Harmonic Society (1/4): Art as Family Resemblance + Cool Kid Theory

Note – The full essay’s title is: Harmonic Society: 8 Models of Art for a Scientific Paradigm of Aesthetic Qualia

The following essay was recently published in the Berlin-based art magazine Art Against Art (issue).

The essay offers eight different models of art: models 1 through 4 have been discussed in academic literature and the current intellectual zeitgeist, while models 5 through 8 are new, original, and the direct result of recent insights about consciousness as uncovered by modern neuroscience, philosophy of mind, and the work of the Qualia Research Institute.

Below you will find the abstract, introduction, and the first 2 (out of 8) models of art. I will be sharing 2 new models each week until I’ve shared all 8 of them.



Contemporary writing about art is in exactly the same place as writing about nature was before Darwin came along. Before Darwin there was no single intellectual matrix upon which to fix all of these impressions and ideas. There was no way of organizing all of that information. And this seems to me to be the situation we are in with the arts, as well.

 

– Brian Eno, “What is Art Actually For?” (2012)

Abstract

We start by assuming that there are real stakes in art. This motivates the analysis of this subject matter, and it focuses where we place our gaze. We examine a total of eight models for “what art might be about”, divided into two groups. The first group of four are some of the most compelling contemporary models, which derive their strength from fields such as philosophy of language, economics, evolutionary psychology, and anthropology. These models are: (1) art as a word only definable in a family resemblance way with no necessary or sufficient features, (2) art as social signaling of desirable genetic characteristics, (3) art as Schelling point creation, and (4) art as the cultivation of sacred experiences. These four models, however enlightening, nonetheless only account for what David Marr might describe as the computational level of abstraction while leaving the algorithmic and implementation levels of abstraction unexamined. They explain what art is about in terms of why it exists and what its coarse effects are, but not the nature of its internal representations or its implementation. Hence we propose a second group of four models in order to get a “full-stack” view of art. These models are: (5) art as a tool for exploring the state-space of consciousness, (6) art as a method for changing the energy parameter of experience, (7) art as activities that induce neuronal annealing (which implements novel valence modulation, i.e. surprising pain/pleasure effects), and (8) art as an early prototype of a future affective language that will allow diverse states of consciousness to make sense of each other. These frameworks address how art interfaces with consciousness and how its key valuable features might be implemented neurologically. We conclude with a brief look at how embracing these new paradigms could, in principle, lead to the creation of a society free from suffering and interpersonal misunderstanding. Such a society, aka. Harmonic Society, would be designed with the effect of guaranteeing positive valence interactions using principles from a post-Galilean science of consciousness.

Introduction

We shall start this essay by making the assumption that there are real and substantial stakes when it comes to art. Not all of my readers will agree with this point, and those who do might in fact secretly worry that they are overvaluing art for selfish reasons. I come here to suggest that there could be very real and substantial stakes in art, and that to realize this you do not need to buy into sentimentalism, fanaticism, wishful thinking, or traditionalist attitudes. You could start with the sheer amount of human attention that is devoted to art in one way or another. Art seems to make a lot of people do things, and do them with a lot of their energy and focus. Indeed, many people point at their intimations with art as personally defining moments. Some say their best self is expressed in their creation, consumption, or participation in art. So what is all of this fuss about?

Alas, most things of grand significance have been analyzed by countless people. The sheer magnitude of certain human activity is not a justification for caring about it at the margin, considering the often corresponding sheer magnitude of other people already analyzing and scientifically probing the field. That is, of course, unless you have a reason to think that you have something that everyone else has been missing all this time. And this is the case for you and me right now. The new perspectives on art on this essay come from thinking very deeply about consciousness, qualia, and the possible implementations of the pleasure-pain axis, aka. valence. We will see how investigating these questions cashes out in novel insights about art. In turn, these models, as well as the empirically testable predictions they generate, might have the ability to reframe what is going on with art in a way that allows us to predict how and when it will bring about good and desirable effects.

The 8 Models

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

Models 1 through 4 are already present in the memetic ecosystem of today. They focus on external aspects of art, such as why it reproduces and how it impacts social behavior. From the point of view of Marr’s levels of analysis, these four models focus on the behavioral/computational level of analysis.[1] Namely, what art looks like from the outside, and how it reproduces. Models 5 through 8 are novel perspectives that arise out of examining artistic experiences in light of Marr’s algorithmic and implementation-level accounts of consciousness. That is, how the internal information-processing and implementational features of brains give rise to art. In turn, these four models give rise to a new understanding for when art does or does not do its job.

1. Semantic Deflation

This model says that asking “what is art?” is, more often than not, an utterly confused question. Perhaps in antiquity it would make sense to talk about the essence of art, expecting there to be a set of necessary and sufficient conditions for something to be art. According to the semantic deflation model of art, starting out with the expectation of finding a crisp set of requirements for something to be art is starting off on the wrong foot, for believing that there is an essence of art is to simply not pay attention to the large set of inconsistent use cases for that word, which challenges the existence of such an essence.

The semantic deflation model is supported by key insights from 20th Century philosophy of language, such as found in the works of Russell, Frege, Carnap, Quine, and especially those of the late Wittgenstein. Of particular relevance when it comes to defining art we could point at Wittgenstein’s concept of family resemblance. Developed in his book Philosophical Investigations, the concept of family resemblance posits that many words which seem at first to point at something with a core essence are, in fact, pointing to referents which have overlapping similarities but no universally shared attributes.

Like the concept of a game, which refers to activities as diverse as checkers and cellular automata, and which cannot be easily defined in terms of e.g. point systems, physical movement, number of players, etc., we likewise cannot expect art to be definable in terms of media, intent, social effects, or craft. All we can aspire to is to identify common and characteristic features.

According to this view, the models of art that take objective beauty seriously on Platonic or traditionalist grounds are fundamentally misguided. Callbacks to retraditionalize society to preserve its past – more genuine – aesthetics are perceived as parodies of themselves, trying to undo an intrinsically irreversible process of cultural learning. Nowadays few people seriously believe that art should be conceived of as a tool exclusively for the glorification of traditional values and religious symbolism. It is also not fashionable to think of art in sincere non-ironic ways. Those who wish to earnestly engage with art must remind themselves that the days in which its meaning could be grounded on universally agreed definitions is gone.

Although sobering and clarifying, I argue that this view leaves a lot of value on the table. Sure, art has no common essence, but that does not mean that all of the uses of the word are pointing at things of equal value. Semantic deflation does not provide us with guidance for identifying and promoting good art. Indeed, as Wittgenstein might put it, “[p]hilosophy 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.” (Philosophical Investigations, pg.49).

Interestingly, the semantic deflation model of art can itself be conceived of as an aesthetic. This aesthetic rewards those who can help others transcend narrow conceptions of what art is. Exemplary movements like Dadaism and Pop Art could be thought of as pushing the aesthetic of semantic deflation to the limit.

Art is what you can get away with.” – Andy Warhol.

But what if there is something worth preserving, reifying, and defining clearly in art? Semantic deflation should perhaps be thought of as a first step in figuring out what is valuable about art, rather than a final destination. To move beyond it, one should avoid reviving a naïve essentialist view of art, and instead identify conceptual focal points that genuinely enrich our conception of art. Rather than destroying preconceptions, we could instead refactor, discover, and build new and enlightened ones. Transcending absolutist deflationary views of art is indeed more appealing when there is an alternative in sight that is both better and more real than what you get by merely deconstructing and breaking down naïve views. And this is what we will attempt to do as we move on to other models of art.

2. Cool Kid Theory

In his book “The Mating Mind”, Geoffrey Miller discusses art in light of evolutionary psychology. In this view, art, rather than being a thing, is a culturally sanctioned activity devised to allow people to display their genetic fitness, by showing off above-average features of their phenotypes. Art is, in this view, at its core, an outlet for courtship. Incredible performances like those of Liszt and Rachmaninoff are not just for the pleasure of music. The incredible difficulty of performing the musical compositions is itself the show. The difficulty is not a side-effect of discovering new soundscape frontiers that produce blissful and extraordinary experiences to degrees that couldn’t be possible without the difficulty of execution. Rather, the difficulty of performing the musical pieces is part and parcel of what makes them so extraordinary. They are indeed erotic displays of fitness traits (cf. Lisztomania) crafted to cause an impression in fertile ground.

Indeed, we are constructed in such a way that we can emotionally hack and be hacked by others to assess each others’ suitability as potential family, friends, and neighbors. Unfakeable fitness displays typically require prodigious amounts of waste. As Geoffrey puts it: “Every sexual ornament in every sexually reproducing species could be viewed as a different style of waste.” (The Mating Mind, pg. 128. cf. An Infinite Variety of Waste) Only extremely fit organisms can afford to spend resources on non-survival tasks.

Fashion, too, in this light, is a sort of collective activity of systematic waste. Keeping up with the latest trends shows that you have a lot of free time (which, contrary to popular belief, is perceived as more sexy than the alternative). Only the wealthy, disciplined, or well-organized can manage to sustain energy- and time-consuming hobbies for years and years.

This theory of art has a problem, though, which is that on its own it does not explain art as a cultural institution. We could very well imagine that aesthetics-based displays of genetic fitness would be circumscribed to individual efforts but in practice we see groups of people coming together to work out the potentialities, possibilities, limits, and implications of particular aesthetics. We don’t only generate extraordinarily wasteful works of art ourselves, but do so contextually within art movements and aesthetic languages. Why is this?

I believe there is a layer of organization above individual signaling displays. To fully grasp it, we need to talk about what I have named “Cool Kid Theory”. This theory postulates that above-average and particularly well-rounded individuals, aka. Cool Kids, figure out ways of enticing others to show their peacock feathers, so to speak. Being a Cool Kid is not to excel oneself, but rather, to have the precise kind of strategic mediocrity that gives others the urge to show how they can improve upon your craft. At its extreme, a Cool Kid commands a group of people who practice a particular type of craft, which ultimately becomes an artistic gang. If you are a Cool Kid you can decide who is cool and who is not by choosing what challenges to measure the performance of people with.

Who wants to be a Cool Kid? The answer is, for the most part, anyone who can get away with it. It is so evolutionarily adaptive to be a Cool Kid that we have a number of psychological programs that can be triggered with a sequence of social cues that can make almost anyone into a Cool Kid.

Part and parcel of being a Cool Kid is to know how to induce the fear of missing out in others. It is about detecting when a particular challenge is headed towards an imminent dead end and course-correct to keep people engaged.

Here is an example. If you ever encounter a group of dancers in public transportation, you will notice that there is a Cool Kid who binds them together. The Cool Kid selects for people who have unique talents, and collectively accumulates a solidly impressive bag of tricks. Everyone in the group takes turns showing their best trick. For instance, the group might have someone who sings, someone who plays an instrument, and someone who owns a subwoofer (sometimes that’s all it takes). You might also see that there is a guy who can do the weird elbow twist thingy, the one who can break dance and do nine spins on his back, the one who can beat-box to the tune of the song, and the one who moonwalks while playing a harmonica. An effective Cool Kid is one who can corral all of these specialists and be the artistic glue who controls the overarching aesthetic. And this aesthetic is what defines a set of challenges used for impressive fitness displays.

The art world can be thus conceived of as a large super-cluster of Cool Kid gangs cornering the economy of attention. The competitive nature of Cool Kids is sure to produce a constant stream of novel stimuli, endlessly varied trends and fashions, as well as competitive and indeed sometimes even virulent attacks between aesthetics. For he who controls the aesthetic, controls your ability to be popular.

To be continued…



[1] Marr’s levels of analysis is a framework to analyze information-processing systems. First we have the computational level, which describes what the system does from a third-person point of view. This level is concerned with questions like what the system is capable of, and how quickly it can succeed at it. Second is the algorithmic level of analysis, which focuses on the internal representations and operations used to transform the inputs into the outputs. And third is the implementation level of analysis, which is concerned with the physical realization of the algorithms described in the second level.

Logarithmic Scales of Pleasure and Pain: Rating, Ranking, and Comparing Peak Experiences Suggest the Existence of Long Tails for Bliss and Suffering

TL;DR

Based on: the characteristic distribution of neural activity, personal accounts of intense pleasure and pain, the way various pain scales have been described by their creators, and the results of a pilot study we conducted which ranks, rates, and compares the hedonic quality of extreme experiences, we suggest that the best way to interpret pleasure and pain scales is by thinking of them as logarithmic compressions of what is truly a long-tail. The most intense pains are orders of magnitude more awful than mild pains (and symmetrically for pleasure).

This should inform the way we prioritize altruistic interventions and plan for a better future. Since the bulk of suffering is concentrated in a small percentage of experiences, focusing our efforts on preventing cases of intense suffering likely dominates most utilitarian calculations.

An important pragmatic takeaway from this article is that if one is trying to select an effective career path, as a heuristic it would be good to take into account how one’s efforts would cash out in the prevention of extreme suffering (see: Hell-Index), rather than just QALYs and wellness indices that ignore the long-tail. Of particular note as promising Effective Altruist careers, we would highlight working directly to develop remedies for specific, extremely painful experiences. Finding scalable treatments for migraines, kidney stones, childbirth, cluster headaches, CRPS, and fibromyalgia may be extremely high-impact (cf. Treating Cluster Headaches and Migraines Using N,N-DMT and Other Tryptamines, Using Ibogaine to Create Friendlier Opioids, and Frequency Specific Microcurrent for Kidney-Stone Pain). More research efforts into identifying and quantifying intense suffering currently unaddressed would also be extremely helpful. Finally, if the positive valence scale also has a long-tail, focusing one’s career in developing bliss technologies may pay-off in surprisingly good ways (whereby you may stumble on methods to generate high-valence healing experiences which are orders of magnitude better than you thought were possible).

Contents

Introduction:

  1. Weber’s Law
  2. Why This Matters

General ideas:

  1. The Non-Linearity of Pleasure and Pain
    1. Personal Accounts
    2. Consciousness Expansion
    3. Peak Pleasure States: Jhanas and Temporal Lobe Seizures
    4. Logarithmic Pain Scales: Stings, Peppers, and Cluster Headaches
  2. Deference-type Approaches for Experience Ranking
    1. Normal World vs. Lognormal World
    2. Predictions of Lognormal World

Survey setup:

  1. Mechanical Turk
  2. Participant Composition
  3. Filtering Bots

Results:

  1. Appearance Base Rates
  2. Average Ratings
  3. Deference Graph of Top Experiences
    1. Rebalanced Smoothed Proportion
    2. Triadic Analysis
  4. Latent Trait Ratings
  5. Long-tails in the Responses to “How Many Times Better/Worse” Question

Discussion:

  1. Key Pleasures Surfaced
    1. Birth of Children
    2. Falling in Love
    3. Travel/Vacation
    4. MDMA/LSD/Psilocybin
    5. Games of Chance Earnings
  2. Key Pains
    1. Kidney Stones/Migraines
    2. Childbirth
    3. Car Accidents
    4. Death of Father and Mother
  3. Future Directions for Methodological Approaches
    1. Graphical Models with Log-Normal Priors
  4. Closing Thoughts on the Valence Scale
  5. Additional Material
    1. Dimensionality of Pleasure and Pain
    2. Mixed States
    3. Qualia Formalism
  6. Notes

Introduction

Weber’s Law

Weber’s Law describes the relationship between the physical intensity of a stimulus and the reported subjective intensity of perceiving it. For example, it describes the relationship between how loud a sound is and how loud it is perceived as. In the general case, Weber’s Law indicates that one needs to vary the stimulus intensity by a multiplicative fraction (called “Weber’s fraction”) in order to detect a just noticeable difference. For example, if you cannot detect the differences between objects weighing 100 grams to 105 grams, then you will also not be able to detect the differences between objects weighing 200 grams to 210 grams (implying the Weber fraction for weight perception is at least 5%). In the general case, the senses detect differences logarithmically.

There are two compelling stories for interpreting this law:

In the first story, it is the low-level processing of the senses which do the logarithmic mapping. The senses “compress” the intensity of the stimulation and send a “linearized” packet of information to one’s brain, which is then rendered linearly in one’s experience.

In the second story, the senses, within the window of adaptation, do a fine job of translating (somewhat) faithfully the actual intensity of the stimulus, which then gets rendered in our experience. Our inability to detect small absolute differences between intense stimuli is not because we are not rendering such differences, but because Weber’s law applies to the very intensity of experience. In other words, the properties of one’s experience could follow a long-tail distribution, but our ability to accurately point out differences between the properties of experiences is proportional to their intensity.

We claim that, at least for the case of valence (i.e the pleasure-pain axis), the second story is much closer to the truth than the first. Accordingly, this article rethinks the pleasure-pain axis (also called the valence scale) by providing evidence, arguments, and datapoints to support the idea that how good or bad experiences feel follows a long-tail distribution.

As an intuition pump for what is to follow, we would like to highlight the empirical finding that brain activity follows a long-tail distribution (see: Statistical Analyses Support Power Law Distributions Found in Neuronal Avalanches, and Logarithmic Distributions Prove that Intrinsic Learning is Hebbian). The story where the “true valence scale” is a logarithmic compression is entirely consistent with the empirical long-tails of neural activity (in which “neural avalanches” account for a large fraction of overall brain activity).

The concrete line of argument we will present is based on the following:

  1. Phenomenological accounts of intense pleasure and pain (w/ accounts of phenomenal time and space expansion),
  2. The way in which pain scales are described by those who developed them, and
  3. The analytic results of a pilot study we conducted which investigates how people rank, rate, and assign relative proportions to their top 3 best and worst experiences

Why This Matters

Even if you are not a strict valence utilitarian, having the insight that the valence scale is long-tailed is still very important. Most ethical systems do give some weight to the prevention of suffering (in addition to the creation of subjectively valuable experiences), even if that is not all they care about. If your ethical system weighted slightly the task of preventing suffering when believing in a linear valence scale, then learning about the long-tailed nature of valence should in principle cause a major update. If indeed the worst experiences are exponentially more negative than originally believed by one’s ethical system, which nonetheless still cared about them, then after learning about the true valence scale the system would have to reprioritize. We suggest that while it might be unrealistic to have every ethical system refocus all of its energies on the prevention of intense suffering (and subsequently on researching how to create intense bliss sustainably), we can nonetheless expect such systems to raise this goal on their list of priorities. In other words, while “ending all suffering” will likely never be a part of most people’s ethical system, we hope that the data and arguments here presented at least persuade them to add “…and prevent intense forms of suffering” to the set of desiderata.

Indeed, lack of awareness about the long-tails of bliss and suffering may be the cause of an ongoing massive moral catastrophe (notes by Linch). If indeed the degree of suffering present in experiences follows a long-tail distribution, we would expect the worst experiences to dominate most utilitarian calculus. The biggest bang for the buck in altruistic interventions would therefore be those that are capable of directly addressing intense suffering and generating super-bliss.

General Ideas

The Non-Linearity of Pleasure and Pain

true_pleasure_scale

True long-tail pleasure scale (warning: psychedelics increase valence variance – the values here are for “good/lucky” trips and there is no guarantee e.g. LSD will feel good on a given occasion). Also: Mania is not always pleasant, but when it is, it can be super blissful.

true_pain_scale

True long-tail pain scale

As we’ve briefly discussed in previous articles (1, 2, 3), there are many reasons to believe that both pleasure and pain can be felt along a spectrum with values that range over possibly orders of magnitude. Understandably, someone who is currently in a state of consciousness around the human median of valence is likely to be skeptical of a claim like “the bliss you can achieve in meditation is literally 100 times better than eating your favorite food or having sex.” Intuitively, we only have so much space in our experience to fit bliss, and when one is in a “normal” or typical state of mind for a human, one is forced to imagine “ultra blissful states” by extrapolating the elements of one’s current experience, which certainly do not seem capable of being much better than, say, 50% of the current level of pleasure (or pain). The problem here is that the very building blocks of experiences that enable them to be ultra-high or ultra-low valence are themselves necessary to imagine accurately how they can be put together. Talking about extreme bliss to someone who is anhedonic is akin to talking about the rich range of possible color experiences to someone who is congenitally fully colorblind (cf. “What Mary Didn’t Know“).

“Ok”, you may say, “you are just telling me that pleasure and pain can be orders of magnitude stronger than I can even conceive of. What do you base this on?”. The most straightforward way to be convinced of this is to literally experience such states. Alas, this would be deeply unethical when it comes to the negative side, and it requires special materials and patience for the positive side. Instead, I will provide evidence from a variety of methods and conditions.

Personal Accounts

Dried_Tianying_Chillies_Red_Paprika_Hot_Red_Pimiento_Dry_Capsicum_634563228801138323_1

I’ve been lucky to not have experienced major pain in my life so far (the worst being, perhaps, depression during my teens). I have, however, had two key experiences that gave me some time to introspect on the non-linear nature of pain. The first one comes from when I accidentally cut a super-spicy pepper and touched it with my bare hands (the batch of peppers I was cutting were mild, but a super-hot one snuck into the produce box). After a few minutes of cutting the peppers, I noticed that a burning heat began to intensify in my hands. This was the start of experiencing “hot pepper hands” for a full 8 hours (see other people’s experiences: 1, 2, 3). The first two to three hours of this ordeal were the worst, where I experienced what I rated as a persistent 4/10 pain interspersed with brief moments of 5/10 pain. The curious thing was that the 5/10 pain moments were clearly discernible as qualitatively different. It was as if the very numerous pinpricks and burning sensations all over my hands were in a somewhat disorganized state most of the time, but whenever they managed to build-up for long enough, they would start clicking with each other (presumably via phase-locking), giving rise to resonant waves of pain that felt both more energetic, and more aversive on the whole. In a way, this jump from what I rated as 4/10 to 5/10 was qualitative as well as quantitative, and it gave me some idea of how something that is already bad can become even worse.

My second experience involves a mild joint injury I experienced while playing Bubble Soccer (a very fun sport no doubt, and a common corporate treat for Silicon Valley cognotariats, but according to my doctor it is also a frequent source of injuries among programmers). Before doing physical therapy to treat this problem (which mostly took care of it), I remember spending hours introspecting on the quality of the pain in order to understand it better. It wasn’t particularly bad, but it was constant (I rated it as 2/10 most of the time). What stuck with me was how its constant presence would slowly increase the stress of my entire experience over time. I compared the experience to having an uncomfortable knot stuck in your body. If I had a lot of mental and emotional slack early in the day, I could easily take the stress produced by the knot and “send it elsewhere” in my body. But since the source of the stress was constant, eventually I would run out of space, and the knot would start making secondary knots around itself, and it was in those moments where I would rate the pain at a 3/10. This would only go away if I rested and somehow “reset” the amount of cognitive and emotional slack I had available.

The point of these two stories is to highlight the observation that there seem to be phase-changes between levels of discomfort. An analogy I often make is with the phenomenon of secondary coils when you twist a rope. The stress induced by pain- at least introspectively speaking- is pushed to less stressed areas of your mind. But this has a limit, which is until your whole world-simulation is stressed to the point that the source of stress starts creating secondary “stress coils” on top of the already stressed background experience. This was a very interesting realization to me, which put in a different light weird expressions that chronic pain patients use like “my pain now has a pain of its own” or “I can’t let the pain build up”.

1931241794

DNA coils and super-coils as a metaphor for pain phase-changes?

Consciousness Expansion

What about more extreme experiences? Here we should briefly mention psychedelic drugs, as they seem to be able to increase the energy of one’s consciousness (and in some sense “multiply the amount of consciousness“) in a way that grows non-linearly as a function of the dose. An LSD experience with 100 micrograms may be “only” 50% more intense than normal everyday life, but an LSD experience with 200 micrograms is felt as 2-3X as intense, while 300 micrograms may increase the intensity of experience by perhaps 10X (relative to normal). Usually people say that high-dose psychedelic states are indescribably more real and vivid than normal everyday life. And then there are compounds like 5-MeO-DMT, which people often describe as being in “a completely different category”, as it gives rise to what many describe as “infinite consciousness”. Obviously there is no such thing as an experience with infinite consciousness, and that judgement could be explained in terms of the lack of “internal boundaries” of the state, which gives the impression of infinity (not unlike how the surface of a torus can seem infinite from the point of view of a flatlander). That said, I’ve asked rational and intelligent people who have tried 5-MeO-DMT in non-spiritual settings what they think the intensity of their experiences was, and they usually say that a strong dose of 10mg or more gives rise to an intensity and “quantity” of consciousness that is at least 100X as high as normal everyday experiences. There are many reasons to be skeptical of this, no doubt, but the reports should not be dismissed out of hand.

Antoine's_Necklace_Iteration_2

Secondary knots and links as a metaphor for higher bliss

As with the above example, we can reason that one of the ways in which both pain and pleasure can be present in *multiples* of one’s normal hedonic range is because the amount of consciousness crammed into a moment of experience is not a constant. In other words, when someone in a typical state of consciousness asks “if you say one can experience so much pain/pleasure, tell me, where would that fit in my experience? I don’t see much room for that to fit in here”, one can respond by saying that “in other states of consciousness there is more (phenomenal) time and space within each moment of experience”. Indeed, at Qualia Computing we have assembled and interpreted a large number of experiences of high-energy states of consciousness that indicate that both phenomenal time, and phenomenal space, can drastically expand. To sum it up – you can fit so much pleasure and pain in peak experiences precisely because such experiences make room for them.

Let us now illustrate the point with some paradigmatic cases of very high and vey low valence:

Peak Pleasure States: Jhanas and Temporal Lobe Seizures

On the pleasure side, we have Buddhist meditators who experience meditative states of absorption (aka. “Jhanas”) as extremely, and counter-intuitively, blissful:

The experience can include some very pleasant physical sensations such as goose bumps on the body and the hair standing up to more intense pleasures which grow in intensity and explode into a state of ecstasy. If you have pain in your legs, knees, or other part of the body during meditation, the pain will actually disappear while you are in the jhanas. The pleasant sensations can be so strong to eliminate your painful sensations. You enter the jhanas from the pleasant experiences exploding into a state of ecstasy where you no longer “feel” any of your senses.

9 Jhanas, Dhamma Wiki

There are 8 (or 9, depending on who you ask) “levels” of Jhanas, and the above is describing only the 1st of them! The higher the Jhana, the more refined the bliss becomes, and the more detached the state is from the common referents of our everyday human experience. Ultra-bliss does not look at all like sensual pleasure or excitement, but more like information-theoretically optimal configurations of resonant waves of consciousness with little to no intentional content (cf. semantically neutral energy). I know this sounds weird, but it’s what is reported.

insula

“Streamlines from the insula to the cortex” – the insula (in red) is an area of the brain intimately implicated in the super-bliss that sometimes precedes temporal lobe epilepsy (source)

Another example I will provide about ultra-bliss concerns temporal lobe epilepsy, which in a minority of sufferers gives rise to extraordinarily intense states of pleasure, or pain, or both. Such experiences can result in Geschwind syndrome, a condition characterized by hypergraphia (writing non-stop), hyper-religiosity, and a generally intensified mental and emotional life. No doubt, any experience that hits the valence scale at one of its extremes is usually interpreted as other-worldly and paranormal (which gives rise to the question of whether valence is a spiritual phenomenon or the other way around). Famously, Dostoevsky seems to have experienced temporal lobe seizures, and this ultimately informed his worldview and literary work in profound ways. Here is how he describes them:

“A happiness unthinkable in the normal state and unimaginable for anyone who hasn’t experienced it… I am then in perfect harmony with myself and the entire universe.”

 

– From a letter to his friend Nikolai Strakhov.

“I feel entirely in harmony with myself and the whole world, and this feeling is so strong and so delightful that for a few seconds of such bliss one would gladly give up 10 years of one’s life, if not one’s whole life. […] You all, healthy people, can’t imagine the happiness which we epileptics feel during the second before our fit… I don’t know if this felicity lasts for seconds, hours or months, but believe me, I would not exchange it for all the joys that life may bring.”

 

– from the character Prince Myshkin in Dostoevsky’s novel, The Idiot, which he likely used to give a voice to his own experiences.

Dostoevsky is far from the only person reporting these kinds of experiences from epilepsy:

As Picard [a scientist investigating seizures] cajoled her patients to speak up about their ecstatic seizures, she found that their sensations could be characterised using three broad categories of feelings (Epilepsy & Behaviour, vol 16, p 539). The first was heightened self-awareness. For example, a 53-year-old female teacher told Picard: “During the seizure it is as if I were very, very conscious, more aware, and the sensations, everything seems bigger, overwhelming me.” The second was a sense of physical well-being. A 37-year-old man described it as “a sensation of velvet, as if I were sheltered from anything negative”. The third was intense positive emotions, best articulated by a 64-year-old woman: “The immense joy that fills me is above physical sensations. It is a feeling of total presence, an absolute integration of myself, a feeling of unbelievable harmony of my whole body and myself with life, with the world, with the ‘All’,” she said.

 

– from “Fits of Rapture”, New Scientist (January 25, 2014) (source)

All in all, these examples illustrate the fact that blissful states can be deeper, richer, more intense, more conscious, and qualitatively superior to the normal everyday range of human emotion.

Now, how about the negative side?

Logarithmic Pain Scales: Stings, Peppers, and Cluster Headaches

“The difference between 6 and 10 on the pain scale is an exponential difference. Believe it or not.”

Insufferable Indifference, by Neil E. Clement (who experiences chronic pain ranging between 6/10 to 10/10, depending on the day)

Three pain-scale examples that illustrate the non-linearity of pain are: (1) the Schmidt sting pain index, (2) the Scoville scale, and (3) the KIP scale:

image

(1) Justin O. Schmidt stung himself with over 80 species of insects of the Hymenoptera order, and rated the ensuing pain on a 4-point-scale. About the scale, he had to say the following:

4:28 – Justin Schmidt: The harvester ant is what got the sting pain scale going in the first place. I had been stung by honeybees, yellow jackets, paper wasps, etc. the garden variety stuff, that you get bitten by various beetles and things. I went down to Georgia, which has the Eastern-most extension of the harvester ant. I got stung and I said “Wooooow! This is DIFFERENT!” You know? I thought I knew everything there was about insect stings, I was just this dumb little kid. And I realized “Wait a minute! There is something different going on here”, and that’s what got me to do the comparative analysis. Is this unique to harvester ants? Or are there others that are like that. It turns out while the answer is, now we know much later – it’s unique! [unique type of pain]. 

[…]

7:09 – Justin Schmidt: I didn’t really want to go out and get stung for fun. I was this desperate graduate student trying to get a thesis, so I could get out and get a real job, and stop being a student eventually. And I realized that, oh, we can measure toxicity, you know, the killing power of something, but we can’t measure pain… ouch, that one hurts, and that one hurts, and ouch that one over there also hurts… but I can’t put that on a computer program and mathematically analyze what it means for the pain of the insect. So I said, aha! We need a pain scale. A computer can analyze one, two, three, and four, but it can’t analyze “ouch!”. So I decided that I had to make a pain scale, with the harvester ant (cutting to the chase) was a 3. Honey bees was a 2. And I kind of tell people that each number is like 10 equivalent of the number before. So 10 honey bee stings are equal to 1 harvester ant sting, and 10 harvester ant stings would equal one bullet ant sting.

[…]

11:50 – [Interviewer]: When I finally worked up the courage to [put the Tarantula Hawk on my arm] and take this sting. The sting of that insect was electric in nature. I’ve been shocked before, by accidentally taking a zap from an electrical cord. This was that times 10. And it put me on the ground. My arm seized up from muscle contraction. And it was probably the worst 5 minutes of my life at that point.

Justin Schmidt: Yeah, that’s exactly what I call electrifying. I say, imagine you are walking along in Arizona, and there is a wind storm, and the power line above snaps the wire, and it hits you, of course that hasn’t happened to me, but that’s what you imagine it feels like. Because it’s absolutely electrifying, I call it debilitating because you want to be macho, “ah I’m tough, I can do this!” Now you can’t! So I tell people lay down and SCREAM! Right?

[Interviewer]: That’s what I did! And Mark would be like, this famous “Coyote, are you ok? Are you ok?”

Justin Schmidt: No, I’m not ok!

[Interviewer]: And it was very hard to try to compose myself to be like, alright, describe what is happening to your body right now. Because your mind goes into this state that is like blank emptiness. And all you can focus on is the fact that there’s radiating pain coming out of your arm.

Justin Schmidt: That’s why you scream, because now you’re focusing on something else. In addition to the pain, you’re focusing on “AAAAAAHHHHH!!!” [screams loudly]. Takes a little bit of the juice off of the pain, so maybe you lower it down to a three for as long as you can yell. And I can yell for a pretty long time when I’m stung by a tarantula hawk.

 

Origin of STINGS!, interview of Justin O. Schmidt

If we take Justin’s word for it, a sting that scores a 4 on his pain scale is about 1,000 times more painful than a sting that scores a 1 on his scale. Accordingly, Christopher Starr (who replicated the scale), stated that any sting that scores a 4 is “traumatically painful” (source). Finally, since the scale is restricted to stings of insects of the Hymenoptera order, it remains possible that there are stings whose pain would be rated even higher than 4. A 5 on the sting pain index might perhaps be experienced with the stings of the box jellyfish that produces Irukandji syndrome, and the bite of the giant desert centipede. Needless to say, these are to be avoided.

Moving on…

(2) The Scoville scale measures how spicy different chili peppers and hot sauces are. It is calculated by diluting the pepper/sauce in water until it is no longer possible to detect any spice in it. The number that is associated with the pepper or sauce is the ratio of water-to-sauce that makes it just barely possible to taste the spice. Now, this is of course not itself a pain scale. I would nonetheless anticipate that taking the log of the Scoville units of a dish might be a good approximation for the reported pain it delivers. In particular, people note that there are several qualitative jumps in the type and nature of the pain one experiences when eating hot sauces of different strengths (e.g. “Fuck you Sean! […] That was a leap, Sean, that was a LEAP!” – Ken Jeong right after getting to the 135,000 Scoville units sauce in the pain porn Youtube series Hot Ones). Amazon reviews of ultra-hot sauces can be mined for phenomenological information concerning intense pain, and the general impression one gets after reading such reviews is that indeed there is a sort of exponential range of possible pain values:

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I know it may be fun to trivialize this kind of pain, but different people react differently to it (probably following a long-tail too!). For some people who are very sensitive to heat pain, very hot sauce can be legitimately traumatizing. Hence I advise against having ultra-spicy sauces around your house. The novelty value is not worth the probability of a regrettable accident, as exemplified in some of the Amazon reviews above (e.g. a house guest assuming that your “Da’Bomb – Beyond Insanity” bottle in the fridge can’t possibly be that hot… and ending up in the ER and with PTSD).

I should add that media that is widely consumed about extreme hot sauce (e.g. the Hot Ones mentioned above and numerous stunt Youtube channels) may seem fun on the surface, but what doesn’t make the cut and is left in the editing room is probably not very palatable at all. From an interview: “Has anyone thrown up doing it?” (interviewer) – “Yeah, we’ve run the gamuts. We’ve had people spit in buckets, half-pass out, sleep in the green room afterwards, etc.” (Sean Evans, Hot Ones host). T.J. Miller, when asked about what advice he would give to the show while eating ultra-spicy wings, responded: “Don’t do this. Don’t do this again. End the show. Stop doing the show. That’s my advice. This is very hot. This is painful. There’s a problem here.”

07e7c9915f52b1945603f0c83a48e4fe

Trigeminal Neuralgia pain scale – a condition similarly painful to Cluster Headaches

(3) Finally, we come to the “KIP scale”, which is used to rate Cluster Headaches, one of the most painful conditions that people endure:

The KIP scale

KIP-0 No pain, life is beautiful
KIP-1 Very minor, shadows come and go. Life is still beautiful
KIP-2 More persistent shadows
KIP-3 Shadows are getting constant but can deal with it
KIP-4 Starting to get bad, want to be left alone
KIP-5 Still not a “pacer” but need space
KIP-6 Wake up grumbling, curse a bit, but can get back to sleep without “dancing”
KIP-7 Wake up, sleep not an option, take the beast for a walk and finally fall into bed exhausted
KIP-8 Time to scream, yell, curse, head bang, rock, whatever works
KIP-9 The “Why me?” syndrome starts to set in
KIP-10 Major pain, screaming, head banging, ER trip. Depressed. Suicidal.

The duration factor is multiplied by the intensity factor, which uses the KIP scale in an exponential way – a KIP 10 is not just twice as bad as a KIP 5, it’s ten times as intense.

Source: Keeping Track, by Cluster Busters

As seen above, the KIP scale is acknowledged by its creator and users to be logarithmic in nature.

In summary: We see that pleasure comes in various grades and that peak experiences such as those induced by psychedelics, meditation, and temporal lobe seizures seem to be orders of magnitude more energetic and better than everyday sober states. Likewise, we see that across several categories of pain, people report being surprised by the leaps in both quality and intensity that are possible. More so, at least in the case of the Schmidt Index and the Kip Scale, the creators of the scale were explicit that it was a logarithmic mapping of the actual level of sensation.

While we do not have enough evidence (and conceptual clarity) to assert that the intensity of pain and pleasure does grow exponentially, the information presented so far does suggest that the valence of experiences follows a long-tail distribution.

Deference-type Approaches for Experience Ranking

The above considerations underscore the importance of coming up with a pleasure-pain scale that tries to take into account the non-linearity and non-normality of valence ratings. One idea we came up with was a “deference”-type approach, where we ask open-ended questions about people’s best and worst experiences and have them rank them against each other. Although locally the data would be very sparse, the idea was that there might be methods to integrate the collective patterns of deference into an approximate scale. If extended to populations of people who are known to have experienced extremes of valence, the approach would even allow us to unify the various pain scales (Scoville, Schmidt, KIP, etc.) and assign a kind of universal valence score to different categories of pain and pleasure.* That will be version 2.0. In the meantime, we thought to try to get a rough picture of the extreme joys and affections of members of the general public, which is what this article will focus on.

Normal World vs. Lognormal World

There is a world we could call the “Normal World”, where valence outliers are rare and most types of experiences affect people more or less similarly, distributed along a Gaussian curve. Then there is another, very different world we could call the “long-tailed world” or if we want to make it simple (acknowledging uncertainty) “Lognormal World”, where almost every valence distribution is a long-tail. So in the “Lognormal World”, say, for pleasure (and symmetrically for pain), we would expect to see a long-tail in the mean pleasure of experiences between different categories across all people, a long-tail in the amount of pleasure within a given type of experience across people, a long-tail for the number of times an individual has had a certain type of pleasure, a long-tail in the intensity of the pleasure experienced with a single category of experience within a single person, and so on. Do we live in the Normal World or the Lognormal World?

Predictions of Lognormal World

If we lived in the “Lognormal World”, we would expect:

  • That people will typically say that their top #1 best/worst experience is not only a bit better/worse than their #2 experience, but a lot better/worse. Like, perhaps, even multiple times better/worse.
  • That there will be a long-tail in the number of appearances of different categories (i.e. that a large amount, such as 80%, of top experiences will belong to the same narrow set of categories, and that there will be many different kinds of experiences capturing the remaining 20%).
  • That for most pairs of experiences x and y, people who have had both instances of x and y, will usually agree about which one is better/worse. We call such a relationship a “deference”. More so, we would expect to see that deference, in general, will be transitive (a > b and b > c implying that a > c).

To test the first and second prediction does not require a lot of data, but the third does because one needs to have enough comparisons to fill a lot of triads. The survey results we will discuss bellow are congruent with the first and second prediction. We did what we could with the data available to investigate the third, and tentatively, it seems to hold up (with ideas like deference network centrality analysis, triadic analysis, and tournament-style approaches).


Survey Setup

The survey asked the following questions: current level of pleasure, current level of pain, top 3 most pleasurable experiences (in decreasing order) along with pleasure ratings for each of them and the age when they were experienced, and the same for the top 3 most painful experiences. I specifically did not provide a set of broad categories (such as “physical” or “emotional”) or a drop-down menu of possible narrow categories (e.g. going to the movies, aerobic exercise, etc.). I wanted to see what people would say when the question was as open-ended as possible.

I also included questions aimed more directly at probing the long-tailed nature of valence: I asked participants to rate “how many times more pleasant was the #1 top experience relative to the #2 top experience” (and #2 relative to #3, and the same for the top most painful experiences).

I also asked them to describe in more detail the single most pleasant and unpleasant experiences, and added a box for comments at the end in order to see if anyone complained about the task (most people said “no comment”, many said they enjoyed the task, and one person said that it made them nostalgic). I also asked about basic demographics (age and gender). Participants earned $1.75 for the task, which seems reasonable given the time it took to complete in most cases.

Mechanical Turk: Participant Composition

The survey was run on Mechanical Turk. I requested “Masters” qualifications for 90/110 of the survey responses. To be a Mechanical Turk Master you need to have a good track record of task approval, which I reasoned would increase the rate of well thought-out high-quality responses (this turned out to be true). The participants’ genders were fairly balanced (50/97 women, 47/97 men), and the average age was 36.5 years (sd = 10):

age_distribution_no_bots

Age distribution

Bots (easy to spot – unless extremely sophisticated)

While reading the responses I discovered that some of them seemed to be generated by bots. Apparently task requesters started noticing the presence of bots a couple of years ago. This is obviously a problem for academics trying to use the service for their research, and for machine learning professionals using the service for data-tagging. Having been both of those things in the past, I can say that a few years ago I did not see any submissions that looked suspiciously bot-like. Though low-quality rushed responses did seem to be relatively common back then, I never observed bot-like responses to open-ended questions. Unfortunately this time I was able to spot several responses clearly written by bots. For example, one respondent answered the question “write a brief essay about your #1 best experience” with:

The reason these types of assignments are given so often is that anyone can write about their own experience and it doesn’t require any outside resources or research. However, even though anyone can tell a story about their life, that does not mean anyone can write a good essay about that experience. As a professor and teacher for 30 years, I’ve read thousands of essays and can tell you there is a distinct difference from telling a story about yourself and writing an excellent personal experience essay. The difference between good and great:

And it ends that way, with a colon indicating that the respondent is about to explain what the difference between good and great is. But it never does it. This answer, great, it is not.

In most cases the difference between a genuine response and a bot response was very obvious. That said, I erred on the side of caution for filtering bots and I got rid of answers even if they seemed just a little suspicious. This left me with 97 out of the 110 original responses. The following analysis was conducted on those 97 responses.

Preprocessing

Since the responses were open-ended I had to tag each of them with an experience category. To do this I read each response and identified the key theme in them and classified them with a label that was specific enough to distinguish it from nearby experiences (e.g. different types of fractures), but not so specific that we would never get more than one response per category (e.g. “breaking the middle finger in elementary school”). In general, most responses fell into very unambiguous categories (e.g. “When my father passed away” and “Watching my father die and take his last few breaths.” were both classified as “Father death”). About 10% of the responses were relatively ambiguous: it wasn’t clear what the source of the pain or pleasure was. To deal with those responses I used the label “Unspecified”. When some detail was present but ambiguity remained, such as when a broad type of pain or pleasure was mentioned but not the specific source I tagged it as “Unspecified X” where X was a broad category. For example, one person said that “broken bones” was the most painful experience they’ve had, which I labeled as “Unspecified fracture”.


Results

I should preface the following by saying that we are very aware of the lack of scientific rigor in this survey; it remains a pilot exploratory work. We didn’t specify the time-scale for the experiences (e.g. are we asking about the best minute of your life or the best month of your life?) or whether we were requesting instances of physical or psychological pain/pleasures. Despite this lack of constraints it was interesting to see very strong commonalities among people’s responses:

Appearance Base Rates

There were 77 and 124 categories of pleasure and pain identified, respectively. On the whole it seemed like there was a higher diversity of ways to suffer than of ways to experience intense bliss. Summoning the spirit of Tolstoy: “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

Here are the raw counts for each category with at least two appearances:

pleasure_baserates_97_only_2andup_

Best experiences appearances (with at least two reports)

pain_baserates_97_only_2andup_

Worst experience appearances (with at least two reports)

For those who want to see the full list of number of appearances for each experience mentioned see the bottom of the article (I also clarify some of the more confusing labels there too)**.

A simple way to try to incorporate the information about the ranking is to weight experiences rated as top #1 with 3 points, those as top #2 with 2 points, and those as the top #3 with 1 point. If you do this, the experiences scores are:

pleasure_baserates_97_weighted_

Weighted appearances of best experiences (#1 – 3 points, #2 – 2 points, #3 – 1 point)

pain_baserates_97_weighted_

Weighted appearances of worst experiences (#1 – 3 points, #2 – 2 points, #3 – 1 point)

Average ratings

Given the relatively small sample size, I will only report the mean rating for pain and pleasure (out of 10) for categories of experience for which there were 6 or more respondents:

For pain:

  1. Father death (n = 19): mean 8.53, sd 2.3
  2. Childbirth (n = 16): mean 7.94, sd 2.16
  3. Grandmother death (n = 13): mean 8.12, sd 2.5
  4. Mother death (n = 11): mean 9.4, sd 0.62
  5. Car accident (n = 9): mean 8.42, sd 1.52
  6. Kidney stone (n = 9): mean 5.97, sd 3.17
  7. Migraine (n = 9): mean 5.36, sd 3.11
  8. Romantic breakup (n = 9): mean 7.11, sd 1.52
  9. Broken arm (n = 6): mean 8.28, sd 0.88
  10. Broken leg (n = 6): mean 7.33, sd 2.02
  11. Work failure (n = 6): mean 5.88, sd 3.57

(Note: the very high variance for kidney stones and migraine is partly explained by the presence of some very low responses, with values as low as 1.1/10 – perhaps misreported, or perhaps illustrating the extreme diversity of experiences of migraines and kidney stones).

And for pleasure:

  1. Falling in love (n = 42): mean 8.68, sd 1.74
  2. Children born (n = 41): mean 9.19, sd 1.64
  3. Marriage (n = 21): mean 8.7, sd 1.25
  4. Sex (n = 19): mean 8.72, sd 1.45
  5. College graduation (n = 13): mean 7.73, sd 1.4
  6. Orgasm (n = 11): mean 8.24, sd 1.63
  7. Alcohol (n = 8): mean 6.84, sd 1.59
  8. Vacation (n = 6): mean 9.12, sd 0.73
  9. Getting job (n = 6): mean 7.22, sd 1.47
  10. Personal favorite sports win (n = 6): mean 8.17, sd 1.23

Deference Graph of Top Experiences

We will now finally get to the more exploratory and fun/interesting analysis, at least in that it will generate a cool way of visualizing what causes people great joy and pain. Namely, the idea of using people’s rankings in order to populate a global scale across people and show it in the form of a graph of deferences. While the scientific literature has some studies that compare pain across different categories (e.g. 1, 2, 3) I was not able to find any dataset that included actual rankings across a variety of categories. Hence why it was so appealing to visualize this.

The simplest way of graphing experience deferences is to assign a node to each experience category and add an edge between experiences with deference relationships with a weight proportional to the number of directed deferences. For example, if 4 people have said that A was better than B, and 3 people have said that B was better than A, then there will be an edge from A to B with a weight of 4 and an edge from B to A with a weight of 3. Additionally, we can then run a graph centrality algorithm such as PageRank to see where the “deferences end up pooling”.

The images below do this: the PageRank of the graph is represented with the color gradient (darker shades of green/red representing higher PageRank values for good/bad experiences). In addition, the graphs also represent the number of appearances in the dataset for each category with the size of each node:

The main problem with the approach above is that it double (triple?) counts experiences that are very common. Say that, for example, taking 5-MeO-DMT produces a consistently higher-valence feeling relative to having sex. If we only have a couple of people who report both 5-MeO-DMT and sex as their top experiences, the edge from sex to 5-MeO-DMT will be very weak, and the PageRank algorithm will underestimate the value of 5-MeO-DMT.

In order to avoid the double counting effect of commonly-reported peak experiences we can instead add edge weights on the basis of the proportion with which an experience defers to the other. Let’s say that f(a, b) means “number of times that b is reported as higher than a”. Then the proportion would be f(a, b) / (f(a, b) + f(b, a)). Now, this introduces another problem, which is that pairs of experiences that appear together very infrequently might get a very high proportion score due to a low sample size. In order to prevent this we use Laplace smoothing and modify the equation to (f(a, b) + 1) / (f(a, b) + f(b, a) + 2). Finally, we transform this proportion score from the range of 0 to 1 to the range of -1 to 1 by multiplying by 2 and subtracting one. We call this a “rebalanced smoothed proportion” w(a, b):

CodeCogsEqn

Rebalanced smoothed proportion

I should note that this is not based on any rigorous math. The equation is based on my intuition for what I would expect to see in such a graph, namely a sort of confidence-weighted strength of directionality, but I do not guarantee that this is a principled way of doing so (did I mention this is a pilot small-scale low-budget ‘to a first approximation’ study?). I think that, nonetheless, doing this is still an improvement upon merely using the raw deference counts as the edge weights. To visualize what w(a, b) looks like I graphed its values for a and b in the range of 0 to 20 (literally typing the equation into the google search bar):

To populate the graph I only use the positive edge weights so that we can run the PageRank algorithm on it. This now looks a lot more reasonable and informative as a deference graph than the previous attempts:

pleasure_97_balanced_2

Best experiences deference graph: Edge weights based on the rebalanced smoothed proportions, size of nodes is proportional to number of appearances in the dataset, and the color tracks the PageRank of the graph. Edge color based on source node.

 

pain_network_97_balanced

Worst experiences deference graph: Edge weights based on the rebalanced smoothed proportions, size of nodes is proportional to number of appearances in the dataset, and the color tracks the PageRank of the graph. Edge color based on source node.

By taking the PageRank of these graphs (calculated with NetworkX) we arrive at the following global rankings:

pleasure_pagerank_97_

PageRank of the graph of best experiences with edge weights computed with the rebalanced smoothed proportion equation

pain_pagerank_97__

PageRank of the graph of worst experiences with edge weights computed with the rebalanced smoothed proportion equation

Intuitively this ranking seems more aligned with what I’ve heard before, but I will withhold judgement on it until we have much more data.

Triadic Analysis

With a more populated deference graph we can analyze in detail the degree to which triads (i.e. sets of three experiences such that each of the three possible deferences are present in the graph) show transitivity (cf. Balance vs. Status Theory).

In particular, we should compare the prevalence of these two triads:

triad_analysis

Left: 030T, Right: 030C (source)

The triads above are 030T, which is transitive, and 030C, which is a loop. The higher the degree of agreement between people and the higher the probability of the existence of an underlying shared scale, we would expect to see more triads of the type 030T relative to 030C. That said, a simple ratio is not enough, since the expected proportion between these two triads can be an artifact of the way the graph is constructed and/or its general shape (and hence the importance of comparing against randomized graphs that preserve as many other statistical features as possible). With our graph, we noticed that the very way in which the edges were introduced generated an artifact of a very strong difference between these two types of triads:

In the case of pain there are 105 ‘030T’, and 3 ‘030C’. And for the pleasure questions there were 98 ‘030T’, and 9 ‘030C’. That said, many of these triads are the artifact of taking into account the top three experiences, which already generates a transitive triad by default when n = 1 for that particular triad of experiences. To avoid this artifact, we filtered the graph by only adding edges when a pair of experiences appeared at least twice (and discounting the edges where w(a, b) = 0). With this adjustment we got 2 ‘030T’, and 1 ‘030C’ for the pain questions, and 1 ‘030T’, and 0 ‘030C’ for the pleasure question. Clearly there is not enough data to meaningfully conduct this type of analysis. If we extend the study and get a larger sample size, this analysis might be much more informative.

Latent Trait Ratings

A final approach I tried for deriving a global ranking of experiences was to assume a latent parameter for pain or pleasure of different experiences and treating the rankings as the tournament results of participants with skill equal to this latent trait. So when someone says that an experience of sex was better than an experience of getting a new bike we imagine that “sex” had a match with “getting bike” and that “sex” won that match. If we do this, then we can import any of the many tournament algorithms that exist (such as the Elo rating system) in order to approximate the latent “skill” trait of each experience (except that here it is the “skill” to cause you pleasure or pain, rather than any kind of gaming ability).

Interestingly, this strategy has also been used in other areas outside of actual tournaments, such as deriving university rankings based on the choices made by students admitted to more than one college (see: Revealed Preference Rankings of US Colleges and Universities).

I should mention that the fact that we are asking about peak experiences likely violates some of the assumptions of these algorithms, since the fact that a match takes place is already information that both experiences made it into the top 3. That said, if the patterns of deference are very strong, this might not represent a problem.

To come up with this tournament-style ranking I decided to go for a state-of-the-art algorithm. The one that I was able to find and use was Microsoft Research’s algorithm called TrueSkill (which is employed to rank players in Xbox LIVE). According to their documentation, to arrive at a conservative “leaderboard” that balances the estimated “true skill” and the uncertainty around it, they recommend ranking by the expected skill level minus three times the standard error around this estimate. If we do this, we arrive at the following experience “leaderboards”:

pleasure_97_trueskill_conservative

Conservative TrueSkill scores for best experiences (mu – 3*sigma)

pain_97_trueskill_conservative

Conservative TrueSkill scores for worst experiences (mu – 3*sigma)

Long-tails in Responses to “How Many Times Better/Worse” Question

The survey included four questions aimed at comparing the relative hedonic values of peak experiences: “Relative to the 1st most pleasant experience, how many times better was the 2nd most pleasant experience?” (This was one, the other three were the permutations of also asking about 2nd vs. 3rd and about the bad experiences):

(Note: I’ll ignore the responses to the comparison between the 2nd and 3rd worst pains because I messed up the question -I forgot to substitute “better” for “worse”).

I would understand the skepticism about these graphs. But at the same time, I don’t think it is absurd that for many people the worst experience they’ve had is indeed 10 or 100 times worse than the second worst. For example, someone who has endured a bad Cluster Headache will generally say that the pain of it is tens or hundreds of times worse than any other kind of pain they have had (say, breaking a bone or having skin burns).

The above distributions suggest a long-tail for the hedonic quality of experiences: say that the hedonic quality of each day is distributed along a log-normal distribution. A 45 year old has experienced roughly 17,000 days. Let’s say that such a person’s experience of pain each day is sampled from a log-normal distribution with a Gaussian exponent with a mean of 10 and a standard deviation of 5. If we take 100 such people, and for each of them we take the single worst and the second worst days of their lives, and then take the ratio between them, we will have a distribution like this (simulated in R):

If you smooth the empirical curves above you would get a distribution that looks like these simulations. You really need a long-tail to be able to get results like “for 25% of the participants the single worst experience was at least 4 times as bad as the 2nd worst experience.” Compare that to the sort of pattern that you get if the distribution was normal rather than log-normal:

As you can see (zooming in on the y-axis), the ratios simply do not reach very high values. With the normal distribution simulated here, we see that the highest ratio we achieve is around 1.3, as opposed to the empirical ratios of 10+.*** If you are inclined to believe the survey responses- or at least assign some level of credibility to the responses in the 90th-percentile and below-, the data is much more consistent with a long-tail distribution for hedonic values relative to a normal distribution.

Discussion

Key Pleasures Surfaced

Birth of children

I have heard a number of mothers and father say that having kids was the best thing that ever happened to them. The survey showed this was a very strong pattern, especially among women. In particular, a lot of the reports deal with the very moment in which they held their first baby in their arms for the first time. Some quotes to illustrate this pattern:

The best experience of my life was when my first child was born. I was unsure how I would feel or what to expect, but the moment I first heard her cry I fell in love with her instantly. I felt like suddenly there was another person in this world that I cared about and loved more than myself. I felt a sudden urge to protect her from all the bad in the world. When I first saw her face it was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen. It is almost an indescribable feeling. I felt like I understood the purpose and meaning of life at that moment. I didn’t know it was possible to feel the way I felt when I saw her. I was the happiest I have ever been in my entire life. That moment is something that I will cherish forever. The only other time I have ever felt that way was with the subsequent births of my other two children. It was almost a euphoric feeling. It was an intense calm and contentment.

—————

I was young and had a difficult pregnancy with my first born. I was scared because they had to do an emergency c-section because her health and mine were at risk. I had anticipated and thought about how the moment would be when I finally got to hold my first child and realize that I was a mother. It was unbelievably emotional and I don’t think anything in the world could top the amount of pleasure and joy I had when I got to see and hold her for the first time.

—————

I was 29 when my son was born. It was amazing. I never thought I would be a father. Watching him come into the world was easily the best day of my life. I did not realize that I could love someone or something so much. It was at about 3am in the morning so I was really tired. But it was wonderful nonetheless.

—————

I absolutely loved when my child was born. It was a wave of emotions that I haven’t felt by anything before. It was exciting and scary and beautiful all in one.

No luck for anti-natalists… the super-strong drug-like effects of having children will presumably continue to motivate most humans to reproduce no matter how strong the ethical case against doing so may be. Coming soon: a drug that makes you feel like “you just had 10,000 children”.

Falling in Love

The category of “falling in love” was also a very common top experience. I should note that the experiences reported were not merely those of “having a crush”, but rather, they typically involved unusually fortunate circumstances. For instance, a woman reported being friends with her crush for 7 years. She thought that he was not interested in her, and so she never dared to confess her love for him… until one day, out of the blue, he confessed his love for her. Other experiences of falling in involve chance encounters with childhood friends that led to movie-deserving romantic escapades, forbidden love situations, and cases where the person was convinced the lover was out of his or her league.

Travel/Vacation

The terms “travel” and “vacation” may sound relatively frivolous in light of some of the other pleasures listed. That said, these were not just any kind of travel or vacation. The experiences described do seem rather extraordinary and life-changing. For example, talking about back-packing alone in France for a month, biking across the US with your best friend, or a long trip in South East Asia with your sibling that goes much better than planned.

MDMA/LSD/Psilocybin

It is significant that out of 97 people four of them listed MDMA as one of the most pleasant experiences of their lives. This is salient given the relatively low base rate of usage of this drug (some surveys saying about 12%, which is probably not too far off from the base rate for Mechanical Turk workers using MDMA). This means that a high percentage of people who have tried MDMA will rate it as as one of their top experiences, thus implying that this drug produces experiences sampled from an absurdly long-tailed high-valence distribution. This underscores the civilizational significance of inventing a method to experience MDMA-like states of consciousness in a sustainable fashion (cf. Cooling It Down To Partying It Up).

Likewise, the appearance of LSD and psilocybin is significant for the same reason. That said, measures of the significance of psychedelic experiences in psychedelic studies have shown that a high percentage of those who experience such states rate them among their top most meaningful experiences.

About-two-thirds-of-participants-who-received-psilocybin-reported-a-mystical-experience

Games of Chance Earnings

Four participants mentioned earnings in games of chance. These cases involved earning amounts ranging from $2,000 all the way to a truck (which was immediately sold for money). What I find significant about this is that these experiences are at times ranked above “college graduation” and other classically meaningful life moments. This brings about a crazy utilitarian idea: if indeed education is as useless as many people in the intellectual elite are saying these days (ex. The Case Against Education) we might as well stop subsidizing higher education and instead make people participate in opt-out games of chance rigged in their favor. Substitute the Department of Education for a Department of Lucky Moments and give people meaningful life experiences at a fraction of the cost.

Key Pains Surfaced

Kidney Stones and Migraines

The fact that these two medical issues were surfaced is, I think, extremely significant. This is because the lifetime incidence of kidney stones is about 10% (~13% for men, 7% for women) and for migraines it is around 13% (9% for men, 18% for women). In the survey we saw 9/93 people mentioning kidney stones, and the same number of people mentioning migraines. In other words, there is reason to believe that a large fraction of the people who have had either of these conditions will rate them as one of their top 3 most painful experiences. This fact alone underscores the massive utilitarian benefit that would come from being able to reduce the incidence of these two medical problems (luckily, we have some good research leads for addressing these problems at a large scale and in a cost-effective way: DMT for migraines, and frequency specific microcurrent for kidney stones)

Childbirth

Childbirth was mentioned 16 times, meaning that roughly 30% of women rate it as one of their three most painful experiences. While many people may look at this and simply nod their heads while saying “well, that’s just life”, here at Qualia Computing we do not condone that kind of defeatism and despicable lack of compassion. As it turns out, there are fascinating research leads to address the pain of childbirth. In particular, Jo Cameron, a 70 year old vegan schoolteacher, described her childbirth by saying that it “felt like a tickle”. She happens to have a mutation in the FAAH gene, which is usually in charge of breaking down anandamine (a neurotransmitter implicated in pain sensitivity and hedonic tone). As we’ve argued before, every child is a complete genetic experiment. In the future, we may as well try to at least make educated guesses about our children’s genes associated with low mood, anxiety, and pain sensitivity. In defiance of common sense (and the Bible) the future of childbirth could indeed be one devoid of intense pain.

Car accidents

Car accidents are extremely common (the base rate is so high that by the age of 40 or so we can almost assume that most people have been in at least one car accident, possibly multiple). More so, it seems likely that the health-damaging effects of car accidents, by their nature, follow a long-tail distribution. The high base rate of people mentioning car accidents in their top 3 most painful experiences underscores the importance of streamlining the process of transitioning into the era of self-driving cars.

Death of Father and Mother

This one does not come as a surprise, but what may stand out is the relatively higher frequency of mentions of “death of father” relative to “death of mother”. I think this is an artifact of the longevity difference between men and women. This is in agreement with the observed effect of age: about 15% vs. 25% of people under and over 40 had mentioned the death of their father, as opposed to a difference of 5% vs. 25% for death of mother. The reason why the father might be over-represented might simply be due to the lower life expectancy of men relative to women, and hence the father, on average, dying earlier. Thus, it being reported more frequently by a younger population.

Future Directions for Methodological Approaches:

Graphical Models with Log-normal Priors

After trying so many analytic angles on this dataset, what else is there to do? I think that as a proof of concept the analysis presented here is pretty well-rounded. If the Qualia Research Institute does well in the funding department, we can expect to extend this pilot study into a more comprehensive analysis of the pleasure-pain axis both in the general population and among populations who we know have endured or enjoyed extremes of valence (such as cluster headache sufferers or people who have tried 5-MeO-DMT).

In terms of statistical models, an adequate amount of data would enable us to start using probabilistic graphical models to determine the most likely long-tail distributions for all of the key parameters of pleasure and pain. For instance, we might want to develop a model similar to Item Response Theory where:

  1. Each participant samples experiences from a distribution.
  2. Each experience category generates samples with an empirically-determined base rate probability (e.g. chances that it happens in a given year), along with a latent hedonic value distribution.
  3. A “discrimination function” f(a, b) that gives the probability that experience of hedonic value a is rated as more pleasant (or painful) relative an experience with a hedonic value of b.
  4. And a generative model that estimates the likelihood of observing experiences as the top 3 (or top x) based on the parameters provided.

In brief, with an approach like the above we can potentially test the model fit for different distribution types of hedonic values per experience. In particular, we would be able to determine if the model fit is better if the experiences are drawn from a Gaussian vs. a log-normal (or other long-tailed) distribution.

Finally, it might be fruitful to explicitly ask about whether participants have had certain experiences in order to calibrate their ratings, or even have them try a battery of standardized pain/pleasure-inducing stimuli (capsaicin extract, electroshocks, stings, massage, orgasm, etc.). We could also find the way to combine (a) the numerical ratings, (2) the ranking information, and (3) the “how many times better/worse” responses into a single model. And for best results, restrict the analysis to very recent experiences in order to reduce recall biases.

Closing Thoughts on the Valence Scale

To summarize, I believe that the case for a long-tail account of the pleasure-pain axis is very defensible. This picture is supported by:

  1. The long-tailed nature of neuronal cascades,
  2. The phenomenological accounts of intense pleasure and pain (w/ phenomenological accounts of time and space expansion),
  3. The way in which pain scales are constructed by those who developed them, and
  4. The analytic results of the pilot study we conducted and presented here.

In turn, these results give rise to a new interpretation of psychophysical observations such as Weber’s Law. Namely, that Just Noticeable Differences may correspond to geometric differences in qualia, not only in sensory stimuli. That is, that the exponential nature of many cases where Weber’s Law appears are not merely the result of a logarithmic compression on the patterns of stimulation at the “surface” of our sense organs. Rather, the observations presented here suggest that these long-tails deal directly with the quality and intensity of conscious experience itself.


Additional Material

Dimensionality of Pleasure and Pain

Pain and pleasure may have an intrinsic “dimensionality”. Without elaborating, we will merely state that a generative definition for the “dimensionality of an experience” is the highest “virtual dimension” implied by the patterns of correlation between degrees of freedom. The hot pepper hands account I related suggested a kind of dimensional phase transition between 4/10 and 5/10 pain, where the patterns of a certain type (4/10 “sparks” of pain) would sometimes synchronize and generate a new type of higher-dimensional sensation (5/10 “solitons” of pain). To illustrate this idea further:

First, in Hot Ones, Kumail Nanjiani describes several “leaps” in the spiciness of the wings, first at around 30,000 Scoville (“this new ghost that appears and only here starts to visit you”), and second at around 130k Scoville (paraphrasing: “like how NES to Super Nintendo felt like a big jump, but then Super Nintendo to N64 was an even bigger leap” – “Now we are playing in the big leagues motherfucker! This is fucking real!”). This hints at a change in dimensionality, too.

And second, Shinzen Young‘s advice about dealing with pain involves not resisting it. He discusses how suffering is generated by the coordination between emotional, cognitive, and physical mental formations. If you can keep each of these mental formations happening independently and don’t allow their coordinated forms, you will avoid some of what makes the experience bad. This also suggests that higher-dimensional pain is qualitatively worse. Pragmatically, training to do this may make sense for the time being, since we are still some years away from sustainable pain-relief for everyone.

Mixed States

We have yet to discuss in detail how mixed states come into play for a log-normal valence scale. The Symmetry Theory of Valence would suggest that most states are neutral in nature and that only processes that reduce entropy locally such as neural annealing would produce highly-valenced states. In particular, we would see that high-valence states have very negative valence states nearby in configuration space; if you take a very good high-energy state and distort it in a random direction it will likely feel very unpleasant. The points in between would be mixed valence, which account for the majority of experiences in the wild.

Qualia Formalism

Qualia Formalism posits that for any given system that sustains experiences, there is a mathematical object such that the mathematical features of that object are isomorphic to the system’s phenomenology. In turn, Valence Structuralism posits that the hedonic nature of experience is encoded in a mathematical feature of this object. It is easier to find something real if you posit that it exists (rather than try to explain it away). We have suggested in the past that valence can be explained in terms of the mathematical property of symmetry, which cashes out in the form of neural dissonance and consonance.

In contrast to eliminativist, illusionist, and non-formal approaches to consciousness, at QRI we simply start by assuming that experience has a deep ground truth structure and we see where we can go from there. Although we currently lack the conceptual schemes, science, and vocabulary needed to talk in precise terms about different degrees of pleasure and pain (though we are trying!), that is not a good reason to dismiss the first-person claims and indirect pieces of evidence concerning the true amounts of various kinds of qualia bound in each moment of experience. If valence does turn out to intrinsically be a mathematical feature of our experience, then both its quality and quantity could very well be precisely measurable, conceptually crisp, and tractable. A scientific fact that, if proven, would certainly have important implications in ethics and meta-ethics.


Notes:

* It’s a shame that Coyote Peterson didn’t rate the pain produced by the various wings he ate on the Hot Ones show relative to insect stings, but that sort of data would be very helpful in establishing a universal valence scale. More generally, stunt-man personalities like the L.A. Beast who subject themselves to extremes of negative valence for Internet points might be an untapped gold mine for experience deference data (e.g. How does eating the most bitter substance known compare with the bullet ant glove? Asking this guy might be the only way to find out, without creating more casualties).

**Base rate of mentions of worst experiences:

[('Father death', 19), ('Childbirth', 16), ('Grandmother death', 13), ('Mother death', 11), ('Car accident', 9), ('Kidney stone', 9), ('Migraine', 9), ('Romantic breakup', 9), ('Broken arm', 6), ('Broken leg', 6), ('Work failure', 6), ('Divorce', 5), ('Pet death', 5), ('Broken foot', 4), ('Broken ankle', 4), ('Broken hand', 4), ('Unspecified', 4), ('Friend death', 4), ('Sister death', 4), ('Skin burns', 3), ('Skin cut needing stitches', 3), ('Financial ruin', 3), ('Property loss', 3), ('Sprained ankle', 3), ('Gallstones', 3), ('Family breakup', 3), ('Divorce of parents', 3), ('C-section recovery', 3), ('Love failure', 2), ('Broken finger', 2), ('Unspecified fracture', 2), ('Broken ribs', 2), ('Unspecified family death', 2), ('Broken collarbone', 2), ('Grandfather death', 2), ('Unspecified illness', 2), ('Period pain', 2), ('Being cheated', 2), ('Financial loss', 2), ('Broken tooth', 2), ('Cousin death', 2), ('Relative with cancer', 2), ('Cluster headache', 2), ('Unspecified leg problem', 2), ('Root canal', 2), ('Back pain', 2), ('Broken nose', 2), ('Aunt death', 2), ('Wisdom teeth', 2), ('Cancer (eye)', 1), ('Appendix operation', 1), ('Dislocated elbow', 1), ('Concussion', 1), ('Mono', 1), ('Sexual assault', 1), ('Kidney infection', 1), ('Hemorrhoids', 1), ('Tattoo', 1), ('Unspecified kidney problem', 1), ('Unspecified lung problem', 1), ('Unspecified cancer', 1), ('Unspecified childhood sickness', 1), ('Broken jaw', 1), ('Broken elbow', 1), ('Thrown out back', 1), ('Lost sentimental item', 1), ('Abortion', 1), ('Ruptured kidney', 1), ('Big fall', 1), ('Torn knee', 1), ('Finger hit by hammer', 1), ('Injured thumb', 1), ('Brother in law death', 1), ('Knocked teeth', 1), ('Unspecified death', 1), ('Ripping off fingernail', 1), ('Personal anger', 1), ('Wrist pain', 1), ('Getting the wind knocked out', 1), ('Blown knee', 1), ('Burst appendix', 1), ('Tooth abscess', 1), ('Tendinitis', 1), ('Altruistic frustration', 1), ('Leg operation', 1), ('Gallbladder infection', 1), ('Broken wrist', 1), ('Stomach flu', 1), ('Running away from family', 1), ('Child beating', 1), ('Sinus infection', 1), ('Broken thumb', 1), ('Family abuse', 1), ('Miscarriage', 1), ('Tooth extraction', 1), ('Feeling like your soul is lost', 1), ('Homelessness', 1), ('Losing your religion', 1), ('Losing bike', 1), ('Family member in prison', 1), ('Crohn s disease', 1), ('Irritable bowel syndrome', 1), ('Family injured', 1), ('Unspecified chronic disease', 1), ('Fibromyalgia', 1), ('Blood clot in toe', 1), ('Infected c-section', 1), ('Suicide of lover', 1), ('Dental extraction', 1), ('Unspecified partner abuse', 1), ('Infertility', 1), ('Father in law death', 1), ('Broken neck', 1), ('Scratched cornea', 1), ('Swollen lymph nodes', 1), ('Sun burns', 1), ('Tooth ache', 1), ('Lost custody of children', 1), ('Unspecified accident', 1), ('Bike accident', 1), ('Broken hip', 1), ('Not being loved by partner', 1), ('Dog bite', 1), ('Broken skull', 1)]

Base rate of mentions of best experiences:

[('Falling in love', 42), ('Children born', 41), ('Marriage', 21), ('Sex', 19), ('College graduation', 13), ('Orgasm', 11), ('Alcohol', 8), ('Vacation', 6), ('Getting job', 6), ('Personal favorite sports win', 6), ('Nature scene', 5), ('Owning home', 5), ('Sports win', 4), ('Graduating highschool', 4), ('MDMA', 4), ('Getting paid for the first time', 4), ('Amusement park', 4), ('Game of chance earning', 4), ('Job achievement', 4), ('Getting engaged', 4), ('Cannabis', 3), ('Eating favorite food', 3), ('Unexpected gift', 3), ('Moving to a better location', 3), ('Travel', 3), ('Divorce', 2), ('Gifting car', 2), ('Giving to charity', 2), ('LSD', 2), ('Won contest', 2), ('Friend reunion', 2), ('Winning bike', 2), ('Kiss', 2), ('Pet ownership', 2), ('Children', 1), ('First air trip', 1), ('First kiss', 1), ('Public performance', 1), ('Hugs', 1), ('Unspecified', 1), ('Recovering from unspecified kidney problem', 1), ('College party', 1), ('Graduate school start', 1), ('Financial success', 1), ('Dinner with loved one', 1), ('Feeling supported', 1), ('Children graduates from college', 1), ('Family event', 1), ('Participating in TV show', 1), ('Psychedelic mushrooms', 1), ('Opiates', 1), ('Having own place', 1), ('Making music', 1), ('Becoming engaged', 1), ('Theater', 1), ('Extreme sport', 1), ('Armed forces graduation', 1), ('Birthday', 1), ('Positive pregnancy test', 1), ('Feeling that God exists', 1), ('Belief that Hell does not exist', 1), ('Getting car', 1), ('Academic achievement', 1), ('Helping others', 1), ('Meeting soulmate', 1), ('Daughter back home', 1), ('Winning custody of children', 1), ('Friend stops drinking', 1), ('Masturbation', 1), ('Friend not dead after all', 1), ('Child learns to walk', 1), ('Attending wedding of loved one', 1), ('Children safe after dangerous situation', 1), ('Unspecified good news', 1), ('Met personal idol', 1), ('Child learns to talk', 1), ('Children good at school', 1)]

For clarity – “Personal favorite sports win” means that the respondent was a participant in the sport as opposed to a spectator (which was labeled as “Sports win”). The difference between “Sex” and “Orgasm” is that Sex refers to the entire act including foreplay and cuddles whereas Orgasm refers to the specific moment of climax. For some reason people would either mention one or the other, and emphasize very different aspects of the experience (e.g. intimacy vs. physical sensation) so I decided to label them differently.

*** It is possible that some fine-tuning of parameters could give rise to long-tail ratios even with a normal distribution (especially if the mean is, say, a negative value and the standard deviation is very wide). But in the general case a normal distribution will have a fairly narrow range for the ratios of the “top value divided by the second top value”. So at least as a general qualitative argument, I think, the simulations do suggest a long-tailed nature for the reported hedonic values.

Ephemerisle: Health Homeostasis, Worldview Annealing, and the Long-Tails of Serious Fun

Idealism leads to realism if it is strictly thought out.

Ludwig Wittgenstein (from Notebooks, 1914-1916)

I just came back from spending a week on the water at Mandeville Point (~18 kilometers from Stockton, California), at a yearly gathering called Ephemerisle. Below I will share some thoughts, insights, and takeaways from this experience.


Introduction

Ephemerisle is an event first conceived as a social experiment to investigate how the construction of autonomous floating nation-states could work in practice. The history of Ephemerisle is full of interesting lessons in how ideologies react when subjected to the acid bath of reality (cf. mini-documentary about the first iteration of the event). Over the years, this event has evolved from a wild, loosely organized libertarian congregation of like-minded individuals with no central planning, no rules, and no taxes, into a -somewhat- tamer, loosely organized libertarian congregation with central planning, rules, taxes, insurance, and heavy legal waivers that you need to sign when boarding islands and vessels. Despite the introduction of rules and legal waivers, the overall vibe of the place is one of freedom, intellectual intensity, and a spirit of giving.

To gain a sense of the scale of the event I’d recommend looking at drone footage over the years: 2015, 2016, 20172018, and 2019. Compared to Burning Man, this is a relatively tiny event, with a crowd that reaches up to perhaps as many as 600 people throughout the week, the equivalent of only 1% of the population of Black Rock City. In absolute terms, however, it is certainly very impressive to see that many people organized into a superorganism capable of delivering the basic survival needs for hundreds of persons in such an inhospitable environment, along with the luxuries of dance floors, sound systems, massage bunks, and trippy art.

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Ephemerisle 2019 – Credit: Sameer Halai

The captain of the ship in which I camped said that “the slogan of Ephemerisle should be ‘Figure It Out'”. Indeed, this event falls in the same category as Burning Man when it comes to the degree of self-reliance that it demands from each participant. Burning Man, as noted before, could very well be called “the annual meeting of the recreational logistics community”. Ephemerisle takes all of the hassle and preparation needed for Burning Man, doubles it, adds an extra dose of uncertainty, and sprinkles it with a number of challenges unique to living on the water for a week.

map_of_ephemerisle.png

Location of Ephemerisle 2019

Indeed, attending Ephemerisle is not a simple task. The starting section of the Ephemerisle survival guide reads:

The first thing to realize about Ephemerisle is that it is not a festival. There are no tickets, no gates, and no central authority whatsoever. But Ephemerisle is on the water, which makes attending a very non-trivial task.

 

You are responsible for getting yourself to and from the event site and for everything you’ll need to live there and survive for your stay. There are few to no resources adjacent to the event site, and none on the water. Think carefully about what you’ll need, and plan ahead!

So, given the time, effort, resources, knowhow, and social connections needed to be able to attend, who actually ends up going to Ephemerisle?

Participants

Like Burning Man, the people at Ephemerisle are not representative of the general population.

Stating the obvious, the mean conscientiousness, openness to experience, and general intelligence of participants are all significantly above the mean relative to the general population. I might add that, based on many conversations I had, it seemed that the following qualities are also significantly more common relative to the general population: graduate studies, social skills, physical fitness, cryptocurrency investments, and of course, number of yachts owned.

What stuck with me was not only the average intelligence of the participants, but also the high density of particularly brilliant people doing impressive work of their own in fields such as nanotechnology, computational biology, machine learning, cryonics, innovation in politics, and many other heavy-duty intellectual fields. I lost count of the number of serial entrepreneurs, people with PhDs in STEM fields from MIT, and advanced meditators working on developing transformative technologies.

I asked people who have been to many Ephemerisles how to explain this unusual density of spiky people, and the answer seems to be a mixture of self-selection and founder effects. First, it takes some degree of agency and determination to choose to attend this event and do all the things you need to do to make it happen. And second, a large number of people attend via invitation from well-established boats and islands, which in turn were seeded by very impressive persons from the late 2000s/early 2010s Bay Area super-cluster of people working on seasteading, longevity, AI safety, and transhumanism. Taken together, these two factors make Ephemerisle a natural Schelling point for energetic people doing cool things to find one another.

If I were to cluster the population of Ephemerisle this year, I’d intuitively estimate that 35% of people are in the broad people-cluster of scientists, libertarians, anarchists programmers, entrepreneurs, cryptocurrency developers, Bay Area rationalists, and psychedelic users. 30% are people in the broad cluster of artists, off-the-grid environmentalists, Oregon ecosystem-oriented hippies, and psychedelic users. 20% are people who live physically nearby, who own a boat, and for whom it is relatively convenient to attend. 10% are people with a festival-oriented lifestyle (to the point that their main activity is to go from festival to festival), and the remaining 5% are real-life hard-core sailors who help trouble-shoot the most difficult problems that (inevitably) arise during the event.

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Ephemerisle 2015

But Why?

Why are people willing to spend so much time and energy into making an event like this happen? Why not stay at home or go to a club, where the chances of drowning, breaking bones, and getting sepsis from exposing open wounds to delta water are orders of magnitude lower? Why bother to learn knotsanchoring, and how to handle a fire on your boat when you could instead learn to use a remote control, watch TV, and order a pizza? Why the need to carry bucketloads of water to and from different boats for hours at a time when you could simply drink tap water from the comfort of a vacation timeshare apartment? And if you are attending to meet smart people working on cool projects, why not go to a conference or visit an academic department?

I would claim that the thirst for adventure, fear of missing out, and ideological excitement can only go so far in explaining over-the-top events like Ephemerisle. To bridge the explanatory gap here we will need something more. This is why I will offer two analytic angles for explaining high-effort events like Ephemerisle: (1) Health Homeostasis (condition-dependence-based fitness signaling), and (2) Worldview Annealing (as a cure to adultification and the regeneration of a positive internal mental representation of one’s conception of humanity). Let me explain:

Health Homeostasis

This analytic angle comes from evolutionary psychology. In particular, genetic fitness signaling dynamics may explain why some people may have the urge to do wild and risky things when they are exceptionally smart and healthy. The concept of “condition-dependance” comes handy here:

Condition-dependence: A trait’s sensitivity to an animal’s health and energy level. For example, dance ability is condition-dependent because tired, sick animals can’t dance very well. (Mating Mind by Geoffrey Miller, from Glossary, pg. 437)

From a gene’s eye view, it makes no sense for genetically robust individuals to spend one’s healthy years in relative security, for one would have no way to advertise one’s good genes relative to average specimens in such conditions. In a sense, doing complex and risky activities is a hard-to-fake signal of fitness. Therefore, from the point of view of one’s genes, self-interest might (metaphorically) reason: “I have all this health and energy laying around, better don’t let it go to waste and use it to signal genetic fitness instead” (see: An Infinite Variety of Waste).

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Ephemerisle 2009. Credit: Christopher Rasch

This could be summarized with a general principle I call Health Homeostasis, which posits that among sexually-reproducing species who engage in fitness displays, we can expect that individuals will have a “desired level of health”. If they notice that they are below that level of health, they will increase the time and resources focused on regenerating health. And if they notice that they are above that level of health, they will instead reduce the time and resources focused on regenerating health, and engage in costly genetic fitness signaling displays. Perhaps events like Burning Man and Ephemerisle have an element of this going on. They are appealing to people who have too much health and for whom the standard ways of signaling fitness simply won’t cut it. They need health-diminishing activities in bulk. They need challenges where they can display physical endurance while exercising their powers of creativity. And this is why, all considered, these events are so sexy.

I should add here that I am not suggesting that this explanation implies that participants are doing this consciously. Executing an adaption rarely involves conscious planning and strategizing. All it requires is following the gradient of what feels right and good.

Introspect, dear reader, about the times where you have felt the most alive. Have you, perhaps, not experienced them during risky situations? When you felt that “this could be a real danger to other people”? When by luck or grace you happened to be willing and able to do something few others could have done? This is what I am talking about. This feeling of reality and authenticity may very well be a good proxy for the process of down-regulating your health. And this is what it looks like for health homeostasis to be at play.

Worldview Annealing

This event was- to be open and real with you- quite moving to me. I struggle to give words to some of the feelings, intuitions, and thoughts that I experienced towards the end of my stay. The situations in which I found myself made me feel new sensations about the possibilities hidden in humanity and the unfolding of intelligence on this planet. It felt mystical and significant. It’s as if we were glimpsing the birth of a new stage for humanity.

Something akin to this happened to me at Burning Man a few years ago (with a slightly different flavor). How do I explain it? Someone I met there shared the view that at Ephemerisle we are experiencing a certain kind of “chemistry of consciousness” that is unique to the space. That collectively, in a space of this sort, we all resonate with a set of ideals, conscious efforts, and love that makes the whole environment vibrate with a unique quality of consciousness tuning the participants to a new level.

Perhaps! We could very well throw the towel and declare victory to mysterianism at this point! Alas, this is not the path that Qualia Computing has ever taken before.

So how can we explain the deep emotional feelings induced by Ephemerisle and events akin?

Here is the big picture idea: There are elements about the experience there that give rise to “heightened states of consciousness” for many hours at a time. This can be explained largely due to the build-up of semantically-neutral energy thanks to the high-density of surprising stimuli (cf. free-energy principle, entropic disintegration, and neural annealing). Over the course of several days, such build-up of semantically neutral energy enables neural search processes that solve constraint satisfaction problems that have to incorporate the fact that hundreds of human volunteers can come together to peacefully construct a mini-world in a treacherous environment, all for the benefit and enjoyment of others. Integrating this experienced fact can lead to the felt-sense that the world could be better, much better. That we could create heaven-worlds for each other. That the future could be a place of loving-kindness energized with electrifying creativity and positive energy. By the end of the event, one’s cynical internal representations of humanity have been replaced -to an extent anyhow- by optimistic and loving thought-forms. It is hard to see the creation of such a beautiful thing without shifting one’s priors about the real world.

It is important to realize that changing one’s deep representations of high-level concepts such as humanity and the world can have far-reaching ramifications. The emotional valence that is attached to our big-picture ideals can determine how we see the world. A somewhat far-fetched but ultimately accurate analogy could be made with Rubik’s cubes: Imagine that a “perfect state of the world” is equivalent to a “completely solved Rubik’s cube”. In addition to the degree to which you are close to a fully-solved state, you also have preferences about the aesthetics of the colors of the cube. But ultimately, you care more about the cube being solved than you care about the cube having pretty stickers.

Now, let’s say that we start with a completely scrambled state, which you feel very bad about. If you feel hopeless about being able to unscramble it, you can focus on improving the look of the stickers. The stickers could be more pretty and that will briefly make you feel good, but you will know that doing any surface modification still does not help in rearranging the entire cube so that it is in a solved state. The analogy here is: changing the look of the stickers is akin to many of the band-aid solutions we use in our life. We try to make ourselves feel better by doing superficial things like changing our cars, our appearance, and our job titles. But deep down, none of that addresses the deeper sources of dissatisfaction. The cube of our life remains in an unsolved- if more outwardly pretty- state.

There could also be uncertainty about how far you are from the perfectly solved state. Especially when you are unfamiliar with the algorithms that work for solving the cube, you will find that there are configurations that give the impression of high disorder that are in fact close to getting the cube solved. And then there are situations that seem close to the goal line of a completely solved cube that still require a lot more work to figure all out. The same could be with the state of our lives.

Now, what do I mean with a perfectly solved cube? I’m referring to a sense that “everything is as it should be”. I would argue that for many people, the very idea that humanity cannot get its shit together is a deep source of discomfort. Changing jobs, romantic partners, living situations, and perhaps even political parties do little to address this deep problem. They could be thought of as akin to trying to make the Rubik’s cube more pretty by decorating the stickers.

Experiences where one gets a sense that humanity, if properly focused, could indeed get its shit together might have a much deeper emotional effect on people than one might intuitively realize. All you may need is a proof of concept to create a glimmer of hope. All you need is someone showing you a video of speedcubing for you to realize that there is a short path from the state of your cube to a fully-solved state. And this can be exhilarating and deeply moving.

Now, for this to take place, we need to be on a flexible state of mind. Hence the importance of art, meditation, philosophy, and psychedelics in conjunction with the unfamiliar space. This is the recipe for annealing a big picture change of mind -a reframing of humanity, its possibilities, and one’s place in it. It indeed requires multiple days of iterations of changes of one’s mental representations. Here, meditation, art, psychedelics, and philosophy synergize with the scene in order to raise the brain’s energy parameter. The scene adds a lot of novelty: confrontation with the necessities for survival, extended exposure to people who are smarter and more competent than you along multiple dimensions, high temperatures, new wildlife (spiders and wasps), large amounts of water, wobbly platforms and ships, odd shapes and weird objects abundant in the platforms, etc.

This all results in what we might call worldview annealing. That is, the high energy state repeatedly cooled and re-heated over several days enables the fast search over alternate representations of the world. Worldview annealing gives rise to novel ways of seeing the world and one’s relationship with it.* And this is, perhaps, the underlying reason why people report having durable psychological benefits from doing things like attending Burning Man and similar events (see graphs below for statistics about transformative experiences at Burning Man; I intuit that Ephemerisle might be similar in this regard).

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At the end of an event like this, you may very well feel exhausted and totally partied out, but if worldview annealing successfully took place, you will be able to tell that something deep and inward shifted in a good direction. You now have a felt-sense for what a different and better world could be like.

Can such an effect be scaleable? Hopefully many more people can experience it in the future. Perhaps we need to open-source the essential features of that kind of event so that others can take advantage of these key properties and export its benefits elsewhere. And thus we encounter the concept of “Serious Fun”.

Serious Fun

In the last few years I’ve given a lot of thought to the concept of paradise engineering. This comes up a lot when contemplating the coming centuries in light of David Pearce‘s Hedonistic Imperative, which posits that humanity will ultimately get rid of suffering by tackling its genetic roots. Now, it is true that the bulk of what will make our posthuman paradise a paradise is to be found in the quality of experience of our descendants rather than in their external environment. But for our Darwinian minds to contemplate what paradise might look like we usually need to evoke images that give us good feelings in our current state. For example, images of people cooperating to generate incredible experiences! Indeed, saying “in the future we will all be genetically endowed with negligible mu-opioid receptor down-regulation” does not sound nearly as exciting as saying “we will all be incredibly sexy, live our lives in massive cuddle puddles, be on the brink of orgasm, and have mind-blowing levels of intelligence and loving-kindness” (note: the wise would be advised to choose the first option, for the second does not guarantee sustainable happiness while the first one does). To tickle our imagination and inspire motivation it is indeed a good idea to trigger visions that engage our current reward architecture (even if we know that we are responding to Darwinian triggers and that a true paradise has more to do with brain configurations than external conditions).

So let’s think about wonderful external conditions to evoke a sense of paradise. I like to think of large groups of people engaged in serious planning and strategizing to create amazing experiences for even larger groups of people. Burning Man and Ephemerisle are a proof of concept of what could end up becoming super-fun events of civilizational proportions. And here is where we start wondering: what makes such events possible? What is the distribution of effort, time, resources, etc. contributed by each participant that is needed for Serious Fun to take place? My hunch is that to make this work in real life, the distribution needs to have a long-tail:

The Long-Tails of Serious Fun

It is interesting to ponder the idea that the distribution of the total contribution per participant in events like this has a long tail. In the most simplistic case the distribution could be a power law. As it turns out, many phenomena that are usually described with power laws don’t really fit power laws when closely examined.** Now, whether the “true distribution” of the contribution per participant follows a log-normal, ZipfPareto distribution, or one of the general Lévy distributions is an open question. But for the time being, what I want to emphasize is the long-tailed nature of it. In particular, the fact that there seems to be a small cluster of individuals who contribute massively to the event, followed by a larger group that contributes a lot, followed by a large minority who contribute more than they consume, followed by a majority who come to the event and mostly enjoy what others brought with them. Nothing inherently wrong with this, for after all, the people who contribute the most tend to truly enjoy giving, believe in the ideals of the event, and earn the respect of others. That said, it should be noted that if the distribution is too skewed it may lead to burnout among the most active members, which does not bode well for the sustainability of the event.

Although statistics for Ephemerisle are lacking, we can again use as an example people’s responses to the Burning Man Census:

burning_man_participant_expenses

Burning Man expenses (other than ticket cost). The exact wording of the question in the online survey was, “How much did you spend this year to go to Black Rock City and return, including fuel, camp dues, food, lodging, airfare, supplies, etc. (but not including your ticket to the event)? If you shared expenses with a group, only include the portion of expenses that you contributed. Give your best estimate in USD.” (source)

The above results are represented with too few bins to really be able to tell what kind of long-tail distribution they follows. However, it is pretty clear that we are looking at a very skewed distribution that does not at all look like a normal/Gaussian distribution. I really wish they had included one more option (e.g. $20,000+) so that we could see the number of people who are really (economically) invested in the event. In addition, another key question that would shed light on the long-tailed nature of the event would be “How many hours did you spend preparing/building/helping others/driving/cooking for others/etc.?” Again, I’d expect a very skewed distribution in the responses to such a question.

As we begin to think about how we can plan the creation of heaven worlds (i.e. large-scale projects of fun) we should consider the long-tailed nature of the contribution distribution per participant. My hunch is that we can perhaps determine whether an event is even possible by estimating how skewed the distribution needs to be to make it happen. On one extreme we have events such as “a picnic at the local park” where the event can realistically take place even if most people do roughly the same amount of work (save for perhaps the organizer who post the event details online and coordinate setting up the chairs and coolers). On the other extreme, we could imagine an actual Seasteading event out in the open ocean, or a festival at the very cusp of Mount Diablo, or even something extreme like a party at the Lagrangian between the Earth and the moon, where we would need a group of people to come together and intensely collaborate for many months and spend millions of dollars on providing the basic infrastructure for the event. In-between these two extremes you could find events like community-led concerts, regional Burns, Ephemerisle, and Burning Man proper. Whether a pie-in-the-sky idea like Ephemerisle ever actually gets to happen may be a matter of the event having the right long-tail skew that makes it possible for actual humans to carry it out. In some sense, I suspect that Ephemerisle is right at the edge of impossibility, while Burning Man proper may have more slack and hence can afford to be substantially bigger.

equipot

Lagrangian party?

What other amazing events are there that are “just barely impossible”? And what events will become possible as soon as we discover new techniques, ideologies, and cultural norms to make the distribution needed to make them happen just barely less skewed than impossible? This might be a very generative question to ask if you want to invent “the next Burning Man”.

A final thread to pull here concerns to allometric scaling properties of large events (cf. allometric analysis of Chinese cities). Due to economies of scale, there are thresholds for the number of participants at an event at which some utilities become rentable. Thus, there could also be many un-imagined crazy events that simply require a threshold number of participants to become possible. For example, perhaps a tunnel-based event at a beach is impossible with 100 participants but completely realistic with 500. Who knows! It’s an interesting thing to wonder about.

Anyhow, I invite you to think more about these ideas… perhaps this way you will help us invent the next iteration of paradise on earth.

The End.

3978447403_646306a832_b

Ephemerisle 2009. Credit: Liz Henry



* This can be used in order to treat the problems associated with psychological adultification. You see, most of the people alive today have some degree of psychological trauma associated with adultification. Acting free and childish is something that we can only really do in a context where we feel like we’ve earned the right to do so. So many highly conscientious people need to nearly kill themselves for the wellbeing of others to feel like they can deserve the right to feel care-free and innocent again. Guess what? Ephemerisle does not have a shortage of ways for you to do prodigious amounts of work to show how much you love others. Hence, perhaps, it is a place where some exceedingly responsible people can finally feel deserving of a relaxed, care-free, time.

** I am using here power laws to point at the general property of long-tailedness. In reality many other similar distributions tend to fit the data better than power laws, among which the log-normal distribution is commonly a superior fit (see: So You Think You Have a Power Law — Well Isn’t That Special?).


Notes:

  1. Featured image source.
  2. I know that the sense of the words idealism and realism in the header quote by Wittgenstein are inappropriate here. I am just amused that the quote happens to be a great fit for this essay if the senses are interpreted within a different context. In true libertarian fashion: Deal with it.

An Infinite Variety of Waste

Excerpt from The Mating Mind: How Sexual Choice Shaped the Evolution of Human Nature (2000) by Geoffrey Miller (pg. 128-129)

Zahavi’s handicap principle and the idea of condition-dependence* are different perspectives on the same thing. The handicap idea emphasizes that sexual ornaments and courtship behaviors must be costly in order to be reliable fitness indicators. Their cost can take almost any form. They can increase risk from predators by making an animal more conspicuous with bright colors. They can increase risk from germs by impairing an animal’s immune system (which many sex hormones do). They can burn up vast amounts of time and energy, like bird song. They can demand a huge effort to obtain a small gift of meat, as in human tribal hunting.

As with Veblen’s conspicuous consumption principle, the form of the cost does not matter much. What matters is the prodigious waste. The waste is what keeps the fitness indicators honest. The wastefulness of courtship is what makes it romantic. The wasteful dancing, the wasteful gift-giving, the wasteful conversation, the wasteful laughter, the wasteful foreplay, the wasteful adventures. From the viewpoint of “survival of the fittest,” the waste looks mad and pointless and maladaptive. Human courtship even looks wasteful from the viewpoint of sexual selection for non-generic benefits, because, as we shall see, the act of love considered most romantic are often those that cost the giver the most, but that bring the smallest material benefits to the receiver. However, from the viewpoint of fitness indicator theory, this waste is the most efficient and reliable way to discover someone’s fitness. Where you see conspicuous waste in nature, sexual choice has often been at work.

Every sexual ornament in every sexually reproducing species could be viewed as a different style of waste. Male humpback whales waste their energies with half-hour-long, hundred-decibel songs that they repeat all day long during the breeding season. Male weaverbirds waste their time constructing ornamental nests. Male stag beetles waste the matter and energy from their food growing huge mandibles. Male elephant seals waste a thousand pounds of their fat per breeding season fighting other elephant seals. Male lions waste countless calories copulating thirty times a day with female lions before the females will conceive. Male humans waste their time and energy getting graduate degrees, writing books, playing sports, fighting other men, painting pictures, playing jazz, and founding religious cults. These may not be conscious sexual strategies, but the underlying motivations for “achievement” and “status”- even in preference to material sources- were probably shaped by sexual selection. (Of course, the wasteful displays that seemed attractive during courtship may no longer be valued if they persist after offspring arrive- there is a trade-off between parental responsibilities and conspicuous display.)

The handicap principle suggests that in each case, sexual selection cares much more about the prodigious magnitude of the waste than about its precise form. Once the decision-making mechanisms of sexual choice get their necessary information about fitness from a sexual display, everything else about the display is just a matter of taste. This interplay between waste and taste gives evolution a lot of elbow room. In fact, every species with sexual ornaments can be viewed as a different variety of sexually selected waste. Without so many varieties of sexual waste, our planet would not be the host of so many species.


* (from Glossary, pg. 437) Condition-dependence: A trait’s sensitivity to an animal’s health and energy level. For example, dance ability is condition-dependent because tired, sick animals can’t dance very well.

Burning Man Theme-Camps of the Year 2029: From Replicator to Rainbow God (2/2)

[Epistemic Status: Fiction; see related non-fiction Burning Man articles – 1, 2, 3; See part 1/2 here.]

Preface

What follows is (the second part of) the result of an exercise in considering the questions: “Which novel memes, and meme-plexes, will be alive 10 years from now? And, what new worldviews will have a ‘full-stack’ account of where humanity is at, and where it is headed?” Hope this sparks interesting discussions.


The elucidation of the origin of qualia-rich subjectivity is important not only as an activity in the natural sciences, but also as a foundation and the ultimate justification of the whole world of the liberal arts. Bridging the gap between the two cultures (C. P. Snow) is made possible only through a clear understanding of the origin of qualia and subjectivity.

Qualia symbolize the essential intellectual challenge for humanity in the future. The impact of its elucidation will not be limited to the natural sciences. The liberal arts, religion, and the very concept of what a man is will be reassessed from their very foundations.

 

– Ken Mogi in The Qualia Manifesto (1998)

Compared to the natural sciences (cf. the Standard Model in physics) or computing (cf. the Universal Turing Machine), the “science” of consciousness is pre-Galilean, perhaps even pre-Socratic.

 

– David Pearce, in Co-Evolution, Fusion or Replacement? (2012)

Thursday: Camp Super Intelligence

You wake up at 10AM, in what you feel is a surprisingly good mood given the fact you rolled last night. You still notice that your mind is a bit zonked. Taking LSD, MDMA, and Ketamine within the span of two days is not something you’ve done before, and it makes sense that they would each contribute their own distinct aftermath. If acute drug effects can be synergistic (as it was for MDMA + K), could hangover types also be synergistic? It doesn’t feel that way, but then again, you remember that by most accounts the “real MDMA hangover” happens 36 to 48 hours after taking it, not the morning after. So you figure that right now you are probably experiencing the afterglow and staving off tiredness with the psychostimulant metabolites of MDMA. With regards to the acid, you can’t really tell if there is any hang-over from it, so you figure that your feeling of being a bit discombobulated comes from the mixing of K and MDMA last night. “Oh, that! This reminds me- I should try to figure out what on earth was the massive life-energy ball I felt last night”- you think to yourself, reflecting on the fact that you had never experienced anything like it before.

You prepare a large bowl of fresh fruits and vegetables. Conveniently your camp still has many fruits and veggies in the collective dry-ice cooler that Astro Burrito is prototyping. He got his playa name because his power of invention is such that people claim that he would be able to figure out how to make a burrito from scratch in zero-g; after all he served hot burritos to the entire camp during the intense day-long dust storm of BM 2025, which is something everyone still remembers. You eat two carrots, an apple, a pear, some celery, two raw tomatoes, and a ton of grapes. Once you feel satiated, you sit down to chill for a bit at your camp’s shared shade structure.

Galaxy Fox and Cardamom join you to chill for a bit. They each have a mango slushy they got from Camp Glacier Breeze next door, and share some with you. You ask them if they have ever experienced giant life-energy balls on Ketamine and/or MDMA. Galaxy Fox admits she does not know what you are talking about, but Cardamom’s eyes brighten. She says: “I used to take ketamine weekly in my twenties, until I had some bladder problems and stopped. I remember a lot of wild visions. I’m an atheist, but man, some of these visions had a strong mystical quality to them. Perhaps the strongest experience I had was the one time I combined LSD and ketamine right after coming back from a neuroscience conference. I recall hallucinating a cast of famous neuroscientists whose work I’ve read and who I’ve interacted with over the years; almost as if I could access their soul and connect with them on a deep level. We all went on a quest to figure out the essence of life as a group of friends- naked in front of the mystery of life- rather than with all of the social pretense that inevitably comes with academic prestige. At the peak of the experience, we all witnessed this huge ball of light that looked like a sun coming down and telling us to ‘hang in there, life will make sense soon’ and ‘keep trying to make sense of it all, you will soon see the big picture’. I tried to dismiss this experience after the fact, but the feeling was very compelling. I still think about it every once in a while.” This more or less fits your experience, but you don’t recall the life-energy ball telling you anything specific. It was more like a sense of what could be possible if we all saw our underlying unity; but no words or concepts, at least not humanly recognizable. They finish the mango slushy and take off. You take a nap in a recliner, and wake up at noon, hungry again.

You eat a handful of mixed nuts, almond milk, hemp milk, macadamia milk, and electrolytes. Half a MealCube. You get ready to explore and by 1PM go on your way. You keep under shade and walk alone this time. After all you are sober and won’t be experimenting with anything tonight, and your best friends are who knows where by now. You stop a couple of blocks down, as the sign attracts you: Camp Super Intelligence.

The camp is mostly composed of a large central dome. Inside is dark and cool. There are water coolers, fans, and plenty of “mist projectors”. It also has walls with fabrics of two colors only (green and blue), which strikes you as a rather conservative aesthetic in a place like this. Some people are chilling, a few are in pairs, and there is a circle of people halfway between the center and the north corner hanging out and talking fast, and clear.

You ask if you can join them, and they say “definitely!”, and they ask your name. Then they continue their conversation, as if you weren’t there: “I thought Friston’s book was really easy to understand” – the girl in blue says. “Yes, even my mom seemed to understand it when I explained it to her.” – replies the guy in red. From what you gather, people here are obsessed with the prospect of digital Artificial General Intelligence. But rather than discussing the substance of the problem, they seem more interested in asking each other about what their “timeline is”, meaning, when they think it will happen. For better or for worse, you conclude they do not have a vision of the future – the AGI scenario interrupts their thoughts about what the future sans AGI could hold (with e.g. “mererecursively self-improving genetic engineering).

Interestingly, one of the topics they touch on is psychopharmacology. Everyone in the circle is on some or another psychiatric drug. They have, moreover, discovered that if you combine cholinergic nootropics (e.g. oxiracetam, pramiracetam, etc.) with adenosine agonists (cf. ‘anti-caffeine’ rutaecarpine) you can discuss philosophy without being bothered by questions about consciousness. They tell you that once you get used to it, you think back to the time you used to worry about consciousness as a time you were crazy in inscrutable ways. “It puzzles you that you used to fall in that trap, but once you ‘transition’, you know better”- a kid with grey eyes says. He continues: “You internalize the fact that, as Graziano puts it, ‘there is no subjective impression; there is only information in a data-processing device’ [source].”

They take purely causal approaches to reality, and in fact disregard subjectivity explicitly. Sometimes you feel you must be too tired to understand them, because you don’t believe what they tell you. You don’t believe that someone is trying to reconstruct intelligence without ever mentioning consciousness, experience, or qualia. But your friend- many hours later- reassures you that you had heard correctly. Indeed, that camp is known for saying things of this sort, and challenge each other to say it loudly, as a sort of memetic purity test.

From your point of view, you wonder whether they’ve turned into philosophical zombies in some sense, or if they have experienced a reframing of their approach to language at the very core. They now seem to lack introspective access to the intrinsic referent of experience they used to have. Alas, they say that didn’t exist to begin with; it was the “illusion that emerges from a system modeling its own attentional dynamics“. Their system is self-consistent, and seemingly complete from the inside. But from the outside you can see they are missing a critical piece. Or so it seems to you.

They tell you that getting rid of the concept of consciousness is a necessary step to take if you want to move on to actually solving the problem of intelligence. But you resist their persuasion. It somehow feels rude… in light of what you’ve experienced the last couple of days. You think to yourself just how much there is to talk about concerning what you experienced recently, and how much this knowledge has expanded your understanding of how large the world of experience truly is. You try to share some of your recent experiences with them. They look at each other, and one of them says “I feel like every time we hear the stories from people who’ve taken drugs, the story always boils down to ‘these peeps were on drugs and something crazy happened’.” They all laugh, and agree. You sense they are not interested- anywhere in their minds- about what you may have to say.

Is this what it feels like to have a serotonin dip, from the inside? Being convinced that the people around you are choosing uncooperative strategies? Or are these guys really being that unkind to me? They feel rude. “But never-mind, go ahead, we are listening”- says the same guy. They were kidding; they did want to hear your story after all. It turns out they became quite intrigued by some of your observations, including how you felt at the Pleasure Palace- I mean- what was it called? (you realize your memory is not as sharp as it usually is, mmm… wonder why). Camp Valence. They hadn’t heard of Camp Valence, or Camp State-Space of Consciousness. They seem to use Burning Man as a sort of complex interpersonal tension resolution event, and usually don’t interact much with others at the event, but do take drugs and go to see the art. Interestingly, they claim this makes them more productive during the rest of the year; it resolves the conflicts between them like nothing else. They are not very open to being changed from the outside, though, so to speak. Their behavior at Burning Man seems to be governed by a closed system and has a goal-oriented focus. You would much rather come at it with radical openness, but other forms of experiencing this place are valid, right?

You thank them for their company, stand up, and walk around. The place has tons of hammocks, reactive LED tables, and rationalist fiction lying around. Their art was geeky stuff like a dodecahedral metal-frame supporting an icosahedral “dual” internal metal-frame, itself supporting another dodecahedral frame and so on for several iterations. They also had a “statue” of a giant robotic “stuffed bear” that would vibrate if you gave it a hug with the right pressure and length. In a way, this statue was, gently, teaching you how to give pleasant hugs to others. You gave it a biiiig hug… putting all your heart into it. But it does nothing. The screen reads: “Try giving shorter hugs.” This makes you feel sad.

A girl who happens to have seen your disappointing interaction with the statue runs to you, saying “you can change the settings. How about we try ‘hug explosion’? It vibrates in a monotonically-increasing way as a function of the amount of time you keep hugging it.” It was incredible how this little act of kindness made you feel included and appreciated. You hugged her and she hugged you back for over a minute. Your mind somehow made you think about that time a kid in Korea ran up a crane to hug Michael Jackson during one of his concerts. You don’t know why your mind makes this association with what’s happening- the symbolism escapes you- but you choose to just let it be.

The camp’s entrance has a chart about humbling yourself and accepting the fact that the world is full of people who are intellectually more capable than you at essentially any task you can come up with. This wasn’t made in a way that was meant to be a put-down in any way. Rather, it was a call to look around you for people who can help you in surprisingly efficient ways. We don’t need to reinvent the wheel everywhere, and collectively we benefit if we share what we can do, sustainably, really well.

You feel tired by 6PM. Again, you were artificially energized for two consecutive days; it makes sense you would feel the need to rest tonight. You nonetheless dance for 20 minutes at a near-by major soundcamp on your way back listening to throw-back 90’s rap, check out some art, and chill with a campmate near your camp’s kitchen in a retractable chair until you feel compelled to sleep, which you do without trouble at 11PM. It’s cold tonight, really cold.

Friday: Camp Replicator – “Live Your Fantasy at Porky’s”

You wake up at 9AM and feel well rested, and hungry. Your mood is pensive, but you look forward to going out with friends tonight. One of your campmates, Lasagna Man, is preparing a batch of clean meat dishes for people to try. The sampler includes beef steak, octopodes in lemon juice, fried insects, and a James Franco BBQ.

You try each dish with a lot of curiosity. It is a bit disconcerting, to be honest, considering you’ve been vegetarian for over 12 years, and you feel compelled to verify it isn’t market meat. Either way, it is delicious, and you swallow the lab meats along with banana bread, coconut water, a 100mg capsule of 5-HTP, and 4000 fibrin units of nattokinase (as suggested by Longevity Camp to prevent cardiovascular events in periods of recovery). Satiated, you casually comment to your campmates: “I didn’t realize eating a celebrity was a hidden fantasy of mine.” Upon hearing this, Lasagna Man says: “Have you been to Replicator Camp? I think this year they call it Porky’s. It’s a place where you are compelled to live your hidden fantasies.” Galaxy Fox adds: “Strongly recommended. It’s a trip, and you do not need drugs.” Determined to check it out, you get ready by putting your Friday costume on (a tight-fitting dress inspired by the ThunderCats) and head over.

They say that “Porky’s” is just what you need to hear in this lifetime, in this branch of the multiverse, today. In reality this camp transcends this timeline, this place, this eon, this branch. It is an eternal Platonic concept which repeats itself at all scales of reality. If something exists, there were causes and conditions that gave rise to its form and quality. What people at this camp call “Generalized Darwinism” suggests that even before “the reproduction of the fittest” you have “the survival of the stable” as a primary trivial implication of time moving forward. What we see is driven by patterns trying to make copies of themselves, and being stable is a way of “making copies of yourself in the future” with an n of 1. But this is not relevant to you right now. The camp has a full-fledged metaphysical theory of the universe- and it self-describes as a spiritual camp- but in practice it looks nothing like it. Their explicit mission is to help you “experience an unrealized mental need”, and what this looks like is a bunch of actors playing a scenario for you, where you do something you’ve really been craving for a long time but have been unable to do due to the constraints of the real world.

Why would this be “spiritual”? You inquire about it with a girl that is wearing a swan costume and who seemingly volunteers at this camp. She tells you that the point is to help people fulfill an earthly craving of theirs so they can move on to their core mission in life. Most people will have a reaction of self-loathing once they finally scratch that itch, upon the realization that it wasn’t that big of a deal after all. It makes you realize that you would have been willing to throw a big chunk of your life away for what is essentially a side dish. Better to find that out in a simulacrum than risk your career, family, health, etc. with a terrible life decision, right?

At the entrance there is a menu of options that lists the role-playing scenarios they can do for you. There is a “custom” option for which you need to sign-up days in advance. They do not agree to about half of the custom requests because they exceed the bounds of what actors can feel comfortable role-playing, so there are limits as to how deep and dark your fantasy can be. The default options themselves are pretty shocking, though. The list contains things that range from adultery and incest all the way to abuse of power scenarios. Some of them are so R-rated that they make the rest of Burning Man seem conservative in comparison; heck they make the Orgy Dome seem conservative in comparison. Interestingly, the most requested role-playing scenarios among the options are completely family-friendly. For example, “work acknowledgment” fantasies account for 30% of the requests, and a whole other 25% involve receiving affection from neglectful family members.

You think to yourself: “I suppose I do feel undervalued at work, and I sometimes use outlets like Burning Man to find a place where people value me for who I am.” So you choose the “have a real conversation with your boss” option. You tell the attendant that you made up your mind, and she goes to the back of the room to inform the actors of your choice, and then proceeds to ask you for details about the scenario.

You tell her that you have been working as a journalist at a technology magazine for about 7 years. Your coworkers like you, and you are highly praised by your immediate manager, who thinks that you are a whiz kid and loves to “sell your work” to upper management. The thing is, you have a feeling that he does not represent you very well, and since you’ve been passed over for promotion already for four consecutive years, you sense that he is somehow taking credit for your work. He is very warm, and it is hard to think badly of him when he is around. He has a sort of professional candor that makes you feel rapport with him. The thought that he may be screwing you behind your back despite his warm relationship adds to the psychological torture. You tell her all of this and then she asks a few follow-up questions, mostly details like his first name, the name of a couple coworkers, and the ways the people at work refer to you such as nicknames and phrases they may use. She tells you to stand in line, that the actors will be ready in about 15 minutes.

When it’s your turn, she takes you to the backroom and tells you to be “ready for a wild ride”.

The backroom has a number of props appropriate for your job. You sit at the desk, and stare at the computer in front of you. Then an actor comes in, pretending to be your boss:

Howdy Steve! How’s it going? I was just passing by and thought I should say hi. I also remembered you mentioned you’d have the deliverable today, and it isn’t in my desk, so I thought checking wouldn’t hurt.

That’s right. He says “howdy”; this is already starting to bother you, reminding you of the pinched nerves you were experiencing less than a week ago at your job. He continues:

Don’t worry about it. There is always another tomorrow. Hey, I’ve gotta tell you something. Promotion rounds are coming up- this time around, I promise, you will get promoted. As I always say: “We’re getting there, you and me, together” [winks].

That phrase irks you horribly. You feel your blood pressure go up. The girl was right, this is really wild. How did the actor know how to emulate his demeanor? You thank him, and mention that you are hopeful and determined to get the promotion this time. Then he leaves for a minute. When he comes back, he is wearing a different attire, as if it was a different day:

Howdy Steve! I’ve gotta share something with you. Look. Sorry… they passed you up again. See, I think it’s the changing times, because the… how do you say it? They said your lateness on many assignments demonstrated lack of commitment to the company. They want you to take on a bit more responsibility before we can move you up next year. But hey, remember: “we’re getting there, you and me, together” [winks].

You feel your blood pressure sky-rocket; you feel rage boiling inside you. Or was it there all along and you are only now becoming aware of its depth? You decide to confront him. You mention how in each of the last four years you have seen him go out to conferences and present your ideas as if they were his. That you have seen him get the credit in meetings. And that once, a middle manager accidentally copied you on an email where he was bragging about how well the story you wrote did online without ever mentioning your name in the writeup. He falls silent for 5 seconds. He looks serious now. He says:

“Yes, it’s true, I stole your work, ok?! I told my wife, and she said I should always deny, deny, deny, no matter what, that she being pregnant meant that we couldn’t risk not getting the next bonus. Can you blame me screwing you to benefit my family? Are we not all like that in the end?”

Fuck! You knew it. You’ve known this for over three years, intuitively. Your boss’ kid is soon going to be entering preschool. Your head trembles and you feel your heart rate go up, crazy. After a pause he adds:

I can’t be responsible for the fact that you are a sucker. That you let yourself be taken advantage of. Darwin Awards, anyone?

The rage becomes a steam of hellfire inside you, and you feel yourself getting ready to shout and scream and kick him and bite him. But there is something stopping you. You know you could go all out on this poor fellow, and rub it in his face how the family excuse is completely bogus (it’s unsettling that the family thing is exactly the sort of rapport-congruent thing that he would actually say to justify himself), and it’s infuriating how many times you gave him a graceful exit despite your dark suspicions. You know you could hit him where it hurts most. But you instead choose the high road. “I am not like him” – you tell yourself. Silence for 10 seconds as you breath in and out, calming yourself. You say:

That one time you had me stay in the office on a Friday I had requested off a month in advance broke my heart. I missed a camping trip with my friends to satisfy your careerist hunger. But you are right, I am a sucker. Yes, being well adapted to a deeply sick social environment is not a sign of mental health. This is it. I quit. I will see you when I see you. Good bye.

“And Cut!”- a girl behind the curtain shouts. She runs up to you: “You did well! How did it feel?” But you can’t respond. The experience is cathartic, and you cry, folded upon your knees on the floor.

You notice internal boundaries dissolve. It is now clear that over the years you’ve built barriers inside yourself; some kind of protective field around your inner representation of your boss and his warm demeanor. You didn’t allow yourself to think bad thoughts about him; you empathized with him deeply. Why? Why did you make yourself blind to all of the evidence, to the fact that he was screwing you? You realize that your sense of worth has been tied to his praise for so long that it feels like part of your professional grain. If it wasn’t for him, would you even have a job? You can’t stop crying. As you let those feelings come and go, a feeling of empowerment begins to run through your body; feeling vindicated and validated by yourself is something you are not used to. Especially not concerning professional matters. But now you feel… like you are worth it. The addiction to his praise is something of your own making, you now realize. You placed conditions on your own happiness; you had it in you to love yourself all along.

The girl brings you a box of tissues. She tell you that it is common to experience a rollercoaster of emotions. She said to come back if you needed additional support. You exit Camp Replicator. You feel good. Tired, but good… and relaxed.

It feels like the image of your boss has a lot less power over you, and this process has “released” a lot of energy – you feel like your own self again- how strange. With this weight off your shoulders, you wander aimlessly… looking for something to find.

As you walk along the streets you begin to imagine your mind as an ecosystem of agents with disparate inclinations. You wonder: “And what is the distribution of ‘power’ among my subagents?” It stands to reason that, given that subagent interactions form a complex system, subagent power would follow the same distribution that income, citations, and social influence have, i.e. a power law. Your subagents compete for a place of influence within you. And the one who (temporarily) holds power tends to have substantially more mental resources than the second next one. At the bottom you have thousands of tiny subagents – like the time you wonder “should I do x?” where x is only congruent with a small part of all of your motivations. MDMA, you figure, changes this power distribution during its acute effects; the “harmonization of your experience” (as Camp Valence might call it) is not only about your sensory impressions and emotions, but also about the causal power of your sub-agents. It is fascinating to see that in ego-softened states- such as the one you are having thanks to the recent catharsis- one can see one’s highest subagent give in to the concerns of the ones below, and start a representative assembly of subagents trying to arrive at a much more fair global distribution of power that satisfies as many subagents’ preferences as possible.

The experience of having two conflicting subagents have equal degrees of power is very peculiar; one feels that, somehow, one’s future is “truly up in the air”. You wonder: “Is this agent power distribution annealing?” Within the multiplicity of subagents bidding for your attention on a daily basis, which ones of those have purely replicator objectives, and which ones are trying to increase the subjective wellbeing of people (including your own)?

You come across a little bike handing out Whisky to passersby. You pass on your cup, and receive a shot; not because you feel the need to, but because you like it. You savor the Whisky very slowly.

On the way back you come across a Chindogu Hands-on Exhibit, which you find incredibly entertaining. It makes you feel like a kid again. You start wondering about your next career. Mentally you already disconnected from your boss’ authority, though you suspect that the full consequences of having done this will only be revealed over the next days and weeks. How to break it to him? What should you work on next?

Upon arriving to your camp you get ready to go out by putting on a spiral LED hat and glow gloves. Astro Burrito and Cardamom join you, and you walk for many hours until 2:30AM, wandering from art to art, and talking to strangers, and asking them about what they do for a living… perhaps you’ll get inspired. You cap the night with James Franco left-overs- which you turn into a sandwich-, a mango, and a handful of supplements (BCAA, Magnesium Citrate, Quercetin, Turmeric, Aminoglycotetraquinone, Ashwagandha, and L-Theanine). You write some notes, and quickly pass out by 3:30AM.

Saturday: Camp Anti-Replicator

A 1980s throwback art-car driving by your camp wakes you up at 11AM. You feel refreshed, and happy. The first thought that comes to mind is “today is the day the Man burns.”  You processed so much pent-up emotion yesterday it’s unreal to you. You feel light, and energized. You then remember that you have a tested 25mg 2C-B tablet, which you had intended to use the night of the Burn. You check yourself emotionally and physically to decide whether you will go ahead and take 2C-B tonight, and all of the signs are good (blood pressure is good, VO2 Max is good, mobile ECG looks good). You feel good about the prospect of tripping today. You will be heading out to see the Man burn with your campmates at 7PM. What to do till then? You get a “shower” at the Human Carcass Wash, drink a cocoa Soylent, eat dried apricots, and devour a sun-heated bean & rice burrito. It is now 2PM so you have about 4 hours to explore before you have to get back and prepare to head out to see the Burn. What should you do? For reasons you don’t yet know, you feel an urge to take the 2C-B right now. You rationalize this decision based on the feeling that you should not stay up too late tonight if you intend to look for theme-camps tomorrow. Great press secretary internal monologue you have there.

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So you wander into the Playa with a borrowed bike looking for camps you haven’t even noticed yet in order to get the most surprising and novel stimuli possible. Along your way you see a surprisingly large number of sculptures of beasts and wild animals. You stop at a place in which you see about 50 people meditating quietly in front of a 3m-tall caterpillar statue, which intrigues you deeply. A sign close to the bike racks reads: “Camp Anti-Replicator.” At this very point you feel the first sign of the 2C-B come-up. You get off the bike and look around for someone to interact with. You check behind a blue wooden wall decorated with ʻaʻā clinkers arranged to form the shape of a mandala, whose center is an endless knot. A few people dressed in magenta robes are talking quietly on the floor, seating on cushions and drinking tea. When they notice you, they invite you to have tea with them.

mantra-mandala-with-Endlesskont

Endless Knot Mandala (cf. 7topology)

They look like monks, and they emit a rather serene but lively vibe. They explain that Camp Replicator is their “sister camp”. Replicator is designed to help people identify the most gnarly karma bundle of samskaras in one’s energy body, which is the first step in untangling them. To put it in a secular way: living your deep fantasies and unmet emotional needs helps identify the most emotionally imprinted memories that haunt you behind the scenes. Empirically, working on these bundles in a psychologically safe container is useful. Away from civilization, one can more directly address repressed impressions in a safe psychic environment.

One of the persons there pours you a cup of rooibos, while another one asks you if you know why you are here. Puzzled, you reply in the negative.

They say that Burning Man is one of the seven Pure Lands on this planet- one for each of the karmic clusters of the human species. These are places where catalytic tools for spiritual potential are plentiful. There are many scattered groups of humans around the globe doing intense spiritual development work, but when it comes to transformations happening at a large scale, this is one of the seven core locations. Each of these Pure Lands serves between 10,000 to 100,000 people a year. Burning Man, they say, is not what it looks like at first sight. The physical component of the temporary community is just a superficial facade of the spiritual processes that are being catalyzed under the surface. They explain that this is why when you go there the place becomes a new location for your dreams in which to take place; Burning Man is alive all-year round, but on the etheric level of reality, which can be accessed in a variety of states of consciousness including meditation, dreaming, and psychedelics. Indeed, many benefit from this Pure Land without ever attending, though having been there secures a karmic link to it. They say that there are some really important Light Workers here, whom you will be working with when you are ready. They say that you are not yet ready for that. But you are ready for something else.

You ask them where they are getting all of this- implausible-sounding- information. They say that their philosophy- and thus their understanding of what Burning Man is about- is the result of a synthesis of Buddhism, Metamodernism, and Martinus’s Philosophy. Their camp members tend to come from families with what they call “new religious energy”. Often they will have been born in religions such as Unitarian Universalism, Theosophy, Integral Theory, and New Age, to name a few. Based on the synthesis of these disparate sources, together with experiments they have conducted, and the download of information from spirit guides, they can affirm in consensus that this world is currently at the boundary between the immanent energy of the animal world and the human kingdom levels of consciousness. The monk who looks the youngest, around 18 years old, begins:

“You see, the cosmological principle states that, when seen on a sufficiently large scale, the universe looks regular and uniform. Locally, you see many different kinds of planets, stars, nebulae, brown dwarves, neutron stars, and so on. But on a grand scale there is asymptotically the same amount of matter, energy, dark matter, and dark energy, in large volumes of space. Similarly, the surrounding spiritual dimensions, locally, are very heterogeneous, but they are not a representative of the entirety of the multiverse. While evil can win within a given pocket of reality, on a large scale good prevails…. Well, it prevails in about 99.7% of the multiverse as far as we can determine with our spiritual telescopes.”

Then the person in the circle who looks the oldest, around 70 years old and with a heavy Swedish accent, continues:

“There are uncountably many flavors of consciousness, but they can all be placed on a cyclic evolutionary timeline. Buddhism divides the multiverse into six regions, each hosting beings who share the same main karmic signature: Gods, Titans, Human, Animal, Hungry Ghost, and Hell.”

A girl who looks of Indian descent, who is around 35 years old takes over: “Martinus’s philosophy claims that there are six basic energies of God. Each of us is an offspring of God, a soul/monad that reflects and diffracts divine light. The six stages are: plant kingdom, followed by the animal kingdom, then the real human kingdom, the kingdom of wisdom, the divine world, and the kingdom of bliss [source]. The cycle never ends, and it is driven by a principle of hunger and satiation.”

“In cases like earth, there are two energies with roughly comparable power over the beings who inhabit here. Although the keynote of the universe is Love with a capital L, locally, other energies tend to dominate.”

“Metamodernism”- the one who is bald and has a French accent, says- “asks us to consider how new forms of democracy and collective action can take place in light of an emerging cluster of people who have reached advanced psychological developmental stages (e.g. Kegan level 5). In the context of global spiritual transformation this is very relevant. What do we do as more people begin to pass over the threshold of 50% human consciousness? We are developing secular implementations of spiritual liquid democracy in order to overcome the game-theoretical short-comings of the current democratic system.”

You ask them if this is a common view. You had never heard of this kind of syncretism.  They tell you that the overall picture has been developed in Scandinavia and is gradually getting exported to other places in the world. After all, the Nordics are a culturally interesting corner of Europe in a somewhat similar way to California being a culturally interesting corner of America.

You ask them why you are hearing all of this. They said they were waiting for you. Incredulous, you start standing up to leave, but the Indian girl says:

“We all saw you the other day. You were a bright star on Wednesday night. We saw you saying hi to your grandfather, and then visiting the palace of light and its dome. We knew you would come over here later this week.”

“You mean that what I experienced on the God Helmet, MDMA, and later on with ketamine was not an illusion?” – you ask, shocked. She winks at you in response.

The man with the Swedish accent pours you another cup of rooibos. He says that at this camp shamans of consciousness gather to help you see through as many of your internal demons as possible. The atmosphere here is completely unlike the mental health institutions most people know. Here people don’t show any kind of learned helplessness (internally wondering “is there really anything that can be done in this situation?”). People here are trained technicians of consciousness. They have sharpened psychological tools to break into your psychological stress points and help you release anxiety about your life-decisions and embrace an open-ended forgiving approach to thinking about the future. Leaving your attachments is not a sacrifice when you are trading them for options that feel both good and more real.

On the table there is a book that you pick up and open at random. A pamphlet that was inside the book falls on the tea table, and you decide on reading the pamphlet instead: “[I]f enough people gather in these tents, our shamans can do efficient combinatoric searches for pairs of people in the group that can help each other grow as fast as possible in the span of 1 hour. The clock is ticking, and there is tremendous pressure and conviction that a breakthrough will happen.” The people at the table mention that a significant percentage of people who come to this camp are on serotonergic psychedelics, but the majority go sober. More than half are people who have been here before and had a breakthrough, and want to go and take more advanced classes. People remark on the intense contact-high of this particular region of the playa. Typically, people say that they had an inexplicable urge to come over to this camp, and they find ways of rationalizing it.

One of the techniques listed on the pamphlet is called “deprogramming meta-programmers”. You take a moment to let that sink in. “This sounds like a cult; only the CIA would get away with calling something ‘deprogramming’ and not sound like a cult.” – you think to yourself. “I thought Rainbow God was a cult, but this?”

But at this very moment you realize that you are, and have always been, a prisoner of your reward architecture. You’ve been programmed by evolution to execute adaptations you are not even aware of. These animal urges… they don’t feel like yours. “What is going on?”- you wonder. From the inside, certain things feel right and others feel wrong and you don’t even know why. Sure, you can justify your feelings by claiming direct and exclusive access to the universe’s utility function. “What is this?”- You look at your hands and you have a tremendous vision of your hands being like claws. You imagine all of the terrible things for which human hands have been used throughout history.

You start identifying with the abstract human rather than with yourself as a particular human. The vision of all humans sharing a divine essence comes over you. But why do you have these animal feelings? You feel in you the demon-like cast of emotions that allows the persecution, bullying, and torturing of other sentient beings. You experience profound disgust at the realization that these underly many of your dearly coveted self-concepts.

“Am I experiencing a bad trip?” – you ask them. “No, what is happening to you is that you are at the fence between animal energies and the human kingdom. You seem to be hovering close to the very middle, and you recently crossed the threshold where 51% of you can contain human kingdom energies. The interference is highly uncomfortable, of that we are aware. But do not fear.” – You ask: “Are you killing my ego?” – They say: “No, your ego is committing suicide. You are about to cross over, and that’s why you are here.”

Buddha-Weekly-Abahya-Mudra-Buddhism

Don’t Fear

“What happens when you have 51% of human kingdom energy?”- you wonder out loud, tripping pretty hard by this point. “Well, that is a milestone of sorts, because it forces some realignments inside you. There is some risk of falling into Messiah complexes, manic states, and self-harm. With regards to self-harm, it is important to acclimatize you to the fact that the craving for non-existence is itself one of the animal energies. Given reincarnation and the oneness of consciousness, self-harm is strictly counter-productive. Philosophies like negative utilitarianism and antinatalism are fantasies of systematizers who are, precisely, craving non-existence to such an extent that they create a worldview to relieve that craving.”

They tell you that you have also been imprinted with quasi-parental figures primarily concerned with the replication of their attachments and vices throughout your life, be it teachers, advisors, company CEOs, or even your boss. Your imprinting will determine whether you emphasize fast or slow reproductive strategies (cf. evolutionary psychopathology). The people in Camp Replicator helped you figure out who has imprinted you. The mock confrontation with your boss was a psychological technique that effectively works by helping your System 1 come to terms with the fact that your quasi-parental figures are almost certainly constraining your behavior out of neuroticism rather than thought-through rational analysis and altruism. Camp Anti-Replicator, now, is helping you with a push in contextualizing your suffering in a larger picture that allows you to identify with spirit rather than with your animal reproductive drive.

“We are not a religion; we are a diaspora of students of the spiritual sciences. We don’t need dogma, because we have Abhijñā (‘direct knowledge’).”- says the 18 year old.

He continues: One of the most important sociological theories they deploy involves realizing that social movements work by providing an internal voice for people to be able to deal with their internalized authority figures. No social movement starts out from the altruistic desires of people, at least not on people dominated by animal consciousness. Beyond social signaling theory (cf. Mating Mind, Elephant in the Brain), the human mind has many tricks up its sleeves to transmute growth-oriented energy into the execution of replicator strategies. The true reason for this involves the relative low density of dark energy in this part of the universe, which biases physical evolution towards entropic finite games and away from negentropic infinite games.

“God of the Old Testament was really a Wrathful Deity. Marcionism and Catharism knew this truth, but it was suppressed by the more dominant replicator-based and politically powerful conservative spirit of the time, which sanctified the God of the Old Testament and pretended it was the same being as Jesus.” – Says the Indian girl. “Jesus was a Bodhisattva world-redeemer who came here to break a link in the chain of tit-for-tat karma of the animal consciousness level.”

You open the pamphlet again. The section is titled “The stages of spiritual evolution”:

– 1. Nature spiritism/shamanism
– 2. Multi-god religions
– 3. Mono-theistic religions
– 4. Hollow mono-theism (“hey man, nobody believes this nonsense about the virgin birth anyways but we just pretend to go along”)
– 5. Cynical materialism/atheism (money and power and NO re-incarnation)
– 6. Humane materialism (“Let’s all be friends but there is still no God”)
– 7. Low quality spirituality/New Age (“Peace, man. Let’s all be friends and smoke weed and not do anything practical. SOMETHING grander is going on. But we don’t have a clue about it.”)
– 8. Mature spiritual instinct. Religions, atheism and New Age now all seem a bit childish. Deep inner growing seed of spiritual knowing. The divine is real but undefined. Interest in mystics like Martinus emerge.
– 9. Cosmic glimpses. One sees the divine workings behind the veil for brief moments but still too immature to put the pieces together.
– 10. Full blown cosmic consciousness. Like Martinus, Buddha and most likely Jesus Christ. Everything is completely intuitive. You are one with God, it all makes sense and you can tap into any answer about the cosmos at any time.

The guy with the Swedish accent says: “Good, you are reading about the stages. I’d say the world is now roughly between #4 and #5, with some regional variations. For example, places like Denmark and Norway are centered around #5 and #6, whereas places like Saudi Arabia are on average between #3 and #4. Burning Man and the other Pure Lands are designed to concentrate people who are between #6 and #7, and moving towards #8.”

They said that you now know what you needed to know. You are free to hang out and ask more questions, but to feel free to walk out any time. You feel a high level of energy coursing through your veins, purifying your sense of self, making it more humane. You decide to continue reading the pamphlet:

“When Professor Christopher M. Bache was asked what was the most important thing that he learned from taking LSD in high doses in silent darkness more than 70 times, he responded:

The most important? That the universe is the manifest body of a Divine Being of unimaginable intelligence, compassion, clarity, and power, that we are all aspects of this Being, never separated from it for a moment, that we are growing ever-more aware of this connection, that physical reality emerges out of Light and returns to Light continuously, that Light is our essential nature and our destiny, that all life moves as One, that reincarnation is true, that there is a deep logic and significance to the circumstances of our lives, that everything we do contributes to the evolution of the whole, that our awareness continues in an ocean of time and a sea of bliss when we die, that we are loved beyond measure and that humanity is driving towards an evolutionary breakthrough that will change us and life on this planet at the deepest level. Take your pick.

(Source: Meet the professor who self-administered 73 high-dose LSD sessions)

This is just one of the tens of thousands of people who reached level #9 in the last 50 years, and in the coming century we expect a few million people to get there.”

You save the pamphlet in your camelback, thank everyone at the table, drink the last bit of rooibos, and start taking off. “One more thing” – the 18 year old says – “you will confront a difficult moral dilemma tonight. Keep your heart open.”

As you leave, you pass by the same place where people were meditating in front of the caterpillar statue. But the statue is not there anymore, and the people who are there are now completely different. More so, they are now facing the opposite direction… meditating in front of a 4m-tall butterfly statue, which you swear wasn’t anywhere to be seen when you arrived.

You hurry up and try to get back to your camp before people leave to see the Man burn. On your way back, you overhear a conversation between two 20-something girls who happen to be biking in the same direction as you for what seems like an eternity. One of the girls points out that she went to Burning Man with the intention of having fun and maybe some casual sex with older men. But she is now feeling a bit disgusted with her original intention, that she feels drawn to starting a family with a beta boy who, she now realizes, she has been in love with for years but wouldn’t admit it to herself. The other girl kept saying to speak louder, that the acid was making it hard for her to make out the words of what she was saying. Soon enough they turn right at a junction as you continue forward, riding fast to make sure you don’t miss your campmates. You notice you came across a large number of Human-shaped sculptures. Where are the beasts? You don’t see them anywhere.

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You arrive late by a couple minutes. Thankfully Astro Burrito is still there, and he informs you that there is a second wave of people who will be departing in half an hour. You quickly eat some granola bars, drink a protein shake, and swallow some dried apricots, and to add some hydration, drink the last soda water can left in the cooler. Astro Burrito hands you some mixed nuts and orange slices. You refill your camelback, and join the group of people right outside the camp who will be the second wave. 5 minutes later you all start walking towards the Man as a group.

You are still a little high from the 2C-B, but you feel yourself coming down. You walk alongside Astro Burrito, and you share with him some of the things you experienced at Camp Anti-Replicator.

Astro Burrito tells you to consider the fact that Burning Man is a breeding ground for meme-plexes that reproduce in an ecosystem of people in altered states of consciousness open to be infected by new memes. “What survives in here is mood congruent… so you shouldn’t be surprised to experience extremely compelling theme-camps with a worldview to- subtly or otherwise- pass on to you.”- He says. You reply: “I guess there is a lot of memetic evolution going on here.” He responds: “Yeah, right? Somebody should write an article about what Burning Man theme camps will be like in, er… 10 years from now. I’m really curious about that myself.”

“But how about the apparent independent memetic convergence of people who meditate and take psychedelics over the course of many years? The pamphlet of Camp Anti-Replicator talked about how this convergence is happening throughout the world even in places not exposed to those memes.” – you ask him.

“You really have to wonder about the extent to which pre-existing beliefs, inclinations, and wishes for a satisfying positive view of reality figure in a person’s psychedelic revelations. Indeed, as we know from Steve Lehar’s epic trip reports, not being confused with implicit direct realism about perception protects you from reaching spiritual conclusions. Direct realists about perception, admittedly, probably have the wildest trips.” He then goes on into a complex narrative about how you can think of communities of people as metal alloys. “Think of a certain type of people with characteristic cognitive and personality traits as being analogues to atoms of a certain type. When you bind together many of those atoms as a group, the material has some unique properties. But as soon as you sprinkle atoms from a different metal, the overall properties of the resulting alloy can be radically different than the pure version. The same happens with meme-plexes. Burning Man allows new memetic alloys… which can have unexpectedly sticky qualities you wouldn’t easily predict from the contents alone. Be wary of things that sound too good to be true.”

burning-man-1At the half-way point between Esplanade and the Man your campmates stop at some port-a-potties for a bathroom break. After you pee, you join your campmates in waiting for everyone to be done. Out of the corner of your eye you see rapidly-blinking lights and hear loud laughter. Turning in that direction, you notice a large group of college-aged chaotic neutral ravekids playing with an interactive sculpture. You have a bad feeling about this. They seem to be climbing it in unsafe ways, and playfully daring each other to interact with it creatively. They are clearly too excited, intoxicated, and unaware of the potential danger… and nobody is looking after them. You tell your campmates that you will stay there to look after them. Astro Burrito tells you that if you stay there you won’t be able to see the Man burn with them. “There is a sea of people out there, don’t you remember? You won’t be able to find us if you don’t come with us.” Determined, you insist. Astro Burrito says: “It’s your call. See you back at the Camp late, later tonight, or tomorrow, as the case may be.”

Your campmates continue onwards towards the Man as you stay behind, watching over the guys. One of them reaches the top and shouts: “This is freedom!” and opens his arms wide, making a Titanic pose. “This is Fre…” he shouts, but loses equilibrium, and falls six meters towards the ground, landing on his left leg, which snaps, and then landing on his torso on his left side, breaking a couple ribs. The poor guy starts screaming in agony. “Fuck! I knew this was going to happen” – you think to yourself. You run to him, but realize that’s not useful, and course-correct towards the nearest Ranger post, which is about 250 meters away. The ranger jumps on a Jeep and drives with you to the site to confirm the location, then backs out and drives to the closest medical center. There they dispatch a medical unit, and you stay there. From afar, you can start to see the Man being set alight. You feel shaken, but in your heart you feel like you did the right thing. The Man gets fully covered in flames as the medical unit comes back with the ravekid with a twisted leg, biting a pacifier and looking slightly less distressed than before. The friends thank you for watching over them, and gift you some Kandi.

You climb a nearby platform, and watch the Man burn slowly. Then a powerful feeling overtakes you: “Oh dear… the Man is not being burned… it’s being illuminated! Dear heaven! I now realize Burning Man was a Symbol of the dawn of the Human Kingdom all along!”

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You walk over to your camp, processing what happened today. Your body is resonating to an energy you are not used to. It’s as if the burden of competition… the drive to prove yourself to others, has exited every cell of your body. Green etheric energy and a sense of connection to Gaia electrifies your body. “I feel like I can appreciate anew the point of view where all of life is one, and we are all connected at the root” – you think to yourself.

Galaxy Fox is at the camp, and she is applying make-up to herself, and is wearing a gorgeous butterfly costume. She didn’t go see the Man because she wanted to watch it from the highest place in the playa, which was a five-story-tall tower at 4:00 and E. She said it looked amazing, and she also sensed a deep connection to the planet and all life while watching it burn. She then hands you a vegan alcosynth grasshopper, and you both chill for a bit. You then hit a THC vape pen, and decide to go for a long walk and admire art you haven’t yet seen. It all feels ethereal, like you are in a dream. Perhaps the veil of reality is lifting? Is reality a collective hallucination? The levity of being overwhelms you. You hold hands with Galaxy Fox from time to time, in a friendly way, and dance with her whenever an art car drives by. At 4AM both of you are exhausted, and you return to your tent. You pass out immediately after laying on your sleeping bag.

(Second) Sunday: Continuity Camp

Our identity is that which we seek to preserve.

– William Eden (HT Divia Caroline)

Your first thought upon waking up: “Did yesterday really happen?” You glance over your luggage and sure enough, there is the Kandi the ravekids gave you. Your recollection of last night feels very dreamy and ethereal, not to speak of your visit to Camp Anti-Replicator. That said, the pamphlet you took is still on your camelback. You open it at random and start reading it. “Once you cross the threshold of 51% human kingdom consciousness vibration energy in your body, you will feel the need to go back and fix the troubles you have caused to others during your life, as well as try to eliminate all suffering throughout the living world. This is a very heavy burden for many people to bear, and subconsciously you are likely to suppress some of your insights for this reason. Have faith; insight comes in waves. Do not be alarmed if you can’t reach that magical place in the near future. It always comes back, eventually. And with each wave, the human kingdom energy plants deeper roots in your mind, body, and soul.” You feel at peace. But in addition to this inner peace, you notice that your desire for new experiences isn’t gone. You should hurry up and get ready to explore before all theme-camps pack their stuff!

You know that many people are leaving today, and you need to start packing up yourself. Come to think of it, you don’t really know whether any theme-camp is still up and running. But you will look for it. You borrow a bike and from 1PM to 2:30PM you bike around looking for an active camp. The outer rings of the city are starting to look a bit deserted, and even the Esplanade is starting to empty out. Between C and 5:15, though, you spot a camp that’s still looking quite active. It is leaving a little later than the rest. The camp is called “Continuity Camp”. It turns out they make it a point to provide shelter for people who need to stay Sunday night. Many people miss their ride, or have some kind of car problem, or are too exhausted to pack and leave. The reasons are myriad, and inevitably a few hundred people find themselves lost Sunday night. To remedy this, the camp doubles as a shelter Sunday night for people who’ve experienced any planning mishap and need to stay the night to sort it out. That said, the camp’s core structures are coming down, and you can tell that some of the sculptures are already gone, given the visible craters on the ground.

You park the bike, and venture in. There is a kitchen still open under a large shade structure. In the background, pieces by classical Mexican composers are playing (Arturo Márquez, Miguel Bernal Jiménez, José Pablo Moncayo, and others). You also notice that the walls are decorated with strange symbols with eyes of different sizes, fire rings, rainbows, plants, etc.

They welcome you with a plate of black beans, tortillas buttered with coconut oil, cacao nibs, and fresh slices of avocado. They also give you a cinnamon horchata agua fresca. You look around at the tables and see a group of people having a friendly discussion, so you ask them if you can join them, and when they say yes you sit down and start eating.

One of the persons in the group is part of the camp. She explains that this camp’s theme is centered around the the concept of continuity, which in turn gives rise to questions about personal identity. How do you truly know that you will wake up in your body tomorrow? How about a couple of seconds ago? Are you the same “subject of experience” as your past and future self? And how about others?

She goes on: “There are three main views of personal identity. First you have Closed Individualism, which is the view that you are a person, that is, whose existence is limited to a linear narrative or a story over time. Most people are Closed Individualists, and identify with their bodies, memories, or some kind of transcendent individual soul. Then you have Empty Individualism, which is the view that you are just a moment of experience, and that in some ways you only exist for a tiny slice of time and then disappear… though this gets complicated by what your theory of time is… so some say you really are just there forever, like a Platonic experience in the sea of conscious possibilities. Then you have Open Individualism, which is the view that we are all, on some fundamental level, One. All of us, as apparent separate beings, are different facets or projections of the one universal consciousness.”

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She points you to the symbols hanging on the walls. “The first three symbols over there represent each of these views. The one with a ring of plants and as many eyes as individual lines represents Closed Individualism. Each being has a different size, shape, and lifetime. Like trees, identities are messy and complicated; each bearing its own unique temporally-extended narrative. The symbol with a large eye in the center and a rainbow represents Open Individualism. It is the consciousness of All Is One, which has a full-spectrum rainbow flavor. And the one on the right is Empty Individualism. Each moment of experience is its own unbridgeable monad, separated from every other monad by the fundamental fire of differentiation.”

You ponder about it for a moment, and then ask her: “What are the pros and cons of these views? Why should someone believe one over another?” To which she says: “There are good philosophical arguments for each of these views. Contrary to what most people believe, it is not like the common-sense view has as much solid backing as we feel it does by default. Aside from the philosophical question of which one is true, there are game-theoretical implications as well as psychological effects on people from each of these views. Most commentators agree that Open Individualism solves a lot of game-theoretical problems, and if we could make society more Open Individualistic we would generally experience more interest in solving current coordination impasses. That said, people who take a given view very seriously tend to experience some archetypical effects. Open Individualists tend to become either solipsistic or messianic, which are both usually dysfunctional states in the long-term. Closed Individualists feel isolated, and generally experience intense fear of death. And when someone believes in Empty Individualism too strongly at a gut level, they tend to experience a sort of motivational collapse. So there are pragmatic considerations when it comes to adopting some of these views.”

As you finish your food and drink, someone comes over to ask you if you want dessert. You agree, and they give you some quince paste (“ate“) and tequila lime ice-cream, which they sprinkle with some Miguelito. You take a minute to delight in this engrossing mixture of flavors. You then tune back into the conversation:

“Then there are people who have what we might call ‘hybrid’ views on personal identity. Really, to get there you need to give some credence to, well, paraconsistent logic people.”

Someone overhearing the conversation becomes startled. He turns around and asks: “Wait, are paraconsistent logic people real?”

And she responds: “Well, yes and no.” – people laugh. She pauses for a moment. She then goes on- “For people who hold two of those views at once, you could think of what is going on as them experiencing a bistable representation for their metaphysics. Insofar as language cannot fully specify a worldview, what remains undecidable from your linguistic axioms is fundamentally ambiguous. More strongly, some people assert that reality itself (rather than just their representations of it) is fundamentally ambiguous at the most basic level. Personally, I’ve gotten a lot of mileage from exploring that view. After all, questions like ‘why is there something rather than not?’ seem very robust against classical logic accounts.”

She goes on to explain how computational theories of identity have open, closed, and empty versions. Even philosophy of physics ultimately faces the same questions as philosophy of mind, she says, as physicists struggle to define boundaries between physical events, and grasp at straws like quantum decoherence to identify ‘natural kinds’.

“Hybrid views are more common than you may realize. Look over there, those three symbols represent the three possible hybrid mixtures of two accounts of personal identity.”

“I think that the most common hybrid view is Closed Individualism + Open Individualism, the symbol on the left. This view is extremely common in spiritual communities. Basically, this is the view of people who somehow combine the existence of an ultimate God who connects us all at the root of our being, and individual souls that carry our karma around. Outside of esoteric Buddhism and other obscure spiritual philosophies, few religious communities really take Empty Individualism seriously. For them, the continuity from one moment to the next is not questioned, so a ‘soul’ ontology is usually the philosophical backdrop of their worldview.”

“Interestingly, physicists are perhaps the people who are most likely to be Open + Empty Individualists, the symbol in the middle. Namely, they will assign to each moment of experience an eternal here-and-now spatio-temporal coordinate while also recognizing the fundamental unity of reality in the form of a universal quantum field. Monistic physicalism entails that consciousness is the fire that breaths life into the equations of physics, so to monists who take quantum mechanics seriously reality is equivalently describable as the total wave-function, or the collection of topologically-bound quantum coherent bundles. Two sides of one coin: either the universe is a collection of connected coherent bundles, or it is a unified field whose dynamic generates coherent pockets of energy. So for them, you have the symbol in the middle, which combines a central observer and countless ‘individual reflectors’ of the central light corresponding to bundles of coherent energy.”

“What about the one on the right?” – asks a fully-dusted naked man, who recently sat down with a bowl of black beans. She says: “That’s a very rare view to have. In some ways people who are functionalists in that they believe that consciousness is the result of the internal dynamics of information-processing systems are drawn towards this view. They, for example, imagine consciousness as having two facets: the instantaneous state of the system and at the same time the entire range of possible configurations of the system, which is what determines the meaning of a particular state. A system’s state is meaningless without the context of counterfactual states it might have been in, is a common trope in this view. A neighboring view is the one which says that the essence of a conscious system is its utility function (aka. its ‘values’), which again gives rise to a co-dependent relationship between the individual states and the complete being.”

The dusted man says: “That’s how I think of my life. Sure, I experience many different things over, say, even a single day, and there is a sense in which each of those experiences are separate. But they all share a common theme- they are part of a life-arc with definite goals and obstacles. So each moment is strung together with the other ones in a coherent way.”

She adds: “For example, when you are in your room, look at the decorations and objects around you. Each portrait, each drawing, blanket, pillow, furniture and even the overall feng shui of the space, can be attributed to the decisions and actions of experiences that exist as moments in your life. You could think of what they left behind as a monument to a moment of your life. It helps to try to feel grateful to “them”. They are there, really, truly, existing, just like you now, just elsewhere in space-time. And they generated intentions for you now, for the chain of future moments of experience. One can feel gratitude for all of those moments of experience over there in the past trying to build a good future for you here. When you have a moment of peace, and feel love and gratitude to all who helped you be where you are now, send them a message: ‘This level of creation and kindness will eventually carry you to the success you are looking for. Thank you, friend.'”

“What about the big symbol over there?” – you ask, pointing to the largest image, which is hanging from the ceiling and prominently displayed. She says: “We are fans of the idea of ‘transcending and including’ worldviews. Many of us have converged on a view of identity that could be described as the paraconsistent superposition of Open, Closed, and Empty Individualism.”

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“Contrary to common-sense views, this one takes as granted that you can exist in multiple places, times, and scales at once. Open Individualism already takes the view that you are all beings in existence. But the Promethean state, as we call it, goes further by acknowledging the seriousness of the topological folds that create the simultaneous reality of differentiated beings and universal consciousness. You are an eddy in the universal wavefunction of quantum mechanics, and your personal self is also an eddy but at a higher topological level of organization. So in reality each moment of experience is topologically distinct, each human or animal being is also topologically distinct, and the field upon which this happens is the shared ground of being. You are a topologically enclosed eddy in the life-flux of the universe. So all of Open, Closed, and Empty Individualism are true in their own terms, and yet without negating each other.”

She goes on: “Some people go at it from the point of view of physics. Feynman diagrams show how reality can be described as the sum total of all possible interactions of a universal Platonic particle with itself. Reality is what emerges from the fact that the Big Electron can pretend to be somebody else, when crossing its own alternate trajectory, to function as a stranger with whom to interact.”

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“This brings us to the Prime Radiant. You can experience self-interference patterns of the one universal mind while on peak LSD states, for instance. Here, read this transcript” – she hands everyone a little card that reads:

Prime Radiant is the concept that all that exists in physicality is one point of life, whizzing around at such speed, and with such freedom, that it creates all that we see in the universe. Now what that means is there’s one ‘atom’, if you like, and it whizzes around the universe, the whole universe, at incredible speed, such that it appears almost to cross itself sometimes, as it is going around, it does it so quickly it will come back to itself and appear to almost create a second point, and it goes around to create a third point, and so on, and that, believe it or not, is what creates everything that you see in our whole galaxy. It is doing it at such speed, this one tiny point of life, it is going around at such speed, that it is creating everything that you can see, not only Planet Earth, not only every blade of grass, every animal, every grain of sand, every person, but every planet, every star, every thing in the whole universe, all being created [nearly] instantly from this one tiny point of life.

Difficult to believe, but it is apparently so.

Now, this is true, but the story is a lot more complicated than that. In that there is a Prime Radiant for every person alive. Each and every person has their version of Prime Radiant, which operates under the control of their consciousness forming the universe in which they live. That is why no two people have identical lives. In other words, you probably understood, but what they are saying is, that for every person alive on the Planet Earth at the moment, I think there are about 7 billion people, there are 7 billion Prime Radiants, whizzing about, creating the universe exclusive to that one person, each person has a unique aspect whizzing around creating what they see and appreciate.

It may be difficult to imagine that you create a universe that is unique to you, but it is further complicated by the fact that by common agreement people can join their thoughts and agree to create similar universes or parts of universes in order to try to make sense of Life. But even that is not always quite the same. We have stated that in the case of a crime if the police asks witnesses what they saw, the descriptions can vary widely. That this is because we all create our versions of life and so we may not all see the same things. We might all see a crime but do not all see the same event.

Zero point energy, Bob Sanders 2019

“Do you just have these cards on hand all the time?” – you ask. “Yes, we print them in many different colors and shapes”- she responds. The dusted man sneezes, which causes a dust cloud to lift around him, which settles over 20 or so seconds as people laugh and stand up to undust themselves.

She continues: “Many colors and shapes… but they all say the same thing. Well, perhaps they say it in different words, and using unique metaphors, but there are many ways of saying the same thing. The Promethean view of identity is beyond any particular qualia, particular points in time and space, particular causes and conditions. Since reference to a particular is not necessary to express the view, as it posits the non-conflict between instantaneous, personal, and cosmic identity, one can think of this philosophy as a universally-accessible Schelling point in concept-space. There are innumerable ways of expressing it in concrete form. Mythically, we could say that this is the ultimate referent of any conversation to have ever taken place, if only had such conversation been extended for long enough to catch its own tail. This is the ultimate view when it comes to the progression of transcending and including worldviews, as it points to the asymptote of synthesis at the limit of the development of the concept of Self.”

A young guy who recently sat down mentions: “Sadly, this view entails that you are, in a very non-trivial way, the non-human animals suffering in factory farms.” She agrees to that. The discussion is then wrapped up with an exposition of the Buddhist notion of the interpenetration of all 10 realms and how this also applies to interpenetrations of philosophies of personal identity. Analogous to how Tiantai Buddhism proclaims that: “One thought contains three thousand worlds”, so does Continuity Camp proclaim that oneness, individuality, and instantaneous separation are inter-dependent ontological states.

You figure that the religion of this camp- trying to articulate it in as few words as possible- could be expressed thus: “The universal essence devoid of inherent properties was clever to create a reality in which questions of self, time, space, and continuity are fundamentally ambiguous. The engine of creation is not a lawful and dependable ground of being, but rather, it is what emerges out of the compromises that inconsistent ontologies need to make in order to coexist.”

On your way out you ask people why they were so keen on pushing an artistic vibe of the 20th Century Mexican intelligentsia. Not that you had anything against it, but it certainly seemed random to you. They tell you conflicting stories. One person says that this is an artistic style chosen to ground people and help them ease their way back into civilization where people have strong identities and attachments. That a good way to ease your way into the madness that is ego-identification in modern cities is to show you a defunct artistic expression with which a lot of people used to identify at some point in the past. Alternatively, the second person explains, the vibe is used as a form of meditation into a computational theory of identity. Namely, that in some accounts of identity, semantic and episodic memories fall on a secondary position relative to the preponderance of felt-sense. If you can set alight the essence of a past aesthetic, you are, quite literally- and perhaps in the only sense that mattersreviving the people of that historical period. Thus, they all meditate into becoming the life-force which identified with 20th Century Mexican Nationalism as a philosophy of identity, and use that experience to feel, process, and let go of the pain of identification. Alas, this second person seemed high as a kite, so you figure “who knows how much he actually knew about what was going on?”.

You bike back to your camp, eat a protein bar, drink coconut water, and have some white tea. You don’t feel very hungry for some reason, but you put some high-calorie foods into a bag for later, just in case. You walk towards the Temple with the two thirds of your camp that haven’t departed and aren’t actively involved in taking down structures at the moment.

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Temple Reflection

When you arrive at the ring of people around the structure you feel peaceful, pensive, and puzzled. Your campmates also seem to share your general state of solemn satisfied exhaustion. You have been exposed to so many views over the last week that you don’t know where to start. How to put all these views together into a global worldview? Do you even have to?

You realize that every camp has its own way of painting itself as the “final point of view”. As if rehearsing, you utter quietly: “A meme is a unit of cultural meaning that can be passed around from mind to mind. A particular joke is a meme. A particular name is a meme. Most memes make references to other memes. This right here is a meme. When a large bundle of memes support each other we call those meme-plexes. For example, religions and ideologies are meme-plexes because they use memes that fit well together.” You still remember giving that presentation in middle-school, where you introduced your classmates to memes. “No, not the things your parents and older siblings share online in Internet 2.0 social media. The concept of a ‘meme’ is a much more profound and wide-reaching idea.” – you still remember other students passing around Internet memes (i.e. image macros) of you explaining what a “meme really was.”

Your thoughts are interrupted when you notice that the Temple is being prepared to be burned. A campmate who was involved in building the Temple this year tells you that the theme for the structure is “Temple of Courage” (cf. Temple Themes). You weren’t aware that the Temple has a theme each year. You had visited the Temple this year, and the thought crossed your mind that it takes courage to visit it, considering the depth of grief and sorrow that is often felt in it. At the same time, you feel that you have been courageous during this visit, too. You set the goal of visiting a different camp each day and deeply engaging with its worldview. In retrospect, you realize that it really takes courage to delve into new meme-plexes, let alone full-stack ones. Being presented with compelling views that, if you were to take seriously, would mean the radical restructuring of your mind could be a dodgy matter.

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This week you consciously chose to be as open as possible to every new worldview you encountered. You were seriously shaken by more than one of these visits, but it currently feels that this has been for the better. A courageous move to expand yourself, whose consequences are yet to be seen.

You now wonder about what makes a meme-plex “full-stack”. If you recall correctly, meme-plexes are “full-stack” when they can generate a defensible and stable response to most questions humans would ask, including how the universe was made, what is love, and what it means to laugh. Usually they provide an account of what is, and what is good (i.e. valuable). Full-stack meme-plexes are immensely more powerful than other meme-plexes, because as such they do not have ‘any cracks’ from the point of view of people who buy into them; they seem “air-tight from the inside”, so to speak.

So what is the big-picture story of the camps you visited this week? Well, Camp Longevity has the mindset of assigning infinite weight to your own life and trying to survive personally and promote personal survival for others. Rainbow God wants to explore the entire state-space of consciousness. Camp Valence wants to eliminate suffering and maximize bliss, which in practice may involve ultra-blissful drugs and brain modifications. Camp Superintelligence considers intelligence intrinsically valuable and is concerned with the arms races that may ensue with drastically new intelligence coming online. Camp Replicator says that we are bound by our subconscious desires and express them in unproductive ways. We can address them directly, unleash all the built-up tension, and become free from self-replicating patterns. The Anti-Replicator Camp would say we are on a spiritual path of development which uses replicators as a means for learning. Ultimately, we will be grown out of replicator desires and focus our spiritual energy on loving each other. And finally, Continuity Camp would say that we are not who we think we are; being individual humans is an illusion. It is evolutionarily adaptive, but in order to save the world we need to agree on an expanded sense of identity.

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Life is not like Scrabble… you need to know the meaning of the concepts in order to win. In that sense, to play ideological rock-paper-scissors you need a good model of each ideology both on its own terms and in the terms of other ideologies. You ask yourself: How would each of these meme-plexes think of each other?

Longevity can be attacked by Continuity by emphasizing that Open Individualism (i.e. oneness) suggests we should not put all our eggs in the basket of personal survival. Longevity can attack Superintelligence by saying that working on AI is to betray humanity. In here, Rainbow God can come in and argue that both Longevity and Superintelligence are working on the same goals, but they do not realize that yet. More so, that the goals of Rainbow God are a super-set of all that could be achieved by both Longevity and Superintelligence. That is, mapping out the state-space of consciousness gets you both the ability to understand what survival even means, and also access to states of consciousness critical for sentient superintelligence.

Interestingly, the pair of Anti-Replicator and Valence seem to have fundamental disagreements. Anti-Replicator will tell you that good comes from our spiritual development and the Love with a capital L that emerges out of that. Valence would say that love, capital letter or not, is a label used to identify positive qualia related to pair-bonding, family, friendship and other evolutionarily adaptive social behaviors. In turn, what makes love valuable is the high valence that such states of consciousness tend to exhibit. MDMA imbues high valence across your entire world-simulation. The fact that you describe this experience with words like “I love the world and the world loves me” is the result of trying to put the experience into words. But high-valence is what is behind the “magic” of the state when it comes down to scientific fact. Anti-Replicator would simply say that such a point of view exists in people who are close to the boundary between animal and human realms, such that they try to make sense of love in materialistic ways. The conclusions are always wrong because the ontology they start with is incorrect (love as high valence which corresponds to particular material configurations). Each paradigm can explain the other by including it. There are converts in both directions. These worldviews are experienced as bistable perceptions to some people. Camp Continuity could come and say that their views are complementary rather than contradictory. Each experience is a mixture of Empty, Open, and Closed ontologies, and high-valence is achieved when there is the right balance between them. Thus love is fundamentally connected to the act of defeating duality of self, which involves undoing ancient symmetry breaking operations. Thus love is both the result of mathematical harmony, and a metaphysical quality associated with selfless giving.

The highest expression of God, as it were, is not the one that incorporates the most diverse range of qualia, but rather, the one that incorporates the largest amount of coherent energy in a state of harmony.

– Camp Valence

Now, Rainbow God and Valence would probably also have a complicated relationship. In truth, having access to high-valence states enables you to have the hyper-motivation necessary to explore the state-space of consciousness. And doing such explorations, in turn, leads to discoveries about how to create better high-valence states. Rainbow God, on the one hand, will continue on exploring as long as there is more to be found. Camp Valence might retort that learning about each of the possible varieties of beetles is not rational considering the opportunity cost. Why not leave aside variety for variety’s sake, and focus on making high-tech bliss instead? Rainbow God would feel defensive here. It would say that the whole is more than the sum of its parts. So far, pursuing full-spectrum experiences seem to be exhilarating and wonderful. Valence might then say that this could be an illusion caused by endogenous opioid release in response to novelty. Not everyone seems to enjoy exploring consciousness for its own sake, and doing so is correlated with general openness to experience. As an axis of human variability, this would suggest that people are more or less drawn towards novelty. So rather than fixating on novelty, we should investigate what makes novelty in some people feel so good. Despite these misgivings, Valence would still be open to there being a fundamental connection between valence and diversity of qualia. Both camps would agree that there might be a possible dual relationship between the symmetry of the mathematical object isomorphic to a person’s experience and the rainbowey-ness of the experience. As such, both meme-plexes would keep an eye on each other and cooperate insofar as it is mutually beneficial.

What about Porky’s? Porky’s (i.e. Camp Replicator) could argue that people going to every other camp is merely expressing and projecting their unmet psychological needs. People will be drawn towards the ideas that fulfill a certain void in them. So for example, people who support Continuity Camp have a higher existential distress baseline than the average person such that belonging to a community that reassures them of the survival of oneself-as-consciousness fulfills the need they started with. Porky’s wouldn’t necessarily disagree about key memes of other meme-plexes, but it would nonetheless be cynical about the typical motivations that draw people to these meme-plexes. Longevity is in fact a social club for people of all ages who enjoy the company of young-looking people. Valence responds to people who empathize too strongly with others. Superintelligence is a club for people insecure about their own intelligence who want to compare themselves against other smart people. Anti-replicator is dual with Porky’s; they emphasize the same facts but interpret them with complementary metaphysics.

A friend hands you an electrum necklace, and tells you that it is meant to materialize this very moment, as you receive it. The Temple is set alight as you are tying it to put around your neck. This moment. This moment. This moment. Are we counting moments, or are we counting selves? You get lost in a long now.

Your mind is surprisingly clear for being so cluttered with memes and meme-plexes. The image comes to you that your mind right now is working as a council, or general assembly, of seven tulpas representing each of the seven meme-plexes.

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The meme-plex convention.

The experience felt odd. All your life you’ve identified with a given point of view, especially as it pertains to your view of the world. But right now your experience is simultaneously hosting meme-plexes in what feels like an impartial space. The task at hand is not the competition between the meme-plexes in order to take over center-stage, but their incorporation into a meta-space which can simultaneously host each meme-plex.

In a sense, you feel like seven people at once. Each of these beings being your answer to the question “who would I become if I were to have this meme-plex as my default view?” You remember the following quote:

We aren’t afraid of dying, we’re afraid of living while never doing anything of value.

– Hi There

You make a prayer. The prayer is to be free from fear when considering alternate worldviews. You hear some chanting in the background, and after a few more minutes the Temple collapses. Everyone cheers, and then people go quiet again. The now-flat incandescent surface burns slowly but steadily. It seems like the tulpas are learning to coexist in your mind. They are learning to be there and trying to provide value without overtaking your world-model, at least not without your permission. Are the tulpas friends? Not really. But they also are not hostile against each other. Rather, they personify rational worldviews open to new evidence and arguments. If you try to imagine them, they feel like large statues of peaceful Gods minding their own business. They are all open to being asked questions and to meet each other for conversation. This feels good. It feels peaceful.

You overhear a campmate say: “I took a microdose of 2C-G-5 three days ago, and I can still feel it. I like it, but it made sleeping really hard last night.” This is the cue that makes you aware that your campmates are getting ready to leave. You take a last long look at the fire and wonder about how many selves watched this event. You walk back to your camp with your campmates. People are now really engaged in dismantling structures and cleaning. The last remaining structure is the roofed dance area, which has cushions and blankets for the people who will take it down tomorrow, and a hexayurt for those who will do the final MOOP sweep on Tuesday. You decline some nitrous and get ready to leave.

(Second) Monday

You wake up and load your vehicle with grey water from the camp along with all of your stuff. You look around and decide to make one more bike trip before taking off. You bike around with a borrowed bike. The place is about 90% deserted, which makes navigating a lot harder as the landmarks you got used to over the last week are gone. You bike towards the Temple. You notice a shiny dot at the distance, which you use as a guide. You arrive there and pick it up. It is an electrum necklace identical to the one you got last night. You then notice that you don’t have that necklace on. This must be it, you found your necklace and you weren’t even searching for it. In that moment you remember that the necklace was a symbol of the precise moment in which you received it. Paradoxically, both now and that time feel just as real. Perhaps, you wonder, this is my own proof that I exist over time. But you fail to translate your newfound intuition into words.

You then bike back to your car, and take off.


Thanks to: Mike Johnson, Romeo Stevens, David Pearce, Anders Amelin, Liam Brereton, Enrique Bojorques, Andrés Silva Ruiz, Alfredo Valverde, Duncan Wilson, Mac Davis, Mario Montano, Lauge, and playa friends Tryp, Special, Expo, Nectar, Daphne, Frank, Victor, and many others for the conversations that led to ideas featured in this text (both part 1 & 2).

Note: Apparently Buddhists did make Rainbow Body a core practice and got phenomenological mileage out of doing that.

Utilitronium Shockwaves vs. Gradients of Bliss

Excerpt from On utilitronium shockwaves versus gradients of bliss by David Pearce


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Utilitronium Shockwave: Turn your local Galaxy Super-Cluster into a Full-Spectrum Orgasm in 9 easy civilizational steps.

Why is the idea of life animated by gradients of intelligent bliss attractive, at least to some of us, whereas the prospect of utilitronium leaves almost everyone cold? One reason is the anticipated loss of self: if one’s matter and energy were converted into utilitronium, then intuitively the intense undifferentiated bliss wouldn’t be me. By contrast, even a radical recalibration of one’s hedonic set-point intuitively preserves the greater part of one’s values, memories and existing preference architecture: in short, personal identity. Whether such preservation of self would really obtain if life were animated by gradients of bliss, and whether such notional continuity is ethically significant, and whether the notion of an enduring metaphysical ego is even intellectually coherent, is another matter. Regardless of our answers to such questions, there is a tension between our divergent response to the prospect of cosmos-wide utilitronium and intelligent bliss. People rarely complain that e.g. orgasmic sexual ecstasy lasts too long, and that regrettably they lose their sense of personal identity while orgasm lasts. On the contrary: behavioural evidence strongly suggests that most men in particular reckon sexual bliss is too short-lived and infrequent. Indeed if such sexual bliss were available indefinitely, and if it were characterised by an intensity orders of magnitude greater than the best human orgasms, then would anyone – should anyone – wish such ecstasy to stop? Subjectively, utilitronium presumably feels more sublime than sexual bliss, or even whole-body orgasm. Granted the feasibility of such heavenly bliss, is viewing the history of life on Earth to date as mere stepping-stones to cosmic nirvana really so outrageous?

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Is attachment to your sense of self keeping you from embracing hedonium? Stop ‘Selfing’ with these 3 buddhist-approved Techniques!

For the foreseeable future, however, even strict classical utilitarians must work for information-sensitive gradients of intelligent bliss rather than raw undifferentiated pleasure. Classical hedonistic utilitarianism was originally formulated as an ethic for legislators, not biologists or computer scientists. Conceived in this light, the felicific calculus has been treated as infeasible. Yet a disguised implication of a classical utilitarian ethic in an era of mature biotechnology may be that we should be seeking to convert the world into utilitronium, generally assumed to be relatively homogenous matter and energy optimised for raw bliss. The “shockwave” in utilitronium shockwave alludes to our hypothetical obligation to launch von Neumann probes propagating this hyper-valuable state of matter and energy at, or nearly at, the velocity of light across our Galaxy, then our Local Cluster, and then our Local Supercluster. And beyond? Well, politics is the art of the possible. The accelerating expansion of the universe would seem to make further utilitronium propagation infeasible even with utopian technologies. Such pessimism assumes our existing understanding of theoretical physics is correct; but theoretical cosmology is currently in a state of flux.

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Utilitronium Shockwave? (cf. Hedonium)

Naively, the theoretical feasibility of utilitronium shockwave is too remote to sorry about. This question might seem a mere philosophical curiosity. But not so. Complications of uncertain outcome aside, any rate of time discounting indistinguishable from zero is ethically unacceptable for the ethical utilitarian. So on the face of it, the technical feasibility of a utilitronium shockwave makes working for its adoption ethically mandatory even if the prospect is centuries or millennia distant.

Existential Risk? Utilitarian ethics and speculative cosmology might seem far removed. But perhaps the only credible candidate naturalising value has seemingly apocalyptic implications that have never (to my knowledge) been explored in the scholarly literature. And can we seriously hope to be effective altruists in the absence of serviceable model of Reality?

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All-New “Life”! – Now animated by gradients of bliss. Pain-free!

Should existential risk reduction be the primary goal of: a) negative utilitarians? b) classical hedonistic utilitarians? c) preference utilitarians? All, or none, of the above? The answer is far from obvious. For example, one might naively suppose that a negative utilitarian would welcome human extinction. But only (trans)humans – or our potential superintelligent successors – are technically capable of phasing out the cruelties of the rest of the living world on Earth. And only (trans)humans – or rather our potential superintelligent successors – are technically capable of assuming stewardship of our entire Hubble volume. Conceptions of the meaning of the term “existential risk” differ. Compare David Benatar’s “Better Never To Have Been” with Nick Bostrom’s “Astronomical Waste“. Here at least, we will use the life-affirming sense of the term. Does negative utilitarianism or classical utilitarianism represent the greater threat to intelligent life in the cosmos? Arguably, we have our long-term existential risk-assessment back-to-front. A negative utilitarian believes that once intelligent agents have phased out the biology of suffering, all our ethical duties have been discharged. But the classical utilitarian seems ethically committed to converting all accessible matter and energy – not least human and nonhuman animals – into relatively homogeneous matter optimised for maximum bliss: “utilitronium”.

Ramifications? Severe curtailment of personal liberties in the name of Existential Risk Reduction is certainly conceivable. Assume, for example, that the technical knowledge of how to create and deploy readily transmissible, 100% lethal, delayed-action weaponised pathogens leaks into the public domain. Only the most Orwellian measures – a perpetual global totalitarianism – could hope to prevent their use, whether by a misanthrope or an idealist. Such measures would most likely fail. By contrast, constitutively happy people would be incapable of envisaging the development and use of such a doomsday agent. The biology of suffering in intelligent agents is a deep underlying source of existential risk – and one that can potentially be overcome.

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Gradients of Bliss world in a Hedonium Universe? – “Central Realm of the Densely-Packed.”

A theoretically inelegant but pragmatically effective compromise solution might be to initiate a utilitronium shockwave that propagates outside the biosphere – or realm of posthuman civilisation. The world within our cosmological horizon could then be tiled with utilitronium with the exception of a negligible island (or archipelago) of minds animated “merely” by gradients of intelligent bliss. One advantage of this hybrid option is that most refusniks would (presumably) be indifferent to the fate of inert matter and energy outside their lifeworld. Ask someone today whether they’d mind if some anonymous rock on the far side of the moon were converted into utilitronium and they’d most likely shrug.

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Shrugging at the prospect of hedonium rocks on the moon.

In future, gradients of intelligent bliss orders of magnitude richer than today’s peak experiences could well be a design feature of the post-human mind. However, I don’t think intracranial self-stimulation is consistent with intelligence or critical insight. This is because it is uniformly rewarding. Intelligence depends on informational sensitivity to positive and negative stimuli – even if “negative” posthuman hedonic dips are richer and higher than the human hedonic ceiling.

In contrast to life animated by gradients of bliss, the prospect of utilitronium cannot motivate. Or rather the prospect can motivate only a rare kind of hyper-systematiser drawn to its simplicity and elegance. The dips of intelligent bliss need not be deep […] Everyday hedonic tone could be orders of magnitude richer than anything physiologically feasible now. But will such well-being be orgasmic? Orgasmic bliss lacks – in the jargon of academic philosophy – an “intentional object”. So presumably there will be selection pressure against any predisposition to enjoy 24/7 orgasms. By contrast, information-sensitive gradients of intelligent bliss can be adaptive – and hence sustainable indefinitely, allowing universe maintenance: responsible stewardship of Hubble volume.

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Can Life and Hedonium get Married? Express your eternal love with Hedonium Jewelry! Made of 99.99% Pure Bliss! (Guaranteed by Hilbert Space Hamiltonian Assay – Lab Tested Hedonium!)

At any rate, posthumans may regard even human “peak experiences” as indescribably dull by comparison.


Image credit for the Buddhist monk picture “Is”: Alex William Hoffman.

Cooling It Down To Partying It Up

A relatively recent hypothesis for the neurotoxicity associated with MDMA is that it causes the brain to over-heat (see: 1, 2, 3). This would make the sorts of environments in which people take it particularly hazardous (hot raves, nightclubs, warm baths, and wild sex).

I really hope this is the core main reason for MDMA’s long-term deleterious effects.

Why?

Because then the damage would be completely preventable! In particular, I would point you to the athletic performance-enhancing technology developed at Stanford in 2012 that uses rapid thermal exchange devices (aka. “the cooling glove”*) in order to cool your blood and allow you to compete at a higher level. This is an extremely efficient method to keep the temperature of your whole body (including your brain!) within a healthy range.

Sadly, the device is likely to get banned for athletic purposes (it would be, some say, an unfair advantage if some teams have access to the cooling glove and others don’t). Sports are, of course, completely inconsequential, so the fact that the device is likely to get banned for this application shouldn’t matter. Yet it does, because as a result many people seem to be losing interest in this line of research.

Maybe, I would posit, the device could be resurrected as part of a modern harm-reduction strategy. Imagine night-clubs with a chill-out space stocked with dozens of cooling gloves. Party for 30 minutes, cool down for 10 minutes, repeat. If this could allow people to take MDMA once every month for the rest of their lives without enduring the brain damage that doing this usually causes… wouldn’t that be wonderful? I would expect it to also be highly beneficial for the benevolence of culture and the overall mental health of our society.

And this is all to say: Who would have known… that “being cool” was the key to partying for the rest of your life? Cool it down and party it up!


*For a skeptical take on the device, see: Better Than Steroids? The hype behind Stanford’s magic “cooling glove” for athletes. And a comeback article that extends its use to more serious applications: Cooling glove developed by Stanford researchers helps athletes and patients.

What is Love? Neural Annealing in the Presence of an Intentional Object

Excerpt from: The Neuroscience of Meditation: Four Models by Michael E. Johnson


Neural annealing: Annealing involves heating a metal above its recrystallization temperature, keeping it there for long enough for the microstructure of the metal to reach equilibrium, then slowly cooling it down, letting new patterns crystallize. This releases the internal stresses of the material, and is often used to restore ductility (plasticity and toughness) on metals that have been ‘cold-worked’ and have become very hard and brittle— in a sense, annealing is a ‘reset switch’ which allows metals to go back to a more pristine, natural state after being bent or stressed. I suspect this is a useful metaphor for brains, in that they can become hard and brittle over time with a build-up of internal stresses, and these stresses can be released by periodically entering high-energy states where a more natural neural microstructure can reemerge.

Furthermore, from what I gather from experienced meditators, successfully entering meditative flow may be one of the most reliable ways to reach these high-energy brain states. I.e., it’s very common for meditation to produce feelings of high intensity, at least in people able to actually enter meditative flow.* Meditation also produces more ‘pure’ or ‘neutral’ high-energy states, ones that are free of the intentional content usually associated with intense experiences which may distort or limit the scope of the annealing process. So we can think of intermediate-to-advanced (‘successful flow-state’) meditation as a reheating process, whereby the brain enters a more plastic and neutral state, releases pent-up structural stresses, and recrystallizes into a more balanced, neutral configuration as it cools. Iterated many times, this will drive an evolutionary process and will produce a very different brain, one which is more unified & anti-fragile, less distorted toward intentionality, and in general structurally optimized against stress.

An open question is how or why meditation produces high-energy brain states. There isn’t any consensus on this, but I’d offer with a nod to the predictive coding framework that bottom-up sense-data is generally excitatory, adding energy to the system, whereas top-down predictive Bayesian models are generally inhibitory, functioning as ‘energy sinks’. And so by ‘noting and knowing’ our sensations before our top-down models activate, in a sense we’re diverting the ‘energy’ of our sensations away from its usual counterbalancing force. If we do this long enough and skillfully enough, this energy can build up and lead to ‘entropic disintegration’, the prerequisite for annealing. (Thanks to Andrés for discussion here)

If this model is true, it feels very important for optimizing a meditation practice. E.g., we should try to figure out some rules of thumb for:

  • How to identify a high-energy brain state, in yourself and others, and how best to create them;
  • Things to do, and things not to do, during an annealing process (‘how to anneal the right things’);
  • Identifying tradeoffs in ‘cooling’ the brain quickly vs slowly.

Off the top of my head, I’d suggest that one of the worst things you could do after entering a high-energy brain state would be to fill your environment with distractions (e.g., watching TV, inane smalltalk, or other ‘low-quality patterns’). Likewise, it seems crucial to avoid socially toxic or otherwise highly stressful conditions. Most likely, going to sleep as soon as possible without breaking flow would be a good strategy to get the most out of a high-energy state. Avoiding strong negative emotions during such states seems important, as does managing your associations (psychedelics are another way to reach these high-energy states, and people have noticed there’s an ‘imprinting’ process where the things you think about and feel while high can leave durable imprints on how you feel after the trip). Finally, perhaps taking certain nootropics could help strengthen (or weaken) the magnitude of this annealing process.

Finally, to speculate a little about one of the deep mysteries of life, perhaps we can describe love as the result of a strong annealing process while under the influence of some pattern. I.e., evolution has primed us such that certain intentional objects (e.g. romantic partners) can trigger high-energy states where the brain smooths out its discontinuities/dissonances, such that given the presence of that pattern our brains are in harmony.[3] This is obviously a two-edged sword: on one hand it heals and renews our ‘cold-worked’ brain circuits and unifies our minds, but also makes us dependent: the felt-sense of this intentional object becomes the key which unlocks this state. (I believe we can also anneal to archetypes instead of specific people.)

Annealing can produce durable patterns, but isn’t permanent; over time, discontinuities creep back in as the system gets ‘cold-worked’. To stay in love over the long-term, a couple will need to re-anneal in the felt-presence of each other on a regular basis.[4] From my experience, some people have a natural psychological drive toward reflexive stability here: they see their partner as the source of goodness in their lives, so naturally they work hard to keep their mind aligned on valuing them. (It’s circular, but it works.) Whereas others are more self-reliant, exploratory, and restless, less prone toward these self-stable loops or annealing around external intentional objects in general. Whether or not, and within which precise contexts, someone’s annealing habits fall into this ‘reflexive stability attractor’ might explain much about e.g. attachment style, hedonic strategy, and aesthetic trajectory.

Links: Annealing (metallurgy)The entropic brain

[3] Anecdotally, the phenomenology of love-annealing is the object ‘feels beautiful from all angles’. This may imply that things (ideas, patterns, people) which are more internally coherent & invariant across contexts can produce stronger annealing effects — i.e. these things are more easy to fall deeply in love with given the same ‘annealing budget’, and this love is more durable.

[4] It’s important to note that both intense positive and intense negative experiences can push the brain into high-energy states; repeated annealing to negative emotions may serve many of the same functions as ‘positive annealing’, but also predispose brains to ‘sing in a minor key’ (see ‘kindling’).


Related Work: Algorithmic Reduction of Psychedelic States, Principia Qualia: Part II – Valence, and Ecstasy and Honesty


Image credit: Fabián Jiménez

Qualia Computing Media Appearances

Podcasts

16 – Andrés Gómez Emilsson on Solving Consciousness and Being Happy All the Time (The Most Interesting People I Know…, October 2019)

On Consciousness, Qualia, and Meaning with Mike Johnson and Andrés Gómez Emilsson (AI Alignment Podcast, May 2019)

71 – Researching Qualia with Andrés Gómez Emilsson (The Bayesian Conspiracy, October 2018)

The Future of Mind (Waking Cosmos, October 2018)

Consciousness, Qualia, and Psychedelics with Andres Gomez Emilsson (Catalyzing Coherence, May 2018)

Consciousness and Qualia Realism (Cosmic Tortoise, May 2018)

Robert Stark interviews Transhumanist Andres Gomez Emilsson (The Stark Truth with Robert Stark, October 2017)

Como el MDMA, pero sin la neurotoxicidad (Abolir el sufrimiento con Andrés Gómez) (Guía Escéptica [in Spanish], March 2016)

Happiness is Solving the World’s Problems (The World Transformed, January 2016)

Presentations

The Hyperbolic Geometry of DMT Experiences (@Harvard Science of Psychedelics Club, September 2019)

Harmonic Society: 8 Models of Art for a Scientific Paradigm of Aesthetic Qualia (at a QRI Party, July 2019)

Andrés Gómez Emilsson – Consciousness vs Replicators (Burning Man, August 2018)

Quantifying Valence (see alsoThe Science of Consciousness, April 2018)

Quantifying Bliss (Consciousness Hacking, June 2017)

Utilitarian Temperament: Satisfying Impactful Careers (BIL Oakland 2016: The Recession Generation, July 2016)

Interviews

Mapping the psychedelic experience – a conversation with the Qualia Research Institute (Adeptus Psychonautica, October 2019)

Simulation #453 Catalog & Navigate Consciousness (Simulation, Jun 2019)

Simulation #310 Mike Johnson & Andrés Gómez Emilsson – Chemistry of Consciousness (Simulation, March 2019)

Simulation #255 Andrés Gómez Emilsson – Computational Properties of Consciousness (Simulation, February 2019)

Want a Penfield Mood Organ? This Scientist Might Be Able to Help (Ziff Davis PCMag, April 2018)

Frameworks for Consciousness – Andres Gomez Emilsson (Science, Technology & the Future by Adam Ford, March 2018)

Towards the Abolition of Suffering through Science (featuring David Pearce, Brian Tomasik, & Mike Johnson hosted by Adam Ford, August 2015)

The Mind of David Pearce (Stanford, December 2012)

Andrés Gómez Emilsson, el joven que grito espurio a Felipe Calderón (Cine Desbundo [in Spanish], October 2008)

Narrative Inclusions

SSC Journal Club: Relaxed Beliefs Under Psychedelics and the Anarchic Brain (Slate Star Codex, September 2019)

Why We Need to Study Consciousness (Scientific American, September 2019)

Young pioneers on their hopes for technology, and older trailblazers on their regrets (MIT Technology Review, August 2019)

Mike Johnson – Testable Theories of Consciousness (Science, Technology & the Future, March 2019)

On Consciousness, Qualia, Valence & Intelligence with Mike Johnson (Science, Technology, Future, October 2018)

Podcast with Daniel Ingram (Cosmic Tortoise [referenced at 2h22m], January 2018)

Fear and Loathing at Effective Altruism Global 2017 (Slate Star Codex, August 2017)

Transhumanist Proves Schrödinger’s Cat Experiment Isn’t Better on LSD (Inverse, October 2016)

High Performer: Die Renaissance des LSD im Silicon Valley (Wired Germany [in German], June 2015)

Come With Us If You Want To Live (Harper’s Magazine, January 2015)

David Pearce’s Social Media Posts (Hedwebpre-2014, 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018)

David Pearce at Stanford 2011 (Stanford Transhumanist Association, December 2011)

External Articles

Ending Suffering Is The Most Important Cause (IEET, September 2015)

This Is What I Mean When I Say ‘Consciousness’ (IEET, September 2015)

My Interest Shifted from Mathematics to Consciousness after a THC Experience (IEET, September 2015)

‘Spiritual/Philosophical’ is the Deepest, Highest, Most Powerful Dimension of Euphoria (IEET, September 2015)

Bios

H+pedia, ISI-S, Decentralized AI Summit, Earth Sharing

Miscellaneous

Philosophy of Mind Stand-up Comedy (The Science of Consciousness,  April 2018)

Randal Koene vs. Andres Emilsson on The Binding Problem (Bay Area Futurists, Oakland CA, May 2016)


Note: I am generally outgoing, fun-loving, and happy to participate in podcasts, events, interviews, and miscellaneous activities. Feel free to invite me to your podcast/interview/theater/etc. I am flexible when it comes to content; anything I’ve written about in Qualia Computing is fair game for discussion. Infinite bliss!

The Universal Plot: Part I – Consciousness vs. Pure Replicators

“It seems plain and self-evident, yet it needs to be said: the isolated knowledge obtained by a group of specialists in a narrow field has in itself no value whatsoever, but only in its synthesis with all the rest of knowledge and only inasmuch as it really contributes in this synthesis toward answering the demand, ‘Who are we?'”

– Erwin Schrödinger in Science and Humanism (1951)

 

“Should you or not commit suicide? This is a good question. Why go on? And you only go on if the game is worth the candle. Now, the universe is been going on for an incredibly long time. Really, a satisfying theory of the universe should be one that’s worth betting on. That seems to me to be absolutely elementary common sense. If you make a theory of the universe which isn’t worth betting on… why bother? Just commit suicide. But if you want to go on playing the game, you’ve got to have an optimal theory for playing the game. Otherwise there’s no point in it.”

Alan Watts, talking about Camu’s claim that suicide is the most important question (cf. The Most Important Philosophical Question)

In this article we provide a novel framework for ethics which focuses on the perennial battle between wellbeing-oriented consciousness-centric values and valueless patterns who happen to be great at making copies of themselves (aka. Consciousness vs. Pure Replicators). This framework extends and generalizes modern accounts of ethics and intuitive wisdom, making intelligible numerous paradigms that previously lived in entirely different worlds (e.g. incongruous aesthetics and cultures). We place this worldview within a novel scale of ethical development with the following levels: (a) The Battle Between Good and Evil, (b) The Balance Between Good and Evil, (c) Gradients of Wisdom, and finally, the view that we advocate: (d) Consciousness vs. Pure Replicators. More so, we analyze each of these worldviews in light of our philosophical background assumptions and posit that (a), (b), and (c) are, at least in spirit, approximations to (d), except that they are less lucid, more confused, and liable to exploitation by pure replicators. Finally, we provide a mathematical formalization of the problem at hand, and discuss the ways in which different theories of consciousness may affect our calculations. We conclude with a few ideas for how to avoid particularly negative scenarios.

Introduction

Throughout human history, the big picture account of the nature, purpose, and limits of reality has evolved dramatically. All religions, ideologies, scientific paradigms, and even aesthetics have background philosophical assumptions that inform their worldviews. One’s answers to the questions “what exists?” and “what is good?” determine the way in which one evaluates the merit of beings, ideas, states of mind, algorithms, and abstract patterns.

Kuhn’s claim that different scientific paradigms are mutually unintelligible (e.g. consciousness realism vs. reductive eliminativism) can be extended to worldviews in a more general sense. It is unlikely that we’ll be able to convey the Consciousness vs. Pure Replicators paradigm by justifying each of the assumptions used to arrive to it one by one starting from current ways of thinking about reality. This is because these background assumptions support each other and are, individually, not derivable from current worldviews. They need to appear together as a unit to hang together tight. Hence, we now make the jump and show you, without further due, all of the background assumptions we need:

  1. Consciousness Realism
  2. Qualia Formalism
  3. Valence Structuralism
  4. The Pleasure Principle (and its corollary The Tyranny of the Intentional Object)
  5. Physicalism (in the causal sense)
  6. Open Individualism (also compatible with Empty Individualism)
  7. Universal Darwinism

These assumptions have been discussed in previous articles. In the meantime, here is a brief description: (1) is the claim that consciousness is an element of reality rather than simply the improper reification of illusory phenomena, such that your conscious experience right now is as much a factual and determinate aspect of reality as, say, the rest mass of an electron. In turn, (2) qualia formalism is the notion that consciousness is in principle quantifiable. Assumption (3) states that valence (i.e. the pleasure/pain axis, how good an experience feels) depends of the structure of such experience (more formally, on the properties of the mathematical object isomorphic to its phenomenology).

(4) is the assumption that people’s behavior is motivated by the pleasure-pain axis even when they think that’s not the case. For instance, people may explicitly represent the reason for doing things in terms of concrete facts about the circumstance, and the pleasure principle does not deny that such reasons are important. Rather, it merely says that such reasons are motivating because one expects/anticipates less negative valence or more positive valence. The Tyranny of the Intentional Object describes the fact that we attribute changes in our valence to external events and objects, and believe that such events and objects are intrinsically good (e.g. we think “icecream is great” rather than “I feel good when I eat icecream”).

Physicalism (5) in this context refers to the notion that the equations of physics fully describe the causal behavior of reality. In other words, the universe behaves according to physical laws and even consciousness has to abide by this fact.

Open Individualism (6) is the claim that we are all one consciousness, in some sense. Even though it sounds crazy at first, there are rigorous philosophical arguments in favor of this view. Whether this is true or not is, for the purpose of this article, less relevant than the fact that we can experience it as true, which happens to have both practical and ethical implications for how society might evolve.

Finally, (7) Universal Darwinism refers to the claim that natural selection works at every level of organization. The explanatory power of evolution and fitness landscapes generated by selection pressures is not confined to the realm of biology. Rather, it is applicable all the way from the quantum foam to, possibly, an ecosystem of universes.

The power of a given worldview is not only its capacity to explain our observations about the inanimate world and the quality of our experience, but also in its capacity to explain *in its own terms* the reasons for why other worldviews are popular as well. In what follows we will utilize these background assumptions to evaluate other worldviews.

 

The Four Worldviews About Ethics

The following four stages describe a plausible progression of thoughts about ethics and the question “what is valuable?” as one learns more about the universe and philosophy. Despite the similarity of the first three levels to the levels of other scales of moral development (e.g. this, this, this, etc.), we believe that the fourth level is novel, understudied, and very, very important.

1. The “Battle Between Good and Evil” Worldview

“Every distinction wants to become the distinction between good and evil.” – Michael Vassar (source)

Common-sensical notions of essential good and evil are pre-scientific. For reasons too complicated to elaborate on for the time being, the human mind is capable of evoking an agentive sense of ultimate goodness (and of ultimate evil).

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Good vs. Evil? God vs. the Devil?

Children are often taught that there are good people and bad people. That evil beings exist objectively, and that it is righteous to punish them and see them with scorn. On this level people reify anti-social behaviors as sins.

Essentializing good and evil, and tying it up to entities seems to be an early developmental stage of people’s conception of ethics, and many people end up perpetually stuck in here. Several religions (specially the Abrahamic ones) are often practiced in such a way so as to reinforce this worldview. That said, many ideologies take advantage of the fact that a large part of the population is at this level to recruit adherents by redefining “what good and bad is” according to the needs of such ideologies. As a psychological attitude (rather than as a theory of the universe), reactionary and fanatical social movements often rely implicitly on this way of seeing the world, where there are bad people (jews, traitors, infidels, over-eaters, etc.) who are seen as corrupting the soul of society and who deserve to have their fundamental badness exposed and exorcised with punishment in front of everyone else.

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Traditional notions of God vs. the Devil can be interpreted as the personification of positive and negative valence

Implicitly, this view tends to gain psychological strength from the background assumptions of Closed Individualism (which allows you to imagine that people can be essentially bad). Likewise, this view tends to be naïve about the importance of valence in ethics. Good feelings are often interpreted as the result of being aligned with fundamental goodness, rather than as positive states of consciousness that happen to be triggered by a mix of innate and programmable things (including cultural identifications). More so, good feelings that don’t come in response to the preconceived universal order are seen as demonic and aberrant.

From our point of view (the 7 background assumptions above) we interpret this particular worldview as something that we might be biologically predisposed to buy into. Believing in the battle between good and evil was probably evolutionarily adaptive in our ancestral environment, and might reduce many frictional costs that arise from having a more subtle view of reality (e.g. “The cheaper people are to model, the larger the groups that can be modeled well enough to cooperate with them.” – Michale Vassar). Thus, there are often pragmatic reasons to adopt this view, specially when the social environment does not have enough resources to sustain a more sophisticated worldview. Additionally, at an individual level, creating strong boundaries around what is or not permissible can be helpful when one has low levels of impulse control (though it may come at the cost of reduced creativity).

On this level, explicit wireheading (whether done right or not) is perceived as either sinful (defying God’s punishment) or as a sort of treason (disengaging from the world). Whether one feels good or not should be left to the whims of the higher order. On the flipside, based on the pleasure principle it is possible to interpret the desire to be righteous as being motivated by high valence states, and reinforced by social approval, all the while the tyranny of the intentional object cloaks this dynamic.

It’s worth noting that cultural conservativism, low levels of the psychological constructs of Openness to Experience and Tolerance of Ambiguity , and high levels of Need for Closure, all predict getting stuck in this worldview for one’s entire life.

2. The “Balance Between Good and Evil” Worldview

TVTropes has a great summary of the sorts of narratives that express this particular worldview and I highly recommend reading that article to gain insight into the moral attitudes compatible with this view. For example, here are some reasons why Good cannot or should not win:

Good winning includes: the universe becoming boring, society stagnating or collapsing from within in the absence of something to struggle against or giving people a chance to show real nobility and virtue by risking their lives to defend each other. Other times, it’s enforced by depicting ultimate good as repressive (often Lawful Stupid), or by declaring concepts such as free will or ambition as evil. In other words “too much of a good thing”.

Balance Between Good and Evil by tvtropes

Now, the stated reasons why people might buy into this view are rarely their true reasons. Deep down, the Balance Between Good and Evil is adopted because: people want to differentiate themselves from those who believe in (1) to signal intellectual sophistication, they experience learned helplessness after trying to defeat evil without success (often in the form of resilient personal failings or societal flaws), they find the view compelling at an intuitive emotional level (i.e. they have internalized the hedonic treadmill and project it onto the rest of reality).

In all of these cases, though, there is something somewhat paradoxical about holding this view. And that is that people report that coming to terms with the fact that not everything can be good is itself a cause of relief, self-acceptance, and happiness. In other words, holding this belief is often mood-enhancing. One can also confirm the fact that this view is emotionally load-bearing by observing the psychological reaction that such people have to, for example, bringing up the Hedonistic Imperative (which asserts that eliminating suffering without sacrificing anything of value is scientifically possible), indefinite life extension, or the prospect of super-intelligence. Rarely are people at this level intellectually curious about these ideas, and they come up with excuses to avoid looking at the evidence, however compelling it may be.

For example, some people are lucky enough to be born with a predisposition to being hyperthymic (which, contrary to preconceptions, does the opposite of making you a couch potato). People’s hedonic set-point is at least partly genetically determined, and simply avoiding some variants of the SCN9A gene with preimplantation genetic diagnosis would greatly reduce the number of people who needlessly suffer from chronic pain.

But this is not seen with curious eyes by people who hold this or the previous worldview. Why? Partly this is because it would be painful to admit that both oneself and others are stuck in a local maxima of wellbeing and that examining alternatives might yield very positive outcomes (i.e. omission bias). But at its core, this willful ignorance can be explained as a consequence of the fact that people at this level get a lot of positive valence from interpreting present and past suffering in such a way that it becomes tied to their core identity. Pride in having overcome their past sufferings, and personal attachment to their current struggles and anxieties binds them to this worldview.

If it wasn’t clear from the previous paragraph, this worldview often requires a special sort of chronic lack of self-insight. It ultimately relies on a psychological trick. One never sees people who hold this view voluntarily breaking their legs, taking poison, or burning their assets to increase the goodness elsewhere as an act of altruism. Instead, one uses this worldview as a mood-booster, and in practice, it is also susceptible to the same sort of fanaticism as the first one (although somewhat less so). “There can be no light without the dark. And so it is with magic. Myself, I always try to live within the light.” – Horace Slughorn.

315eab27545ea96c67953c54358fe600Additionally, this view helps people rationalize the negative aspects of one’s community and culture. For example, it not uncommon for people to say that buying factory farmed meat is acceptable on the grounds that “some things have to die/suffer for others to live/enjoy life.” Balance Between Good and Evil is a close friend of status quo bias.

Hinduism, Daoism, and quite a few interpretations of Buddhism work best within this framework. Getting closer to God and ultimate reality is not done by abolishing evil, but by embracing the unity of all and fostering a healthy balance between health and sickness.

It’s also worth noting that the balance between good and evil tends to be recursively applied, so that one is not able to “re-define our utility function from ‘optimizing the good’ to optimizing ‘the balance of good and evil’ with a hard-headed evidence-based consequentialist approach.” Indeed, trying to do this is then perceived as yet another incarnation of good (or evil) which needs to also be balanced with its opposite (willful ignorance and fuzzy thinking). One comes to the conclusion that it is the fuzzy thinking itself that people at this level are after: to blur reality just enough to make it seem good, and to feel like one is not responsible for the suffering in the world (specially by inaction and lack of thinking clearly about how one could help). “Reality is only a Rorschach ink-blot, you know” – Alan Watts. So this becomes a justification for thinking less than one really has to about the suffering in the world. Then again, it’s hard to blame people for trying to keep the collective standards of rigor lax, given the high proportion of fanatics who adhere to the “battle between good and evil” worldview, and who will jump the gun to demonize anyone who is slacking off and not stressed out all the time, constantly worrying about the question “could I do more?”

(Note: if one is actually trying to improve the world as much as possible, being stressed out about it all the time is not the right policy).

3. The “Gradients of Wisdom” Worldview

David Chapman’s HTML book Meaningness might describe both of the previous worldviews as variants of eternalism. In the context of his work, eternalism refers to the notion that there is an absolute order and meaning to existence. When applied to codes of conduct, this turns into “ethical eternalism”, which he defines as: “the stance that there is a fixed ethical code according to which we should live. The eternal ordering principle is usually seen as the source of the code.” Chapman eloquently argues that eternalism has many side effects, including: deliberate stupidity, attachment to abusive dynamics, constant disappointment and self-punishment, and so on. By realizing that, in some sense, no one knows what the hell is going on (and those who do are just pretending) one takes the first step towards the “Gradients of Wisdom” worldview.

At this level people realize that there is no evil essence. Some might talk about this in terms of there “not being good or bad people”, but rather just degrees of impulse control, knowledge about the world, beliefs about reality, emotional stability, and so on. A villain’s soul is not connected to some kind of evil reality. Rather, his or her actions can be explained by the causes and conditions that led to his or her psychological make-up.

Sam Harris’ ideas as expressed in The Moral Landscape evoke this stage very clearly. Sam explains that just as health is a fuzzy but important concept, so is psychological wellbeing, and that for such a reason we can objectively assess cultures as more or less in agreement with human flourishing. the-science-of-morality-7-728

Indeed, many people who are at this level do believe in valence structuralism, where they recognize that there are states of consciousness that are inherently better in some intrinsic subjective value sense than others.

However, there is usually no principled framework to assess whether a certain future is indeed optimal or not. There is little hard-headed discussion of population ethics for fear of sounding unwise or insensitive. And when push comes to shove, they lack good arguments to decisively rule out why particular situations might be bad. In other words, there is room for improvement, and such improvement might eventually come from more rigor and bullet-bitting.  In particular, a more direct examination of the implications of: Open Individualism, the Tyranny of the Intentional Object, and Universal Darwinism can allow someone on this level to make a breakthrough. Here is where we come to:

4. The “Consciousness vs. Pure Replicators” Worldview

In Wireheading Done Right we introduced the concept of a pure replicator:

I will define a pure replicator, in the context of agents and minds, to be an intelligence that is indifferent towards the valence of its conscious states and those of others. A pure replicator invests all of its energy and resources into surviving and reproducing, even at the cost of continuous suffering to themselves or others. Its main evolutionary advantage is that it does not need to spend any resources making the world a better place.

Presumably our genes are pure replicators. But we, as sentient minds who recognize the intrinsic value (both positive and negative) of conscious experiences, are not pure replicators. Thanks to a myriad of fascinating dynamics, it so happened that making minds who love, appreciate, think creatively, and philosophize was a side effect of the process of refining the selfishness of our genes. We must not take for granted that we are more than pure replicators ourselves, and that we care both about our wellbeing and the wellbeing of others. The problem now is that the particular selection pressures that led to this may not be present in the future. After all, digital and genetic technologies are drastically changing the fitness landscape for patterns that are good at making copies of themselves.

In an optimistic scenario, future selection pressures will make us all naturally gravitate towards super-happiness. This is what David Pearce posits in his essay “The Biointelligence Explosion”:

As the reproductive revolution of “designer babies” gathers pace, prospective parents will pre-select alleles and allelic combinations for a new child in anticipation of their behavioural effects – a novel kind of selection pressure to replace the “blind” genetic roulette of natural selection. In time, routine embryo screening via preimplantation genetic diagnosis will be complemented by gene therapy, genetic enhancement and then true designer zygotes. In consequence, life on Earth will also become progressively happier as the hedonic treadmill is recalibrated. In the new reproductive era, hedonic set-points and intelligence alike will be ratcheted upwards in virtue of selection pressure. For what parent-to-be wants to give birth to a low-status depressive “loser”? Future parents can enjoy raising a normal transhuman supergenius who grows up to be faster than Usain Bolt, more beautiful than Marilyn Monroe, more saintly than Nelson Mandela, more creative than Shakespeare – and smarter than Einstein.

– David Pearce in The Biointelligence Explosion

In a pessimistic scenario, the selection pressures lead to the opposite direction, where negative experiences are the only states of consciousness that happen to be evolutionarily adaptive, and so they become universally used.

There is a number of thinkers and groups who can be squarely placed on this level, and relative to the general population, they are extremely rare (see: The Future of Human Evolution,  A Few Dystopic Future Scenarios,  Book Review: Age of EM, Nick Land’s Gnon, Spreading Happiness to the Stars Seems Little Harder than Just Spreading, etc.). See also**. What is much needed now, is formalizing the situation and working out what we could do about it. But first, some thoughts about the current state of affairs.

There is at least some encouraging facts that suggest it is not too late to prevent a pure replicator takeover. There are memes, states of consciousness, and resources that can be used in order to steer evolution in a positive directions. In particular, as of 2017:

  1. A very big proportion of the economy is dedicated to trading positive experiences for money, rather than just survival or power tools. Thus an economy of information about states of consciousness is still feasible.
  2. There is a large fraction of the population who is altruistic and would be willing to cooperate with the rest of the world to avoid catastrophic scenarios.
  3. Happy people are more motivated, productive, engaged, and ultimately, economically useful (see hyperthimic temperament).
  4. Many people have explored Open Individualism and are interested (or at least curious) about the idea that we are all one.
  5. A lot of people are fascinated by psychedelics and the non-ordinary states of consciousness that they induce.
  6. MDMA-like consciousness is both very positive in terms of its valence, but also, amazingly, extremely pro-social, and future sustainable versions of it could be recruited to stabilize societies where the highest value is the collective wellbeing.

It is important to not underestimate the power of the facts laid out above. If we get our act together and create a Manhattan Project of Consciousness we might be able to find sustainable, reliable, and powerful methods that stabilize a hyper-motivated, smart, super-happy and super-prosocial state of consciousness in a large fraction of the population. In the future, we may all by default identify with consciousness itself rather than with our bodies (or our genes), and be intrinsically (and rationally) motivated to collaborate with everyone else to create as much happiness as possible as well as to eradicate suffering with technology. And if we are smart enough, we might also be able to solidify this state of affairs, or at least shield it against pure replicator takeovers.

The beginnings of that kind of society may already be underway. Consider for example the contrast between Burning Man and Las Vegas. Burning Man is a place that works as a playground for exploring post-Darwinean social dynamics, in which people help each other overcome addictions and affirm their commitment to helping all of humanity. Las Vegas, on the other hand, might be described as a place that is filled to the top with pure replicators in the forms of memes, addictions, and denial. The present world has the potential for both kind of environments, and we do not yet know which one will outlive the other in the long run.

Formalizing the Problem

We want to specify the problem in a way that will make it mathematically intelligible. In brief, in this section we focus on specifying what it means to be a pure replicator in formal terms. Per the definition, we know that pure replicators will use resources as efficiently as possible to make copies of themselves, and will not care about the negative consequences of their actions. And in the context of using brains, computers, and other systems whose states might have moral significance (i.e. they can suffer), they will simply care about the overall utility of such systems for whatever purpose they may require. Such utility will be a function of both the accuracy with which the system performs it’s task, as well as its overall efficiency in terms of resources like time, space, and energy.

Simply phrased, we want to be able to answer the question: Given a certain set of constraints such as energy, matter, and physical conditions (temperature, radiation, etc.), what is the amount of pleasure and pain involved in the most efficient implementation of a given predefined input-output mapping?

system_specifications

The image above represents the relevant components of a system that might be used for some purpose by an intelligence. We have the inputs, the outputs, the constraints (such as temperature, materials, etc.) and the efficiency metrics. Let’s unpack this. In the general case, an intelligence will try to find a system with the appropriate trade-off between efficiency and accuracy. We can wrap up this as an “efficiency metric function”, e(o|i, s, c) which encodes the following meaning: “e(o|i, s, c) = the efficiency with which a given output is generated given the input, the system being used, and the physical constraints in place.”

basic_system

Now, we introduce the notion of the “valence for the system given a particular input” (i.e. the valence for the system’s state in response to such an input). Let’s call this v(s|i). It is worth pointing out that whether valence can be computed, and whether it is even a meaningfully objective property of a system is highly controversial (e.g. “Measuring Happiness and Suffering“). Our particular take (at QRI) is that valence is a mathematical property that can be decoded from the mathematical object whose properties are isomorphic to a system’s phenomenology (see: Principia Qualia: Part II – Valence, and also Quantifying Bliss). If so, then there is a matter of fact about just how good/bad an experience is. For the time being we will assume that valence is indeed quantifiable, given that we are working under the premise of valence structuralism (as stated in our list of assumptions). We thus define the overall utility for a given output as U(e(o|i, s, c), v(s|i)), where the valence of the system may or may not be taken into account. In turn, an intelligence is said to be altruistic if it cares about the valence of the system in addition to its efficiency, so that it’s utility function penalizes negative valence (and rewards positive valence).

valence_altruism

Now, the intelligence (altruistic or not) utilizing the system will also have to take into account the overall range of inputs the system will be used to process in order to determine how valuable the system is overall. For this reason, we define the expected value of the system as the utility of each input multiplied by its probability.

input_probabilities

(Note: a more complete formalization would also weight in the importance of each input-output transformation, in addition to their frequency). Moving on, we can now define the overall expected utility for the system given the distribution of inputs it’s used for, its valence, its efficiency metrics, and its constraints as E[U(s|v, e, c, P(I))]:

chosen_system

The last equation shows that the intelligence would choose the system that maximizes E[U(s|v, e, c, P(I))].

Pure replicators will be better at surviving as long as the chances of reproducing do not depend on their altruism. If altruism does not reduce such reproductive fitness, then:

Given two intelligences that are competing for existence and/or resources to make copies of themselves and fight against other intelligences, there is going to be a strong incentive to choose a system that maximizes the efficiency metrics regardless of the valence of the system.

In the long run, then, we’d expect to see only non-altruistic intelligences (i.e. intelligences with utility functions that are indifferent to the valence of the systems it uses to process information). In other words, as evolution pushes intelligences to optimize the efficiency metrics of the systems they employ, it also pushes them to stop caring about the wellbeing of such systems. In other words, evolution pushes intelligences to become pure replicators in the long run.

Hence we should ask: How can altruism increase the chances of reproduction? A possibility would be for the environment to reward entities that are altruistic. Unfortunately, in the long run we might see that environments that reward altruistic entities produce less efficient entities than environments that don’t. If there are two very similar environments, one which rewards altruism and one which doesn’t, the efficiency of the entities in the latter might become so much higher than in the former that they become able to takeover and destroy whatever mechanism is implementing such reward for altruism in the former. Thus, we suggest to find environments in which rewarding altruism is baked into their very nature, such that similar environments without such reward either don’t exist or are too unstable to exist for the amount of time it takes to evolve non-altruistic entities. This and other similar approaches will be explored further in Part II.

Behaviorism, Functionalism, Non-Materialist Physicalism

A key insight is that the formalization presented above is agnostic about one’s theory of consciousness. We are simply assuming that it’s possible to compute the valence of the system in terms of its state. How one goes about computing such valence, though, will depend on how one maps physical systems to experiences. Getting into the weeds of the countless theories of consciousness out there would not be very productive at this stage, but there is still value in defining the rough outline of kinds of theories of consciousness. In particular, we categorize (physicalist) theories of consciousness in terms of the level of abstraction they identify as the place in which to look for consciousness.

Behaviorism and similar accounts simply associate consciousness to input-output mappings, which can be described, in Marr’s terms, as the computational level of abstraction. In this case, v(s|i) would not depend on the details of the system as much as in what it does from a third person point of view. Behaviorists don’t care what’s in the Chinese Room; all they care about is if the Chinese Room can scribble “I’m in pain” as an output. How we can formalize a mathematical equation to infer whether a system is suffering from a behaviorist point of view is beyond me, but maybe someone might want to give it a shot. As a side note, behaviorists historically were not very concerned about pain or pleasure, and there cause to believe that behaviorism itself might be anti-depressant for people for whom introspection results in more pain than pleasure.

Functionalism (along with computational theories of mind) defines consciousness as the sum-total of the functional properties of systems. In turn, this means that consciousness arises at the algorithmic level of abstraction. Contrary to common misconception, functionalists do care about how the Chinese Room is implemented: contra behaviorists, they do not usually agree that a Chinese Room implemented with a look-up table is conscious.*

As such v(s|i) will depend on the algorithms that the system is implementing. Thus, as an intermediary step, one would need a function that takes the system as an input and returns the algorithms that the system is implementing as an output, A(s). Only once we have A(s) we would then be able to infer the valence of the system. Which algorithms, and for what reason, are in fact hedonically-charged has yet to be clarified. Committed functionalists often associate reinforcement learning with pleasure and pain, and one could imagine that as philosophy of mind gets more rigorous and takes into account more advancements in neuroscience and AI, we will see more hypothesis being made about what kinds of algorithms result in phenomenal pain (and pleasure). There are many (still fuzzy) problems to be solved for this account to work even in principle. Indeed, there is a reason to believe that the question “what algorithms is this system performing?” has no definite answer, and it surely isn’t frame-invariant in the same way that a physical state might be. The fact that algorithms do not carve nature at its joints would imply that consciousness is not really a well-defined element of reality either. But rather than this working as a reductio-ad-absurdum of functionalism, many of its proponents have instead turned around to conclude that consciousness itself is not a natural kind. This does represent an important challenge in order to define the valence of the system, and makes the problem of detecting and avoiding pure replicators extra challenging. Admirably so, this is not stopping some from trying anyway.

We also should note that there are further problems with functionalism in general, including the fact that qualia, the binding problem, and the causal role of consciousness seem underivable from its premises. For a detailed discussion about this, read this article.

Finally, Non-Materialist Physicalism locates consciousness at the implementation level of abstraction. This general account of consciousness refers to the notion that the intrinsic nature of the physical is qualia. There are many related views that for the purpose of this article should be good enough approximations: panpsychism, panexperientialism, neutral monism, Russellian monism, etc. Basically, this view takes seriously both the equations of physics and the idea that what they describe is the behavior of qualia. A big advantage of this view is that there is a matter-of-fact about what a system is composed of. Indeed, both in relativity and quantum mechanics, the underlying nature of a system is frame-invariant, such that its fundamental (intrinsic and causal) properties do not depend on one’s frame of reference. In order to obtain v(s|i) we will need to obtain this frame-invariant description of what the system is in a given state. Thus, we need a function that takes as input physical measurements of the system and returns the best possible approximation to what is actually going on under the hood, Ph(s). And only with this function Ph(s) we would be ready to compute the valence of the system. Now, in practice we might not need a plank-length description of the system, since the mathematical property that describes it’s valence might turn out to be well-approximated with high-level features of it.

The main problem with Non-Materialist Physicalism comes when one considers systems that have similar efficiency metrics, are performing the same algorithms, and look the same in all of the relevant respects from a third-person point, and yet do not have the same experience. In brief: if physical rather than functional aspects of systems map to conscious experiences, it seems likely that we could find two systems that do the same (input-output mapping), do it in the same way (algorithms), and yet one is conscious and the other isn’t.

This kind of scenario is what has pushed many to conclude that functionalism is the only viable alternative, since at this point consciousness would seem epiphenomenal (e.g. Zombies Redacted). And indeed, if this was the case, it would seem to be a mere matter of chance that our brains are implemented with the right stuff to be conscious, since the nature of such stuff is not essential to the algorithms that actually end up processing the information. You cannot speak to stuff, but you can speak to an algorithm. So how do we even know we have the right stuff to be conscious?

The way to respond to this very valid criticism is for Non-Materialist Physicalism to postulate that bound states of consciousness have computational properties. In brief, epiphenomenalism cannot be true. But this does not rule out Non-Materialist Physicalism for the simple reason that the quality of states of consciousness might be involved in processing information. Enter…

The Computational Properties of Consciousness

Let’s leave behaviorism behind for the time being. In what ways do functionalism and non-materialist physicalism differ in the context of information processing? In the former, consciousness is nothing other than certain kinds of information processing, whereas in the latter conscious states can be used for information processing. An example of this falls out of taking David Pearce’s theory of consciousness seriously. In his account, the phenomenal binding problem (i.e. “if we are made of atoms, how come our experience contains many pieces of information at once?”, see: The Combination Problem for Panpsychism) is solved via quantum coherence. Thus, a given moment of consciousness is a definite physical system that works as a unit. Conscious states are ontologically unitary, and not merely functionally unitary.

If this is the case, there would be a good reason for evolution to recruit conscious states to process information. Simply put, given a set of constraints, using quantum coherence might be the most efficient way to solve some computational problems. Thus, evolution might have stumbled upon a computational jackpot by creating neurons whose (extremely) fleeting quantum coherence could be used to solve constraint satisfaction problems in ways that would be more energetically expensive to do otherwise. In turn, over many millions of years, brains got really good at using consciousness in order to efficiently process information. It is thus not an accident that we are conscious, that our conscious experiences are unitary, that our world-simulations use a wide range of qualia varieties, and so on. All of these seemingly random, seemingly epiphenomenal, aspects of our existence happen to be computationally advantageous. Just as using quantum computing for factorizing prime numbers, or for solving problems amenable to annealing might give quantum computers a computational edge over their non-quantum counterparts, so is using bound conscious experiences helpful to outcompete non-sentient animals.

Of course, there is yet no evidence of macroscopic decoherence and the brain is too hot anyway, so on the face of it Pearce’s theory seems exceedingly unlikely. But its explanatory power should not be dismissed out of hand, and the fact that it makes empirically testable predictions is noteworthy (how often do consciousness theorists make precise predictions to falsify their theories?).

Whether it is via quantum coherence, entanglement, invariants of the gauge field, or any other deep physical property of reality, non-materialist physicalism can avert the spectre of epiphenomenalism by postulating that the relevant properties of matter that make us conscious are precisely those that give our brains a computational edge (relative to what evolution was able to find in the vicinity of the fitness landscape explored in our history).

Will Pure Replicators Use Valence Gradients at All?

Whether we work under the assumption of functionalism or non-materialist physicalism, we already know that our genes found happiness and suffering to be evolutionary advantageous. So we know that there is at least a set of constraints, efficiency metrics, and input-output mappings that make both phenomenal pleasure and pain very good algorithms (functionalism) or physical implementations (non-materialist physicalism). But will the parameters necessitated by replicators in the long-term future have these properties? Remember that evolution was only able to explore a restricted state-space of possible brain implementations delimited by the pre-existing gene pool (and the behavioral requirements provided by the environment). So, in one extreme case, it may be the case that a fully optimized brain simply does not need consciousness to solve problems. And in another extreme, it may turn out that consciousness is extraordinarily more powerful when used in an optimal way. Would this be good or bad?

What’s the best case scenario? Well, the absolute best possible case is a case so optimistic and incredibly lucky that if it turned out to be true, it would probably make me believe in a benevolent God (or Simulation). This is the case where it turns out that only positive valence gradients are computationally superior to every other alternative given a set of constraints, input-output mappings, and arbitrary efficiency functions. In this case, the most powerful pure replicators, despite their lack of altruism, will nonetheless be pumping out massive amounts of systems that produce unspeakable levels of bliss. It’s as if the very nature of this universe is blissful… we simply happen to suffer because we are stuck in a tiny wrinkle at the foothills of the optimization process of evolution.

In the extreme opposite case, it turns out that only negative valence gradients offer strict computational benefits under heavy optimization. This would be Hell. Or at least, it would tend towards Hell in the long run. If this happens to be the universe we live in, let’s all agree to either conspire to prevent evolution from moving on, or figure out the way to turn it off. In the long term, we’d expect every being alive (or AI, upload, etc.) to be a zombie or a piece of dolorium. Not a fun idea.

In practice, it’s much more likely that both positive and negative valence gradients will be of some use in some contexts. Figuring out exactly which contexts these are might be both extremely important, and also extremely dangerous. In particular, finding out in advance which computational tasks make positive valence gradients a superior alternative to other methods of doing the relevant computations would inform us about the sorts of cultures, societies, religions, and technologies that we should be promoting in order to give this a push in the right direction (and hopefully out-run the environments that would make negative valence gradients adaptive).

Unless we create a Singleton early on, it’s likely that by default all future entities in the long-term future will be non-altruistic pure replicators. But it is also possible that there are multiple attractors (i.e. evolutionarily stable ecosystems) in which different computational properties of consciousness are adaptive. Thus the case for pushing our evolutionary history in the right direction right now before we give up.

 Coming Next: The Hierarchy of Cooperators

Now that we covered the four worldviews, formalized what it means to be a pure replicator, and analyzed the possible future outcomes based on the computational properties of consciousness (and of valence gradients in particular), we are ready to face the game of reality in its own terms.

Team Consciousness, we need to to get our act together. We need a systematic worldview, availability of states of consciousness, set of beliefs and practices to help us prevent pure replicator takeovers.

But we cannot do this as long as we are in the dark about the sorts of entities, both consciousness-focused and pure replicators, who are likely to arise in the future in response to the selection pressures that cultural and technological change are likely to produce. In Part II of The Universal Plot we will address this and more. Stay tuned…

 



* Rather, they usually claim that, given that a Chinese Room is implemented with physical material from this universe and subject to the typical constraints of this world, it is extremely unlikely that a universe-sized look-up table would be producing the output. Hence, the algorithms that are producing the output are probably highly complex and using information processing with human-like linguistic representations, which means that, by all means, the Chinese Room it very likely understanding what it is outputting.


** Related Work:

Here is a list of literature that points in the direction of Consciousness vs. Pure Replicators. There are countless more worthwhile references, but I think that these ones are about the best:

The Biointelligence Explosion (David Pearce), Meditations on Moloch (Scott Alexander), What is a Singleton? (Nick Bostrom), Coherent Extrapolated Volition (Eliezer Yudkowsky), Simulations of God (John Lilly), Meaningness (David Chapman), The Selfish Gene (Richard Dawkins), Darwin’s Dangerous Idea (Daniel Dennett), Prometheus Rising (R. A. Wilson).

Additionally, here are some further references that address important aspects of this worlview, although they are not explicitly trying to arrive at a big picture view of the whole thing:

Neurons Gone Wild (Kevin Simler), The Age of EM (Robin Hanson), The Mating Mind (Geoffrey Miller), Joyous Cosmology (Alan Watts), The Ego Tunnel (Thomas Metzinger), The Orthogonality Thesis (Stuart Armstrong)