What’s out there?

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.