up to a small amount, one repair guy and see what he says and see if he recommends a follow up repair guy when he can’t figure it out, and then two slightly more in-depth expert repair guys come by and so on….why is this progression of repairmen economical? It is if you have no idea what’s wrong with your electricity in your house, but if you are a standup comedian and your ability to correct your act depends on your ability to recognize what’s wrong with it and you have access to that consultation, why limit yourself by peeking through a half closed eye? Why not just open up and see the whole situation? You won’t waste time…oh so much time you’ll spend fighting your way back up from the later stage repair men to earlier repair men…correcting later stage specific advanced diagnoses but still something’s wrong but it’s simpler than before. Just always wrestling with the errors in your performance trying to keep them in the simple no biggie zone rather than in the serious fail zone. But if only you were willing to open your eyes fully to see the true extent of the problems, then you could fix them all.

10:30PM Down with an edible. Wow, surprised how powerful the acid still is. Let’s see I took one at 12:33PM and the other at 1:49PM. Well, and I just took an edible. A tinge of regret because it’ll dull and otherwise contaminate the acid, but I’m getting tired so it wasn’t like I was going to get much out of it anyway. Alas, I’m still looking for gold to fill my notebooks for for later reading. I still take notes for the future. I should see notes as what they really are, which is just prosthetics for the experience of narratives in the present moment. Nothing more. (And I’m often blind to that possibility! I’m blind to the potential of the present! I only think in terms of future stuff. I just overlook the present.)

10:36 Wow that Alan Watts talk though. I know I always can’t help but put in my disclaimers. I don’t even feel like going through the various examples of why I have critical reasoning bla bla bla (don’t think of me as a stupid sheep). Just how helpless I seem to be in my current mode of doing things to get myself to live in the present and for the present. I don’t make decisions. I don’t decide what meanings my words have. I rather sit there passively waiting for the right words to come and fill in. I could do with some asserting myself more. But when the moment is right, when it gives energy rather than drains.

And rather than striving for an answer for a theory about consciousness or something or reality or whatever crazy… that is so rewarding that it can be done for itself in the moment. Think about consciousness. The mystery of the ever elusive background. The unknown is stimulating. It is exciting. Seeing the implications of the unknown and questioning old frameworks is enjoyable. It just is. 🙂

11:30PM Just took my second edible. (Saw: Alan Watts – Nature of God)

12:31AM Only do things for the now. Don’t solve problems for the future. Propose solutions for the future in the now. It’s a present act. You’re just exercising talking and proposing and speculating recreationally for the present. You ‘re not putting your will into the future. And the idea I have is that the bleakness of my life is in my head. Living in a van can be positive. I can have a happier social life. But doubts just feed. They’re demonic. They love sadness like heroin. They love to feed on the anxieties about not being able to make friends, of how poor my track record has been, how my life used to be in my control and going in a direction has now fallen so dramatically in a different way….The doubt tempts you. The decisions stop being made in the present moment. IT says “Hold on now. Think about this…” as it proceeds, foot in the door, to tempt you to sadness and doubt, as if there’s some social reward for having a sufficiently pessimistic view.

A Non-Circular Solution to the Measurement Problem: If the Superposition Principle is the Bedrock of Quantum Mechanics Why Do We Experience Definite Outcomes?

Source: Quora question – “Scientifically speaking, how serious is the measurement problem concerning the validity of the various interpretations in quantum mechanics?


David Pearce responds [emphasis mine]:

It’s serious. Science should be empirically adequate. Quantum mechanics is the bedrock of science. The superposition principle is the bedrock of quantum mechanics. So why don’t we ever experience superpositions? Why do experiments have definite outcomes? “Schrödinger’s cat” isn’t just a thought-experiment. The experiment can be done today. If quantum mechanics is complete, then microscopic superpositions should rapidly be amplified via quantum entanglement into the macroscopic realm of everyday life.

Copenhagenists are explicit. The lesson of quantum mechanics is that we must abandon realism about the micro-world. But Schrödinger’s cat can’t be quarantined. The regress spirals without end. If quantum mechanics is complete, the lesson of Schrödinger’s cat is that if one abandons realism about a micro-world, then one must abandon realism about a macro-world too. The existence of an objective physical realm independent of one’s mind is certainly a useful calculational tool. Yet if all that matters is empirical adequacy, then why invoke such superfluous metaphysical baggage? The upshot of Copenhagen isn’t science, but solipsism.

There are realist alternatives to quantum solipsism. Some physicists propose that we modify the unitary dynamics to prevent macroscopic superpositions. Roger Penrose, for instance, believes that a non-linear correction to the unitary evolution should be introduced to prevent superpositions of macroscopically distinguishable gravitational fields. Experiments to (dis)confirm the Penrose-Hameroff Orch-OR conjecture should be feasible later this century. But if dynamical collapse theories are wrong, and if quantum mechanics is complete (as most physicists believe), then “cat states” should be ubiquitous. This doesn’t seem to be what we experience.

Everettians are realists, in a sense. Unitary-only QM says that there are quasi-classical branches of the universal wavefunction where you open an infernal chamber and see a live cat, other decohered branches where you see a dead cat; branches where you perceive the detection of a spin-up electron that has passed through a Stern–Gerlach device, other branches where you perceive the detector recording a spin-down electron; and so forth. I’ve long been haunted by a horrible suspicion that unitary-only QM is right, though Everettian QM boggles the mind (cfUniverseSplitter). Yet the heart of the measurement problem from the perspective of empirical science is that one doesn’t ever see superpositions of live-and-dead cats, or detect superpositions of spin-up-and-spin-down electrons, but only definite outcomes. So the conjecture that there are other, madly proliferating decohered branches of the universal wavefunction where different versions of you record different definite outcomes doesn’t solve the mystery of why anything anywhere ever seems definite to anyone at all. Therefore, the problem of definite outcomes in QM isn’t “just” a philosophical or interpretational issue, but an empirical challenge for even the most hard-nosed scientific positivist. “Science” that isn’t empirically adequate isn’t science: it’s metaphysics. Some deeply-buried background assumption(s) or presupposition(s) that working physicists are making must be mistaken. But which? To quote the 2016 International Workshop on Quantum Observers organized by the IJQF,

“…the measurement problem in quantum mechanics is essentially the determinate-experience problem. The problem is to explain how the linear quantum dynamics can be compatible with the existence of our definite experience. This means that in order to finally solve the measurement problem it is necessary to analyze the observer who is physically in a superposition of brain states with definite measurement records. Indeed, such quantum observers exist in all main realistic solutions to the measurement problem, including Bohm’s theory, Everett’s theory, and even the dynamical collapse theories. Then, what does it feel like to be a quantum observer?

Indeed. Here I’ll just state rather than argue my tentative analysis.
Monistic physicalism is true. Quantum mechanics is formally complete. There is no consciousness-induced collapse the wave function, no “hidden variables”, nor any other modification or supplementation of the unitary Schrödinger dynamics. The wavefunction evolves deterministically according to the Schrödinger equation as a linear superposition of different states. Yet what seems empirically self-evident, namely that measurements always find a physical system in a definite state, is false(!) The received wisdom, repeated in countless textbooks, that measurements always find a physical system in a definite state reflects an erroneous theory of perception, namely perceptual direct realism. As philosophers (e.g. the “two worlds” reading of Kant) and even poets (“The brain is wider than the sky…”) have long realised, the conceptual framework of perceptual direct realism is untenable. Only inferential realism about mind-independent reality is scientifically viable. Rather than assuming that superpositions are never experienced, suspend disbelief and consider the opposite possibility. Only superpositions are ever experienced. “Observations” are superpositions, exactly as unmodified and unsupplemented quantum mechanics says they should be: the wavefunction is a complete representation of the physical state of a system, including biological minds and the pseudo-classical world-simulations they run. Not merely “It is the theory that decides what can be observed” (Einstein); quantum theory decides the very nature of “observation” itself. If so, then the superposition principle underpins one’s subjective experience of definite, well-defined classical outcomes (“observations”), whether, say, a phenomenally-bound live cat, or the detection of a spin-up electron that has passed through a Stern–Gerlach device, or any other subjectively determinate outcome. If one isn’t dreaming, tripping or psychotic, then within one’s phenomenal world-simulation, the apparent collapse of a quantum state (into one of the eigenstates of the Hermitian operator associated with the relevant observable in accordance with a probability calculated as the squared absolute value of a complex probability amplitude) consists of fleeting uncollapsed neuronal superpositions within one’s CNS. To solve the measurement problem, the neuronal vehicle of observation and its subjective content must be distinguished. The universality of the superposition principle – not its unexplained breakdown upon “observation” – underpins one’s classical-seeming world-simulation. What naïvely seems to be the external world, i.e. one’s egocentric world-simulation, is what linear superpositions of different states feel like “from the inside”: the intrinsic nature of the physical. The otherwise insoluble binding problem in neuroscience and the problem of definite outcomes in QM share a solution.

Absurd?
Yes, for sure: this minimum requirement for a successful resolution of the mystery is satisfied (“If at first the idea is not absurd, then there is no hope for it”– Einstein, again). The raw power of environmentally-induced decoherence in a warm environment like the CNS makes the conjecture intuitively flaky. Assuming unitary-only QM, the effective theoretical lifetime of neuronal “cat states” in the CNS is less than femtoseconds. Neuronal superpositions of distributed feature-processors are intuitively just “noise”, not phenomenally-bound perceptual objects. At best, the idea that sub-femtosecond neuronal superpositions could underpin our experience of law-like classicality is implausible. Yet we’re not looking for plausible theories but testable theories. Every second of selection pressure in Zurek’s sense (cf. “Quantum Darwinism”) sculpting one’s neocortical world-simulation is more intense and unremitting than four billion years of evolution as conceived by Darwin. My best guess is that interferometry will disclose a perfect structural match. If the non-classical interference signature doesn’t yield a perfect structural match, then dualism is true.

Is the quantum-theoretic version of the intrinsic nature argument for non-materialist physicalism – more snappily, “Schrödinger’s neurons” – a potential solution to the measurement problem? Or a variant of the “word salad” interpretation of quantum mechanics?
Sadly, I can guess.
But if there were one experiment that I could do, one loophole I’d like to see closed via interferometry, then this would be it.


 

Personality Traits Are Continuous With Mental Illnesses

Health is a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.

The Constitution of the World Health Organization


Whether pain takes the form of the eternal Treblinka of our Fordist factory farms and conveyor-belt killing factories, or whether it’s manifested as the cruelties of a living world still governed by natural selection, the sheer viciousness of the Darwinian Era is likely to horrify our morally saner near-descendants.

David Pearce in Brave New World? A Defense of Paradise-Engineering


Personality traits are continuous with mental illnesses

by Geoffrey Miller (originally posted on Edge in 2011)

We like to draw clear lines between normal and abnormal behavior. It’s reassuring, for those who think they’re normal. But it’s not accurate. Psychology, psychiatry, and behavior genetics are converging to show that there’s no clear line between “normal variation” in human personality traits and “abnormal” mental illnesses. Our instinctive way of thinking about insanity — our intuitive psychiatry — is dead wrong.

To understand insanity, we have to understand personality. There’s a scientific consensus that personality traits can be well-described by five main dimensions of variation. These “Big Five” personality traits are called openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and emotional stability. The Big Five are all normally distributed in a bell curve, statistically independent of each other, genetically heritable, stable across the life-course, unconsciously judged when choosing mates or friends, and found in other species such as chimpanzees. They predict a wide range of behavior in school, work, marriage, parenting, crime, economics, and politics.

Mental disorders are often associated with maladaptive extremes of the Big Five traits. Over-conscientiousness predicts obsessive-compulsive disorder, whereas low conscientiousness predicts drug addiction and other “impulse control disorders”. Low emotional stability predicts depression, anxiety, bipolar, borderline, and histrionic disorders. Low extraversion predicts avoidant and schizoid personality disorders. Low agreeableness predicts psychopathy and paranoid personality disorder. High openness is on a continuum with schizotypy and schizophrenia. Twin studies show that these links between personality traits and mental illnesses exist not just at the behavioral level, but at the genetic level. And parents who are somewhat extreme on a personality trait are much more likely to have a child with the associated mental illness.

One implication is that the “insane” are often just a bit more extreme in their personalities than whatever promotes success or contentment in modern societies — or more extreme than we’re comfortable with. A less palatable implication is that we’re all insane to some degree. All living humans have many mental disorders, mostly minor but some major, and these include not just classic psychiatric disorders like depression and schizophrenia, but diverse forms of stupidity, irrationality, immorality, impulsiveness, and alienation. As the new field of positive psychology acknowledges, we are all very far from optimal mental health, and we are all more or less crazy in many ways. Yet traditional psychiatry, like human intuition, resists calling anything a disorder if its prevalence is higher than about 10%.

The personality/insanity continuum is important in mental health policy and care. There are angry and unresolved debates over how to revise the 5th edition of psychiatry’s core reference work, the Diagnostic and Statistic Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), to be published in 2013. One problem is that American psychiatrists dominate the DSM-5 debates, and the American health insurance system demands discrete diagnoses of mental illnesses before patients are covered for psychiatric medications and therapies. Also, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approves psychiatric medications only for discrete mental illnesses. These insurance and drug-approval issues push for definitions of mental illnesses to be artificially extreme, mutually exclusive, and based on simplistic checklists of symptoms. Insurers also want to save money, so they push for common personality variants — shyness, laziness, irritability, conservatism — not to be classed as illnesses worthy of care. But the science doesn’t fit the insurance system’s imperatives. It remains to be seen whether DSM-5 is written for the convenience of American insurers and FDA officials, or for international scientific accuracy.

Psychologists have shown that in many domains, our instinctive intuitions are fallible (though often adaptive). Our intuitive physics — ordinary concepts of time, space, gravity, and impetus — can’t be reconciled with relativity, quantum mechanics, or cosmology. Our intuitive biology — ideas of species essences and teleological functions — can’t be reconciled with evolution, population genetics, or adaptationism. Our intuitive morality — self-deceptive, nepotistic, clannish, anthropocentric, and punitive — can’t be reconciled with any consistent set of moral values, whether Aristotelean, Kantian, or utilitarian. Apparently, our intuitive psychiatry has similar limits. The sooner we learn those limits, the better we’ll be able to help people with serious mental illnesses, and the more humble we’ll be about our own mental health.

Estimated Cost of the DMT Machine Elves Prime Factorization Experiment

“Okay,” I said. “Fine. Let me tell you where I’m coming from. I was reading Scott McGreal’s blog, which has some good articles about so-called DMT entities, and mentions how they seem so real that users of the drug insist they’ve made contact with actual superhuman beings and not just psychedelic hallucinations. You know, the usual Terence McKenna stuff. But in one of them he mentions a paper by Marko Rodriguez called A Methodology For Studying Various Interpretations of the N,N-dimethyltryptamine-Induced Alternate Reality, which suggested among other things that you could prove DMT entities were real by taking the drug and then asking the entities you meet to factor large numbers which you were sure you couldn’t factor yourself. So to that end, could you do me a big favor and tell me the factors of 1,522,605,027, 922,533,360, 535,618,378, 132,637,429, 718,068,114, 961,380,688, 657,908,494, 580,122,963, 258,952,897, 654,000,350, 692,006,139?

Universal Love, Said the Cactus Person, by Scott Alexander

In the comments…

gwern says:
I was a little curious about how such a prime experiment would go and how much it would cost. It looks like one could probably run an experiment with a somewhat OK chance at success for under $1k.
We need to estimate the costs and probabilities of memorizing a suitable composite number, buying DMT, using DMT and getting the requisite machine-elf experience (far from guaranteed), being able to execute a preplanned action like asking about a prime, and remembering the answer.

1. The smallest RSA number not yet factored is 220 digits. The RSA numbers themselves are useless for this experiment because if one did get the right factors, because it’s so extraordinarily unlikely for machine-elves to really be an independent reality, a positive result would only prove that someone had stolen the RSA answers or hacked a computer or something along the lines. RSA-768 was factored in 2009 using ~2000 CPU-years, so we need a number much larger; since Google has several million CPUs we might want something substantially larger, at least 800 digits. We know from mnemonists that numbers that large can be routinely memorized, and an 800 digit decimal can be memorized in an hour. Chao Lu memorized 67k digits of Pi in 1 year. So the actual memorization time is not significant. How much training does it take to memorize 800 digits? I remember a famous example in WM research of how WM training does not necessarily transfer to anything, of a student taught to memorize digits, Ericsson & Chase’s whose digit span went from ~7 to ~80 after 230 hours of training; digit span is much more demanding than a one-off memorization. This does something similar using more like 80 hours of training. Foer’s _Moonwalking With Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything_ doesn’t cover much more than a year or two and fairly undemanding training regimen, and he performed well. So I’m going to guess that to memorize a number which would be truly impressive evidence (and not simply evidence for a prank or misdeeds by a hobbyist, RSA employee, Google, or the NSA) would require ~30h of practice.
2. some browsing of the DMT category on the current leading black-market suggests that 1g of DMT from a reputable seller costs ฿0.56 or ~$130. The linked paper says smoking DMT for a full trip requires 50mg/0.05g so our $130 buys ~19 doses.
3. The linked paper says that 20% of Strassman’s injected-DMT trips give a machine-elf experience; hence the 1g will give an average of ~3-4 machine-elfs and 19 trips almost guarantees at least 1 machine-elf assuming 20% success-rate (1-(1-0.2)^19 = 98%). Since the 20% figure comes from injected DMT and DMT of a controlled high quality, probably this is optimistic for anyone trying out smoking DMT at home, but let’s roll with it.
4. in a machine-elf experience, how often could we be lucid enough to wake up and ask the factoring question? No one’s mentioned trying so there’s no hard data, but we can borrow from a similar set of experiments in verifying altered states of consciousness, Laberge’s lucid dreaming experiments in which subjects had to exert control to wiggle their eyes in a fixed pattern. This study gives several flows from # of nights to # of verifications, which all are roughly 1/3 – 1/4; so given our estimated 3-4 machine-elfs, we might be able to ask 1 time. If the machine-elves are guaranteed to reply correctly, then that’s all we need.
5. at 30 hours of mnemonic labor valued at minimum wage of $8 and $130 for 19 doses, that gives us an estimate of $370 in costs to ask an average of once; if we amortize the memorization costs some more by buying 2g, then we instead spend $250 per factoring request for 2 tries; and so on down to a minimum cost of (130/19)*5 = $34 per factoring request. To get n=10 requests, we’d need to spend a cool ((30*8) + 10*130)=$1540.
6. power analysis for a question like this is tricky, since we only need one response with the *right* factors; probably what will happen is that the machine-elfs will not answer or any answer will be ‘forgotten’. You can estimate other stuff like how likely the elves are to respond given 10 questions and 0 responses (flat prior’s 95% CI: 0-28%), or apply decision-theory to decide when to stop trying (tricky, since any reasonable estimate of the probability of machine-elves will tell you that at $35 a shot, you shouldn’t be trying at all).

Hence, you could get a few attempts at somewhere under $1k, but exactly how much depends sensitively on what fraction of trips you get elves and how often you manage to ask them; the DMT itself doesn’t cost *that* much per dose (like ~$7) but it’s the all the trips where you don’t get elves or you get elves but are too ecstatic to ask them anything which really kill you and drive up the price to $34-$250 per factoring request. Also, there’s a lot of uncertainty in all these estimates (who knows how much any of the quoted rates differ from person to person?).

I thought this might be a fun self-experiment to do, but looking at the numbers and the cost, it seems pretty discouraging.


Related Empirical Paradigms for Psychedelic Research:

  1. LSD and Quantum Measurement (an experiment that was designed, coded up, and conducted to evaluate whether one can experience multiple Everett branches at once while on LSD).
  2. How to Secretly Communicate with People on LSD (a method called Psychedelic Cryptography which uses the slower qualia decay factor induced by psychedelics, aka. “tracers”, in order to encode information in gifs that you can only decode if you are sufficiently high on a psychedelic).
  3. Psychophysics for Psychedelic Research: Textures (an experimental method developed by Benjamin Bala based on the textural mongrel paradigm proposed by Eero Simoncelli and extended to provide insights into psychedelic visual perception. See: analysis).

The Qualia Explosion

Extract from “Humans and Intelligent Machines: Co-Evolution, Fusion or Replacement?” (talk) by David Pearce

Supersentience: Turing plus Shulgin?

Compared to the natural sciences (cf. the Standard Model in physics) or computing (cf. the Universal Turing Machine), the “science” of consciousness is pre-Galilean, perhaps even pre-Socratic. State-enforced censorship of the range of subjective properties of matter and energy in the guise of a prohibition on psychoactive experimentation is a powerful barrier to knowledge. The legal taboo on the empirical method in consciousness studies prevents experimental investigation of even the crude dimensions of the Hard Problem, let alone locating a solution-space where answers to our ignorance might conceivably be found.

Singularity theorists are undaunted by our ignorance of this fundamental feature of the natural world. Instead, the Singularitarians offer a narrative of runaway machine intelligence in which consciousness plays a supporting role ranging from the minimal and incidental to the completely non-existent. However, highlighting the Singularity movement’s background assumptions about the nature of mind and intelligence, not least the insignificance of the binding problem to AGI, reveals why FUSION and REPLACEMENT scenarios are unlikely – though a measure of “cyborgification” of sentient biological robots augmented with ultrasmart software seems plausible and perhaps inevitable.

If full-spectrum superintelligence does indeed entail navigation and mastery of the manifold state-spaces of consciousness, and ultimately a seamless integration of this knowledge with the structural understanding of the world yielded by the formal sciences, then where does this elusive synthesis leave the prospects of posthuman superintelligence? Will the global proscription of radically altered states last indefinitely?

Social prophecy is always a minefield. However, there is one solution to the indisputable psychological health risks posed to human minds by empirical research into the outlandish state-spaces of consciousness unlocked by ingesting the tryptaminesphenylethylaminesisoquinolines and other pharmacological tools of sentience investigation. This solution is to make “bad trips” physiologically impossible – whether for individual investigators or, in theory, for human society as a whole. Critics of mood-enrichment technologies sometimes contend that a world animated by information-sensitive gradients of bliss would be an intellectually stagnant society: crudely, a Brave New World. On the contrary, biotech-driven mastery of our reward circuitry promises a knowledge explosion in virtue of allowing a social, scientific and legal revolution: safe, full-spectrum biological superintelligence. For genetic recalibration of hedonic set-points – as distinct from creating uniform bliss – potentially leaves cognitive function and critical insight both sharp and intact; and offers a launchpad for consciousness research in mind-spaces alien to the drug-naive imagination. A future biology of invincible well-being would not merely immeasurably improve our subjective quality of life: empirically, pleasure is the engine of value-creation. In addition to enriching all our lives, radical mood-enrichment would permit safe, systematic and responsible scientific exploration of previously inaccessible state-spaces of consciousness. If we were blessed with a biology of invincible well-being, exotic state-spaces would all be saturated with a rich hedonic tone.

Until this hypothetical world-defining transition, pursuit of the rigorous first-person methodology and rational drug-design strategy pioneered by Alexander Shulgin in PiHKAL and TiHKAL remains confined to the scientific counterculture. Investigation is risky, mostly unlawful, and unsystematic. In mainstream society, academia and peer-reviewed scholarly journals alike, ordinary waking consciousness is assumed to define the gold standard in which knowledge-claims are expressed and appraised. Yet to borrow a homely-sounding quote from Einstein, “What does the fish know of the sea in which it swims?” Just as a dreamer can gain only limited insight into the nature of dreaming consciousness from within a dream, likewise the nature of “ordinary waking consciousness” can only be glimpsed from within its confines. In order to scientifically understand the realm of the subjective, we’ll need to gain access to all its manifestations, not just the impoverished subset of states of consciousness that tended to promote the inclusive fitness of human genes on the African savannah.

Why the Proportionality Thesis Implies an Organic Singularity

So if the preconditions for full-spectrum superintelligence, i.e. access to superhuman state-spaces of sentience, remain unlawful, where does this roadblock leave the prospects of runaway self-improvement to superintelligence? Could recursive genetic self-editing of our source code repair the gap? Or will traditional human personal genomes be policed by a dystopian Gene Enforcement Agency in a manner analogous to the coercive policing of traditional human minds by the Drug Enforcement Agency?

Even in an ideal regulatory regime, the process of genetic and/or pharmacological self-enhancement is intuitively too slow for a biological Intelligence Explosion to be a live option, especially when set against the exponential increase in digital computer processing power and inorganic AI touted by Singularitarians. Prophets of imminent human demise in the face of machine intelligence argue that there can’t be a Moore’s law for organic robots. Even the Flynn Effect, the three-points-per-decade increase in IQ scores recorded during the 20th century, is comparatively puny; and in any case, this narrowly-defined intelligence gain may now have halted in well-nourished Western populations.

However, writing off all scenarios of recursive human self-enhancement would be premature. Presumably, the smarter our nonbiological AI, the more readily AI-assisted humans will be able recursively to improve our own minds with user-friendly wetware-editing tools – not just editing our raw genetic source code, but also the multiple layers of transcription and feedback mechanisms woven into biological minds. Presumably, our ever-smarter minds will be able to devise progressively more sophisticated, and also progressively more user-friendly, wetware-editing tools. These wetware-editing tools can accelerate our own recursive self-improvement – and manage potential threats from nonfriendly AGI that might harm rather than help us, assuming that our earlier strictures against the possibility of digital software-based unitary minds were mistaken. MIRI rightly call attention to how small enhancements can yield immense cognitive dividends: the relatively short genetic distance between humans and chimpanzees suggests how relatively small enhancements can exert momentous effects on a mind’s general intelligence, thereby implying that AGIs might likewise become disproportionately powerful through a small number of tweaks and improvements. In the post-genomic era, presumably exactly the same holds true for AI-assisted humans and transhumans editing their own minds. What David Chalmers calls the proportionality thesis, i.e. increases in intelligence lead to proportionate increases in the capacity to design intelligent systems, will be vindicated as recursively self-improving organic robots modify their own source code and bootstrap our way to full-spectrum superintelligence: in essence, an organic Singularity. And in contrast to classical digital zombies, superficially small molecular differences in biological minds can result in profoundly different state-spaces of sentience. Compare the ostensibly trivial difference in gene expression profiles of neurons mediating phenomenal sight and phenomenal sound – and the radically different visual and auditory worlds they yield.

Compared to FUSION or REPLACEMENT scenarios, the AI-human CO-EVOLUTION conjecture is apt to sound tame. The likelihood our posthuman successors will also be our biological descendants suggests at most a radical conservativism. In reality, a post-Singularity future where today’s classical digital zombies were superseded merely by faster, more versatile classical digital zombies would be infinitely duller than a future of full-spectrum supersentience. For all insentient information processors are exactly the same inasmuch as the living dead are not subjects of experience. They’ll never even know what it’s like to be “all dark inside” – or the computational power of phenomenal object-binding that yields illumination. By contrast, posthuman superintelligence will not just be quantitatively greater but also qualitatively alien to archaic Darwinian minds. Cybernetically enhanced and genetically rewritten biological minds can abolish suffering throughout the living world and banish experience below “hedonic zero” in our forward light-cone, an ethical watershed without precedent. Post-Darwinian life can enjoy gradients of lifelong blissful supersentience with the intensity of a supernova compared to a glow-worm. A zombie, on the other hand, is just a zombie – even if it squawks like Einstein. Posthuman organic minds will dwell in state-spaces of experience for which archaic humans and classical digital computers alike have no language, no concepts, and no words to describe our ignorance. Most radically, hyperintelligent organic minds will explore state-spaces of consciousness that do not currently play any information-signalling role in living organisms, and are impenetrable to investigation by digital zombies. In short, biological intelligence is on the brink of a recursively self-amplifying Qualia Explosion – a phenomenon of which digital zombies are invincibly ignorant, and invincibly ignorant of their own ignorance. Humans too of course are mostly ignorant of what we’re lacking: the nature, scope and intensity of such posthuman superqualia are beyond the bounds of archaic human experience. Even so, enrichment of our reward pathways can ensure that full-spectrum biological superintelligence will be sublime.


Image Credit: MohammadReza DomiriGanji

John von Neumann

Passing of a Great Mind

John von Neumann, a Brilliant, Jovial Mathematician, was a Prodigious Servant of Science and his Country

by Clary Blair Jr. – Life Magazine (February 25th, 1957)

The world lost one of its greatest scientists when Professor John von Neumann, 54, died this month of cancer in Washington, D.C. His death, like his life’s work, passed almost unnoticed by the public. But scientists throughout the free world regarded it as a tragic loss. They knew that Von Neumann’s brilliant mind had not only advanced his own special field, pure mathematics, but had also helped put the West in an immeasurably stronger position in the nuclear arms race. Before he was 30 he had established himself as one of the world’s foremost mathematicians. In World War II he was the principal discoverer of the implosion method, the secret of the atomic bomb.

The government officials and scientists who attended the requiem mass at the Walter Reed Hospital chapel last week were there not merely in recognition of his vast contributions to science, but also to pay personal tribute to a warm and delightful personality and a selfless servant of his country.

For more than a year Von Neumann had known he was going to die. But until the illness was far advanced he continued to devote himself to serving the government as a member of the Atomic Energy Commission, to which he was appointed in 1954. A telephone by his bed connected directly with his EAC office. On several occasions he was taken downtown in a limousine to attend commission meetings in a wheelchair. At Walter Reed, where he was moved early last spring, an Air Force officer, Lieut. Colonel Vincent Ford, worked full time assisting him. Eight airmen, all cleared for top secret material, were assigned to help on a 24-hour basis. His work for the Air Force and other government departments continued. Cabinet members and military officials continually came for his advice, and on one occasion Secretary of Defence Charles Wilson, Air Force Secretary Donald Quarles and most of the top Air Force brass gathered in Von Neumann’s suite to consult his judgement while there was still time. So relentlessly did Von Neumann pursue his official duties that he risked neglecting the treatise which was to form the capstone of his work on the scientific specialty, computing machines, to which he had devoted many recent years.

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His fellow scientists, however, did not need any further evidence of Von Neumann’s rank as a scientist – or his assured place in history. They knew that during World War II at Los Alamos Von Neumann’s development of the idea of implosion speeded up the making of the atomic bomb by at least a full year. His later work with electronic computers quickened U.S. development of the H-bomb by months. The chief designer of the H-bomb, Edward Teller, once said with wry humor that Von Neumann was “one of those rare mathematicians who could descend to the level of the physicist.” Many theoretical physicists admit that they learned more from Von Neumann in methods of scientific thinking than from any of their colleagues. Hans Bethe, who was director of the theoretical physics division at Los Alamos, says, “I have sometimes wondered whether a brain like Von Neumann’s does not indicate a species superior to that of man.”

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The foremost authority on computing machines in the U.S., Von Neumann was more than anyone else responsible for the increased use of the electronic “brains” in government and industry. The machine he called MANIAC (mathematical analyzer, numerical integrator and computer), which he built at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, N.J., was the prototype for most of the advanced calculating machines now in use. Another machine, NORC, which he built for the Navy, can deliver a full day’s weather prediction in a few minutes. The principal adviser to the U.S. Air Force on nuclear weapons, Von Neumann was the most influential scientific force behind the U.S. decision to embark on accelerated production of intercontinental ballistic missiles. His “theory of games,” outlined in a book which he published in 1944 in collaboration with Economist Oskar Morgenstern, opened up an entirely new branch of mathematics. Analyzing the mathematical probabilities behind games of chance, Von Neumann went on to formulate a mathematical approach to such widespread fields as economics, sociology and even military strategy. His contributions to the quantum theory, the theory which explains the emission and absorption of energy in atoms and the one on which all atomic and nuclear physics are based, were set forth in a work entitled Mathematical Foundations of Quantum Mechanics which he wrote at the age of 23. It is today one of the cornerstones of this highly specialized branch of mathematical thought.

For Von Neumann the road to success was a many-laned highway with little traffic and no speed limit. He was born in 1903 in Budapest and was of the same generation of Hungarian physicists as Edward Teller, Leo Szilard and Eugene Wigner, all of whom later worked on atomic energy development for the U.S.

The eldest of three sons of a well-to-do Jewish financier who had been decorated by the Emperor Franz Josef, John von Neumann grew up in a society which placed a premium on intellectual achievement. At the age of 6 he was able to divide two eight-digit numbers in his head. By the age of 8 he had mastered college calculus and as a trick could memorize on sight a column in a telephone book and repeat back the names, addresses and numbers. History was only a “hobby,” but by the outbreak of World War I, when he was 10, his photographic mind had absorbed most of the contents of the 46-volume works edited by the German historian Oncken with a sophistication that startled his elders.

Despite his obvious technical ability, as a young man Von Neumann wanted to follow his father’s financial career, but he was soon dissuaded. Under a kind of supertutor, a first-rank mathematician at the University of Budapest named Leopold Fejer, Von Neumann was steered into the academic world. At 21 he received two degrees – one in chemical engineering at Zurich and a PhD in mathematics from the University of Budapest. The following year, 1926, as Admiral Horthy’s rightist regime had been repressing Hungarian Jews, he moved to Göttingen, Germany, then the mathematical center of the world. It was there that he published his major work on quantum mechanics.

The young professor

His fame now spreading, Von Neumann at 23 qualified as a Privatdozent (lecturer) at the University of Berlin, one of the youngest in the school’s history. But the Nazis had already begun their march to power. In 1929 Von Neumann accepted a visiting lectureship at Princeton University and in 1930, at the age of 26, he took a job there as professor of mathematical physics – after a quick trip to Budapest to marry a vivacious 18-year-old named Mariette Kovesi. Three years later, when the Institute for Advanced Study was founded at Princeton, Von Neumann was appointed – as was Albert Einstein – to be one of its first full professors. “He was so young,” a member of the institute recalls, “that most people who saw him in the halls mistook him for a graduate student.”

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Although they worked near each other in the same building, Einstein and Von Neumann were not intimate, and because their approach to scientific matters was different they never formally collaborated. A member of the institute who worked side by side with both men in the early days recalls, “Einstein’s mind was slow and contemplative. He would think about something for years. Johnny’s mind was just the opposite. It was lightning quick – stunningly fast. If you gave him a problem he either solved it right away or not at all. If he had to think about it a long time and it bored him, hist interest would begin to wander. And Johnny’s mind would not shine unless whatever he was working on had his undivided attention.” But the problems he did care about, such as his “theory of games,” absorbed him for much longer periods.

‘Proof by erasure’

Partly because of this quicksilver quality Von Neumann was not an outstanding teacher to many of his students. But for the advanced students who could ascend to his level he was inspirational. His lectures were brilliant, although at times difficult to follow because of his way of erasing and rewriting dozens of formulae on the blackboard. In explaining mathematical problems Von Neumann would write his equations hurriedly, starting at the top of the blackboard and working down. When he reached the bottom, if the problem was unfinished, he would erase the top equations and start down again. By the time he had done this two or three times most other mathematicians would find themselves unable to keep track. On one such occasion a colleague at Princeton waited until Von Neumann had finished and said, “I see. Proof by erasure.”

Von Neumann himself was perpetually interested in many fields unrelated to science. Several years ago his wife gave him a 21-volume Cambridge History set, and she is sure he memorized every name and fact in the books. “He is a major expert on all the royal family trees in Europe,” a friend said once. “He can tell you who fell in love with whom, and why, what obscure cousin this or that czar married, how many illegitimate children he had and so on.” One night during the Princeton days a world-famous expert on Byzantine history came to the Von Neumann house for a party. “Johnny and the professor got into a corner and began discussing some obscure facet,” recalls a friend who was there. “Then an argument arose over a date. Johnny insisted it was this, the professor that. So Johnny said, ‘Let’s get the book.’ They looked it up and Johnny was right. A few weeks later the professor was invited to the Von Neumann house again. He called Mrs. von Neumann and said jokingly, ‘I’ll come if Johnny promises not to discuss Byzantine history. Everybody thinks I am the world’s greatest expert in it and I want them to keep on thinking that.'”von_neumann_4

Once a friend showed him an extremely complex problem and remarked that a certain famous mathematician had taken a whole week’s journey across Russia on the Trans-Siberian Railroad to complete it. Rushing for a train, Von Neumann took the problem along. Two days later the friend received an air-mail packet from Chicago. In it was a 50-page handwritten solution to the problem. Von Neumann had added a postscript: “Running time to Chicago: 15 hours, 26 minutes.” To Von Neumann this was not an expression of vanity but of sheer delight – a hole in one.

During periods of intense intellectual concentration Von Neumann, like most of his professional colleagues, was lost in preoccupation, and the real world spun past him. He would sometimes interrupt a trip to put through a telephone call to find out why he had taken the trip in the first place.

Von Neumann believed that concentration alone was insufficient for solving some of the most difficult mathematical problems and that these are solved in the subconscious. He would often go to sleep with a problem unsolved, wake up in the morning and scribble the answer on a pad he kept on the bedside table. It was a common occurrence for him to begin scribbling with pencil and paper in the midst of a nightclub floor show or a lively party, “the noisier,” his wife says, “the better.” When his wife arranged a secluded study for Von Neumann on the third floor of the Princeton home, Von Neumann was furious. “He stormed downstairs,” says Mrs. von Neumann, “and demanded, ‘What are you trying to do, keep me away from what’s going on?’; After that he did most of his work in the living room with my phonograph blaring.”

His pride in his brain power made him easy prey to scientific jokesters. A friend once spent a week working out various steps in an obscure mathematical process. Accosting Von Neumann at a party he asked for help in solving the problem. After listening to it, Von Neumann leaned his plump frame against a door and stared blankly, his mind going through the necessary calculations. At each step in the process the friend would quickly put in, “Well, it comes out to this, doesn’t it?” After several such interruptions Von Neumann became perturbed and when his friend “beat” him to the final answer he exploded in fury. “Johnny sulked for weeks,” recalls the friend, “before he found out it was all a joke.”

He did not look like a professor. He dressed so much like a Wall Street banker that a fellow scientist once said, “Johnny, why don’t you smear some chalk dust on your coat so you look like the rest of us?” He loved to eat, especially rich sauces and desserts, and in later years was forced to diet rigidly. To him exercise was “nonsense.”

Those lively Von Neumann parties

Most card-playing bored him, although he was fascinated by the mathematical probabilities involved in poker and baccarat. He never cared for movies. “Every time we went,” his wife recalls, “he would either go to sleep or do math problems in his head.” When he could do neither he would break into violent coughing spells. What he truly loved, aside from work, was a good party. Residents of Princeton’s quiet academic community can still recall the lively goings-on at the Von Neumann’s big, rambling house on Westcott Road. “Those old geniuses got downright approachable at the Von Neumanns’,” a friend recalls. Von Neumann’s talents as a host were based on his drinks, which were strong, his repertoire of off-color limericks, which was massive, and his social ease, which was consummate. Although he could rarely remember a name, Von Neumann would escort each new guest around the room, bowing punctiliously to cover up the fact that he was not using names in introducing people.von_neumann_5

Von Neumann also had a passion for automobiles, not for tinkering with them but for driving them as if they were heavy tanks. He turned up with a new one every year at Princeton. “The way he drove, a car couldn’t possibly last more than a year,” a friend says. Von Neumann was regularly arrested for speeding and some of his wrecks became legendary. A Princeton crossroads was for a while known as “Von Neumann corner” because of the number of times the mathematician had cracked up there. He once emerged from a totally demolished car with this explanation: “I was proceeding down the road. The threes on the right were passing me in orderly fashion at 60 miles an hour. Suddenly one of them stepped out in my path. Boom!”

Mariette and John von Neumann had one child, Marina, born in 1935, who graduated from Radcliffe last June, summa cum laude, with the highest scholastic record in her class. In 1937, the year Von Neumann was elected to the National Academy of Sciences and became a naturalized citizen of the U.S., the marriage ended in divorce. The following year on a trip to Budapest he met and married Klara Dan, whom he subsequently trained to be an expert on electronic computing machines. The Von Neumann home in Princeton continued to be a center of gaiety as well as a hotel for prominent intellectual transients.

In the late 1930s Von Neumann began to receive a new type of visitor at Princeton: the military scientist and engineer. After he had handled a number of jobs for the Navy in ballistics and anti-submarine warfare, word of his talents spread, and Army Ordnance began using him more and more as a consultant at its Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland. As war drew nearer this kind of work took up more and more of his time.

During World War II he roved between Washington, where he had established a temporary residence, England, Los Alamos and other defense installations. When scientific groups heard Von Neumann was coming, they would set up all of their advanced mathematical problems like ducks in a shooting gallery. Then he would arrive and systematically topple them over.

After the Axis had been destroyed, Von Neumann urged that the U.S. immediately build even more powerful atomic weapons and use them before the Soviets could develop nuclear weapons of their own. It was not an emotional crusade, Von Neumann, like others, had coldly reasoned that the world had grown too small to permit nations to conduct their affairs independently of one another. He held that world government was inevitable – and the sooner the better. But he also believed it could never be established while Soviet Communism dominated half of the globe. A famous Von Neumann observation at the time: “With the Russians it is not a question of whether but when.” A hard-boiled strategist, he was one of the few scientists to advocate preventive war, and in 1950 he was remarking, “If you say why not bomb them tomorrow, I say why not today? If you say today at 5 o’clock, I say why not 1 o’clock?”von_neumann_6

In late 1949, after the Russians had exploded their first atomic bomb and the U.S. scientific community was split over whether or not the U.S. should build a hydrogen bomb, Von Neumann reduced the argument to: “It is not a question of whether we build it or not, but when do we start calculating?” When the H-bomb controversy raged, Von Neumann slipped quietly out to Los Alamos, took a desk and began work on the first mathematical steps toward building the weapon, specifically deciding which computations would be fed to which electronic computers.

Von Neumann’s principal interest in the postwar years was electronic computing machines, and his advice on computers was in demand almost everywhere. One day he was urgently summoned to the offices of the Rand Corporation, a government-sponsored scientific research organization in Santa Monica, Calif. Rand scientists had come up with a problem so complex that the electronic computers then in existence seemingly could not handle it. The scientists wanted Von Neumann to invent a new kind of computer. After listening to the scientists expound, Von Neumann broke in: “Well, gentlemen, suppose you tell me exactly what the problem is?”

For the next two hours the men at Rand lectured, scribbled on blackboards, and brought charts and tables back and forth. Von Neumann sat with his head buried in his hands. When the presentation was completed, he scribbled on a pad, stared so blankly that a Rand scientist later said he looked as if “his mind had slipped his face out of gear,” then said, “Gentlemen, you do not need the computer. I have the answer.”

While the scientists sat in stunned silence, Von Neumann reeled off the various steps which would provide the solution to the problem. Having risen to this routine challenge, Von Neumann followed up with a routine suggestion: “Let’s go to lunch.”

In 1954, when the U.S. development of the intercontinental ballistic missile was dangerously bogged down, study groups under Von Neumann’s direction began paving the way for solution of the most baffling problems: guidance, miniaturization of components, heat resistance. In less than a year Von Neumann put his O.K. on the project – but not until he had completed a relentless investigation in his own dazzlingly fast style. One day, during an ICBM meeting on the West Coast, a physicist employed by an aircraft company approached Von Neumann with a detailed plan for one phase of the project. It consisted of a tome several hundred pages long on which the physicist had worked for eight months. Von Neumann took the book and flipped through the first several pages. Then he turned it over and began reading from back to front. He jotted down a figure on a pad, then a second and a third. He looked out the window for several seconds, returned the book to the physicist and said, “It won’t work.” The physicist returned to his company. After two months of re-evaluation, he came to the same conclusion.von_neumann_7

In October 1954 Eisenhower appointed Von Neumann to the Atomic Energy Commission. Von Neumann accepted, although the Air Force and the senators who confirmed him insisted that he retain his chairmanship of the Air Force ballistic missile panel.

Von Neumann had been on the new job only six months when the pain first stuck in the left shoulder. After two examinations, the physicians at Bethesda Naval Hospital suspected cancer. Within a month Von Neumann was wheeled into surgery at the New England Deaconess Hospital in Boston. A leading pathologist, Dr. Shields Warren, examined the biopsy tissue and confirmed that the pain was a secondary cancer. Doctors began to race to discover the primary location. Several weeks later they found it in the prostate. Von Neumann, they agreed, did not have long to live.

When he heard the news Von Neumann called for Dr. Warren. He asked, “Now that this thing has come, how shall I spend the remainder of my life?”

“Well, Johnny,” Warren said, “I would stay with the commission as long as you feel up to it. But at the same time I would say that if you have any important scientific papers – anything further scientifically to say – I would get started on it right away.”

Von Neumann returned to Washington and resumed his busy schedule at the Atomic Energy Commission. To those who asked about his arm, which was in a sling, he muttered something about a broken collarbone. He continued to preside over the ballistic missile committee, and to receive an unending stream of visitors from Los Alamos, Livermore, the Rand Corporation, Princeton. Most of these men knew that Von Neumann was dying of cancer, but the subject was never mentioned.

Machines creating new machines

After the last visitor had departed Von Neumann would retire to his second-floor study to work on the paper which he knew would be his last contribution to science. It was an attempt to formulate a concept shedding new light on the workings of the human brain. He believed that if such a concept could be stated with certainty, it would also be applicable to electronic computers and would permit man to make a major step forward in using these “automata.” In principle, he reasoned, there was no reason why some day a machine might not be built which not only could perform most of the functions of the human brain but could actually reproduce itself, i.e., create more supermachines like it. He proposed to present this paper at Yale, where he had been invited to give the 1956 Silliman Lectures.

As the weeks passed, work on the paper slowed. One evening, as Von Neumann and his wife were leaving a dinner party, he complained that he was “uncertain” about walking. Doctors furnished him with a wheelchair. But Von Neumann’s world had begun to close in tight around him. He was seized by periods of overwhelming melancholy.

In April 1956 Von Neumann moved into Walter Reed Hospital for good. Honors were now coming from all directions. He was awarded Yeshiva University’s first Einstein prize. In a special White House ceremony President Eisenhower presented him with the Medal of Freedom. In April the AEC gave him the Enrico Fermi award for his contributions to the theory and design of computing machines, accompanied by a $50,000 tax-free grant.

Although born of Jewish parents, Von Neumann had never practiced Judaism. After his arrival in the U.S. he had been baptized a Roman Catholic. But his divorce from Mariette had put him beyond the sacraments of the Catholic Church for almost 19 years. Now he felt an urge to return. One morning he said to Klara, “I want to see a priest.” He added, “But he will have to be a special kind of priest, one that will be intellectually compatible.” Arrangements were made for special instructions to be given by a Catholic scholar from Washington. After a few weeks Von Neumann began once again to receive the sacraments.

The great mind falters

Toward the end of May the seizures of melancholy began to occur more frequently. In June the doctors finally announced – though not to Von Neumann himself – that the cancer had begun to spread. The great mind began to falter. “At times he would discuss history, mathematics, or automata, and he could recall word for word conversations we had had 20 years ago,” a friend says. “At other times he would scarcely recognize me.” His family – Klara, two brothers, his mother and daughter Marina – drew close around him and arranged a schedule so that one of them would always be on hand. Visitors were more carefully screened. Drugs fortunately prevented Von Neumann from experiencing pain. Now and then his old gifts of memory were again revealed. One day in the fall his brother Mike read Goethe’s Faust to him in German. Each time Mike paused to turn the page, Von Neumann recited from memory the first few lines of the following page.

One of his favorite companions was his mother Margaret von Neumann, 76 years old. In July the family in turn became concerned about her health, and it was suggested that she go to a hospital for a checkup. Two weeks later she died of cancer. “It was unbelievable,” a friend says. “She kept on going right up to the very end and never let anyone know a thing. How she must have suffered to make her son’s last days less worrisome.” Lest the news shock Von Neumann fatally, elaborate precautions were taken to keep it from him. When he guessed the truth, he suffered a severe setback.

Von Neumann’s body, which he had never given much thought to, went on serving him much longer than did his mind. Last summer the doctors had given him only three or four weeks to live. Months later, in October, his passing was again expected momentarily. But not until this month did his body give up. It was characteristic of the impatient, witty and incalculably brilliant John von Neumann that although he went on working for others until he could do not more, his own treatise on the workings of the brain – the work he thought would be his crowning achievement in his own name – was left unfinished.

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