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

by Nick Bostrom (2010)

Dear Human,

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

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

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

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

We call the lives we lead here “Utopia”.

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

The First Transformation: Secure life!

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

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

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

The Second Transformation: Upgrade cognition!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Third Transformation: Elevate well-being!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

Yours sincerely,
Your Possible Future Self


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


Analysis

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

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

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

nick_bostrom_top_results

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

Detailed 2C-B Trip Report by an Anonymous Reader

by an anonymous reader

Introduction

Yesterday I took about 30mg of 2C-B. In my experience, the “peak” of 2C-B is rather short-lived, so I decided to divide my dose in half so that I could have time to examine the effects over the course of a prolonged plateau. I took 15mg at 2:15pm and then another 15mg at 4:00pm. The whole experience lasted around seven hours, with residual effects for about two more hours. I was just about back to baseline by 11pm. Today, I woke up hangover-free and quite happy and refreshed. I love 2C-B for this reason; unlike MDMA, it does not feel like it taxes the body very much, and unlike LSD, it does not seem to be a completely unpredictable trip with the potential for undesirably deep existential worries – “ontological paranoia”, as a friend once put it. And unlike 2C-I, 2C-E, or 2C-T-2, it is relatively nausea-free and very upbeat. I think that the quasi-entactogenic boost in mood provided by 2C-B, more so than its trippy, psychedelic effects, may be the reason why it feels “psychologically safer” than acid. I’ve never had a bad time on 2C-B- only somewhat uncomfortable- but it never gets worse than a -2 on a sadness-happiness scale from -10 to +10, whereas acid can take you all the way down to -6 or -7 if you are really unlucky and you let it happen. Anyway- I am very happy I did it and I wanted to share some observations about my experience.

From a third person point of view, I’m sure my behavior wasn’t too out of the ordinary. I laughed harder than I usually laugh, and I was clearly giggly and arousable. But I wasn’t slurring my speech, speaking slowly, or making nonsense sounds. I am reasonably certain that for most of the experience, I could have spoken to a sober person without them realizing I was on anything. They might have thought that I was in a very open-minded mood, perhaps, but I don’t think it would have been obvious that I was tripping. Time-wise, I spent the first two hours or so listening to music, looking at patterns that I had saved for just this occasion, and staring at the ceiling. From the time I re-dosed (4pm) until about 7pm, I spent a lot of that time chatting online with a friend, smelling scented objects I was able to find in my house, and trying to test some hypotheses about the state I was in. From 7pm to about 9:30pm, I danced, chatted a bit with a different friend, and tried to take some notes- but I had trouble staying on track due to my short attention span. And from 9:30pm and onwards I mostly just laid back, got sucked into a rabbit hole learning about the Unarius religion, and played chill music.

For context, I should add that I’ve read a good number of Qualia Computing articles and I like to follow the links I find in them. I may get something wrong- please forgive me if I botch any specific reference. But I do think that this analysis of my experience might be helpful for the project of consciousness research. That being said, here are some highlights of the thoughts and observations that I gathered from my trip:

Key Signatures and Atasoy’s Work

In a presentation about brain harmonics (link), Selen Atasoy described how the “repertoire of brain states increases” on LSD. But she also mentioned that LSD has the general effect of (1) increasing the amplitude of brain harmonics across the spectrum, and (2) increasing the amplitude of high-frequency harmonics more so than that of low-frequency harmonics. I remember that the first time I read about brain harmonics, I thought it was some kind of hippie fantasy, or like some sort of 19th century model of how the brain works (e.g. Atasoy quotes Tesla in her presentation). But thinking about it while coming up on a psychedelic is quite revealing. The first thing I noticed was that at the 40 minute mark, I felt an overall amplification of the energy of my consciousness. I know this sounds crazy- especially if you’ve never tried a psychedelic- but there is a global increase in the intensity of your experience. It’s very much true that when you start coming up on psychedelics, it feels like someone is turning up the volume of your experience overall. This is not only true for every sensory modality of your experience (visual, sound, tactile, etc.), but also true for the affective (emotional) and cognitive (thought) components!

On a low dose, or at the beginning of the come-up on a medium or large dose, all you really notice is this global amplification across the board. But then it gets more interesting. I realized yesterday that the mild background noise that I can hear in my head when things are silent kept changing as I was coming up. At first, the noise kept slightly increasing in amplitude. There was a certain mixture of ringings (I don’t really have tinnitus, but I hope you see what I mean… I think weed and dissociatives amplify this noise too, but in a different way), and what I noticed was the way that the mixture of components that make up this subtle background noise started changing and shifting upwards in frequency. The thing is, this didn’t happen in a simple linear progression. I paid attention to how this happened, and I noticed that at around the 50 minute mark, I experienced perfect silence. It was like all of that background noise was gone (apparently MDMA does this to people who suffer from tinnitus). But then, at around the 55 minute mark, other sounds started to appear. It was a new mixture, but the overall spectrum of frequencies was now higher than before- like a higher-pitched mixture of subtle ringings. Then, at the 1 hour mark, I heard silence again! And then another episode of ringing, but higher still- then it switched to silence again, and then it mostly stayed that way. It felt like there were several phase-changes; it seemed like mixtures of brain harmonics can sometimes cancel each other out, but at other times they leave a residue. And the higher the overall spectrum of your brain state in frequency, the higher the pitch of the residue- unless it is silence, which feels the same at any level.

While I was noticing these qualitative changes happening in the background noise that I can hear in my head, I was also paying attention to my visual field. I noticed that something quite similar was happening there too. There were several phases that I would cycle between depending on how high I was. Usually, there is a little bit of “static” random noise in my vision. And on the 2C-B, I noticed that at first, this noise diminished and my vision felt like it was perfectly clear. But then, I would see criss-crossing patterns across my visual field. They were very subtle at first, and then grew more and more noticeable over time. Then the criss-crossing patterns would get higher in their spatial frequency (lines with less space between them), up to the point where they started to saturate my visual field. And then, the whole thing would break into a visual noise pattern similar to where I started from, except that now, it seemed both brighter and more defined than before. Then, again, my visual field would go clear and crisp, like the air was being sucked out of the room. And then again, subtle criss-crossing would start overlaying it, and the entire process would repeat. It repeated itself about four times during the first hour and a half of coming up, and it ended up in the criss-crossing region, now at fairly high frequencies.

 

I spent some time during the trip wondering how this could happen. It reminded me of a few concepts which I had studied previously: aliasing, beats, and Moiré patterns. I’ll leave some pictures here (courtesy of Google Images) that do a good job of replicating some of the elements of the transitions:

 

I like the one on the left in particular, in which the concentric circles increase in their spatial frequency as you go up. You can imagine that going up that image is how it felt coming up on 2C-B. The thing is, at any given point, I was experiencing an overlap of many different frequencies, but the most dominant ones would interfere with each other- sometimes generating a single, clear, strong beat pattern when superimposed, sometimes generating silence/crisp images, and sometimes making a strange mesh of noisy, grainy, superpositions. But one thing is for certain- the frequency of the underlying components, both temporally and spatially, seemed to go up as a function of how high I was on the 2C-B.

I suppose that many people would read Atasoy’s work and Andres’s speculation about how it could be extended to quantify how happy you are (ref) to mean that in any given moment, you are experiencing just one frequency- or maybe two or three. But I think it’s more like you have a broad range of frequencies active at any point in time, and on psychedelics, the range of possible combinations explodes. At any single point in time, they are both superimposed on and interfere with each other. I guess I thought this was very abstract before the trip, but now I think I was able to feel that process from the inside and know what brain harmonics refer to. The mesh of increasingly high-frequency Moiré patterns is how it looks and sounds like- how it feels like- from the inside, to retune your connectome-harmonics upward.

 

At the time, I thought that this could potentially be explained by making an analogy to keyboards, where each brain harmonic is like a musical note on a keyboard. On 2C-B, you get a double keyboard, with a wider range of possible notes. And perhaps LSD would be not only giving you more possible notes, but also providing you with additional features- like, for example, a general synthesizer that can apply distortions to the sounds. 2C-B has some other effects in addition to increasing the range of available notes, but they are hard to describe. Reverb and delays are there for sure, but not crazy things like on-the-fly timbre modifications, which are more akin to the weirdness of LSD. More generally, my experience has been that phenethylamines have fewer features than lysergamides and tryptamines. On the other hand, when it comes to establishing an emotional base, phenethylamines have a certain “loving” frequency that persists throughout the experience, and I think that makes them better in many contexts.

Emotion

This train of thought led me to consider my experience in light of something that Mike Johnson recently blogged about: the view that our moods are the result of the key signature of our brain state:

This is not to say our key signatures are completely static, however: an interesting thread to pull here may be that some brains seem to flip between a major key and a minor key, with these keys being local maximas of harmony. I suspect each is better at certain kinds of processing, and although parts of each can be compatible with the other, each has elements that present as defection to the internal logic of the other and so these attractors can be ‘sticky’.

– Mike Johnson, A Future for Neuroscience

With respect to emotion, the things I experienced are very hard to describe, but I’ll give it a go. I think, on average, if you aggregated all the micro-moods of the experience, it would come out to be fairly positive overall- maybe a +3 on the -10 to +10 scale. But the mood would fluctuate in peculiar ways over a period of just fractions of a second. There was an underlying low-frequency tonality to the experience- which was very pleasant- that I think may be the result of the mildly euphoric, stimulant-like effect which 2C-B has. This was a strong base for the overall quality of the total mood, and it made the experience very pleasant for the most part. But there was another big component of mood, that could switch from pleasant to worried and back in the span of about half a second. It didn’t sway the base euphoria very much, and I was actually able to appreciate the switching quality. All in all, I mostly stayed on the positive side, and the negative moods were very fleeting (seconds at most). But I was amazed at how little stability there was, and how the buzzing of various frequencies didn’t settle into a particular coherent emotional impression. It certainly felt like the mood was directly connected to the buzzing of notes, which were creating a complex, chaotic symphony made up of meshes of brain harmonics. Thankfully, it was certainly biased towards positive and awe-inspiring moods. My self-model was also disassembled and reassembled with constantly shifting emotional tones. The come-up in particular had a certain anxious edge, and the semantic content of that anxiety seemed to be connected to particular things I’ve done in the past which have embarrassed me. Undergoing those emotions was intense, but it also felt somehow cleansing. It’s like- once you fully see the consequences of your embarrassing actions (or at least imagine them), you don’t worry about it as much. You get used to it and move on.

High-Energy Consciousness

As I approached the moment I would finally plateau, I experienced many different philosophical views of reality as distinct, short, intense bursts of existential feelings. In these states, one “realizes” that particular philosophical views must be true by the sheer fact of how intense they feel. I can certainly recall having believed in such intense feelings in the past, especially when I was in my early twenties and trying psychedelics for the first time. This time, the images were still as intense as they had been before in similar levels of alteration, but they were about different topics (it’s been a while since I’ve experimented with psychedelics). I recognize that these experiences have a powerful capacity to shake up your pre-existing model of the world. You either cling to your previous models and suffer, or you let go and get brainwashed into having new metaphysical views of reality. I don’t know… Over the years, the content of those feelings has changed, and I’ve seen contradictory things which seemed like the final truth at the time. I think I now interpret these intense bursts of philosophically-flavored experiences as being instances of some kind of “energetically super-charged, super-coherent state of consciousness”. I can see how many people could arrive at the conclusion that these bursts of intense consciousness are messages from aliens, or perhaps psychic laser beams coming from a secret organization, or whatnot. God, the divine, infinite life, now-ness, Buddha nature, awakening, etc. are all suitably grandiose concepts that sort of provide a conceptual framework to make sense of these super-high-energy states of consciousness. Alternatively, we just haven’t figured out how to harness these unusual state-spaces of consciousness for information-processing purposes, or even for non-brainwashy aesthetic experiences… they confuse the heck out of us.

f36b6f36

We currently lack the conceptual frameworks and adequate techniques to make sense of, and make use of, super-high-energy states of consciousness.

Anyhow, in this particular case, the intense flashes of super-energetic consciousness seemed to be about the reality of the present moment on the one hand, and the way in which scent is related to feeling alive on the other. It sounds arbitrary, but it didn’t feel arbitrary at the time. I remember looking for things to smell in my house and finding an essential oil of orange (as well as cinnamon powder, mint tea, ground coffee, and nutmeg). The particular orange smell of that essential oil really seemed to resonate with my state. How should I put it? It was an intense feeling of awake effervescence, youthful reality, and spacious energy. The scent seemed to be a key for a lock, that when turned, would bring all the channels of my experiential field into contact and into a unified expression of “presence/aliveness”. Ok, this is word salad. I’m not going to pretend this is anything but poetic allusion. Here is a concrete, logical-sounding insight instead: I felt like I was finally able to make sense of what scent qualia is getting at. Scent qualia is the phenomenological expression of the resonant signature that is produced in a high-dimensional manifold as a result of energizing it with a certain combination of frequencies. Sorry, word salad again. Let’s try once more…

Orange essential oil seemed like the olfactory equivalent of playing all the notes of a major chord at once. In fact, every scent felt like it had an equivalent in auditory qualia, and that we could describe a scent as presenting you with every note in a key signature all at once. It gave me the impression that perhaps scent is a qualia that can be experienced in a much more general way. Imagine that, all your life, you’ve only ever listened to music made by playing all the notes of certain keys at the same time. I’m sure you could make compelling music that way, and if our brains didn’t separate the notes, we might get the impression that that is all there is to music. Perhaps we are restricted in this way for scents, and the scent of lavender is, in fact, decomposable into a whole number of notes. And I don’t mean chemically purifying the product, because I think that even pure chemicals have complex smells. During the experience, I kept coming back to the orange scent to try to capture the overall emotional key signature of my state. Warm, loving, intense, bright, surprising, flickering, effervescent, citric. Make of this what you will.

state_space_of_scents

State-space of scent qualia (adapted from: Categorical Dimensions of Human Odor Descriptor Space Revealed by Non-Negative Matrix Factorization; Castro, Ramanathan, Chennubhotla. 2013; link)

Many of the “moments of experience” (ref) of high energy I experienced seemed to be half-posed questions and lack semantic content in the conventional sense. I assume that they could be co-opted by beliefs that say “that’s your karma” and “that’s God” or “that’s a vision of the future”, but honestly, all of those interpretations fall short of the actual thing- which, at the time, seemed more like random snippets of hyper-associations in a super-energized form, akin to a high-dimensional neuronal resonance box, if that makes any sense.

Sometimes the powerful bursts of high-energy consciousness were about the concept of now, and its connection to Open and Empty Individualism, and also the way it connects to the concept of “pure awareness”. I’ve explored these threads before, and it’s always startling when you get these flashes that feel like they mean something and yet contain almost no information. To extend the analogy with musical key signatures, it occurs to me that these states are in fact important nodal points in high-energy state-spaces of consciousness, but we don’t understand either their context or the way in which they fit together with all other possible experiences. I got the impression that these states have their own unique grammatical, syntactic, and semantic structure that is ultimately closed and self-consistent. I’m sure you’ve had the experience of recognizing a song by hearing one brief sub-second fragment of it. You realize there is more, much more, to it, and that the little fragment you heard is meaningless out of context. Yet the fragment is compelling in that it evokes and suggests a whole world of experience. These states feel like that- a high-energy fragment of something that seems completely genuine, whose level of structure and emotional depth is just complete enough to be highly suggestive of a higher world of organization into which such fragments could fit perfectly. From a secular point of view, one could perhaps describe this as the first glimpses of an art form that will be accessible to transhumans and posthumans, once the underlying laws that rule the emotional character of such experiences are understood and mastered.

Existential Humor and Semantic Nihilism

At the conceptual level, I remember that my mind latched onto two related themes: existential humor and semantic nihilism. For reference, I Heart Huckabees would be an example of a movie that plays with existential humor. The movie touches on existential crisis and absence of meaning; and it manages to be funny not despite it but because of it.

Existential humor is humor in the face of unresolved existential questions. Part of what makes this humor work is its self-reflective nature. It’s the humor of the fact that humor is possible in such circumstances. I think that the unresolved mood of the 2C-B state didn’t allow for an over-arching gestalt to form, and one could say it kept being a sort of affective pastiche. Like musical improvisation without a central theme. The deep philosophical questions that were posed didn’t produce deep undertones, like they usually do on LSD. Perhaps this makes it a more friendly state in a way… the buzzing of competing moods protects you from going too deep into some existential crisis, and allows you to sort of have some distance from any particularly unpleasant impression. The only somewhat constant feature here was giddiness, which probably explains why humor was present even though deep existential questions seemed to be both posed and left unresolved.

In turn, I also gained a new appreciation of the general idea of semantic nihilism (which I saw mentioned here). I once took a philosophy of language class in which we discussed Frege, Quine, and Wittgenstein. I was impressed by the fact that these authors would suggest that the semantic content of words was in some way completely relative. I may be misremembering, but I have the image in my mind of a text by Quine where he talks about how meaning is the result of a network of references and has no fundamental grounding (ref). He claimed that analytic and synthetic statements weren’t truly different- at least, not out of context. I didn’t know how to respond to this at the time, but over the years, I’ve thought about it now and then. It’s not like I’ve had the time to sit down and read that philosophy of language textbook again- and maybe I should- but I get the sense that one could, in principle, reformulate meaning by grounding it in qualia. These “no ground of reference” ideas fly in the face of felt-sense and my ability to use attentional attractors as designators. [Edit after writing this – turns out Andres has already discussed something along these lines in an article]. But what if someone claims that qualia is not enough to ground meaning? I think that hearing a strong argument against the view that qualia and meaning are connected would be very interesting. This is what my mind came up with during the trip- the view that not even feelings can be used as the source of meaning. The existential humor seemed to play very well with semantic nihilism. After all, isn’t it funny if nothing means anything and you are still laughing about it? It’s contagious laughter, that’s why. The thought that there was no true reason for why the laughter was appropriate was itself very funny. And then I’d apply the same mental move to this meta-funny layer, and so on. It was hilarious- in a niche philosophical sort of way- which only certain people who are obsessed with understanding reality could probably relate to.

As an aside, I think that if we look at it from a cultural point of view, most people would have a bad time if they were to experience a high-energy state of consciousness that does not reach a conclusion. The abstract expressionism of felt-sense, meaning, and audio-visual qualia is alarming without a framework to make sense of it. I realized that applying semantic nihilism to these experiences made me feel comfortable with them not actually meaning anything specific. It seemed okay that they would stay as they were: existential feelings with no resolution. I think that perhaps some aesthetics could really turn this into an art form. Perhaps Buddhist Vipassana meditation is trying to get at this.

Symmetry Groups

I paid a lot of attention to the visual textures I saw during the relatively long plateau. The textures that I had saved to look at were a bit enhanced, but they were not as interesting, I found, as the textures of the wall, ceiling, carpet, and blankets. The key difference was the fact that the live textures had actual depth. Although subtle, it still gave rise to interesting effects. I started the journey with the intention of examining the symmetrical structures of the textures I saw. I was impressed by the idea that a mathematician who experimented with LSD was able to catalogue each of the 17 wallpaper groups in his visual hallucinations (ref). I, on the other hand, was only able to see a few. Sadly, I didn’t practice naming the symmetries before going into the trip. But I can say that I noted mirror symmetry was rarely involved, and that the simplest, the one called “o”, was the one I saw the most frequently. By looking at the table now, I can definitely say that I also saw “2222”. I did see a lot of rotational symmetry elements, and they would click together to form larger symmetrical bundles. It was very interesting to watch.

 

I tried to really pay close attention to how the visuals were formed. It was very fascinating. I recall that there are many “subtypes” of visual effects, and they’ve been catalogued to some extent (ref). But what I noted this time was how they are all interconnected. Here is the story: first, the texture would appear relatively normal, just slightly brighter than normal. Then the positive after-image of the texture would linger for long enough to start overlaying onto itself. Then there would be a critical moment where that positive after-image would flip into a negative after-image (e.g. from orange to aqua, green to magenta, white to black, etc.). My brain would then try to deal with the presence of the negative after-image, and somehow fit it discreetly into the texture, in order to preserve as much information as possible from the “real texture”. Here is where the depth comes into play. For whatever reason, the negative after-image would tend to find its place in the crevices of the texture. There, it would form wavy patterns that seemed to self-organize in parallel lines. Once parallel, the patterns would lock into symmetrical shapes and dance together in synchrony. So now I had this two-layered texture that behaved as a unified wave pattern, and after a little while that would form a positive after-image, which in time would start to overlay onto itself- and then my mind would have to find a way to deal with that. With each iteration, my mind would find new ways to fit all of that residual after-image bundle together, and this would often look like some kind of surface trying to be shaped into something recognizable. I got the distinct feeling that whenever I could see something in the texture (cf. apophenia), the overall amount of after-image to deal with would be drastically reduced. I remember an article where the concept of energy sinks was discussed, and I think that both symmetrical re-arrangements of the residual after-image bundles and semantically-meaningful re-arrangements of them both seemed to work as energy sinks. Hence, the symmetrical texture repetition is a way by which the energy of these after-image bundles gets dissipated (and the surface gets locked in the shape that sucked out its energy). I remember thinking how the entire process somehow encapsulates many of the classic visual effect categories; tracers, drifting, pattern recognition, and symmetrical texture repetition all fit together in a continuous sequence of unfolding re-arrangements of an after-image bundle surface. Perhaps some trippers will relate to this description.

Visual Tracers

I also spent some time trying to figure out how to describe the tracers. I probably spent about 10 minutes doing this, and got to a fairly satisfying account, I think. The tracers were mostly composed of “echoes” rather than being the result of applying just a smooth and long decay function. Based on playing with GIFs, I estimated that the first visual echo lagged behind the original stimulation by about 200ms. Then there was another echo (the echo of the echo) which happened roughly 400ms afterwards. I took some time to look at the pictures in How to secretly communicate with people on LSD, and the GIFs seemed to work, but not exactly as the text describes it. It was really cool, though. During the plateau, I found it hard to tell which of the images had the artificial tracer on top (see the article’s “Secret C” GIFs for reference).

oscillation_1_5_5_75_75_1_10_0-05_signal_trailing

(notice the double echo)

Music

I will conclude by mentioning that music was very intense and interesting in this state. I specifically noted that music with reverb sounded massively amplified (example). With the appropriate combination of meditation and reverb-rich sounds, I could experience very pleasant states of equanimity that I don’t usually experience sober. I tried playing pulses of sound and seeing if I could experience “auditory tracers”, but it didn’t seem to work. That is, there wasn’t a clear analogue to the trace structure in the auditory domain. Rather, it’s less that “sound itself sounded like it had more reverb”, and more that “for the sound that already does have reverb, such reverb seemed amplified”. Why would the reverb itself sound amplified? And what is the reverb signature of such amplification? I don’t know! These seem like fertile grounds for novel research.

And that’s about it. I hope you find these observations useful, and if not, at least interesting to read. Peace! 🙂

Philip K. Dick’s LSD Trip

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

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

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

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

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

She was alone.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wheee, she thought. This is marvelous.

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

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


From a 1979 interview:

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

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

Two more references:

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

(source)

And:

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

(same as above)


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

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

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

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

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

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

Lucid LSD Trip Report from an Anonymous Reader

Writer: Anonymous (here substituted as “Bill”)

Dose: 2 blotters

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Universal Plot: Interlude ‽ – The Slytherin Wavelength

Below you will find key quotes from two very interesting interviews. The first one is an interview of a mafia hitman, and the second one deals with a legal executioner. Of note is the fact that a key motivation for choosing their lines of work (killing people illegally, and killing people legally, respectively) was to be someone. That is, they wanted to be recognized by other people’s mental models as someone who is good at their job and whose line of work can command respect. I bolded the sections that show this in the most prominent way.

In other words, even people who would squarely belong to Slytherin are motivated by otherwise very normal, very human kinds of emotions and signaling behaviors. Perhaps what’s different is that for whatever reason the degree of moral disgust they experience concerning their choice of career is vastly out-weighted by the positive emotion they experience from their secure place in a robust competence hierarchy. Parallels to military, police, and political social roles are obvious. There are many people in the world whose internal affective triggers are configured in such a way that they will do anything to be someone. In turn, the world’s militaries, mafias, and slaughterhouses can always find people willing to cause immense suffering to sentient beings in exchange for crumbs of social recognition.

How do we steer people like this away from unethical lines of work? In light of the actual motivations behind their actions, here are four general approaches I think can work:

  1. Increase their moral disgust in response to causing suffering (cf. Clockwork Orange)
  2. Reduce the positive emotion associated with having a secure place in a competence hierarchy (cf. Rank Theory of Depression)
  3. Increase the positive emotion they associate with other’s happiness (cf. MDMA), and
  4. Make them believe/realize that we are all one consciousness (cf. Open Individualism, Peaceful Qualia, LSD for Criminals).

Which approach should be pursued? We shall come back to this in future articles.


Related: The Universal Plot: Part I – Consciousness vs. Pure ReplicatorsThe Banality of Evil (David Pearce), Virtue Signaling (Geoffrey Miller), Book Review: Evolutionary Psychopathology and Radicalizing the Romanceless (Scott Alexander).


Susskind: My guest is a man named Joey. He by his own admission has murdered 38 people. He was a paid killer. A “hit man” for the mafia. Joey is the author of the recently published book “Killer” in which he describes his career and the world of organized crime. You’ve killed 38 people.

Joey: Yes, sir.

Susskind: When did you first kill somebody. How old were you?

Joey: I was 16 the first time I hit somebody in the head.

Susskind: How did that come to pass?

Joey: I was working numbers as a kid. I was a big, tough, kid. I became a controller very shortly. And one day a guy came to me and said “I got a job for you”. So what is it? “I want you to hit somebody in the head.” I looked at him. And said when do you want to know? “By tonight.” I said “ok, see you tonight”. So I thought it over. If I turned this guy down. All my life I will be scuffler. I’ll be looking to hustle, make a dollar somehow. If I take the job, I’m somebody, if I do it right. So I decided to take it. And then I was paid what I considered a fortune. And after I did the job guys who used to see me and just fluff me off, like “that’s just another kid walking around”, suddenly were “hi kid, how are you?”. All of a sudden I had new friends I didn’t know I had. 

Susskind: How much were you paid?

Joey: Five thousand dollars. 

Susskind: At 16?

Joey: That’s correct.

Susskind: How did you killed them?

Joey: I walked up behind them and shot them in the back of their head.

Susskind: Why did you kill them?

Joey: Because I was paid.

Susskind: Did you know what he did?

Joey: I didn’t ask. It was none of my business.

Susskind: Who hired you? Not the name of the man. I mean, was it an organization?

Joey: It was part of an organization, yes.

Susskind: Did they tell why he was going to be killed?

Joey: No.

Susskind: You didn’t ask?

Joey: No. It was none of my business. You weren’t supposed to ask. They offer you a job. You take the job, you do it. You don’t take the job, you don’t do it. It is not my business to know, unless it happens to be somebody, where as you go by you get a reputation, and they are going to knock somebody down, and it is somebody you happen to know, well they tell you “you know them” and they give you the option. By the description of what they tell you, and you think you know the person, then you can say “I am not interested”.

Susskind: How did you feel when you killed somebody? The very first time.

Joey: I don’t know. I guess I was a little shook. But after that it didn’t bother me.

Susskind: Did your conscience hurt?

Joey: No.

Susskind: Could you sleep?

Joey: Yeah.

[….]

Susskind: Did you ever wonder about the person, like they had a wife, or children…

Joey: I don’t worry about any of them. The same as if somebody comes after me. He ain’t gonna worry about me.

[…]

Susskind: Are there don’ts in killing people?

Joey: Yeah. You do not kill them in houses of worship. You do not kill them in their home, in front of their families. And you do not torture a man.

Susskind: Do you rob them?

Joey: No, you do not rob them.

Susskind: Do you torture, at all?

Joey: No.

Susskind: You just do it discretely…

Joey: You just do your job and get out of there. You are not there to play games. You are not there to decide why he should die. Somebody already decided he is going to die. He ain’t have a chance to cross himself before you pull the trigger.

Susskind: What about their begging? 

Joey: I don’t give them enough time to give the word “please” out. If they see me, it’s all over by the time they see me. If they don’t see me because I came up behind them, they never had a chance anyway.

[…]

Susskind: Do you think you have any ethics at all?

Joey: I have a lot of ethics. My word is my bond. That’s number one. I’m more honorable than anybody in the course of your life. That’s my ethics. If I say something will be done it will be done. If I make a promise I will keep it. If I tell you I will be at a certain place, I will be there. I will not break my word to you.

[…]

Susskind: You say in your book that women find you irresistible.

Joey: No, I didn’t say they find me irresistible. 

Susskind: They find you sexually very attractive.

Joey: They find the fact of what I do very attractive.

Susskind: You tell them what you do?

Joey: No. I’ll give you an example. At a party one time after I had been acquitted, I was introduced to this girl, who incidentally comes from one of your better families. She couldn’t wait to jump into bed with me.

Susskind: Because you were a killer.

Joey: That’s correct.

Susskind: And that’s somehow alluring.

Joey: Yes, to her.

Susskind: Was she just a stunning exception?

Joey: No! When girls find that you deal in violence… in controlled violence, as I call it… the fact that you know you have taken a life. Or that you do this. That you have no compunctions about it… it has a strange fascination for them. Don’t ask me what it is. I don’t know!

Susskind: How long does this fascination last?

Joey: I don’t know… they do it two or three times and all of a sudden they look up and ask “where the hell am I?”


Intro: “Ashmawy” is the name given to an executioner in Egypt. We met with a retired “Ashmawy” who carried around 1,070 executions across his career.

Q: How did you become an executioner?

A: After I joined the army, I became part of the security forces. But two or three months after I joined the army, there was an execution. I watched as the executioner walked in with his two assistants and his subordinate officer, and he just commanded the whole room. It’s a job that earns people’s respect because it’s so unique. From that moment on, I knew it was something I wanted to do.

Q: What are the requirements needed to become an executioner?

A: The most important thing is maintaining your fitness and being a physically strong person. You also need to be observant, pray regularly and be close to God. You need to be over 30 or 40 years old because the job is tough and cruel. People’s minds begin to mature in their 30s and 40s, as they have many more life experiences compared to a young person. Sometimes, young men attend the executions, and they end up vomiting or fainting. And some of them are police officers!

Q: Did you love your job?

A: Of course, I did. I loved my job. I mean, some newspapers and magazines even wrote about how I was “in love with the noose”, or something like that. What they really meant was that I was so good at what I did, I became an innovator. And indeed I was innovative. The first time was difficult… I can’t deny that it was difficult. I couldn’t sleep for two days. There is usually a committee of 30 or 40 people watching. People with so much copper on their shoulders – lieutenants, security managers. And they are all watching you. I was scared, but not because someone was dying. I was scared of not doing my job properly.

Q: How did you feel executing someone?

A: It became a very normal thing for me… to the extent that during quiet times, I’d get upset because there were no executions to carry out. In the end it was just like meeting up with you now, or like going to see some friends and taking one to hang. That’s really it. No emotions involved.

[…]

Q: How do people treat you when they find out what your job was?

A: The job makes you famous. You can get someone out of trouble with the police. You can end a problem. A wise person in this position should be humble, and not take advantage of the position. Be humble about it and respect others. You will then find that people will respect you even more.

Hell Must Be Destroyed

Singer called the movement that grew up around him “effective altruism”, and its rallying cry was that one ought to spend every ounce of one’s energy doing whatever most relieves human suffering, most likely either feeding the poor or curing various tropical diseases. Again, something his opponents rejected as impossible, unworkable, another example of liberal fanaticism. Really? Every ounce of your energy? Again, they could have just read their Bibles. Deuteronomy 6:5: “And you must love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength.”
 
Then Singer changed his tune. In the 1970s, after the sky cracked and the world changed, he announced that charity was useless, that feeding the poor was useless, that curing tropical diseases was useless. There was only one cause to which a truly rational, truly good human being could devote his or her life.
 
Hell must be destroyed.
 
The idea of billions of human beings suffering unbearable pain for all eternity so outweighed our little earthly problems that the latter didn’t even register. He began meeting with his disciples in secret, teaching them hidden Names he said had been vouchsafed to him by angels. Thamiel put a price on his life – quite a high price actually. Heedless of his own safety, Singer traveled what remained of the civilized world, making converts wherever he went, telling them to be perfect as God was perfect, and every speech ended the same way. Hell must be destroyed.

An angel appears on Earth. This genderless being connected to God shows up on every screen on Earth at once and asks us if we are interested in drastically improving life on Earth. A large enough portion of those who hear the message (which gets a coverage of 80%+ of people worldwide) see into their souls and find the willingness to make life better, and then they see into their hearts and see the warmth of hope, and so they resolve to agree to do whatever is necessary to help the angel improve life on Earth. And thus the angel says “thanks to the collective desire to make it so, I shall change some things about how the planet is programed, and you will see a 99% reduction in suffering and a 20% increase in overall happiness.”
And so the angel gets to work.
A year passes, and nobody can really tell the difference from before. Most people’s day to day experience is perhaps even slightly more tedious and slightly more boring. What happened? After a few years it is clear that no major change has happened, and indeed affective psychologists report a mild but very generalized decrease in people’s engagement with their day to day activities and increases in feelings of being a bit disoriented. Did the angel scam us? Or did people fail to do their part? Or why are there no improvements? A large enough mass of people asked this question that the angel felt the need to provide an update. He comes back down and appears in all of the planet’s screens and says:
“Everything went according to plan. It is just that your society hasn’t reached the point of scientific development where you are able to measure the quality of experience of sentient beings. You aren’t quantifying pain very well.”
“Here is what I did. Above of all, I focused my energies on trying to prevent some of the worst experiences, which in aggregate happened to be an ethical catastrophe. I managed to reduce how bad these experiences were by about 99.99%.”
“I started by reducing how bad cluster headaches feel. They are now only about 44,000 dolors per second (d/s). They used to be around 450,000,000 d/s. You see, when most people get a fleeting headache, we are talking about headaches that range from 0.5 to 1d/s. You know, the type of headache that people are willing to wait out, and perhaps some people will ask for a little aspirin or some placebo of some sort and then get on with it. Most headaches are of this kind. But even if you bundle all of them together we are talking about a rounding error relative to the suffering caused by other types of headaches, the bad ones. Migraine, for example, tends to get to about 1,000 dolors per second, and sufferers have a hard time communicating the fact that it is not just a lot worse, it is a thousand times more painful than the “normal” ones. But even then that does not register relative to one of the really really bad ones, like cluster headaches, which as I said can spiral up to values close to a billion d/s. As it happens, on your planet there are simple chemical tricks to reduce that particular type of pain (e.g. LSD), so I just went ahead and got rid of the bulk of it very easily. It’s still super painful by human standards, but not by my standards, like it was before. To have a cluster headache now is just as “indescribably bad” as before, meaning it goes beyond people’s ability to imagine and make sense of. But that doesn’t challenge the fact that the 99.99% improvement I did is an ethical victory of civilizational magnitude.”
“Next I went on to reducing how bad it feels to have kidney stones, bone pain, and various kinds of particularly bad neuropathies in people with schizophrenia. By the time I had taken care of about the dozen or so worst kinds of pain, I had already overdelivered by an order of magnitude and was starting to run into diminishing returns. So I decided to go on to helping other planets in my quest to prevent as much suffering as possible.”
“I apologize I used about 0.13 hedons per second (h/s) from mundane experiences to implement one of those cosmic pain diminishing plans. In order to increase the amount of happiness in the world as I promised I made the experience of showering about 50% more enjoyable and the experience of listening to music about twice as good. As you can see, the bathing industry did take off, but not many thought much of it. And the musicians were able to tell that music was awesome again and wondered why, but most people seem to have attributed their increased musical enjoyment to what they imagined had been their own hidden musical talents all along.”
“Thank you, and keep enjoying your drastically improved planet.”

 

Thus, people realized that the world was indeed a lot better. Well, some did. And others complained, but it was ok.

Thanks to Michael Aaron Coleman and Jonathan Leighton for inspiring this piece. Michael suffers from cluster headaches and has described their phenomenology in gruesome detail. He says that in a 0 to 10 scale, cluster headaches are solid 10/10. But he also says you really need a different scale to make sense of this monster. He once used the phrase “minus one million hedonic tone”. He says that morphine makes the pain go from 10/10 to 9/10, if at all, maybe more like 9.5/10. Thankfully, LSD in small doses (~25 micrograms) makes it go to 1/10. DMT also works, but 5-MeO-DMT does not (and yet it still expands time, so not a good idea). Jonathan is the Executive Director of the Organization for the Prevention of Intense Suffering (OPIS). He works on identifying cases where intense suffering can be prevented on a massive scale and doing what has to be done. I recommend getting in touch with him if this is a particular interest of yours.

Psychedelic Turk: A Platform for People on Altered States of Consciousness

An interesting variable is how much external noise is optimal for peak processing. Some, like Kafka, insisted that “I need solitude for my writing; not ‘like a hermit’ – that wouldn’t be enough – but like a dead man.” Others, like von Neumann, insisted on noisy settings: von Neumann would usually work with the TV on in the background, and when his wife moved his office to a secluded room on the third floor, he reportedly stormed downstairs and demanded “What are you trying to do, keep me away from what’s going on?” Apparently, some brains can function with (and even require!) high amounts of sensory entropy, whereas others need essentially zero. One might look for different metastable thresholds and/or convergent cybernetic targets in this case.

– Mike Johnson, A future for neuroscience

My drunk or high Tweets are my best work.

– Joe Rogan, Vlog#18

Introduction

Mechanical Turk is a service that makes outsourcing simple tasks to a large number of people extremely easy. The only constraint is that the tasks outsourced ought to be the sort of thing that can be explained and performed within a browser in less than 10 minutes, which in practice is not a strong constraint for most tasks you would outsource anyway. This service is in fact a remarkably effective way to accelerate the testing of digital prototypes at a reasonable price.

I think the core idea has incredible potential in the field of interest we explore in this blog. Namely, consciousness research and the creation of consciousness technologies. Mechanical Turk is already widely used in psychology, but its usefulness could be improved further. Here is an example: Imagine an extension to Mechanical Turk in which one could choose to have the tasks completed (or attempted) by people in non-ordinary states of consciousness.

Demographic Breakdown

With Mechanical Turk you can already ask for people who belong to specific demographic categories to do your task. For example, some academics are interested in the livelihoods of people within certain ages, NLP researchers might need native speakers of a particular language, and people who want to proof-read a text may request users who have completed an undergraduate degree. The demographic categories are helpful but also coarse. In practice they tend to be used as noisy proxies for more subtle attributes. If we could multiply the categories, which ones would give the highest bang for the buck? I suspect there is a lot of interesting information to be gained from adding categories like personality, cognitive organization, and emotional temperament. What else?

States of Consciousness as Points of View

One thing to consider is that the value of a service like Mechanical Turk comes in part from the range of “points of view” that the participants bring. After all, ensemble models that incorporate diverse types of modeling approaches and datasets usually dominate in real-world machine learning competitions (e.g. Kaggle). Analogously, for a number of applications, getting feedback from someone who thinks differently than everyone already consulted is much more valuable than consulting hundreds of people similar to those already queried. Human minds, insofar as they are prediction machines, can be used as diverse models. A wide range of points of view expands the perspectives used to draw inferences, and in many real-world conditions this will be beneficial for the accuracy of an aggregated prediction. So what would a radical approach to multiplying such “points of view” entail? Arguably a very efficient way of doing so would involve people who inhabit extraordinarily different states of consciousness outside the “typical everyday” mode of being.

Jokingly, I’d very much like to see the “wisdom of the crowds enhanced with psychedelic points of view” expressed in mainstream media. I can imagine an anchorwoman on CNN saying: “according to recent polls 30% of people agree that X, now let’s break this down by state of consciousness… let’s see what the people on acid have to say… ” I would personally be very curious to hear how “the people on acid” are thinking about certain issues relative to e.g. a breakdown of points of view by political affiliation. Leaving jokes aside, why would this be a good idea? Why would anyone actually build this?

I posit that a “Mechanical Turk for People on Psychedelics” would benefit the requesters, the workers, and outsiders. Let’s start with the top three benefits for requesters: better art and marketing, enhanced problem solving, and accelerating the science of consciousness. For workers, the top reason would be making work more interesting, stimulating, and enjoyable. And from the point of view of outsiders, we could anticipate some positive externalities such as improved foundational science, accelerated commercial technology development, and better prediction markets. Let’s dive in:

Benefits to Requesters

Art and Marketing

A reason why a service like this might succeed commercially comes from the importance of understanding one’s audience in art and marketing. For example, if one is developing a product targeted to people who have a hangover (e.g. “hangover remedies”), one’s best bet would be to see how people who actually are hungover resonate with the message. Asking people who are drunk, high on weed, on empathogenic states, on psychedelics, specific psychiatric medications, etc. could certainly find its use in marketing research for sports, comedy, music shows, etc.

Basically, when the product is consumed in the sort of events in which people frequently avoid being sober for the occasion, doing market research on the same people sober might produce misleading results. What percent of concert-goers are sober the entire night? Or people watching the World Cup final? Clearly, a Mechanical Turk service with diverse states of consciousness has the potential to improve marketing epistemology.

On the art side, people who might want to be the next Alex Grey or Android Jones would benefit from prototyping new visual styles on crowds of people who are on psychedelics (i.e. the main consumers of such artistic styles).

As an aside, I would like to point out that in my opinion, artists who create audio or images that are expected to be consumed by people in altered states of consciousness have some degree of responsibility in ensuring that they are not particularly upsetting to people in such states. Indeed, some relatively innocent sounds and images might cause a lot of anxiety or trigger negative states in people on psychedelics due to the way they are processed in such states. With a Mechanical Turk for psychedelics, artists could reduce the risk of upsetting festival/concert goers who partake in psychedelic perception by screening out offending stimuli.

Problem Solving

On a more exciting note, there are a number of indications that states of consciousness as alien as those induced by major psychedelics are at times computationally suited to solve information processing tasks in competitive ways. Here are two concrete examples: First, in the sixties there was some amount of research performed on psychedelics for problem solving. A notorious example would be the 1966 study conducted by Willis Harman & James Fadiman in which mescaline was used to aid scientists, engineers, and designers in solving concrete technical problems with very positive outcomes. And second, in How to Secretly Communicate with People on LSD we delved into ways that messages could be encoded in audio-visual stimuli in such a way that only people high on psychedelics could decode them. We called this type of information concealment Psychedelic Cryptography:

These examples are just proofs of concept that there probably are a multitude of tasks for which minds under various degrees of psychedelic alteration outperform those minds in sober states. In turn, it may end up being profitable to recruit people on such states to complete your tasks when they are genuinely better at them than the sober competition. How to know when to use which state of consciousness? The system could include an algorithm that samples people from various states of consciousness to identify the most promising states to solve your particular problem and then assign the bulk of the task to them.

All of this said, the application I find the most exciting is…

Accelerating the Science of Consciousness

The psychedelic renaissance is finally getting into the territory of performance enhancement in altered states. For example, there is an ongoing study that evaluates how microdosing impacts how one plays Go, and another one that uses a self-blinding protocol to assess how microdosing influences cognitive abilities and general wellbeing.

A whole lot of information about psychedelic states can be gained by doing browser experiments with people high on them. From sensory-focused studies such as visual psychophysics and auditory hedonics to experiments involving higher-order cognition and creativity, internet-based studies of people on altered states can shed a lot of light on how the mind works. I, for one, would love to estimate the base-rate of various wallpaper symmetry groups in psychedelic visuals (cf. Algorithmic Reduction of Psychedelic States), and to study the way psychedelic states influence the pleasantness of sound. There may be no need to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars in experiments that study those questions when the cost of asking people who are on psychedelics to do tasks can be amortized by having them participate in hundreds of studies on e.g. a single LSD session.

Quantifying Bliss (36)

17 wallpaper symmetry groups

This kind of research platform would also shed light on how experiences of mental illness compare with altered states of consciousness and allow us to place the effects of common psychiatric medications on a common “map of mental states”. Let me explain. While recreational materials tend to produce the largest changes to people’s conscious experience, it should go without saying that a whole lot of psychiatric medications have unusual effects on one’s state of consciousness. For example: Most people have a hard time pin-pointing the effect of beta blockers on their experience, but it is undeniable that such compounds influence brain activity and there are suggestions that they may have long-term mood effects. Many people do report specific changes to their experience related to beta blockers, and experienced psychonauts can often compare their effects to other drugs that they may use as benchmarks. By conducting psychophysical experiments on people who are taking various major psychoactives, one would get an objective benchmark for how the mind is altered along a wide range of dimensions by each of these substances. In turn, this generalized Mechanical Turk would enable us to pin-point where much more subtle drugs fall along on this space (cf. State-Space of Drug Effects).

In other words, this platform may be revolutionary when it comes to data collection and bench-marking for psychiatric drugs in general. That said, since these compounds are more often than not used daily for several months rather than briefly or as needed, it would be hard to see how the same individual performs a certain task while on and off the medicine. This could be addressed by implementing a system allowing requesters to ask users for follow up experiments if/when the user changes his or her drug regimen.

Benefit to Users

As claimed earlier on, we believe that this type of platform would make work more enjoyable, stimulating, and interesting for many users. Indeed, there does seem to be a general trend of people wanting to contribute to science and culture by sharing their experiences in non-ordinary states of consciousness. For instance, the wonderful artists at r/replications try to make accurate depiction of various unusual states of consciousness for free. There is even an initiative to document the subjective effects of various compounds by grounding trip reports on a subjective effects index. The point being that if people are willing to share their experience and time on psychedelic states of consciousness for free, chances are that they will not complain if they can also earn money with this unusual hobby.

698okoc

LSD replication (source: r/replications)

We also know from many artists and scientists that normal everyday states of consciousness are not always the best for particular tasks. By expanding the range of states of consciousness with economic advantages, we would be allowing people to perform at their best. You may not be allowed to conduct your job while high at your workplace even if you perform it better that way. But with this kind of platform, you would have the freedom to choose the state of consciousness that optimizes your performance and be paid in kind.

Possible Downsides

It is worth mentioning that there would be challenges and negative aspects too. In general, we can probably all agree that it would suck to have to endure advertisement targeted to your particular state of consciousness. If there is a way to prevent this from happening I would love to hear it. Unfortunately, I assume that marketing will sooner or later catch on to this modus operandi, and that a Mechanical Turk for people on altered states would be used for advertisement before anything else. Making better targeted ads, it turns out, is a commercially viable way of bootstrapping all sorts of novel systems. But better advertisement indeed puts us at higher risk of being taken over by pure replicators in the broader scope, so it is worth being cautious with this application.

In the worst case scenario, we discover that very negative states of consciousness dominate other states in the arena of computational efficiency. In this scenario, the abilities useful to survive in the mental economy of the future happen to be those that employ suffering in one way or another. In that case, the evolutionary incentive gradients would lead to terrible places. For example, future minds might end up employing massive amounts of suffering to “run our servers”, so to speak. Plus, these minds would have no choice because if they don’t then they would be taken over by other minds that do, i.e. this is a race to the bottom. Scenarios like this have been considered before (1, 2, 3), and we should not ignore their warning signs.

Of course this can only happen if there are indeed computational benefits to using consciousness for information processing tasks to begin with. At Qualia Computing we generally assume that the unity of consciousness confers unique computational benefits. Hence, I would expect any outright computational use of states of consciousness is likely to involve a lot of phenomenal binding. Hence, at the evolutionary limit, conscious super-computers would probably be super-sentient. That said, the optimal hedonic tone of the minds with the highest computational efficiency is less certain. This complex matter will be dealt with elsewhere.

Concluding Discussion

Reverse Engineering Systems

A lot of people would probably agree that a video of Elon Musk high on THC may have substantially higher value than many videos of him sober. A lot of this value comes from the information gained about him by having a completely new point of view (or projection) of his mind. Reverse-engineering systems involves doing things to them to change the way they operate in order to try to reconstruct how they are put together. The same is true for the mind and the computational benefits of consciousness more broadly.

The Cost of a State of Consciousness

Another important consideration would be cost assignment for different states of consciousness. I imagine that the going rates for participants on various states would highly depend on the kind of application and profitability of these states. The price would reach a stable point that balances the usability of a state of consciousness for various tasks (demand) and its overall supply.

For problem solving in some specialized applications, for example, I could imagine “mathematician on DMT” to be a high-end sort of state of consciousness priced very highly. For example, foundational consciousness research and phenomenological studies might find such participants to be extremely valuable, as they might be helpful analyzing novel mathematical ideas and using their mathematical expertise to describe the structure of such experiences (cf. Hyperbolic Geometry of DMT Experiences).

Unfortunately, if the demand for high-end rational psychonauts never truly picks up, one might expect that people who could become professional rational psychonauts will instead work for Google or Facebook or some other high-paying company. More so, due to Lemon Markets people who do insist on hiring rational psychonauts will most likely be disappointed. Sasha Shulgin and his successors will probably only participate in such markets if the rewards are high enough to justify using their precious time on novel alien states of consciousness to do your experiment rather than theirs.

In the ideal case this type of platform might function as a spring-board to generate a critical mass of active rational psychonauts who could do each other’s experiments and replicate the results of underground researchers.

Quality Metrics

Accurately matching the task with the state of consciousness would be critical. For example, you might not necessarily want someone who is high on a large dose of acid to take a look at your tax returns*. Perhaps for mundane tasks one would want people who are on states of optimal arousal (e.g. modafinil). As mentioned earlier, a system that identifies the most promising states of consciousness for your task would be a key feature of the platform.

If we draw inspiration from the original service, we could try to make an analogous system to “Mechanical Turk Masters“. Here the service charges a higher price for requesting people who have been vetted as workers who produce high quality output. To be a Master one needs to have a high task-approval rating and have completed an absurd number of them. Perhaps top score boards and public requester prices for best work would go a long way in keeping the quality of psychedelic workers at a high level.

In practice, given the population base of people who would use this service, I would predict that to a large extent the most successful tasks in terms of engagement from the user-base will be those that have nerd-sniping qualities.** That is, make tasks that are especially fun to complete on psychedelics (and other altered states) and you would most likely get a lot of high quality work. In turn, this platform would generate the best outcomes when the tasks submitted are both fun and useful (hence benefiting both workers and requesters alike).

Keeping Consciousness Useful

Finally, we think that this kind of platform would have a lot of long-term positive externalities. In particular, making a wider range of states of consciousness economically useful goes in the general direction of keeping consciousness relevant in the future. In the absence of selection pressures that make consciousness economically useful (and hence useful to stay alive and reproduce), we can anticipate a possible drift from consciousness being somewhat in control (for now) to a point where only pure replicators matter.


Bonus content

If you are concerned with social power in a post-apocalyptic landscape, it is important that you figure out a way to induce psychedelic experiences in such a way that they cannot easily be used as weapons. E.g. it would be key to only have physiologically safe (e.g. not MDMA) and low-potency (e.g. not LSD) materials in a Mad Max scenario. For the love of God, please avoid stockpiling compounds that are both potent and physiologically dangerous (e.g. NBOMes) in your nuclear bunker! Perhaps high-potency materials could still work out if they are blended in hard-to-separate ways with fillers, but why risk it? I assume that becoming a cult leader would not be very hard if one were the only person who can procure reliable mystical experiences for people living in most post-apocalyptic scenarios. For best results make sure that the cause of the post-apocalyptic state of the world is a mystery to its inhabitants, such as in the documentary Gurren Lagann, and the historical monographs written by Philip K. Dick.


*With notable exceptions. For example, some regular cannabis users do seem to concentrate better while on manageable amounts of THC, and if the best tax attorney in your vicinity willing to do your taxes is in this predicament, I’d suggest you don’t worry too much about her highness.

**If I were a philosopher of science I would try to contribute a theory for scientific development based on nerd-sniping. Basically, how science develops is by the dynamic way in which scientists at all points are following the nerd-sniping gradient. Scientists are typically people who have their curiosity lever all the way to the top. It’s not so much that they choose their topics strategically or at random. It’s not so much a decision as it is a compulsion. Hence, the sociological implementation of science involves a collective gradient ascent towards whatever is nerd-sniping given the current knowledge. In turn, the generated knowledge from the intense focus on some area modifies what is known and changes the nerd-sniping landscape, and science moves on to other topics.

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

Abstract

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

Introduction

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

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

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

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

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

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

Personal Identity: Closed, Empty, Open

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

In brief:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Antinatalism

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

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

Antinatalism and Closed Individualism

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

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

 

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

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

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

Antinatalism and Empty Individualism

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

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

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

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

Antinatalism and Open Individualism

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

And on a different thread:

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

Prandium Interruptus

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

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

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

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

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

The One-Electron View

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

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

Philosophy of Time

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

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

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

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

Personal Identity and Eternalism

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

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

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

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

Personal Identity X Philosophy of Time X Antinatalism

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

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

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

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

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

Physicalism Implies Existence Never Dies

Also, from the same essay:

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

[…]

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

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

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

An Evolutionary Environment Set Up For Success

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

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

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

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


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

John von Neumann

Passing of a Great Mind

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The young professor

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

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

‘Proof by erasure’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Those lively Von Neumann parties

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Machines creating new machines

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

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

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

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

The great mind falters

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

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

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

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The Banality of Evil

In response to the Quora question “I feel like a lot of evil actions in the world have supporters who justify them (like Nazis). Can you come up with some convincing ways in which some of the most evil actions in the world could be justified?David Pearce writes:


Tout comprendre, c’est tout pardonner.”
(Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace)

Despite everything, I believe that people are really good at heart.
(Anne Frank)

The risk of devising justifications of the worst forms of human behaviour is there are people gullible enough to believe them. It’s not as though anti-Semitism died with the Third Reich. Even offering dispassionate causal explanation can sometimes be harmful. So devil’s advocacy is an intellectual exercise to be used sparingly.

That said, the historical record suggests that human societies don’t collectively set out to do evil. Rather, primitive human emotions get entangled with factually mistaken beliefs and ill-conceived metaphysics with ethically catastrophic consequences. Thus the Nazis seriously believed in the existence of an international Jewish conspiracy against the noble Aryan race. Hitler, so shrewd in many respects, credulously swallowed The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. And as his last testament disclosed, obliquely, Hitler believed that the gas chambers were a “more humane means” than the terrible fate befalling the German Volk. Many Nazis (HimmlerHössStangl, and maybe even Eichmann) believed that they were acting from a sense of duty – a great burden stoically borne. And such lessons can be generalised across history. If you believed, like the Inquisition, that torturing heretics was the only way to save their souls from eternal damnation in Hell, would you have the moral courage to do likewise? If you believed that the world would be destroyed by the gods unless you practised mass human sacrifice, would you participate? [No, in my case, albeit for unorthodox reasons.]

In a secular context today, there exist upstanding citizens who would like future civilisation to run “ancestor simulations”. Ancestor simulations would create inconceivably more suffering than any crime perpetrated by the worst sadist or deluded ideologue in history – at least if the computational-functional theory of consciousness assumed by their proponents is correct. If I were to pitch a message to life-lovers aimed at justifying such a monstrous project, as you request, then I guess I’d spin some yarn about how marvellous it would be to recreate past wonders and see grandpa again.
And so forth.

What about the actions of individuals, as distinct from whole societies? Not all depraved human behaviour stems from false metaphysics or confused ideology. The grosser forms of human unpleasantness often stem just from our unreflectively acting out baser appetites (cfHamiltonian spite). Consider the neuroscience of perception. Sentient beings don’t collectively perceive a shared public world. Each of us runs an egocentric world-simulation populated by zombies (sic). We each inhabit warped virtual worlds centered on a different body-image, situated within a vast reality whose existence can be theoretically inferred. Or so science says. Most people are still perceptual naïve realists. They aren’t metaphysicians, or moral philosophers, or students of the neuroscience of perception. Understandably, most people trust the evidence of their own eyes and the wisdom of their innermost feelings, over abstract theory. What “feels right” is shaped by natural selection. And what “feels right” within one’s egocentric virtual world is often callous and sometimes atrocious. Natural selection is amoral. We are all slaves to the pleasure-pain axis, however heavy the layers of disguise. Thanks to evolution, our emotions are “encephalised” in grotesque ways. Even the most ghastly behaviour can be made to seem natural –like Darwinian life itself.

Are there some forms of human behaviour so appalling that I’d find it hard to play devil’s advocate in their mitigation – even as an intellectual exercise?

Well, perhaps consider, say, the most reviled hate-figures in our society – even more reviled than murderers or terrorists. Most sexually active paedophiles don’t set out to harm children: quite the opposite, harm is typically just the tragic by-product of a sexual orientation they didn’t choose. Posthumans may reckon that all Darwinian relationships are toxic. Of course, not all monstrous human behavior stems from wellsprings as deep as sexual orientation. Thus humans aren’t obligate carnivores. Most (though not all) contemporary meat eaters, if pressed, will acknowledge in the abstract that a pig is as sentient and sapient as a prelinguistic human toddler. And no contemporary meat eaters seriously believe that their victims have committed a crime (cfAnimal trial – Wikipedia). Yet if questioned why they cause such terrible suffering to the innocent, and why they pay for a hamburger rather than a veggieburger, a meat eater will come up with perhaps the lamest justification for human depravity ever invented:

“But I like the taste!”

Such is the banality of evil.