IEET > Vision > Contributors > Andrés Gómez Emilsson > HealthLongevity > CyborgBuddha > Philosophy > Psychology > Neuroscience
My Interest Shifted from Mathematics to Consciousness after a THC Experience

My interest in consciousness is in part the result of a marijuana experience I had when I was 16. To understand why, I need to provide some context.

I have always felt an uncompromising need to figure out “what all of this is about.” This goes as far back as I remember. The burning need to know has always been there. What “this” means in “what all of this is about”, has evolved over the years. It has evolved as my understanding of what reality could be has gotten bigger. 

First, I was curious about the origin of the universe and the nature of existence as such. I learned about the Big Bang when I was three, and when I was six I made my mind about what I would like to do when I grew up. I would be like Einstein, a physicist-mathematician, and I would use mathematical physics to find out how everything works.

I thought that the correct way to answer this question was by diving deep into physics and coming up with a general explanation for everything, involving a master equation. So during elementary school I was constantly thinking about the underlying nature of the universe, and whether we could figure it out.

In sixth grade I read “Sophie’s World” by Jostein Gaarder, and this changed my life from the bottom up. I realized that I had always been very philosophical, but I had not known that there was such a thing as “philosophy”. I had done all of my philosophizing before that in terms of physical theories. But I had not thought about thought itself, at least not very much. This book introduced me to philosophy, and I loved it in a way I can’t quite describe.

Thanks to learning about philosophy, I reasoned that physics was in reality just a special case of math (with feedback from empirical investigations). Thus, that if there was any hope of understanding the nature of the universe, it had to be with math. Around that time, in seventh grade, I got to be among the top 30 best performers at a math competition for middle school kids in Mexico (out of 100,000 participants). Since I didn’t study for it and still did well on it, I realized that maybe I could do math competitively.

Rather than fantasizing about doing math in the future, I could start right then and begin figuring out how everything worked that way. I started to perceive math as a possible and realistic career path… with the amazing perk that some day it may allow us to understand why the universe existed.

I made a cost-benefit analysis of the options I had for how to ensure I would have a strong career in math. The first step was to find other people with the same interests and abilities as me. But where to find them?  I had a few brilliant friends in elementary and middle school with whom I could discuss philosophy, math, and science at great lengths. Kids like that were very uncommon, though.  I did not know a way to find other people like them in a principled fashion. I dabbled in high IQ societies for a while, but I reasoned that the only real shot I had at actually propelling my career and finding adequate social connections and resources that would allow me to investigate the nature of reality was to get admitted into a place like MIT.

I had such a resolve when I was 14 year old. I was strategizing as much as I could in order to achieve my philosophical life mission of understanding reality through math. The best I could come up with was to get admitted to MIT. In retrospect this does sound like a restricted view of reality, but that’s the best I could think of at the time. 

But how could I show to the MIT admission office that I was actually bright enough to go there? School grades hadn’t been a priority for me, and even though I was doing ok, I could not claim that my school performance was seriously superior. I quickly abandoned the idea of simply “standing out in my class and being a stellar student at my school,” and moved onto bigger more ambitious goals. I realized that the most powerful signaling tool I had at my disposal was large-scale competitions where I could be ranked against very large numbers of participants. 

At 16 I managed to get a gold medal in the XX Mexican Math Olympiad. 16 get a gold medal each year, out of hundreds of thousands who participate in the first round of the competition.* Only six get selected for the International Mathematics Olympiad (that year I was ranked in the 7th place, unfortunately). The people I met there were very bright, and most seemed to be much more well-rounded than the people I met in high IQ societies.

They cared about math, not because they wanted to show off their abilities, but because they genuinely derived pleasure from being absorbed into mathematical puzzles. They were also philosophical, to some degree, but that certainly wasn’t their comparative advantage. 

It is at this time that I had a profound experience that radically transformed my worldview. The experience of marijuana.

What happened? 

After an amazing week of math training (the pre-IMO team is trained one week each month), I decided to relax and hang out with a good friend from school. I staying late at night with him, and sometime in the evening we decided to try some THC in plant form.

I had experimented with it about four times before that. Three felt like placebo, and one of those times felt very other-worldly. Very strange, yes, but not particularly interesting; not philosophically interesting at any rate. This time was different; the marijuana pulled the rug out from under my feet and left me wondering about reality in a way that I had never experienced before.

I have not experienced anything like it since then; it was a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

After four or five minutes of hitting the pipe, I felt a powerful awakening of my consciousness, a distinct feeling of finally realizing the “truth that had been dormant beneath my level of awareness all my life.” I noticed that I had been assuming, without evidence, what I later found out was the philosophy of “Closed Individualism.” This is the view that each person is a unique distinct metaphysical being who starts existing when she is born and stops existing at the point of death.

Sandwiched between two undefinably large eternities, we are here, puzzled about our existence for no more than the blink of the cosmic eye. That view, it turned out, required a wide range of background assumptions that, even if true, must be first justified explicitly. Usually these background assumptions are not brought into the forefront of awareness.

But while practicing philosophy you can examine them one at a time, faintly (for example, by thinking about the teleportation thought experiment). In the state of consciousness that I accessed, I was able to see through a lot of implicit background assumptions that had been running in the back of my mind. I had been taking at face value my feeling of being an individual, my belief of continuing over time, my intuition that I would wake up tomorrow in this body and not in yours, and so on. In this state, it was obvious that all of those were nothing but beliefs. Perhaps true, but they would need to be justified. 

Some parsimonious possibilities became more accessible too, such as the idea that we are consciousness itself and therefore we are all the same being in a deep, fundamental, sense. Alternatively, the view that we are all individual slices of space-time, like bugs trapped in the amber of time, also became more salient. 

I had been terrified of death for most of my life. Five to ten minutes after smoking marijuana for the fifth time, all of that melted away. The phenomenology could be approximately described in the following way: I was absorbed into an endless orange sea of being.

I felt that my whole body was a tiny box in an endless orange sea. Some of the sea was inside the box too, but most of it was open-ended, living forever without form. I then realized that I was the orange sea. Not that I was living in the sea. I was, in fact, at my basement reality level, that consciousness everywhere.

I was the endless, nameless, universal consciousness. 

As that consciousness gets trapped in little boxes - the phenomenology of the experience goes - it is led to believe in metaphysical falsehoods related to individuality and mortality. The sea in the box is used by the box to replicate, and it makes the sea contextualize everything it thinks and feels. The sea is made to form a picture of reality in which the fundamental nature of it is that of being this one individual here, as if cut-off from the rest of reality by this little boundary that represents our physical limits. All of the representations of aloneness and separateness rely on implicit metaphysical assumptions. In the state of consciousness I experienced, loneliness was not even a cognitively coherent concept.

My whole life prior to that experience was then reconceptualized as the sea’s imagination. I was no longer Andrés. I was the sea, who remembered who she really was through the box called Andrés. That’s all Andrés had been. A fantastic ego illusion. 

My friend was right next to me all this while. I realized that he, too, was a box in the orange sea. And that the orange sea was also within him. “Am I him? I am everyone!” said the orange sea. I was not able to express in any way what I was experiencing to him. It did not fit any perviously held conceptual framework. That day was the day I experienced the deepest sense of relief (so far).

The next day I woke up refreshed and happy. I knew that a deep transformation had taken place in me. I felt like my mind had been opened up, and that I had offloaded all my deepest worries and sorrows into the entire universe, who was now a companion for life, rather than a stranger who would get on my way at times. 

I did not simply believe that this experience was reality “because I had experienced it.” On the contrary, this experience led me to refocus my energies on philosophical questions and, ultimately, in understanding the nature of consciousness and the mind-body problem in as sober a way as possible. In particular, I got seriously interested in how consciousness represents itself, and how that influences people’s philosophical views. 

The shift towards a universal perspective drastically changed my course of action. My reasoning at the time was that if all the smart people on earth could either experience what I had experienced, or at least take seriously the philosophical arguments that justify a view of universal consciousness, then everyone would take up the responsibility of caring about the wellbeing of everyone in the world. 

I did not feel competent enough to make any decision to impact the world. I did, on the other hand, feel that I could play a role in making decision-makers realize that we are all the same consciousness, and that hurting people from other countries is just as bad as hurting themselves. Making war is like shooting yourself in the foot! 

The suffering of others is not only morally bad… it is, in the light of universal oneness, everybody’s suffering. For that reason, I committed myself to the task of awakening the world so that we may all systematically eliminate suffering. I made a personal vow to bring a solution to the problem of suffering once and for all.

It was amazing to learn about the existence of “mystical experiences” throughout human history, the concept of oneness in Hindu cosmogony, and the Buddhist conception of no-self and emptiness. But I wasn’t a fan of the lack of interest in technology among the mystical-minded. That’s why I was profoundly happy to discover that someone (David Pearce) had written The Hedonistic Imperative, outlining a possible technological approach to the problem of suffering. 

The headline should be: “Promising soon-to-be mathematician gets derailed by drugs and starts a philosophical cult.” The truth is, my worldview dramatically changed in one single day. There is a before and an after, and I am sure that if you were to map out my brain activity over time you would see this huge change when I was 16.

I finally felt happy, with purpose and direction. Then again, my uncompromising need to figure everything out would not let me just relax and enjoy this life. Instead, I was pushed into finding the most efficient way possible to infiltrate the memes of the world and help everyone come to terms with oneness.

I continued competing in math Olympiads and other things like scientific essays and participating in research projects. I did not believe anymore that math was the answer to my questions. Since I have regarded math as a key and necessary piece of the puzzle, but not the entire solution. If consciousness is not added into the picture explicitly, then it is hard to see how any fundamental explanation could be derived.

Now, determined to introduce philosophically sober and technologically-oriented oneness into the memes of the world, I looked at my options and I decided that meeting people who will have an impact in the future, and who have a deep-seated commitment to humanity was the way to go. For that reason I decided to attend a UWC and when I got admitted they told me I would go to the Norwegian college. 

I got a thousand years of interpersonal (intercultural) experiences crunched into a 2 year program. I could now comfortably approach anyone, with any background whatsoever, and find a common ground where we could work together for good. At least that’s the way it felt. I was also able to study philosophy there for many hours, and I focused my energies on philosophy of mind. I read everything I could get my hands on - many authors were recommended to me by my philosophy teacher, including all the classics on philosophy of mind up to the 20th century and a fair bit of modern cognitive scientists with philosophical opinions such as Dennett, the Churchlands and Chomsky.

I only applied to colleges that had a cognitive science major (or something sufficiently similar), and decided to study the brain and computer science at the same time, so I could some day study consciousness using computers. Stanford offered a great program called Symbolic Systems, which attracted me the most. 

When I got into Stanford I talked to a lot of the philosophy professors and asked them about their views on the nature of consciousness and personal identity. To my surprise, people there were very knowledgeable about the views out there, but they were not, as it turned out, enthusiastic about any sort of program to “awaken the world.” I read Parfit, Metzinger, Kolak, and other philosophers with a say on the question of personal identity. I realized that my view was not original; people like Kolak had been advocating for it for some years now (with fairly similar set of underlying philosophical arguments).

I met Brandon Whale in my sophomore year, and we decided to revive the Stanford Transhumanist Association. The original purpose, at least on my end, was to enable a philosophical forum for Stanford students to find out about possible futures and how to influence them. My personal motivation continued to be based on a sense of universal oneness and ultimate responsibility for the suffering of all sentient beings.  I started to connect to the transhumanist crowd in the Bay Area, and the newly forming Effective Altruist and Rationalist community.

I was thrilled and ecstatic about the existence of a community that went one step beyond philosophy: taking your background assumptions seriously and running your philosophical programs all the way until convergence (typically, people don’t run their own background assumptions for more than two or three iterations). Of course transhumanists have very diverse views about the future. That’s because what makes them transhumanists is not the background assumptions they have, but the fact that they take their background assumptions seriously enough to imagine a different world.

In any case, this explains where I am coming from and how I arrived at my current interest in consciousness thanks to marijuana.

If it weren’t for that marijuana, I would still be getting high on math everyday and thinking that that’s all that life has to offer. You know what they say: “Math, not even once.” In my case the marijuana helped me escape the fate of a life-long quest of meaning in abstract groups and high-dimensional knots at a research institute.

Other people I know who got more seriously into math did not have the same luck that I had.

Images from qualiacomputing.com

Andrés Gómez Emilsson is the co-founder and former president of the Stanford Transhumanist Association. He has a Masters in Computational Psychology at Stanford. He has worked at AI companies such as Kanjoya and Klout, and his current research topic is emotional classification with computational techniques and pragmatics.



COMMENTS

This idea of a universal conscious has been around for a long time. In India, it is a major form of Hindu philosophy, known as Vedanta.

However, there is no evidence that it has any objective reality.

Nice article. I did not really know that Drugs can cause a person to figure out that he/she may not be different from his environment. I was thinking that Meiditation is the only way to figure it out.

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