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

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

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

We hope you enjoy it!

* Thanks to David Field for catalyzing this meeting 🙂

Video Description:

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

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

~~~ Timestamps ~~~

0:00 Introduction to the Qualia Research Institute

21:28 Mathematical fictionalism and qualia

28:58 Symmetry Theory of Valence

35:23 Using subjective experience for scientific discovery

41:10 Consciousness as topological segmentation

45:19 Topographic bifurcations within the mind-field

51:07 Neural annealing in psychedelic therapy

1:02:09 Electrical oscillations in neural annealing

1:06:23 Hyperbolic geometry in the brain

1:12:16 Definition of hyperbolic geometry

1:16:23 Antitolerance medication to reduce suffering

1:23:59 Quantum computers and qualia


Cartoon Epistemology by Steven Lehar (2003)


See also:

Part I: Something Very Strange!

Did you ever notice? There is something ver-ry strange about this world of ours.

Really? Like what?

Do you ever feel like you are trapped in some kind of bubble? I mean look—the sky looks like a dome over my head. Is that really the shape of the sky? And did you notice something really funny?

No what? Tell me!

Did you ever notice that things that are far away look smaller? And things that are nearby look bigger! Do you realize how strange that is?

Strange? That’s not strange at all! Thats just perspective, just like it happens in a camera. In a photograph farther things look smaller, too.

Yes, but the perspective in a camera is projected onto the flat sheet of film. There is no mystery in that kind of perspective, it is simply a projection from a 3-D world through a focal point onto a 2-D surface. And in your eyeball the retina is like the film.


But take a look at this street here. Is this street the picture on your retina?

No, that’s the street itself where the light comes from that makes the image on my retina.

But then how come things in the distance look smaller? Perspective is something that happens in your eye, not out in the world! In the real street things in the distance are not actually smaller, all the houses are exactly the same size. It is only on your retina that the farther ones appear smaller. And the image on your retina is only a flat 2-D image. This world out here is 3-D, but it has perspective. So is it the world itself? Or is it the image on the retina?

Well, it’s both. Light from the world makes a picture in your eye that lets you see the things out in the world. What’s so hard about that?

Ok then if this is the world itself, then why is everything bent around like a reflection in a Christmas bulb?

I don’t see anything bent. What are you talking about?

Well, take a look at this. See the two sides of this street? They are straight and parallel as far as the eye can see.


But LOOK! Those straight parallel sides also MEET AT A POINT! RIGHT THERE! Can you SEE it?

Well they LOOK like they meet at a point. But they don’t really!

And if you turn around and look behind you, they meet at a point back there too!

So? I don’t get it.

So this street that we are standing on is shaped like the rind of a melon slice with two curved sides that meet at a point at either end. And those end points are at eye level, even though the street is under our feet.

Ok, vision is not perfect. So what?

So what? So we are living in a scale model, and the scale of the model shrinks progressively with depth, just like a museum diorama, or a theatre set. And at the back plane the scale shrinks to zero, at least in the depth dimension, where everything beyond a certain distance appears flat, as if painted on the dome of the sky.

But it only looks that way. It’s an illusion. We know that the world isn’t really warped like that.

Yes but HOW do we “know”? We “know” by using a warped reference scale to judge the objective size of things in the warped subjective world. If we measure distances, and even straightness itself, using this warped reference grid, we can see that all the houses are the same height and width and depth, and that they are really all straight and vertical, not warped and bulgy as they appear.

I don’t know if I see anything warped at all! Looks perfectly straight to me!

Of course! Relative to your warped reference scale! And take a look at what happens when you walk down the road. Things from far away expand outwards and get bigger and bigger until you pass them, and then they shrink back down again to a tiny little dot before they disappear altogether!

Hmmm, I suppose it is a bit like some kind of bubble.

And the strange thing is that the part where the world is biggest, is always right where you are standing. Now look- you stay here and let me take a few paces. See? now my world is the biggest here where I stand, but your world is biggest over there where you stand. Either the world is a very elastic place, or you and I are looking at different bubbles.

But how can that be? Wouldn’t our bubbles collide?

Either that or they’re all part of one big elastic bubble. Except you’d think that I could see the distortion of your bubble from mine, and vice-versa.

No, that can’t be right either.

Well then the only other possibility is that we each have our own private bubble, and we can never see into anyone else’s bubble.

But how can that be? You can see quite clearly that we are both standing right here in the same space.

It only seems that way because in my bubble I have a picture of me here and you there, while in your bubble you have a picture of you there and me here. The pictures in our two bubbles are so similar that we assume that we are in the same space.

But then where are these bubbles? What are they made of? And whatever happened to the real world that we know exists independent of our experience of it? Where did it go? Does it not even exist? Is everything just a hallucination or lucid dream?

Of course it exists! Otherwise there would be nothing to keep the picture in your bubble synchronized with the picture in mine. Can’t you see? We are both looking at this same house from different perspectives, so there must be a real house there to be the common cause of both perspectives. We are each seeing our own virtual-reality replica of the real world, each from our own unique perspective.

But where is this virtual-reality picture? What is it made of?

If we know anything about neurophysiology, we know that it must be in the brain. The brain is the organ of conscious experience. Mind is nothing more than the operation of the physical brain.

So you’re telling me that everything I see around me is actually inside my head? How can that be? My head is right here, and all that is out there!

You cannot see the external world directly. You can only see it through your private conscious experience of it. So this world you see around you is the picture in your brain. In other words beyond the dome of the sky above, and beyond the solid earth underfoot, is the inner surface of your true physical skull.

Impossible! I don’t buy it! I don’t care what you say, I know this is the world, not just a picture in my head! I don’t see any curvature, the world is just plain straight. You must be crazy!

Part II: There is nothing strange at all!

Ok, then you tell me. How does vision work?

Well, first of all, this here is the real world, not some kind of image in anybody’s head. And there is nothing bent or bulgy about it, the world is perfectly straight! The sides of the road don’t converge, they only seem to converge. And they never do actually meet, if you look very carefully. And farther things are not really smaller, they only appear to be smaller. It’s an illusion.

Now light from the world enters your eye where it makes an image on your retina. The retina sends an electrical signal up the optic nerve that generates electrical activation in the visual cortex.

And as the cortex lights up electrically, you see the world around you.

Is the electrical activity in the cortex shaped like a street with houses under a domed sky?

No! Neurons chatter away in the brain in a pattern that is nothing like the shape of the world you see.

Then where does the shape of visual experience come from? Where is the picture that we see?

The world! It comes from the world! The shapes and colors you see around you are shapes and colors of the world, not patterns in your brain!

But what if you are having a lucid dream, or a hallucination? Then you are seeing shapes and colors that are not in the world. Where are the shapes and colors of the hallucinated scene?

They’re in your head of course! But in your head they do not have the shapes and colors you see. In your brain they are just a bunch of neurons chattering to each other.

But then where do the shapes and colors you see come from? Why don’t you just see the shapes of the neurons and their activations? What is it that turns the patterns of electrical activity into the patterns that we experience?

The pattern of electrical activation in your brain during a hallucination takes the same shape as it would during a normal perception of the hallucinated scene. So the shape and color that you experience are the shape and color that the world would have if you were perceiving it instead of hallucinating it. They are the shape and color of the world, not of your brain! Even if that world is imaginary!

But then what determines which neurons, or patterns of activity, represent which experienced shapes? What is the mapping between the shape of the neurons, or patterns of activation, and the shapes that we experience?

The mapping is learned from experience! One neuron, or neuron assembly, learns to fire whenever you see a house, while other neurons, or assemblies, learn to respond to windows, doors, and roofs, for example. The collective pattern of activation of all of these neurons together corresponds to our experience of the external scene.

And in dreams and hallucinations, the same constellation of neural activations produces the same kind of visual experience as a perception of the corresponding real scene!

But where is this experience located? We can see quite plainly that it is a spatial structure. But where is that structure? What is it made of and where is it located?

It’s out in the WORLD of course! Experience is right out here in the world where we observe the world to be!

So, let me get this straight. Experience is a spatial structure, as we can plainly see. And your experience occurs as the result of some kind of activation in your brain. But your experience is not in the brain, it is out in the world, although it is caused by electrical events in your physical brain.

Yeah, thats right!

So let’s say I had a switch that could turn your brain on and off like a light bulb. Are you telling me that every time I turned it on, the experience would appear out there, but when I turn it off, then the experience disappears? Is experience like a beam of light from a flashlight that is projected outward from the brain? What is that experience made of? What is its substance?

Its not made of ANYTHING! It is just EXPERIENCE! It doesn’t really EXIST in a physical sense! Nothing is actually projected, it is only EXPERIENCED to be projected!

Doesn’t exist? This here? The fabric of experience? Doesn’t exist??? All this here is really a bunch of scrambled neurons firing in my brain? I don’t care what you say, I see a spatial structure in experience, and if I see it, I know that it exists!

Part III: It’s all in your head!

Ok then, how do YOU explain visual processing? How does vision work in the brain?

Well, first and foremost, it is plainly evident that visual experience is a spatial structure, and it is produced by the brain. So unless we find compelling evidence to the contrary, that structure must be located in the brain! How the brain constructs spatial pictures remains a deep dark mystery. But that it does so is an observational fact.

So whether it is by coherent oscillations, standing waves, or some kind of Fourier code, somehow the tissue of the brain must be capable of generating three-dimensional moving images as rich and complex as this image of me that you see here!

Now of course the volumetric image may be warped and distorted in the brain…

…while still being a volumetric representation.

But as long as its connectivity, or functional architecture, is similarly warped and distorted, the warped image encodes the same volumetric information as its undistorted counterpart.

And apparently the volumetric image can even be fragmented into separate modules specialized for processing color, motion, binocular disparity, etc., while still producing a coherent, unified experience.

But whatever else we know about the visual representation, one thing is plainly obvious by inspection: the representational strategy used in the brain is an analogical one. In other words objects and surfaces are represented in perception not by an abstract symbolic code, nor by the activation of individual cells, or cell assemblies. Instead, objects are represented in the brain by constructing full spatial effigies of them that appear to us for all the world like the objects themselves.

Vision is televisual. It lets us see the remote external world through the medium of an internal replica of it.

But who is the viewer of this internal theatre of the mind? For whose benefit is this internal performance produced? Is it the little man at the center who sees this scene? But then how does HE see? Is there yet another smaller man inside that little man’s head, and so on to an infinite regress of observers within observers?

No, of course not! It only goes in one level! Take a look! What do you see inside your phenomenal head? I see nothing! It is an empty void! There is no infinite series of heads within heads, there is just a fuzzy brown emptiness with nothing inside, that opens to the world through the eyes like two open windows.

No, the little man at the center of our world of experience is not the observer of the internal scene. It is merely an object, made of the same substance as is the rest of the perceived scene, because that scene would be incomplete without a replica of our own body in the world. But the perceptual homunculus is more than a mere replica of the physical body. It is a computational mechanism constructed by the brain to help it control the body.

If the representational principle behind visual perception involves an explicit volumetric spatial model of external reality, then sensorimotor function might also be best implemented in the form of an explicit volumetric model of the body, like a wooden marionette, with hinges and ball joints at elbows and shoulders just like the real body that it represents by analogy.

But what makes the internal marionette a meaningful model of the larger body that it represents, is that it is coupled to the larger body somehow, so that the posture of the model always exactly mirrors the posture of the real body that it represents.

(Follow alternate argument path)

Motor control is tele-motive, like a virtual-reality body glove, electronically coupled to a remote android body that automatically replicates its posture.

Except in perception that android body is not remote, but surrounding, like a body glove suspended in a control room which is located inside the head of the giant android body that it controls.

And projected into that control room is a volumetric colored replica of the surrounding environment constructed on the basis of sensory input.

As the controller cavorts about in this synthetic reality, the larger android body cavorts in the external world, giving the controller the impression that he is interacting with the external world directly…

…although there are also times when it becomes abundantly clear that our view of the world is not direct or unmediated.

Now despite appearances to the contrary, the little man at the center of our world of experience is not the viewer or ‘experiencer’ of the surrounding virtual world. The body-image homunculus is just the interface between perceptual and motor function, expressed as an explicit model of the body in an explicit model of surrounding space.

Motor computation takes the form of spatial field-like forces in that space, that bend the body-image homunculus into different postures…

…and those postures are then mirrored in amplified form by the larger android body.

But the coupling works both ways. Forces from the external world are also communicated back in to the model world. For example gravity drags the android body downwards against the ground that pushes upward…

…and these forces are also replicated in the model environment where we perceive them as actual forces in what we believe to be the external world. The perceived force of synthetic gravity makes sense of the persistent resistance felt to upward motion of the body, just as the resistance of the ground underfoot to penetration is perceived as an upward force of rigid support.

We resist forces like the pull of gravity by constructing an equal and opposite force of levity, that raises our body-image homunculus upward against the downward pull while pushing downward against the ground. This symmetrically opposed motor force field is a spatial thought that appears under voluntary control, and it acts on the body image as a motor command. And as the motor force field moves the body-image homunculus…

…the larger android body moves in perfect synchrony with it, pushing harder against the ground to raise itself upward against gravity.

We move our hand by simply willing it to move in any direction we choose, and that will is itself a force that acts on our body-image hand which moves in response to the willed force. The larger android hand moves in synchrony, as if it were itself under the influence of a larger external force pulling it in the willed direction.

And our desire to move through the world is expressed as a larger force field that pulls on the entire body-image homunculus. But since the homunculus is anchored to the center of the control room, the only way he can advance forward…

…is by pushing the world backwards until his destination comes to where he is, or so it seems perceptually, resulting in real progress of the physical body through the physical world.

Perceived objects in the perceived environment also exert attractive and aversive forces that influence the movement of our body through the world. So whenever we perceive an object to be attractive, it automatically exudes an attractive field that tends to pull our body image towards it in perceptual space.

The larger body moves through external space exactly as if it were responding directly to field forces from the external world, except that these forces actually exist only in the internal perceptual world.

(Follow alternate argument path backwards)

And when we perceive something to be aversive, it automatically exudes a repulsive field that pushes our body away from it in perceptual space.

The subjective impression of being attracted or repelled by attractive and repulsive stimuli is not only metaphorically true, but this subjective impression is a veridical manifestation of the mental mechanism that drives our motor response.

So in a sense it is the sensorimotor homunculus for whom the internal world of perception is constructed. But that homunculus does not “see” the internal scene…

…but rather the attractive and aversive features recognized in the scene exert forces on the body image homunculus, which in turn result in body motion through the environment.

Once we recognize the world of experience for the internal representation that it is, the computational strategy used in motor control becomes clearly evident by inspection.

So you are saying that vision, proprioception, somatosensory, and motor function are all part of a single integrated analog control system? But brain scientists have discovered a fragmented architecture in the cortex with separate areas specialized for processing visual, auditory, and motor information. How would the activations in all those separate cortical areas integrate to produce a single unified experience? What is the binding force that binds them all together?

They are bound together by bi-directional causal connections, just like the dual controls of an airplane. If the student pulls the stick back while the instructor is pushing it forward, both control sticks move in perfect synchrony because they are connected, exactly as if the two pilots were actually pulling and pushing on the same stick.

In the same way, the different sensory/motor marionettes in different cortical areas are all coupled to each other, as well as to the larger external body, so that forces applied to one marionette are automatically and immediately transmitted in parallel to all the rest.

And if different forces are applied to different marionettes, the resultant body motion is exactly as if all of those forces were acting on a single virtual marionette.

So visual data is expressed in the visual representation, body posture is represented in the proprioceptive representation, and motor planning is computed in a global motor planning space. But all are coupled to form a single visual/proprioceptive/motor space, which is the space that we experience.

Each of these diverse representations are expressed in their own specialized slab of cortical tissue, although these areas are tightly coupled so as to form a single integrated computational module.

That is the most incredible hypothesis I have ever heard! Tell me honestly now—do you really believe this? Or are you being deliberately provocative for the sake of argument?

Look—if you once just accept the fact that this world we see around us is a picture in our head, all the rest of it follows by inspection! Besides, the alternative view, that we can somehow see the world directly, bypassing the sensory machinery in the eye and brain, is just plain magic!

So it comes down to a choice between two incredible hypotheses. Either you believe the incredible notion that your skull is larger than the entire perceived universe

or you believe the absurd notion that we can experience things outside of ourselves directly, beyond the sensory surface! One of these two incredible hypotheses simply must be true, and the other is just plain wrong!

Which one do YOU find less incredible?

Send comments and opinions to: Steve Lehar (slehar _+_a t _+_ g m a i l + c o m). Interesting comments or logical objections will be posted HERE.

For an in-depth philosophical presentation of the epistemological debate, see my on-line paper:

Gestalt Isomorphism and the Primacy of the Subjective Conscious Experience

or read my book

The World In Your Head: A Gestalt view of the mechanism of conscious experience

Steve Lehar

David Pearce on the Long-Term Future of Consciousness: The Meta-Copernican Revolution

Excerpt from David Pearce‘s 2008 Diary Update (images made w/ DALL-E, except for the pictures of Shulgin):

New discoveries? Nothing dramatic. I dutifully flip through Nature each week; wade through turgid tomes of analytic philosophy; and scan Medline abstracts. A lot of the time my heart isn’t in it. Compared to an item from Dr Shulgin‘s library, the illumination can seem trivial. I very much doubt if people who have tried major psychedelics are any smarter on average than the drug-naĂŻve; in fact psychonauts may be cognitively overwhelmed or (rarely) even brain-damaged by their experiences. To complicate comparisons further, many altered states are dross – just like innumerable textures of everyday life. But by opening up a Pandora’s box of new phenomena, psychedelics do confer an immensely richer evidential base for any theory of mind and the world – an evidential base too rich, indeed, for our existing primitive terms, language and conceptual equipment to handle. One compares the laments of physicists starved of new empirical data to test their theories beyond the low-energy Standard Model with the fate of the psychedelic investigator. For in contrast the aspiring psychonaut may be forced to abandon the empirical method, not because he exhausts the range of novel phenomenology it delivers, but because the Darwinian mind can neither cope with LSD / ketamine / salvia / DMT‘s (etc) weirdness, nor weave the novel modes of sentience disclosed into an integrated world-picture.

Alexander Shulgin in his lab. #1

Of course, claims of epochal significance cut no ice with the drug-naĂŻve. Those innocent of drug-induced exotica see no more need to enhance their evidential base than did the cardinals (apocryphally) invited to look through Galileo‘s telescope. An a priori refusal to acknowledge the potential significance of alien modes of sentience is impossible to overcome in subjects whose experience of altered states is confined to getting drunk. Over time, even my own knowledge of these bizarre realms is fading. My ancestral namesake was briefly awoken from his dogmatic slumbers; but DP version-2008 has rejoined the ranks of the living dead in the ghetto of consensus reality.

Alexander Shulgin in his lab. #2

My assimilation isn’t yet complete. Even as a born-again sleepwalker, I sometimes wonder if there may be a first-person method alternative to drug-based investigations that can unlock novel phenomenology latent within excitable nervous tissue. There is a crying need for alternative avenues, I think, since drug-driven self-assays are for the most part not merely unlawful and taboo, but arguably can’t be practised responsibly until the substrates of well-being are guaranteed in a (hypothetical) post-Darwinian era of genetically pre-programmed bliss. I’ve thought about alternatives to using psychoactive drugs, not least because of the shallowness of my own current research compared to the richness of the empirical methodology pioneered by Dr Shulgin. In order to discover both the formal, mathematico-physical and the intrinsic, subjective properties of the world, a dual methodology of third- and first-person research is indispensable. The former can be abdicated to the physical sciences; but not the latter. Natural science offers no explanation of why we’re not zombies, an unfortunate anomaly if consciousness is fundamental both to our understanding of the world and the world itself. By forswearing the empirical method, we effectively guarantee that the mysteries of consciousness will never be solved. Whereas insentience is, so to speak, all of a piece – hypothetical “zombies” in the philosophical sense of the term are all exactly alike in being non-conscious – there are innumerable ways to be sentient: qualia are fantastically diverse in ways we’ve scarcely begun to map out. So I reckon the only way adequately to understand Reality will be both to capture its formal structure – ideally the master equation of the TOE of the Multiverse – and literally to incorporate ever more of the stuff of the world into one’s expanding psyche to explore the state-space of its textures – the “what-it’s-likeness”. Only incorporation and systematic molecular permutation can disclose the subjective features of all permutations of matter and energy: the solutions, I conjecture, to the equations of the TOE. A priori, one could never have guessed that cells of the striate cortex mediate visual experience and cells in the posterior parietal cortex mediate auditory experience, quite irrespective of their typical functional role in the sensory systems of naturally evolved organisms. We know about such phenomena – and full-blown phenomenal sunsets and symphonies – only because we instantiate the neuronal cell-assembles that embody such qualia. Thus to discover novel categories of experience, I think we should construct and personally instantiate genetically enhanced designer brain cells, systematically altering their intracellular amino acid sequences and gene expression profiles to design/discover new categories of experience as different as is sight from sound, making them part of one’s own psyche/virtual world. Or if this incorporation sounds too irreversible, perhaps we might splice in designer genes and allelic combinations for new modes of experience into subsets of our existing nerve cells, systematically coding new protein sequences into discrete areas of the brain and then selectively expressing the designer proteins they code for at will. Eventually, however, systematic manipulation of the molecular ingredients of one’s neural porridge/mind-dust can be harnessed to mind-expansion in the literal sense. This is because we need bigger mind/brains, not just to mirror external reality more effectively, but also to discover more of its subjective properties. Such discoveries can only be accomplished empirically.

New neuron types for new neurotypes.

I suppose what drives me here is reflection on just how (superficially) trivial are the neurochemical differences between nerve cells mediating, say, phenomenal colour and phenomenal sound – and indeed reflection on how (superficially) trivial are the molecular differences in the cells mediating the phenomenology of desire, volition and belief-episodes. How can such tiny molecular differences exert such dramatic subjective effects? LSD, for instance, is undetectable in the body three hours after consumption; and yet a few hundred micrograms of the serotonin 5-HT2A partial agonist can transport the subject into outlandish alternative virtual worlds for 10 hours or more. How many analogous, radically incommensurable kingdoms of experience, mediated by equally “trivial” molecular variations, await discovery? How will the uncharted state-spaces be systematically explored? What will be the nature of life/civilisation when these kingdoms of experience are spliced together in composite minds; recruited to play an information-bearing role; harnessed to new art forms and new lifestyles; and ultimately integrated into communities of composite minds in advanced civilisations? For sure, talk of discovering a “new category of experience” doesn’t sound a particularly exciting kind of knowledge when couched in the abstract, any more than discovery of a new brand of perfume. OK, it’s a new experience; but so what? [AndrĂ©s adds: so what!?] One might sacrifice a lot for the opportunity to experience a novel phenomenal colour; but what cognitive value should be ascribed to an unknown category of experience for which one hasn’t even a name? Initially at any rate, the novel modes of experience that we discover within a modified neural proteome won’t be harnessed to senses, either internal or external, let alone harnessed to whole conceptual schemes, cultures and novel languages of thought. So they won’t play any functional role in the mind/brain: they won’t be information-bearing. But then neither are visual or auditory experiences per se; they have no intrinsic connection to sensory perception. Dreams, for instance, can be vibrantly colourful; they don’t reliably track anything in the external world. Honed by natural selection after recruitment by awake living organisms to track mind-independent patterns, visual and auditory experience has taken millions of years to play out; and who knows where it will end. By the same token, the developmental potential of new modes of experience that we discover in tweaked neurons is equally unfathomable from here.

Every scent, every color, every touch sensation, every sound, every novel qualia…

I can understand the impatience of an exasperated sceptic. What interest have novel “tickles” of experience beyond the psychopathology of the subject? Analogously, conventional wisdom in an echolocation (etc)-based civilisation might scornfully ask a similar question if and when post-chiropteran psychonauts first access drug-induced speckles of colour or jarring shrieks or whistles of sound – or perhaps when investigators recklessly explore a new methodology of mind-expansion by incorporating alien nervous tissue into their psyche. The chiropteran consensus wisdom might account the new phenomena weird but trivial – and inexpressible in language to boot. So why should any sane chiropteran mind run the risk of messing itself up just to explore such psychotic states? For our part, human ignorance of what it’s like to be a bat isn’t too unsettling because we know that bats don’t have a rich conceptual scheme, culture or technology. We are “superior” to bats; and therefore their alien modes of experience aren’t especially important. We don’t even give our ignorance much thought.

What is it like to be a bat? An empirical neural tissue insertion protocol to explore nature’s very own echolocation qualia from the comfort of your own home…

But latent in matter and energy – and flourishing in other branches of the universal wavefunction – are presumably superintellects and supercivilisations in other Everett branches whose conceptual schemes are rooted in modes of experience no less real than our own. I suspect that accessing the subjective lifeworlds of hitherto alien mind/brains will inaugurate a meta-Copernican Revolution to dwarf anything that’s come before. The textures of such alien minds are as much a natural property of matter and energy as the atomic mass of gold; and no less important to understanding the nature of the world. Needless to say, grandiose claims of new paradigms, meta-Copernican revolutions, etc, should usually be taken with a healthy grain of salt. I am loath to write such expressions, not least because I can imagine both the withering scorn of my hyper-rational but drug-naĂŻve teenage namesake, and likewise the dismissive reaction of my drug-naĂŻve contemporaries today. Such are the perils of a priori philosophizing practised by academic philosophers (and soi-disant scientists) unwilling to get their hands (or their minds) dirty with the empirical method. In each case, our ignorance of the intrinsic, subjective nature of configurations of most of the stuff of the world is fundamental. It’s an ignorance not remediable by simple application of the hypothetico-deductive method, falsificationismBayesianism or the usual methodologies of third-person science. If you want to find out what it’s like to be a bat, then you have to experience the phenomenology of echolocation. Knowledge-acquisition entails a hardware upgrade. A notional IQ of 200 won’t help without the neural wetware to go with it – any more than a congenitally deaf supergenius can hear music by virtuoso feats of reasoning alone.

But latent in matter and energy – and flourishing in other branches of the universal wavefunction – are presumably superintellects and supercivilisations in other Everett branches whose conceptual schemes are rooted in modes of experience no less real than our own.

I guess one deterrent to investigation of altered and exotic states is the thought that the novel phenomena disclosed “aren’t Real” – as though the reality of any phenomenon depended on it being a copy or representation of something else external to itself. I wonder if I lived in a world of Mary-like superscientists – smart monochromats who see the world in black and white – whether I would dare put on “psychedelic” spectacles and hallucinate phenomenal colour? And could I communicate to my Mary-like superscientist colleagues the significance of what they were missing without sounding like a drug-deranged crank? Probably not.

Literally Expanding Our Mind To Overcome Our Fundamental Ignorance of Alien Modes of Experience

So I reckon that we should, literally, expand our minds. If we do, how far should incorporation go? The size of the human brain is limited by the human birth-canal, a constraint that technologies of extra-uterine pregnancy from conception to term will presumably shortly overcome. Over time, brains can become superbrains; and sentience can become supersentience. Ultimately, should we aspire to become God or merely gods? My (tentative) inclination is that we should all become One [AndrĂ©s adds: see David’s Quora response on the topic of Open Individualism]; and not merely out of deference to my New Age friends. Separateness from each other is an epistemic, not just an ethical, limitation: a source of profound ignorance. For we fundamentally misconstrue the nature of other sentient beings, misunderstanding each other as objects to which we fitfully attribute feelings rather than as pure subjects. [Actually, the story is more complicated. If inferential realism about perception is true, then the sceptic about Other Minds is right, in a sense: the phenomenal people encountered in one’s egocentric world-simulation are zombies. But when one is awake, the zombies serve as avatars that causally covary with sentient beings in one’s local environment. So the point stands.] Yes, literally fusing with other minds/virtual worlds sounds an unattractive (as well as infeasible) prospect for the foreseeable future; and not just because of their lousy organic avatars. For we certainly wouldn’t want to Become One with a bunch of ugly Darwinian minds; and likewise, they might get a nasty shock if they tasted one’s own. Infatuated lovers may want to fuse; rival alpha males certainly don’t [unless one eats a defeated opponent, a form of intimacy practised in some traditional cultures; but this is a very one-sided consummation of a relationship]. However, perhaps the prospect of unification will be more exciting if and when we become posthuman smart angels, so to speak: beautiful in every sense. I have no hidden agenda beyond my abolitionist propagandizing; but on current evidence it’s likely we belong to a family of Everett branches that will lead to god-like beings. And thence to God? I’m sceptical, but I don’t know.

Mindmelding with other Darwinian creatures is kind of a bummer sometimes.

Divinity takes many forms. What kind of (demi)gods might we become? Superhappy beings, I reckon, yes, but superhappiness in what guise? A unitary Ăœber-Mind, or fragmented minds as now? At one extreme of the continuum, posthumans may opt to live solipsistically in designer paradises: an era not just of personalized medicine but personalized VR. [Would I opt to dwell with a harem of several thousand houris and become Emperor Dave the First, Lord of The Universe? And supremely modest too. Yes, probably. I’m a Darwinian male.] Occupying the middle of the continuum is the superconnectivity of web-enabled minds (via neural implants, etc) without unitary experience or loss of personal identity. Such a scenario is a recognizable descendant of the status quo whereby we are all connected via the Net to everyone else. This sort of future is the most “obvious” since it’s an extrapolation of current trends. Extreme interconnectivity is still consistent with extensive ignorance of each other, although expansion and/or functional amplification of our mirror neurons could magnify our capacity for mutual empathetic understanding. Finally, at the other extreme of the continuum, there is presumably a more-or-less complete fusion of posthuman mind/brains into a unitary collective: a blissful analogue of the Borg, but contiguous rather than scattered: there is no evidence spatio-temporally disconnected beings have token-identical experiences. It’s hard enough to solve the binding problem in one mind/brain, let alone across discrete skulls.

Emperor Dave the First, Psychonaut Lord of The Universe, Bliss For All Creatures Under the Sun

I don’t know which if any of these three families of scenario is the most likely culmination of life in the Multiverse. Indeed it’s unclear whether the third scenario, i.e. a unitary experiential Supermind, is even technically feasible. For there is an upper limit to the size and duration of the conjectural “warm” quantum coherence needed for unitary sentience; it’s difficult enough to avoid ultra-rapid thermally-induced decoherence in even a single human mind/brain, let alone a hypothetical global super-mind/brain. Is there a way round this constraint? In spite of the well-worn dictum “black holes have no hair“, I used to play around with the idea that blissful superminds lived on the ultra-cool “surface” of supermassive black holes. All the information content of their interior and information content at the horizon is smeared out across the entire horizon, allowing unitary megaminds of maximum information density – and maximum intelligent bliss: what Seth Baum aptly calls “utilitronium”. This conjecture needs more work. But whether conscious mind is unitary or discrete, I suspect that posthuman modes of existence will be based, not on today’s ordinary waking consciousness, but on unimaginably different modes of sentience. In addition, I predict that these modes of sentience will be as different in intensity from ours as is a supernova from a glowworm. Thus any speculative story we may now be tempted to tell about what life may be like millions or billions of years hence will of necessity ignore a fundamental difference between future minds and us. Human futurology omits the key evolutionary transitions ahead in the nature of consciousness – not only the ethically all-important hedonic transition to superhappiness that I stress, but other modes of sentience currently unknown. The discontinuity promised by any future technological Singularity – or soft Singularities – derives not merely from an exponential growth of computer processing power, but from inconceivably different textures of sentience. Actually, I entertain many bizarre ideas. The art is taking them seriously enough to explore their implications and testable predictions, but sceptically enough not to be seduced into believing they are likely to be true. And what about the nearest I come to a dogmatic commitment? Could the abolitionist project turn out to be mistaken too? I guess so. Yet at least the abolition of suffering is not a phenomenon we will live to regret.

Three families of scenarios for the culmination of life in the Multiverse: #1 everyone kinda doing their own thing in their little virtual worlds. #2 hybrid hive minds of hypersocial connected individuals who choose to retain their (porous) individuality. #3 God, a single mega-mind, that maximally bounds as much matter and energy into unitary superexperiences.

See Also:

The Maxwellians

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

Foreword by L. Pearce Williams

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

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

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

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

L. PEARCE WILLIAMS. – Ithaca, New York

“Maxwell’s equations”


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[1] Feynman 1964, 2:1.11

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

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

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

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

Bobby Fischer (1972 World Chess Champion) On Why Chess is a Lousy Game and How to Save It

[Transcript of: Bobby Fischer on Paul Morphy and how opening theory destroyed chess]

Interviewer: As a Grandmaster in Iceland, according to law, you are entitled to a salary. Every Icelandic Grandmaster is being payed salaries, provided that you do some teaching in Chess and possibly play for Iceland…

Bobby Fischer: No, no, no… No, I hate Chess very much. I don’t need the money, I don’t need it. I’ll skip… I hate Chess, I hate Chess.

Interviewer: So you are not planning on claiming the Grandmaster salary?

Bobby: No, no, no, no, no, no.

Interviewer: Why do you hate Chess? Being the be… probably, possibly, the best Chess player ever?

Bobby: Because I know what Chess is all about! It’s all about memorization. It’s all about pre-arrangement…

Interviewer: But creativity?

Bobby: Creativity is lower down on the list. The old Chess is… you are banging your head against the wall with this theory… where you are, you know, trying to find some little improvement on move 18 or 20… it’s ridiculous! It gets harder and harder and harder, and you need more and more computers, and more and more people working for you… and less and less creativity. It’s ridiculous! Why? Why?

Interviewer: But you did, I mean, you became a World Champion [based on your] creativity, no?

Bobby: First of all, it’s a long time ago since I played the first match with Spassky… and even the second match was 13 years ago… and Chess in just the last few years has changed dramatically with all of this computer stuff. But really, if you analyze Chess objectively… very, very objectively, it’s been a lousy game going back even to the time of Morphy. There was a lot of book!

Interviewer: But there is still a place for talent and creativity. It isn’t all pre-arrangement, all theory, all…

Bobby: No, not all, not all, I agree. But why do you want to get involved with something that is mainly rote learning and pre-arrangements? Obviously it’s not all… you know, that. But creativity is like maybe number 3 on the list. The first is pre-arrangement, and then memorization, and then comes creativity.

Interviewer: As opposed to… Fischer Random [Chess960]? Then you sort of put creativity first?

Bobby: Right… right. Let me explain something about Fischer Random. I’ve never made any claims that this is the best thing since puffed wheat, or whatever.

Bobby (cont.): I never made any claims saying this is perfect. What I say is: it’s much better than the old Chess. Now, for example, let’s say you could have a million Chess-like games, right? Maybe a million, ten million of them would be better than Fischer Random. But the point about Fischer Random is that it’s basically the same as the old Chess, except that you get rid of the theory, and it’s very easy to remember the rules. That’s my point, you see? I was just looking at a book Sam just gave me. This book about Capablanca. Capablanca had a very interesting game that he proposed. It was 10X10 or something [sic; an earlier version was 10X10 but then it became 8X10]… and it had two Kings [sic] and extra pieces… and you can win the game by mating either of your opponent’s Kings… and it looked like a very creative game, and maybe much better than Fischer Random, but it looks very intimidating. Even for me, right? Top Chess player. Very intimidating. All these extra pieces, huge board, two Kings… and if it intimidates me, it will intimidate the average person much more.

Capablanca Chess

Bobby (cont.): So there are a lot of games that you can come up with that have practical defects. Not creative defects. But just defects in terms of discouraging people to learn them. You see? That’s my point about Fischer Random. You can learn Fischer Random in 10 seconds, practically. So there is no impediment: you have the same pieces, the same board, all you have to do is get a little electronic shuffler, and in one second you have a position. But of course you could create more creative games than Fischer Random. Maybe, you know, an extra piece, a bigger board, and all kind of things. But my idea… people think I’m abandoning Chess. I’m not! I’m trying to keep it alive. It’s just the reverse! I’m not coming up with anything radical at all.

Interviewer: I asked two Icelandic Grandmasters the other day: “who is the best Chess player ever, in the history of Chess?” And they both contemplated and I asked them, objectively speaking, and they both said “Bobby Fischer is the best Chess player ever”. Do you agree with that assessment?

Bobby: I want to get back to Fischer Random.

Interviewer: Don’t want to answer this one? Are you the best player ever?

Bobby: Well… obviously I think so, right?

Interviewer: Yeah, I mean you beat Larsen 6-0. Nobody has…

Bobby: First of all, you have to understand something about Chess. Of course I’m better than Morphy. Why am I better than Morphy? I don’t think I’m more talented than him. I just know much more theory, right? If he came back today, and he could not open a book, let’s say, right? He would do badly even against masters, maybe. That has nothing to do with his talent, though, right? So when you say I’m better than so-and-so that doesn’t mean anything! Because of all this theory in Chess. But if you were to say… “are you the most talented player?”, that’s something else.

Interviewer: Are you the most talented player?

Bobby: Well… again, I think so. But maybe that’s just my opinion, you know? Morphy was fantastic. Capablanca was fantastic… [end of video]

Featured Image: Fischer – Spassky World Championship Match (6) Reykjavik ISL 1972.07.23 (move 7)

Ecstasy and Honesty

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

God and Open Individualism

by Roger Thisdell (context: I messaged Roger asking him about his thoughts on Open Individualism. A few days later he sent me this response. To get the most out of it, I recommend first reading our earlier text message exchange here: The Supreme State of Unconsciousness: Classical Enlightenment from the Point of View of Valence Structuralism)

Set-Up and Squaring Intuitions

There is a problem in philosophy of backwards rationalisation, where people feel intuitive pulls towards certain conclusions, and then try to justify why their intuition is correct. We can say this is putting the cart before the horse. If we are to philosophize well, we shouldn’t start with the conclusion. However, the pull to side with your intuitions is so incredibly crucial to decision-making that it basically can’t be ignored. In fact, at the heart of trying to know anything fundamentally hinges on a feeling quality of ‘this seems/feels right’ in relation to a proposition.

Now, this isn’t to say that all intuitions don’t have truth value, it’s just that we need to be subjectively sensitive to when we are totally being led by a feeling (which I think in many cases some philosophers aren’t aware). At the end of the day, we go off of whether an idea sits right with us at some particular level(s) of the mind, and all the justificatory attempts in favor of this idea serve to shift that feeling in us one way or the other.

Leading on to the discussion of identity: in a lot of thought experiments and attempts to understand where identity starts and stops we find an appeal to intuition. This is often done by conjuring up convoluted scenarios of teletransportation machines, or brain transplants, or Men-In-Black-style memory wipes and then reflecting on whether we feel that identity stayed the same or not. A good way to press people’s institutions is to get them to consider suffering, as personal identity is the great motivator of avoiding suffering (no self = no problem, as they say). Depending on where and at what time suffering is endured by which collection of atoms gets people to consider really fast and more confidently, say, where they think the bounds of identity lie.

Along with the epistemological problems of resting an argument on intuition or ‘gut feeling’ mentioned above, intuitions differ not just from person to person, but from moment to moment (in the same person). And if you haven’t become privy to how your intuitions can change, you may not question the truth value of the signal they are transmitting. So, I write this to highlight the problems of trying to solve identity issues by appealing to a felt-sense of where it lies.

Two Ways of Talking About the Self

Now I see an obvious split in how to approach this topic: 

(1) We can talk about identity as a raw experience – what in the experience space do I feel numerically identical to (one and the same as) – and in Buddhistic fashion forgo metaphysical claims here after. 

(2) Try to extrapolate beyond immediate experience and argue for a position of what the self is or how identity functions in a metaphysical sense. I call (2) the conceptual self as it is about the content within concepts you believe refers to you. 

To make this distinction clear I’ll give an example of a potential answer to (1) and then to (2). If asked: “What am I?” along the lines of (1) one may answer: “I feel like I am my thoughts.” – thoughts arise in experience and there is a fused impression of ‘me-ness’ to those thoughts. While (2) is concerned about the content of those thoughts and if asked: “What am I?” one may answer and even fervently believe: “I am a brain.” However, they don’t have any direct experience of being a brain – it is an extrapolation of ideas beyond direct phenomenological perception.

Sorry for all the set up! This is my framing and to give you the best response I needed to spell this out. Now, let me answer personally what I believe identity is in terms of (1) and then (2). However, (2) is informed by (1), and (1) is made sense of by (2); so although the distinction is very useful, like all separations, their boundaries seem to always breakdown – that there is a hint about my metaphysical beliefs.

Phenomenological Senses of Identity

For me, this has changed throughout the years as I’ve meditated more and more. I have shared these images with you before and they represent the transition of intuitions of personal identity throughout my journey.

They seem to match up quite nicely with how Frank Yang lays out his stages. Depending on which stage someone is in, we hear different metaphysical explanations of identity. (This is where (1) gets easily conflated with (2)).

How I’ve seen Frank spell out his stages (I realize neither of us came up with these on our own):


When it comes to identifying with awareness (the second picture/stage) this is when you hear talk of the sort of there being one universal consciousness and that’s our true nature. When I was identifying with awareness, I could suddenly relate to what people meant by ‘we are all one universal consciousness’. However, I got the sense that people were failing to differentiate between something being numerically identical and qualitatively identical. When you become ‘aware of awareness’ there is a sense that this is a pristine dimension and is not personal. It doesn’t seem to belong to the notion of Roger (as it is perceived causally before the very idea of Roger), nor is it trademarked by Roger’s beliefs or memories. There is an insight that this perfectly equanimous layer of being is part of everyone’s experience, they just don’t see it. Yet it couldn’t be ruled out whether we are all in touch with the same one pure light of consciousness, or if each sentient organism has its own and our consciousnesses (plural) were just qualitatively the same. I think people often miss this distinction. 

Stage 2 does not obviously lead to open individualism yet. There is still a sense of the duality between the radiant awareness and everything else to be aware of.

Although, I think that anyone (even those without emptiness insights) could be talked into believing closed, open and empty individualism at a conceptual level, this doesn’t mean their phenomenological experience of identity would change, or would their instinctive, non-inquisitive gut-intuition on the subject.

I would hypothesize that those who have no insight into the 3 characteristic are intuitively most swayed by closed individualism. And those who have sufficient enough insight into impermanence (but not no-self) may intuitively side with empty individualism. And then with a deep enough insight into no-self, open individualism becomes a no-brainer.

Experiencing God (and a message to Leo)

At stage 3 is when open individualism is most likely to begin to intuitively feel right. This is also when talks of being God come out of people’s mouths and, as in terms of (1), they phenomenologically perceive the sense of ‘I’ in everything they experience, and they (2) conceptually infer there is just one thing, call it ‘God’. God is everything. I am everything. Because the understanding of moving from (1) to (2) (from experience to conjecture) is often lost on people, all kinds of wacky metaphysical beliefs come about – supposedly self-validating by higher consciousness or direct cosmic download.

While on stage 3, if you inject some metta into your experience space, you come to see what people mean when they say: “God is everywhere and all loving” or even: “God is love”. Having the feeling of being everything in your experience is like you don’t feel separate from anything, thus there is a deep intimacy with the world which construes love. You feel like you are the body, the thoughts, the emotions, the trees, the hills on the horizon, the air in between all of it, the sky and the awareness field which contains all these things. However, going from ‘the experience of feeling identical to everything you are aware of’ to ‘I am everything (even that which I’m not currently aware of) and therefore I am God/the universe’ requires an unfounded leap – which I admittedly made at some point.

I remember an incredibly stark moment I had when I was in stage 3, where being ‘God’ felt like the most real thing (I can sympathise a lot with where Leo Gura is coming from – though I think he’s lacking some phenomenological discernment). Because at stage 3 the sense of ’I’ is so prevalent, due to it being perceived everywhere in experience, I was investigating this quality a great deal. I was trying to distil the sense of ‘I’ down to its rawest form. “Yes, I feel identical to the trees and the sky and other people, but what is that common element that can be found in all these things which I call ‘I’?” After whittling away all the other unnecessary phenomenological baggage piled onto this ‘I’, I arrived at a clear perception of ‘I’ in its rawest form. The ‘I’ I call the epistemic agent, the pure sense of ‘a knower of experience’.

It became obvious that once the epistemic agent was singled out in experience that this perception of ‘I’ can only manifest in one way. What I mean by this is unlike with milk where the formula can be tainted slightly and result in versions of milk with slightly different colors, or tastes, or smells and yet they are all still milk, it is impossible for the epistemic agent to have a slightly different perceptual ‘flavor’ to it other than it does. This is because the qualia recipe only consists of one ingredient and if that’s missing or different, then it’s not the epistemic agent (the rawest sense of ‘I am’). Once I clocked this, I realized that all iterations of ‘I’ wherever and whenever, in all beings at all times, experience the sense of ‘I am’ exactly the same way. Then, and I remember this moment so clearly, it hit me: if God or the universe is self-aware – which it is just by dint of me being of the universe and self-aware – and has an experience of ‘I-ness’ then my experience of ‘I-ness’ in this relative body is the same as God’s and through a sharing of experience there is a direct link and so
 ”Oh my god, I am God!”

(I am not suggesting that this line of reasoning is sound. It was simply the series of steps I went through which brought upon this profound experience). 

Again, the numerically versus qualitatively identical distinction could be parsed, however there is a way to get around this, for when you remove the sense of time and space from the equation then that difference collapses. To say that something is qualitatively identical to something else, but not numerically identical doesn’t make sense if two things can’t be differentiated by existing in separate moments of time or space. So in my “Oh my god, I am God!” epiphany, the sense of time and space had been shunned from attention and numerical identity was presumed.

I can imagine that someone has this epiphany moment as I did, but then when they return to a more ‘timey/spacey’ existence they retain credence in the belief that they are God and not just a single, distinct instance of experience of ‘I’ (which would be more of an empty individualist thought). They do this because they are basing their beliefs off of a very profound mind moment, even if the majority of their waking hours don’t suggest the same message.

If I could tell Leo Gura one thing it would be this: “Profundity does not equate to truth.” Just because something felt so real and epic, does not mean that experience is giving you the most accurate representation of greater reality. Truth be told at stage 3 I didn’t have anywhere near the attentional clarity, precision of view, and metacognitive abilities that came later; and so while I was having all these profound experiences I was not totally clued into the subtle ways I was manipulating my experience and was biased to certain perspectives, while overlooking certain things that became clearer to me later on.

Self, Not-self, and Neither Self nor Not-self

When it comes to personal identity, I want to distinguish three things the mind can do here:

  1. It can project a sense of self onto parts of experience – “I feel like I am this chair.” – said the man on salvia.
  1. It can project a sense of not-self onto parts of experience – “I don’t feel identical to that person over there.” – said sober Joe. I want to emphasize here that I don’t mean there is just a lack of ‘feeling’ associated with something, but rather there is an actual new ‘feeling’ of not identifying with something.

Stage 4 (my 4th picture) was living a life with the constant signal of ‘not me’ being coupled with everything I pointed my attention to. 

  1. It can stop projecting any sense of self and not-self – “I neither feel like I am everything, nor I’m not.” said Roger. Here, I mean the lack of projecting a sense of self and even a sense of not-self. 

To go into a little more detail on what is meant by 3: ‘Neither self, nor not self’… essentially there is just no transmission of data on this subject. No reading. When asked “What are you?” it’s like the question doesn’t even compute. Before, there were qualia indicators to be able to judge what is self and what is not-self. And now it’s like the mind pulls a blank. It is not because the answer is obvious that ‘I am everything’, or ‘I am nothing’. It’s almost a bit like asking a person who is blind from birth “Do you just see blackness?” – it can be really hard for sight-abled-people to get their head around the fact that some blind people don’t see anything at all (and what that really means). 4th path is akin to becoming blind to identity in a way. Although, I wasn’t identity blind from birth, memory of the qualia of ‘me-ness’ and ‘not me-ness’ is incredibly faded.*

*There is subtle nuance to get into with retaining semblances of individuality just to be able to function in the world.

The Ship of Theseus, Threshold Emptiness Insight and Losing the Ability to Buy into Nouns

At a certain point, once enough insight into emptiness was established, the ability to seriously believe in separate entities became near impossible. I remember with my beginner’s mind, closed individualism was the default position. And when nouns were comprehended, they were firmly believed to be distinct, real partitions in reality. “The world is made of things that are tables and things that are not.” (As if a table is an actual thing, lol). However, now I can never fully think that a table is anything more than a mind-made construct. It is perceived as so porous, airy, hollow
. empty. And this applies to all nouns: ‘atoms’, ‘being’ ‘non-being’, ‘life’, ‘death’, ‘mind’ and including the idea of ‘The Now’ (I’ll get into that later). 

One time in philosophy class we were going over the ‘paradox’ of The Ship of Theseus. People in my class had all kinds of differing intuition. Some said, ‘as soon as over 50% of the ship parts have been replaced then it’s a new/different ship’. Some said, ‘as soon as you replace one part of the ship it’s a new/different ship’. And others said, ‘as soon as one atom changes it’s a new/different ship’. They were going back and forth arguing about identity, which was the point of the class. And meanwhile the whole time I was thinking there is no ship of Theseus to begin with, there never was, it’s not a thing. And so there is no paradox. There is no conundrum to solve.

I had been reading ‘The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain’ at the time, and it occurred to me during the class that what I was witnessing were people with all very different brain chemistries and either left or right hemisphere biases, and this is what is leading them to different conclusions (me not being an exception) – the philosophical quibbling had little to do with it. (This is not to resort to any postmodernist conclusions. I do think some positions contain more truth signal than others.)

4th Path Putting the Nail in the Coffin for Empty Individualism?

There is no ‘now’, as there is not enough time for even a single isolated self to form. At 4th path insight into emptiness is so stark that you realise that to conceive of ‘The Now’ as a thing is wrong view. I used to experience things as arising and then a moment later passing; as manifesting and then slightly there after defabricating. But now I can see how phenomena are already disappearing the moment they are appearing. This leads to kinds of visions of super-positions – simultaneous 1 and 0. With such perception a ‘now’ as a moment can’t even consolidate – there truly is no ground for things to rest on.

Finally (2) My Conceptual Beliefs About Identity! (Prepare to be disappointed)

Keeping in mind what I said about ‘neither self nor not self’, when the intuition of personal identity is so lacking the question of ‘What is me and what is not me?’ just becomes ‘What does it mean for something to be its own individual entity?’ or even more simply ‘What exists?’. Does there exist one thing or more than one thing? And does it even make sense to consider there being ‘things’ (nouns) at all? 

(Take this next part as me applying a cosmic lens).

So, is there more than one thing? Engaging my scrupulous, philosophical, inquisitive mind, I can’t conceive of how there being more than one thing would be meaningful. But I don’t even really believe in things at all (if ‘thing’ is taken as a noun), so one thing isn’t quite getting at it either. There is something and it seems to be something so magical that it defies categorical comprehension. But the fact that there is change suggests this is not unitary, yet nor do I wish to say it is legion. Not noun, but verb? A process? But to where and how?

Heidegger often wrote in double negatives; I believe because when you construe something in the negative you bring to mind both the thing and its negative simultaneously. There is a greater potential for the mind to grasp a seeming paradox, but the conceptual mind can never fully do it, it can only approximate. Kierkegaard tried as he put it: “The self is a relation that relates itself to itself or is the relation’s relating itself to itself in the relation; the self is not the relation but is the relation’s relating itself to itself.” But words can only serve to point to something outside of their grasp.

This is why: 

“The Toa that can be named is not the eternal Toa”

However, when I stop thinking (disengage the conceptual mind) and simply be, I get an intuitive sense of a super-position. Simultaneously, neither one nor many. Neither now nor not now. Neither existing nor not existing. Neither conscious nor not conscious. And this is apprehended in a way that is not confusing or jarring, but as the most sensible stance.

Still I have a sceptic bone in my body, and I am always open to being schooled. 

Halfway In, Halfway Out The Great Door of Being

Imagine a great conundrum that people have been debating over for centuries. “If a man is stepping through his front door and he has one foot in his house and one foot out of his house and his body is exactly in the middle, is he inside or outside?” People can’t seem to agree. Some say he is clearly inside because he is already under the door frame. Others say, he is still outside because he hasn’t fully entered his house yet. People squabble about whether it matters if he is coming or going. The real question is when he is exactly 50% in and exactly 50% out what is he? Inside or outside? The reason people can’t come down on a solid answer is because whenever they find someone passing through their front door the moment they go to make a judgement they miss that 50/50 moment and either witness him too early or too late at 60/40 or 40/60 in and out. In which case, they either decide he was definitely inside or definitely outside, accordingly. You have been trying to solve this issue too and feel like you have come close. One time you saw a guy in the act at 51/49 in and out. And then another time you saw a man who was 49/51 in and out. But no one ever is precise enough to make their judgement when he is exactly 50/50 in and out. Because true 50% in and 50% out hasn’t been witnessed, so people can only speculate that ‘well if we were to catch a man who was exactly at 50/50 in and out of his front door, we would conclude that maybe he was BOTH inside and outside.’ 

One day, it just so happens you see a man coming home from work. He’s approaching the front door, keys in hand. You’ve been practicing for this moment your whole life. Finally, are you going to be able to solve this great conundrum? He unlocks the door. He opens it. He steps through. And that was it! You witnessed it. You clearly clocked the 50/50 moment. 

“I saw it! I saw it!” you yell. Bystanders hear your cries and come up to you. 

“What did you see?” they ask. 

“I saw the precise moment he was exactly 50% in and 50% out!”

” they say “what was he, inside or outside then?”

And you respond “No”.

“Huh? Oh, you mean he was both inside and outside?”

“No” you say again.

“I don’t get it.” respond the bystanders. And in fact, you don’t even really get what you mean, because it doesn’t quite make sense to you either and yet it was as clear as day.

“He wasn’t inside or outside, because he simply vanished.”

Perfume Notes Are Impressionistic

From Reddit r/fragranceAn example of how commercial fragrances are composed [education] [long]” by u/acleverpseudonym. [See also r/DIYfragrance]. Lightly edited for grammar; links added for educational purposes; light [commentary and additions] by me.

Some of you might remember me. I was one of the moderators here for half a decade or so until my life got busy enough that it became difficult to keep up.

I have a small fragrance line myself and I occasionally make fragrances for other brands. Occasionally websites like Fragrantica and Now Smell This will write articles about my fragrances. I’m by no means a famous perfumer, but… I’ve worked enough as a perfumer to have insight into how fragrances are made.

The average person doesn’t really think about what’s actually in their fragrances any more than the average person really considers what flavors blend together to make up the taste of cola. (As a side note, you can make a passable cola flavor out of orange, lime, cinnamon, lemon, nutmeg, and coriander). When people do start thinking about it, they inevitably come across fragrance notes.

Fragrance notes are both incredibly useful and completely misleading because notes are not ingredients! Notes are the impressions that the fragrance creator thinks a lay person might get from smelling the fragrance. They aren’t necessarily the ingredients used in the fragrance, and also, (this is another important bit), they’re not necessarily even what the perfumer was attempting to make the fragrance smell like.

There’s a fundamental misconception on the part of most consumers. Most consumers think that fragrances are made largely from familiar materials. Orange, lemon, jasmine, rose, birch leaves, lily of the valley, etc. Ok, maybe most people realize that most fragrances contain synthetic materials, but there’s quite often an implicit assumption that the synthetics are a synthetic version of a natural material. In other words, that the synthetic is an attempt to recreate a smell that is found in nature and that all (or at least most) of the smells in a modern fragrance can be reproduced with naturals. I suppose that if you asked someone “do you think that all synthetics are an attempt to recreate a natural smell?” they would think about it and quickly come to the conclusion that this doesn’t really make sense, but most people haven’t actually stopped and thought about it. I see evidence of this assumption all over the place online:

  • “I’m looking for all natural version of [fragrance X].”
  • “I’m looking for a less synthetic version of Sauvage.”
  • “Can someone tell me which essential oils I can mix together to make an aquatic smell like Cool Water?”

It’s really only pretty recently that there has been any real visibility (to the general public) into what materials go into a commercial fragrance, so this is an understandable point of view.

It’s very, very wrong, though.

We need to take a giant step back and clarify some things.

Natural oils (essential oils/absolute oils/SCO2 extracts/etc.) are typically made up of dozens to hundreds of different materials [typically distributed in a long-tail]. They’re like miniature perfumes in and of themselves with top notes, heart notes, and base notes. They’re complex and beautiful, but they can only be manipulated in a limited way. They’re like photographs.

Specialty bases are typically made up of dozens of individual ingredients, some natural, some man-made, some that exist in nature, some that didn’t exist until they were created in a lab in the 60s. Basically, the sky is the limit. You generally don’t know exactly what’s in them, but they’re produced by suppliers that you can be pretty sure will still be making them in 20 years. Sometimes, they’re direct attempts to reproduce (or improve upon) a natural smell, for reasons of cost, safety, or performance. Sometimes, they’re just a novel smell, like Givaudan‘s aquatic smelling Ultrazur base. These are like computer generated images [or Photoshop filters].

Isolates are ingredients made of a single molecule. They can be naturally derived or lab-made. They can exist in nature or not. They have names like linalool, coumarin, limonene, ambroxide [better known as ambroxan – the qualia of the day in this video and one of my favorite aromachemicals], methyl dihydrojasmonate and you can describe and find the chemical formula for them. A lot of them have trade names that are shorter and refer to one company’s version. E.g. Hedione is a trade name for methyl dihydrojasmonate. Quite often, isolates can also be found in natural oils. Natural lavender oil is typically ~42% linalyl actate and ~40% linalool [note: lavender oil with more linalyl acetate relative to linalool tends to smell “dryer” and “dustier”]. When composing fragrances, I’ll use linalool and linalyl acetate as isolates as well. Sometimes I’ll use them to “tune” other ingredients that already contain them, but not in the quantities I want (like lavender [e.g. “LAVENDER OIL 40/42 has fresh, herbal, clean, aromatic nuances. The numbers in Lavender 40/42 indicate the linalyl acetate content; in this case, they indicate the product contains 40%-42% of linalyl acetate. Lavender 40/42 is generally a blend of various lavenders in order to get a consistent scent from batch to batch, with processors adding linalyl acetate to cover the smell of camphor or borneol components of a given lavender.“]). Sometimes I’ll use them to add a sweet, floral character to completely unrelated materials. If natural oils are like photographs and bases are like CGI, isolates are like paints. You have the most control, but it takes the most skill to turn them into something beautiful and complex.

Typical Lavender Oil Composition (source)

“Aromachemical” is a catch-all term used to describe these fragrant materials, though it typically connotes materials that are either isolates or bases.

Now that we have that out of the way, let’s take a look at how commercial fragrances are created. The easiest way to do that is to take a look at a formula:

Cologne Accord [which you can find/purchase in Perfumer’s Apprentice‘s “Key Accords“]:

This is an example formula for a “cologne” accord that was composed by Givaudan. It’s by no means a finished fragrance, but most everyone would recognize the smell. It’s a fresh, slightly sweet, slightly bitter, slightly green smell that often finds its way into men’s fresh fragrances in one way or another (though that’s not to say that this exact formula does).

  • Florhydral – 10
  • Exaltolide Total – 10
  • Ultrazur – 15
  • Peonile – 60
  • Petitgrain oil -70
  • Ethylene Brassylate – 90
  • Aurantiol Pure – 100
  • Geranyl Acetate – 120
  • Linalyl Acetate – 220
  • Dihydro Myrcenol – 305

Total: 1000

Lets take a look at these ingredients one by one:

Florhydral is the trade name for an isolate. It is a floralizer that can add a sort of fresh, green, floral note to fragrances. It is not found in nature.

Exaltolide is another single molecule, a white musk. It’s very delicately animalic, with the characteristic smell of a white musk. It’s been used as a reference white musk because it’s so typical of the “white musk” family.

Ultrazur is a specialty base from Givaudan. It’s marine smelling, more oceanic than the Calone 1951 found in Cool Water. By itself, in concentration, it reminds me very much of fabric softener.

Peonile is another “not found in nature” molecule. It has a sort of rosy, sort of geranium-like, sort of peony-like, sort of grapefruit-like odor and acts as a volumizer and fixative. Odor descriptions that call to mind an assortment of known materials are fairly common, but it’s important to note that they don’t mean that it smells like x+y+z. It just means that they have facets that are reminiscent of these materials in some way.

Petitgrain oil is a natural oil made from the greenery of a citrus tree. Usually from orange trees, but varieties from mandarin, lemon, and all sorts of other citrus are also available.

Ethylene brassylate is a sweet, floral, white musk that can smell a touch old fashioned to some people by itself, or in really high concentrations. It’s still a fairly clean musk, however. Yet another single molecule.

Aurantiol is a very, very commonly used material in fragrances, particularly men’s fragrances. It’s a single molecule (more or less). Aurantiol is a Schiff Base, which is a class of materials that you get when you combine an aldehyde and an amine and they react with each other. Most amines don’t smell very good, but one of them, something called methyl anthranilate, does. It’s found in white florals, particularly neroli [see: The Neroli Neighborhood for a deep dive into the neroli vibe], as well as grapes. Artificial grape flavor is basically methyl anthranilate. Hydroxycitronellal is an aldehyde that is often said to smell as close as any single material does to Lily of the Valley. When they’re mixed together and heated, you get water and a very thick, highlighter yellow colored schiff base that smells like a more mild version of methyl anthranilate. It’s sweet, long-lasting, and reminiscent of orange blossom/neroli and grape.

Geranyl acetate is the acetate version of geraniol. It’s a single molecule that is literally found in hundreds of natural oils. Everything from oregano and thyme to ylang ylang, rose, geranium and neroli, to fir needle and frankincense. It’s everywhere (much like linalool and linalyl actetate [note: in addition to lavender, also petitgrain, neroli, and bergamot all have very high concentrations of both linalool and linalyl acetate at the same time]). It’s sweet, fruity-floral, and vaguely green smelling. It also has a smell that I think of as the “acetate smell,” which can make it smell “chemically” to some people in isolation, even though it’s found everywhere in nature.

Linalyl acetate is another material like geranyl acetate that’s found all over the place in nature. Natural lavender oil is ~42% linalyl acetate. It’s also found in most of the natural oils I mentioned for geranyl actetate. The description for it is also very similar to geranyl acetate, but it’s more lavendery and less rosy. I really like this material and use it when I want to add an ethereal fruity/floral sweetness to a composition.

Dihydromyrcenol is aggressively fresh, cold, and almost harsh. It’s somewhat reminiscent of citrus and lavender. Mostly, though, it smells like laundry detergent. It was used to scent laundry detergent for years before it made it into fine fragrance. At first it was used in tiny doses, but by the 1980s it was being used much more prominently. Something like 10% of the formula of Drakkar Noir was dihydromyrcenol [and apparently also the fragrance super-star of the 90s Calvin Klein One]. It’s found in trace amounts in nature, but nothing natural really smells prominently of it.

So now that I’ve explained all the materials, let’s take a look at the formula. Here are some observations:

Natural oils from recognizable sources only make up 7% of the accord. There are other materials that are found in nature, but they’re all isolates, one alien smelling-molecule refined from a more familiar-smelling material. More than half of the formula is made from 2 molecules [once again, long-tails]. More than 90% is made from 8. The amounts of materials used can vary wildly. Material strength is in no way consistent.

The perfumer who composed this formula painted the majority of the formula in broad strokes from single molecule aromachemicals and then filled in depth and details with natural petitgrain oil, and tiny amounts of a specialty base (ultrazur) and a powerful aldehyde (florhydral).

I didn’t compose this, and I can’t speak for the perfumer who did, but I can imagine how it might have been composed. I’ll walk you through how I’m imagining the perfumer’s process:

I imagine the accord was inspired by petitgrain, but the perfumer wanted something fresher and more stylized and abstract, in the same way a graphic designer might prefer a stylized logo to a photo. Dihydromyrcenol is fresh and powerful, but also cold and harsh and almost bitter. It’s a good compliment to petitgrain, but right off the bat, I know it’s not going to be suitable by itself unless I’m trying to just modify the smell of petitgrain a little bit by adding a teeny tiny bit dihydromyrcenol. It needs some cushion, something to cut the harshness. Geranyl acetate and linalyl acetate add a niche cushioning effect, can be used liberally, and are both found in petitgrain, so they’ll go well with it. By itself, that composition is still cold and bitter. It needs a bit more warmth, but not a candy-like warmth. Something keeping in line with the petitgrain. Aurantiol is the obvious choice. The scent of orange tree leaves goes well with the scent of the orange blossoms that nestle amongst them. In keeping with the “more abstract” theme though, we don’t want to just dump neroli or orange blossom absolute into this. Too much complexity can leave a composition smelling muddled [see quote below for more on this], and we want the bitter, fresh, green petitgrain to be the star of the show here, not the neroli. Plus, neroli is quite expensive and not as long-lasting as aurantiol. We add the aurantiol for warmth. The peonile for volume and some white musks for depth. It’s pretty common to use multiple musks in a fragrance because many people are anosmic to some musks, so you want to make sure they’re able to smell at least one of them.

Then as finishing touches, we add a hint of Ultrazur, which adds a bit of modern sophistication and florhydral, which in tiny amounts adds a bit of a dewy, natural, green smell to the composition.

This composition isn’t about taking familiar smells and mixing them together like some sort of fruit salad with hunks of this and hunks of that. It’s about taking an idea and enhancing aspects of it, rebalancing it until it fits the vision. It’s more like painting than making a collage. It’s not necessarily as detailed or accurate, but it’s not supposed to be. Degas wasn’t trying to create photorealistic ballerinas. Van Gogh wasn’t trying to accurately render the night sky. They were trying to evoke an impression. Perfumers are the same way.

If that fragrance doesn’t smell like realistic rose/jasmine/cedar/etc., chances are, it wasn’t intended to. The perfumer wasn’t trying to make a realistic jasmine and failing, the perfumer was trying to make an entirely new smell that just has aspects that are jasmine-like.

Breaking it apart into notes is actually counterproductive in a lot of ways.

…but that’s a subject for another post.


In response to the Reddit r/DIYfragrance question: “Lavender + Lemon + Rose accordHow would you use a lavender + lemon + rose accord? I like that combo a lot – a narcotic acidic mix with powerful mood-lifting properties. But as soon as I use patchouli, ginger, or even chamomile as the base notes for the composition, the magic of the accord gets drowned out by the base. I’m curious how more experienced DIY fragrance makers would go about harnessing the magic of that accord by blending it with things that enhance rather than detract from it. Thank you in advance 🙂

u/NanashiSaito comments:

I’m going to take a shot in the dark here and say that it sounds like you’re using essential oils rather than individual aromachemicals for your accords. 

If that does happen to be the case, that’s your issue. It’s not that there’s anything specific about Rose/Lemon/Lavender that doesn’t play nice with other scents. It’s that essential oils inherently get “muddy” when you start to mix more than a few together. 

Essential oils are a complex combination of hundreds of individual aromachemicals. They’re almost like finished fragrances unto themselves. I look at them like jellybeans. One jellybean tastes like whatever flavor it’s supposed to taste like. Two or three jellybeans can taste like a fun combination of flavors. 

But have you ever tried popping a handful of jellybeans? The flavors all muddle together and create this generic sort of fruity sweetness that doesn’t really taste like anything in specific. It’s the flavor equivalent of swirling together a bunch of colors until you get brown. 

Same with essential oils. For example, lemon and lime essential oil share a ton of common ingredients, mostly terpenes like limonene, pinene, terpinene, Myrcene, etc. But anyone who has smelled lemon and lime knows that they smell very distinct. This is because they have slightly different proportions of these ingredients. Lemon might have 70% limonene, 10% pinene, and 15% terpinene whereas lime has 50% limonene, 5% pinene and 10% terpinene. When you blend them together, these distinct proportions are lost, and with them, their characteristic smells.

Same goes for mixing other different oils: ginger for example also contains a lot of the same terpenes that lemon contains. But it also has a big dose of camphene and zingiberene which give it the characteristic sharp ginger bite. But when you mix ginger with lemon, it throws off the delicate balance of terpenes in the lemon and thus muddies the character. Same with patchouli: lots of patchoulol and guaiene, but also lots of terpenes found in lemon. Same with chamomile: lots of ethereal esters but also lots of terpenes.

In fact, it’s hard to find essential oils that don’t muddy the balance of lemon. Lavender happens to have a fairly close balance of terpenes (in addition to the characteristic lavender combination of Linalool and Linalyl Acetate). And rose is almost all alcohols.

Basically, with each essential oil you add, you also add a large list of other oils you can’t add without muddying your scent. And with lavender/lemon/rose, there’s really not much room to explore if you’re using essential oils only. 

And there’s the rub: if you really want to explore enhancing your scent, you need to get more granular and start using individual aromachemicals rather than entire essential oils into themselves. 

If you’re dead set on using essential oils only, check out I put together a resource with about 200 different essential oils and their constituent ingredients. You want to find ones that use either entirely different ingredient sets than what are found in your main accord (which will be difficult because you’ve really covered a broad swath of ingredients with your combination), or find ones whose common ingredients are in similar proportion (which will also be difficult).

On the other hand, if you’re already using individual aromachemicals and your description of the accord is more abstract than literal, then you probably know all of this, so my apologies for the presumption, and I hope this comment is helpful for anyone else reading this. 

Good luck, and see you in the singularity!

Featured image: San Giorgio Maggiore at Dusk by Claude Monet

High-Valence Meditation

Excerpt from Seeing that Frees by Rob Burbea (2014), pgs. 53-59

Working with Feelings of Pleasure and with the Subtle Body

Encouraging feelings of well-being

The method just described, of focusing primarily on the sense of the whole body, involves the development of a sensitivity to what could be termed ‘the subtle body’ or the ‘energy body’.[8]

  • Almost from the start in this approach we deliberately but gently work at nurturing a sense of comfort, pleasure, or well-being in the body.
  • This can be done through the way we pay attention to the subtle body, as described above – opening out the awareness to encompass there the whole body space, and tuning into the more pleasant frequencies of feeling that are perceivable.
  • It is also possible to use the breath or the mettā to help elicit and support the pervasion of this sense of well-being. Simply sensitizing to, and enjoying, the way we feel the energetic resonances of the mettā or the breath throughout the whole space of the body – opening to and finding delight in their reverberations there – can gently move the experience in the direction of a more expansive well-being.
  • And when there is a state of agitation or anxiety, we can play with ways of breathing or practicing the mettā, and also ways of sensing the breath or mettā, that feel as if they soothe the subtle body and smooth out its energies. Delicately tuning into the felt experience of these qualities of soothing or smoothing-out will help them to gradually gain strength, and help the agitated energies to slowly subside.
  • The imagination, too, can be skillfully employed in order to gently encourage this sense of pleasure or well-being in the subtle body. While simultaneously pervading the whole body space with an awareness sensitive to the texture and tone of the energy of that whole field, it is possible, for example, to imagine the subtle body as a body of radiant light; then to open to and explore what that feels like. Any image formed in this way does not necessarily need to appear in precise detail, or even completely distinctly. It is, rather, the energetic sense of pleasure or well-being which it supports that is primary, since this is what primarily supports the samādhi.
  • Likewise, one may experiment with imagining various luminous lines of energy in the body – for example, between the perineum and the crown of the head, or from the lower belly out through the legs – and sense how any such lines of energy supports the whole body to feel upright, open, and energized. The imagination here may be visual or kinesthetic, or a combination of the two. And it need not always follow exactly the anatomical contours of the physical body or its posture. For instance, if sitting or kneeling with the legs crossed or bent, the luminous lines of energy imagined radiating from the lower belly or base of the spine need not bend with the legs, but may instead continue and extend straight out at the knees, if at that time that feels more supportive of openness, energization, and well-being.
  • If there is tension, or even pain, in one area of the body, rather than always conceiving of it in anatomical or physiological terms, it can sometimes be more helpful to conceive of and perceive that area in energetic terms, and to play with the perception of lines of energy in order to support a degree of comfort and ease.

There are many ways we may discover to bring about some sense of energetic openness and well-being in the subtle body. And as it is accessed more and more, this altered body feeling is one that eventually we can ‘remember’ and learn to deliberately recall – to summon by gentle intention. We can then move, usually gradually, into the focused steadiness of samādhi from that basis, by incorporating this perception of pleasure or well-being more centrally into the meditation.

Towards unification

Whether it has arisen through being deliberately recalled, or through focusing on the breath or mettā, there are again a number of possible ways of using the sense of pleasure or comfort to help guide the citta into the unification of samādhi.

  • Once it is easy sustaining for some minutes, we can gently begin to take that bodily feeling of well-being as the primary object of our focus. It is important not to ‘snatch at it’, but rather to ease the attention toward it gracefully, and gradually let it take up the full focus of attention. Then the attention and the citta can be encouraged to enjoy it as fully as possible.
  • The attention can at times probe it, burrowing into one area of the pleasure, perhaps where it feels strongest.
  • Or, at other times, a mode of ‘receiving’ it, really trying to open up to it, can be employed.
  • Either way, one attempts all the while to remain intimate with its texture, and actually to relish the pleasure as much as possible. In these ways (and in others that can be discovered) we can delicately work to gently sustain the bodily feeling of well-being, and to absorb the attention more fully into it.
  • Alternatively, it is possible to mix the sense of pleasure with the perception of the breath or the mettā, in order to support and deepen the quality of the samādhi.
  • Then it may seem, for example, as if one is breathing the pleasurable energy; or it may seem as if one is breathing into and out of that area of well-being.
  • In mettā practice, it may seem as if the mettā and the pleasurable energy have become fused, so that the feeling of the mettā at that time is the feeling of the well-being. And this can become the ‘flavour’ of the energy of mettā that is radiated outwards towards beings, or that wraps around and permeates one’s own body and being.
  • The area of pleasurable energy may also be perceived as the source of the mettā.

Steadiness of feeling is more important than strength

We should point out once more that sometimes the sense of well-being is really quite subtle. Although the feelings of pleasure might also be very strong at times, this is actually not necessary in order to use them in a helpful way. Over time, their strength will in fact vary naturally (and anyway, as the practice matures, at a certain stage they begin to mellow). What is more necessary is that they sustain relatively steadily for more than a few minutes. Then we can learn to sustain them for longer.

Within this larger steadiness, any perceived waves or movements of the energy are not at all problematic. We can try to open the space of the body to these inner currents as much as possible, allowing and fully enjoying them (and if they feel very intense, even playing with surrendering and abandoning our whole body and being to them). Doing so, their intensity will in time calm down.

Suffusing and saturating the whole body

Along with the steadiness of the feelings of well-being, and of the attention on those feelings, we are also gently aiming at eventually having the whole space of the body suffused by and saturated with the feeling of well-being or pleasure. Sometimes this happens by itself. But sometimes the sense of pleasure, when it arises or when it is recalled, only pervades one area of the body. There are a number of viable responses then.

  • One is to simply enjoy it in the area where it is located, in the ways that we have described, without pressuring the feeling to spread. It may then expand naturally at some point to pervade the whole body.
  • But even if it does not spread then, that need not be regarded as a problem. A vital aspect of the whole relationship with samādhi practice is to enjoy what well-being is there at any time, not to measure it and view it through a lens that somehow demands, even subtly, that it be ‘better’, bigger, stronger.
  • Having said that, it is in fact also possible at times to gently encourage the feeling of pleasure or well-being to spread – for instance by simply opening up the space of the awareness to embrace a larger area of the body. Sometimes then the pleasant feeling will automatically start to expand to fill that space.
  • Alternatively, the breath may be used to gently ‘massage’ the sense of well-being into other areas of the body. Although there is not space to enter into a full description of possibilities here, with practice the breath energy may be felt and perceived throughout the body, entering and flowing in all kinds of ways beyond the strictly anatomical movement of air into the wind-pipe and lungs. We can learn to sense the breath energy in and through the whole body. And as alluded to earlier, the breath energy can be mixed with the pleasure, so that the perceived movements of breath in the whole body space move and spread the perception of the pleasure.
  • There is also, again, no reason why one cannot just imagine the feeling of well-being permeating the body space more fully. The perception then often begins to follow the image.

These are some of the possibilities, but with repeated practice over time it will anyway become normal for the pleasurable feeling to effortlessly pervade the whole body whenever it arises.

Unblocking and smoothing out the subtle body energies

The harmonization and unification in well-being that is characteristic of samādhi can also be regarded as a harmonization, alignment, smoothing out, and opening of the flows of energies in the subtle body [emphasis mine]. All day and all night long our energy body is moving in and out of states of alignment and openness, constriction and blockage, in response to a whole range of conditions, physical, mental, and emotional. This is completely normal, and with attention and sensitivity to the experience of the body we notice these fluctuations more and more. Although they may be felt in any region, perhaps most commonly a block in energy will be felt as a constriction somewhere along the central axis of the body, anywhere from the perineum to the top of the head. As we move into a state of more samādhi there is an unblocking, untying, aligning, and harmonizing of the subtle body energies to some degree.

When the subtle energies are blocked and agitated, samādhi is to some extent blocked. And when the subtle energy is unblocked and unagitated, samādhi is not so far away. (Perhaps all that is needed then is a steadying of the attention on enjoying the pleasant feelings of the ‘unblocked’ subtle body, as described). In addition, therefore, to the ways of working to smooth out and soothe the energy body suggested earlier, it can be useful to learn means for gently unblocking the energies when there is any sense of energetic constriction, in order to open up again the potential of a degree of samādhi at that time. Again, with a light and playful attitude of experimentation, a variety of ways of working in meditation can be discovered.

For example, sensitive to the whole subtle body sense, the breath energy or mettā may be perceived and conceived in any way that feels helpful, as alluded above: 

  • We may breath into and out of an area of blockage.
  • Or we may, perhaps gently, breathe the breath energy through that area.
  • In mettā practice, we may experiment with situating the centre or source of the energy of mettā right at that point of constriction, and explore what effects that has.
  • If these strategies prove difficult, it is again quite feasible to imagine the breath, the body energies, or the mettā flowing more freely through the area of blockage, or even flowing out of the body, and opening and unblocking in that way.

The Relation Between Samādhi and Insight

Insight brings samādhi

As well as those described above, there are many other practicable means to unblock the subtle body energies. In particular, most of the insight ways of looking that we shall introduce in the course of this book may also be used in the service of opening and deepening samādhi. Mindful observation will reveal that any craving or clinging is always accompanied by, and reflected in, blocks and knots in the subtle body [emphasis mine]. Now, insight, we have said, cuts that on which dukkha depends. And dukkha depends on craving. Thus, according our definition, insight is any way of looking that releases craving. As the insight and emptiness practices are developed, therefore, they can also be used at times to deliberately undo the craving that is mirrored in the knots in the energy body. This might involve using the insight practices ‘on’ the experienced subtle energy blocks themselves, as ways of looking at those perceptions and feelings. Or it might involve engaging these insight ways of looking just more generally in regard to any experience in the moment. Either way, the dissolving of craving to whatever extent will, at the same time and to a similar extent, untie the knots in the subtle body to unblock those energies and so deliver the possibility of some samādhi. Ha!

With more practice our skill grows and we find that it is in fact possible quite often to use the ‘letting go’ that insight brings to deliberately unblock the energies and the felt sense of the sublet body in this way. The pleasantness, openness, well-being, delightful and alive stillness, or joy that comes with this unblocking can be felt in the space and texture of the body sense. We can then tune into that. It is this tuning in to the frequency of the pleasant, and delicately attending to it, that ‘filters it out’ of the field of awareness, so that it begins to become more palpable and more prominent.

Then we can rest in it, allowing it to spread throughout the body space. And if, as before, we continue to tune in to and focus on the felt sense of the energy of this well-being, gently intent on allowing and opening to an enjoyment of it, and encouraging the attention to become absorbed in it, to fill up with it, this can carry us to the threshold of some samādhi.

Such a skill is useful for even the most experienced meditators. There are times in meditation when we may be trying to bring the mind to some unification, working with the intention for samādhi, and despite all our patience and adeptness in attempting different things samādhi does not come. We may need some insight to help us let go of some craving or clinging, perhaps even a craving we were unaware of, and then some samādhi becomes possible.

In addition to the opening and transformation of the energies of the subtle body just described, there is another, related aspect to what is occurring that can be pointed out. To a degree proportional to its strength, the push and pull of craving pushes and pulls the attention. It thus agitates the mind and makes it restless; or saps its energy and makes it dull [emphasis mine]. Relaxing craving through insight will therefore allow the mind to settle more naturally and easefully into stillness and a steadiness of attention. We can see then that the quality of steadiness of attention does not only come through holding the mind to one object.

Aside from being a skillful ‘trick’, however, all this suggests a number of things. One is that although usually we might conceive that ‘samādhi leads to insight’, (and clearly a certain amount of steadiness is generally needed before any insight can arise), as we explore we discover more and more that they can lead to each other.

[8] We can freely use a term like ‘subtle body’ or ‘energy body’, without needing either to assert or to deny the ‘reality’ of such a concept. It is enough for us that it is a perception, a way the body can be perceived which can be helpful. In fact, a little reflection reveals that the same could be said of concepts like ‘attention’. Is there really some ‘thing’ called ‘attention’ that can ‘go towards’ some other thing (or mental representation of an object) or ‘receive’ that thing? These are all ways of conceiving and perceiving useful on the path to freedom. Perceivable, useful, and, as we will come to see, thoroughly empty.

See Also:

  1. Healing Trauma with Neural Annealing
  2. On Dark Rooms, Jhanas, Ecstasy, and the Symmetry Theory of Valence
  3. Neural Annealing: Toward a Neural Theory of Everything (by Michael Johnson)
  4. Buddhist Annealing: Wireheading Done Right with the Seven Factors of Awakening
  5. Why we seek out pleasure: the Symmetry Theory of Homeostatic Regulation (also by Mike)
  6. The Supreme State of Unconsciousness: Classical Enlightenment from the Point of View of Valence Structuralism

The Supreme State of Unconsciousness: Classical Enlightenment from the Point of View of Valence Structuralism

The following is an exchange of text messages with Roger Thisdell, a 26 year old accomplished meditator. He claims that this year he finally broke through into abiding in what he describes as an entirely new category of experience that matches the descriptions of classical Buddhist 4th path.

For context, Daniel Ingram of Mastering the Core Teachings of the Buddha fame describes 4th path as:

1) Utter centerlessness: no watcher, no sense of a watcher, no subtle watcher, no possibility of a watcher. This is immediately obvious just as color is to a man with good eyesight as the old saying goes. Thus, anything and everything simply and obviously manifests just where they are. No phenomena observe any others and never did or could.

2) Utter agencylessness: meaning no agency, no sense of doing, no sense of doer, no sense that there could be any agent or doer, no way to find anything that seems to be in control at all. Whatever effort or intent or anything like that that arises does so naturally, causally, inevitably, as it always actually did. This is immediately obvious, though not always the forefront of attention.

3) No cycles change or stages or states or anything else like that do anything to this direct comprehension of simple truths at all.

4) There is no deepening in it to do. The understanding stands on its own and holds up over cycles, moods, years, etc and doesn’t change at all. I have nothing to add to my initial assessment of it from 9 years ago.

5) There is nothing subtle about it: anything and everything that arises exhibits these same qualities directly, clearly. When I was on the third path, particularly late in it, those things that didn’t exhibit these qualities were exceedingly subtle, and trying to find the gaps in the thing was exceedingly difficult and took years and many cycles. I had periods from weeks to months where it felt done and then some subtle exception would show up and I would realize I was wrong yet again, so this is natural and understandable, and if someone claims 4th as I define it here and later says they got it wrong, have sympathy for them, as this territory is not easy and can easily fool people, as it did me many, many times over about 5 years or so. However, 4th, as I term it, ended that and 9 years later that same thing holds, which is a very long time in this business.

There are other aspects that may be of value to discuss at some other time, but those are a great place to start for those who wish to claim this. If you truly have those, then perhaps we can talk about a few other points that are less central and essential.

[Links added to aid reader’s comprehension – lightly edited for clarity]

In the beginning
 Roger joined a private group where we discuss consciousness and started to get familiar with the vocabulary of the Qualia Research Institute (e.g. discussing meditation in terms of valence). He then posted this video, which caught my attention:

Pleasure does not exist how you think it does (positive valence explained as an anti-phenomenon)

Where he claims that “Pleasure as a positive, as an actual added experience, does not exist. It certainly does not exist how a lot of us think it does 
 [whereas] negative valence experiences do exist as contractions.”

Based on that very interesting video, I decided to invite him to Phenomenology Club (a private gathering where we discuss exotic states of consciousness and try to make sense of them in a think-tank fashion – see Healing Trauma with Neural Annealing).



AndrĂ©s! This is Roger Thisdell […]. Thanks for giving me your number.

Do add me to the Phenomenology Club. That sounds like my jam! Cheers!


Excellent! Will do! 🙂



Hey AndrĂ©s, it was great to hang out online last night and hear your explanations. A bunch of you are really elite thinkers. I’m inspired to learn how to speak more of your qualia language.

I would love to get into the topic of paradises with you. You seem to really sing their praise.

I said yesterday that I hold the view that actually what is most desirable is just the elimination of negative valence. As someone who frequently has cessations (when consciousness blanks out for a moment) where there is no subjective experience (no negative, no positive valence) in my book this is good enough. My thinking is also informed via complete ego death experiences in which there is still consciousness but no judgement on any part of experience (bad or good). At a local individual level these are the most desirable states. Out of all the states I have experienced (including bliss trips, jhanas, 5-MeO, MDMA, staring into the eyes of a lover without insecurities, laughing fits đŸ€Ł) if I had to choose a state to be in permanently it would either be cessation or ego death. I may have curated my brain too much to a Buddhist view and my level of emptiness insight is well entrenched, so that it is hard for me to really believe the ultimate good is to keep the cosmic consciousness party going and fueling it with positive valence.

I think that while consciousness is online we better make the best out of it and try to exist in as few low negative valence states as possible and help all sentient beings with this as well; all the while the positive valence that comes along is merely instrumentally valuable, like a compliment or added bonus.

For example if you are hungry it is nice to eat something tasty. But if you were never hungry in the first place then who cares how tasty something is – don’t need it đŸ’â€â™‚ïž (this may be my strongly consolidated non-attachment showing).

I guess what I’m really asking is: can you convince me to intrinsically care for paradise states? I do believe I have experienced what you are referring to as paradise states, but maybe I just have too much non-attachment for them to think they are the goal/prize.

(apologies for being long-winded 🙏)



  1. You lost the ability to get excited about future experiences. You learned this because you were taught and you practiced techniques that associate being excited about the future with dukkha. Alas, the hedonic theories around the time of Buddha were incomplete and as a consequence a lot of the claims and teachings underfit reality (meaning that they generalize too much). In contrast, it turns out that there are a manifold of ways of experiencing excitement about the future in an epistemologically clear way and no delusions. More so, with that orientation one can see more clearly larger parts of the state-space of consciousness as one is not inhibiting them. I know you have experience with high valence states. But I suspect you have deconstructed a lot of the microcognitive apparatus that allow the insights coming from the reality of their existence from propagating across the entire nervous system.
  2. Just as lack of awareness about e.g. cluster headaches phenomenology can give you the impression that reality has no stakes, so does acute lack of access to the ultra-positive realms. I think for many, Buddhism has a certain effect in how one conceptualizes such experiential realms after the fact that perhaps is not quite in tune with how they truly were. Interestingly, one could here examine Buddhism as an aesthetic itself, and renunciation as a kind of Soulmaking, where under the hood one is still pursuing a kind of high-dimensional meaning qualia of positive valence. Which takes me to:
  3. Rob Burbea’s Soulmaking talking about how exploring not exhaustively breaking down dukkha always but letting a bit of e.g. Eros/passion for reality opens up new ways of seeing that recontextualize Buddhism. Not that we shouldn’t get rid of dukkha, of course. But it’s good to see the underlying aesthetic influences on how one generalizes about reality based on one’s experience.

What do you think? 😄

Thank you for joining! And also for sharing your thoughts. đŸ€ đŸ‘Œ

See: Soulmaking part 1, part 2.


Ah AndrĂ©s, so many thoughts 🙈

First of all, I am so impressed with Burbea. His lectures were incredibly useful for me while learning the jhanas. And now I’m picking through his book ‘Seeing That Frees’.

I think his ontology and how he builds on Buddhism is sophisticated and gorgeous.

Reminds me of a remark about Hemingway, by his grandson – he quit journalism to dedicate himself to fiction because he was more interested in truth than facts. I relate this to Soulmaking in a way.

I love his notion of skillful fabrication. But it seems like it’s a compromise in a way. We can’t fully live without self, and thoughtforms, and conceptual frameworks, and so, while we are alive and have them, let’s learn to use them skillfully/beautifully. I’m on board! 🚂

Re your 2nd point: I would add that a lack of awareness of the existence of cessations, or Nirodha, or ego death experiences is another topographical blind spot which prevents people from making a more comprehensive assessment of what is most desirable. (I know that many people who say they’ve experienced ego death, when I enquire about it, it turns out to be more of just a partial ego loss experience, and not the full annihilation). I suppose we really need those who have deep expertise in bliss states and dukkha-less/unfabricated states to compare and contrast.

For what it’s worth, and to give you more a sense of my bias, I would claim to be someone who has explored a wide range of state-spaces: from suicidal depression, to psychosis-like damnation bad trips, to K-holes, to peak experiences, and now as of 21st of May [2021] I’m claiming Frank Yang-style MCTB [see: Scott Alexander’s book review] 4th path permanent abiding in centreless consciousness (IDK what that says about my nervous system and fully propagating insights as you mentioned).

Hands down 🙌, this is the best shift in my life that has ever taken place without a doubt (I thought stream entry was good, but this is another magnitude). My hedonic set tone is persistently so high. I’m often walking around smiling for no apparent reason. 11/10 I recommend this.

And 4th path gets you an ability to adopt a new perspective where you simultaneously see the Yin and the Yang and vice sera (emptiness is form and samsara is nirvana). It’s all one place, there is not out. All the while, still we quite obviously make value judgements between states. I know you speak of hellish corners of consciousness that shouldn’t be touched. And so, although we can/should adopt flexibility of perspectives on aesthetic frames (as Rob speaks about, which is helpful) and see value in many different views as best as we can… must we still do the hard job of really judging what is best? What is most desirable? (to talk from a metamodern perspective).

Ultimately, I still come down on: lights out unconsciousness tops everything đŸ€·â€â™‚ïž [emphasis mine]. Getting all beings to Parinirvana would objectively be preferable for all beings rather than keeping the play going – if such a plan is possible or sensible or sensical even.

It’s funny though, at some point I think it may just come down to some split difference in intuition among people (perhaps that difference can be reconciled somehow). For me this was apparent when I hear from Kenneth Folk vs. Culadasa. Kenneth holds antinatalist sentiments (or he did when I emailed him a couple of years ago and actually asked him) which speaks to a siding with a belief that there is an asymmetry of weighted value between negative and positive valence. While Culadasa seems to emphasize the joyous journey and adventure of life, which may speak to an opposite weighting in favor of the positive valence being worth the negative valence that comes along with it. Certainly not all spiritual roads lead to Rome.

I am very open to the idea that I am missing something though, and I may just need to be led by the hand like a child to these heaven realms for me to change perspective 😇😂

Thanks for engaging, this is fun!


Thank you for engaging! This is super interesting! Let me think about what else I can say 🙂


Total valence vs. pureness of valence: see Principia Qualia pg. 41. It could be that during cessations consciousness disappears and the state literally does not exist in any way. But the states immediately before and immediately after do and have at least a tiny bit of information so they are mixed valence states. Yet, perhaps they are massively positive valence on net.

An alternative view is that unconsciousness is still ‘real’ in a way, in which case we could think of it as consciousness but with no content whatsoever. But it’s still there. The analogy would be like combing a vector field in a torus. Most states have the vector field collide with itself and therefore feel less than perfect valence (due to [the Symmetry Theory of Valence, aka.] STV). Only when the field is completely combed without any self-collisions (which would not be possible in a sphere) you get perfect positive valence. And although there is no information encoded in the field, it still exists just as it did before. There’s just nothing to report.

In that case paradise could actually still exist. Meaning, higher and more refined versions of this kind of experience. In particular, we could look for other mathematical objects where the field can also be combed perfectly. They would then be strangely a different kind of ‘unconsciousness’ perhaps capable of fitting more energy and higher dimensions. Still, they would have maximum positive valence.

What do you think?

Oh, I also forgot if I’ve asked you whether you’ve tried 5-MeO-DMT and how it compares to your new baseline.

Images from Michael E. Johnson’s Principia Qualia


Ah, yes, I see the kind of framework you’re thinking from now – anti-symmetry, symmetry, and asymmetry.

From Principia Qualia pg. 39: [paraphrasing] “…if we take our hypothesis and apply it to IIT, and then we attempt to maximize pleasure/symmetry, consciousness/[phi] drops very rapidly.”

All the way to the point that maximum pleasure entails no consciousness??? [emphasis mine]

I don’t have a lot of experience with 5-MeO. I only did it once at about a 6mg range.

My impression of 5-MeO was that it had a visual brightening effect somewhat similar to the 4th Jhana. And there was that psychedelic mirroring effect with eyes open. It also had the reduction of conceptual understanding that comes when you get into 8th [Jhana]. I interpret that as a significant down-regulation in top-down information processing??

5-MeO has the sense that it’s going somewhere, moving towards something, while the effects build and then dissipate. Like it’s growing into something (I guess this is before a peak breakthrough – which I didn’t have).

My current consciousness abode isn’t going anywhere. There isn’t a sense that things are building towards something. It has a forever ‘this is it’, locked-in quality. Like a somewhat superposition of emptiness and fullness simultaneously. (Before 4th path I always felt like I was flickering between form and emptiness, now the two cohabitate the experiential space at the same time).

5-MeO also seemed very hedonically volatile; like any subtle thought or movement could disrupt the peace.

Meanwhile my current state is super unperturbable. In the past 2.5 months I haven’t found something that has rocked my well-being.

A couple of weeks ago I listened to an interview of a North Korean defector tell her story of starvation and human trafficking and for a good 30 minutes I was crying at this tragedy. But it was crying from a place of still really high well-being. I didn’t feel like I was suffering and I didn’t mind that crying state at all. (Which is quite weird, I suppose).

In my normal state now, there are no more papañca attacks. Thoughts don’t capture the mind like they used to.

And another thing I love about this new state is that I still have all my cognitive functions intact and I can operate in the world totally normally – which can’t be said about being on 5-MeO.

I feel super sober; while on 5-MeO I don’t believe you do (if I remember correctly).

I would say I prefer my new baseline to what I experienced on 5-MeO because of the lack of volatility and practicality of still having my intellect on hand, all the while with the constant sense of ‘this is it’ and high, high well-being.


Roger and Andrés have a video call

We discussed a number of things: his meditation journey, his thoughts on various philosophies, exploring QRI frameworks, and his interest in music. Curiously, Roger said that unlike other people who spend a lot of time in meditation healing traumas and processing past experiences, he was able to largely just focus on progress on the path. This, along with a very rigorous and consistent practice, is why he got to where he is at so early in life (26 years old).

One of my main interests in the discussion was to flesh out how 4th path states/traits and the Symmetry Theory of Valence (STV) were connected. If I recall correctly, there were three main ideas connected to this topic I shared with him:

  1. Discussing the “levels of consciousness” experienced on a psilocybin trip and the way they might mirror some of Frank Yang’s descriptions of the levels of consciousness on the path to awakening, 
  2. A model of equanimity I’ve been developing where impedance matching is a key ingredient, and
  3. The difference between a “recipe” of a state or transformation of consciousness and its “review”

Let’s briefly elaborate on these topics.

(1) Frank Yang talks about undergoing a meditative process with the following stages: (a) standard sense of self, (b) awareness of awareness, (c) God/Oneness/Being/Non-Duality/Self, (d) Emptiness/Non-Beng/Uni-Locality, (e) Neither Being Nor Non-Being, and finally (f) Enlightenment.


What makes his descriptions so incredible is that he provides very raw and unfiltered phenomenological accounts of the process without really trying to force them into any pre-existing framework. From the point of view of the mission of QRI this is very valuable. In particular, it allows us to examine his process of transformation with the framework of Qualia Formalism: we ought to ask, not what kind of spiritual/mystical/transcendent process is going on here (which will certainly take us nowhere), but rather, wonder if we can cast his descriptions in terms of *structural changes to the field of awareness*. For example, Frank talks about “the screen of God” that becomes apparent in (c), where waves of energy seem to travel without resistance across one’s experiential field. He also talks about phase transitions (similarly to Shinzen Young, he talks about a process of liquefaction and gasification of the field of awareness). If, as we believe at QRI, valence is a structural property of experience, these transformations would have profound effects on one’s sense of wellbeing. So, the reason why “the screen of God” is a profound experience is not because you literally merge with a divine being (which might not be possible if we assume indirect realism about perception), but because the field of awareness is now in a phase that allows an entirely new level of efficient stress dissipation.

I shared with Roger some details from a particularly interesting psilocybin trip report that described rapid phase transitions between (what appears to be) several of the levels Frank describes. In particular, “the screen of God” state seems to have the capacity to stresslessly locate sensations without generating reverbarions with a represented “small self to which those sensations belong”.

(2) In turn, this led to discussing a new model (we haven’t really touched upon in QRI publications yet, but which is coming) of equanimity based on experiences I had during a two-week retreat earlier this year (see: Buddhist Annealing). This model has at its core the idea that equanimity is a mental tool that increases impedance matching between nervous system harmonics. Ask yourself: why is it that when you pluck a guitar string it sounds louder if it is connected to a guitar? It is not, as many would think, that the “resonance box amplifies the sound” (for where would the extra energy come from?). Rather, the energy is the same; what changes is the speed at which it is discharged! The resonance box vibrates and dissipates the energy of the string much faster than the string could on its own (as an aside, this is exactly why you can sustain a note for so much longer in an electric guitar). We could thus postulate that a lot of inner dissonance comes from resonance in the nervous system that has no means of dissipating its stored stress. To an extent, this is because involuntary subliminal contractions in our nervous system compartmentalize and modularize its components. Equanimity is the practice of relaxing those contractions, and thus slowly allowing the nervous system to undergo a search process where it finds structures that can resonate with the stored stress, and in turn allow it to dissipate faster. More so, over time, you entrain (and rewire!) the nervous system to become highly efficient at stress-dissipation. Dissonance is still there, but it “unfolds” and gets “metabolized” so fast that it barely counts as suffering. Highly annealed nervous systems are powerful stress-dissipation engines!

(3) Finally, we also discussed the idea that there is a distinction between the “recipe” of a state of consciousness and its “review”. A recipe is the steps you take in order to achieve a certain state (or transformation) of consciousness. A review is instead an account of what the resulting state feels like. Just as the instructions for baking a cake are quite different from a Chef’s review of what the resulting cake tastes like, we can expect that meditation instructions (e.g. focusing on the three characteristics) will not necessarily reflect the nature of the transformations of consciousness that result from them. Thus, while a lot of the meditative path is nominally about “renouncing” the pursuit of high-valence states of consciousness (and thus avoid the pleasure paradox), the result is nonetheless a state of consciousness that is high-valence in nature! Paradoxical? I don’t think so. The confusion is merely the result of conflating recipe and review.

Thus, we can still apply valence theories to states of consciousness that are allegedly beyond valence. Frank Yang, for example, seems to resonate a lot with STV. See his December 2020 interview at The Stoa. There (and in other videos) he describes “God mind” consciousness as a very positive experience, which is very symmetrical but not perfect. But his true awakening is perfectly symmetrical (in the realm of space, observer, and sense of time, even if not in content). His experience became like a “hologram that has no center”. Quote:

“Have you seen those illustrations of a sphere or a circle, where one point connects to all of the other points? [
] if you wanted me to describe my day to day, moment to moment, experience, well, it’s pretty symmetrical. As in, there is no center to experience. There is hearing but no hearer; there is just the seeing, there is no seer; on thinking there is just thinking and no thinker. It’s not, like, processed or filtered through a subject in the center. And it’s very immediate in the sense that all of the sensations, all 360 degrees, are synched up to themselves, without any delay, 24/7. And all the sensations, where there is body, you know sight, sound, thoughts, emotions
 they are all on equal footing to each other […inaudible
] in symmetry, and that is for me an aesthetic experience. I would say a suffering mind is a mind that isn’t symmetrical. If your mind is asymmetrical, it means it’s defiled somewhere. So for me aesthetics runs in all different kinds of domains, not only on the perceptual domain, not only on the visual aesthetics domain, but even on the emotional and how you think.”

Yes, God Mind (left) is good, but have you tried no-self (right)? It is so much more symmetrical!

As we’ve discussed before, the homogeneity of phenomenal space and time might be a very large component of what accounts for positive valence. And what Frank is describing here suggests that’s the case. Disturbances in the attention field lines and the saliency of specific components of a mind can break the underlying symmetry of the phenomenal space and time of the resulting experience. Anxiety, for example, in this paradigm is described as unpleasant because it involves the bubbling up of low-level prediction errors causing “attention pinches” across your experience, and thus disturbing the free-flow of energy that would exist in a homogeneous field. Prediction errors are not inherently unpleasant; they are unpleasant only to the extent that they cause asymmetries in your field of awareness!

Frank Yang also says that his big awakening felt like a “quantum jump”. It makes sense that a strong anti-fragile attractor for a new network topology would be self-reinforcing (a new lowest-energy state, metaphorically speaking, perhaps akin to a false vacuum collapse inside one’s mind!). Again, this is all very compatible with valence structuralism, if not STV.

Roger said that he will have to think about all of this. In the meantime, he shared with me some (amazing!) pictures he made to illustrate how his field of awareness has been transformed with meditation over time. Like Frank Yang, he identifies several discrete phase transitions. These are: (a) standard perception, (b) The Witness, (c) Big Mind, (d) No Self, and finally (e) No Self & Centreless Awareness (4th path!):



[uploads this video – Jhanas 1-9 Experienced and Described In Real Time]



Considering more what you said about impedance matching and adding resonance to experience:

Perhaps this is merely an analogy, but still: consider the tautness of a spider’s web. If a fly lands on it, at one part, the whole web will shake and the energy will transfer throughout in such a way that the spider can locate where on the web the fly landed. If the web is too taut then the energy of the fly landing won’t dissipate far enough for the spider to receive the information. However, if the web is too slack the fly could just break the structure of the web.

It might be interesting to consider why spiders build webs with a centre point and not as a straight or criss-crossing lattice.

So to relate this to consciousness and metabolizing stress
 I would say my consciousness now feels like it’s more taut and lattice-woven rather than spider web-shaped with a middle [emphasis mine]. So this means when a stress point is activated somewhere in the experiential space, its energy doesn’t ripple as far out as it would have before, thus not being as disruptive.

And if we aliken the spider on the web to the epistemic agent, if he is situated on one spot and for all goings-on on the web to be known their information must travel to him, then the web must be not too taut so that all the ripples can reach him and he knows what’s going on. The problem with this set-up is that it means that knowing requires instability.

However, if we do away with the spider (a single point considered the epistemic agent) and make it so that the knowledge is attributed to the web itself, then the web can afford to be much more taut/less shaky/more robust, causing less negative valence.

So in some way I could say my experience (centerless consciousness) is more taut in this way, but this tautness doesn’t feel rigid or stiff, but rather very airy.

Indra’s net can have too much slack in it, if it’s not sewn together tightly and uniformly.

Pre-Awakening: The mind uses a fictitious “self-as-epistemic-agent” in a field of awareness that has slack and vibrates in unpleasant ways in the process of integrating information. The field of awareness relies on a network topology that is suboptimal for efficient stress dissipation.

Post-Awakening: The mind lacks any kind of center or self-as-epistemic-agent. The field of awareness is tout and extremely efficient at stress dissipation. The network topology has permanently changed to a far more symmetrical and regular configuration.



Roger talks with Brendan Graham Dempsey: watch video here. He explains in more detail the spider web metaphor at 34:44.

[…and then in an email later


Just for interest’s sake, and I don’t know if this bears any significance, but I’m ambidextrous by the way.

I know symmetry plays a major role in your hypotheses of valence and such.

In some way, I have thought that not having such a prioritization and weightiness to just one side of the body has balanced out my experience and perception (perhaps more than others), I’m not sure.


(As of the 23rd of November 2021, Roger states that he continues to be in the blissful state of centreless consciousness)

Commentary by Andrés, after the fact:

This conversation (and further exchanges I may share in the future) has reinvigorated my quest to describe states (and transformations) of consciousness in terms of changes to the network topology that underlies our field of awareness. Enlightenment might be described in “mystical” ways, but this could be simply due to lack of an adequate formal conceptual framework to make sense of it. But perhaps STV, impedance matching, and efficient stress dissipation through radical network topology reorganization without compromising self-epistemics could take us much further than before in this quest.

Also, if Roger was able to achieve these transformations at the tender age of 26, what is stopping the rest of us from doing the same?

Perhaps, what Marcin Kowrygo says is true: “Techno-boosted Arhatship: The rest is commentary”. (See also this fun story about enlightenment in Slate Star Codex). 

If I were to add one thing to the wish-list, I’d say (in unison with people like Nick Cammarata and David Pearce): if we could have access to MDMA-like states of emotional wellbeing and empathy on tap, that would be fantastic (for many reasons). Plus, non-addictive real pain relief might very well be right behind the corner. So to revise our (admittedly cartoonish and partial) wish-list for the medium-term future of sentience: “MDMA-like emotional palette, non-addictive pain relief, and physiological Arhatship: The rest is commentary”. See you there, my friends!

Happy Thanksgiving Everyone (including the Turkeys, of course)!