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Peter Thiel likes to distinguish between Progress in Bits (new algorithms, network protocols, user interfaces, social media sites…) and Progress in Atoms (transportation speed, energy usage, material abundance…). I propose a third category: Progress in Qualia; and outline factors influencing it.

It is not clear how one might want to measure Progress in Qualia: the necessary instruments are not quite there yet. Therefore I'm mostly reduced to speculation, but speculation also has it's place.

I will be trying to find examples of broad developments that impact many people a little (an aggregative "normally distributed" view), and qualia in the logarithmic tail that might out outweigh other types of qualia in importance (an outlier-focused "log-normally distributed" view).

  • Humans
    • The world economy has been experiencing a huge surge in growth over the last ~200 years.
      • This has made humanity (and most individual humans) much richer, and has had the effect of humanity becoming much larger: growing from ~1 bio. in 1800 to ~8 bio. now. That means there's many more human qualia.
      • This has also caused the average lifespan to rise from ~25 years to ~70 years, causing many more qualia specific to humans of old age relative to the qualia of younger people (though this is likely tampered by the subjective speedup of time as one ages). The qualia of older people might have a lower energy parameter, and the variance in younger people is probably higher. If subjective time spend in old age is longer, chronic pains might weigh more strongly, and we're potentially neglecting large amounts of suffering at the end of life (since there is no selection for energy expenditure close to death).
      • Individual wealth has been rising, when ~90% of people were in extreme poverty in 1800, today only ~10% are. This has a remarkably small effect on self-reported happiness. In the best case I'd guess that happiness is logarithmic to material wealth, in a bad case I'd guess that it is linear in the beginning and then tapers off, and in the worst case I think it's purely positional to the society around you.
        • It might be that humans are now much more protected from very bad events such as the death of a child or long-lasting parasite & disease burden, which usually weighs extremely negatively on the quality of the life of a person, and happened far more often in the ancestral evolutionary environment.
    • Anesthetics and analgesics are huge advances: I can well imagine that getting a limb amputated while fully awake (or, slightly better, nearly black-out drunk) was the worst experience of one's life. Most of the development of generial anesthesia happened in the late 19th century, e.g. by the discovery of chloroform as an anaesthetic by James Young Simpson.
    • Drugs
      • It seems possible that even though we experience hedonic adaption to repeated drug-use (thus needing to "up the dose" to achieve a similar high in many drugs) that sporadic drug use is not completely offset by this. I think my life would be overall better if I took MDMA every 3 or 4 months; the comedown and subsequent hangover aren't bad enough to negate the positive qualia. Stimulants appear to speed up subjective time, which is another off-setting effect on their valence.
      • I believe that specifically psychedelics have likely strongly increased the variance of qualia that are experienced by humans, and since most people speak positively of their trips, I'm inclined to believe that they are on average of positive valence. Psychedelic qualia are much "thicker", subjective time becomes much slower, the meaning of experiences increases (maybe by a directed acyclic graph between experiences containing more edges?). I think most psychedelics consumption occurred since the second half of the 20th century, and given the intensity of psychedelic qualia they might be highly relevant in assessing whether progress in qualia has occurred.
    • Meditation: Even though today probably more people than ever in history meditate, I suspect that in terms of exotic and high-valenced meditation qualia, humanity might be regressing. Meditative qualia require a large investment of consecutive time, attention and mental energy, which I suspect fewer people are willing to invest. This might even be inversely linked to economic progress: faster growth rates lead to a larger amount of interest in novelty (counterforce: material abundance frees oneself to investigate avenues of self-actualiazation (or, in this case, self-deconstruction)). But the number of contemplative practitioners doesn't have to seem grown with the population, and it would be interesting to find numbers on the amount of monks in the world—and it seems worth noting that only ~5% of Buddhist monks spend most of their time meditating.
      • "As mentioned in chapter 7 on the fourth jhāna, at the time of the Buddha, after the monks and nuns finished their alms rounds, they would eat their midday meal, which would be at around ten or eleven o'clock in the morning. Then they would “go for the day's abiding”⁹ and meditate until evening. Since they had not grown up with chairs, they had the capacity to sit cross-legged for an extended period of time. So if they were sitting for multiple hours at a time over a six- or seven-hour period, they were fare more likely to experience a very deep level of concentration. By the time they entered the fourth jhāna, their concentration was deep enough that the simile with its white cloth indeed captures the pure, bright mind they were experiencing." (Right Concentration (Leigh Brasington, 2015), p. 180)
    • Art: The variety of art available to each individual likely has increased, and I assume that people select art they enjoy, so I believe that there has been large progress in the positive qualia from art. This likely has especially happened since the advent of the internet (for most people after 2000): The creation and distribution speed of art has probably increased the availability to each human a thousandfold.
    • Social Interaction: People in western societies interact less socially than they did even 50 years ago, universal culture is probably the cause and other nations will probably follow. People complain about this development, and many people enjoy social interaction much more than their revealed preferences show, this seems like a negative development. (Though one that should be salvageable!)
  • Animals
  • Other Things
    • Since humanity has created technological artifacts that don't occur anywhere else in the universe, we could've created entirely new qualia varieties (e.g. humans have created the cubic meter with the lowest temperature in the known universe, have achieved remarkable temperatures of 5.5·10¹² Kelvin in the LCH and created objects of a single element with very high purity: I suspect that the highest-purity kilogram of copper in the reachable universe is probably found on earth, created by humans (I haven't checked whether this is true, though)). I don't know what the valence, energy parameter or entropy of human-created objects and systems might be.
    • If we have created novel qualia-varieties as a side-effect of technological progress, I strongly suspect this happened in the last 150 years—beforehand our basic material didn't deviate that far from naturally occurring objects.





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Executive summary: The post speculates on factors influencing "Progress in Qualia" over the past 200 years, considering the impact on the quality and variety of conscious experiences for humans, animals, and novel technological artifacts.

Key points:

  1. Human population growth and increased lifespans have greatly expanded the total amount of human qualia, though the impact on average happiness is unclear.
  2. Psychedelic drugs and meditation may have increased the variety and intensity of human qualia, but economic progress might reduce interest in meditation.
  3. Factory farming has likely produced enormous amounts of net-negative animal qualia that could outweigh gains in human qualia.
  4. Humanity's destruction of wild animal habitats has probably reduced net-negative qualia from wild animal suffering.
  5. Technological progress may have created entirely novel varieties of qualia as a side effect, especially in the last 150 years.



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