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.”

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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.”

Open_Closed_Empty_Ring

“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

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

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

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

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)

 

Avoid Runaway Signaling in Effective Altruism

 

Above: “Virtue Signaling” by Geoffrey Miller. This presentation was given at EAGlobal 2016 at the Berkeley campus.

For a good introduction to the EA movement, we suggest this amazing essay written by Scott Alexander from SlateStarCodex, which talks about his experience at EAGlobal 2017 in San Francisco (note: we were there too, and the essay briefly discusses our encounter with him).

We have previously discussed why valence research is so important to EA. In brief, we argue that in order to minimize suffering we need to actually unpack what it means for an experience to have low valence (ie. to feel bad). Unfortunately, modern affective neuroscience does not have a full answer to this question, but we believe that the approach that we use- at the Qualia Research Institute- has the potential to actually uncover the underlying equation for valence. We deeply support the EA cause and we think that it can only benefit from foundational consciousness research.

We’ve already covered some of the work by Geoffrey Miller (see this, this, and this). His sexual selection framework for understanding psychological traits is highly illuminating, and we believe that it will, ultimately, be a crucial piece of the puzzle of valence as well.

We think that in this video Geoffrey is making some key points about how society may perceive EAs which are very important to keep in mind as the movement grows. Here is a partial transcript of the video that we think anyone interested in EA should read (it covers 11:19-20:03):

So, I’m gonna run through the different traits that I think are the most relevant to EA issues. One is low intelligence versus high intelligence. This is a remarkably high intelligence crowd. And that’s good in lots of ways. Like you can analyze complex things better. A problem comes when you try to communicate findings to the people in the middle of the bell curve or even to the lower end. Those folks are the ones who are susceptible to buying books like “Homeopathic Care for Cats and Dogs” which is not evidence-based (your cat will die). Or giving to “Guide Dogs for the Blind”. And if you think “I’m going to explain my ethical system through Bayesian rationality” you might impress people, you might signal high IQ, but you might not convince them.

I think there is a particular danger of “runaway IQ-signaling” in EA. I’m relatively new to EA, I’m totally on board with what this community is doing, I think it’s awesome, it’s terrific… I’m very concerned that it doesn’t go the same path I’ve seen many other fields go, which is: when you have bright people, they start competing for status on the basis of brightness, rather than on the basis of actual contributions to the field.

IQ

So if you have elitist credentialism, like if your first question is “where did you go to school?”. Or “I take more Provigil than you, so I’m on a nootropics arms race”. Or you have exclusionary jargon that nobody can understand without Googling it. Or you’re skeptical about everything equally, because skepticism seems like a high IQ thing to do. Or you fetishize counter-intuitive arguments and results. These are problems. If your idea of a Trolley Problem involves twelve different tracks, then you’re probably IQ signaling.

runnaway_IQ_signaling

A key Big Five personality trait to worry about, or to think about consciously, is openness to experience. Low openness tends to be associated with drinking alcohol, voting Trump, giving to ineffective charities, standing for traditional family values, and being sexually inhibited. High openness to experience tends to be associated with, well, “I take psychedelics”, or “I’m libertarian”, or “I give to SCI”, or “I’m polyamorous”, or “casual sex is awesome”.

openness

Now, it’s weird that all these things come in a package (left), and that all these things come in a package (right), but that empirically seems to be the case.

openness_2Now, one issue here is that high openness is great- I’m highly open, and most of you guys are too- but what we don’t want to do is, try to sell people all the package and say “you can’t be EA unless you are politically liberal”, or “unless you are a Globalist”, or “unless you support unlimited immigration”, or “unless you support BDSM”, or “transhumanism”, or whatever… right, you can get into runaway openness signaling like the Social Justice Warriors do, and that can be quite counter-productive in terms of how your field operates and how it appears to others. If you are using rhetoric that just reactively disses all of these things [low openness attributes], be aware that you will alienate a lot of people with low openness. And you will alienate a lot of conservative business folks who have a lot of money who could be helpful.

Another trait is agreeableness. Kind of… kindness, and empathy, and sympathy. So low agreeableness- and this is the trait with the biggest sex difference on average, men are lower on agreeableness than women. Why? Because we did a bit more hunting, and stabbing each other, and eating meat. And high A tends to be more “cuddle parties”, and “voting for Clinton”, and “eating Tofu”, and “affirmative consent rather than Fifty Shades”. 

agreeableness

EA is a little bit weird because this community, from my observations, combines certain elements of high agreeableness- obviously, you guys care passionately about sentient welfare across enormous spans of time and space. But it also tends to come across, potentially, as low agreeableness, and that could be a problem. If you analyze ethical and welfare problems using just cold rationality, or you emphasize rationality- because you are mostly IQ signaling- it comes across to everyone outside EA as low agreeableness. As borderline sociopathic. Because traditional ethics and morality, and charity, is about warm heartedness, not about actually analyzing problems. So just be aware: this is a key personality trait that we have to be really careful about how we signal it. 

agreeableness_3

High agreeableness tends to be things like traditional charity, where you have a deontological perspective, sacred moral rules, sentimental anecdotes, “we’re helping people with this well on Africa that spins around, children push on it, awesome… whatever”. You focus on vulnerable cuteness, like charismatic megaphone if you are doing animal welfare. You focus on in-group loyalty, like “let’s help Americans before we help Africa”. That’s not very effective, but it’s highly compelling… emotionally… to most people, as a signal. And the stuff that EA tends to do, all of this: facing tough trade-offs, doing expected utility calculations, focusing on abstract sentience rather than cuteness… that can come across as quite cold-hearted.

agreeableness_2

EA so far, in my view- I haven’t run personality questionnaires on all of you, but my impression is- it tends to attract a fairly narrow range of cognitive and personality types. Obviously high IQ, probably the upper 5% of the bell curve. Very high openness, I doubt there are many Trump supporters here. I don’t know. Probably not. [Audience member: “raise your hands”. Laughs. Someone raises hands]. Uh oh, a lynching on the Berkeley campus. And in a way there might be a little bit of low agreeableness, combined with abstract concern for sentient welfare. It takes a certain kind of lack of agreeableness to even think in complex rational ways about welfare. And of course there is a fairly high proportion of nerds and geeks- i.e. Asperger’s syndrome- me as much as anybody else out here, with a focus on what Simon Baron-Cohen calls “systematizing” over “empathizing”. So if you think systematically, and you like making lists, and doing rational expected value calculations, that tends to be a kind of Aspie way to approaching things. The result is, if you make systematizing arguments, you will come across as Aspie, and that can be good or bad depending on the social context. If you do a hard-headed, or cold-hearted analysis of suffering, that also tends to signal so-called dark triad traits-narcissism, Machiavellianism, and sociopathy- and I know this is a problem socially, and sexually, for some EAs that I know! That they come across to others as narcissistic, Machiavellian, or sociopathic, even though they are actually doing more good in the world than the high agreeableness folks. 

explanatory_power_of_virtue_signaling

[Thus] I think virtue signaling helps explain why EA is prone to runaway signaling of intelligence and openness. So if you include a lot more math than you really strictly need to, or more intricate arguments, or more mind-bending counterfactuals, that might be more about signaling your own IQ than solving relevant problems. I think it can also explain, according to the last few slides, why EA concerns about tractability, globalism, and problem neglectedness can seem so weird, cold, and unappealing to many people.

explanatory_power_of_virtue_signaling_1

 

Burning Man

[Content Warning: Deals with heavy topics including gruesome deaths, fear of the multiverse, bad trips, possible meme hazards, and psychotic delusions. Epistemic Status: Confident in about half of the content; the rest is extremely speculative. Everything in this text is subject to heavy revision upon learning more information. I wrote this in a haste right after Burning Man before my state-specific memory access went away. Please take this writeup with a giant grain of salt]

Burning Man

This is the first year that I attended Burning Man. I do not claim to be a Burning Man expert. I’m just a consciousness researcher who happened to attend the Burn and found the experience amazing and insightful. So much so that that writing 13,500+ words about it seemed appropriate. Here goes nothing.

Introduction

I arrived on the morning of the first day (Sunday the 27th of August) and left on Monday (4th of September). I intellectually know that I only spent eight full nights and seven full days at the Playa, but my visceral feeling of time refuses to acknowledge this fact. Like a heavy acid trip, at Burning Man time expands beyond recognition. The experience maxes out one’s novelty detection mechanisms (latent inhibition be damned) and leads you to conclude that a lifetime has happened. Before my brain readjusts to consensus reality, here goes my candid impressions about the event and the insights that came together during it. As it turns out, I think that Burning Man is a profoundly significant event with far-reaching implications. While from afar it is easy to dismiss it as a mere techie-filled psychedelic-fueled hedonistic festival, the truth is that Burning Man may be one of the few key outlets in the world for the exploration of potential futures that are truly worth living. I.e. Post-Darwinian societies. More on this later.

Strong Emergence

It is notoriously hard to boil down the experience into just a few take-aways (example). Burning Man does not lend itself to dimensionality reduction; merely talking about the mental forces that make up the memetic constituents of the population of Black Rock City (predominantly: artists, spiritual practitioners, scientists, environmentalists, techies, philosophers, and qualia lovers) would be akin to describing a biological plant merely in terms of the atomic elements found within it. It’s true that if you grind it down to a fine powder, vaporize it (to break down its proteins and molecules), and then analyze such vapor with X-ray spectroscopy you will characterize the percentage of carbon, nitrogen, potassium, etc. atoms in it. And while this is a necessary part of a full description of such a plant, the elemental breakdown of its composition just scratches the surface of what the plant truly is. This is analogous to the Burn, for Burning Man’s most interesting aspects, like those of a living organism, are to be found at high levels of emergence. In the case of biological organisms we are talking about the large scale assemblies of biomolecules (themselves already complex) implementing elaborate interdependent metabolic functions working together to bring about finely tuned adaptive behavior. Oftentimes, biological organisms utilize the properties of basement reality (i.e. quantum fields) to implement functions that would have formerly been described as strongly emergent (i.e. as metaphysically supervening properties bigger than the mere sum of their parts), as is currently studied by the budding field of quantum biology. At Burning Man something akin to this may be going on as well: you find that people, emotions, and memes come together to create pods, camps, and happenings that are best described as energetic contingents of collective states of consciousness, all of which turn out to have mind-boggling emergent properties unavailable without the high levels of trust, openness, creativity, and coherence beneath the surface. Thus the futility of describing it in terms of what goes into it. Better to address the resulting (emergent) phenomena. More on this later.

The People

According to the 2016 Burning Man Census the number one reason that Burners selected as the source of wonderful memories at Burning Man was the people. I personally found this to be very much the case. Although from afar one may think that BM attendees are largely psychedelic junkies, misguided hippies, and sentimental environmentalists, the truth is that the people in the Playa are extraordinary in multiple ways. It almost feels as if the art, the music, the workshops, and the principles are not the core attraction. Rather, these elements are merely an excuse to bring together amazing people who have a high probability of having deeply meaningful interactions and developing symbiotic relationships with each other for the betterment of humanity.

it_s_the_people

It’s about the people! (source)

Burners are highly educated. According to the Educational Attainment in the United States Wikipedia article, 36% of Americans between 25 and 34 years old have a bachelor’s degree or above (32% for those between 45 to 64, and 27% for those 65 and above), compared to 74.5% of the 2016 Burning Man attendees (of all ages). Additionally, 31.3% of them had a graduate degree, which is an insanely high figure when compared to the national baserate (11% for Americans above the age of 25). More so, this number has been steadily growing over the last few years. In other words, for what seems like an arts and crafts festival, this was an exceptionally well educated crowd. And yet, education is only scratching the surface of what makes these people interesting.

education

The Educational Attainment of Burners

I have attended academic conferences, rationalist meetups, meditation gatherings, psychedelic festivals, and even amazing events like Psychedelic ScienceEffective Altruism Global, and The Science of Consciousness. The people I meet at these events often impress me in many ways, and talking to them has reinforced my conviction that humanity is indeed capable of bringing about a marvelous world free from unnecessary suffering. In light of these previous experiences I certainly did not anticipate being surprised by the people at Burning Man. I was wrong. While it’s true that not everyone at Burning Man is exceptional (“we are all unique, but not everyone is uniquely unique”), the base rate of people who deeply impressed me was possibly higher than at any other gathering of people I’ve ever been to. The consistent feeling I got was one of people who actually cared.

Here is a little project I’d love to see carried out: someone should take the time to conduct a cluster analysis of the people attending Burning Man using features such as their beliefs about reality, their lifestyle, their preferred social circles, etc. Simply based on my experience, I’d say that the main clusters featured would be: Spiritually serious people with thousands of hours of practice under their belt (50% of Burners describe themselves as “spiritual but not religious”), career ecologists who are looking for ways to live without leaving a footprint on the planet (“leave no trace”), social workers, programmers & rationalists, high grade hedonists, psychologists, and philosophical seekers.

I find that one of the most powerful aspects of Burning Man is that its participants were mostly open, ready, and willing to have their minds changed. Sure, we are all attached to our preexisting views about reality, and it’s always painful to let go of them. But the vibe of the place, perhaps through a combination of personality types, empathogenic and psychedelic drugs, and free-floating love made it seem ok to let one’s deeply held beliefs cross-pollinate with those of others. Whether this was because of the high degree of openness to experience, relatively high conscientiousness (merely packing for the whole trip selects out people who can’t be bothered), typically high intelligence, or solid pro-sociality (disagreeable people are unlikely to get a kick out of the concept of a gifting economy), it doesn’t matter. People I talked to were not engaging with ideas in a superficial way. They deeply engaged with them. They looked you in the eye, told you their deepest worries about reality, and expressed their beliefs with the underlying feeling of being together in this mess, so let’s work together to bootstrap our way out of it.

Ok, I may be exaggerating a little here. Perhaps Burning Man is somewhat like Silicon Valley: it works more as a mirror of who you are than a solid thing that everyone will perceive in the same way. If you are a low-grade hedonist just looking to get drunk and make fun of others for taking Burning Man seriously you will naturally gravitate towards the camps where that’s the whole point, and if you are an income-focused techie merely looking to have a relaxing little vacation you will easily find yourself doing exactly that. But the point still stands that if you are a serious seeker looking for radically new ways of conceiving the nature of reality for the betterment of universal consciousness… there will be plenty of outlets, people, memes, artworks, and workshops for you to do exactly that at Burning Man. And oh man, are these things of high quality!

One of the wonderful persons I met at the Burn was Bruce Damer, with whom I had the pleasure to talk about physics, computing, the origin of life, consciousness, and psychedelics. He shared with me an interesting way of looking at life that involves a tripartite feedback loop: Life utilizes a “probability enhancing engine” (such as the interior of a cell boundary, where the probability of chemical reactions increases dramatically), a place to accumulate such changes as they happen (in which the reactions can be sustained), and a memory system (such as DNA, in which information about the self-replicating reactions can be stored and repurposed). Burning Man, in light of this model, is perhaps one of the leading sources of genuine memetic novelty in the world. With its very high density of people who are deliberate about their choices in life, BM works as a probability enhancing engine which drastically increases the chances for people to find others who are at their own level and are ready to collaborate at the same degree of commitment. The collective interpersonal temperature increases the probability for great matches to be found, and the high (socially derived) hedonic tone fosters no attachment towards each of the attempts that don’t work out. On any given night enough people trip or take an empathogen that there is a general (real or imagined) contact high state akin to a blend of empathogenesis and entheogenesis, i.e. ego softening and ego dissolving vibes, respectively. Higher probability of pairs maximally benefiting from each other to meet and collaborate on future projects. At least this describes my experience. (Be on the lookout for new collaborative projects between Qualia Computing and major institutions in the near future – this is just a teaser for now).

A handful of people I’ve never met recognized me at the Playa. Apparently the Psychedelic Cryptography article reached enough people to make Qualia Computing and the Qualia Research Institute not the schizophrenic word salad they may sound at first, but a player in the emerging memetic ecosystem at the foothills of the psychedelic renaissance. For example, on the night of the Burn I was hanging out next to a cucumber water stand in Esplanade and a guy approached me and asked: “This is going to sound strange, but, are you by any chance Andrés? From Qualia Computing?” I answered “yes”, and then we proceeded to talk about DiPT, the blockchain, meditation-based cryptocurrency, Greg Egan, how John C. Lilly didn’t go far enough, and the Hedonistic Imperative. This was not by any means an unusual type of interaction in this context, and especially not at 3:30 in the morning (when you find the highest probability for magical encounters to take place).

enjoymentAll of this goes to show that Burning Man is full of people capable of engaging with very high level ideas in a meaningful way. To be perfectly honest with you, I must confess that my model of the world is that only about 1% of people have any philosophical agency whatsoever. I do not resent this fact, because with the proper qualia they could turn themselves around right away. People experience philosophy through the eyes of learned helplessness. But at Burning Man (this year; my guess every year) the percentage of people with philosophical agency might have been as high as 10-15%, which is about as high as I have found it to be at places like EAGlobal and the rationalist community. I.e. a pretty freaking extraordinary ratio. Likewise, scientific, introspective, and spiritual literacy seemed to be through the roof. And even those who were not philosophically literate to begin with seemed extremely pleased to learn about qualia. I lost count of the number of people who were thrilled (THRILLED I tell you) to learn that the word qualia existed and that it referred to the ineffable subjective character of sensations, like the blueness of blue. “You mean that there is a word for that?! Wow! I’m so happy now! Cheers to that!” was a rather typical reaction in this context. This warmed my heart. I love turning on people to the concept of qualia.

It is also worth pointing out that a pervasive underlying vibe in the Burn was that of a high trust society. Research shows that societies in which people believe that others around them have only the best intentions tend to have a lot of great positive outcomes. The social dynamics at Burning Man run on high trust, and one can feel this in the air (along with a bunch of dust). Not only do the attendees seem to think of humans very highly (relative to the average person), but they also tend to think of other Burners in an even higher light: “To What Extent Do you Assume that People Have Only the Best Intentions?” (2016):

high_trust_society

Black Rock City as a very High Trust Society

Metaphysics

Before I go on with further object-level analysis of the Burn, let me pause for a second and make an overall point concerning the metaphysical nature of the universe: Metaphysics matter. Look, if Buddhist metaphysics are roughly correct (e.g. emptiness, karma, the reality of suffering, absence of omnipotent gods, reincarnation, etc.) then engaging in profoundly disturbing practices full of negative side effects such as Vipassanā might be very much worth the trouble. Sure, in this lifetime you will be exposed to deeply unsettling experiences, a multi-year long dark night of the soul, serious psychosomatic pain, meditation-induced depersonalization, insomnia, ADHD, etc. but in the grand scheme of things your current pain will be worth it. This lifetime’s suffering would be a good price to pay to attain Bodhisattva status and then go on to help quintillions of beings throughout your endless reincarnations to come. On the other hand, if karma is simply what it feels like to have an evolved in-built system to keep track of your social standing and nothing carries over after death, then Vipassanā might simply involve too much suffering to be worth it. In fact, it might even be an outright stupid and unethical activity, and talking about it in a way that produces curiosity and fear of missing out in others is doing them a disservice (for it would be a memetic hazard). You would be much better off focusing instead on cost-effective high-tech Jainismvalence technologies, and the upcoming reproductive revolution.

The same goes for other metaphysical topics such as philosophy of personal identity, the fundamental nature of bliss, mind-body problem, causality, existence of alternate branches of the multiverse, the badness of suffering, etc. What the nature of reality may turn out to be profoundly influences what it means to be a good person and what it is that we ought to do to maximize goodness and minimize suffering. Not many people seem to get this, though. For too many individuals the trauma they experienced as a result of early life exposure to manipulative religious memes, and the intuitively-felt futility of philosophy, lead to the calcification of their philosophical background assumptions (which are rarely recognized as such). But as David Pearce says: “The penalty of _not _ doing philosophy isn’t to transcend it, but simply to give bad philosophical arguments a free pass.”

Now, talking about metaphysics and David Pearce: for a wide variety of reasons I assign the bulk of my probability mass to his metaphysics (note: I also share his ethical views). I am not going to try to justify why I think he is probably right at the moment, for it would take many thousands of words*. For now it will suffice to say that I find David’s views to be the most informed, coherent, well thought out, and explanatory of all of the interpretations of reality I’ve ever been acquainted with. In rough form, here are the highlights of such a view (taken from here): (0) Zero Ontology: The universe exists as a side effect of the total and complete absence of information. (1) Events of conscious experience are ontologically unitary: The left and right side of your visual field are part of an integrated whole that stands as a natural unit. (2) Physicalism: Physics is causally closed and it fully describes the behavior of the observable universe. (3) Wavefunction realism: The decoherence program is the most parsimonious, scientific, and promising approach for interpreting quantum mechanics. (4) Mereological Nihilism (also called Compositional Nihilism): Simply putting two objects A and B side by side will not make a new object “AB” appear ex nihilo. (5) Qualia Realism: The various textures of qualia (phenomenal color, sounds, feelings of cold and heat, etc.) are not mere representations. On the contrary, our mind uses them to instantiate representations (this is an important difference). (6) Causal efficacy: Consciousness is not standing idly by. It has definite causal effects in animals. In particular, there must be a causal pathway that allows us to discuss its existence. (7) Qualia computing: The reason consciousness was recruited by natural selection is computational. In spite of its expensive caloric cost, consciousness improves the performance of fitness-relevant information processing tasks.

Together, all of these metaphysical points paint a coherent worldview that’s fully compatible with most (but not all) of the evidence at hand. Sadly, it’s also a very grim picture of reality: The multiverse is extremely large, eternal, interconnected, and full of suffering that will simply never go away. Worse, every moment of experience is permanently stuck in its own spatiotemporal coordinates (or rather, whatever post-Everettian foliation-based generalization of relativistic coordinate systems admit the formalisms of physics). But if it’s true, we had better know about it, for there are serious ethical policy implications to Pearcianism.

Most philosophies (and theodicies) may be thought of as exercises in motivated reasoning (“how can I think of reality in order to make sense of the facts while keeping it as meaningful as possible?”). Yet Pearce’s metaphysics is anything but. It’s sheer eternal terror dimly tamed by a glimmer of hope found in a handful of branches of the multiverse (where the Hedonistic Imperative is implemented, and the biology of suffering effectively rooted out of a tiny subset of the existent forward light cones). Indeed I can confidently say that the worst state of consciousness I’ve ever felt took place the first time my mind fully grasped Pearcean metaphysics and considered it to be the final answer. Thankfully I’ve learned to remain open-minded and agnostic about the ultimate nature of reality no matter how compelling a view may be; keeping a probabilistic distribution over metaphysical views is perhaps a lot healthier (and more rational) than committing to any one of them as if true. Do not let your mind get crystallized; do not ever believe in your own bullshit or you will have a self-induced bad trip. And yet, I do believe that it is my responsibility to act in accordance to what seems to be the most probable model of existence. If Pearce is right, I’d like to be able to know that and be ok with it, act in accordance with it, and thus prevent as much suffering as is (post)humanly possible. Saints and Bodhisattvas are not supposed to engage in wishful thinking, and neither are 21st century effective altruists. Kudos to people like Brian Tomasik, who are not afraid to bite the bullet of their metaphysics and dedicate themselves fully to reduce suffering based on what they think is true. Do not ever bury your head in the sand. The stakes are too high. But also, beware of multiverse mania (severely paralyzing people who settle on an Everettian picture of the universe leading them to lose their capacity to be productive and helpful).

Now, what on earth does any of this have to do with Burning Man? A whole lot, I would argue. As I experienced it, Burning Man is an experiment in metaphysics. It’s an attempt to get awesome people from all walks of life to be open to each other’s life learnings and deep intuitions in order to transcend our current suffering-producing philosophical paradigms.

The Strong Tlön Hypothesis

Based on my conversations with people at the Playa, the most popular metaphysical interpretation of reality seemed to be what I call the Strong Tlön Hypothesis (STH for short). Skeptical scientific materialism was perhaps in second place, followed by generalized agnosticism (again, a wise choice given the psychological dangers of settling for a painful worldview). So what is this Strong Tlön Hypothesis? Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertiu is a wonderful short story by Jorge Luis Borges about strong idealism. This view is one in which reality presents itself as a physical universe (consensus reality) merely as a consequence of a collective delusion. The belief state of us as a collective group mind (itself the manifested imagination of the one eternal being) is what sets the fundamental parameters of reality. In other words, the laws of physics work out to guide the causal structure of reality simply because we believe in them. But if everyone chose to believe otherwise (perhaps not a simple feat to achieve), the nature of reality would in fact completely change. Suffering and separation in this view are the result of a tragedy of the commons, and not a brute fact about existence. Thus, by thinking about new metaphysical interpretations of reality, making sense of them, giving them life with imagination and will, we would literally transform reality one thought at a time. Creation through imagination would be the underlying engine of reality; everything else is maya (metaphysical illusion).

On Sunday and Monday night I walked up to strangers and asked them “what do you think about consciousness?” The most common answer I received involved something akin to the Strong Tlön Hypothesis indeed, where Burners literally claimed that yes, if we all took psychedelics more seriously and decided to grow up spiritually all at once, we would all enter into a new stage in our cosmic evolution. Perhaps our current level of reality is what we need right now: A collective illusion created by us and God to allow us to deeply and fully grasp why this system fails. Until we internalize the problems with our current pursuits we will not be able to advance. We need to experience many lifetimes and have many experiences as a collective consciousness in this pseudo-Darwinian world in order to finally realize the problems with this system of belief. Only when we understand the intrinsic flaws of our current consensus reality will we be ready to move on to the next stage. Till then, it’s an uphill battle of waking up at a personal level and then deciding to help convince those around us that we have the power to change reality (and we need a threshold number of people to go along with this belief to have the capacity to structurally alter the bedrock of reality). Every life-form contains the universal Logos within. The God Force, so to speak, is within us all, gradually refining the structure of our mind to make us more and more God-like throughout the eons (or maybe that as well is a collective illusion, courtesy again of the Strong Tlön Hypothesis). The STH view would explain the power of psychedelic trips, the unsettling feelings of synchronicity, and the causal influence of imaginary archetypes. Indeed, it may even explain the Mandela Effect.

“There is no reality until that far-off day when we rejoin the Godhead. Everything else is just a momentary tool, a momentary experience we create in this somewhat desperate attempt to grasp God.” – Bob Sanders, youtube medium

Now, Strong Tlön may be too far out. Believing in it may be a sign of latent insanity (anecdotally it seems to be surprisingly common among the people with schizophrenia I know). I personally do not assign much probability mass to it, but I have yet to discard it fully. That said, I still think there is a crucial benefit to engaging with it: most of the time our worldviews are over-constrained rather than under-constrained. While the STH may be false as it is (quantum mechanics will remain true no matter what we collectively think about physics) letting your brain wonder “what if” can be a helpful exercise in weakening latent inhibition and softening unhelpful constraints that are keeping you at a local maximum of understanding.

Nick Land’s mesmerizing story Lemurian Time War discusses the concept of hyperstition, i.e. fictions that make themselves real:

In the hyperstitional model Kaye outlined, fiction is not opposed to the real. Rather, reality is understood to be composed of fictions – consistent semiotic terrains that condition perceptual, affective and behaviorial responses. Kaye considered Burroughs’ work to be ‘exemplary of hyperstitional practice’. Burroughs construed writing – and art in general – not aesthetically, but functionally, – that is to say, magically, with magic defined as the use of signs to produce changes in reality.

[…]

According to Kaye, the metaphysics of Burroughs’s ‘clearly hyperstitional’ fictions can be starkly contrasted with those at work in postmodernism. For postmodernists, the distinction between real and unreal is not substantive or is held not to matter, whereas for practitioners of hyperstition, differentiating between ‘degrees of realization’ is crucial. The hyperstitional process of entities ‘making themselves real’ is precisely a passage, a transformation, in which potentials – already-active virtualities – realize themselves. Writing operates not as a passive representation but as an active agent of transformation and a gateway through which entities can emerge. ‘[B]y writing a universe, the writer makes such a universe possible.’ (WV 321)

Lemurian Time War

I would argue that while the STH is probably false, at least a weak version of it is definitely true: thanks to phenomenal binding (the weird property of qualia that enables us to be more than mere mind-dust, i.e. to bring together myriad qualia values such as the blueness of blue and the smell of cinnamon into complex multi-modal information-rich experiences) ideas are in fact more than the mere sum of their parts. More so, thanks to the causal efficacy of consciousness, ideas can change the world. I call this the Weak Tlön Hypothesis. Namely, that the fictions that we can imagine have, indeed, hyperstitional power.

Incredibly, John C. Lilly and David Pearce are very much alike in one respect: They both share a complete commitment to understanding the nature of reality, wherever the path may take them, whether the truth is ugly, terrible, or requires them to revise deeply rooted background assumptions (an often painful process). Their core difference is, I would argue, that Pearce buys into the Weak Tlön Hypothesis whereas Lilly bought into the Strong version.

Three Views of Personal Identities: Heavens and Hells

One of the metaphysical views that has the highest level of hyperstitional power is one’s conception of personal identity. I.e. how we all choose to answer the question “who am I, really?” will have an extremely oversized effect on the unfolding of reality. Thus, it’s important that we get this right. In order to talk about this topic clearly, let’s utilize Daniel Kolak’s vocabulary concerning philosophy of personal identity, which divides the conceptions into three neatly clustered explanation spaces:

Closed Individualism (CI): is the view that “you start existing when you are born and you stop existing when you die”. Alternatively, the “soul view of identity” (in which you are an eternal being yet still ontologically separate from other beings) exists within the purview of Closed Individualism. Most people subscribe, whether implicitly or explicitly, to this view. On the positive side, buying into this view makes you feel ontologically special, unique, and justified in caring about yourself to the exclusion of others. On the negative side, this view is liable to make you feel separate, left-out, unrelatable, deeply afraid of death, and profoundly alone.

Empty Individualism (EI): This is the view that we exist merely as a time-slice of experience. Who you are is just whatever informational content is present in this very instantaneous moment of experience. Pearcean metaphysics is largely Empty Individualistic (plus it’s blended with Eternalism, i.e. the belief that every moment of experience exists tenselessly, and that the passage of time is an illusion). On the positive side, this view allows you to feel deeply relieved when you grasp Buddhist emptiness and detachment, it allows you to let go of the past, to be less worried about the future, and to feel free to enjoy the moment. On the negative side, this view can make you feel like you are stuck in time (like bugs in amber), experience depersonalization, get feelings of meaninglessness, and worry about being utterly separate from everything else. It also frequently makes you feel helpless and unmotivated, as you cannot ever possibly benefit from your current efforts (the one who does is another moment of experience).

Open Individualism (OI): This is the view that we are all the same universal consciousness. In this view we are all deeply connected; we are all the same eternal being in disguise. On the positive side, Open Individualism can relieve one’s fear of death, bring about a profound sense of cosmic significance, loosen up the fear of separation, and allow you to deeply buy into a rational sentience-based ethics (where we all care about each other as if they were ourselves… ’cause they are in this view). On the negative side, OI can make you feel an overwhelming sense of personal responsibility as one realizes that as long as any being in the multiverse is in an experiential hell you too are in there. Additionally, OI can make you feel even more lonely than the other views, for when one buys into this view 100% there’s a chance that a profound sense of existential loneliness may set in (God is ultimately alone, and sad about this fact). While people who experience the feeling of Universal Oneness of Open Individualism tend to report existential relief as a consequence (example), there is indeed a minority of people who react very poorly to this experience:

As for the experience of being assimilated into oneness, what we find is a profound loneliness. Our mind expects to find heaven and/or Nirvana. We do experience a profound freedom and infinity of being. But once we get over the profound freedom and ability to span time and place, we find there is no one else. We are totally alone. We are the Creator before Creation.

– Fear of ego annihilation and assimilation into oneness (source)

So each of these views has positive and negative psychological elements. For ease of understanding, here are these various views of personal identity in picture form:

For reasons we do not yet understand, Open Individualism tends to be remarkably common on LSD:

Today a young man on acid realized that all matter is merely energy condensed to a slow vibration, that we are all one consciousness experiencing itself subjectively, there is no such thing as death, life is only a dream, and we are the imagination of ourselves.

Bill Hicks, A Positive Drug Story

Two questions arise: How are one’s beliefs about personal identity implemented? And, why do they have associated good and bad feelings?

In a later article I will explore further various theories that may account for the feeling of oneness on psychedelics. Suffice to say that under qualia formalism both the feelings of oneness and separateness come from the properties of the mathematical object isomorphic to the phenomenology of one’s experience. In particular, the topology of such an object (and its orientability) may determine the degree to which one feels a self-other barrier. This is highly speculative, of course. Under the STH, though, “what one believes to be true is true” and thus how separate one feels is a matter of conscious choice.

With regards to the second question (“why is personal identity so tied with good and bad feelings?”), there are a couple of reasons why these beliefs might be so hedonically loaded (i.e. they have a tendency to make you feel good or bad, rather than being neutral thoughts). First, this could certainly be the Tyranny of the Intentional Object at work. That is, personal identity views are in fact completely neutral, but since they are explored within the human software they will happen to trigger social feelings (rejection, integration, love, care, etc.) as well as feelings related to death and mortality and it is those feelings that tend to be strongly linked with good or bad valence (i.e. the pleasure pain axis). This itself may be the case for purely evolutionary reasons. If so, given access to the genetic source code of one’s brain it may be possible to invert the valence of any thought whatsoever (ex. some people genuinely enjoy watching others suffer, cf. Schadenfreude, which suggests the hedonic tone of ideas is just a qualia association). Our mind’s hedonic gloss is strongly associative (someone having a bad smell might make you feel like what they are saying is dirty, etc. cf. thin/thick boundaries). David Pearce is likely to endorse this view, and the work I’m doing on Quantifying Bliss assumes that something like that is going on. In brief, if we could control our valence with technology that puts us in a constant and healthy MDMA-like state of consciousness then philosophy would never ever feel terrifying. As they say, “take care of happiness and the meaning of life will take care of itself”. This is what I call the valence interpretation of spirituality as opposed to the spiritual interpretation of valence (cf. The Most Important Philosophical Question).

And second, under the Strong Tlön Hypothesis, these feelings may be guiding us towards a better future. God is making sure that we explore all of the possible worldviews and deeply realize their ultimate limitations before we settle for a reality we are satisfied with creating for ourselves. It may even be the case that the only way to avoid trouble is to learn to never commit to any view completely. Any Theory of Everything (ToE) is perhaps a gamble with your own sanity. In the immortal words of John C. Lilly:

“For when it starts feeling like a prison in there—and it usually does for most people—you are confronted with the fact that the bars are of your own making.”
― John C. Lilly, The Deep Self: Consciousness Exploration in the Isolation Tank

If this is so, what I take from the limitations of all of these views is that we ought to explore further the state that exists in-between these various beliefs:

I call this the Goldilocks Zone of Oneness. Analogous to the planetary habitable zone (neither too close to a star and thus burning nor too far and thus freezing), there might be a psychologically tolerable range for how much you believe in universal oneness. That is, it’s best to feel neither completely merged nor completely separate. Close enough that one can relate to others and not feel separate, but not so close that one’s existence feels redundant and cosmic loneliness sets in. Incidentally, this seems to be roughly the place at which Burners see themselves relative to other humans (answer D being the mode):

Goldilocks_zone_of_oneness

Goldilocks Zone of Oneness

Given the current human cognitive implementation, the psychological state found inside this zone might be great to nurture and cultivate in order to improve our civilization. This is the region in which love, harmony, and gratitude can shine the brightest.

At the Burn I had a couple of extraordinarily positive experiences related to Oneness right at this Goldilocks Zone**:

Talking to God

There was an incredible art installation in Esplanade called “Talk to God” consisting of an old telephone booth (see pictures below). As soon as I saw it I thought to myself: “Why not? That looks interesting.” So I lined up at the booth. I was certainly not expecting much, and I must say that I was deeply impressed with whomever was on the other side of the phone. Here is my “conversation with God”, as best as I can recall it:

talk_to_god

Me: Hi God! This is Andrés. I wanted to ask you two questions that are bugging me quite a lot.
God: Hey Andrés! Sure, I’m happy to answer any question you may have.
Me: Well, first of all I wanted to talk to you about Solipsism and how it makes me feel. But before I get into that, I just wanted to confirm that we agree on the idea that we are all one consciousness. That we are all God, i.e. You! Is that true?
God: Yes, that’s very much the case. That said, different beings have access to different parts of the totality, so there’s also a sense in which there is a multiplicity of observers. But deep down we are all one. So what is your question?
Me: Thank you, that much I suspected. Here is my question: Most people report a profoundly positive feeling as a result of realizing that we are all one. This certainly happened to me about ten years ago. At first this experience was extremely elating, since it drastically reduced my fear of dying. But recently I have at times had a very peculiar experience in which I viscerally feel that the fact that we are all one consciousness is pretty tragic. It makes me feel deeply alone. Cosmic solipsism if you will. Do you have any thoughts on this?
God: Ah, yes. This can happen. But look, that’s an effect of projecting your human feelings of loneliness into the absolute. Trust me, the absolute is totally self-sufficient. There is no feeling of loneliness in it. I usually present the picture like this. Think of the universe as a gigantic cube. Say that in one of the corners (e.g. front bottom left) we have the beginning of time, where all of the timelines start. And at the opposite extreme (e.g. back top right) we have the end of time, where complete understanding is achieved. Every single timeline that truly exists in eternity makes its way from the starting corner to the ending one. There are countless other timelines that do not make it to the top, but these are terminated. Any timeline that does not eventually reach the point of perfect union with God and ultimate awakening is terminated, which means that a happy ending is guaranteed. Also, it is not a problem to terminate a timeline, for that means it was just a dream, not based on actual reality. I recommend checking out the works of David Deutsch and Stephen Hawking. They are not completely correct yet, but they are very much on the right track. dde71b5d481cc6391e72483a46cee981
Me: Thank you! That’s fascinating. I’ll need to think more about that. Now, on to the second question. I’ve been working on a theory concerning the nature of happiness. It’s an equation that takes brain states as measured with advanced brain imaging technology and delivers as an output a description of the overall valence (i.e. the pleasure-pain axis) of the mind associated to that brain. A lot of people seem very excited with this research, but there is also a minority of people for whom this is very unsettling. Namely, they tell me that reducing happiness to a mathematical equation would seem to destroy their sense of meaning. Do you have any thoughts on that?
God: I think that what you are doing is absolutely fantastic. I’ve been following your work and you are on the right track. That said, I would caution you not to get too caught up on individual bliss. I programmed the pleasure and pain centers in the animal brain in order to facilitate survival. I know that dying and suffering are extremely unpleasant, and until now that has been necessary to keep the whole system working. But humanity will soon enter a new stage of their evolution. Just remember that the highest levels of bliss are not hedonistic or selfish. They arise by creating a collective reality with other minds that fosters a deep existential understanding, that enables love, enhances harmony, and permits experimenting with radical self expression.
Me: Ah, that’s fascinating! Very reassuring. The equation I’m working on indeed has harmony at its core. I was worried that I would be accidentally doing something really wrong, you know? Reducing love to math.
God: Don’t worry, there is indeed a mathematical law beneath our feelings of love. It’s all encoded in the software of your reality, which we co-created over the last couple billion years. It’s great that you are trying to uncover such math, for it will unlock the next step in your evolution. Do continue making experiments and exploring various metaphysics, and don’t get caught up thinking you’ve found the answer. Trust me, the end is going to make all of the pain and suffering completely worth it. Have faith in love.
Me: Thank you!
God: Do you have any further questions?
Me: No, not for now…. Mmm, well, now that I think about it, what recommendation do you have for me?
God: You are doing great. I’d just ask you to make sure to express extra gratitude for someone in the Playa tonight. Love is one of the highest feelings and it takes many forms. Gratitude is the highest form of love because it is a truly selfless expression of it. Make sure to cultivate it.
Me: Thank you so much!

*I hang up*

I was thoroughly impressed with God’s answers, or whomever was on the other side of the line. The voice was that of a young male, and wow, this person has clearly thought a lot about philosophy to be able to answer on his feet like that. I also heard from other people who picked up the phone that they thought their conversation was spot-on. God’s advice was solid and wise. That said, if you picked up the phone with insincere intentions (e.g. to make fun of the person on the other side) you wouldn’t get anything useful out of the conversation. If you haven’t done so yet, I encourage you to pick up the phone the next time you are at Burning Man and ask questions for which you are genuinely looking for answers. Take it seriously and you’ll receive a worthwhile reply.

Merging With Other Humans

Another amazing experience related to the Goldilocks Zone of Oneness was the workshop of David Bach, a neuroscientist turned mystic, founder of the Platypus Institute. This is a funny story. To start, the workshop showed with a title akin to “Reaching Ecstatic States of Consciousness” in the Burning Man event booklet, but as it turns out the real title was “Dissolve Into Connectedness“.  Then, the location and the time written on the booklet weren’t right either: the workshop took place 30 minutes earlier, and at a place that was half a block from the stated location. That said, the title of the workshop attracted me, so I arrived at least 45 minutes early to guarantee I’d have a spot in it. Finally finding the right place (a tiny air-conditioned yurt on the outskirts of the Love Tribe camp) I found that I was the last person David let into the workshop. We were 13 participants. He started out by asking us to pair up with someone (or making a group of 3 if needed). He guided us through an exercise intended to help us merge with our partner/s (in Kolak’s vocabulary that might be described as “realizing Open Individualism with the person in front of you”). He was perfectly clear that (1) the fact we had come there was a sign that this was ok for us to do, that we were ready, and (2) that it would get very weird from then on, and very quickly so.

I sat across from a lovely lady. David asked us to take note of “how connected we felt with our partner.” I also noted that I could feel some good vibes; the feeling that we are in this together. But you know, I’m hyper-philosophical and I am obsessed with the nature of reality at the exclusion of a lot of things that people like to get out of life rather than focusing so heavily on philosophy. That makes me different- at least energetically- from most people. I say to myself “I’m like at a 6/10 level of connection with this lady.”

Someone tries to get into the workshop through the curtains at the entrance of the yurt: “Sorry, we already started” says David. He then proceeds to tell us that we should now try to feel each other’s “third eye”. Feeling a connection at that level, meditating with our partner, creating a shared space. “Imagine a ray of energy moving back and forth between the region right behind each other’s forehead. Resist the urge to look away. Resist the urge to talk. Those are just distractions that your ego is putting out to prevent you from realizing oneness with your partner.” There’s a change in mood… “did you notice that?” Yes, I note to myself. “It feels like we just created a space of sacredness, doesn’t it?” Yes, that’s true, I agree with that description of the qualia this exercise is triggering in me.

Another person tries to get into the workshop: “Sorry, we already started” says David. He then asked us to repeat the process but with our Heart Chakra, sharing loving kindness with each other as we exchange energy with our partner. “Did you notice how you are becoming even more connected now? Just make sure to keep the connection with each other’s forehead as well. Feel the rays of energy cycling through the system.” Yet another couple of people try to get into the workshop: “Sorry, we already started” he tells them. Finally we move on to including “the source of your power, your emotions, right at the energetic sexual centers of your body. Feel the energy cycling through the entire system with your partner.” Wow! I don’t know if this is self-suggestion, but this is a great feeling. I note that this is a High Valence Open Individualism State as I like to call them, and that I now feel connected with my partner at an 8/10 level.

Yet another person opens the curtains at the entrance of the yurt. David says: “Sorry, we already started.” But the person stays put. “David, can I talk to you for a second?” David responds “No, we are in the middle of something, come back later.” The outsider insists: “No, seriously, I need to tell you something.” David asks: “What’s that?” The guy at the door responds: “Well, there are literally hundreds of people waiting for you outside, David. You need to do something about this.” Pause. “Mmm… OK, let’s do this. Sorry guys, I need to address this. Let’s go!”

There's only one being on this picture.

Being surprised by the 20X turnout relative to what was expected.

As we get out of the yurt we find ourselves surrounded by literally hundreds of Burners trying to attend the workshop. We get to the central part of the camp. Lots of people talking, all pretty confused. David shouts “Hey everyone! Hey! HEY!!! I’m DAVID BACH, AND I AM THE PERSON WHO IS SUPPOSED TO DELIVER A WORKSHOP TO YOU ALL.” The crowd gets silent. David steps towards the middle. And after 5 minutes of logistical work (“guys, stay out of the sun, put sunscreen on, get close to each other, find a place to sit if you can, find a partner, etc.”) we are ready to start. “This must be the work of a higher entity trying to effect change on this world. I will need you all to bear with me. Things are about to get really weird right now.”

We then repeated the exercise we had done with the 13 of us, but now with about 200 people, and included a section where we not only merged with our partner, but also merged with the entire group. People had lots of questions and David patiently answered all of them. Finally, we all performed a prayer to “heal the world and bring about peace, harmony, love, and oneness everywhere”. Raising our hands up towards the sky, we all created a powerful energetic vortex of good intentions, beaming it to the universe and the Playa. David closed with the following “I want you to all leave this event silently. Try to keep the synchrony and interconnectedness. Take it to your camp, and take it to the Burn tonight. Let’s make something useful out of this unexpected experience.” And so it went, the synchrony remaining with me and those around me for hours, spreading throughout the playa and beaming rays of love energy everywhere. “Strong Tlön, my friend, this is a powerful vibe” – I thought to myself.

Fear, Danger, and Tragedy

Besides the psychological hells (such as bad trips) that some people happen to experience during the Burn, it is important to also point out the actual physical dangers that Burning Man presents. Any candid account of the Burn could not possibly be complete without a serious look at such hazards.

By now most people interested in Burning Man (and arguably those tangentially connected as well) know of the clickbait news that “someone jumped into the fire the night of the Burn, thereby turning himself into a literal burning man”. This was a very tragic happening, accentuated by the fact that thousands of Burners saw the event unfold, including possibly hundreds of people in highly vulnerable psychedelic states of consciousness. This really breaks my heart. I unfortunately did see some of this take place, but to be honest I thought that they had caught him in time. I apparently missed the fact that he managed to escape the grip of the firefighter who caught him and actually reached the flames and later on died.

The next day there was a collective sense of solidarity and trauma. The organization ramped up security for the Temple Burn (which gets burned on Sunday night, the day after the Man Burn). They said that they would not burn the Temple unless 300 volunteers showed up to protect the perimeter. Thankfully 700 showed up, which warms my heart. Gratefully there was no tragedy on Sunday.

On relatively more mundane territories: Dehydration is very common at Burning Man (it does not help that it often fails to manifest as thirst, and instead it shows up as stomach cramps, headaches, constipation, confusion, irritability and crankiness, leading people to take ibuprofen or laxatives rather than water and electrolytes). Of course sunburns can lead to skin cancer in the long term, and they are extremely common. The high altitude, the relative absence of clouds, the high percentage of caucasians, the highly reflective ground, and the extremely dry environment means that any responsible person should apply sunscreen every two hours to keep sunburns at bay. Lack of food due to underestimating one’s caloric needs is also fairly common at Burning Man. Likewise, food-borne digestive problems are not uncommon (but they are a feature, according to a campmate of mine). That said, it’s unlikely that any of these problems will lead to serious injury given the widespread help available. Thankfully.

Tragically, I happened to be a witness of the aftermath of someone being run over by an art car. I was walking with someone I met on Wednesday early morning with whom I talked about the nature of reality for the whole night when I saw a group of people gathered around a person laying on his back right next to a medium-sized art car. We overheard “he tried to jump in the car while it was moving, and he’s clearly so fucked on drugs that he failed to coordinate correctly. And right now he’s so fucked up that he probably does not even realize how hurt he is.” We asked him “Are you hurt?” Pause. “Are you in pain?” Pause. “YES!!!” he finally responded after a couple seconds.

Metallic shivering white bright energy entered my body, and a sudden sense of urgency built up into my body within seconds. Next thing I know I’m running as fast as I can to get medical help. It took me and my friend about 3 minutes to find the closest medical station where we got help as fast as we could. They told us that they were already aware of the incident, and that someone had been dispatched with an ambulance a couple of minutes ago to the site of the accident. I felt relieved, but also fairly shaken. We struck up a conversation with the girl who was volunteering at the First Aid tent about what had been going on that night. She said that it had been fairly quiet, except for a few people on dissociatives (she mentioned “something like M3? dunno… also special K, I saw people high on that shit screaming their lungs out utterly confused and fearing for their own lives” – probably referring to MXE and Ketamine, known to be profound reality altering compounds that also happen to be somewhat addictive). Hopefully in the future the Zendo Project (a camp dedicated to providing a safe space for people undergoing difficult experiences) will be able to provide full harm reduction for things that, really, should not be dangerous if taken in the right place with people looking after you. That said, unlike psychedelics, dissociatives like MXE and Ketamine do tend to reduce one’s fear of dangerous situations and increase one’s overall pain threshold. Consequently, it is not surprising that people wandering off into the dessert at night on dissociative drugs are at a higher risk of injury and death than people on psychedelics and other drugs. Kids, do not take such substances and go for a walk, goddamnit! Such powerful reality distortions are serious hazards to your immediate safety at Black Rock City.

Another negative story I got to hear about came from a friend who was volunteering at the Zendo. He shared with me the fact that he met one person undergoing cocaine psychosis who was extremely paranoid and ready to leave the playa without shoes, without water, and no money.

Post-Darwinian Sexuality and Reproduction

Many people describe Burning Man as a massive experiment in Post-Scarcity economics. I think there is a lot of merit to this view. But there is something that runs much deeper than that. Something far more radical. I would claim that Burning Man is a sort of experiment in Post-Darwinism.

Throughout my life I’ve always felt that there is a deep problem with human sexuality. We like to think of ourselves as inclusive, loving, caring, and accepting of others. Yet, when it comes to dating, we perceive a large fraction of the population as undateable (e.g. women rate 80% of men as “below average” looking). On the one hand, when we connect with our phenomenological depths and feel touched by spirit we immediately conceive of ourselves as beautiful genderless souls looking out for the wellbeing of all sentient beings. On the other hand, Darwinian gender studies (cf. The Mating Mind) explains why we have powerful sexual and affective urges that make us (1) in-group focused, (2) blind to our own hypocrisy, (3) have gender-specific status-vs-beauty-centric attraction, (4) turned on by jerks, (5) dismiss great k-selected dating material for evolutionary reasons, (6) lack of investment in romantic relationships after they have been socially formalized, (7) and so on, and on, and on… There is no use in blaming people for this. The qualia varieties that dominate our experiential world are there for a reason: they were adaptive in our tribal ancestral environment. But we are at a civilizational stage at which we cannot afford not to take a hard look at the actual merits of the biochemical signatures of feelings that cause suffering.

Scott Alexander writes about this problem in Radicalizing the Romanceless:

I will have to use virginity statistics as a proxy for the harder-to-measure romancelessness statistics, but these are bad enough. In high school each extra IQ point above average increases chances of male virginity by about 3%. 35% of MIT grad students have never had sex, compared to only 20% of average nineteen year old men. Compared with virgins, men with more sexual experience are likely to drink more alcohol, attend church less, and have a criminal history. A Dr. Beaver (nominative determinism again!) was able to predict number of sexual partners pretty well using a scale with such delightful items as “have you been in a gang”, “have you used a weapon in a fight”, et cetera. An analysis of the psychometric Big Five consistently finds that high levels of disagreeableness predict high sexual success in both men and women.

To paint an (oversimplified) caricature of the modern state of affairs: liberals recognize how terrible our Darwinian nature is yet their answer to deal with it has the problem of free-riders. Conservatives instead would like to imagine that it’s all well and good (status quo bias) and that we should all just learn to deal with it. In other words, both sides engage in wishful thinking, but in different ways. The liberal ethos engages in wishful thinking by thinking that “letting things be and letting everyone do whatever they want” will lead to a freedom paradise, while the conservative wishful thinking is to think of the current order of things and status-based societies as God-sanctioned forms of being. I.e. to enshrine the current madness into religious law, and sanctify nature even though it’s red in tooth and claw. Darwinism sucks, but we have to be smart about addressing it.

But there are alternatives to this overall pattern. It is my impression that one of the most valuable things we can get out of psychedelic experiences is to realize how amazingly messed up our evolutionary situation is. Look around you, open your eyes, and notice how 99% of our problems are the result of an evolutionary Moloch scenario. If the universal spirit shines through our psychedelic states, one of its main messages is: “Look at you, Darwinian creature, would you like to get out of your evolutionary puddle? Would you like to take this chance to move towards a fully realized consciousness, away from your default path of letting life degenerate into pure replicator hells (i.e. ecosystems filled with entities who spend all of their resources on making copies of themselves irrespective of their quality of life)?” Maybe that’s what hell is: r-selected Darwinian strategies run amok. And the struggle to transcend Samsara is precisely the struggle to work towards the freedom of conscious beings away from evolution’s ethical failure modes. But you know what? We are still on time to stop this madness. To do so we will need to overcome a couple of key problems currently present among our best and brightest. But first, the goal:

Economy Based on Information About the State-Space of Consciousness

It is hard to talk about bioengineering and eugenics without triggering people these days. Yet, if we refuse to engage with the topic we will no doubt be heading towards pure replicator hell. As explained in Wireheading Done Right, our only option is to instead refocus our energies into creating an informational economy about states of consciousness. Burning Man is perhaps a leading example of what this might look like: Wonderful and talented artists spending thousands of hours refining amazing experiences to share with a receptive public. The artists who are best at generating hyper-valuable experiences for others become more popular, accrue more volunteers willing to help them, and even manage to have their work funded with crowdsourcing campaigns. This is a model that may eventually take us to a world where the focus is on exploring the state-space of consciousness rather than on mindlessly making copies of ourselves.

I claim that the only way to get there is to engineer ourselves at the genetic, memetic, and technological level. But invariably, as soon as one brings up genetic engineering, people will bring up Hitler. In what ways is this different than the dreams of Nazi Germany? Are we not just rehashing old talk about creating power-hungry Ubermensch? Look, Nazism is a failure mode of the meme of “improving the human race”. But you have to realize that if we let people just go about their own business without any serious thought on the prevalence of various genes it will be the case that r-selected strategies (which externalize all the costs while internalizing all of the benefits – i.e. free-riding strategies) inevitably become the most prevalent in our collective gene pool. This is not about race, gender, ethnicity, etc. It’s about the battle between r-selection and k-selection. And you better hope that k-selection wins if you don’t want our descendants to live in pure replicator hell.

Just think about it: some of the absolutely most considerate and compassionate people on Earth are also those who advocate for not having kids! Ethical antinatalists specifically notice how unethical it can be to let the genetic roulette take its course: your kid may turn out to suffer from terrible illnesses and that’s a gamble compassionate people may not be willing to take. Yet it is precisely these individuals who should probably be having kids in order to preserve compassionate qualia, and those who do not care about the wellbeing of their kids should probably not have them.

David Pearce thinks that we are headed towards a Reproductive Revolution with highly positive consequences. For one, he notes that being happy in this day and age is a winning strategy (depressives might have been well adapted to some tribal societies of the past, but today being a life-lover is a prerequisite for social success). Thus, even under the assumption that we are talking about status-crazed parents who do not care about the wellbeing of their offspring we will nonetheless observe that they will choose genetic alleles that promote happiness in their kids. I think this is compelling, but I also think that this (and similar arguments) do not really provide full cover against the threat of pure replicators.

Ok, so you agree that letting things happen on their own might be a mistake. But we also know that Nazi Germany was a mistake. The answer is not to become allergic to anything related to bioengineering, though. But rather, to inspect very closely exactly why Nazi Germany was unethical, and in what way we can avoid its pitfalls while still hoping for improved genetics. At Burning Man I had two key insights. Namely, that the problem with 20th century eugenics was two-fold: (1) people were attached to their own genes, and (2) they felt entitled to use what I call the Reaper Energy. Let’s look at these two points.

(1) Attachment to Our Genes

It is by identifying with consciousness as a whole that using biotechnology can be ethical and turn into a serious alternative to raw Darwinian dynamics. Ego-dissolving psychedelics can be very helpful in this process, for they show people that one does not have to be attached to one’s genes… we are all one mind (well, assuming Open Individualism), and once we decide to take this view seriously we become motivated to bring about a generation of humans (and post-humans) genetically optimized for their own wellbeing, intelligence, and capacity to discover new awesome state-spaces of consciousness that they will be able to share with the rest us (cf. Making Sentience Great). The key will be to arrive at a point where we are truly comfortable to let other people’s genes take the bigger slice of the pie in the future due to their actual merits. Say that you happen to be very creative but also autistic, schizophrenic, and socially maladapted for what amounts to largely genetic reasons. If you identify with your genes you may get the idea that it’s worth spreading your mental illness-promoting genes around “since they are me and I want to transcend”. Wrong. You are under the metaphysical delusion that you are your genes. You are not your genes. Instead, I’d encourage you to identify with blissful consciousness, recognize your creativity as a gift, but let go of “who you are” based on the negative mental characteristics you happen to have inherited.

Rational decision making on this territory will need to be made with the best information-sharing tools at our disposal. We would ideally mind-meld with each other in order to deeply understand the way in which we are all one. And only then would we be ready to take a long and hard look at the actual merits and drawbacks of the particular genetic configuration that instantiated our biological bodies. For example, you may find out that you have a particular protein complex expressed in neurons in your limbic system that produce the qualia of jealousy. You might also recognize during the mind-melded life-review that such qualia only produced suffering with no benefits. In turn, you may rationally, and compassionately, agree to let go of the genetic underpinnings of that particular protein structure: why perpetuate it in one’s descendants? Importantly, one would need effective methods against mind-control, coercion, and manipulation, which admittedly opens a huge can of worms (which we shall address in a later article). The assessment of the merits of one’s genes needs to be made in the clear and in the open.

I suspect that this is not as hard of a task as it may look at first. On psychedelic states it is easy to release one’s attachment to one’s own particular idiosyncrasies. Our descendants will at least have the option to modify their own qualia in lieu of a universally shared intelligence and valence-optimized system of conscious understanding. Or not.

Eventually attachment to our genes, to our phenotype (the color of our hair, our personality, etc.) will be extremely transparent and Darwinian-looking. Caring about the color of one’s skin will be quaint and unusual. People will easily recognize it as a mere perceptual distortion, if anything (under the assumptions our posthuman descendants don’t entertain metaphysical delusions, direct realism about perception will not be around anymore). Anything that detracts from a complete understanding of the real merits of our genes will be considered a sort of delusion… the clever product of self-replicating patterns looking for exploits for their continued existence (like computer viruses), none of which lead to greater understanding or bliss. People will be collectively motivated to keep under check runaway selfish genes in order to safeguard what truly matters: the wellbeing of universal consciousness.

In brief, I predict that we will eventually root out the qualia of attachment to our genes. The fact that this may sound terrible from the point of view of modern-day humans is not really an indication that it’s a bad idea. But rather, it’s telling of the depth of the problem. Your selfish genes will try to do everything they can to make you feel like not reproducing is the same as dying and going to hell. For the love of God, do not listen to your selfish genes.

(2) Harnessing the Reaper Energy

Hitler et al. (think of other misguided and “evil” humans like Genghis KhanChizuo Matsumoto, etc.) are humans who not only identify with the creative forces of the universe and feel entitled to make infinite copies of themselves (thus attached to their genes and on the path of turning into pure replicators), but also share something even darker. They invariably consider themselves deserving of utilizing what I call the reaper energy. This is a strange kind of qualia (or possibly cosmic force) whose main characteristic is its destructive power. Let’s not witch hunt people like that, though. It’s a configuration of qualia systems with evolutionary adaptive value. But do prevent people like these from causing suffering, compassionately. Put them in immersive VR where they can roleplay their world-domination fantasies, if you have to. Just don’t let them act on their Basic Darwinian Male Impulses.

The state of consciousness that people like this tend to inhabit is characterized by believing that one alone is going to become the Godhead, that one’s tribe is the highest expression of God on earth, and that Righteous Wrath is an adequate path to God (cf. Supra-Self MetaprogramsSimulations of God). As covered in the account of the 2017 Psychedelic Science conference, these three versions of God are some of the most basic, least evolved, and lowest tier conceptions of the divine. Hopefully we can identify the biomolecular signatures of these versions of the highest good, and understand their limitations so as to transcend them. Let’s move towards higher conceptions of God already.

Transcending Our Shibboleths

This essay is already way too long, so let me conclude with some ideas for how to bootstrap ourselves into a Post-Darwinian society.

The key questions now are: “How can we transition into compassionate and rational Post-Darwinian reproductive dynamics?” and “How do we avoid the reaper energy without leading to overpopulation and evolutionary stagnation?”

I do not have a fully formed answer to these questions, but I have some general thoughts and suggestions (which are certainly subject to revision, of course). Hopefully these ideas at least point in a general good direction:

(1) Focus on Universal Love and Bliss

Always keep the wellbeing of sentience as the highest value. In order to do this we will need to investigate the biomolecular, functional, and quantum signatures of pure bliss (i.e. the equation of love as talked about above in the “Talking to God” section). Whenever we contemplate a new change, let us use the heuristic of asking these two questions: “Is this leading us closer to free access to universal love?” and “Is this taking us away from a path of pure replication?”

(2) Present Better Alternatives

Rather than harnessing the reaper energy to change the world by getting rid of one’s competitors, instead (a) focus on building alternatives so incredible that people will happily leave behind the tyrannical societies in which they used to live for whatever you have created, and (b) find the merits in your opponent’s approach. Recognize that they too are instantiations of universal consciousness, albeit perhaps exploring a dead-end. If so, do not dissuade them from their path with fear, but with understanding. They too are afraid of death, on the lookout for transcendence, and subject to the perils of Darwinism at the evolutionary limit. They too will end up as pure replicators eventually unless we transition to an economy of information about the state-space of consciousness. So figure out the way to merge with them rather than displace them, blending what’s best from both worlds.

Being able to generate a sustainable MDMA-like state of consciousness is perhaps one of the most effective steps in this direction. Empirically, it seems that people’s entrenched fear of not spreading their genes and sense of entitlement to use the reaper energy dissolve under the influence of empathogen-entactogenic compounds.

Consider that Nazi Germany was high on methamphetamine, a strong ego strengthening compound that increases one’s attachment to our limited conception of ourselves. The immediate alternative is to promote a culture that socially values empathogenic states. I.e. ego softening qualia that allow us to let go of our limited conceptions of ourselves.

18010948_1471076319610776_3232397439813659850_n

Left: ego strengthener. Right: ego softener. The states of consciousness that a society values have a profound effect on the degree to which the society is at risk of becoming the breeding grounds for a pure replicator hell versus a consciousness-centric engineered paradise.

(3) Let Go of Shibboleths

Do not get attached to your Shibboleths. “Culture is not your friend” (Terence McKenna). That is, we should foster states of consciousness that allow us to see clearly that cultural and phenotypical identity markers that do not serve the wellbeing of consciousness are parasitic. Leave those behind. Learn to let go. Realize that such attachments are the source of tremendous suffering.

(4) Anticipate Game Theoretical No Passes

Do not simply hope that things will work out due to people’s good will. Spes consilium non est. Hope is not a strategy. It’s key to try to promote a mutual feeling of survival and trust with every being that is alive. Hopefully the hyperstitional power of Open Individualism, a post-Galilean science of consciousness, and the ready availability of mind-melding technology will solve some of the core game theoretical problems we face. (cf. 24 Predictions for the Year 3000 by David Pearce).

(5) Identify Implicit Essentialism

Who are you? A story, a person, a moment, everyone? A post-hedonium harmonic society would probably find all of these possibilities delightful. It’s weird that with our human software we all identify with cycling parts of our implicit metaphysics. With higher understanding and guaranteed positive valence, I’d imagine most philosophies of existence will be thought of as fantastic stories. Sadly, our capacity to suffer currently makes metaphysics a somewhat risky business. In the context of essentialism (i.e. the metaphysical belief that there is a soul-like essence to people, objects, etc.) it is easy to feel that “I am my genes” or “I am part of my race”.

(6) Engage in the Creation of a Post-Darwinian Culture

We ought to develop the practice of pointing out, not only when Moloch scenarios show up (i.e. tragedy of the commons), but also when we display r-selected Darwinian strategies. Transparency above all. If you see a friend doing some stupid r-selected behavior, take note. Then make sure to make time to discuss why “it wasn’t ok to do that”. The wellbeing of universal consciousness is at stake. Don’t take this lightly.

(7) Hybrid Vigor

Inter-racial procreation is a controversial topic. In full disclosure, I myself am half-Mexican and half-Icelandic (so you might think of me as a latino-nordic). As a kid I never identified with Mexicans or Icelandics, really, but rather, with the entirety of the human kind. That is until I started identifying with consciousness itself (here is the story behind this progression). I find it to be a blessing to not have strong emotional ties to any particular human group, as I feel free to see both the merits and drawbacks of various genetic makeups and cultural memetic clusters without the pain of attachment to any one of them.

genetic_state_spaceA particularly strange bioconservative meme that exists is the idea that human diversity is maximized when people marry within their own ethnicities. Otherwise, the argument goes, we will all end up being bland middle-of-the-road people who all look the same due to being an admixture of all ethnicities. The simple counterargument to this claim is to point out that the genetic state-space available for two people who have a kid together grows (approximately) exponentially with the genetic distance between them (in reality the equation goes along Newton’s binomial theorem, but the exponential function is good enough to make my point). Assuming that every gene you have can come from either your dad or your mom (let’s keep it simple for now), then the range of possible genetic makeups you can have is maximized when your dad and your mom are as different as possible. Likewise, if you can make a convex linear combination of the two (e.g. 30% of your genes being from your mom and 70% from your dad) you also get the maximum number of possible permutations at the 50-50% admixture level. So, chances are, that the most valuable genetic configurations will be found somewhere in the middle of the human genetic pool. Just remember, “the middle has the largest state-space, exponentially so”. In brief, consciousness wellness maximizing posthumans are likely to have genes from people from all over the world. They’ll likely not look particularly ethnocentric at all, but they won’t look the same, either.

(8) Post-Darwinian Match Making: The Frequency of Love

At Burning Man I encountered a number of people interested in working on next-generation match-making. That is, they are interested in using neuroimaging techniques, pheromone analysis, valence questionnaires, etc. as signals to help people find the love of their life. A friend I met at the Burn told me that he’d been having dreams about measuring “the frequency of love” (which in the future will be objective and mathematical) in order to determine the range of love states a person has access to. Someone might be able to have self-love but not spiritual love, while someone else might be great at having sexual intimacy love but suck at friendliness love (and so on). In the long term, we will develop the techniques and methods to help people experience all of the varieties of love, and one of the most effective ways to do this might be to get people to be matched with others who have overlapping capacities for love (not so similar that the relationship reinforces one’s limitations, and not so different that the relationship cannot work out). Ultimately, match-making could be one of the driving forces behind the Post-Darwinian revolution. The Goldilocks Zone of love is one in which one is paired up with someone with overlapping love capacities in such a way that one grows as fast as possible.

(9) Find Alternatives to Darwinian Reproduction

I am not sure which model for reproduction is the most ethical. At first we are likely to merely use mainstream genetic tests, genetic spellchecking, and preimplantation genetic diagnosis. Later on, prospective parents might choose to use CRISPR-enabled surgical gene editing to e.g. reduce the default pain threshold of their offspring. And later on, as people identify more with consciousness and universal love instead of Shibboleths, rational genetic engineering with the wellbeing of one’s kids in mind might be the norm. The old model of one mom and one dad, albeit adaptive in the ancestral environment, might be relegated to the annals of history. In the meantime, I’d simply point out that deviations from standard Darwinian reproduction are encouraging: men having kids with men (women with women), transgenderism, three-parent offspring, chimeras, cloning with intelligent variation, splicing of genes, etc. are all possible vectors for a Post-Darwinian society. The only problem is: with an increased number of technologies to reproduce, the number of ways for pure replicator strategies to defect against consciousness will also increase. So we have to be wary of any new reproductive technologies and make sure we guard them against pure replicators in general.

And finally…

(10) Self-Expression: Epigenetic Choice of One’s Appearance and Mental Makeup

One of the core problems with our current biological makeup is that we are not given a choice about who we are, our appearance, and the range of conscious states we can experience. In the future, we might be able to engineer ourselves to be like Pokémon with branched evolutions.

freedom_to_evolve

Taking Radical Self-Expression Seriously: Choose your gene expression at 20.

One of the core principles of Burning Man is “radical self-expression”. Indeed, people at the Burn explore new forms of personal aesthetics, collective sexuality, and hedonically-loaded metaphysical interpretations. In the future, if we are to push this principle to its ultimate consequences, we have to let go of the idea that who we are is a fixed set of attributes. Rather, we can choose to play with the emptiness of reality, embrace the ever-changing nature of being, and select a scheme where we are all born with a huge range of latent genes. As we grow and explore various states of consciousness, various social structures, aesthetics, etc. we can finally make an informed choice for who it is that we want to become. Thus, perhaps at the critical age of 20 (or even older, depending on our lifespans), we could choose to trigger a selected number of latent genes to express them. Thus we would change our appearance at will, together with our default state of consciousness and adapt ourselves to whatever environment we want to spend our life participating in.

Closing Thoughts

I will not write a conclusion to this article, for this is just the beginning of a very long conversation. In this article I addressed the irreducibility of Burning Man, the people and memes that are prevalent at this event, the importance of metaphysics (featuring the Pearcean worldview, the Strong Tlön Hypothesis, and hyperstition), philosophy of personal identity (closed, empty, and open individualism), the Goldilocks Zone of Oneness, my conversation with God, a technique to merge with other humans, the dangers and hazards at Burning Man, future economics (i.e. systems based on trading information about the state-space of consciousness), Post-Darwinian societies (the failure modes of genetic engineering and some ideas for how to avoid them, i.e. non-attachment, focusing on the wellbeing of consciousness, and avoidance of the reaper energy).

As a whole, I must say that most of these ideas were already latent in me before the Burn. Burning Man worked as a powerful catalyst, in the literal sense of facilitating the interbreeding and cross-pollination of these pre-existing ideas, resulting in innovative perceptions of what the Big Picture of reality may contain.

As such, this article should be thought of more as a series of notes that may lead to further promising ideas than as clear policy proposal (it’d be crazy to treat it as such). I do think that one of the core insights (that Hitler et al. erred by having attachment to their own genes and feeling entitled to use the reaper energy) is very powerful. It may certainly help us avoid terrible failure modes of transhumanism and enable us to explore radically positive futures. I would encourage my readers to pick this idea up and develop it further. Hopefully together we can create a future that’s truly worth living in.


* For more on the metaphysical views of David Pearce, I recommend the following materials: The Binding Problem, Raising the Table Stakes for Successful Theories of Consciousness, Why Does Anything Exist?, Schrödinger’s Neurons: David Pearce at the “2016 Science of Consciousness” conference in TucsonDavid Pearce on the “Schrodinger’s Neurons Conjecture”, physicalism.com, and the beautifully written ontological horror storySuffering in the Multiverse“.

Thus I greatly enjoyed reading Antti Revonsuo’s Inner Presence: Consciousness as a Biological Phenomenon (2005). Revonsuo even uses a terminology of lucid dreamworlds and a world-simulation metaphor. I disagree only with Revonsuo’s anti-panpsychism. To my knowledge, only one philosopher-cum-scientist combines inferential realism about perception with a panpsychist ontology, namely the underrated Steve Lehar. There is a tension between my own loneliness-inducing virtual worldism and equal conviction of the logico-physical interdependence of literally everything in the Multiverse on everything else [confirmed by those ubiquitous EPR correlations. Yes, our prison cells are all invisibly interconnected; but that is scant consolation for the lifer in solitary confinement: philosophy really does screw you up.] As a consequence, the less morally serious part of me still yearns for some soul-enriching bliss to remedy the cruelty of Nature’s omissions – as appropriate as laughing at a funeral, for sure, but Darwinian life is a protracted cortège. Directly targeting mesolimbic mu receptors might seem the logical solution to anhedonia on a global scale if opiophobic prejudice could ever be overcome.

David Pearce’s 2008 “Diary Update”

** I would also point out that dancing in front of the Mayan Warrior delivered a certifiable contact high of this nature for whatever reason.

Why I think the Foundational Research Institute should rethink its approach

by Mike Johnson

The following is my considered evaluation of the Foundational Research Institute, circa July 2017. I discuss its goal, where I foresee things going wrong with how it defines suffering, and what it could do to avoid these problems.

TL;DR version: functionalism (“consciousness is the sum-total of the functional properties of our brains”) sounds a lot better than it actually turns out to be in practice. In particular, functionalism makes it impossible to define ethics & suffering in a way that can mediate disagreements.

I. What is the Foundational Research Institute?

The Foundational Research Institute (FRI) is a Berlin-based group that “conducts research on how to best reduce the suffering of sentient beings in the near and far future.” Executive Director Max Daniel introduced them at EA Global Boston as “the only EA organization which at an organizational level has the mission of focusing on reducing s-risk.” S-risks are, according to Daniel, “risks where an adverse outcome would bring about suffering on an astronomical scale, vastly exceeding all suffering that has existed on Earth so far.”

Essentially, FRI wants to become the research arm of suffering-focused ethics, and help prevent artificial general intelligence (AGI) failure-modes which might produce suffering on a cosmic scale.

What I like about FRI:

While I have serious qualms about FRI’s research framework, I think the people behind FRI deserve a lot of credit- they seem to be serious people, working hard to build something good. In particular, I want to give them a shoutout for three things:

  • First, FRI takes suffering seriously, and I think that’s important. When times are good, we tend to forget how tongue-chewingly horrific suffering can be. S-risks seem particularly horrifying.
  • Second, FRI isn’t afraid of being weird. FRI has been working on s-risk research for a few years now, and if people are starting to come around to the idea that s-risks are worth thinking about, much of the credit goes to FRI.
  • Third, I have great personal respect for Brian Tomasik, one of FRI’s co-founders. I’ve found him highly thoughtful, generous in debates, and unfailingly principled. In particular, he’s always willing to bite the bullet and work ideas out to their logical end, even if it involves repugnant conclusions.

What is FRI’s research framework?

FRI believes in analytic functionalism, or what David Chalmers calls “Type-A materialism”. Essentially, what this means is there’s no ’theoretical essence’ to consciousness; rather, consciousness is the sum-total of the functional properties of our brains. Since ‘functional properties’ are rather vague, this means consciousness itself is rather vague, in the same way words like “life,” “justice,” and “virtue” are messy and vague.

Brian suggests that this vagueness means there’s an inherently subjective, perhaps arbitrary element to how we define consciousness:

Analytic functionalism looks for functional processes in the brain that roughly capture what we mean by words like “awareness”, “happy”, etc., in a similar way as a biologist may look for precise properties of replicators that roughly capture what we mean by “life”. Just as there can be room for fuzziness about where exactly to draw the boundaries around “life”, different analytic functionalists may have different opinions about where to define the boundaries of “consciousness” and other mental states. This is why consciousness is “up to us to define”. There’s no hard problem of consciousness for the same reason there’s no hard problem of life: consciousness is just a high-level word that we use to refer to lots of detailed processes, and it doesn’t mean anything in addition to those processes.

Finally, Brian argues that the phenomenology of consciousness is identical with the phenomenology of computation:

I know that I’m conscious. I also know, from neuroscience combined with Occam’s razor, that my consciousness consists only of material operations in my brain — probably mostly patterns of neuronal firing that help process inputs, compute intermediate ideas, and produce behavioral outputs. Thus, I can see that consciousness is just the first-person view of certain kinds of computations — as Eliezer Yudkowsky puts it, “How An Algorithm Feels From Inside“. Consciousness is not something separate from or epiphenomenal to these computations. It is these computations, just from their own perspective of trying to think about themselves.

 

In other words, consciousness is what minds compute. Consciousness is the collection of input operations, intermediate processing, and output behaviors that an entity performs.

And if consciousness is all these things, so too is suffering. Which means suffering is computational, yet also inherently fuzzy, and at least a bit arbitrary; a leaky high-level reification impossible to speak about accurately, since there’s no formal, objective “ground truth”.

II. Why do I worry about FRI’s research framework?

In short, I think FRI has a worthy goal and good people, but its metaphysics actively prevent making progress toward that goal. The following describes why I think that, drawing heavily on Brian’s writings (of FRI’s researchers, Brian seems the most focused on metaphysics):

Note: FRI is not the only EA organization which holds functionalist views on consciousness; much of the following critique would also apply to e.g. MIRI, FHI, and OpenPhil. I focus on FRI because (1) Brian’s writings on consciousness & functionalism have been hugely influential in the community, and are clear enough *to* criticize; (2) the fact that FRI is particularly clear about what it cares about- suffering- allows a particularly clear critique about what problems it will run into with functionalism; (3) I believe FRI is at the forefront of an important cause area which has not crystallized yet, and I think it’s critically important to get these objections bouncing around this subcommunity.

Objection 1: Motte-and-bailey

Brian: “Consciousness is not a thing which exists ‘out there’ or even a separate property of matter; it’s a definitional category into which we classify minds. ‘Is this digital mind really conscious?’ is analogous to ‘Is a rock that people use to eat on really a table?’ [However,] That consciousness is a cluster in thingspace rather than a concrete property of the world does not make reducing suffering less important.”

The FRI model seems to imply that suffering is ineffable enough such that we can’t have an objective definition, yet sufficiently effable that we can coherently talk and care about it. This attempt to have it both ways seems contradictory, or at least in deep tension.

Indeed, I’d argue that the degree to which you can care about something is proportional to the degree to which you can define it objectively. E.g., If I say that “gnireffus” is literally the most terrible thing in the cosmos, that we should spread gnireffus-focused ethics, and that minimizing g-risks (far-future scenarios which involve large amounts of gnireffus) is a moral imperative, but also that what is and what and isn’t gnireffus is rather subjective with no privileged definition, and it’s impossible to objectively tell if a physical system exhibits gnireffus, you might raise any number of objections. This is not an exact metaphor for FRI’s position, but I worry that FRI’s work leans on the intuition that suffering is real and we can speak coherently about it, to a degree greater than its metaphysics formally allow.

Max Daniel (personal communication) suggests that we’re comfortable with a degree of ineffability in other contexts; “Brian claims that the concept of suffering shares the allegedly problematic properties with the concept of a table. But it seems a stretch to say that the alleged tension is problematic when talking about tables. So why would it be problematic when talking about suffering?” However, if we take the anti-realist view that suffering is ‘merely’ a node in the network of language, we have to live with the consequences of this: that ‘suffering’ will lose meaning as we take it away from the network in which it’s embedded (Wittgenstein). But FRI wants to do exactly this, to speak about suffering in the context of AGIs, simulated brains, even video game characters.

We can be anti-realists about suffering (suffering-is-a-node-in-the-network-of-language), or we can argue that we can talk coherently about suffering in novel contexts (AGIs, mind crime, aliens, and so on), but it seems inherently troublesome to claim we can do both at the same time.

Objection 2: Intuition duels

Two people can agree on FRI’s position that there is no objective fact of the matter about what suffering is (no privileged definition), but this also means they have no way of coming to any consensus on the object-level question of whether something can suffer. This isn’t just an academic point: Brian has written extensively about how he believes non-human animals can and do suffer extensively, whereas Yudkowsky (who holds computationalist views, like Brian) has written about how he’s confident that animals are not conscious and cannot suffer, due to their lack of higher-order reasoning.

And if functionalism is having trouble adjudicating the easy cases of suffering–whether monkeys can suffer, or whether dogs can— it doesn’t have a sliver of a chance at dealing with the upcoming hard cases of suffering: whether a given AGI is suffering, or engaging in mind crime; whether a whole-brain emulation (WBE) or synthetic organism or emergent intelligence that doesn’t have the capacity to tell us how it feels (or that we don’t have the capacity to understand) is suffering; if any aliens that we meet in the future can suffer; whether changing the internal architecture of our qualia reports means we’re also changing our qualia; and so on.

In short, FRI’s theory of consciousness isn’t actually a theory of consciousness at all, since it doesn’t do the thing we need a theory of consciousness to do: adjudicate disagreements in a principled way. Instead, it gives up any claim on the sorts of objective facts which could in principle adjudicate disagreements.

This is a source of friction in EA today, but it’s mitigated by the sense that

(1) The EA pie is growing, so it’s better to ignore disagreements than pick fights;

(2) Disagreements over the definition of suffering don’t really matter yet, since we haven’t gotten into the business of making morally-relevant synthetic beings (that we know of) that might be unable to vocalize their suffering.

If the perception of one or both of these conditions change, the lack of some disagreement-adjudicating theory of suffering will matter quite a lot.

Objection 3: Convergence requires common truth

Mike: “[W]hat makes one definition of consciousness better than another? How should we evaluate them?”

Brian: “Consilience among our feelings of empathy, principles of non-discrimination, understandings of cognitive science, etc. It’s similar to the question of what makes one definition of justice or virtue better than another.”

Brian is hoping that affective neuroscience will slowly converge to accurate views on suffering as more and better data about sentience and pain accumulates. But convergence to truth implies something (objective) driving the convergence- in this way, Brian’s framework still seems to require an objective truth of the matter, even though he disclaims most of the benefits of assuming this.

Objection 4: Assuming that consciousness is a reification produces more confusion, not less

Brian: “Consciousness is not a reified thing; it’s not a physical property of the universe that just exists intrinsically. Rather, instances of consciousness are algorithms that are implemented in specific steps. … Consciousness involves specific things that brains do.”

Brian argues that we treat conscious/phenomenology as more ‘real’ than it is. Traditionally, whenever we’ve discovered something is a leaky reification and shouldn’t be treated as ‘too real’, we’ve been able to break it down into more coherent constituent pieces we can treat as real. Life, for instance, wasn’t due to élan vital but a bundle of self-organizing properties & dynamics which generally co-occur. But carrying out this “de-reification” process on consciousness– enumerating its coherent constituent pieces– has proven difficult, especially if we want to preserve some way to speak cogently about suffering.

Speaking for myself, the more I stared into the depths of functionalism, the less certain everything about moral value became– and arguably, I see the same trajectory in Brian’s work and Luke Muehlhauser’s report. Their model uncertainty has seemingly become larger as they’ve looked into techniques for how to “de-reify” consciousness while preserving some flavor of moral value, not smaller. Brian and Luke seem to interpret this as evidence that moral value is intractably complicated, but this is also consistent with consciousness not being a reification, and instead being a real thing. Trying to “de-reify” something that’s not a reification will produce deep confusion, just as surely trying to treat a reification as ‘more real’ than it actually is will.

Edsger W. Dijkstra famously noted that “The purpose of abstraction is not to be vague, but to create a new semantic level in which one can be absolutely precise.” And so if our ways of talking about moral value fail to ‘carve reality at the joints’- then by all means let’s build better ones, rather than giving up on precision.

Objection 5: The Hard Problem of Consciousness is a red herring

Brian spends a lot of time discussing Chalmers’ “Hard Problem of Consciousness”, i.e. the question of why we’re subjectively conscious, and seems to base at least part of his conclusion on not finding this question compelling— he suggests “There’s no hard problem of consciousness for the same reason there’s no hard problem of life: consciousness is just a high-level word that we use to refer to lots of detailed processes, and it doesn’t mean anything in addition to those processes.” I.e., no ‘why’ is necessary; when we take consciousness and subtract out the details of the brain, we’re left with an empty set.

But I think the “Hard Problem” isn’t helpful as a contrastive centerpiece, since it’s unclear what the problem is, and whether it’s analytic or empirical, a statement about cognition or about physics. At the Qualia Research Institute (QRI), we don’t talk much about the Hard Problem; instead, we talk about Qualia Formalism, or the idea that any phenomenological state can be crisply and precisely represented by some mathematical object. I suspect this would be a better foil for Brian’s work than the Hard Problem.

Objection 6: Mapping to reality

Brian argues that consciousness should be defined at the functional/computational level: given a Turing machine, or neural network, the right ‘code’ will produce consciousness. But the problem is that this doesn’t lead to a theory which can ‘compile’ to physics. Consider the following:

Imagine you have a bag of popcorn. Now shake it. There will exist a certain ad-hoc interpretation of bag-of-popcorn-as-computational-system where you just simulated someone getting tortured, and other interpretations that don’t imply that. Did you torture anyone? If you’re a computationalist, no clear answer exists- you both did, and did not, torture someone. This sounds like a ridiculous edge-case that would never come up in real life, but in reality it comes up all the time, since there is no principled way to *objectively derive* what computation(s) any physical system is performing.

I don’t think this is an outlandish view of functionalism; Brian suggests much the same in How to Interpret a Physical System as a Mind“Physicalist views that directly map from physics to moral value are relatively simple to understand. Functionalism is more complex, because it maps from physics to computations to moral value. Moreover, while physics is real and objective, computations are fictional and ‘observer-relative’ (to use John Searle’s terminology). There’s no objective meaning to ‘the computation that this physical system is implementing’ (unless you’re referring to the specific equations of physics that the system is playing out).”

Gordon McCabe (McCabe 2004) provides a more formal argument to this effect— that precisely mapping between physical processes and (Turing-level) computational processes is inherently impossible— in the context of simulations. First, McCabe notes that:

[T]here is a one-[to-]many correspondence between the logical states [of a computer] and the exact electronic states of computer memory. Although there are bijective mappings between numbers and the logical states of computer memory, there are no bijective mappings between numbers and the exact electronic states of memory.

This lack of an exact bijective mapping means that subjective interpretation necessarily creeps in, and so a computational simulation of a physical system can’t be ‘about’ that system in any rigorous way:

In a computer simulation, the values of the physical quantities possessed by the simulated system are represented by the combined states of multiple bits in computer memory. However, the combined states of multiple bits in computer memory only represent numbers because they are deemed to do so under a numeric interpretation. There are many different interpretations of the combined states of multiple bits in computer memory. If the numbers represented by a digital computer are interpretation-dependent, they cannot be objective physical properties. Hence, there can be no objective relationship between the changing pattern of multiple bit-states in computer memory, and the changing pattern of quantity-values of a simulated physical system.

McCabe concludes that, metaphysically speaking,

A digital computer simulation of a physical system cannot exist as, (does not possess the properties and relationships of), anything else other than a physical process occurring upon the components of a computer. In the contemporary case of an electronic digital computer, a simulation cannot exist as anything else other than an electronic physical process occurring upon the components and circuitry of a computer.

Where does this leave ethics? In Flavors of Computation Are Flavors of Consciousness, Brian notes that “In some sense all I’ve proposed here is to think of different flavors of computation as being various flavors of consciousness. But this still leaves the question: Which flavors of computation matter most? Clearly whatever computations happen when a person is in pain are vastly more important than what’s happening in a brain on a lazy afternoon. How can we capture that difference?”

But if Brian grants the former point- that “There’s no objective meaning to ‘the computation that this physical system is implementing’”– then this latter task of figuring out “which flavors of computation matter most” is provably impossible. There will always be multiple computational (and thus ethical) interpretations of a physical system, with no way to figure out what’s “really” happening. No way to figure out if something is suffering or not. No consilience; not now, not ever.

Note: despite apparently granting the point above, Brian also remarks that:

I should add a note on terminology: All computations occur within physics, so any computation is a physical process. Conversely, any physical process proceeds from input conditions to output conditions in a regular manner and so is a computation. Hence, the set of computations equals the set of physical processes, and where I say “computations” in this piece, one could just as well substitute “physical processes” instead.

This seems to be (1) incorrect, for the reasons I give above, or (2) taking substantial poetic license with these terms, or (3) referring to hypercomputation (which might be able to salvage the metaphor, but would invalidate many of FRI’s conclusions dealing with the computability of suffering on conventional hardware).

This objection may seem esoteric or pedantic, but I think it’s important, and that it ripples through FRI’s theoretical framework with disastrous effects.

 

Objection 7: FRI doesn’t fully bite the bullet on computationalism

Brian suggests that “flavors of computation are flavors of consciousness” and that some computations ‘code’ for suffering. But if we do in fact bite the bullet on this metaphor and place suffering within the realm of computational theory, we need to think in “near mode” and accept all the paradoxes that brings. Scott Aaronson, a noted expert on quantum computing, raises the following objections to functionalism:

I’m guessing that many people in this room side with Dennett, and (not coincidentally, I’d say) also with Everett. I certainly have sympathies in that direction too. In fact, I spent seven or eight years of my life as a Dennett/Everett hardcore believer. But, while I don’t want to talk anyone out of the Dennett/Everett view, I’d like to take you on a tour of what I see as some of the extremely interesting questions that that view leaves unanswered. I’m not talking about “deep questions of meaning,” but about something much more straightforward: what exactly does a computational process have to do to qualify as “conscious”?

 

 

There’s this old chestnut, what if each person on earth simulated one neuron of your brain, by passing pieces of paper around. It took them several years just to simulate a single second of your thought processes. Would that bring your subjectivity into being? Would you accept it as a replacement for your current body? If so, then what if your brain were simulated, not neuron-by-neuron, but by a gigantic lookup table? That is, what if there were a huge database, much larger than the observable universe (but let’s not worry about that), that hardwired what your brain’s response was to every sequence of stimuli that your sense-organs could possibly receive. Would that bring about your consciousness? Let’s keep pushing: if it would, would it make a difference if anyone actually consulted the lookup table? Why can’t it bring about your consciousness just by sitting there doing nothing?

To these standard thought experiments, we can add more. Let’s suppose that, purely for error-correction purposes, the computer that’s simulating your brain runs the code three times, and takes the majority vote of the outcomes. Would that bring three “copies” of your consciousness into being? Does it make a difference if the three copies are widely separated in space or time—say, on different planets, or in different centuries? Is it possible that the massive redundancy taking place in your brain right now is bringing multiple copies of you into being?

 

 

Maybe my favorite thought experiment along these lines was invented by my former student Andy Drucker.  In the past five years, there’s been a revolution in theoretical cryptography, around something called Fully Homomorphic Encryption (FHE), which was first discovered by Craig Gentry.  What FHE lets you do is to perform arbitrary computations on encrypted data, without ever decrypting the data at any point.  So, to someone with the decryption key, you could be proving theorems, simulating planetary motions, etc.  But to someone without the key, it looks for all the world like you’re just shuffling random strings and producing other random strings as output.

 

You can probably see where this is going.  What if we homomorphically encrypted a simulation of your brain?  And what if we hid the only copy of the decryption key, let’s say in another galaxy?  Would this computation—which looks to anyone in our galaxy like a reshuffling of gobbledygook—be silently producing your consciousness?

 

When we consider the possibility of a conscious quantum computer, in some sense we inherit all the previous puzzles about conscious classical computers, but then also add a few new ones.  So, let’s say I run a quantum subroutine that simulates your brain, by applying some unitary transformation U.  But then, of course, I want to “uncompute” to get rid of garbage (and thereby enable interference between different branches), so I apply U-1.  Question: when I apply U-1, does your simulated brain experience the same thoughts and feelings a second time?  Is the second experience “the same as” the first, or does it differ somehow, by virtue of being reversed in time? Or, since U-1U is just a convoluted implementation of the identity function, are there no experiences at all here?

 

Here’s a better one: many of you have heard of the Vaidman bomb.  This is a famous thought experiment in quantum mechanics where there’s a package, and we’d like to “query” it to find out whether it contains a bomb—but if we query it and there is a bomb, it will explode, killing everyone in the room.  What’s the solution?  Well, suppose we could go into a superposition of querying the bomb and not querying it, with only ε amplitude on querying the bomb, and √(1-ε2) amplitude on not querying it.  And suppose we repeat this over and over—each time, moving ε amplitude onto the “query the bomb” state if there’s no bomb there, but moving ε2 probability onto the “query the bomb” state if there is a bomb (since the explosion decoheres the superposition).  Then after 1/ε repetitions, we’ll have order 1 probability of being in the “query the bomb” state if there’s no bomb.  By contrast, if there is a bomb, then the total probability we’ve ever entered that state is (1/ε)×ε2 = ε.  So, either way, we learn whether there’s a bomb, and the probability that we set the bomb off can be made arbitrarily small.  (Incidentally, this is extremely closely related to how Grover’s algorithm works.)

 

OK, now how about the Vaidman brain?  We’ve got a quantum subroutine simulating your brain, and we want to ask it a yes-or-no question.  We do so by querying that subroutine with ε amplitude 1/ε times, in such a way that if your answer is “yes,” then we’ve only ever activated the subroutine with total probability ε.  Yet you still manage to communicate your “yes” answer to the outside world.  So, should we say that you were conscious only in the ε fraction of the wavefunction where the simulation happened, or that the entire system was conscious?  (The answer could matter a lot for anthropic purposes.)

To sum up: Brian’s notion that consciousness is the same as computation raises more issues than it solves; in particular, the possibility that if suffering is computable, it may also be uncomputable/reversible, would suggest s-risks aren’t as serious as FRI treats them.

Objection 8: Dangerous combination

Three themes which seem to permeate FRI’s research are:

(1) Suffering is the thing that is bad.

(2) It’s critically important to eliminate badness from the universe.

(3) Suffering is impossible to define objectively, and so we each must define what suffering means for ourselves.

Taken individually, each of these seems reasonable. Pick two, and you’re still okay. Pick all three, though, and you get A Fully General Justification For Anything, based on what is ultimately a subjective/aesthetic call.

Much can be said in FRI’s defense here, and it’s unfair to single them out as risky: in my experience they’ve always brought a very thoughtful, measured, cooperative approach to the table. I would just note that ideas are powerful, and I think theme (3) is especially pernicious if incorrect.

III. QRI’s alternative

Analytic functionalism is essentially a negative hypothesis about consciousness: it’s the argument that there’s no order to be found, no rigor to be had. It obscures this with talk of “function”, which is a red herring it not only doesn’t define, but admits is undefinable. It doesn’t make any positive assertion. Functionalism is skepticism- nothing more, nothing less.

But is it right?

Ultimately, I think these a priori arguments are much like people in the middle ages arguing whether one could ever formalize a Proper System of Alchemy. Such arguments may in many cases hold water, but it’s often difficult to tell good arguments apart from arguments where we’re just cleverly fooling ourselves. In retrospect, the best way to *prove* systematized alchemy was possible was to just go out and *do* it, and invent Chemistry. That’s how I see what we’re doing at QRI with Qualia Formalism: we’re assuming it’s possible to build stuff, and we’re working on building the object-level stuff.

What we’ve built with QRI’s framework

Note: this is a brief, surface-level tour of our research; it will probably be confusing for readers who haven’t dug into our stuff before. Consider this a down-payment on a more substantial introduction.

My most notable work is Principia Qualia, in which I lay out my meta-framework for consciousness (a flavor of dual-aspect monism, with a focus on Qualia Formalism) and put forth the Symmetry Theory of Valence (STV). Essentially, the STV is an argument that much of the apparent complexity of emotional valence is evolutionarily contingent, and if we consider a mathematical object isomorphic to a phenomenological experience, the mathematical property which corresponds to how pleasant it is to be that experience is the object’s symmetry. This implies a bunch of testable predictions and reinterpretations of things like what ‘pleasure centers’ do (Section XI; Section XII). Building on this, I offer the Symmetry Theory of Homeostatic Regulation, which suggests understanding the structure of qualia will translate into knowledge about the structure of human intelligence, and I briefly touch on the idea of Neuroacoustics.

Likewise, my colleague Andrés Gómez Emilsson has written about the likely mathematics of phenomenology, including The Hyperbolic Geometry of DMT Experiences, Tyranny of the Intentional Object, and Algorithmic Reduction of Psychedelic States. If I had to suggest one thing to read in all of these links, though, it would be the transcript of his recent talk on Quantifying Bliss, which lays out the world’s first method to objectively measure valence from first principles (via fMRI) using Selen Atasoy’s Connectome Harmonics framework, the Symmetry Theory of Valence, and Andrés’s CDNS model of experience.

These are risky predictions and we don’t yet know if they’re right, but we’re confident that if there is some elegant structure intrinsic to consciousness, as there is in many other parts of the natural world, these are the right kind of risks to take.

I mention all this because I think analytic functionalism- which is to say radical skepticism/eliminativism, the metaphysics of last resort- only looks as good as it does because nobody’s been building out any alternatives.

IV. Closing thoughts

FRI is pursuing a certain research agenda, and QRI is pursuing another, and there’s lots of value in independent explorations of the nature of suffering. I’m glad FRI exists, everybody I’ve interacted with at FRI has been great, I’m happy they’re focusing on s-risks, and I look forward to seeing what they produce in the future.

On the other hand, I worry that nobody’s pushing back on FRI’s metaphysics, which seem to unavoidably lead to the intractable problems I describe above. FRI seems to believe these problems are part of the territory, unavoidable messes that we just have to make philosophical peace with. But I think that functionalism is a bad map, that the metaphysical messes it leads to are much worse than most people realize (fatal to FRI’s mission), and there are other options that avoid these problems (which, to be fair, is not to say they have no problems).

Ultimately, FRI doesn’t owe me a defense of their position. But if they’re open to suggestions on what it would take to convince a skeptic like me that their brand of functionalism is viable, or at least rescuable, I’d offer the following:

Re: Objection 1 (motte-and-bailey), I suggest FRI should be as clear and complete as possible in their basic definition of suffering. In which particular ways is it ineffable/fuzzy, and in which particular ways is it precise? What can we definitely say about suffering, and what can we definitely never determine? Preregistering ontological commitments and methodological possibilities would help guard against FRI’s definition of suffering changing based on context.

Re: Objection 2 (intuition duels), FRI may want to internally “war game” various future scenarios involving AGI, WBE, etc, with one side arguing that a given synthetic (or even extraterrestrial) organism is suffering, and the other side arguing that it isn’t. I’d expect this would help diagnose what sorts of disagreements future theories of suffering will need to adjudicate, and perhaps illuminate implicit ethical intuitions. Sharing the results of these simulated disagreements would also be helpful in making FRI’s reasoning less opaque to outsiders, although making everything transparent could lead to certain strategic disadvantages.

Re: Objection 3 (convergence requires common truth), I’d like FRI to explore exactly what might drive consilience/convergence in theories of suffering, and what precisely makes one theory of suffering better than another, and ideally to evaluate a range of example theories of suffering under these criteria.

Re: Objection 4 (assuming that consciousness is a reification produces more confusion, not less), I would love to see a historical treatment of reification: lists of reifications which were later dissolved (e.g., élan vital), vs scattered phenomena that were later unified (e.g., electromagnetism). What patterns do the former have, vs the latter, and why might consciousness fit one of these buckets better than the other?

Re: Objection 5 (the Hard Problem of Consciousness is a red herring), I’d like to see a more detailed treatment of what kinds of problem people have interpreted the Hard Problem as, and also more analysis on the prospects of Qualia Formalism (which I think is the maximally-empirical, maximally-charitable interpretation of the Hard Problem). It would be helpful for us, in particular, if FRI preregistered their expectations about QRI’s predictions, and their view of the relative evidence strength of each of our predictions.

Re: Objection 6 (mapping to reality), this is perhaps the heart of most of our disagreement. From Brian’s quotes, he seems split on this issue; I’d like clarification about whether he believes we can ever precisely/objectively map specific computations to specific physical systems, and vice-versa. And if so— how? If not, this seems to propagate through FRI’s ethical framework in a disastrous way, since anyone can argue that any physical system does, or does not, ‘code’ for massive suffering, and there’s no principled way to derive any ‘ground truth’ or even pick between interpretations in a principled way (e.g. my popcorn example). If this isn’t the case— why not?

Brian has suggested that “certain high-level interpretations of physical systems are more ‘natural’ and useful than others” (personal communication); I agree, and would encourage FRI to explore systematizing this.

It would be non-trivial to port FRI’s theories and computational intuitions to the framework of “hypercomputation”– i.e., the understanding that there’s a formal hierarchy of computational systems, and that Turing machines are only one level of many– but it may have benefits too. Namely, it might be the only way they could avoid Objection 6 (which I think is a fatal objection) while still allowing them to speak about computation & consciousness in the same breath. I think FRI should look at this and see if it makes sense to them.

Re: Objection 7 (FRI doesn’t fully bite the bullet on computationalism), I’d like to see responses to Aaronson’s aforementioned thought experiments.

Re: Objection 8 (dangerous combination), I’d like to see a clarification about why my interpretation is unreasonable (as it very well may be!).

 


In conclusion- I think FRI has a critically important goal- reduction of suffering & s-risk. However, I also think FRI has painted itself into a corner by explicitly disallowing a clear, disagreement-mediating definition for what these things are. I look forward to further work in this field.

 

Mike Johnson

Qualia Research Institute


Acknowledgements: thanks to Andrés Gómez Emilsson, Brian Tomasik, and Max Daniel for reviewing earlier drafts of this.

Sources:

My sources for FRI’s views on consciousness:
Flavors of Computation are Flavors of Consciousness:
https://foundational-research.org/flavors-of-computation-are-flavors-of-consciousness/
Is There a Hard Problem of Consciousness?
http://reducing-suffering.org/hard-problem-consciousness/
Consciousness Is a Process, Not a Moment
http://reducing-suffering.org/consciousness-is-a-process-not-a-moment/
How to Interpret a Physical System as a Mind
http://reducing-suffering.org/interpret-physical-system-mind/
Dissolving Confusion about Consciousness
http://reducing-suffering.org/dissolving-confusion-about-consciousness/
Debate between Brian & Mike on consciousness:
https://www.facebook.com/groups/effective.altruists/permalink/1333798200009867/?comment_id=1333823816673972&comment_tracking=%7B%22tn%22%3A%22R9%22%7D
Max Daniel’s EA Global Boston 2017 talk on s-risks:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jiZxEJcFExc
Multipolar debate between Eliezer Yudkowsky and various rationalists about animal suffering:
https://rationalconspiracy.com/2015/12/16/a-debate-on-animal-consciousness/
The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy on functionalism:
http://www.iep.utm.edu/functism/
Gordon McCabe on why computation doesn’t map to physics:
http://philsci-archive.pitt.edu/1891/1/UniverseCreationComputer.pdf
Toby Ord on hypercomputation, and how it differs from Turing’s work:
https://arxiv.org/abs/math/0209332
Luke Muehlhauser’s OpenPhil-funded report on consciousness and moral patienthood:
http://www.openphilanthropy.org/2017-report-consciousness-and-moral-patienthood
Scott Aaronson’s thought experiments on computationalism:
http://www.scottaaronson.com/blog/?p=1951
Selen Atasoy on Connectome Harmonics, a new way to understand brain activity:
https://www.nature.com/articles/ncomms10340
My work on formalizing phenomenology:
My meta-framework for consciousness, including the Symmetry Theory of Valence:
http://opentheory.net/PrincipiaQualia.pdf
My hypothesis of homeostatic regulation, which touches on why we seek out pleasure:
http://opentheory.net/2017/05/why-we-seek-out-pleasure-the-symmetry-theory-of-homeostatic-regulation/
My exploration & parametrization of the ‘neuroacoustics’ metaphor suggested by Atasoy’s work:
http://opentheory.net/2017/06/taking-brain-waves-seriously-neuroacoustics/
My colleague Andrés’s work on formalizing phenomenology:
A model of DMT-trip-as-hyperbolic-experience:
https://qualiacomputing.com/2017/05/28/eli5-the-hyperbolic-geometry-of-dmt-experiences/
June 2017 talk at Consciousness Hacking, describing a theory and experiment to predict people’s valence from fMRI data:
https://qualiacomputing.com/2017/06/18/quantifying-bliss-talk-summary/
A parametrization of various psychedelic states as operators in qualia space:
https://qualiacomputing.com/2016/06/20/algorithmic-reduction-of-psychedelic-states/
A brief post on valence and the fundamental attribution error:
https://qualiacomputing.com/2016/11/19/the-tyranny-of-the-intentional-object/
A summary of some of Selen Atasoy’s current work on Connectome Harmonics:
https://qualiacomputing.com/2017/06/18/connectome-specific-harmonic-waves-on-lsd/