Consciousness: a Cosmological Perspective (Sharpening the Simulation Argument)

February 14, 2019  |  No Comments

The following is an excerpt from Principia Qualia, Appendix F. I put it at the very end as a special, unexpected treat for people who read everything- but as it could provide independent support for the Symmetry Theory of Valence (STV), it deserves scrutiny.

Essentially, the following argument ties together three mysteries into a unique, falsifiable solution:

(1) The ‘Simulation Argument:’ or whether our universe has the hallmarks of being created through some intentional process;

(2) The ‘fine-tuning problem‘ in physics: why various physical constants such as the speed of light, weight of the electron, etc seem delicately tuned to support a certain sort of complexity;

(3) The ‘Problem of Evil:’ why suffering exists, and why it seems so common compared to goodness.

On this last topic, I come to a much more optimistic conclusion than most. Usually philosophers find themselves justifying why we find ourselves living in a bad universe dominated by suffering– my argument suggests instead that it can be reasonable, rational, and even plausible to be hopeful about the cosmic ledger.

Consciousness: a cosmological perspective

We tend to think of consciousness, and theories of consciousness, on a human scale. This seems reasonable, since it’s the only context for consciousness that we know anything about. But if we aim to have a well-defined, truly frame-invariant understanding of consciousness, we need to bite the bullet and accept that it should apply equally at non-human scales as well.

But things get strange very quickly when we consider theories of consciousness such as IIT & Perceptronium at cosmological scales. Humanity seems to think that they are the lone candle of consciousness, flickering in the surrounding void of inert matter– but what if the opposite is true? I submit it would be surprisingly difficult to fully-formalize a plausible theory of consciousness where the biological life of Earth constitutes the majority of the universe’s qualia.

Where else could qualia be found, if not humans? List your preferred frame-invariant condition for consciousness (integrated information, decoherence, “complexity”, etc), then consider how much of this consciousness-stuff the following cosmological phenomena might have:

The Big Bang: presumably, packing everything in our observable universe into an area smaller than an electron would have produced an incredible amount of integration (etc) with incredibly fine spatial & temporal grain. So much so that it seems plausible that >99.9% of the universe’s total qualia (in a timeless sense) could have happened within its first ~hour.

To put this poetically- perhaps we are qualia godshatter, slowly recoalescing ~14 billion years after the main event.

Eternal Inflation: inflationary cosmology- the idea that the early universe underwent an exponential expansion during the Big Bang- is “an ingenious attempt to solve some of the major puzzles of cosmology, most notably the flatness problem, the homogeneity (horizon) problem, and the monopole problem.” (Penrose 1989) First proposed in the 1980s, it’s still considered the best hypothesis we have for understanding why our universe has the distribution of mass & geometry it does.

An important implication of the inflation model is that, due to the math involved, it never quite stops. Sean Carroll notes that:

Most — “essentially all” — models of inflation lead to the prediction that inflation never completely ends. The vicissitudes of quantum fluctuations imply that even inflation doesn’t smooth out everything perfectly. As a result, inflation will end in some places, but in other places it keeps going. Where it keeps going, space expands at a fantastic rate. In some parts of that region, inflation eventually ends, but in others it keeps going. And that process continues forever, with some part of the universe perpetually undergoing inflation. That’s how the multiverse gets off the ground — we’re left with a chaotic jumble consisting of numerous “pocket universes” separated by regions of inflating spacetime. (Carroll 2011)

If this eternal inflation model of the universe is right, this inflationary process is almost certainly creating an infinite amount of qualia.

Our Future: it seems possible that- if we don’t kill ourselves first- our future could hold much more consciousness than the present. Kurzweil puts this possibility as “The Universe Wakes Up” and becomes conscious, thanks to our intervention.

Planck Scale phenomena: Perhaps the virtual particles continually popping in and out of existence in a quantum vacuum, or a quantum vacuum itself, involve a very small amount of integrated information. There’s a lot of stuff happening at the Planck Scale, so if it generates any qualia, it would be a huge amount of total qualia.

Megastructures: what would it feel like to be a black hole? Are black holes Bose-Einstein condensates, and if so does that imply anything about their qualia or their ability to store&process information? Is there any integrated information in a quasar?[1] We don’t generally talk about megastructures as having complex structure, but that may just be limitations on our models & measurements.

Partitions of reality we can’t see: as Max Tegmark notes in his Perceptronium paper, we experience a certain partition of Hilbert Space as reality. He argues that there might be other partitions of Hilbert Space that could support consciousness, too. Likewise, there may be other multiverses (Levels I, II, III, and IV, in Tegmark’s framework) that support consciousness. And so it seems easily possible that the majority of qualia being generated is outside of our particular partition and/or multiverse.


The above comments likely come across as a type error: ‘black holes can’t be conscious, and it couldn’t have felt like anything to be the Big Bang- don’t be ridiculous!’ – but, I would challenge those who would object to explain why in a formal way. As noted above, I think we’d be hard-pressed to define a fully frame-invariant theory of consciousness where the above sorts of cosmological events wouldn’t involve consciousness. So I think we have to bite the bullet here.

Finally, I end with some low-probability (<10%) speculation that I won’t ask my readers to bite the bullet on. I offer the following less as an argument, and more as an optimistic- and somewhat whimsical- exploration.

Hypothesis: many of these cosmological events may involve high- and sometimes extreme- amounts of symmetry. Status: unrepentantly speculative. Dependent upon many nested assumptions.

We can now move on to the next sort of question: “if it felt like something to be the Big Bang, what did it feel like?”; “if a black hole has qualia, what qualia does it have?

Obviously, I don’t know the answer. But some of these cosmological events are notable for having an extreme degree of symmetry, which- if the Symmetry Theory of Valence (STV) is correct- means they should feel pretty good.

The Big Bang & Eternal Inflation are probably the best understood example of a high-symmetry cosmological event. The rapid inflation of our universe, which cosmologists are fairly certain describes our past, requires an extremely low-entropy starting point in order to happen (something close to a de Sitter space, which is the ‘maximally symmetric solution of Einstein’s field equations with a positive cosmological constant’). There are huge unknowns here: e.g., is low-entropy here the same as high-symmetry? What is the measure we should use for symmetry-which-is-relevant-for-valence? Why did the universe start with such a low-entropy state to begin with? But the Big Bang probably had, and the ongoing Eternal Inflation probably has, an extremely high amount of whatever the symmetry relevant to valence is.

Also of note, Max Tegmark has suggested that the Many-Worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics may imply substantial symmetries that are ‘hidden’ from observers like us:

[In the Level III multiverse] the quantum superposition of field configurations decoheres into what is for all practical purposes an ensemble of classical universes with different density fluctuation patterns. Just as in all cases of spontaneous symmetry breaking, the symmetry is never broken in the bird’s view, merely in the frog’s view: a translationally and rotationally quantum state (wave functional) such as the Bunch-Davies vacuum can decohere into an incoherent superposition of states that lack any symmetry. (Tegmark 2007)

If these high-symmetry ‘birds-eye views’ of a Many Worlds reality can support qualia, and of course assuming my hypothesis about valence is correct, the qualia would plausibly be very pleasant.[2]

My point here is that there could be a lot of very pleasant qualia laying around, under certain not-implausible assumptions about consciousness and valence. Perhaps an amazingly huge amount.


Bostrom’s Simulation Argument:

One last piece of the puzzle: Nick Bostrom’s Simulation Argument (SA) suggests that at least some advanced civilizations will make universe simulations, and if they do, they will make lots of such simulations. This implies we are statistically likely to be living in a simulation. More technically, Bostrom argues that:

At least one of the following propositions is true: (1) the human species is very likely to go extinct before reaching a “posthuman” stage; (2) any posthuman civilization is extremely unlikely to run a significant number of simulations of their evolutionary history (or variations thereof); (3) we are almost certainly living in a computer simulation. (Bostrom 2003)

Bostrom’s argument as stated relies on consciousness being substrate-independent: he assumes that “it would suffice for the generation of subjective experiences that the computational processes of a human brain are structurally replicated in suitably fine-grained detail, such as on the level of individual synapses.” I think there are very good reasons to doubt this, as noted in Appendix C and (McCabe 2005).

But I think Bostrom doesn’t need this assumption of substrate-independence for his argument. I suggest the following middle ground: as Bostrom notes, we could be living in a simulation. But as McCabe argues, if we are in a simulation, it wouldn’t really ‘count’ as being a metaphysically separate reality. Instead, we would simply be living in a weirdly-partitioned view of basement reality, since a simulation can’t take on any strong emergent properties over and above the hardware it’s being run on. Importantly, this means the underlying physical rules for consciousness would be the same for us as they would be for the entities running our simulations. But in practice, the simulation could present these rules to us very differently than they would be presented in unfiltered basement reality.


Why simulate anything?

At any rate, let’s assume the simulation argument is viable- i.e., it’s possible we’re a simulation, and due to the anthropic math, that it’s plausible that we’re in one now.

Although it’s possible that we are being simulated but for no reason, let’s assume entities smart enough to simulate universes would have a good reason to do so. So- what possible good reason could there be to simulate a universe? Two options come to mind:

(a) the simulation has instrumental vale, e.g. using the evolution of the physical world to compute something, or

(b) the simulation has intrinsic value, e.g. something to do with creating valuable qualia.

In theory, (a) could be tested by assuming that efficient computations will exhibit high degrees of Kolmogorov complexity (incompressibility) from certain viewpoints, and low Kolmogorov complexity from others. We could then formulate an anthropic-aware measure for this applicable from ‘within’ a computational system, and apply it to our observable universe. This is outside the scope of this work.

However, we can offer a suggestion about (b): if our universe is being simulated for some intrinsic purpose, it seems plausible that it has to do with producing a large amount of some kind of particularly interesting or morally relevant qualia. The one quale that seems particularly interesting and especially morally relevant is positive valence.[3]

–> Hypothesis: the universe could be being simulated to generate lots of positive valence. Let’s call this the Teleologic Simulation for Valence (TSfV) Hypothesis. It implies that all contingent facts of our universe (e.g., all free variables in the Standard Model) are optimized for maximizing total positive valence.


Evidence/predictions for TSfV:

The way to test this would be exploring whether we live in a universe which seems improbably likely to support lots of positive valence, and if we can’t explain contingent features of our universe without assuming this. I.e., can the TSfV hypothesis make successful predictions that mere anthropic reasoning can’t? Likewise, if we can find a single contingent physical constant not optimized for the maximization of positive valence (more strictly, consciousness*valence*intensity, per Section X[4]), this would disprove the hypothesis.

The clearest argument for this TSfV hypothesis revolves around the initial low-entropy state (a ‘quasi’ de Sitter space) which allows Eternal Inflation. How this state came about is currently an unsolved problem in cosmology, and if it (or something upstream of it) is contingent and we can’t explain it in any other way, this would be strong evidence. Here’s Sean Carroll:

Although inflation does seem to create a universe like ours, it needs to start in a very particular kind of state. If the laws of physics are “unitary” (reversible, preserving information over time), then the number of states that would begin to inflate is actually much smaller than the number of states that just look like the hot Big Bang in the first place. So inflation seems to replace a fine-tuning of initial conditions with an even greater fine-tuning. (Carroll 2011)

Many other arguments could be made, particularly, surrounding the four other topics I identify above, but there are too many unknowns to say very much with confidence. Progress here will depend on better understanding the physical representation of the symmetry that ‘matters’ for valence, connecting this with various definitions of entropy, calculating expected qualia & valence of various cosmological events, and general progress on cosmological models.

Leibniz famously argued that we live in the best possible world, based on the following argument:

God has the idea of infinitely many universes.

Only one of these universes can actually exist.

God’s choices are subject to the principle of sufficient reason, that is, God has reason to choose one thing or another.

God is good.

Therefore, the universe that God chose to exist is the best of all possible worlds. (Leibniz 1710 (1989))

This argument fell into disfavor due to the problems of evil and suffering, the triumph of evolution & empirical science over theology & reasoning from first-principles, and ambiguity over what makes a universe ‘good’.

I don’t know if there’s something here or not. But it may be time to revisit this argument from the perspective of the Simulation Argument[5] and the physics of qualia & valence. Likewise, any serious treatment of the Simulation Argument absolutely must pay attention to qualia & valence.



[1] Cosmology has put a lot of effort into studying “standard candles”, or stars which have a precisely predictable energy output due to transitions which happen at precisely known mass thresholds. Is the qualia-relevant microstructure of standard candles also similar across a given class? E.g., do all type Ia supernovae feel fairly similar?

[2] Likewise, Tegmark notes that different Level II multiverses can support “different ways in which space can be compactified, which can allow both different effective dimensionality and different symmetries/elementary articles (corresponding to different topology of the curled up extra dimensions).”

[3] I am not claiming valence is necessarily the only quale of moral relevance, merely that it is the quale that is most obviously morally relevant.

[4] E.g., we should look for optimization for high symmetry, but not perfect symmetry everywhere and everywhen, since this presumably wouldn’t allow room for the sort of complexity which gives rise to consciousness (or the passage of time).

[5] This may also offer somewhat of a basis for a probability measure for Tegmark’s set of Level IV multiverses.

The Neuroscience of Meditation: Four Models

December 22, 2018

Background: I’m a philosopher at the Qualia Research Institute (QRI) working on the intersection of neuroscience and phenomenology. As part of this research and to develop my practice, I recently did a 7-day vipassana meditation retreat. The following are some perspectives, models, and hypotheses I had on how some of the ‘Western’ ideas we’re working with at QRI could connect to ‘Eastern’ contemplative practices. (Yes, I know I wasn’t supposed to think during a retreat, but enlightenment will just have to wait, I have things to do…)

Buddhism is the start of something really important

I think Buddhism does a really good job at telling a coherent and useful story about how the mind works — and the difficulty of telling stories about the mind that are both coherent and useful is, I think, drastically under-appreciated. Major credit to Buddha here. But Buddhism is also incomplete: it talks about what the big-picture dynamics of subjective experience are, but is silent about how these dynamics are implemented. Put simply, Buddhism says a lot about the mind, but nothing about the brain, and this is ultimately limiting. We need ways to connect what’s going on in the mind during meditation to neuroscience and information theory; we need more frames for what’s going on, we need better and more quantitative frames, we need meta frames for how everything fits together.

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Interview & podcast

November 15, 2018

Adam Ford recently posted some bits from an interview we did a while back- an excerpt from part 1:

Perhaps the clearest and most important ethical view I have is that [consequentialist] ethics must ultimately “compile” to physics. What we value and what we disvalue must ultimately cash out in terms of particle arrangements & dynamics, because these are the only things we can actually change. And so if people are doing ethics without caring about making their theories cash out in physical terms, they’re not actually doing ethics- they’re doing art, or social signaling, or something which can serve as the inspiration for a future ethics.

The analogy I’d offer here is that we can think about our universe as a computer, and ethics as choosing a program to run on this computer. Unfortunately, most ethicists aren’t writing machine-code, or even thinking about things in ways that could be easily translated to machine-code. Instead, they’re writing poetry about the sorts of programs that might be nice to run. But you can’t compile poetry to machine-code! So I hope the field of ethics becomes more physics-savvy and quantitative (although I’m not optimistic this will happen quickly).

Eliezer Yudkowsky refers to something similar with notions of “AI grade philosophy”, “compilable philosophy”, and “computable ethics”, though I don’t think he quite goes far enough (i.e., all the way to physics).

From part 2, on why some communities seem especially confused about consciousness:

First, people don’t realize how bad most existing models of qualia & valence are. Michael Graziano argues that most theories of consciousness are worse than wrong- that they play to our intuitions but don’t actually explain anything. Computationalism, functionalism, fun theory, ‘hedonic brain regions’, ‘pleasure neurochemicals’, the reinforcement learning theory of valence, and so on all give the illusion of explanatory depth but don’t actually explain things in a way which allows us to do anything useful.

Second, people don’t realize how important good understandings of qualia & valence are. They’re upstream of basically everything interesting and desirable.

Here’s what I think has happened, at least in the rationalist community: historically, consciousness research has been a black hole. Smart people go in, but nothing comes out. So communities (such as physicists and LessWrong) naturally have an interest in putting up a fence around the topic with a sign that says ‘Don’t go here!’ – But over time, people forgot why the mystery was blocked off, and started to think that the mystery doesn’t exist. This leads to people actively avoiding thinking about these topics without being able to articulate why.

And from part 3, on the need for bold, testable theories (and institutions which can generate them):

I would agree with [Thomas] Bass that we’re swimming in neuroscience data, but it’s not magically turning into knowledge. There was a recent paper called “Could a neuroscientist understand a microprocessor?” which asked if the standard suite of neuroscience methods could successfully reverse-engineer the 6502 microprocessor used in the Atari 2600 and NES. This should be easier than reverse-engineering a brain, since it’s a lot smaller and simpler, and since they were analyzing it in software they had all the data they could ever ask for, but it turned out that the methods they were using couldn’t cut it. Which really begs the question of whether these methods can make progress on reverse-engineering actual brains. As the paper puts it, neuroscience thinks it’s data-limited, but it’s actually theory-limited.

The first takeaway from this is that even in the age of “big data” we still need theories, not just data. We still need people trying to guess Nature’s structure and figuring out what data to even gather. Relatedly, I would say that in our age of “Big Science” relatively few people are willing or able to be sufficiently bold to tackle these big questions. Academic promotions & grants don’t particularly reward risk-taking.

I also did a podcast with Adrian Nelson of Waking Cosmos where we talked about consciousness research, valence, ethics, and applying these concepts to non-biological objects (e.g. black holes):


A new theory of Open Individualism

September 1, 2018

My colleague Andrés recently wrote about various theories of personal identity, and how a lack of a clear consensus here poses a challenge to ethics. From his post:

Personal Identity: Closed, Empty, Open

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

In brief:

1. Closed Individualism: You start existing when you are born, and stop when you die.

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A Future for Neuroscience

August 13, 2018

I think all neuroscientists, all philosophers, all psychologists, and all psychiatrists should basically drop whatever they’re doing and learn Selen Atasoy’s “connectome-specific harmonic wave” (CSHW) framework. It’s going to be the backbone of how we understand the brain and mind in the future, and it’s basically where predictive coding was in 2011, or where blockchain was in 2009. Which is to say, it’s destined for great things and this is a really good time to get into it.

I described CSHW in my last post as:

Selen Atasoy’s Connectome-Specific Harmonic Waves (CSHW) is a new method for interpreting neuroimaging which (unlike conventional approaches) may plausibly measure things directly relevant to phenomenology. Essentially, it’s a method for combining fMRI/DTI/MRI to calculate a brain’s intrinsic ‘eigenvalues’, or the neural frequencies which naturally resonate in a given brain, as well as the way the brain is currently distributing energy (periodic neural activity) between these eigenvalues.

This post is going to talk a little more about how CSHW works, why it’s so powerful, and what sorts of things we could use it for.

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Seed ontologies

June 3, 2018

Chatting with people at a recent conference on consciousness (TSC2018), I had the feeling of strolling through an alchemist’s convention: lots of optimistic energy & clever ideas, but also a strong sense that the field is pre-scientific. In short, there was a lot of overly-confident hand-waving.

But there were also a handful of promising ideas that stood out, that seemed like they could form at least part of the seed for an actual science of qualia; something that could transform the study of mind from alchemy to chemistry. Today I want to list these ideas, and say a few things about their ecosystem.

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Why are humans good?

March 19, 2018

Are humans worthy of colonizing the universe? Are we particularly awesome and benevolent, moreso than a random mind sampled from mindspace?

The following isn’t a full argument, but I want to point toward two things humans seem to do:

  • First, our brains are set up in such a way that we stochastically seek out pleasant states of mind. (I think this is a contingent fact about humans, not a universal for intelligent beings);
  • Second, we model other beings through empathy (i.e. we’re ‘qualia resonators’ and take on aspects of the phenomenology of those around us, insofar as we can perceive it).

These two things combine in a very interesting way: left to our individual devices, we tend to adapt our environment such that it embodies many beings with positive valence, and their positive valence becomes our positive valence. The domestication and adaptation of wolves is a good example: dogs are basically four-legged happiness machines that we keep around because their fantastic qualia rubs off on us.

Now of course there are a million caveats: we’re often bad at these things, empathy-based behavior has a ton of failure-modes, this doesn’t address hedonic set-points or game-theoretic traps, etc. But the way these two things interact is a big reason I like humanity, and want to preserve it.

Rescuing Philosophy

October 2, 2017


Philosophy has lost much of its energy, focus, and glamor in our modern era. What happened?

I’d suggest that five things went wrong:

1. Historical illegibility. Historically, ‘philosophy’ is what you do when you don’t know what to do. This naturally involves a lot of error. Once you figure out a core ontology and methodology for your topic, you stop calling it ‘philosophy’ and start calling it ‘science’, ‘linguistics’, ‘modal logic’, and so on. This is a very important, generative process, but it also means that if you look back at the history of philosophy, you basically only see ideas that are, technically speaking, wrong. This gives philosophers trying to ‘carry on the tradition’ a skewed understanding of what philosophy is, and how to do it.

2. Evaporative cooling. The fact that the most successful people, ideas, ontologies/methodologies, and tools tend to leave philosophy to found their own disciplines leads to long-term problems with quality. We can think of this as an evaporative cooling effect where philosophy is left with the fakest of problems, and the worst, most incoherent and confused ways to frame what real problems are left.

3. Lack of feedback loops. Good abstract philosophy is really hard to do right, it’s hard to distinguish good philosophy from the bad, and the value of doing philosophy well isn’t as immediately apparent as, say, chemistry. This leads to ‘monkey politics’ playing a large role in which ideas gain traction, which in turn drives a lot of top talent away.

4. Professionalization. Turning metaphysical confusion into something clear enough to build a new science on tends to be a very illegible process, full of false-starts, recontextualizations, and unpredictable breakthroughs. This is really hard to systematically teach students how to do, and even harder to plan an academic budget around. As philosophy became regularized and professionalized– something that you can have a career in– it was also pushed toward top-down legibility. This resulted in less of a focus on grappling with metaphysical uncertainty and more focus on institutionally-legible things such as scholarship, incremental research, teaching, and so on. Today, the discipline is often taught and organized academically as a ‘history of ideas’, based on how past philosophers carved various problem-spaces.

5. Postmodernism. Philosophy got hit pretty hard by postmodernism — and insofar as philosophy was the traditional keeper of theories of meaning, and insofar as postmodernism attacked all sources of meaning, philosophy suffered more than other disciplines. Likewise, academic philosophy has inherited all the problems of modern academia, of which there are many.

I’m painting with a broad brush here, and I should note that there are pockets of brilliant academic philosophers out there doing good, and even heroic, work in spite of these structural conditions. #notallphilosophers. But I don’t think many of these would claim they’re happy with modern academic philosophy’s structural conditions or trajectory.

And this matters, since philosophy is still necessary. There’s a *lot* of value in having a solid philosophical toolset, and having a healthy intellectual tradition of being mindful about ontological questions, epistemology, and so on. As David Pearce often points out, there’s no clean way to abstain from thorny philosophical issues: “The penalty of not doing philosophy isn’t to transcend it, but simply to give bad philosophical arguments a free pass.”


So philosophy is broken. What do we do about it?

My friend Sebastian Marshall describes the ‘evaporative cooling’ philosophy has undergone, and suggests that we should try to rescue and reclaim philosophy:

So, this bastardized divorced left-behind philosophy will be here to stay in some form or fashion. We can’t get rid of it… but it’s also not necessary to get rid of it.

Turning to better news, even in mainstream philosophy, there are still sane and sound branches doing good work, like logic (which is basically math) and philosophy of mind (which is rapidly becoming neuroscience but which hasn’t yet evaporatively cooled out of philosophy).

It wouldn’t take very many people reclaiming the word philosophy as a love of wisdom to begin to turn things around.

Genuinely good philosophy is happening all over the place – though it’s rarely people in fields that don’t fight back at all. Indeed, you see computer programming and financiers doing some of the best philosophy now – Paul Graham, Eliezer Yudkowsky, Ray Dalio, Charlie Munger, Nassim Taleb. When the computer scientist get something wrong, their code doesn’t work. When the financier gets something wrong, they lose a lot of money. Excellent philosophers still come of the military – John Boyd and Hyman Rickover to name two recent Americans – and they come out of industrial engineering, like Eli Goldratt.

That these people are currently not classified as philosophers is simply an error– let the people doing uselessness in the towers call themselves “theoretical screwaroundists” or whatever other more palatable name they might come up with for themselves; genuine philosophy is alive and well, even as the word points to decayed and failing institutions.

There would clearly be enormous benefits to reclaiming the word “philosophy” for serious generative work. But I worry it’s going to be really hard.

Words have a lifecycle- often, they start out full of focus, wit, and life, able to vividly convey some key relationship. As time goes on, however, they lose this special something as they become normalized and regress toward the linguistic mean. Part of being a good writer is being in-tune with what words & phrases still have life, and part of being a great writer (like Shakespeare) is minting new ones. My sense is that “philosophy” doesn’t have much sparkle left, and it may be preferable to coin a new word.

Unfortunately, I don’t know of any better words that would encapsulate everything we’d want, and it may be very difficult to rally people behind a new term unless it’s really good. Even though academic philosophy is in terrible shape, the term ‘philosophy’ is still an effective Schelling point; still prime memetic real-estate. So, pending that better option, I think Sebastian’s right and we do need to do what we can to rescue & reclaim philosophy.


How do we rescue philosophy? — I think we need to think about this both in terms of individual tactics and collective strategy.

Individual tactics: survival and value creation in an unfriendly environment

Essentially, those that wish to make a notable, real, and durable contribution to philosophy should understand that association with academia is a double-edged sword. On the plus side, it can give people credibility, access, and fellowship with other academics, apprenticeships with established thinkers, maybe a steady income, and a great excuse to engage deeply with philosophy. On the other hand, by going into academic philosophy someone is essentially granting an unhealthy, partially moribund system broad influence over their local incentives, memetic milieu, and aesthetic. That’s a really big deal.

A personal aside: I struggled with how to navigate this while writing Principia Qualia. Clearly a new philosophical work on consciousness should engage with other work in the space– and there’s a lot of good philosophy of mind out there, work I could probably use and build upon. At the same time, if philosophy’s established ways of framing the problem of consciousness could lead to a solution, it would’ve been solved by now, and by using someone else’s packaged ontology, I’d be at risk of importing their confusion into my foundation. With this in mind I decided that being aware of key landmarks in philosophy was important, but being uncorrelated with philosophy’s past framing was equally important, so I took a minimalist first-principles approach to building my framework and was very careful about what I imported from philosophy and how I used it.

Collective strategy: Schelling points & positive-feedback loops

The machinery of modern academic philosophy is going to resist attempts at reformation, as all rudderless bureaucratic entities do, but it won’t be proactively hostile about it, and in fact a lot of philosophers desperately want change. This means people can engage in open coordination on this problem. I.e., if we can identify Schelling points and plant rallying flags which can help coordinate with potential allies, we could probably make a collective push to fix certain problems or subfields (my sources say this sort of ‘benign takeover’ is already in motion in certain departments of bioethics).

Ultimately, though, fixing philosophy from within probably looks like a better option than it actually is, since (1) entryism is sneaky, always has a bad faith component, and is never as simple as it sounds (if nothing else, you have to fight off other entryists!), and (2) meme flow always goes both ways, and a plan to fix philosophy’s norms faster than its bad norms subvert us is inherently risky. Plenty of good people with magnificent intentions of fixing philosophy go into grad school, only to get lost in the noise, fail to catalyze a positive-feedback-loop, burn out, and give up years later. If you’re going into academic philosophy anyway, then definitely try to improve it, but don’t go into academic philosophy in order to improve it.

Instead, it may be better to build institutions that are separate from modern academic philosophy, and compete against it. Right now, academic philosophy looks “too big to fail”- a juggernaut that, for all its flaws, is still the go-to arbiter of success, authority, and truth in philosophy. And as long as academic philosophy can keep its people stably supplied with money and status, and people on the outside have to scramble for scraps, this isn’t going to change much. But nothing is forever & there are hints of a shift, the world needs better alternatives, and now is a great time to start building them.

In short, I think the best way to fix philosophy may be to to build new (or revive ancient) competing metaphors for what philosophy should be, to solve problems that modern philosophy can’t, to offer a viable refuge for people fleeing academia’s dysfunction, and to make academia come to us if it wants to stay relevant.


This is essentially what we’re working toward at the Qualia Research Institute: building something new, outside of academic philosophy in order to avoid its dysfunction, but still very much focused on a core problem of philosophy.

I see this happening elsewhere, too: LessWrong is essentially a “hard fork” of epistemology, with different problem-carvings, norms, and methods, which are collectively slowly maturing into the notion of executable philosophy. Likewise, Leverage Research may be crazy, but I’ve got to give them credit for being crazy in a novel and generative way, one which is uncorrelated with the more mundane, depressing ways modern academic philosophy & psychology are crazy. Honorable mentions include Exosphere, an intentional community I’m pretty sure Aristotle would have felt right at home in, and Alexandros Pagidas, a refugee from academic philosophy who’s trying to revive traditional Greek-style philosophical fight clubs (which, to be honest, sound kind of fun).

There are a lot of these little seeds around. Not all of them will sprout into something magnificent. But I think most are worth watering.

Against functionalism: why I think the Foundational Research Institute should rethink its approach

July 20, 2017

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.

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Taking ‘brain waves’ seriously: Neuroacoustics

June 14, 2017

Our research collective has been doing a lot of work touching on brain dynamics, resonance, and symmetry: see here and here (video). Increasingly, a new implicit working ontology I’m calling ‘Neuroacoustics’ is taking shape. This is a quick outline of that new ontology.

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