Our research spans philosophy, neuroscience, and neurotechnology. We think progress on these topics is necessary for positive & definite visions for the future.
Philosophical foundations / how we think about qualia:
Our starting point is Qualia Formalism, the hypothesis that the internal structure of our subjective experience can be represented precisely by mathematics. Most theories of consciousness are ambiguous on this topic, and we think this is holding back progress: by being clear on whether Qualia Formalism is true or false provides clarity on what kind of problem consciousness is.
A core bottleneck in consciousness research is identifying natural kinds, or determining what the primitive elements of phenomenal experience are. We reject most of the usual starting points (beliefs, preferences, sensations) as fuzzy abstractions, too ambiguous to use as a foundation. Instead, we take the perspective of Valence Realism, that pain and pleasure are not only of particular moral and practical importance but are plausibly atomic, the most tractable place to start reverse-engineering phenomenology. The ‘C. elegans‘ of qualia.
The simple combination of these two assumptions is surprisingly powerful: if consciousness is representable by mathematics, and emotional valence is a natural kind, then emotional valence should have a clean signature in this mathematical representation. Much of our work (such as the Symmetry Theory of Valence) flows from this.
Principia Qualia: a first-principles blueprint for a new science of qualia, introducing the Symmetry Theory of Valence [35000 words];
Symmetry Theory of Valence, ELI5: a simple description of the Symmetry Theory of Valence [200 words]
The Tyranny of the Intentional Object: a thought experiment about why emotional valence itself, not the intentional content of our experience, is fundamental [1400 words];
Algorithmic Reduction of Psychedelic States: most psychedelic effects can be reconstructed out of four basic algorithmic effects [6000 words];
Seed Ontologies: what formal ontologies could serve as the seed for a fuller science of mind? [2300 words];
The Hyperbolic Geometry of DMT Experiences: DMT experiences exhibit certain regularities which can be explained through hyperbolic geometry [10,000 words]; abridged version [1800 words];
Against functionalism: Functionalism is an empty theory of consciousness, in that it doesn’t do what we need a theory of consciousness to do [6000 words];
The Pseudo-Time Arrow: Explaining Phenomenal Time With Implicit Causal Structures In Networks Of Local Binding: using the same principles of statistical conditional independence used to account for physical time, we can also explain phenomenal time [5400 words].
Neuroscience / how we think about the brain:
Traditionally, neuroscience has been concerned with cataloging the brain, e.g. collecting discrete observations about anatomy, observed cyclic patterns (EEG frequencies), and cell types and neurotransmitters, and trying to match these facts with functional stories. However, it’s increasingly clear that these sorts of neat stories about localized function are artifacts of the tools we’re using to look at the brain, not of the brain’s underlying computational structure.
What’s the alternative? Instead of centering our exploration on the sorts of raw data our tools are able to gather, we can approach the brain as a self-organizing system, something which uses a few core principles to both build and regulate itself. As such, if we can reverse-engineer these core principles and use what tools we have to validate these bottom-up models, we can both understand the internal logic of the brain’s algorithms — the how and why the brain does what it does- as well as find more elegant intervention points for altering it [see more on our Lineages page].
What does this have to do with consciousness? In short, if we can understand the structure of the way the brain processes information, and phenomenological content is deeply coupled to the information the brain is processing, we can use this knowledge to build useful proxies for what’s happening in phenomenology.
Quantifying Bliss: Talk Summary: the world’s first method to calculate emotional valence from fMRI built entirely from first principles [5000 words];
A Future for Neuroscience: the brain has natural harmonic modes (frequencies it ‘likes’ to resonate at) — what does this mean and what could we do with this knowledge? [6000 words];
The Neuroscience of Meditation: Four Models: what’s happening in the brain during meditation? [5000 words]; Excerpt: What is Love? [1000 words];
Why We Seek Out Pleasure: The Symmetry Theory of Homeostatic Regulation: explaining Freud’s ‘pleasure principle’ with systems neuroscience [1900 words];
Generalized Wada Test and the Total Order of Consciousness: extending a novel experimental technique to test the effects of psychedelics [900 words].
Neurotechnology / blueprints for useful devices & methods:
The purpose of research is to make the world better: to make real things that help people. We have some early-stage neurotech projects in progress and are always looking for collaborators.
Vision / significance of our research:
We believe understanding consciousness is one of the most important and pressing tasks for humanity: an enabling condition for fixing many problems of the present and for building good futures.
On a personal scale, there’s a great deal of suffering in the world, and understanding what suffering is seems crucial for reducing it. Second, there’s a saying in business that ‘what you can measure, you can manage’ — and so progress on understanding the structure of phenomenology and nature of suffering should lead to better interventions for mental health.
It’s also important to note that if we have good first-principles metrics for mood in humans, we can apply them to non-human animals as well, putting animal welfare on a much more quantitative basis.
On a civilizational scale, we seem to be gripped by nihilism, confusion about what futures are worth working toward, and trouble coordinating society toward any goal at all. These questions become all the more pressing as developments in artificial intelligence, genetic engineering, and neurotechnology allow deeper forms of self-authorship. We believe understanding the structure of phenomenology, and the nature of phenomenological value, could help navigate this.
Wireheading Done Right: Staying Positive Without Going Insane: there are better ways and worse ways to be happy all the time [8400 words];
Rescuing Philosophy: why we’re doing our research outside of academic philosophy [2000 words];
Peaceful Qualia: The Manhattan Project of Consciousness: what would it look like if consciousness was a research priority? [4900 words];
Thoughts on the ‘Is-Ought Problem’ from a Qualia Realist Point of View: consciousness research may help bridge the Is-Ought gap [2900 words];
Qualia Formalism in the Water Supply: Reflections on The Science of Consciousness 2018: trends we see and like in the field of consciousness research [5000 words];
Effective Altruism, and building a better QALY: the way Effective Altruism tries to measure the ethical value of interventions is very flawed. Can we do better? [2400 words];
How understanding valence could help make future AIs safer: can consciousness research inform AI safety? [1800 words];
The Universal Plot: Part I – Consciousness vs. Pure Replicators: the most important struggle in the universe [7500 words];
Burning Man 2.0: The Eigen-Schelling Religion: Burning Man as a new model for self-organization [7500 words];
Why do contemplative practitioners make so many metaphysical claims?: why does meditation sometime make people say weird things? [1800 words].