Existential Shock Levels

Technological Shock Levels

Eliezer Yudkowsky wrote a short article popular among futurists called "Future Shock Levels" in which each shock level "measures the high-tech concepts you can contemplate without being impressed, frightened, blindly enthusiastic - without exhibiting future shock." From the article:
Note that any intelligent person can contemplate all of these levels, but the shock level measures whether they can comfortably accept it into their world view. However, even a singularitarians comfortable with shock level 4 may not be able to handle higher existential shock levels....

Existential Shock Levels

Whereas technological shock levels measure comfort with changes in your concept of the world, existential shock levels measure comfort with changes in your experience of what you are.
Existential shock levels 0, 1 and 2 are fairly self-explanatory. ESL3 introduces a shift in moment-to-moment sense of identity. For example, someone at ESL3 knows that at this moment a stored memory of meeting a friend yesterday is accessed, but it doesn't feel like "I am the one who was there." The idea that "I" am a continuous being who "went through" all of those experiences is one of the many disregarded confusions. And the lifestyle of someone at ESL3 reflects this understanding. They have little interest in personal mementos, reminiscing about "my story," egotistically pumping up that story, arranging for future emotional experiences, etc. Many people at ESL1 and ESL2 proudly claim that they are finished with irrational religious belief. Yet from ESL3, it is clear that they still believe in the reality of the personality identity as intensely as others believe in the reality of a mythical god, and that their lives are steeped in daily rituals with others which serve to maintain this irrational belief - such as romantic fantasy, activities to escape boredom or loneliness and hope hyping.

At ESL4, someone not only disidentifies with the flood of personality programs but their mind freely explores the thousands of other programs that the mind can run that have nothing to do with personality reinforcement. The ability to fully explore all the possibilities of the mind is only active when no "hook" is left open for re-invoking a personality program that needs to assert one of its self-protecting identity claims. Someone at ESL4 has put a great deal of work into gracefully extricating themself from situations, relationships, and institutions which require them to propagate these memes. A side effect is that they tend to help create a parallel civilization that is friendly to freely exploring all the possibilities of the mind, knowing that people at lower existential shock levels who need identity reinforcement won't be comfortable there.

What Is a Personality Program?

Using the analogy of the mind as a computer operating system running a bunch of programs, suppose you could get a listing of all the programs running at any moment in someone's mind, in terms of the claims they are making. One program claims that it's time to change lanes in order to exit the highway. Another program claims that I need to stop at the store in order to get something for dinner. Another program claims that I'd better buy something to slim down in order to make people like me. Is that last claim from a personalty program? Not quite, because we haven't reached an existential claim. But let's follow it. Imagine that I don't ever slim down. Another program activates and claims that I have to be slim or else I will cease to exist as someone liked by other people. But so what? The program comes back and asserts:  I need to know that I am someone liked by other people. Now try to challenge it by noticing that this is only a claim, it's just words, it is only a program running which generates the sentence "I am liked by other people." The personality program comes in again and claims "Without being someone liked by other people, I would cease to exist as what I have to be." (If this kind of direct challenging of a personality program's existential claims isn't awfully familiar to someone, then they are not at ESL3. And someone at ESL4 is way past wasting time with having to challenge them.)

So, a personality program is a program that claims that, without it, existence would cease. That's why people below ESL3 can go through an "existential crisis" if something threatens to make it difficult to believe one of the claims of a personality program. Why not then call it an "existence claim program"? Because as these run throughout a lifetime, they accumulate and the sum is the personality with which someone strongly identifies. Why is this a problem? Because in reality, someone is actually the "operating system" which is capable of loading and running programs in the first place, not any one of the programs. And freedom of the mind is only possible when fully exercising the "operating system" directly. Personality programs are problematic because they must hide the fact that they are derivative and must obscure the real functioning of the creative process which generated them.

Comparison with the Technological Shock Levels

In technological SL4, there is "complete mental revision". Isn't that the same as the "unbound exploring of mind spaces" in ESL4? No, because the assumption in SL4 is that "complete mental revision" will be achieved by technological means using uploading to supercomputers, nanoprobes, etc. But the whole point is that ESL4 is available now. The impediment is not lack of technology. The impediment is that a mind uses all of its power to refuse to existentially shift away from the personality programs. Even if SL4 technology were available today, a typical singularitarian at ESL1 would not fully use it because they have to go through a few more existential shock levels before they will allow a technology to disrupt their sense of self identity enough to do "complete mental revision." Someone may be comfortable talking about a time in the future when "life as we know it" totally changes. But can that same person - right now - handle an ESL2 situation of being naked in the same physical space with a few other people? If not, then at what moment is it time to begin getting ready for a radically changing future which existentially challenges much more than this? The technology won't help. Quite to the contrary, if a person now uses their intelligence to block out whatever existentially challenges them in these simple situations, then with cortical implants and supercomputer interfaces they will only use their new superintelligence to more forcefully limit their awareness to what they can existentially handle.

The best way to prepare for the shock of an accelerating world is to develop comfort with higher existential shock levels today.

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