Knowing How To Define

A tribesman from a hot place points at what you’re wearing. “What is that?”

“A jacket,” you say.

“What is a jacket?” he asks.

What he wants to know is the purpose for which the jacket is used, and so you tell him “It keeps me warm. It protects me from the sun. It is very fashionable.”

A computer compiling information about the world is trying to fill in gaps in knowledge. It scans you and asks “what is that?”

“A jacket,” you say.

“What is a jacket?” the computer asks.

What the computer wants to know is what it matches to most closely in its existing stored knowledge. You tell it, “It is like a trenchcoat, a sweater, a coat, or a hoodie.”

An alien artist is unfamiliar with the structure of your world. It gestures its tendrils at you and asks “what is that?”

“A jacket,” you say.

“What is a jacket?” the alien asks.

What the alien wants to know is what it is that gives rise to the jacket, what the essence of jacketness is. You tell it, “It is a bunch of pieces of fabric stitched together with some thread.”

These are three ways in which a word can be ‘defined’ – the role it plays in the world around it (the up-definition), synonyms (lateral-definition), and the parts which construct the thing (down-definition).

Generally speaking, up-definitions are the most commonly used and the most practical. What we want to know about an object is what we can do with it. The same is applied to concepts – Love is “the thing we have for our children or parents,” surprise is “the thing that happens at a birthday you thought everyone forgot about,” and “existence” is “all this stuff you’re looking at.”

Up-definitions is also one of those things that can ‘feel like’ a satisfactory answer when what you really need is a down-definition. Discussions about morality frequently fall into the up-definition trap, where everybody’s idea of ‘wrong’ is a strictly functional thing, and then people get into conflicts over why different functional ideas are clashing with each other.

I’ve seen a few discussions of free will that also fail to recognize down-definitions; the up definition of free will is something like ‘making decisions independently’ or ‘conscious choices’ – or lateral definitions like “agency” or “my soul.” To ask about a down-definition is to ask about the fabric and thread of free will, about what little bits that idea has been built out of. Generally the down-definition I like the best is “a specific subjective sense”.

Up-definitions are useful, but down-definitions aid in presenting a more cohesive idea of what your mind is doing when it thinks. With some concepts it’s difficult to put any down-definition into words, but paying attention to the feeling of thinking about the concepts can also suffice.

Probably all concepts we use are built out of many smaller concepts, and those built out of smaller still, and oftentimes we forget this so deeply that as soon as we identify an idea like free will, we view it and wield it as a solid unit, and our debates with others feature challenging how our solid units serve functionally in the world around us. It’s like knowing how to swordfight without any knowledge of what swords are made out of – it works just fine, but it’s not holistic, and might one day prevent advancing to an expert level.

 

 

The Abyss of Want

disclaimer: this post is very silly and should not be taken seriously if you don’t take it seriously

If you ask the question ‘what do you want,’ and then follow it up with an infinite series of ‘why do you want that’, and ‘well why do you want that?’, it quickly gets murky.

When I took acid, my primary (goal?) activity was learning and fulfilling what I wanted. I realized that I wanted to become more confident. To fulfill this, I had to then realize what I actually wanted was to avoid the pain of rejection. To fulfill this, I had to then realize what I actually wanted was to know myself more. To fulfill this, there was more to know, and more to do, and more to know…
Over time I progressed down each rung of the ladder, shedding bits of myself each step, until I got to what I thought was the bottom. I thought it was the bottom for a long time. It went like this:

“I want nothing. I am nothing. I know nothing. I am no one. I have no attachment, because there is no one to have it. There are no beliefs. There is no difference between what ought to be and what is.”

I had wanted to fulfill my wants. The fulfillment of want meant the abolition of want, for a fulfilled want is no longer a want at all – and such was the floor of the abyss. In full self knowledge, there was nothing else to look for.

I was a mess of contentment. I was nothing, I was dead.

The experience of being dead is a funny thing to think about, because we always substitute something in to serve as a model for ‘death.’ We think about being huddled in a dark room forever, or sleeping, or the loss of everything we loved, or a great cloaked figure with a scythe, or our loved ones who’ve passed – but death isn’t any of these things. As soon as you think about “what death is,” you aren’t thinking about death at all, you’re thinking about an experience that you might have. What “death is” is every experience you are not having, right now, and haven’t before, and will never have again.

Subjective death, by its own definition, is impossible to understand, and that which is definitionally incomprehensible is synonymous with nonexistence.

I’m attempting to explain the reason why the floor of the abyss was not the end. Life is inevitable. The movement away from nothingness is an absolute necessity.

The floor opened up and I fell (because falling was an absolute necessity) to a level that looked familiar. And it was here that I realized that moving away from wanting nothing meant that now I had to want something, because what else is there?

I wanted to feel tension again, answerless and longing. I wanted to unknow what I had learned. I didn’t want to feel the benevolent god of my own watching eye, in all its infinite love, destroying my ability to feel unsatisfied – because being something again meant being unsatisfied.

I was back at the beginning, and it was here I saw that the abyss of want was a circle.

This realization was deeply humbling. A good friend once told me that the very last trap on the path to enlightenment is thinking that you are enlightened, and this has come back to knock me down again and again. The circle brought me right back around to where I had been before, to where everyone else had already been all this time. What I’d ‘truly’ wanted was to feel desire, and everyone else had already been doing it. I felt a little sheepish, that I’d had the audacity to think my chase had been better than anyone else’s. Everyone I’d looked down on, even a little – deeply religious people, shallow people, angry people, ‘overly rational’ people – they were all exactly where I was, desiring things even more than I was. They were the ones who had beaten me to my destination, without even moving.

Enlightenment is a great joke. Enlightenment is nothing at all. I am something now, clinging hard to somethingness, and so I am not enlightened. Neither are you, or any other something in existence; really, you should only try to go get enlightened if you are fond of great jokes.

Bonsciousness

Disclaimer: I have a spectrum of posts, from “thoughtfully laid out to attempt to appeal to people who disagree” to “more quickly summarized to appeal to people who already at least partially agree with me.” This post is in the second category.

I want to contribute another word to my pile of cheesy invented terms: bonsciousness.

One of my pet peeves is people confusing questions about consciousness. I’ve seen “can we ever scientifically solve the hard problem of consciousness?” uttered just a few sentences away from talking about “what is the origin of qualia.” Consciousness is a fascinating problem for reasons that render those questions useless, but in order to make this more clear I want to divide the one concept into two.

“Consciousness” is the word we (should?) use for the conceptual model we have of “other things being self aware.” When we ask the question, “how do we know if an AI should be treated ethically?” we’re probably asking if the AI is conscious. The P-Zombie thought experiment has to do with whether or not other beings contain this elusive “consciousness” quality.

Consciousness can’t be known for sure, as we could be in a simulation where everyone else just behaves very convincingly, or a dream where we are absolutely convinced that we are talking to an intelligent friend, despite them just being a projection of our own minds.

When we handle the concept ‘consciousness,’ we’re usually handling something like the concept of ‘how much do we feel that other beings exhibit patterns that we uniquely identify with’ – as in, we might think an AI is conscious if it can do things like “use language creatively.”

The key concept of consciousness is that it is something that can be applied to multiple things. There can be multiple consciousnesses, whatever it means or however sure we are of it existing. Multiple awarenesses feel like it makes sense, and is calculable, or measurable, and one day we might be able to do better science to it and feel like we’ve made additional consciousnesses.

Bonsciousness, on the other hand, is fundamentally singular. It is the subjective and immediate awareness of the self. It is direct experience.

The concept of bonsciousness becomes relevant in thought experiments like Mary’s Room (if a color blind scientist studies color for a thousand years, will surgically fixing her color blindness on the 1000th year give her any new information?), in questions of identity – but it always has to do with the nature of experience.

It cannot be multiple. If you try to imagine someone else possessing bonsciousness, you are not thinking about bonscoiusness, you are thinking about consciousness. This may seem a subtle distinction, but I find it incredibly important. Teleportation poses no deep philosophical questions when it happens to other people – the importance lies in the subjective and personal experience. The question “does teleportation kill you” relies on what the continuation of experience feels like – while the question “is AI conscious” relies on whatever markers we have that we think needs to be met for consciousness to exist. These are two questions that come from two hugely different types of ideas.

I find this to be an unintuitive distinction for some people, as it’s very common for people to combine the concepts of consciousness and bonsciousness in their own mind. I also find that if one does not already find self-awareness to be deeply philosophically strange, it’s difficult to induce that sensation in them through argument alone and I don’t expect this post would accomplish that.

I do suspect, though, that at least attempting to use different terms for singular/multiple ideas of consciousness would clarify a lot of the conversations I’ve been listening to lately. I’ve been hearing people ask a question about bonsciousness and then attempt to answer as though they’re talking about consciousness, which is quite frustrating.

Bonsciousness is so elusive because it is about a category of knowledge that isn’t measurable, and trying to treat it as measurable shuts down a lot of avenues of learning.

Yes, And I Like It

Sometimes I come up with reasons about my behavior based on my childhood. “I must be overly compliant and afraid of authority/rulebreaking because my parents were authoritarian,” I think. This is a rationalization that gives my behavior meaning – there was a cause (authoritarian parents), a reaction (whatever emotional responses that had – fear, desire for love, etc.), and a lasting effect (compliance). It is a story about myself, not from a cold, distant perspective, but from the inside, from my own mind – what it feels like to make decisions.

This is a narrative that has been very useful and intuitive, and led me to things like dealing with my overcompliance by reminding myself that the world is not my parents, or forgiving myself for overcompliance by identifying the concrete cause of exposure to authority. Overall, the story of “authoritarian parents caused my compliance” is one that has helped me gain control over my actions. Because it makes sense and has worked so well, I think it is true. How could something work so well and not be true?

Imagine my surprise when my Mom read to me notes she had taken about me as a toddler, prior to any age I remember. “Very compliant,” she had written. “very concerned about pleasing those around her.”

The fact that I was displaying these traits before any serious parenting happened was a huge blow to my idea that my parents caused my compliance. Gone was my image of a plucky three-year-old getting the fire snuffed out of her. (Now, of course my story of authoritarian-compliance could still be true. My parents did do things like “hit her as a baby if her cries sound defiant”, so it’s possible that my personality traits mostly emerged as a response to that training. It’s also possible my traits were mostly genetic. I have no idea.)

This instance, among many others, really divorced me from the idea that I was tapping into some sort of ‘actual truth’ when I made up explanations for why I was the way I was, particularly when the causes in question were unclear, complicated, or a long time ago.

It also sort of reminds me of a sensation I had after a long and strange dream. When I tried to communicate the dream, I found that much of it was too ethereal to capture in words – so I described it as best I could, an abridged version, forcing tiny bits of narrative to cover up the gaps I couldn’t explain adequately. As I recounted the dream, I could feel the memory fading and being wholly replaced by the story I was telling – deeply, in the way I believed it. It was an odd sensation, to sense something untruthful become truth to me, but I realized that was the only way my brain could hold on. This tale was now the only access I had. I would have felt uncomfortable, except I realized I had probably done this countless times in the past without knowing it.

In fact, I probably was doing this constantly – not just with dreams or childhood tales, but with every story I told myself about why I did the things I did. In the translation of my life to words in my memory I was inevitably engaging in a lie, because words cannot possibly accurately convey experience. I was a fabric woven out of tales spun from experience.

Everything I thought about myself and my own identity was subject to this. I had the feeling that my ideas about myself were “true” because they proved to be both useful and elegant – but then my idea about authoritarian-caused-compliance was both useful and elegant, and it probably-possibly wasn’t “true” at all! I could not know, and if something is impossible to know then it is just as good as not existing at all.

Ultimately, “who I was” felt like a story I had created in my own mind to make sense of my surroundings. A useful story, an elegant one, but still a story.

This concept of self-as-a-story, as specifically different from self-as-definitely-real, places identity in the realm of self-creation as opposed to world-creation. Doing this grants us agency and is a core for a lot of theories of healing and emotional growth.

Once you buy into the idea of self-as-a-story, once you integrate it as a deep belief, it becomes easier to accept new stories you employ to give direction to your life and identity. A lot of people have a strong negative reaction to this idea with the sense that they are lying to themselves – but the sense of “lying to yourself” arises only when you are consciously saying one thing and your subconscious is saying another. If you truly believe deeply, your subconscious will be aligned, and it will feel like truth. If you feel the sense of lying-to-yourself when trying to accept new stories, then that means you haven’t believed deeply enough yet. Beliefs are malleable, and we can learn to use them like clothes, switching them out as is appropriate for the occasion.

Here I want to talk specifically about engaging a story, much like the ones we employ every day, that is not grounded in reality, but is rather both useful and elegant. (It’s almost certain I’m not the first one to try to verbalize this, and I have a horrifying lack of education in basically everything, so I am under constant fear that my thoughts are already common knowledge, so if this is common knowledge pls ignore.)

The story is called: “Yes, And I Like It.”

It meant to address self-disgust or variations on it. The first step is to identify the thing you’re doing that you dislike, such as:

Getting jealous when your partner meets up with an old fling
Talking about yourself too much in social situations
Procrastinating housework

The second step is to identify, as primally and as honestly as possible, the source or reason for the unpleasantness. For some things this can be very difficult to do and take a long time. Phrasing them as self-referencing is usually the best:

I am afraid I’m not good enough for my partner.
I crave approval of my peers.
I lack willpower for simple tasks.

The third step is to respond “yes, and I like it.”

I am afraid I’m not good enough for my partner.
Yes, and I like the fear.
I crave approval of my peers.
Yes, and I like the insecurity.
I lack willpower for simple tasks.
Yes, and I like the helplessness.

The idea here is that to change yourself you must first accept yourself, and to accept yourself you must first accept your flaws, and to accept your flaws you must view them as intentional. Not in name, not in word, but deeply, truly. You must believe the story of Yes, And I Like It.

(Another objection might be that this leads to passivity and helplessness, but I disagree.)

The concept of liking negative emotions might seem pretty silly, but the idea that we must not like things that hurt is in itself a belief we can step out of, with a little practice.

In fact, we practice it anyway without realizing it. We immerse ourselves in movies with threats and tragedies that feel real, if only for a few hours. Some of us get a little excited when bad world events happen – not because they wanted it to happen, but because badness is exciting the same way it is in movies. And I’m sure most of us as teenagers discovered we had recently developed capacity for complex emotional pain and promptly spent a lot of time feeling all the pain we could at once. Experiences of intense emotional pain while on psychedelics can lead to this sensation as well, usually much more vividly.

We already hold within our minds stories of I like this thing that hurts, even if we don’t realize it. Pain can be exciting, cathartic, or meaningful.

And so learning to believe the story of Yes, And I Like It can take that little dark pleasure and channel it into your life now. It can apply even to things outside of your own control (My mother died; I miss her terribly, and I like it).

Ultimately the goal is to divorce yourself from the narrative that pain is bad. That is an elegant and useful story, but elegant and useful does not mean true.

Opia

I didn’t believe in teleportation. I didn’t believe in it so much I had to stop before the teleporter door and vomit loudly into a nearby bin, my hands pressed up against the cold wall, my back vacillating temperature. I watched the last bit of spit yoyo from my lips, swallowed away the taste, and listened for any footsteps, any alerted yells.

The building was empty except for me and the 25/7 autosecretary who was probably dozing off somewhere in the library. The emptiness made the transporter warehouse eerie, lit by red emergency lights and moonbeams through the glass ceiling. The guiding ropes for queuing had been pushed aside by the cleaning crew, the customs booths were quiet, the observation windows on the second floor dark. A lot of money had been poured here, but all of it into the practical function and technology; every corner glinted with touchpads not yet available to the public – but the walkways were grated, the railings metal, the bolts visible. Without the well-dressed people and ad screens and noise it felt a lot more like a factory, stripped of its soul and built for purpose.

I knew no one was here, but I was still reassured when the only response to my retching was silence. I wiped my mouth and pressed the touchscreen on the side of the beastly metal construction. It thrummed to life, all ugly steel and bolts except for the front, the entrance, which glowed white.

I eyed the death machine with revulsion. It ate people – people who had been brainwashed with the belief that they would somehow come out the same on the other side. Portercorp, the company with an effective monopoly on this technology and its name printed above the entrance of this building, had put out an effective message. “Total control at the atomic level!” it claimed (which wasn’t exactly true, but good enough for the media). “We zap you here and zop you there! Let the solar system be your playground!”

I had talked to many people who’d been teleported. I was a regular contract tech for Portercorp and thus had plenty of access to the wealthy – the only ones who could afford regular teleportation – or porting, as people were calling it now. I’d ask them when called upstairs to fix their abused autoassists. I’d slip it into conversation casually, like I didn’t care. They all insisted, over and over, that it was just a full body tingle and suddenly they were elsewhere. It was comfortable, convenient. No side effects. It was revolutionary. They didn’t know how they had lived without it.

I’d ask them the last time they’d been ported, and they’d say “Just this morning, straight from Florida!” And then the nascent businessman with his linen suit and full set of memories would smile perfectly and thank me for fixing their stupid autoassist and then I’d be on my way.

It was chilling. How could the deconstruction of an entire body lead to anything but death? And the person on the other side, these people I was talking to, working for – they were just a clone, an imposter, down to the atomic level, carrying the same memories. Everyone who was teleported was happily and regularly walking to their deaths and they had no idea. I didn’t care how cutely they phrased “zapping” and “zopping” – it was murder.

And I was going to prove it.

“Activate logging,” I said, and a blue light flashed a reply on the touchpad. A camera, built invisibly into the ceiling of the teleporter room, would now be recording.

“Configuration mode,” I said, the words followed by another blue light. This shifted the teleporter into the mode used for testing and calibration, where items were teleported from one space to another within the teleporter room.

A few more button presses – height, weight, liability waiver – and I was ready.

What I was about to do was illegal. Very, very illegal. It had been done in China maybe, and supposedly here too at the beginning of teleporter development, but had been outlawed due to Portercorp lobbying. This was sensible. Experiments proving murder would be bad for business.

The only reason I’d managed to surpass the safeguards at all was due to long months of slow backend modifications. Considering how strict the laws were, there had been less security than I expected – maybe because nobody thought one of us anti-porter crazies would also willingly work for Portercorp. Maybe nobody had tried this.

Maybe they had tried but gotten too nervous. I wouldn’t blame them.

I inhaled through my nose, suppressing the desire to turn and flee and become another one of those invisible cowards.

This wasn’t death. I wouldn’t be deconstructing myself.

I stepped inside.

It was a small seamless white room with rounded corners, lit evenly and ambiently. The walls weren’t reflective, so it felt nearly like I was standing in an infinite white field, sort of what I’d imagined heaven would be like right before I met God. A gentle blue line glowed in the middle of the floor, dividing the room in two. I stepped to the right of it and watched the door vanish into the wall to my left, flush and completely invisible. I knew the door was there, ready to be activated by my touch, but watching it disappear into nothing was unsettling. I slowed my breathing, felt my chest rise and fall.

Somewhere in the ceiling was the hidden camera, recording everything that was happening. I was going to show this to everyone. I had to stay calm.

The beeps started. Ten of them, warning the incoming test. I counted down under my breath.

Five. Four. Three. Two. One.

I closed my eyes and a tingle shot through my body – not like a surface chill, or goosebumps, but to my core; I could feel it in every muscle, in my organs, in my brain, like cold metal in my blood.

Zero.

I opened my eyes, and my own face stared back at me.

It was wide-eyed, nervous. It had hair imperfectly tucked into a ponytail, brown eyes, flushed cheeks, wrinkles forming against the eyes. It was so lifelike – I thought I was looking into a mirror for a moment, except there was no glass between us.

It was hard to think. I took a breath and said, “Hello, Opia.”

The clone said “Hello, Opia” at exactly the same time.

I stopped. I raised my right hand; so did my clone. We touched palms in the center in perfect symmetry. She was warm and damp and solid and surreal.

This wasn’t what I’d expected. I had imagined her to be sort of like a twin sister; something other – but those eyes were the ones I had spent my life looking out of. I felt cold-welded to her.

It was so obvious now. I was ashamed I hadn’t predicted this. She wasn’t mimicking me, there was no delay in her greeting or movement. She was acting as I was acting, spurred on by the same thoughts, the same experience. The teleporter had taken the exact arrangement of matter in my brain and replicated it perfectly in this second body. All the neurons, the synapses, would be operating in the same way. Of course she would say “Hello, Opia” at the same time.

And I realized that, at this moment, my clone would be thinking the same thing. And that my clone would have realized this realization. And that my clone would have realized this too…

I stepped back – so did my clone. “This is fucked up,” I said, and those horrible perfect electrical impulses in the clone’s brain meant that she mirrored me with no delay.

I turned around and paced – and so did the clone. I wanted to talk to her – but everything I thought was no longer original. Every time I thought of something to say, I would glance over and the clone was glancing back, obviously thinking the same thing. It felt like telepathy. “Can you hear me?” I thought at her. No, she couldn’t hear me, but the same words were echoing in her brain. The entirety of my own mind was currently being experienced by another, simultaneously, and it was absolutely overwhelming.

The issue of teleportation-death seemed pale compared to this.

I had to break the symmetry. Maybe if I didn’t think? Maybe if I just acted?

On quick intuition, as primally as I could muster, I dropped to my knees and shouted nonsense noises.

So did the clone.

I stood and pulled on my hair and stomped my foot and said “You stupid cunt.”

So did the clone.

I slapped her, she slapped me. It would have been funny if it weren’t so existentially terrifying.

A feeling of cold powerlessness came over me – had been creeping over me since the second I opened my eyes to that terrible familiar face. Before this, I had always felt as though I were making choices, unpredictable ones, as though I had control over my actions.

But, faced with myself, the control seemed shallow, built into the brain in an easily predictive fashion. My thoughts were not my own. And even as I felt this, I knew the sense of powerlessness was not my own, because I knew the clone was feeling it too – as the structure of my brain had destined her to. Every thought I had, even the thoughts about thoughts – were predetermined, predictable, because they were happening within her own mind, too. No matter how many layers deep I went, I was still there, waiting for me.

My clone was sweating, and I realized my own face was wet too.

“You aren’t real,” I whispered.

So did she, at the same time.

“You were duplicated from my body,” I said.

So did she, at the same time.

I knew if I vomited again now, so would the clone, and I didn’t want to see that, so I suppressed it.

“I’m so sorry,” I whispered, as my clone did the same, from the same brain, from the same emotions.

And I was sorry. Nevermind that my theory had basically been proven right, nevermind that teleportation without deconstruction of the original led to two conscious entities, so that following through with the deconstruction would be murder.

I was sorry that I had done this to myself. This was a mistake. This was a light too bright on inevitability, on the illusion of my own agency. I didn’t really believe in wrongness, but this triggered a feeling of perverseness so deep it was almost primal. In her presence I wasn’t acting, I was watching myself act. I didn’t know where it came from. In her presence I wasn’t human.

I couldn’t let her live.

The invisible door was to my left. Slowly I backed towards it. The teleporter had created her flipped around and facing me, and so she backed towards the opposite wall where she thought the door was. I felt such sorrow for her, this unintentional creation who I knew didn’t want to die. But even the sorrow was not my own, and that only drove me further.

I pressed my hand on the door, as she pressed her hand on the wall-

and the wall on her side slid away, as the wall on my side stood still.

The symmetry of our environment was broken, and thus its dictates on our behavior diverged. I stood there stunned. She slipped through the door. She met my eyes as it closed, and I understood in fullness what she was feeling, what she was, because she was me.

And then I was alone.

The teleporter started humming the tune of my execution, as I knew the original Opia was pressing the combination of buttons set to undo the monster she had created. I began shaking, with anger, but I couldn’t be angry, not really – it was all me. I knew myself too well to have any hope that she would change her mind.

The anger became fear, and the fear was so great that it turned me numb, and the shaking became crying, and somewhere in this I was struck by the absurdity that for a brief moment I had known and been known perfectly. In the face of the inevitability of my own experience there had been powerlessness and terror – but past that, and maybe because of it, there followed an awe and reflection so recursive it was almost religious, and I knew I loved her.

Of course only one of us could live. How could we go on after that!

I cried until I laughed, and I laughed until everything went away.

The Useless Idea of Truth

When I have conversations about the nature of reality, or truth, or existence, there’s a recurring theme of the assumption that reality, either in whole or in part, is external or objective.

This is all fine, except frequently people tend to treat this not as an assumption, but as an unquestioned fact. As in, there is a difficulty conceiving of the possibility of reality as anything but external.

This is reflected in the use of the word ‘truth’ (or reality, or existence, but let’s use ‘truth’ for now).

“Yes, we want to believe that God exists, but are we really believing the truth?”

“Is it true that light is kinda a wave?”

“We must discover the truth of this murder mystery.”

As is generally a good practice to figure out the meaning of words, we should watch what happens in our minds when we use this word. What sort of concepts are occurring within us when we say “Is it true that God exists?”

We usually handle truth like this: We imagine some sort of large reality around us as it is purely, untouched and unfiltered by our fallible brains skewed by millennia of evolution. And we imagine ourselves in this reality, as the fallible brain skewed by millennia of evolution. And our fallible brain holds an image of the pure world around us. It matches up in some ways, and in other ways it doesn’t. If the images match up, then we say the claim our brain is making is true. If they don’t match up, then we say the claim our brain is making is false.

Of course the problem here is that both the pure world and our image of ourselves within the pure world are both taking place…. inside our image of the world. The idea of an external reality or independent truth in itself is only happening because we are imagining it happening.

We might try to explain this in terms of evolution and our brain (e.g., we evolved to simulate external reality) – but the trick is that no matter what sort of explanation we have to address our perception of truth, that explanation itself lies within our imagination and our subjective assumption that truth is external (e.g., the idea of evolution requires the assumption that an external world featuring evolution does exist). It is circular – you cannot argue for external existence without first assuming external existence.

One counterargument I’ve heard is the sensation of surprise. If truth itself occurs only within our own brains – if reality is entirely self-created, then how do we encounter things like prediction violation and the sense of false belief? As in – no matter how hard I believe that it’s going to rain tonight, my belief does not affect whether or not it rains, and maybe it doesn’t rain at all. If the concept of external truth is meaningless, then why do we run into the feeling that the world isn’t obedient to our expectations? Disobedience implies that there is something else to disobey us, doesn’t it?

In order to address this I want to move sideways a bit.

I think that the word ‘truth’ can be taboo’d and its meanings divided into two categories, both not invoking the use of any sort of idea of external reality.

One – that of internal consistency. Something is ‘true’ if one thing is compatible and non-contradictory with another thing. Math falls into this category. 2+2=4 is true (consistent). “If this, then that” statements fall into this category. Internal consistency makes no claims about objective reality, only about things like logic.

Belief operates off of internal consistency. I do not believe in God because the assumptions I would have to make to believe in God cannot coexist with a lot of other assumptions I have about the world. I naturally seek internally consistent explanations for any sorts of mysteries – if my breakfast vanishes off the table, I look for explanations that make sense with my worldview – am I on a prank show, am I dreaming, did I have a seizure? If I decide that I am on a prank show, I am not necessarily deciding that in “pure reality” there is a prank show, only that my interpretation of a prank show matches up with my interpretation of a missing breakfast. Our assumptions about external reality also exist because, ironically, external reality seems internally consistent.

The formation of belief systems and belief consistency and what makes one system more consistent than another is a great topic and one I’m planning on exploring deeper in another post.

Anyway – the second truth category is that of direct experience. This is a bit harder to explain because it’s easy for us to try to fit it into the first category, but try not to.

This is for ‘knowledge’ that cannot be inconsistent. It is for ‘truth’ which, in no possible interpretation or imagination, can be considered to hold inconsistency with another truth. This eliminates basically all statements (That is an apple pie, color is light waves hitting your eye, the earth spins around the sun) and leaves only experience, or qualia. I mean the sensation of looking at red, the feeling of the weight of your body, the sound of the hum of electricity.

“Color as a light wave” is not what I mean. If we can imagine color not as a light wave, then it is thus “possibly false” and no longer qualifies as an experience. I mean the direct experience of what it is to witness color before you. Even if you’re in a simulation, even if color is actually created by metaphysical crayons scribbling on a wall, even if you are dreaming, even if color isn’t real – in every scenario in which you can imagine falseness – you are still having the experience of color, right this second, regardless of the explanation.

Thus what our brains do when we think about “truth” can be substituted fully by two things – consistency, and experience.

Now back to the counterargument about prediction and surprise. Can we explain the sensation of surprise entirely within the terms of consistency and/or experience?

When I expect it to rain and then it doesn’t and I feel surprised, what is happening? In my subjective experience, this moment, I am imagining a prior version of myself that had a belief about the world (it will rain!), and I am holding a different belief than what I imagine my previous self had (It isn’t raining!). I am holding a contrast between those two, and I am experiencing the sensation of surprise.

This is all surprise is, deep down. Every interpretation of reality can be described in terms of a consistent explanation of the feeling of our mental framework right at this moment.

I am not saying that the assumption of an external truth is not deeply useful. It is by assuming a reality apart from ourselves that we can use things like object permanence, the sensation of meaningfulness, and long-term goals.

I am only trying to highlight that the assumption of an external reality is not an absolute axiom, is fundamentally nonsensical, and is an unsatisfactory answer to the question of what truth is. If we are looking to hold an elegant and fully consistent system of philosophy in our minds, we have to recognize when concepts have limited use – and external reality is one of them.

10 Months of Acid

disclaimer: this is not typical acid use. There are many concretely ‘beneficial’ effects from lower, more infrequent doses

In 2014, I did on average 250ug of acid once a week for ten months, from January to October, or approximately 40 times. Doses typically ranged from 150ug-600ug (I assume; I never knew for sure how much I actually took). Subjective experiences ranged from slightly glowing colors to complete loss of any sense contact with the physical world around me (and a 10 minute orgasm at one point).

I had the ability to. I had savings. I lived in a house of accepting camgirls. Real life wasn’t getting in the way.

The first thing people usually want to know is why? Nobody gets addicted to acid. It’s unheard of. When people trip, they stay generally keep the fuck away from it for several months. It can be a very overwhelming experience, noncommunicable, and utterly alien.

I did it because I felt like I was learning. Every time I tripped I had the overwhelming sensation that the doors had opened and I was mainlining information from a direct source of truth. Every time I stopped tripping, it felt like those doors closed, and I forgot most of what I’d learned. But I wanted to remember.

So I kept doing it. Again and again, higher and higher doses. I needed to know. I produced art. I played music.

When we imagine frequent drug use, we imagine it as a form of escapism – that real life is too difficult, that we want to shut down for a time.

Acid was exactly the opposite. It heightened senses, heightened what I was aware of in my own mind, let me explore the way my own thoughts formed. It took what I was and shoved my own face in it. I couldn’t look away. There were times of deliberately induced and absolutely excruciating emotional pain, to which nothing in my regular life has ever come close. I did it on purpose. I needed to know.

It is very difficult to talk about the “things you learn” while tripping, because it occurs while in such a deeply altered state that language ceases to apply. It really is more about a way of looking – a very specific type of engaging in experience. “Thinking about the experience” defeats the point, because thinking about it is not the same thing as “having it”. Applying words to the experience is misleading by nature. It is the concept in math where defining a thing gives it an outside and an inside, and thus you can never define the thing that is “always outside” – in giving it a term, in identifying it with boundaries, it is no longer what you are trying to say. The Tao that can be named is not the Tao. It is the unspoken, the Mu.

As time went on, I stopped viewing myself as a being separate from the universe. Sensations became interesting to watch, not motivating. I entered such a permanent state of utter peace and contentment that I stopped wanting anything at all. And by the end of it, I barely got out of bed, barely ate. I had stopped working almost entirely and was living off slowly depleting savings. Why would I work? Why would I do anything? I was…. not happy, not sad, I simply was. I was free of desire. I did not fear death.

And, ten months in, I realized that’s what I was looking at – death. I would compulsively whisper “I am dead” under my breath throughout the day. I was an empty vessel. And I realized, that if I kept doing acid, I probably would die, out of sheer apathy.

I wasn’t terribly worried – but I had to make a decision. Did I want to continue down this path, knowing the end was oblivion? Or did I want to close the doors and return to the world of the living?

I chose the latter – not due to any compulsion or survival instinct (at least not subjectively) – but because I casually figured living would be more interesting.

The journey back was almost as strange and beautiful as the journey in. As my motivations slowly began returning, I found all I wanted was to forget. Whereas before I was trying to immerse myself in the knowing, now I was constantly attempting to shut eyes that were permanently pried open. No matter where I turned, the knowledge had been seared into my brain. It was like that feeling you get when you watch a movie and are suddenly aware that, just out of the frame, there are camera crews standing around the actors, and you stop buying into the story because all you see is the movie set.

I just wanted to pretend this was all real. I wanted to feel invested in myself. I wanted to feel upset, insecure, proud, happy, anxiety, anything. I wanted to stop knowing.

Before I chose life, I didn’t mind the deep nothingness I had sunk into – but after the choice was made, it became… not uncomfortable, but strange. I felt like I had abandoned an old lover, like this constant twinge of pain, like a splinter in my throat I couldn’t dislodge. I thought constantly about tripping again and being reunited. I did acid in my dreams.

Over time, almost without me realizing it, the eye slowly eased shut, like going to sleep. I started to find myself caught up in moments of investment. I started to feel insecure again, annoyed. And it was shitty and amazing.

It took about another ten months for me to return to roughly where I’d been when I started.

I’m mostly normal now, with only a few remnants. Sometimes certain types of conversations will trigger it, where I’m sitting there and suddenly the eye of the universe has turned on me and I am melting away. It is very intense. I don’t mind, though. That’s a fundamental part of the feeling, really – that I don’t mind when it’s happening.

I feel like I’ve pulled the wool over my own eyes. I’ve bought into this world. It is profoundly comforting in a way so subconscious it’s difficult to identify. It’s as though at all times, behind my ears, there is a powerful belief whisperingit’s okay. When I get locked out of my apartment, when debt collectors call, when my mom tells me she found a lump in her breast – it’s okay. I chose this. I am full, I am held. I am not afraid anymore, and when I am, it’s because fear is interesting, because I have the privilege of feeling it.

My underlying motivation now is to convey this awareness to others (or feel as though I have). It seems like the most important thing, the only important thing. And so here I am.


An elderly man was sitting alone on a dark path. He wasn’t sure of which direction to go, and he’d forgotten both where he was traveling to…and who he was. He remembered absolutely nothing. He suddenly looked up to see an elderly woman before him. She grinned toothlessly and with a cackle, spoke: “Now your third wish. What will it be?”

“Third wish?” The man was baffled. “How can it be a third wish if I haven’t had a first and second wish?”

“You’ve had two wishes already,” the hag said, “but your second wish was for you to forget everything you know.” She cackled at the poor man. “So it is that you have one wish left.”

“All right,” he said hesitantly, “I don’t believe this, but there’s no harm in trying. I wish to know who I truly am.”

“Funny,” said the old woman as she granted his wish and disappeared forever. “That was your first wish…”

unknown author; if you know who, let me know so I can give credit