Nick Bostrom’s 2007 TED presentation (titled: Humanity’s biggest problems aren’t what you think they are) involved an illustration that I liked so much that I modeled it – and credited Bostrom – in my first TEDx back in late 2014.
I present a modified version of Bostrom’s “modes of being” image, modified for the topic of this article – psychedelics:
The image was intended to visualize the total area of sentient experience, which Bostrom supposes to be vastly beyond what humans are now capable of experiencing and understanding.
It’s easy to presume that, as we create sentient artificial intelligence, it will “think” like we “think”. It will imagine the future, think about the past, potentially be nostalgic in the same way we are, and have similar anxieties.
This is exceedingly unlikely – and any artificial general intelligence (AGI) is likely “think” and “feel” in ways completely different than humans do today (see previous essay: Super-intelligent Machines May be Conscious, but Not Like We Are).
It could be argued that psychedelic drugs could be a useful lever in building out a wider imagination of what consciousness could be like. Anyone who has done psychedelics could attest that there are “ranges” of their own conscious experience that were only accessible under the influence (see the slightly expanded blue space in the image above, compared to the normal human pink experience-space).
Imagine that our goal is to create the best possible sentient space for future life forms (cognitively enhanced human beings, and artificial superintelligences) does this experience have value?
It’s easy to presume that, as we augment human minds with more memory, more emotional capacity, or more creative ability – we will be just like we are today, just smart and happier. Same senses, same occasional jealousies and sense of humor, same need to stretch our tired bodies when we wake up in the morning.
This is exceedingly unlikely – as drastic alterations to our senses and cognition are likely to make us unable to live together as individuals with massive conflict – and possibly wholly unable to relate to one another (for more on this topic, read “The Epitome of Freedom“, or Roman Yampolskiy’s thoughtful and interesting “Personal Universes“).
So, if we enhance our own minds with cognitive implants, what kinds of experiences would we want them to have?
Hypothetically, the possibilities are endless. We might choose:
- A constant state of extreme hedonic bliss. Something akin to: Sex, chocolate, extasy, music… but experienced continuously without dulling and at 100x our current ability to experience pleasure
- An experience of “gradients of bliss”. Instead of a range of “good” (+10) or “bad” (-10) feelings, we might only experience (+20) to (+200) feelings, with no need for negative experience to burden us
- A complete escape from the “real world” and an escape into a pleasant and pleasurable virtual world – through a brain-machine interface (see “Lotus Eaters“)
- Brain-machine interface and cognitive enhancements used directly to enhance one’s abilities to achieve goals in the real or virtual world (see “World Eaters“)
- An ability to experience rich and fulfilling relationships with thousands of other people in virtual worlds
- An experience of fulfilling relationships, but with programmatically-generated agents who serve our ends and do not have their own goals or agendas, with no ability to hurt or take advantage of us
- An ability to escape the need for relationships, or any other need, and to simply mold the constituents of our fulfillment based on whatever factors we choose, free from the fetters of the human condition
If we as a species will be augmenting and customizing our conscious experiences in the decades ahead, we should have a sense of the kind of possibility-space of new “human condition alternatives” that we should or should not make available.
So which of these vastly different sentient possibility-spaces should we permit post-human intelligence to exist within?
Which would be most beneficial to humanity, or most beneficial to the lives of post-human intelligences (which may be much more valuable than our own lives)?
We don’t know, and we probably can’t know.
However, if we are to create a deity in our lifetimes, then we should consider what kind of experience-machine we’re creating. What it learns will help inform us about the nature of reality – or at the very minimum will greatly impact the sentient experience of whatever we create.
Cognitive enhancement and artificial intelligence are what I presume to be the most likely paths to vastly post-human intelligence, both of which I believe have a strong likelihood of happening before 2070, possibly even before 2040 (see our AI researcher consensus on machine consciousness).
Psychedelics might be an aid in this process of exploration – as the modern philosopher David Pearce and others have suggested.
There are States of Consciousness That Humans Cannot Access
It seems clear that humans can only access a minuscule portion of the total “experience space” available in the universe.
Not in a spiritual woo-woo way, but in a rational way. Five meager senses and a mind unable to remember where we put our car keys, never mind comprehend the cosmos.
Psychedelic substances may not add new senses, but they twist perception and experience in such a way as to see beyond the “default” state that often defines our existence. If we aim to imagine the kinds of experiences we would want in a transhuman, cognitively enhanced state – or if we imagine the potential conscious experience of future artificial intelligence, there may be credence in exploring them.
A starfish doesn’t know what it’s like to look at a Rembrandt painting, and your pet dog doesn’t understand Marxism.
Similarly, there are senses and levels of cognition that we simply don’t have, so, like the other fun little meat-beings on this planet, huge swaths of reality are hidden from us – utterly forever (so long as we stay in our present form – i.e. the monkey suit).
We are pitifully ignorant of what is going on in the universe as long as we are locked in this form.
That doesn’t mean life isn’t worth living (though that’s not a wholly unreasonable stance) – but it does mean that unless we continually expand our intelligence and consciousness via cognitive enhancements or via artificial general intelligence, we’re relegated to essentially no knowledge, no wisdom, no idea what’s going on – no matter how much we deceive ourselves otherwise (reference: “Wisest Cricket”).
On the Value of Psychedelics
While I’m certainly not a rampant proponent of psychedelics, I’m also not a detractor.
Without having done mushrooms (one time, age 17) – and grappling for an entire year to integrate the experience of having all my senses positively exploded during that experience – I likely never would have taken up an interest psychology (age 17), or devoted my mortal existence to determining the trajectory of post-human intelligence (age 24) when I came to the conclusion (through too much reading and too much thinking) that cognitive enhancements and machine learning have a reasonable likelihood of birthing post-human intelligence.
It’s hard to explain psychedelics. All the sensory bending (seeing colors, shadows, distances, lights that weren’t there) was one thing – but coming to grips with the experience was another. Basically – all experience is just chemicals and electricity in the mind, and reality is a bundle of perceptions which wholly evaporates into a totally different world by eating a bite of fungus. That was hard to integrate.
I don’t often talk about mushrooms, but people close to me are aware that the experience – and the year of hardcore philosophical grappling to keep myself from completely evaporating into nihilism – was without a doubt the most formative experience in my life, and directly correlated to the committed purpose of my remaining hominid life (see: the cause).
I’m more ashamed of mushrooms than I am proud, mostly because I only did them because people around me were doing them.
That said, Obama did coke and he seems to have turned out pretty well, I presume a single session of mushrooms isn’t so bad. I’m sure there are plenty more experiences I could have had if I put stuff up my nose or in needles but I’m not that curious.
In the Bay Area, where I lived for nearly three years, I heard people in the startup community frequently state that wealthy and successful people are more likely to be using psychedelics to fuel their creative breakthroughs. Steve Jobs is arguably the most famous example, but there’s so many more.
Barring impact of psychedelics on achievement in business or otherwise, I’ll write a bit about the potential value of psychedelics for prompting genuine exploration of the space of possible consciousnesses, and why also I believe much could also be done without them.
On the Value of Psychedelics
I certainly would have had little interest in the sentience possibility-space if it weren’t for mushrooms. That doesn’t mean I recommend them. I had a horrible year of depressed and desperate thinking after doing them, and I’m certainly no happier because of them.
My personality was drastically altered by the struggle to build a sense of meaning in life after being hurled into nihilism, and while I consider most of that process constructive and ultimately strengthening, it seems just as likely that it could have been the opposite and left me in a kind of madness or constant anxiety.
It seems likely that some experimentation with these substances – in a safe way (or, as safe as one can be) – would prompt more of an open discourse about which variations of sentient experience are worth exploring, and this might help guide the grand trajectory of intelligence (cognitive enhancement, AGI). These topics become vastly more interesting once one has tinkered with consciousness to that extent.
Apparently, there’s a pretty rich body of research around the benefits of these substances (Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies, among others) – but I’m no scholar in this department.
Psychedelics Not Wholly Necessary
There have been millennia and millennia of wise persons – and persons who imagined realities vastly beyond the human experience, and it’s reasonable to suppose that most of them didn’t do psychedelics.
Lucretius’s “On the Nature of Things”, pound for pound, could be argued to be about as paradigm-shattering as anything in Western thought.
My (now very old) set of notes from “On the Nature of Things” highlights a number of scientific hypotheses (which Lucretius states boldly as facts)
- The universe is made of atoms and void, and there is no soul that lives on after death.
- If atoms could always get smaller by being broken into smaller and smaller bits, they would by now (in the infinite bushings of time) being so small as to not be able to make anything at all. Thus, there must be a specific size of an intact atom.
- In pure space, light and heavy matter travels just as fast (unlike in air or water where it is resisted by atoms in the air and water).
- The varieties of atoms are limited, it is thier combination that is endless.
- Nothing visible to man is made up of only one kind of atom, but that all is made of combinations of different atoms.
This was all written about 50 years before Christ. Sure, some of his statements were off, but far, far too many of them were right when they shouldn’t have been. The Renaissance may not have been the Renaissance without the rediscovery of Lucretius (among other writers) as a prompt for Europe to begin examining and wielding nature.
Lucretius wrote the whole of “On the Nature of Things” – broken into six sections, and about 74,000 words (English translation) – in line-by-line rhyming verse. Epicurus should probably get the credit for much of the substance, but his own writings didn’t survive as Lucretius’s own did. From what I know, neither Lucretius or Epicurus used hallucinogens.
Francis Bacon himself doesn’t seem to have been doing peyote on the weekends – writer of “The New Atlantis” and leading figure of the Enlightenment.
Both Lucretius and Bacon shook Emerson’s world, and anyone who’s ever read “Nature”, “Circles”, “The Over-Soul”, or dozens of Emerson’s other works will find his ideas tremendously congenial to transhumists and those interested in AGI.
In fact, it wasn’t just Bostrom and learning about artificial intelligence that turned me to a life path dedicated to the post-human condition and the expansion of intelligence beyond man. A few lines from Emerson’s “On the Uses of Great Men“:
The gases gather to the solid firmament: the chemic lump arrives at the plant, and grows; arrives at the quadruped, and walks; arrives at the man, and thinks. But also the constituency determines the vote of the representative. He is not only representative, but participant. Like can only be known by like. The reason why he knows about them is that he is of them; he has just come out of nature, or from being a part of that thing. Animated chlorine knows of chlorine, and incarnate zinc, of zinc.
Their quality makes his career; and he can variously publish their virtues, because they compose him. Man, made of the dust of the world, does not forget his origin; and all that is yet inanimate will one day speak and reason.
Emerson, from what I can tell, wasn’t dropping acid when his wife and kids weren’t around. Dude was just deep and read a lot of books.
It warms my heart to know that – from what I can tell – Emerson warmed the heart (maybe only a little) and opened the mind of Nietzsche, who is – and I think quite rightly – seen to be a huge inspiration to transhumanists. “Thus Spake Zarathustra” can sound like a clarion-call to post-human forms.
Nietzsche, while cooped up and anxious in his little dwellings with his little lamp, didn’t spend a lot of time on shrooms.
While somewhat antiquated and conservative-sounding today, I resonate deeply with Emerson’s own quote (from the essay “The Poet“) about how thinkers and poets have often relied on substances to bring them to high realizations, but that these substances may have been crutches more than ladders to wisdom:
The poet knows that he speaks adequately, then, only when he speaks somewhat wildly, or, “with the flower of the mind”; not with the intellect, used as an organ, but with the intellect released from all service, and suffered to take its direction from its celestial life; or, as the ancients were wont to express themselves, not with intellect alone, but with the intellect inebriated by nectar…
This is the reason why bards love wine, mead, narcotics, coffee, tea, opium, the fumes of sandalwood and tobacco, or whatever other species of animal exhilaration. All men avail themselves of such means as they can, to add this extraordinary power to their normal powers; and to this end they prize conversation, music, pictures, sculpture, dancing, theatres, travelling, war, mobs, fires, gaming, politics, or love, or science, or animal intoxication, which are several coarser or finer quasi-mechanical substitutes for the true nectar, which is the ravishment of the intellect by coming nearer to the fact. These are auxiliaries to the centrifugal tendency of a man, to his passage out into free space, and they help him to escape the custody of that body in which he is pent up, and of that jail-yard of individual relations in which he is enclosed…
…That is not an inspiration which we owe to narcotics, but some counterfeit excitement and fury. Milton says, that the lyric poet may drink wine and live generously, but the epic poet, he who shall sing of the gods, and their descent unto men, must drink water out of a wooden bowl.
A little straight-laced, maybe, but almost certainly with some truth to it. I don’t think that this statement discounts the fact that psychedelics might aide in the exploration of “modes of being” (Bostrom’s words), but that insight and inspiration can – maybe sometimes more sustainably – be found without them.
With all due respect to the thinkers of today, time will tell if their intellects are as rich and far-reaching as the likes of Bacon. Tough gig there, to be honest, tough gig.
Depth of insight and even imaginations of vastly post-human experiences and purposes can exist in glittering beauty outside the influence of psychedelics.
Maybe there are still some facets of post-human experience that are best explored with drugs, and I’m not going to deny that possibility – and having access to LSD is a lot more likely than being born with Bacon-level intellect. Maybe combining both would be the best avenue to insight – but without a time machine it’d be hard to tell.
The Pliability of Consciousness
On the whole, having psychedelics as a tool seems to be an aggregate good. Despite the dangers of these substances, I suspect we’ve lost a lot more by limiting the funding of psychedelics than we’ve gained by hedging against their risks – at least in an academic setting.
I believe that all tools that permit humans to experience the pliability of conscious experience could be lubricants down the slippery slope of exploring transhumanism and post-human existence.
Right now, psychedelics are one way of doing that.
In the future, truly immersive VR, and programmatically-generated VR / haptic experiences will do the same.
Non-invasive neurotechnologies – and in the future – invasive neurotechnologies – will be the strongest tool in that arsenal, and the final step before we cease existing in a biological form at all.
Psychedelics are one of many forces bending humanity towards a pliable, unfettered version of existence, for better or for worse. VR will aide in the transition, programmatically-generated worlds will aide in the transition, early cognitive enhancements will aide in the transition. All of these factors will bring future generations (and much of the first world) to a belief that conscious experience is and should be pliable – even if it rips us away entirely from “humanity” as we know it.
The transition is either to extinction or something vastly beyond our present condition.
Note 1: David Pearce is one of my favorite living thinkers, and the only thinker I’ve ever supported on Patreon. Outside of interviewing the man myself, I’ve mostly sifted through his work on his site, Hedweb. Recently, however, I’ve found that Andres of QualiaComputing.com is probably the best curator of Pearce’s work, and one that I’ve come to value. Andres is a more thorough student of David than I am, for certain, and somehow found the below comment of his from an interview in 2009 (you can read it here). The ideas in Pearce’s interview spurned the ramblings of this article during a long series of flights from Shanghai to Boston.
Note 2: For the record, I don’t do drugs, recreational or otherwise, and mushrooms (age 17) was a wild variance from an otherwise boringly straight-edge conscious existence. I’m not against psychedelics at all, but I believe they likely have as many potential downsides as good. I do believe that more thorough research into their effects, and into the range of qualia itself, will likely be useful in molding the kind of sentient future we want to build for future living things.
Note 3: Bostrom’s 2007 TED talk (which I mention at the beginning of this article) is – in my opinion – the finest of his presentations (even though it was before the time when he developed a sense of humor on stage), and the most broad-sweeping in its coverage of major ethical concerns. I highly recommend watching it. We interviewed Bostrom one-on-one on the Emerj podcast, and that interview is worth a listen as well.
Header image credit: Wikipedia – Persephone and Demeter eating mushrooms