Timeless Ethics

2,600 words

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Header image taken from here.

“And, in the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make.” – Paul McCartney

Editor’s note

I am not making any claims about physics in this essay; rather, I am trying to suggest an ethical framework that would accommodate a certain system of physics, should it be true. However, the physics discussed below is so outlandish that the essay as a whole should be viewed more as a work of fiction – a metaphysical or ethical fantasy, as it were – than as a proposed statement of fact. ~Proceed with caution.~

Psychedelic insights into the nature of karma

In his blog Qualia Computing, Andrés Gomez Emilsson, director of research at the Qualia Research Institute, references a harrowing Reddit post by someone who made the highly ill-fated mistake of taking LSD on an airplane:

“[At one point during the flight,] I had what you call “sonder”, a moment of clarity where I realized that I wasn’t the center of the universe, that everyone is just as important as me, everyone has loved ones, stories of lost love etc, they’re the main character in their own movies.

That’s when shit went quantum. All these stories begun sinking in to me. It was as if I was beginning to experience their stories simultaneously. And not just their stories, I began seeing the story of everyone I had ever met in my entire life flash before my eyes. And in this quantum experience, there was a voice that said something about Karma. The voice told me that the plane will crash and that I will be reborn again until the quota of my Karma is at -+0. So, for every ill deed I have done, I would have an ill deed committed to me. For every cheap T-shirt I purchased in my previous life, I would live the life of the poor Asian sweatshop worker sewing that T-shirt.

And it was as if thousands of versions of me was experiencing this moment. It is hard to explain, but in every situation where something could happen, both things happened and I experienced both timelines simultaneously. As I opened my eyes, I noticed how smoke was coming out of the top cabins in the plane. Luggage was falling out. I experienced the airplane crashing a thousand times, and I died and accepted death a thousand times, apologizing to the Karma God for my sins. There was a flash of the brightest white light imagineable and the thousand realities in which I died began fading off.”

This Redditor’s insight into the nature of karma is quite compatible with an experience that a friend of mine had when she was tripping on a high dose of LSD. She said that she observed the “plot” of the universe unfolding as a game characterized by the perennial tension between two countervailing forces, which can roughly be described as the innate yearning to surrender into love and the conditioned resistance to that love. The player’s score or “karmic balance” is determined by the amount of love that he gives relative to the amount of love that he resists or takes away. In each iteration of the game, the player is reincarnated into a new physical form, in which the amount of love that he receives is conditioned by the actions that he had performed in his past lives. If the player previously withheld love from and thereby caused pain to someone else, then in a future iteration of the game, the player would be reincarnated as the other person, such that he would experience firsthand the suffering that he had inflicted. To quote the Redditor, “for every ill deed” that the player has done, the player “would have an ill deed committed” against him. The player is then confronted with the choice of either perpetuating or ending the cycle of pain; either he can retaliate against the person who hurt him, or he can choose to forgive and love the other person. Over the course of many reincarnations, the player heals all of the pain that past versions of himself had caused. To paraphrase Paul McCartney, the love he makes becomes equal to the love he takes. The player’s karmic balance is ultimately set to zero.

This account of karma has bizarre implications for the direction of causality and, therefore, time. Typically, we think that cause must always precede effect. But in these stories, effect can also come before cause. For instance, suppose that the player gets reincarnated in two different lifetimes as an abusive father and his son. In the first lifetime, the father repeatedly abuses his son. In the second, the father becomes the son and thereby turns into the victim of his own abuse. [1] Furthermore, suppose that in the second lifetime, the son heals the pain of the father; the son chooses not to lash out at or live in fear of his father, but rather makes a concerted and compassionate effort to help his father heal from his patterns of abusive behavior. Because the father and the son are really one and the same consciousness in two different forms, the direction of causality becomes circular. The father unleashes his own pain on the son and then the son heals the father such that the father stops hurting the son. In other words, the player hurts a future version of himself and then the future version stops the past version from causing pain in the first place. The future prevents the past from happening. The effect (the healing) ensues after the cause (the pain), in the sense that the healing takes place in a lifetime that appears to follow the lifetime in which the pain was originally inflicted. Yet the effect also occurs before the cause, in the sense that the healing precludes further pain. The father is healed before he abused his son.

Healing forwards and backwards: an anecdote

If all this discussion is hopelessly confusing, don’t worry; our minds cannot really make sense of bidirectional causality. Even I am finding that I am tripping over myself while writing this blogpost. An anecdote from a friend of mine, Dani Mortimer, may illustrate my point more effectively and clearly, even though the anecdote diverges from some key features of the karmic narrative detailed above, such as reincarnation. [2] 

When Dani was a teenager, she was overcome by a feeling that a “dark energy” was consuming her. She prayed ardently until a deeply benevolent spirit appeared and transported her to a realm that appeared similar to the Garden of Eden. The spirit caressed her, and she said that she had never felt so safe and so deeply loved in her entire life. 

Several years later, Dani was meditating with the intent of healing her “inner child,” which contains the remnants of all the traumas that she had experienced as a child. She experienced an extraordinary vision in which she held her inner child and healed the pain of her past self by radiating unconditional love towards it. In a moment of epiphany, she realized that she was the very same spirit who had healed her years ago. In the future, she became the spirit whom she had experienced in the past. The effect – the spirit’s healing of her inner child – preceded the cause – her evolution into that spirit.

Wild speculations about physics

There are two ways of interpreting these accounts. On the one hand, we could dismiss them as mere hallucinations with no bearing on our understanding of the nature of causality. One could say that Dani’s experience of herself as the spirit in the future was different from her vision of the spirit in the past; while the two appeared to be identical to each other, she was not actually the same spirit who had healed herself. In regards to the Redditor, one could simply point out that the hallucinations engendered by psychoactive substances do not correspond to phenomena that objectively transpire “out there” in the real world. According to the skeptics, Dani and the Redditor create these narratives out of a psychological desire to make sense of their experiences. Beyond the personal satisfaction of integrating their experiences into a coherent whole, these narratives have no weight; they are mere fictions.

On the other hand, we could argue that there is some truth behind these accounts. Causality is bidirectional; we can exert causal influence on both the future and the past. In this essay, I am not taking a stance on the issue of which perspective is true. I am not suggesting that these stories validate a notion of causality that is radically different from the one that we tend to uphold. Rather, I am merely entertaining the possibility that they do. If so, then what implications do they have for physics? 

The circular causality discussed in this blogpost is so confusing because it is utterly incongruous with our notions of time. The future can never intervene in the past because the former always occurs after the latter. In order to embrace bidirectional causality, we have to discard our concept of time as a sequential phenomenon, in which future moments follow past ones. 

An alternative is the block universe theory of time, according to which all moments of time – past, present, and future – exist simultaneously. In a past blogpost, I quoted one film that beautifully summarizes the theory: “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 … The past never vanishes away, and the future has already happened.” In its traditional conception, the block universe theory accommodates only a single history of events, though the relative ordering of those events depends on the observer. [3] I propose as an alternative the block multiverse theory, in which every possible history of events unfolds at the same time. The countless reincarnations that the Redditor imagined are all coexisting simultaneously with one another; the lifetime in which he caused pain to someone else is concurrent with the lifetime in which he is on the receiving end of that pain. It is not as though he lives through the first lifetime and then subsequently reincarnates into the second one. Both are happening in the timeless Now. Similarly, Dani’s experience as the healed individual (i.e. her teenage self) coincides eternally with her experience as the healer (i.e. the spirit).

Moreover, the block multiverse theory is actually quite scientifically plausible. Many esteemed physicists uphold the block universe theory, including Max Tegmark. Tegmark also champions the notion of the multiverse, in which a never-ending cascade of Big Bangs – a process known as eternal inflation – produces countless universes like ours across an infinite expanse of space. Moreover, as Tegmark writes in Our Mathematical Universe, “if eternal inflation made a space containing infinitely many Level I parallel universes, then you’ll find it containing all possibilities. Specifically, you’ll have to check on average about 1010^118 universes until you find a copy of any particular kind of universe.” In other words, it is guaranteed that, somewhere in the multiverse, there is an identical replica of our universe. Individuals in that universe are faced with the same circumstances as they are in ours, but they may not make the same decisions. For instance, as in the example above, there may be two universes in which the same child is abused by his father. But in one universe, the child may continue to be the victim of his father’s actions; in the other, the child may help the father to heal from his abusive behavior. If time is linear and sequential, then the first reality would happen before the second one. (The children in both situations are identical to each other, so they inhabit the same consciousness; but the same consciousness cannot be in two different realities at the same time, so long as time is supposed to be linear.) However, according to the block multiverse theory, both realities coincide with each other; cause is simultaneous with effect.

Zero ethics

If the block multiverse obeys the karmic principle detailed at the beginning of this blogpost, then zero net love or pain is created in the multiverse. Love and pain are on two opposite ends of the spectrum of conscious experience; somewhat naively, we could say that the former is the best kind, and the latter is the worst. Furthermore, if we suppose, as I have argued before, that the quality of conscious experience is the only true measure of ethical value, then the karmic principle implies that all the branches of the multiverse ultimately produce zero ethical value. [4] 

This claim is consistent with David Pearce’s Zero Ontology, which states that the multiverse has zero information content because every possible reality occurs. As I wrote in August 2020,

[Information is defined as] a reduction in uncertainty. Hence, if I were to specify the position of a rook on a chess board, for example, I would be giving you a nonzero amount (6 bits, in fact) of information. On the other hand, if I were to say that the rook could be anywhere on the chess board, I would be conveying zero information, since I am not reducing any of the uncertainty that someone would have about the rook.

By extension, as Pearce argues, a library that contains every permutation of letters and numbers, also known as the Library of Babel, would have zero information content. This example appears to create a paradox, as the Library of Babel would appear to have maximal information. But in fact, knowing that a book belongs in the Library of Babel doesn’t reduce any uncertainty about the letters and numbers that could appear in the book, since the Library of Babel implies that any configuration of characters is possible.

Pearce goes on to argue that the universal quantum wave function, which encodes the quantum state of the entire universe (multiverse), consists of a superposition of all the possible histories of events that could transpire in reality. According to Everett’s many-worlds hypothesis [5], the wave function never collapses, unlike in the traditional Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics. Thus, all possible realities occur, and the net information content of the multiverse reduces to nothingness.

If we integrate the karmic principle with the Zero Ontology into a coherent philosophy, then the information content of any event would be determined by the overall quality of conscious experience for those who are involved, that is, how much love or pain is produced by that event. The multiverse is the superposition or the coexistence of all flavors of experience, ranging from the most extraordinary love to the most unbearable pain. The information content of the totality of conscious experience comes out to zero. We experience everything, and hence we experience nothing at all.

[1] One is reminded of the song “Child Is the Father of the Man” by Brian Wilson.

[2] Dani is currently an undergraduate at the National University of Natural Medicine.

[3] For instance, as I’ve explained previously, two observers who move relative to each other will have separate frames of reference. These frames of reference “slice” through space-time differently, and the differences become much more apparent when the observers are a large distance (i.e. light-years) apart from each other. For instance, in the resting frame, my typing coincides with my tapping of my feet on the floor, but in another frame, my typing occurs in the same moment as the signing of the Declaration of Independence. 

[4] The Qualia Research Institute inspired this perspective on ethics.

One thought on “Timeless Ethics

  1. I very much enjoy both QRI and David Pearce. Particularly the latter and his Abolition campaign. Trouble is with Tegmark and all these theories is that we are still in the dark ages concerning reality and likely to remain so. Over the years I have grown so tired of endless unprovable theory and speculation. Oddly enough that is why the pyschedelic experience is satisying. Whether the relevations are real or not, they seem to be so for the experiencer. More than can be said for endless waffle.


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