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What is a 'Good' State of Consciousness? // Cooperation & Ethics
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!
Welcome to the ~100 new subscribers over the past week or so. I don’t know where you’re all coming from, but I’m happy you’re here. If you’re new to my work, here are a few entry points:
An essay drawing on cognitive science research to explore how the recent era of capitalism is shaping subjectivity, and ways we might nourish that relationship.
Capitalism & the Self
A podcast conversation with the intellectual historian Barnaby Raine. We cover philosophers from Rousseau to Foucault, exploring how they viewed the relationship between capitalism and subjectivity, or ‘the self’.
To Annie Dillard’s Astonishment
An essay about Annie Dillard’s writing, life, and uncommon devotion to the naked and astonishing facts of this bizarre, bewildering world.
I’m also excited to share that I’ll be having the author of the paper on meditation & predictive processing I covered last time as a guest on the podcast in November!
Today, I’d like to write about consciousness ethics, raising hedonic baselines as a strategy for raising global cooperation proclivities, and a research garden I’m working on.
In we go,
A Preliminary Sketch of Consciousness Ethics
We’re getting very good at intentionally altering our own states of consciousness. Society, too, is becoming an increasingly psychedelic environment that plays an increasingly active role in shaping the kinds of minds that emerge within it.
All this, but we still lack a basic framework for answering a critical question: what is a “good” state of consciousness?
"...if we develop ever more sophisticated tools to alter the contents of subjective experience, we will have to think hard about what a good state of consciousness is. We urgently need fresh and convincing answers to questions like the following: Which states of consciousness do we want our children to have? Which states of consciousness do we want to foster, and which do we want to ban on ethical grounds? Which states of consciousness can we inflict upon animals, or upon machines?"
Consciousness research remains preoccupied with searching for a descriptive theory of consciousness. What is it? How did it emerge, and why? These are fascinating questions. But they can tell us little about the normative question: how should consciousness be? What is a good state, and what is bad? What types should we foster?
I’m working on an essay wherein I’m playing with sketching such frameworks, because why not. I started with two main axioms. A formal framework for consciousness ethics should:
Increase the experiential depth of potential subjective experiences
Increase an organism’s agency in navigating that increasing depth
This isn’t the place to elaborate what I mean. But I’d like to compare these with Metzinger’s own principles offered for consciousness ethics:
A good state of consciousness should:
minimize suffering in all beings capable of suffering
have "epistemic potential", or the capacity to expand knowledge
foster behaviors that raise the probability for the sustained emergence of valuable states of consciousness in the future
These strike me as compatible. Minimizing suffering smells like a subset of increasing agency. Sometimes, an organism may voluntarily choose some degree of suffering, if it’s worth the future reward. We should be free to do so! But all such decisions should be truly voluntary, and we should have the agency to decide (unlike, say, factory farmed chickens). So increasing agency subsumes Metzinger’s first principle of minimizing suffering.
I’m not sure quite what Metzinger means by epistemic potential, or expanding knowledge, but this too strikes me as parallel with my principle of increasing the experiential depth of subjective states.
My own principles lacked his third, however. Fostering behaviors that don’t erode the future potential for consciousness is somewhat implicit, but given that we’re doing exactly that on many fronts, it should be explicit.
So my framework of choice for the moment is something like this. Consciousness ethics:
We should act so as to increase the depth & complexity of potential conscious states
We should act so as to increase the agency subjects have in navigating the expanding subjective state-space
We should act so as to foster behaviors that raise the probability for the sustained emergence of valuable states of consciousness in the future, where "value" is understood as states defined by the above two axioms
I’ll expand on what these mean another time. For now, I’m interested in your own ideas: how can we think about evaluating, in some objective sense, the ‘goodness’ of conscious states? How can we do so without imposing some arbitrary notion of the neurotypical, and ostracizing diversity?
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Improving Consciousness Improves Cooperation
The Prisoner’s Dilemma is a classic experiment that demonstrates two things:
Everyone cooperating with each other usually yields the best outcomes.
But cooperating only yields optimal outcomes if *everyone* cooperates, and that doesn’t always happen, and certainly isn’t guaranteed, which leads many to defect towards selfish behavior.
After listening to this wonderful podcast convo with Andrés Gómez Emilsson, I discovered two studies that show taking MDMA or psilocybin increases the probability of cooperative and pro-social behaviors:
If you’ve taken either drug, this is probably pretty straightforward. But Andrés generalized from these findings to make a really interesting claim:
Raising hedonic baselines may nudge us towards more cooperative behaviors.
MDMA and psilocybin both increase the ‘positive valence’ - or ‘intrinsic attractiveness - of consciousness. Thus, the results of increased tendency towards cooperation might not be an effect of the drugs specifically, but of the sharp increase in positive valence more generally.
Which suggests, if we increase the baseline positive valence by any means, we might expect similar upward nudges in cooperative behaviors. Creating conditions that lead to more intrinsically attractive states of consciousness doesn’t only benefit individuals, but improves global coordination problems.
Mostly, I’m jazzed to discover a direct link between game theory and consciousness studies. Someone could write out an elaborate framework that articulates the imperative for improving the quality of subjective experience in geopolitical, economic terms (or we could just value the valence of consciousness for its own sake, but hey).
This all ties back to a point I circled around in Acid Capitalism. Eliminating poverty, and alleviating the conditions of precarity that defines so many American lives, could increase the odds of higher hedonic baselines, more generalized positive valence states of consciousness, with game theoretic implications that would spill over & improve coordination capacity at scale.
In other words, let’s pass something like a basic income, and get to improving the social conditions that factor into our hedonic baselines, generating higher average positive valence states for all, and improving our tendencies towards cooperation.
(If you’re into consciousness stuff, I highly recommend that podcast with Andrés).
~ ~ ~
Tending a Research Garden
As the internet swells with information, and we sink deeper into an age of information abundance, value accrues to curation.
Some of the highest-value platforms today are essentially curatorial filters. Spotify, Youtube, Google Search, even Substack. There’s no way any individual might explore all the music that exists in the world, or videos, or websites, or writing. We rely on curation to sift through the infinitude of information and connect us with information we value.
We have good reason to distrust the incentives that drive these large curatorial platforms. As I wrote in The Commodification Problem, commodified curation tends towards entertainment. Because immediate desire gratification pays, in both money & attention. But we cannot entertain ourselves towards wisdom.
In contrast with these centralized, commodified curatorial filters, do we have any decentralized alternatives? How else can we build maps of information for ourselves and each other, in ways that create value, diversity, and wisdom?
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I then have a nifty little filtering mechanism on the side that allows users to search through my garden for particular research areas they’re interested in seeing what information I’ve found valuable.
Right now, these research areas - which are like particular plant beds within the overall garden - include:
Consciousness: philosophy of
Consciousness: science of
Critiques of current capitalism
The next economy
Say you want to know what information I find valuable, related to “The Next Economy”. You can hop over to my research garden, select that filter, and see a catalogue of resources! Same for any other research area listed.
On its own, this is nothing special. But imagine if all of your favorite internet-researchers kept their own public research gardens. Each garden has its own flavor. People familiar with my work might take a stroll through my garden to discover information related to consciousness studies, or post-neoliberal economic possibilities.
But maybe you head over to Gordon Brander’s research garden because you want to learn about the evolution of the internet, & you think he’ll have a category for that. Or you go to Aaron Lewis’ garden because you want to find reading material on digital anthropology.
Each garden presents an alternative to a Google Search. The keyword search is less specific, but the results are determined by that researcher’s taste, rather than Google’s PageRank algorithm.
These gardens can grow together. I’ve included a section for “Connected Research Gardens”. Here, I might link to any other public research gardens that I find valuable. So you might not find anything on quantum computing in my garden, but if you vibe with my taste, then you can still find resources related to other fields from my garden.
~ ~ ~
I’m working within serious constraints. For example, I don’t know how to code. So I’m building this on no-code software & Webflow plugins. But if you’re interested, check out the seedling stage of my public research garden, & let me know if you have any ideas.
Even better, build your own, & let the gardens grow.
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If you’re interested in discussing any of these themes, you can join the Discord! You’ll get the benefit of hearing from a growing gang of folks who have their own angles on these ideas. If you do join, be sure to introduce yourself & your interests in the #introductions channel!
If you’d like to support my writing, podcast, or general work cross-pollinating between consciousness studies & economics, you can consider joining my Patreon community, which provides something like a crowdfunded research grant that enables me to produce more work. Thanks to all who do.
Until next time,
Yes, this framing can be scary. Having any ‘shoulds’ in this context smells like fascism. Or at least, imposing a conception of what is neurotypical, and suffocating the diversity that feeds evolution. Nevertheless, I think we can, and must, toe this line.
This is the sort of pithy declaration whose opposite I believe is equally true. Wisdom can, in fact does, feel good. It can even be entertaining. But I ask readers to charitably interpret my use of “entertainment” here, & see what I’m going for.