Discover more from Mind Matters
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 -
First, thanks to all who’ve joined the Discord community. People are already beginning to introduce themselves & share some of their favorite resources; channels are showing signs of life. Already, I’m struck by how different, & more exciting, it is to create a community, as opposed to all these one-way mediums like essays, newsletters, etc.
Second, I’m thrilled to publish an essay I’ve been working on for quite some time: Acid Capitalism. It brings together the cognitive science of psychedelics, predictive processing models of cognition, and economics. More on that below, but if interested, you can read it here:
Ok, in we go.
The similarities between psychedelics like LSD and capitalism are, indeed, surprising. But with those similarities established, it’s the difference between them that’s most consequential.
While LSD is a substance and capitalism is a system, both share an effect: they transform consciousness. The difference is that LSD’s transformative properties wear off after 8-or-so hours. Capitalism’s transformations of consciousness, on the other hand, may last a lifetime.
One reason is that we know when we’re on acid. We know when we’re ingesting a psychedelic substance. The subsequent trip is distinctive: we recognize it as a transformation of consciousness caused by the substance we took. Economies transform consciousness in subtler fashion.
Capitalism, as a psychedelic - i.e. “mind manifesting” - system, normalizes the transformations of consciousness it provokes. We don’t perceive the changes to consciousness wrought by capitalism as departures from normality. They aren’t seen as “trips”. Instead, there’s a continual paving-over of normality, an appropriation of what is considered a normal state of consciousness.
If we don’t recognize our ordinary states of consciousness as trips that are contingent on their set and setting, then if the trip starts going bad, we’re less inclined to think there’s much we can do about it. If anxiety, depression, and burnout are normal, then we’ve just got to figure out how to endure. But if they’re contingent products of our socially constructed worlds, then by changing the social constructions, we can change the resultant phenomenology, to a degree anyway.
Capitalism is Literally Psychedelic
Those of you familiar with the newsletter, or my essays, won’t find anything new in that line of thought. But speaking with the likes of Chris Letheby on the cognitive science of psychedelics, and Emma Stamm about data, algorithms, and consciousness, helped crystallize a new way of making the point.
Rather than painting the metaphor of economies as psychedelic systems, drawing on Thomas Metzinger’s philosophy of mind, and the latest research into the cognitive science of psychedelics, I realized it can be literally shown how the same mechanisms are at play in each.
Understood via the predictive processing paradigm, the mind is a predictive system that uses “priors” to develop an internal model of the world. Priors are great, they help us develop better and better models of reality. But they come with an imaginative cost. Every prior is essentially a foreclosure of imaginative possibility. It limits what Letheby calls “the brain’s hypothesis space”.
We’re coming to understand a number of mental afflictions, like depression or addiction, as an overcommitment to harmful priors. This is one reason why psychedelics are so potent, and so often regarded as among the most meaningful experiences in peoples lives: they allow us to suspend some of our most deeply engrained priors. This literally allows us to imagine, and experience, the world anew.
In the essay, I make the claim that the phenomenology of “precarity”, a condition on the rise since 1971 largely due to economic ideology, functions the same at the collective level as an overcommitment to harmful priors does at the individual level. Higher levels of precarity make it increasingly difficult to suspend our priors, and thus increasingly foreclose on our capacity to imagine and experience the world anew.
I use that framework to argue that economic interventions such as basic income, universal healthcare, or a recommitment to economic democracy would have, again, literal psychedelic effects. Reductions of precarity would loosen our priors and enable more dynamism, creativity, and innovation. Economic democracy, on the other hand, would change the ‘set and setting’ of the American workplace, which has been structured in a curiously authoritarian fashion ever since we transitioned from an agricultural to a corporate economy.
Heat Death is Existentialism for Scientists
According to our current knowledge, this timeline represents one of the most likely life-times of the universe from its birth (the big bang) to its death (heat death):
We're in the Stelliferous Era. Next comes the Degenerate Era, where star formation ends, planets are flung from orbit & consumed by black holes, & galaxies cease to exist.
As the Degenerate Era moves into the Black Hole Era, all protons will decay, and the matter that stars & life were built of will disappear.
Then, the blackholes evaporate, and we slide into the Dark Era, where the universe just cools down until basically nothing is possible (as in no energy transfer between systems). We slide into thermodynamic equilibrium (zero entropy), and the universe basically just…*chills*…for eternity?
If everything we know, love, do, build, imagine, and desire — if it all ends in a chilled, motionless silence — then what continues to matter, in the face of impending and absolute annihilation, whether of our own mortality, or the universe's?
Kurt Vonnegut was playful: "I tell you, we are here on Earth to fart around, and don't let anybody tell you different." But he smuggles in a quiet nihilism: nothing matters, so have fun. Against this farting-around-nihilism, I’m optimistic that were in the midst of a revival around rebuilding structures of meaning. But that’s a story for another time.
The Astounding Resilience of Caterpillar Memory, Or, What is it Like to be a Metamorphosing Caterpillar?
Imagine you are a caterpillar, nestled inside your cocoon, on the brink of metamorphosis. First, you flood the cocoon with enzymes that dissolve all of your tissue, save for small bundles of cells known as "imaginal discs". At this point, the contents inside the cocoon - you - have melted from a wriggling caterpillar to protein soup, with a few floating discs.
“If you were to cut open a cocoon or chrysalis at just the right time, caterpillar soup would ooze out", writes Ferris Jabr in the Scientific American.
The discs then slurp up the soup they're floating in, using the proteins to form wings, antennae, and all the other bodily structures that make up a butterfly.
Now, it turns out that butterfly's remember what they learned as caterpillars, despite dissolving their bodies. We learned this by torturing caterpillars. Electrical shocks were associatively paired with an odor, so that the caterpillar learned that it would receive a shock every time it encountered the odor. When these caterpillars became butterflies, they retained the learned aversion to the shock-inducing odor. Researchers believe the memory persists thanks to synaptic connections that remained intact through the metamorphosis.
So here's the question: what does all that feel like, to a caterpillar? To the degree that caterpillars have subjectivity, to the degree that there is something-that-it-is-like to be a caterpillar, from the caterpillar's first-person (first-caterpillar?) perspective, what's it like?
Because if enough synaptic connections survive the metamorphosis process to preserve memories from before the melting-and-rebuilding situation, then they might also carry memories from during the process.
This “what-is-it-like-ness” comes from the philosopher Thomas Nagel, who ran the same exercise in his paper, What Is It Like to Be a Bat?
Bats perceive the world by echolocation, which means they send waves of rapid, subtly modulated, high-frequency shrieks out into the world, and listen for how those shrieks echo off their environment. Any attempt we make to imagine what that feels like will inevitably draw upon our own mental mechanisms. The issue, as Nagel points out, is that we have no mental mechanisms that are anything like the bats, so the best we can do is imagine what it's like for us to behave like a bat, since the imagination cannot transcend the structures of the mind it operates within. We can’t begin to imagine what it’s like for a bat to be a bat, if that makes any modicum of sense.
But the same problem exists, in lesser form, between humans. I cannot adequately tell you what it’s like to be me. I can try, but inevitably, my description will fall short of the full experience. This is subjectivity: that emergent property of an entire human process that cannot be rendered objective.
So here’s a quagmire: I think this subjective quality of conscious life is the most important thing in the universe, so far as humans are concerned. But I also think it is, to a degree, impossible to objectify, and so impossible to talk about. But more on this another time.
Ok, Back to Life
If you’re interested in disagreeing, improving, or otherwise discussing any of these themes, you can join the Discord! You’ll get the benefit of hearing from a whole gang of folks who have their own angles on these ideas.
Until next time,
Alternatively, maybe whatever ‘caused’ the big bang could do so again, and a new universe would inflate and expand, then slowly contract over quadrillions of years, and the whole show goes on.