Discover more from Mind Matters
Unselfing & The Treadmill Tendency
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!
Two new things to share:
Why, as citizens of the most powerful, technologically equipped, and advanced society in history, are so many of us spending most of our waking lives working jobs we do not particularly like to sustain lives we do not particularly enjoy?
One answer: what I call capitalism’s “treadmill tendency”. People love to blame capitalism for everything they dislike about the world. So I explored the work of great economists to ask whether “capitalism” actually drives this treadmill tendency, or if it’s more of a scapegoat, a short-cut to thinking that obscures the real problem.
II. Unselfing: Philosophy of Psychedelics with Chris Letheby // Chris’ work is fascinating. He’s a philosopher studying the cognitive science of high-dose psychedelic trips, integrating his findings into new ways of understanding ‘spiritual experience’ in light of recent findings.
Ok, in we go.
George Saunders is a contemporary American writer. He sort-of-self-describes as similar to David Foster Wallace, but happier. Here’s a paragraph from a NYT interview that blew my socks off (h/t Paul):
You could see the way that … the cumulative effect of an absence of wealth was the erosion of grace.
Then there’s this:
“There was an experience he was living that hadn’t adequately been represented in fiction yet. Not a Kafkaesque existential deadness, but something else, something that captured ‘not the endless cycle of meaningless activity but the endless cycle of meaningful activity.’”
It’s a trope to suggest life is an endless cycle of meaningless activity. But Saunders' small shift, an endless cycle of meaningful activity, unlocks a world of new meaning. He’s an optimist, shot through with a sort of moral vitality. But, as he put it: “I basically said, ‘O.K., capitalism, I have seen your gaping maw, and I want no trouble with you.’” This clash between an optimistic moral vitality and the gaping maw, the grace-eroding aspect of capitalist modernity is fertile, like smashing atoms together.
“Don’t be afraid to be confused. Try to remain permanently confused. Anything is possible. Stay open, forever, so open it hurts, and then open up some more, until the day you die, world without end, amen.”
Unselfing: The Philosophy of Psychedelics
I organized my conversation with Chris Letheby into three sections. Each fascinating on its own, but together, they form something large & fertile not just for philosophers, or cognitive scientists, but anyone interested in rediscovering a sense of spirituality in the scientific era.
I. Chris’ predictive self-binding theory of the self
Most cognitive scientists today agree that our brain’s create internal representations, or models of the world. Inside of our skulls, there is something of a movie playing. That movie is your body’s best guess at what’s happening ‘out there’.
I like the way Chris put it: Your brain does a really good job at giving you an “out of brain experience.”
We also generate internal representations of our ‘selves’. Now, Chris, along with the likes of Thomas Metzinger, claims: the self does not exist. There is no tangible entity that is a self. There is only the experience of self-ness.
Unlike other self-skeptics, though, he doesn’t claim that all experience of self-ness is a delusion and wrong. The experience of self-ness, on Chris’ account, arises from a combination of our predictive processing systems and hierarchically nested cognitive binding. Cognition binds all experience that reference to ‘me’ more quickly and efficiently than other information, since this will be most important to process in terms of survival.
Since self-related information is integrated & processed quicker than other information, it is the first & most pronounced thing we perceive in all moments of perception. The brain’s predictive processing system, then, begins to learn that there is always this self-thing, which is actually a cluster of perceptual information integrated into a ‘self’. It can stop being skeptical as to whether or not that self-thing will be there, because it always is.
So our models of the world bake into their assumptions that there is this self in all moments of experience. Or something like that. Better to listen to him in our conversation, or read his paper on this.
II. Psychedelics Unbind the Self-Model
The classical psychedelics (LSD, mushrooms, mescaline, DMT) all do mostly the same thing, neuro-chemically speaking: they stimulate the brain’s serotonin (5HT2A) receptor. Phenomenologically, high-dose psychedelic experiences tend to cause warps, distortions, and alterations not only to what we experience, but how we experience anything at all. That is, they cause changes to self-consciousness.
Chris develops a theory where psychedelics ‘unbind’ the self-model that is generated and maintained in ordinary consciousness. That model is built of a series of assumptions baked into our predictive processing systems that’ve become so ingrained as to feel like fixed elements of our world. Psychedelics ‘relax’ our priors. They unsteady these basic assumptions that underpin how we experience consciousness, and so make it possible for us to experience in ways that we ordinarily cannot, since our priors constrain (but also enable!) cognition. Chris writes that these priors:
"…constrain cognition in several ways. Most basically...they limit the brain's hypothesis space...hyper-priors constrain cognition by deeming many logically possible (and, indeed, logically impossible) worlds so improbable that they become cognitively and phenomenologically impossible."
Relaxing these priors and loosening the learned assumptions that ordinarily determine what’s “phenomenologically possible” for our brain’s hypothesis space to entertain is part of the process he labels “unselfing”.
III. Unselfing is the Source of Spiritual Experience
Then he weaves this all together into a theory of ‘naturalized spirituality’. Basically, in order to understand what spiritual experience is, we should look to those types of experiences that we tend to call spiritual. And a thread running through all those types of experiences is this process of unselfing.
And we’re moving into a golden age of being able to both cause unselfing experiences, and observe - both internally and externally - what’s going on during them. Exciting times!
Anyway, check out our conversation if you’re interested, I’m still learning a ton from his work, and suspect he’ll play a big role in the next decade or two at the intersection of the philosophy of consciousness and the cognitive science of psychedelics.
The Treadmill Tendency
The logic behind what Moishe Postone eventually branded as “the treadmill dynamic” was first put together by Karl Marx.
Marx wrote that as capital developed and society’s productivity levels rose, workers would counter-intuitively be made worse off, rather than benefitted, by these higher productivity levels. Higher productivity levels make the position of workers more precarious, not less.
Postone develops the logic further. We might expect that rising productivity levels are good, because as we become capable of producing more stuff quicker and quicker, presumably, we can work less and still produce all the stuff we need. Higher productivity levels can allow us to reduce the working week, so that citizens can spend less of their time working because they need the paycheck, and more time doing work they enjoy as an end in itself.
But according to the treadmill effect, this isn’t possible in capitalist society. The necessity that drives workers to exchange their time for paychecks is not lessened by higher productivity, but maintained.
Postone’s writing is dense, but here’s the main paragraph:
"Note that inasmuch as the development of productivity redetermines the social labor hour, this development reconstitutes, rather than supersedes, the form of necessity associated with that abstract temporal unit. Each new level of productivity is structurally transformed into the concrete presupposition of the social labor hour—and the amount of value produced per unit time remains constant...In Marx’s analysis, the basic structure of capitalism’s social forms is such, then, that the accumulation of historical time [the accumulation of productivity] does not, in and of itself, undermine the necessity represented by value, that is, the necessity of the present..."
Rising productivity does not undermine the "necessity represented by value", but rather:
"...it changes the concrete presupposition of that present, thereby constituting its necessity anew. Present necessity is not 'automatically' negated but paradoxically reinforced; it is impelled forward in time as a perpetual present, an apparently eternal necessity."
This is a troubling thought. The claim is that something within the internal logic of capitalism, something in the way it defines “value”, ensures that a totalizing form of necessity will never be transcended by rising productivity levels. Instead, that necessity will be reconstituted in all forms of capitalist society, no matter the productivity levels.
If this is the case, post-capitalism would appear a sort of obvious, non-radical position that I’d expect most humans to espouse. Why maintain a system that requires we live under the yoke of necessity, despite whatever other possibilities our levels of productivity make possible?
But, one should be skeptical. Postone’s analysis rests on Marx’s labor theory of value, and that theory is rejected by orthodox economists as well as even some Marxists today.
But if the treadmill effect is real, if there is some intrinsic property of capitalism that promises to recreate the conditions of necessity in all forms of society, then it should show up in other-than-Marxist frameworks.
It's like trying on seven different sunglasses, each with their own tint, and staring at the sun. If each still functions as a clear-enough window onto the world, you'll still see the sun no matter what tint you look through.
So, I went looking through the work of Adam Smith, Henry George, and John Maynard Keynes, in addition to Marx and Postone, in search of logic that would support whether or not capitalism is inherently connected to this treadmill effect.
The result was this essay, which I framed as such:
What I propose, then, is to ask a simple question as rigorously as possible: is blaming capitalism for the treadmill effect an instance of bullshit?
If you’re interested, you can read the essay here:
Until next time,