State of the Qualia, Fall 2019

October 9, 2019

Qualia Research Institute’s inaugural newsletter.

What is QRI trying to do?

Our long-term vision is to end suffering. To destroy hell, and to build tools for exploring all the bright futures which come after. To take the Buddha’s vision of 2600 years ago, support it with advanced theory and technology, and make it real for all creatures.

Our medium-term goal is to build a ‘full-stack’ approach to the mind and brain, centered around emotional valence. Critically, better philosophy should lead to better neuroscience, and better neuroscience should lead to better neurotechnology. We’re skeptical of any philosophical approaches that don’t try to “pay rent” by building empirically useful things.

Our short-term deliverables are to refine our tools for evaluating EEG readings of emotionally-intense states (e.g. 5-MeO-DMT), build a hardware platform for non-invasive precision brain stimulation, and release an updated version of our full-stack theory of brain dynamics (‘neural annealing’).

We think we’re on track for all of these goals. On one level this is a huge claim- but as Archimedes said, “Give me a place to stand, and a lever long enough, and I will move the world.” We think we have that lever, and we’re building a place to stand.

Progress to date

Philosophy: over the course of the last few years, we’ve imported and integrated many key insights from our research lineages – in aggregate we believe these form the world’s best map of how to not get confused in navigating the formalization of consciousness. Our paradigm (laid out in Principia Qualia) builds on top of these lineages, and our core philosophical result is the Symmetry Theory of Valence (STV), an information-theoretic approach towards understanding how pleasant an experience is. (STV is important because it’s such a crisp and theoretically significant hypothesis: if it’s right, and we can prove it, the world will shift overnight.) We’ve also done significant philosophical research on the phenomenological nature of time, DMT states, and the logarithmic nature of pain and pleasure, to pick a few topics. Read more.

Neuroscience: Over the past two years we’ve put together a substantial push into neuroscience, which is showing increasing traction. Scott Alexander recently noticed how we actually beat Robin Carhart-Harris and Karl Friston (the world’s most-influential neuroscientist!) to the punch with an annealing model for psychedelics; this also forms the basis for (we believe) the world’s best neuroscience paradigm for explaining the mechanisms and effects of meditation and was mentioned in Tim Ferriss’s newsletter. We’re also a center of gravity (along with Selen Atasoy, its creator) for phenomenological interpretation of the Connectome-Specific Harmonic Wave (CSHW) paradigm.

Organization: This year saw QRI run a successful summer internship program in San Francisco with 3 superstar interns, Andrew and Kenneth from Harvard and Quintin from Washington University. More recently, we spent a month in Boston on a ‘work sprint’, and ended up giving 3 talks at Harvard and 1 at MIT, with plans to do more at various Ivies this fall. One of the most fun outputs of this summer was Zuck’s QRI explainer video (4.5 minutes).

I’m ridiculously proud of everything we’ve accomplished — a few years ago, QRI was mostly a promissory note that a formalist approach to consciousness could produce something interesting. Today, I can say with a straight face that QRI is one of the premier consciousness research centers in the world, releasing top-tier cross-disciplinary research every few months.

What’s next

Our current push is centered on empirically validating the Symmetry Theory of Valence (STV) and integrating it with our neuroscience stack. This involves releasing an updated version of our ‘neural annealing’ neuroscience paradigm, building a hardware platform for patterned stimulation, and refining our “CDNS” algorithm to work with EEG, with an eye toward using 5-MeO-DMT EEG data to evaluate STV. It looks like 2020 will be a breakout year for us.

What we need

Frankly speaking, we need your support. Building things is hard, and what we’re doing has never been done before. Our core bottlenecks are money, people, and executive function.

Money: so far, QRI has been mostly self-funded from the co-founders’ personal savings. I’m proud of everyone’s commitment, but this is unsustainable, especially as we attempt more ambitious projects. At this point, we have enough results to make a firm case that supporting QRI is likely to produce an awesome amount of value for the world, potentially literally the most leveraged philanthropic effort existing today. Frankly speaking the future we’re building won’t get built if we don’t secure funding, and I ask for your help and generosity. You can donate here. (Thank you to our key supporters this year! Your efforts allowed us to onboard three amazing interns and will support building things this Fall.)

People: high-quality organizations are incredibly hungry for high-quality people. QRI is no exception. If you think you have something to offer, please get in touch about collaboration, volunteering, research, and so on. Importantly, we don’t just need researchers: we’re hungry for operations people, and looking for help with getting on podcasts (speaking with Sam Harris and Joe Rogan would both be big wins!), organizing or getting speaking engagements (especially in the Bay), and even small, fun projects like making a series of QRI meme t-shirts.

Executive function: there’s a natural tension between research and organization-building. Paul Graham talks about this in Maker’s Schedule, Manager’s Schedule; research needs big uninterrupted chunks of time, whereas management and outreach involves lots of small tasks. Speaking personally, I struggle with keeping up with all our inquiries while also doing ‘deep work’. I would offer three thoughts to potential volunteers:

  1. Please have patience if we don’t get back to you right away. We’re juggling as best we can!
  2. When possible, we absolutely love it when people can figure out their own way to help — I can think of few things more pleasant to see in my inbox than someone sharing a “by the way, I made this” link to e.g. a nice HTML version of Principia Qualia, an explainer video for various QRI concepts, a deep review of our experimental method, etc. 
  3. One of the highest leverage ways to help is to build infrastructure for us. E.g., if you’re familiar with the main themes of our work and want to be a volunteer coordinator for us, that would be an amazing force-multiplier.

I am incredibly proud of what we’ve done so far, and incredibly excited about the future. We will need your help to build it.

All the best,

Michael Edward Johnson

Executive Director, Qualia Research Institute

What’s out there?

September 12, 2019

We think of the great unknowns of cosmology in terms of physics (what was the Big Bang? Why does our physics have the constants it does? What are dark energy and dark matter?) and xenobiology (are there aliens out there? What might they be like? Why haven’t we seen any?).

However, a potentially generative frame is asking what kind of qualia is out there in our universe. What kinds of non-human subjective experience we might discover if we had better theories. As I shared in Principia Qualia Appendix F

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.

See also my posts on monism and against functionalism for why I see the physics frame as particularly promising.

Taking this frame seriously, I’d offer there are four main classes of qualia in the universe:

I. Evolved Qualia – e.g., humans and other free-energy-minimizing-evolved-systems. These will be characterized by intentional content, predictable dynamics, stable-ish boundaries, often with the behavioral hallmarks of agency and the qualia of free will. ‘Qualia agents’.

II. Primordial Qualia – e.g., quantum fuzz. The small-scale, primordial ‘soup’ of mostly-not-bound-together flashes of simple qualia-information. ‘Qualia dust’.

III. Megascale Qualia – e.g., black holes, quasars, stars, planetary cores. These will be characterized by stable-ish boundaries, highly predictable dynamics, likely no intentional content, but possibly significant binding. ‘Qualia (mega)crystals’.

IV. Technological Qualia –  

  • IVa: Qualia Fragments, aka ‘qualia fraggers’ – technological artifacts created for some instrumental functional purpose, e.g. digital computers. A key lens I would offer is that the functional boundary of our brain and the phenomenological boundary of our mind overlap fairly tightly, and this may not be the case with artificial technological artifacts. And so artifacts created for functional purposes seem likely to result in unstable phenomenological boundaries, unpredictable qualia dynamics and likely no intentional content or phenomenology of agency, but also ‘flashes’ or ‘peaks’ of high order, unlike primordial qualia. We might think of these as producing ‘qualia gravel’ of very uneven size (mostly small, sometimes large, odd contents very unlike human qualia).
  • IVb: Engineered Qualia – technological artifacts created for the production, optimization, or computation of qualia, e.g. hedonium or what David Pearce calls ‘full-spectrum super intelligence’. What is produced when intelligent systems turn their optimization and computation power toward qualia.

Four big questions:

(1) What is the relative prevalence of each type of qualia?

(2) What is the average net hedonic state of each type of qualia?

(3) What are the cosmological signatures of various types of IVb artifacts? E.g. what would hedonium look like from a few light-years away?

(4) Is there a deterministic progression? Primordial Qualia seem to turn into Evolved Qualia over time, and Evolved Qualia goes on to create Technological Qualia. But what happens then? Do all civilizations end up creating Engineered Qualia? Or due to Molochian dynamics or bad theory of mind, do some civilizations get ‘stuck’ in the realm of Qualia Fragments? And which path are we on with current AGI trends?


Thank you to Andrés Gómez Emilsson and Quintin Frerichs for discussion.

Future of Life interview on AI alignment

July 17, 2019

Andrés and I were interviewed by the Future of Life Institute (FLI) for their AI alignment podcast back in May. I thought Lucas’s questions were excellent and the whole interview turned out very well.

Lucas: Hey, everyone. Welcome back to the AI Alignment Podcast. I’m Lucas Perry, and today we’ll be speaking with Andrés Gomez Emilsson and Mike Johnson from the Qualia Research Institute. In this episode, we discuss the Qualia Research Institute’s mission and core philosophy. We get into the differences between and arguments for and against functionalism and qualia realism. We discuss definitions of consciousness, how consciousness might be causal, we explore Marr’s Levels of Analysis, we discuss the Symmetry Theory of Valence. We also get into identity and consciousness, and the world, the is-out problem, what this all means for AI alignment and building beautiful futures.

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Taking Monism Seriously

June 29, 2019

On weak vs strong dual-aspect monism

Sometimes, the solutions to the hardest problems are embarrassingly simple, and all that’s lacking is collecting people with the right research aesthetic, and actually trying. I often feel this way about formalizing consciousness.

Thus far, our approach at QRI has focused on mathematizing pleasure/pain. The flagship outputs have been the Symmetry Theory of Valence, which is an information-theoretic definition of what pleasure is, and CDNS, which is a paradigm for applying this theory to the brain. Basically, STV says that how pleasant an experience is is encoded in the symmetry of its mathematical representation, and CDNS says that we can build a great proxy for this symmetry with a specific fMRI technique that can measure harmony in the brain. We’re cautiously optimistic that we’re right, and incredibly excited about the prospects of leveraging this to build better neuroscience and neurotechnology (see: Quantifying Bliss; A Future for Neuroscience).

But there’s another frame that I think could be at least as generative, and is even simpler: taking dual-aspect monism seriously.

Dual-aspect monism?

Dual-aspect monism (aka ‘neutral monism’) essentially argues the physical and the phenomenal are ultimately different aspects of the same thing. Two sides of the same coin, or as I like to describe it, different shadows (projections) cast by the same object. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy suggests that this model originated with Ernst Mach, William James, and Bertrand Russell; today it has a small but devoted following. Personally, I think that if consciousness is something to be formalized, as opposed to a ‘God of the Gaps’ frame where it’s a leaky abstraction that will shrink to nothing as we sharpen our vocabulary, then dual-aspect monism seems like the most coherent frame (see: Against Functionalism).

Monism: one source, two projections (‘shadows’)

Today, though, I want to make a further distinction: there are two versions of dual-aspect monism available to us, the weak version and the strong version. And I think an enormous amount of progress in consciousness research will happen when we start to take the strong version seriously.

Weak vs Strong monism

Weak dual-aspect monism frames its argument as a philosophical solution to consciousness: under this framework, there’s the physical and the phenomenal, and in some sense they’re the same, and this clarifies issues of ontology and causality in the study of consciousness. The resolution of metaphysical confusion about these issues is seen as the victory.  

Strong dual-aspect monism, on the other hand, says we shouldn’t stop there. Namely, if the physical and the phenomenal really are mathematical projections from the same object, they’ll have an identical deep structure, and we can ‘port’ theories from one projection to the other. I’d offer this as the meta-theorem of monism: every true theorem in physics will have a corresponding true theorem in phenomenology, and vice-versa. Literally speaking— if we go through a textbook on physics and list the theorems, ultimately we’ll be able to find a corresponding truth in phenomenology for every single one. I don’t know of any ‘strong dual-aspect monists’ out there doing this— but there should be.

An analogy: much as two shadows ultimately represent the same object, but might display different features, both aspects of the monism will ultimately derive from the same structure, though each may have a different set of explicitly-represented vs hidden variables. However, as we progress on determining invariants of how the shadows behave under different conditions (alternate lighting angles, different rotations of the object, etc), we’ll ultimately settle on mathematically-equivalent laws for each shadow. Essentially, anything we figure out about one shadow should likewise constrain how the other shadow will behave. And this is far from hypothetical: we already have an extensive, elegant, and highly predictive framework for describing the dynamics of one shadow — physics!

Noether’s theorem

An obvious place to start here is Noether’s theorem: that for every symmetry in the mathematical structure which describes our laws of physics, there will be a conserved (invariant) quantity in our physical reality. Conservation of linear momentum, for instance, corresponds to a symmetry (invariance) in how space behaves; conservation of angular momentum to a symmetry in rotational dynamics. If Noether’s theorem is true in physics, and if the meta-theorem of monism is true, this theorem should also apply to phenomenology and should be a gold-mine of heuristics for discovering the invariants of qualia space (as I suggested in Principia Qualia).

Table of Noether symmetries from Wikipedia

Looking for more people to actually try

We see a lot of these threads, and don’t have the resources to pull them all. I’d encourage physicists interested in phenomenology to literally open up their favorite physics textbook, start writing down the theorems inside, and strategize about how each could be ‘ported’ to phenomenology. (Arguably, the same could apply to Chemistry too — see e.g. QRI’s work on neural annealing — although I doubt the meta-theorem of monism is as true as in physics.)

And if you find something interesting, especially something that leads to better predictions, we’d love to hear about it.

Recent interviews: Allen Saakyan and Adam Ford

March 15, 2019

I had the pleasure of being on Allen Saakyan’s The Simulation show along with my colleague Andrés. Very nice interview format, looking forward to the next round.

Adam Ford also interviewed me about the Templeton Foundation’s new “Advancing Research into Consciousness” initiative, which attempts to pit theories of consciousness against each other in empirical trials. We also spoke extensively about the philosophical aspects of QRI‘s work.

Meditation & Science Jam 2019, Koh Phangan, Thailand

March 15, 2019

This February I co-organized a small conference on meditation and neuroscience on Koh Phangan, Thailand; I spoke about some of the research we’re doing at QRI, with a focus on the frameworks of

  • Predictive Coding (Karl Friston’s work)
  • Connectome-specific harmonic waves (Selen Atasoy’s work)
  • Neural annealing (QRI’s extension of Robin Carhart-Harris’s work on entropic disintegration).

The video unfortunately cuts out at the hour-mark, but here’s a link to my full slides. The other speakers included Anthony Markwell, George Lebedev, Ivanna Evtukhova, and Anastasia Bawari.

Intellectual Lineages

March 9, 2019

One of the most challenging things I’ve done lately is to chart out the Qualia Research Institute‘s intellectual lineages– basically, to try to enumerate the existing threads of research we’ve woven together to create our unique approach. Below is the current list, focusing on formalism, self-organized systems, and phenomenology:

Formalism lineages:

The brain is very complicated, the mind is very complicated, and the mapping between these two complicated things seems very murky. How can we move forward without getting terribly confused? And what should a formal theory of phenomenology even try to do? These are not easy questions, but the following work seems to usefully constrain what answers here might look like:

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Consciousness: a Cosmological Perspective (Sharpening the Simulation Argument)

February 14, 2019

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.

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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):