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A Primer on the Symmetry Theory of Valence

They can be blissful or terrifying depending on where in the brain they occur. I thought is was pretty well understood that locality is what determines the experience, not harmonics of the seizure. Even if harmonics have something to do with it, I wouldn't say that experiences during seizures are evidence in favor of STV. 

A Primer on the Symmetry Theory of Valence

It's also worth noting there are a number of reasons I'm skeptical of the attraction to symmetry. I think it's reasoning  from aesthetics that we have very good  and well-understood reasons (not realted to the nature of valence) to hold. And, if the claim is that the resonances are conveying the valence, highly synchronous or symmetrical states hold less information, so I'm skeptical that that would be a way of encoding valence. It's at best redundant as a way of storing information (at worst its a seizure, where too many neurons are recruited away from doing their job to doing the same thing at once).

A Primer on the Symmetry Theory of Valence

This is an interesting summary, and was basically what I guessed STV was getting at, but this is a hypothesis, not a theory. The hypothesis is: what if there is content in the symmetry encoded in various brain states? 

I don't understand is how symmetry in brain readings is supposed to really explain valence better than, say,  neurons firing brain areas involved in attraction/repulsion. Is the claim that the symmetry is  the qualia of valence? How would symmetries and resonance be exempt from the hard problem any more than neuronal activation?

 > How compelling this feels (and just feels!) to investigate is something most readers won't appreciate unless they've experienced altered states of consciousness themselves.

Do you think it should be compelling based on a trip? Is that real evidence? I'm not closed to the possibility in principle, but outside view it sounds like psychedelics just give you an attraction to certain shapes and ideas and give you a sense of insight. That might not be totally unrelated to a relevant observation about valence or qualia, but I don't see any reason to think pschedelics give you more direct access to the nature of our brains. 

A Primer on the Symmetry Theory of Valence

At the very least, miscommunication this bad is evidence of serious incompetence at QRI. I think you are mistaken to want to excuse that. 

A Primer on the Symmetry Theory of Valence

My promise is that "there is something here" and that to "get it" is not merely to buy into the theory blindly, but rather, it is what happens when you give it enough benefit of the doubt, share a sufficient number of background assumptions, and have a wide enough experience base that it actually becomes a rather obvious "good fit" for all of the data available.


I started out very skeptical of STV myself, and in fact it took about three years of thinking it through in light of many meditation and exotic high-energy experiences to be viscerally convinced that it's pointing in the right direction.

It sounds like you're saying we all need to become more suggestible and just feel like your theory is true before we can understand it. Do you see what poor reasoning that would be?

A Primer on the Symmetry Theory of Valence

This is in fact the claim of STV, loosely speaking; that there is an identity relationship here. I can see how it would feel like an aggressive claim, but I’d also suggest that positing identity relationships is a very positive thing, as they generally offer clear falsification criteria.

But did you have any reason to posit it? Any evidence that this identity is the case? 

A Primer on the Symmetry Theory of Valence

I appreciate that in other comments you followed up with more concrete criticisms, but this still feels against the "Keep EA Weird" spirit to me.

Keeping EA honest and rigorous is much higher priority. Making excuses for incompetence or lack of evidence base is the opposite of EA. 

A Primer on the Symmetry Theory of Valence

In 2016 I introduced the Symmetry Theory of Valence (STV) built on the expectation that, although the details of IIT may not yet be correct, it has the correct goal — to create a mathematical formalism for consciousness. STV proposes that, given such a mathematical representation of an experience, the symmetry of this representation will encode how pleasant the experience is (Johnson 2016). STV is a formal, causal expression of the sentiment that “suffering is lack of harmony in the mind” and allowed us to make philosophically clear assertions such as:

  • X causes suffering because it creates dissonance, resistance, turbulence in the brain/mind.
  • If there is dissonance in the brain, there is suffering; if there is suffering, there is dissonance in the brain. Always.


This makes absolutely no sense on its face. I am not a neuroscience expert. I am not a consciousness expert. I do not need to be to say that these conclusions just do not follow. 

To recap what you said: You start by saying that, if you could make a complete mathematical representation of the brain (IIT), it would be symmetric to the physical manifestation of the brain, and therefore pleasure would be included in the representation. Then you claim that STV is a formal and causal theory, without backing that up or explaining it all. And then you just assert these ideas about dissonace and harmony being the structural correlates of suffering and pleasure! 

You present this all as if you were building a case where one point leads to another. Perhaps it's just poor communication about a a better idea, but what's here is very shoddy reasoning. 

Concerns with ACE's Recent Behavior

Seems like others agreed with you. I meant it mostly seriously. 

Concerns with ACE's Recent Behavior

The more substantial point that I'm trying to make is that the political balance of the EA Forum shouldn't be a big factor in someone's decision to publicize important information about a major charity evaluator, or probably even in how they put the criticism. Many people read posts linked from the EA Forum who never read the comments or don't visit the Forum often for other posts, i.e. they are not aware of the overall balance of political sympathies on the Forum. The tenor of the Forum as a whole is something that should be managed (though I wouldn't advocate doing that through self-censorship) to make EA welcoming or for the health of the community, but it's not that important compared to the quality of information accessible through the Forum, imo. 

I'm a little offended at the suggestion that expressing ideas or important critiques of charities should in any way come second to diplomatic concerns about the entire Forum. 

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