“All you need is love.” – John Lennon
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Header image (“The Voyage of Life: Youth” by Thomas Cole) taken from here.
Last summer, I had the privilege of interning at the Qualia Research Institute (QRI), a non-profit organization dedicated to discovering the science of consciousness. I distinctly remember one night at QRI – May 31, 2019 – that likely changed the course of my life. I was sitting in a circle with the two other interns and the managers of the group house where most of the QRI team was living at the time. We were discussing the importance of conducting research on consciousness, and one of the interns mentioned that the science of consciousness was the ultimate problem. “Why?” I asked. “Well,” he said (and I paraphrase), “the only things that really matter to you are the things that impact the quality of your conscious experience. If we figure out consciousness, then we will know how to induce conscious experiences that are far more extraordinary and blissful than we can even imagine right now.”
And that’s when it hit me. I had a very ephemeral and abstract, but nonetheless deeply profound, vision of a world that was completely free from pain and suffering. I caught a faint yet radiant glimpse of paradise. I imagined a world in which scientists had eliminated depression, anxiety, existential insecurities, and all other forms of mental agony; in which sublime joy was the default mode of conscious experience; in which every human felt unconditional love towards all other sentient organisms; in which every human was overwhelmed with ecstatic gratitude and awe at the simple fact of being alive.
Many of you readers might think that this vision is a naive fantasy. You may believe that we would rapidly tire of transcendent euphoria if we experienced it all the time. You might also think that suffering is an inevitable consequence of human nature; our neural circuitry – and perhaps our biological constitution in general – simply cannot sustain persistent feelings of bliss unless they are balanced by some degree of negativity. I actually agree with this sentiment. We must transcend our biology in order to create paradise. In other words, we have to evolve as a species in order to eradicate hatred, egotism, fear, and all the other internal sources of suffering. I do not expect, however, that natural selection will bring about this transformation. Yet we are privileged to live in an age in which we are capable of engineering the next stage in our evolution. Indeed, we can merge with technology in order to deliberately alter the biological programming that has tethered us to mental suffering. This technology would likely be a brain-machine interface (BMI) that can safely, reliably, and precisely change a person’s state of consciousness.
In this essay, I will justify the ethical imperative of engineering paradise and describe the ideal function of the BMI, i.e. the states of consciousness that it ought to engender and sustain. I will not discuss the technical implementation of the BMI – this will be the subject of part II and subsequent essays. It is worth noting that the BMI is necessary but not sufficient for engineering paradise; utopia will also entail massive, revolutionary changes in society and government, which I hope to write about in a separate essay. That being said, inventing the BMI will be one of the most ambitious undertakings in human history, a project that will require many generations of bold innovation and tireless effort.
Is engineering paradise a goal worth striving for?
It is uncontroversial that scientists ought to develop better treatments for depression, severe anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, bipolar disorder, and other mental illnesses. But should we eliminate mental suffering wholesale, if the cost is giving up what it means to be human? Can’t we just accept our own suffering? After all, many people around the world are perfectly content with their lives even though they aren’t constantly experiencing ecstatic states of consciousness.
Indeed, a skeptic may argue that we ought to mitigate suffering, rather than ending it entirely, and we can do so simply by maintaining the status quo of accelerating, global economic growth. In his book The Better Angels of Our Nature, psychologist Steven Pinker argues that the dramatic decline in violence over the course of human history can be attributed in part to rising economic prosperity. Pinker also refutes the notion that “humans harbor an inner drive toward aggression (a death instinct or thirst for blood), which builds up inside us and must periodically be discharged.” Yet he does write about five psychological systems that dispose human beings towards violence, among them sadism and a craving for authority. (3) I wonder whether any amount of economic growth will ever completely suppress the neural circuitry that drives these “inner demons.” Reading books like Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland, I get the sense that these demons might be fixed aspects of human nature that can only be overcome with interventions that directly alter our neurobiology.
Ordinary Men, written by historian Christopher Browning, tells the story of the businessmen, dockworkers, truck drivers, and other German men in the Reserve Police Battalion 101 who participated in one of the worst atrocities in human history: the slaughtering of Polish Jews in the Holocaust. The vast majority of these Germans were not members of the Nazi party, so they were not ideologically indoctrinated, and furthermore, they were all given the option not to engage in the killing of Jews. Yet in the first “action” of the Battalion, only 20% of the members ultimately asked to be excused from their duties. As Browning states in an essay for The New York Review of Books, his book “emphasized universal attributes of human nature and social-psychological factors shaping group dynamics, such as conformity, deference to authority, and adaptation to roles.” Many of these ordinary German men continued to murder Jews merely because they felt pressured to conform to their battalion. Others were aspiring policemen who feared that their careers would be damaged if they failed to follow orders.
Granted, the events of Ordinary Men take place before most of the economic progress that Pinker discusses in The Better Angels of Our Nature, so one could argue that an event like the Holocaust couldn’t happen again in our comparatively advanced times. Yet there is reason to believe that improvements in the material conditions of society merely give rise to a facade that masks our worst impulses. Studies that were conducted as recently as 2004 have found that nearly all human beings would be capable of torturing enemy prisoners, simply due to their innate desires to conform to the actions of their peers and to obey authority. If an evil leader seizes power with the aim of harnessing humanity’s most barbaric compulsions in order to advance his agenda, then it becomes very plausible that mass violence gets perpetrated once again, perhaps on even greater scales.
I believe that the solution is to embrace open individualism: the notion that everyone is the same person, or equivalently, that everyone shares one consciousness. Physicist Freeman Dyson conveys this idea quite forcefully:
Enlightenment came to me suddenly and unexpectedly one afternoon in March  when I was walking up to the school notice board to see whether my name was on the list for tomorrow’s football game. I was not on the list. And in a blinding flash of inner light I saw the answer to both my problems, the problem of war and the problem of injustice. The answer was amazingly simple. I called it Cosmic Unity. Cosmic Unity said: There is only one of us. We are all the same person. I am you and I am Winston Churchill and Hitler and Gandhi and everybody. There is no problem of injustice because your sufferings are also mine. There will be no problem of war as soon as you understand that in killing me you are only killing yourself. (4)
Reading about Dyson’s epiphany, one might think that the paradise-engineering BMI should cause interacting individuals to share their suffering with one another. That is, each person will directly experience the suffering that he inflicts on other people; if I were to, say, prick someone else’s toe, I would feel the pain on my own foot. But such technology would pose a few problems, among many others that I have not mentioned for the sake of brevity:
- In many cases, it would be immensely difficult, if not downright impossible, for a machine to determine which people are harmed by someone’s actions. For instance, suppose that a hacker were to manufacture a credit card scam that affects millions of people around the world. Even a machine with access to credit card data for every single human being may not be able to ascertain the identities of all the victims, let alone simulate the suffering felt by each of them.
- It seems unfair to hold a person responsible for suffering that he unintentionally causes, though, of course, this claim raises deep questions about the relationship between intentionality and ethics. Yet there are many situations in which a person’s intentions are very unclear, and I am unsure whether even the most sophisticated brain-scan technologies would be capable of determining intentionality from neural activity.
- This technology may produce the opposite of empathy. Its users may isolate themselves from friends, let alone strangers, who are suffering from great distress, out of fear that they would share this pain if they were to accidentally do or say something that would inflame it.
Thus, the BMI should not serve as a platform for “reflecting” suffering back onto its perpetrators. Rather, it should induce universal, unconditional love. Experiencing this profound feeling for another person is, to some extent, equivalent to sharing a consciousness with that person. Obviously, one doesn’t literally merge with the other person (in the sense that the two don’t become “numerically identical” to each other). Yet it is a state of co-existence in a deeply spiritual sense. Unconditional love doesn’t merely entail an act of witnessing and partaking in another person’s joys, pain, fear, and so on. Such description implies that an all-encompassing exchange of emotions constitutes the essence of unconditional love. But in fact, there is nothing that is being exchanged, since unconditional love is entirely non-transactional. As Ram Dass explains,
The most important aspect of love is not in giving or the receiving: it’s in the being. When I need love from others, or need to give love to others, I’m caught in an unstable situation. Being in love, rather than giving or taking love, is the only thing that provides stability. Being in love means seeing the Beloved all around me.
Most human beings are only capable of feeling unconditional love for a very small group of people, who are generally family members or romantic partners. But what if we could feel unconditional love for everyone and everything? This is the kind of love that the Buddha and other spiritual leaders or prophets spoke about: a deep-seated wish for the wellbeing of all sentient beings – even the most atrocious sinners, and even the tiniest, ugliest insects. In the mode of unconditional love, Ram Dass states, “your shortcomings, your lack of self-esteem, physical perfection, or social and economic success – none of that matters … You are loved just for being who you are, just for existing. You don’t have to do anything to earn it.”
Furthermore, by practicing universal, unconditional love, we can extinguish suffering on a global scale. Firstly, unconditional love is a state of astounding bliss. Ram Dass recounts one of his experiences with it while sitting with his guru:
I felt waves of love radiating toward me, washing over me like a gentle surf on a tropical shore, immersing me, rocking me, caressing my soul, infinitely accepting and open.
I was nearly overcome, on the verge of tears, so grateful and so full of joy it was hard to believe it was happening.
Secondly, and more importantly, it is impossible to conceive of bringing harm upon any sentient being while experiencing unconditional love. In this state, promoting the welfare of sentient life becomes the sole motive of our actions. A parent who feels unconditional love for his child will do everything within his power to keep it safe. Imagine if every human being felt this way not only towards his child, but also towards every other person and animal on the planet.
Yet unconditional love is just one avenue to the abolition of suffering. To determine the other states of consciousness that are characterized by a total absence of suffering, we need to start:
Mapping out the state space of consciousness
The “state space of consciousness,” a term coined by philosopher David Pearce, refers to the map in which each point corresponds to a different variety of subjective experience. The concept presupposes “qualia structuralism,” the notion that consciousness has an underlying mathematical structure.
Given that the scientific underpinnings of consciousness are poorly understood, we currently know very little about the state space of consciousness. We don’t know the axes of the space; we don’t know how to define distance between two points in the space; and so on. Moreover, some suspect that the state space is inconceivably vast; for instance, Andrés Gomez Emilsson, director of research at QRI, believes that it will take many centuries to map it out in its entirety. After all, the vast majority of us spend our lives in a very small cluster of points in the state space. Indeed, many people experience life as a tedious bore because they rarely explore new and unfamiliar regions of the state space. Psychedelics reveal that there are states of consciousness that are radically different from the ones that we ordinarily experience; DMT propels its users into states that feel utterly alien, literally. Animals may have conscious experiences that are entirely distinct from our own, though this claim is, at least for now, mostly speculative.
Once we have determined the state space of consciousness, however, three things will become possible:
Firstly, we will be able to create Uber for consciousness. (1) Just as we can point to a place on a physical map and find an Uber to take us there, we will eventually be able to choose a location on the “mental map” (i.e. the state space of consciousness) and “travel” there. If the paradise-engineering BMI does serve the function of an Uber for consciousness – a position that I’m not sure I’m willing to defend yet – it must come with many restrictions. For example, we would not want someone to identify the state that is maximally pleasant to him and then use the BMI to experience it all the time. This kind of interaction with the BMI could then begin to resemble drug dependence.
Secondly, we will have comprehensively mapped out all the different varieties of happiness. I suspect that there are as many – if not far more – ways of experiencing happiness as there are flavors of ice cream. Synesthetes associate experiences with colors, and similarly, some might discover a meaningful correspondence between, say, mint chocolate chip and the joy derived from high-adrenaline snow sports. (Note that the fundamental kinds of happiness will be characterized not by the activities that bring them about, but by their phenomenological quality, i.e. how they feel. The joy of skiing might be phenomenologically identical to the thrill of attending an EDM rave, for instance.) Consequently, we can design qualia sundaes, combinations of different varieties of happiness that are curated to optimally stimulate – or, if you will, “taste maximally delicious” – to our consciousness. (Qualia refer to the ways that subjective experiences feel.) I believe that constantly experiencing contrast between different modes of happiness is crucial to a fulfilling life. Hence, qualia sundaes will likely be more enjoyable in the long-term than continual hits of a single variety of happiness.
Thirdly, we will have ascertained the underlying structure of what I call the “paradise states of consciousness,” which are characterized by extreme euphoria and compassion. I speculate that there are hundreds or perhaps even thousands of different paradise states, most of which have never been experienced by human beings. Currently, I am aware of four “flavors” of sublime bliss, though, if I’m being precise, the differences between these “flavors” may not be the phenomenological quality of the bliss itself but rather the method of accessing it. While there is a great deal of overlap between these flavors, I have described them in such a way that each one represents a different characteristic in the ensemble of phenomenological features that define mental paradise.
Four flavors of sublime bliss
5-MeO-DMT and the Jhanas
While MDMA is the psychedelic that is most well-known for its euphoria-inducing effects, 5-MeO-DMT, arguably the most powerful psychedelic drug, can be much more intense; to quote one website, it produces “an overwhelming sense of oneness with the universe, or a sense of being outside of time and space while seeming to experience the totality of both.” (Note that 5-MeO-DMT is distinct from the more common N,N-DMT). Erowid, an online vault of self-reports about psychedelic experiences, contains some absolutely remarkable, awe-inspiring descriptions of the phenomenological effects of this drug. As one user recounts,
There was a sense/sound/feeling that all of the voices of everything was singing in unison, like a grand celebration of the end of everything, as the universe rushed in on itself …
Then I saw/felt the very last of it spin around the small point where everything had gone, a pinpoint where I, the universe, had condensed into, and I had that brief moment of total understanding of what I/everything was. Perfect peace and clarity. This point was very much a sharp point. It hit and immediately exploded in a big bang. It seemed like I knew from long before this point that I was going to ‘make it there’ and I felt this confirmed when this peak point hit. I felt like god [sic] giving birth to itself in the form of the universe. It was a total cosmic body orgasm, where my body is the whole universe, and in this world I moaned the orgasmic moan of god with all of the power of the universe. Something was telling me ‘you’ve made it. Just go.’ So I threw myself into these cosmic orgasms, ‘breathing’ in to my universe body and roaring with each outward orgasmic spasm. Each contraction seemed to come back to the exploding center, and each time it went back out it had farther to go, as the universe was still hurtling outwards, so each roar I was able to harness more and more energy and roar harder and orgasm deeper. I had no resistance to throwing my mind farther and farther. There was no dam to the energy. I was saying a cosmic ‘yes’ and letting myself go.
This cosmic ecstasy can also be achieved through the jhanas, which are eight states of exceptionally deep concentration that are achieved through very intense meditation. The Buddha claimed that mastering the jhanas is essential for attaining enlightenment. Each stage is more profound than the one before it, yet even the first jhana is an incredibly powerful experience; the meditator shifts his attention to a pleasant physical sensation that, according to this website, “grows in intensity until it explodes into an unmistakable state of ecstasy.” (Incidentally, some argue that the bliss encountered in the jhanas is identical to the one engendered by kundalini yoga and tummo, the Tibetan practice of generating heat.) Furthermore, as the Buddhist teacher Bhante Henepola Gunaratana writes, “There is a total break with normal thought and perception… You do not totally lose all sensation, but the physical senses are off in the background. Wandering conscious thoughts stop. What remains are subtle thoughts of goodwill toward all beings.” In the higher stages, this “rapture” becomes refined into a subtler flavor of joy that nevertheless “floods every cell of your body.” Past the fourth jhana, the mind transcends into some highly exotic regions in the state space of consciousness. Perception of the material world literally disappears; the meditator experiences “infinite space,” then “boundless consciousness,” then pure focus on absolute “no-thing-ness,” and finally “total absence of perception,” which is “sublime.” One meditator quite vividly describes his experience with advancing through the jhanas:
The next “stage” was of everything dissolving into clear light with even more uplifting rapture.
When this had settled for a time, a far stronger light started to take over. It seemed as strong as looking right into a welding torch. So powerful that I wondered if it would be painful. It turned out to be pain free and a feeling of ecstasy followed.
After this comes an experience of neither light nor no light. Just vast empty stillness and experiential bliss. Even the bliss eventually is not evident anymore and it seems like there is nowhere further to go….usually.
On this example I’m referring to, the feeling of being drawn deeper didn’t stop but there was an impasse…
It seemed like I was drawn to the edge of a precipice of unknown depth where I would have to risk all by diving into it.
I hesitated out of fear but decided to see if I could have a little “look over the side.” What I saw made me gasp in amazement and wonder. I saw what seemed like the universe as the top of a colossal fountain, constantly renewing and surpassing itself in ecstatic beauty. There was nothing objectifiable [sic] there but everything was in a state of infinite possibility. I dived in!
As I “fell,” it felt as though I was falling past dim floors or levels where I could get off at any time but a silent voice kept saying… “not this, not this” until I arrived at the bottom with the gentleness of a feather landing on a cloud…
As I looked around, it seemed as if I had landed on the bottom of a brightly lit ocean. I could see the light coming from above me with wisps of wave-like subtle light trails appearing and disappearing. Everything was perfect (almost) stillness and peace. It then felt as if I gathered myself to back up to a position as if against a wall, to gaze further into where it was that I found myself…
[Then] it felt as if the whole universe crashed down and collapsed and only I was left. That was the mother of all “double takes” on reality I ever had and it took me 30 years … to fully understand what that “double-take” or knowledge is. It being that I am whole and complete, unborn, non-experiencing, self-luminous awareness. I can finally put words to it as I know what it means.
Intriguingly, both 5-MeO-DMT and the jhanas can bring about an experience of (ostensibly) witnessing the collapse of the universe into a single consciousness that subsequently rebirths itself in a spectacular explosion of energy. Is this the “peak” state of consciousness? Could there be any experience that is more epic, more meaningful, or more rapturous? I doubt it, though we know so little about the state space of consciousness that it is too early to make any definite conclusions. For now, I think that this “peak” state – perhaps the most paradisiacal of the paradise states – is one that every human being ought to experience at some point in her life, provided that it does not cause long-term psychological damage. (However, momentary anguish will likely occur for many people; the lead-up to the experience of cosmic rebirth, i.e. the act of leaping off the precipice into a seemingly infinite abyss, is known to be absolutely terrifying.) However, as I will state again later in the essay, I do not believe that we should perpetually experience the peak state. Even after we have already transcended human nature, such a state of consciousness would be emotionally and psychologically exhausting if undergone on a regular basis. (2) One of the greatest challenges involved in creating the engineering-paradise BMI is determining the proper frequency at which the peak state should be experienced, and then developing a method of safely and reliably inducing it.
There is astonishing similarity across thousands of reports of near-death experiences (NDEs) that have been recorded over the last century. Journalist Gideon Lichfield, writing for The Atlantic, notes, “Many of these stories relate the sensation of floating up and viewing the scene around one’s unconscious body; spending time in a beautiful, otherworldly realm; meeting spiritual beings (some call them angels) and a loving presence that some call God; encountering long-lost relatives or friends; recalling scenes from one’s life; feeling a sense of connectedness to all creation as well as a sense of overwhelming, transcendent love; and finally being called, reluctantly, away from the magical realm and back into one’s own body.”
The anecdote below suggests that there is another feature of NDEs that should be included in Lichfield’s list: a sense that the subjective experience of time has come to a halt. The story is told by Anita Moorjani, a woman who battled terminal cancer yet ultimately survived. Towards the end of her fight, she entered a coma that seemed to presage her imminent death, and then accessed an extraordinary state of consciousness. Miraculously, she subsequently healed very rapidly from the cancer. The first two paragraphs in this selected passage discuss phenomena that are common to experiences of 5-MeO-DMT and of the jhanas:
Unbeknownst to everyone around me … my awareness during that time when I was in a coma was actually heightened. I was aware of everything that was going on around me. I was aware of everything the doctors were doing, all the conversations that were taking place. I was aware of my family … but I was also aware of what they were feeling, and I was aware of everything that even the doctors were feeling, and the nurses, and everyone who was treating me. It was like I shared their same essence … their consciousness.
But … the most amazing thing was that, for the first time in my life, I felt this incredible feeling of unconditional love … It’s really hard to describe this feeling, because it’s much more powerful than any kind of love that I have ever experienced in physical life before. It was truly unconditional in that, for the first time in my life, I felt that I didn’t have to do anything to prove myself, or deserve it. I was loved just because I existed. I felt as though I had always been loved, but never realized it…
I also felt as though my consciousness was expanding, so that it stretched far greater, much more than the room that my physical body was contained in. I was aware of my body lying there on the hospital bed, but it was as though my consciousness was far bigger than my body, and the body actually looked insignificant to me. And my consciousness continued to expand, and it felt as though time and space was very different in that realm. It was as though I could be anywhere at anytime… I could travel any distance, and there would be no time lapse. It was as though everything was happening simultaneously.
The best way I can describe it is as though … I was viewing a tapestry… When you’re viewing a tapestry, you see the entire, completed tapestry. There’s no time lapse between the time you see this color or this part and that part. I was able to see it all, all at once… Everything was just so clear, and it was like I was one thread woven in that tapestry. I could see where I had been, I could see where I had yet to go, but I could also see there were choices; that if I went this way, this would happen … and there were parts of the tapestry that were still unfinished. I could see all the lives I had already touched, and all the lives that I had yet to touch…
I have written in previous blogposts about “exotic experiences of time,” including those in which all moments of time, both in the past and in the future, appear to occur simultaneously. I doubt that anyone actually experiences the future and the past simultaneously, even in highly abnormal states of consciousness, yet it is fascinating that the majority of such states are associated with a significant disruption in the subjective experience of time.
Experiences like the one described by Moorjani point towards a philosophy known as eternalism, according to which all moments in the future are as equally real as all moments in the past. To quote one film, “all of history is fixed and laid out like an infinite landscape of simultaneous events that we simply happen to travel through in one direction.” Eternalism is typically contrasted with presentism, the notion that only the present moment is real. Our normal conscious experience of time seems to be compatible with the latter but not the former. What relevance might eternalism have for engineering paradise?
When we are born, our parents likely not only feel but also express unconditional love towards us. But, as we grow up, many of us (Moorjani is one example) experience persistent tension with our parents, perhaps since it appears as though their love becomes conditional; their love for us seems to be contingent on the careers that we choose to pursue, for instance. But under the eternalist view, the moments in which our parents outwardly demonstrate unconditional love for us are eternally real, even if those moments have faded into the distant past. Furthermore, eternalism is not merely a philosophy that we can adopt intellectually, but also (ostensibly) a mode of subjectively experiencing time. In the latter case, it becomes apparent that the life experiences that gave us great joy in the past never truly ceased to exist. Rather, they are like landmarks that we would pass while sailing along a river; the landmarks will still be there even after the current has swept us beyond them. I don’t believe that the supposed experience of the past in near-death experiences is anything more than a resurfacing of past memories, but there are nevertheless very few other circumstances that would cause this reemergence to occur in such an exceptionally powerful manner.
Moreover, some have argued that suffering in general is ultimately engendered by our relationship with our ordinary experience of the linear passage of time. The Buddha said, “The root of all suffering is attachment.” Fundamentally, we become attached to things because we fear that we will lose them. (Another quote that has been attributed, this time erroneously, to the Buddha: “You only lose what you cling to.”) Yet the notion of losing anything presupposes the passage of time; according to the eternalist view, in which time doesn’t objectively pass, the moment in which something is gained and the subsequent moment in which it is lost are equally real, in the sense that both are actually happening simultaneously. Hence, in the eternalist picture, nothing is truly gained or lost. A quotation by the Zen teacher Toni Packer expresses this idea beautifully:
Zen Master Dogen once said, ‘Firewood does not turn into ashes.’ When I heard that the first time, I didn’t know what he was talking about because obviously firewood turns into ashes. I mean, we’ve all experienced it. And the next time we had a campfire, I watched and observed, and the time quality fell away. It was just being there and there was no change from fire to ashes; it was just what was. Fire. And then sometimes it collapses, and there are some sparks, and it seems to turn black. But when you’re really there, timelessly, it is not a process of time that is observed but presence: eternal, everlasting, without time.
I have referenced this quotation in a prior blogpost, where I offered a lengthy philosophical interpretation. Rereading the interpretation now, I realize that it is somewhat pointless, since Packer’s epiphany cannot be explained intellectually. But it is deeply relevant to the discussion about eternalism, gain, loss, and paradise. Much in the same way that firewood doesn’t truly get destroyed when it burns into ash, we can’t ever really lose a family member. From the perspective of our time-bound consciousness, people age and die; but from an eternalist perspective, every person is a timeless presence. We can forgo attachments, and thus be relieved from suffering, by directly witnessing the shared, eternal presence of all things. This experience is inherently spiritual, in the sense that the mind cannot grasp it rationally. However, there is an underlying neural structure associated with this revelation, and once we determine it, we can induce it with sufficiently advanced technology, i.e. the proposed paradise-engineering BMI.
The range of mystical experiences is so broad that I hesitate to make any generalizations about it. It is unclear what exactly is even meant by the term “mystical.” Though his definition may not be comprehensive, philosopher Jules Evans describes mystical experiences as acts of “shift[ing] beyond our separate self-absorbed egos, and feel[ing] deeply connected to other beings, or to all things.” Additionally, they can (appear to) be entirely spontaneous. Author Philip Pullman had an impromptu one in 1969, on a train ride in England:
Somewhere in the Middle East, some Palestinian activists had hijacked a plane and it was sitting on a runway surrounded by police, soldiers, fire engines, and so forth. I saw a photo of it on the front page of the Evening Standard, and then I walked past a busker who was surrounded by a circle of listeners, and I saw a sort of parallel. From then on for the rest of the journey [from Charing Cross to Barnes] I kept seeing things doubled: a thing and then another thing that was very like it. I was in a state of intense intellectual excitement throughout the whole journey. I thought it was a true picture of what the universe was like: a place not of isolated units of indifference, empty of meaning, but a place where everything was connected by similarities and correspondences and echoes… What I think now is that my consciousness was temporarily altered (certainly not by drugs, but maybe by poetry) so that I was able to see things that are normally beyond the range of visible light, or routine everyday perception.
This vast interconnectedness is also a prominent theme of a mystical experience recounted by philosopher Paul Brunton:
I became conscious of a vast cosmic experience…I felt that the entire universe was a unified whole in which everything related to everything else, and that I, myself, was one with it. I could see now that everything that had happened to me in former years was part of a tremendous plan and had to happen that way. There was purpose and meaning in it all….The world and everyone in it is controlled by a vast Universal Mind. Every act and word is within the Mind or Plan….
Brunton’s revelation reminds me of a thought that I once had in the summer of 2017. I reflected on the fact that the interconnectedness of information-processing units results in greater forms of complexity at every level of organization in biology. I saw the human brain – the seat of consciousness – as the highest manifestation of that complexity, but then I realized that the brain likely is not the apex of evolution. There are higher levels of complexity, and consequently higher degrees of consciousness, to be attained. I wondered whether human beings could be seen as neurons in a much larger “mega-brain,” which we simply aren’t intelligent enough to observe or understand yet; Brunton might refer to this brain as the “Universal Mind.” Moreover, I speculate that patterns of human activity can encode “mega-emotions” in the mega-brain. How could we measure these mega-emotions?
According to QRI’s Symmetry Theory of Valence, the symmetry of the mathematical object isomorphic to an entity’s consciousness corresponds to the quality of its conscious experience. QRI claims that symmetry in the brain is encoded in the amount of consonance (i.e. harmony) between waves of neural excitation and inhibition that resonate in the connectome, which is the structure of all the connections in the brain. (See my September 2019 blogpost and Andres’ essay on this “connectome-specific harmonics waves” paradigm for more details.) The component frequencies of these waves are known as the harmonics of the brain.
What exactly are the harmonics of the mega-brain? Firstly, we would need to define the “mega-connectome,” the structure of all the connections in the mega-brain. While neurons are binary – they are either excited or inhibited – humans, when viewed as information-processing units, certainly are not. Hence, the waves that resonate in the mega-connectome likely oscillate in many dimensions. (I am being very ambiguous, since there is very little established literature on this topic, and I have only just begun thinking seriously about it.)
I suspect that, right now, the mega-emotions in the mega-brain are quite dull, since no one is deliberately coordinating human activity with the aim of increasing consonance in the natural harmonics of the mega-connectome. However, the paradise-engineering BMI will be able to accomplish this function in the far future, when genius scientists discover an answer to the question that I posed in the previous paragraph. Then, we will be able to induce mega-ecstatic states of mega-consciousness.
QRI’s connectome-specific harmonics waves paradigm suggests that the brain is playing some remarkably complex music by organizing its activity around an expansive repertoire of natural harmonics. One day, when humanity has engineered paradise, each person will perform a vital role in orchestrating the most exquisitely beautiful, harmonious symphony that the cosmos has ever heard.
The paradise states of consciousness are defined by:
- unconditional love for everyone
- experience of a singular, all-pervasive consciousness giving birth to itself
- insight into eternal presence
- mega-ecstatic mega-consciousness
The paradise-engineering BMI should induce all four of these experiences. However, given the tremendous difficulty of accomplishing this objective, the BMI may seem like it belongs more so in the domain of science fiction than in the realm of practical technology. In Part II of this essay series, I will offer some thoughts on the theoretical advances in neuroscience that must be achieved in order to realize the BMI.
(1) I don’t remember who came up with the idea of Uber for consciousness. It may have been Andrés.
(2) Then again, I’m speaking from the perspective of a human being. Once we have merged with technology, perhaps we will have the emotional and psychological energy to experience the peak state frequently.
(3) One of these, ironically, is a “shared belief system, usually involving a vision of utopia, that justifies unlimited violence in pursuit of unlimited good.” Let me be unequivocally clear that I would never condone any violence whatsoever as a means to the end of engineering paradise.
(4) Dyson’s epiphany reminds me of an experience that a friend of mine had while tripping on LSD. He saw that he would be on the other side of every interaction that he would ever participate in. In the fullness of time, he would get reincarnated as every person that he ever wronged; as every person that he ever rescued; as every person that he ever fought with, slept with, laughed with, cried with, and so on.