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DAS Consciousness Ethics
Getting Better at Consciousness: The Depth, Agency, Sustainability Model
Mind Matters is a newsletter written by Oshan Jarow, exploring post-neoliberal economic possibilities, contemplative philosophy, consciousness, & some bountiful absurdities of being alive. If you’re reading this but aren’t subscribed, you can join here:
Hello, fellow humans!
There is a dance, there has always been this dance, between pragmatism & yearning; between formalisms & poetry; between the specific & the general. Too often, these worlds splinter apart. Dreamers here, pragmatists there, and never the twain shall meet.
You may be familiar with my own interest in straddling these, in drawing them together. Consciousness & economics is my usual, unusual pair. Today, the dance is slightly different.
I recently published an essay - We Should Get Better at Consciousness - that’s yet another essay (etymologically meaning an “attempt”, a “try”) in service of this union. In it, I take up Thomas Metzinger’s provocation that we must build a framework for consciousness ethics, lest we continue blindly transforming ourselves, laying the generative conditions for our subjective experience with no rhyme, reason, nor attention paid to the very sorts of consciousness they produce.
This is like building train-tracks with no consideration given to the direction they will steer the train. Consciousness becomes as a byproduct of tracks built for other becomings - efficiency (to what end?), productivity (for what purpose?), dominion over our environments (at what cost?).
Today’s newsletter is a view from above. Both a summary and an invitation, if your interest is drawn, to read the full essay. It’s long, but I hope that for those who choose to stay with it, you’ll find the length rewarding. That it builds an environment, a chamber of feeling suspended from the numbing normality of our usual information-intake. In this environment, new questions might arise, elusive ideas might take shape that may have remained otherwise concealed amidst the maelstrom of thought.
This was certainly my experience in writing it. I feel that questions were posed, directions were formalized, arenas of future discourse charted out. Now, these future arenas may be projections of my own fancy, and appeal to no one else. That would be fine, as the feeling that one has more work to do, and knowing in what direction it may lie, is enlivening. But I hope that you may join me there, or drag me to adjacent arenas, for what we can discover together will surely outlast anything anyone can do on their own.
For an even shorter summary, you can start with this Twitter thread. Or:
Getting Better at Consciousness, On Purpose
I have a tendency, one that doesn’t always serve me well, towards wanting to begin at the beginning. Far as I can tell, this is the beginning:
“First, you will die. But even if longevity sciences defeat aging, or Ray Kurzweil figures out how to upload and digitize human consciousness, you still won't make it. The universe will eventually die, too. Everything slumps and crawls towards oblivion, in due time. A 'heat death', physicists say. As the universe expands, it cools. As it cools, new stars will cease to form. Solar systems and entire galaxies will disband as planets are flung from orbit and consumed by larger dying entities. The Earth has 5, maybe 6 billion years until our sun swells into a red giant, boiling the oceans and incinerating what flesh remains. Beyond our sun, our galaxy, the heat death continues. All protons will decay, and the matter that life is built of will disperse. The black holes will evaporate, no new matter will form, and the universe will cool, and cool, until it reaches thermodynamic equilibrium, at which point nothing can happen (since happenings require temperature differentials), and the universe will sit motionless for eternity.”
This all being the case, how should we live?
Why Consciousness Ethics?
I contend that what matters most amidst this cosmic backdrop, so far as humans are concerned, is consciousness, and we should orient our lives, everything we do, around enriching it.
This grows all the more urgent as we consider the unprecedented rise in our capacity to transform consciousness, both individually, and collectively. Individually, we have gene-editing, nootropics, psychedelics, technological augmentation of extended cognition, and meditation all on the horizon of mass-uptake. Collectively, it’s only been 70 years since the television broke onto the scene, and we’ve barely internalized how it’s changing us, let alone the growing swarm of new mediums that turn us into nodes of larger collective (not-always-so-intelligent) intelligences.
We’ve debated the ethics of action for millennia. We’ve endlessly debated which actions are good, which are bad, and how to foster the good. In terms of consciousness, this ethical project remains mostly untouched since Buddha, over two thousand years ago.
As everything goes psychedelic - that is, as everything acquires greater & greater potency to transform our consciousness, to ‘manifest the mind’ - we could really use a revitalized discourse over the ethics of consciousness, if only to foreground the question of what we wish to become.
In service of this, the philosopher Thomas Metzinger proposes a new branch of ethics, consciousness ethics:
What Consciousness Ethics?
The framework I sketch - DAS Model - has three axioms: depth, agency, & sustainability. In full:
We should act so as to increase the ‘experiential depth’ of potential conscious states
We should act so as to increase the ‘agency’ subjects have in navigating the expanding subjective state-space
We should foster behaviors that raise the probability for the ‘sustained emergence’ of increasingly deep and agentic states of consciousness in the future
So far, the model goes like this: we’re all probably going to die, and the universe may likely die, too. In the meantime, as sojourners at the (local) frontiers of the evolution of consciousness, we should orient everything we do around improving it. To do so, we should focus on increasing experiential depth, increasing our agency to navigate that depth, and foster behaviors that don’t undermine the sustained emergence of more agency & depth in the future.
Now, the real work of the essay begins. What does any of this actually mean? If this is the yearning, the poetics, the general, what are the associated pragmatisms, formalisms, & specifics?
Since they’re the least well defined, I focus mostly on the first two. What is experiential depth? What is agency? How can we act to increase them?
How Consciousness Ethics?
What is experiential depth?
I. We should act so as to increase the ‘experiential depth’ of potential conscious states.
The biologist Andreas Weber has a lovely book, Enlivenment, wherein he frames the fundamental drive of evolution, the revealed preference of nature, as enlivenment. In line with conservation of mass and energy, nature runs a steady-state economy. But there is growth, and there is expansion. So what grows, what expands, if not the mass and energy of the universe?
"The only factor of nature that expands is its immaterial dimension, which could be called a depth of experience: the diversity of natural forms and the variety of ways to experience aliveness."
Experiential depth is this vector of expansion. I develop a rough, working definition:
Experiential depth: the set of potential qualia (experiences, with a bias towards their phenomenology) any living system may experience in response to the same input.
I explore a series of proxies, or correlates of experiential depth that make it a little more empirically legible, but the most interesting gesture towards what it means is an anecdote from the writer and broadcaster, Danny Baker. Describing a sun-lit afternoon out on a boat, he recalls:
"...I pick up sister Sharon’s teeny pink and white Sanyo transistor radio and switched it on. I looked up at the clear blue afternoon sky. Ike and Tina Turner’s “River Deep, Mountain High” was playing and a sort of rapturous trance descended on me. From the limitless blue sky I looked down into the churning, crystal-peaked wake our boat was creating as we motored along, and at that moment, “River Deep” gave way to my absolute favourite song of the period: “Bus Stop” by the Hollies. As the mock flamenco guitar flourish that marks its beginning rose above the deep burble of the Constellation ’s engine, I stared into the tumbling waters and said aloud, but to myself, “This is happening now. THIS is happening now.”
The cultural theorist Mark Fisher calls this feeling one of exorbitant sufficiency, and it’s an example of what it’s like to expand experiential depth, to expand the set of potential qualias. In response to a bunch of compressed airwaves, glimmering sunlight, and tumbling waters, Danny slips into a phenomenology that I do not think any other creature in the history of Earth’s evolution had the capacity to feel in the same manner. Maybe octopi can come close, who knows.
Experiential depth is not this particular experience, it is the expansion of the set of possible experiences. A squirrel staring into the same water, with the same music, would not have had the option of slipping into exorbitant sufficiency. It’s set of potential qualia in response to that sensory input is smaller.
The gap between a squirrel & a human is clear, but even within humans, experiential depth can vary. In Acid Capitalism, I explored how variations in economic conditions can lead to variations in cognitive flexibility, which affects our capacity to choose what sorts of phenomenology to have.
To render experiential depth more empirically legible, I explore four proxies, or correlates:
Encephalization Quotient (ratio of brain mass relative to expected brain mass, given body size)
The connectome map of neural connections (literal map of the brain’s neural circuitry)
Counterfactual flexibility (the flexibility of our cognition)
Perturbation Complexity Index (the measured complexity of the path electrical impulses take through the brain)
But experiential depth, on its own, isn’t worth much. If we don’t have the capacity to steer our own way through the expanding depths, if we don’t have the power & skill to choose between the widening horizon if possible qualias, then we’re just witnessing an expanding set of options that we have no power to select. It’s like attending a buffet, seeing all the pancakes, french toasts, omelettes, but being unable to deviate from eating the same old oatmeal.
Agency is what affords us the power to make the most of experiential depth. Increasing agency increases our ability to choose our own paths through the growing labyrinth of potential conscious experience.
What Is Agency?
II. We should act so as to increase the ‘agency’ subjects have in navigating the expanding subjective state-space.
At its highest level of abstraction, agency can simply be defined as the freedom to choose.
But remaining at this level of abstraction isn’t helpful. It’s why we have such agreement that agency is important - everyone from the likes of Milton Friedman to Bernie Sanders would agree the freedom to choose is a cardinal value - and such disagreement as to what it means in practice.
So, we can decompose agency into three scales:
The level of the individual mind, exemplified in Metzinger’s work on mental autonomy
The level of all living systems, from ants to ant colonies, exemplified in Michael Levin & Daniel Dennett’s work on cognitive horizons
The level of society & culture, exemplified in centuries of debate over what constitutes voluntary exchange
This newsletter being a view from above, I won’t go much into them, although it sort of pains me, since I find the details of each so helpful in painting a formal picture of the yearning this all relates to.
But in brief.
Mental autonomy is a set of skills, including: actively controlling attention, imposing rules on mental behavior, capacity to intentionally end ongoing mental processes (veto control), etc.
As Krzysztof Dołęga puts it: "Mental agency...is a second-order representational faculty which takes first-order mental processes as its objects."
But we have a tendency to think of skills-training as an individual affair. Not so for mental autonomy. Metzinger:
To increase mental autonomy, he suggests we begin by integrating meditation into early educational curriculums. This idea isn’t new, exactly. He leans on William James:
“It was William James, the father of American psychology, who said in 1892: ‘And the faculty of voluntarily bringing back a wandering attention over and over again is the very root of judgment, character, and will. […] And education which should improve this faculty would be the education par excellence.’ We can finally see more clearly what meditation is really about: over the centuries, the main goal has always been a sustained enhancement of one’s mental autonomy.”
Moving from individuals to everything from single-celled organisms to super-organisms like ant colonies, cognitive horizons refers to the ‘spatiotemporal dimensions of the goals a system can represent and work towards.’ Levin & Dennett:
At this scale, ‘agency’ refers to the time horizon of goals we consciously work towards, and their spatial distance from us.
There’s a lot to unpack here, exploring how this definition can lead us to pragmatic strategies for improving agency. I’ll leave that for the essay, and just name the strategies here:
We can expand cognitive horizons by making near-term goals easier to satisfy, allowing attention to move up the counterfactual tree, into deeper time horizons.
We can improve cognitive horizons by reducing biases in predictive cognition, thereby increasing the flexibility, or range, of counterfactual processing (this point draws heavily on my recent conversation with Ruben Laukkonen on meditation & predictive processing.)
We’ve dealt with brains and biological systems, but what of social constructions? What of agency in the context of capitalism? The State? Global media platforms?
Joseph Heller illustrates the folly of relying on the mere presence of choice as an indication of agency:
"[Milo Minderbinder] raised the price of food in his mess halls so high that all officers and enlisted men had to turn over all their pay to him in order to eat. Their alternative, there was an alternative, of course—since Milo detested coercion, and was a vocal champion of freedom of choice—was to starve."
Freedom of choice, or voluntary exchange in economics-speak, is the foundational principle at the bottom of any market-based society. We are always free to choose. But, as heterodox economists have argued for centuries, if there is no democratic deliberation over the parameters that set the conditions of the choices on offer, then there is a meaningful lack of freedom.
Instead, I think of voluntary exchange - social agency - not as an initial condition that either is or isn’t satisfied, like a light switch either on or off, but an unending site of evolution, the site of progress, the plane upon which generations act so as to pass down even richer conditions for the generation of further freedoms.
Progress, writes Henry George, is securing the advances made by each generation “as the common property of the next.” As generations benefit from that which is secured as the common property of all, they continue the cycle. They, we, benefit from the rising societal floor of affordances, and employ that benefit in service of imagining further advances, which will serve to provide even greater affordances to the next generation, in a cascading, spiraling cycle that progressively fortifies the voluntary nature of all behaviors.
Unconditional affordances are thus framed as critical components for progress. Economic options abound: guaranteed income, baby bonds, universal healthcare, public goods, social dividends. Complement these with a commitment to democracy - codetermination, sectoral bargaining, worker cooperatives, public investment banks, unions, participatory budgeting - and you have a potent recipe for increasing agency at the social level.
We've explored agency at three scales, each offering unique perspectives on the umbrella project of increasing agency. Mental autonomy guides us to train agency like any other skill, teaching the young techniques for exercising second-order regulation over first-order mental content. Cognitive horizons guide us to make short-term goals easier to satisfy, and use methods of counterfactual pruning - meditation, psychedelics, therapy, and beyond - to develop less biased, more flexible, rich, creative minds. Social agency guides us to design socioeconomic institutions that provision unconditional access to resources, supporting increasingly voluntary decision making, or, meaningful notions of "free choice".
Doing Consciousness Ethics
I’ll leave the rest of the essay for those who are interested. To conclude this view from above, I’ll close off with a few provocations.
DAS Model, or any such consciousness ethics, foster both growth (depth, agency, novelty) *and* coherence. It offers a singular story about what matters in the universe, while nevertheless generating diversity.
So what would a society that embraces consciousness ethics look like? What would we do, today, if we adopted this story? The answers may be as diverse as those who participate in the story. But here’s a list of what comes to mind for me, in the hopes that it may provoke your own:
End government subsidies for unhealthy, highly processed foods that raise cardiometabolic risks. Subsidize foods that don't slowly gnaw away our vitality.
Admit the war on drugs was a crime against humanity, and get to work making up for lost time in exploring how drugs - from hallucinogens to sleep drugs - might be responsibly used to improve the human experience. Pursue legalization frameworks for psychedelics, as Oregon is now pioneering (but do not limit psychedelic access to psychiatric patients).
Reduce the degree of economic anxiety that infuses life today. Democratize capital ownership. Invest in public goods, better safety net programs, universal healthcare. Empower members of society at all socioeconomic strata to make increasingly voluntary decisions.
Invest in biotechnologies such as neurofeedback and ultrasonic neuromodulation to explore whether they offer sustainable, accessible, efficient avenues towards improving consciousness.
Include meditation practice in public curriculums (while we're there, we should rethink the entire passive-learning paradigm, instead favoring a more active approach).
I’d love to grow this list - send me your thoughts! If I get enough, I’ll start a public record of them.
If each era of society is enthralled to a particular question, a particular piece of the human conundrum they orient themselves around, like an archer closing an eye and taking aim at a target held up by their particular cultural, civilizational moment, ours may well be: what is a good state of consciousness, and how can we foster more of them?
This, to me, is a question worth living for. And should the heat death finally wipe us out, the scattered matter that was once my body will rest easy, the shards of my mind bathing in exorbitant sufficiency, fulfilled by the knowledge that it was, too, a question worth dying for.
A Quick Note for New Readers
To the few hundred of you who recently joined the newsletter, welcome! If you’re unfamiliar with my work, a few recent starting points:
The Treadmill Tendency | an essay on capitalism’s role (or lack thereof) in the infamous ‘treadmill effect’.
To Annie Dillard’s Astonishment | an ode, reflection, and incomplete history of Annie Dillard’s life & writing, which remains my favorite I’ve found on this earth.
Capitalism & the Self | a podcast with Barnaby Raine about how social systems construct ‘selves’.
Meditation & Predictive Processing | a conversation with Ruben Laukkonen that suggests what meditation *does* through the lens of predictive processing.
I’ve also started releasing patron-only extras from the podcasts on Patreon. Last week’s was an overview of Karl Friston’s free energy principle, available for patrons here.
If you’re interested in supporting my work, and have the means to comfortably do so, Patreon support is what makes most of this possible, & I’m deeply grateful, and inspired, by the recent wave of support. More to come!
While this newsletter, the essays, and the podcast are one-way platforms, I’m interested in cultivating more dialogue & community around these themes. You can always respond directly to this email, or reach out on Twitter, or come join the community on Discord. You can find more essays & podcasts on my website. I’m here for conversation & community.
Until next time,