What matters most?

If we have a reasonable chance of building conscious AI and/or post-human intelligence in the next 60 years, it makes sense for us to consider where we’re headed.

If we presume we have any control over our fate at all – where will we point the trajectory of intelligence itself?

I read an article this week by Andres Gomez Emilsson of Qualia Computing, called The Most Important Philosophical Question, and I’ve decided to use it as a jump-off point to explore why post-human artificial intelligence matters, and how we might leverage it to help us answer the questions that are currently unanswerable.

If you’re interested in artificial intelligence, you’re likely to be interested in its impact on living things. That would be why AI “matters”, because it matters to sentient things.

If you’re interested in what post-human life might be or should be, then Andres’s “Qualia Computing” is worth reading and exploring. The questions he ponders are, by my estimation, among the highest questions.

Building general intelligence, or making AGI friendly – these ideas matter, and there’s plenty of good wells of ideas there (from Bostrom to MIRI and beyond), but exploring the future consciousness is a necessary facet to thinking through the grand trajectory, and Andres makes it fun.

Below are some quotes from The Most Important Philosophical Question article, along with some of my thoughts and ideas on “exploring the good” (a topic that I’ve written about in the past on many occasions).

…I’d posit that the most important question is: “What is good, and is there a ground truth about it?”

In order to know what is good, we must know what in the ever-loving hell is going on with reality and what we’re experiencing.

I’d argue that clawing farther and farther into exploring “what is going on” will be the only way to have a chance at knowing the “good”. I also hold that “knowing the good” (valuing things, making decisions based on these values) is a meager idea, and one that may literally be completely eviscerated beyond a certain degree of intelligence and understanding of the universe. Entities a million times more intelligent than humans will not think in our present ethical frameworks.

As cats can’t possibly imagine a world that doesn’t involve a need to chase and eat small animals, and as caterpillars can’t possible imagine a world where it doesn’t eat leaves and then try to turn into a butterfly, humans may not be able to imagine a world where decisions and action are unhinged from our mammalian brain, and petty, practical understanding of “ethics”.

Before we know “the most important question”, we need more raw intelligence (possibly a Strong Phronetic AI), more raw understanding of what is going on. What’s left may will likely have nothing to do with what we understand as “goodness” today, just as the world we humans inhabit has nothing to do with chasing and eating mice.

It would make the journey (read: existing) seem noble and saintly if we could be seeking (or even grasping) “the good” itself. It feels both warm and fuzzy to imagine that this might be the case, that at the end of the struggle we could at last be handed the “scroll of essential virtue.” Vastly post-human experience may have nothing to do with it. It will likely have nothing to do with a vision that is noble or meaningful in a way that a human could understand.

Does ultimate value come down to the pleasure-pain axis, or does it come down to spiritual wisdom?

How are we to know that there is any “ultimate” value at all? What if it’s meaninglessness all the way down?

Also – can’t we imagine a kind of space of sentience that exists beyond some polar continuum of (a) pain and (b) pleasure? Maybe one with a billion such continua?

I’m horribly skeptical of the very idea of “spiritual wisdom.” Any currently identifiable human notion will have absolutely no place in a world of astronomically post-human intelligence – though I respect Andres’ opinion here, and I suspect with more context I could get a more full grasp of what he means by “spiritual wisdom.”

Imagine a cricket trying to understand what the sky is, or how to manage and govern human civilization. This is how futile our attempts at point to “what is good” are.

Only with more mental muscle, more raw ability to grasp what the hell is going on, can we put our feelers and explore the “good”, little by little, as our post-human AGI swells and swells in its capabilities – in directions we can’t now imagine.

…I’d argue that the most important philosophical (and hence most important, period) question is: “Is happiness a spiritual trick, or is spirituality a happiness trick?”


What would it mean for happiness to be a spiritual trick? Think, for example, of the possibility that the reason why we exist is because we are all God, and God would be awfully bored if It knew that It was all that ever existed. In such a case, maybe bliss and happiness comes down to something akin to “Does this particular set of life experiences make God feel less lonely”?


Alternatively, maybe God is “divinely self-sufficient”, as some mystics claim, and all of creation is “merely a plus on top of God”. In this case one could think that God is the ultimate source of all that is good, and thus bliss may be synonymous with “being closer to God”. In turn, as mystics have claimed over the ages, the whole point of life is to “get closer to God”.

“Happiness” is a hyper-arbitrary range of stuff in the totality of sentient-space. We humans evolved – we presume – from some biological muck. Brains developed, emotions developed, and presumably the ability to be conscious developed, and through those arbitrary twists and turns we have feelings, some range of “happiness” being among them (thank goodness! It’s a good one).

We have electrical and chemical signals that give us clues as to how to act and survive. Given our cortex size, we presume that we don’t have to be slaves to these feelings (debatable, I’m not sure either way on that one).

The likelihood that we are dancing experience-machines made to entertain and occupy a diety is just as likely as the following:

  • There is no “we”, just you (the reader), being tormented with arbitrary sense experiences (the brain in a vat thought experiment)
  • The Judeo-Christian God created you in his image, and wants you to give money to poor people and obstain from sex before you’re married
  • We exist in a universe void of any meaning, spun out arbitrarily from some other universe that will exist forever, while we’re left to exist in this universe until it dissipates into nothing

That is to say, we’re ignorant morons in a universe we don’t grasp at all, and we know nothing, and we have no damned idea what’s going on. Only more intelligence has a chance at solving this.

Spirituality, though, goes beyond God: Within (atheistic) Buddhism the view that “bliss is a spiritual trick” might take another form: Bliss is either “dirty and a sign of ignorance” (as in the case of karma-generating pleasure) or it is “the results of virtuous merit conducive to true unconditioned enlightenment“. Thus, the whole point of life would be to become free from ignorance and reap the benefits of knowing the ultimate truth.

While I have no preference for Buddhism over any other set of spiritual ideas or practices, I’m with Andres in this last sentence. The good must be explored, period, even if it’s an aimless eternal quest.

…the raw phenomenal character of bliss reveals that “something matters in this universe”.

I concur wholeheartedly that subjective well-being matters in so much as it matters to us.

The “net tonnage of happiness” in a being’s life, or on earth, seems to be extremely important, and efforts like Effective Altruism seem like worthwhile attempts to help create more of that positive qualia.

Because our experience matters – at least to us – then indeed something does “matter” in the universe. If it has any significance beyond our little blip of time spent in this physical husk, I do not know, but at least for the time being – even in a solipsistic world – experience and qualia matter. Hence the appeal of many of the ideas of utilitarianism.

Here’s how I’d summarize what’s “most important” for hominids at present:

“The net tonnage of positive qualia for all sentient things is the most important thing that we now know of, but ultimately we have to learn more about what the universe is and how it works, at which point there will likely be more important things to do than optimize for positive qualia.”

Hence whoever controls the substrate that houses human sentience (when we live in virtual worlds, or when our minds are uploaded) will be in the greatest possible position of power – to do what we now call “good” or “evil.”

…any compassionate (and at least mildly rational) Buddhist would then come along and help us out in the pursuit of creating a pan-species welfare state free of suffering with the use of biotechnology. I.e. The 500 odd million Buddhists world-wide would be key allies for the Hedonistic Imperative (a movement that aims to eliminate suffering with biotechnology).

Ah, the sagacious Buddhists – blessed and enlightened are they, and surely united in the same transhuman trajectory of noble goodness, aligned by a true attuned-ness to the true good.

Why not the Jainists? Why not the existentialists? Why not the whirling MF-ing dervishes? Or the Calvinists? Or stoics, or classical epicureans?

I’m skeptical of the superior “wokeness” of any group of people – at best I presume Buddha to be a wise cricket. Woke-er and wiser than I, that’s for sure – but also fettered in form and imagination as any other arbitrary hominid.

It’s endearing to consider that – ultimately – “our people” will unite behind “our great cause”, but it doesn’t make it any more valid or truthful than similar ideas held by Muslims or Shintoists or Christians.

It’s certainly more “woke” to be Buddhist in the Bay Area (or the tech and intellectual circles of Boston) than it is to be Christian, though, and if we have to pick an allegiance, it might as well be one that gives us cool-guy points.

In the broad swatch of spiritual paths laid out by other people, Buddhism certainly doesn’t seem like a bad pick – but I don’t think it deserves higher praise than that.

When I am reborn as a rodent or a dung beetle I’m sure I’ll repent those words. Alas.


Note: Read Andres’ work and come up with your own ideas – https://qualiacomputing.com/. All of his articles are worth contemplating when it comes to thinking through the “north star” of where humanity should be headed and thinking through what is truly worthwhile. His ideas extend on some of my favorite lines of thought from David Pearce – who is one of the living intellectuals who I respect most.

Another note: I have reflected on one of Andres’ other articles in my essay titled “What is the Meaning of the Singularity“.

Header image credit: Wikipedia Commons – Moses by Michelangelo