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 -
My conversation with Barnaby Raine on ‘Capitalism and the Self’ has nearly 2k downloads, a new milestone for the podcast! Thank you to everyone who shared it around.
To make pieces of it more accessible/digestible, I made short ~4 minute clips of some key points (Rousseau on freedom, Foucault on neoliberalism, Adorno & Horkheimer on The Culture Industry, etc). They’re posted on the show notes page, and collected as a Youtube playlist.
Sorry, the below is slightly longer than usual. Brevity is my nemesis.
In we go.
What is the relationship between consciousness, evolution, and complexity? I’m milling about this triad in an essay, finding all sorts of treasures.
Firstly: did consciousness evolve, or is it an inherent property, a potentiality latent in all matter?
If consciousness evolved, does it serve some adaptive purpose that ups our genes’ capacity to reproduce? Or is it an epiphenomenon - an honest, unintentional accident that’s irrelevant to survival? There are theories about what the survival value of consciousness might be, but surprisingly, there is no consensus. We do not know.
I don’t think this is an arcane question. I think our conceptions of what consciousness is, what consciousness wants, and how it relates to evolution, come to bear directly on our experience (or lack thereof) of meaning in life.
Because if consciousness is nothing more than a survival-hack, and the universe is fundamentally Darwinian, it’s also a nihilistic bore. If the earth is just an ecosystem of organisms living and dying, passing down their genes and slowly mutating to get better and better at it, then there's nothing much going on, existentially. Our lives only matter - in terms of the universe - as incubators, as warm-blooded storage containers for our genes. We live for nothing more than survival, and survival alone is a limp raison d'être. "I live for the longevity of my genes!" isn't much of an existential thirst-quencher. At least since the Axial age dawned in the 8th century BCE, we've yearned, and sought to live, for something more. Plato's true good and beautiful, Aristotle’s eudaimonia, Buddha's nirvana, Lao Tzu's tao, Zarathustra's aša. None of these have a place in a fundamentally Darwinian world but as relics of older, superstitious times.
This situation is perfectly designed to produce humans that lack any meaningful sense of purpose. Of what we're doing here. A sort of deflated, zest-less organism that does not revel in the universe, but endures it. If we do not relate to the universe in a meaningful way, any meaning beyond mere survival must be socially constructed. We're like children in an earth-shaped waiting room looking for games to play, building meaningful worlds and lives out of blocks; worlds with no meaning beyond the contexts we create. We just amuse ourselves until our name is called, our block-built world collapses, or we leave it behind, and we die.
I don’t reject Darwinian evolution, but I’m open to the possibility that it’s an incomplete frame with which to understand the cosmic situation. There’s an emerging movement of philosophers, biologists, physicists, each suggesting a dimension beyond the Darwinian narrative. To get there, we must first consider evolution.
Evolution does not literally “want” anything - it’s probably an undirected process. But systems have tendencies, or grains. A marble placed on a slanted surface will role in the direction of the slope every time. Not because something “wants” the marble to roll that way, but because it’s the natural tendency of the system, given its design. All systems have “givens” that confer tendencies*.
* At least, all the way back until the supposed beginning of our universe with the big bang. When the universe banged into existence, we got the first “given” of the cosmic system that seemingly erupted from nothing - a heat distribution:
Evolution is a metaphor we use to describe the tendencies of our universe-as-a-system over time.
The Darwinian model of evolution was a major insight into the natural tendencies of the system: species that develop random mutations sometimes wind up being better adapted to their local environments, and so outcompete, outlast, and crowd out the others. Their genes get passed down in greater numbers. Their mutations become the new norm.
This makes evolution a story of survival. I mean this literally - we use our understanding of evolution to spin an existential story about what is going on in the universe, and how we fit in to (or are alienated from) that process. This is why you often find science & evolution framed as the successor, or competitor to religion: it’s another existential story to countenance ourselves with.
As humans, we’re what David Foster Wallace calls “narrative animals”:
“And it’s so true it’s trite that human beings are narrative animals: every culture countenances itself as culture via a story, whether mythopoeic or politico- economic; every whole person understands his lifetime as an organized, recountable series of events and changes with at least a beginning and middle. We need narrative like we need space-time; it’s a built-in thing.”
Wallace is writing in the context of television’s corrosive effects on the quality of our narrativity. Television is “a narrative art that strives not to change or enlighten or broaden or reorient…but merely and always to engage.” The only purpose of the narrativity promulgated by television is “to ensure continued watching.” The consequence:
“And (I claim) the metastatic efficiency with which it’s done so has, as cost, inevitable and dire consequences for the level of people’s tastes in narrative art.”
It may not be too hyperbolic to claim that the Darwinian model of evolution has had a similar effect on our existential stories as TV did on people’s taste in narrative art. Once you’re raised on TV, it’s difficult to entertain other forms of narrativity. Our generation can binge Netflix for hours, but we cannot spend 30 minutes reading Tolstoy. Soaked in the Darwinian metaphor, we’ve foreclosed on any other possible narrativization of the universe’s system-tendencies with the same “metastatic efficiency”.
We are nothing but warm-blooded storage for survival-optimizing genes. Every other source of meaning is socially constructed. Consciousness is an odd epiphenomenon of natural selection.
This can’t help but culminate in the sort of Sartre-ian existentialism that laments: “man is condemned to be free.” There is no manual of ‘how to live’ that can be derived from the cosmic order. All the universe provides is the brute fact that some species live and others die. There is nothing to fall back on: we have to make our own choices, construct our own ethics and meaning, and there is no God, nothing to ground those choices in but our own rationales.
But consciousness is something of a thorn in the side of this Darwinian nihilism. Why did consciousness happen? Intelligence does not require sentience. What survival value does it carry that explains its persistence (Attention Schema Theory ventures a response, but it’s yet to garner a consensus)? How could something so complex, so potent, so miraculous be nothing but the handmaiden of genetic reproduction? Or a meaningless accident? Take a handful of psilocybin mushrooms and try telling me there’s nothing noetic going on there.
William James on the ‘noetic feeling’: “They are states of insight into depths of truth unplumbed by the discursive intellect. They are illuminations, revelations, full of significance and importance, all inarticulate though they remain; and as a rule they carry with them a curious sense of authority for after-time.”
This is all why I’ve so enjoyed reading the biologist Andreas Weber’s Enlivenment (coupled with Jane Bennett’s Vibrant Matter & Stuart Kauffman’s Reinventing the Sacred). It’s part of a broader philosophical movement that essentially makes the claim: There’s something more going on here. The selection of existential stories isn’t a binary one between Darwinian nihilism or a metaphysical God.
The way Weber puts it, the evolution of the biosphere reveals a tendency towards depth of experience:
"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…The biosphere does not grow. The total quantity of biomass does not increase...The only dimension that really grows is the diversity of experiences: ways of feeling, modes of expression, variations of appearance, novelties in patterns and forms. Therefore, nature gains neither mass nor weight, but rather depth. This is not a dimension that can be evaluated and quantified, however. It is a poetic expression of a sediment of desire that is either frustrated or fulfilled."
There is an obvious connection between ‘depth of experience’ and human consciousness. Presumably (and this is indeed a big presumption), human consciousness has more experiential depth than anything else on Earth. Perhaps even (though I doubt it), the universe.
If evolution has a natural tendency towards evolving greater & great depth of experience, then consciousness is no longer an anomaly: it’s the point. And it will continue evolving greater depth of experience.
It’s a tenuous (at best) claim that evolution naturally yields consciousness, but there is (nascent) evidence suggesting that complexity is adaptive, and thus evolution naturally yields the emergence of higher orders of complexity. Especially if you take the Panpsychist view (that consciousness is inherent in all matter), then consciousness as we know it might just be what happens when matter is sufficiently complexly networked together.
As Christopher Vitale, media theorist & author of Networkologies writes:
“For if even the most complex forms of human thought can be described as produced by means of networks, such that perhaps mind is simply what it feels like to be a network of this complexity from the inside, then perhaps everything in the world, down to its very fabric, can be seen as aspects of one fundamentally self-differing stuff which complexifies by means of networking…Scientists are increasingly coming to the conclusion that what we call thought and consciousness does not arise in any one particular center in the brain, but rather, is the result of a play of shifting networks of synced pulsations within radically dispersed centers of the brain, and in a way which is fundamentally intertwined with the networks of the body in an indissociable way. Viewed as such, consciousness and our sense of who we are results from a dynamic and shifting network of syncing pulsations, layered within relatively more stable distributed nets of neural connections, which nevertheless continually rewire themselves as well in regard to continual flows of feedback from each other, our bodies, and our environment."
A tamer claim is to admit there’s no inevitable relationship between evolution and consciousness. There’s no reason evolution will always develop consciousness. But now that it has, at least here on earth, consciousness appears to serve this drive towards experiential depth, towards sentient networked complexity. Thus to intertwine ourselves with a telos, a ‘purpose’ inherent in the universe, we should align ourselves with the further complexification of experiential depth; of consciousness; of enlivening evolution.
Fuck you, Sartre.
[This is all loosely held, I’m just dipping my toe into that space. Reading suggestions welcome.]
Roots, Or: Consciousness & Economy
I write a lot about the relationship between economic systems & the evolution of consciousness. I found a series of images that looks like what I find myself trying to articulate:
Exciting month ahead for the podcast - two conversations lined up, both about the science of consciousness (a nice reprieve from all the economics lately).
First, Chris Letheby. A young, brilliant philosopher of cognitive science. His focus is on the transformative potential of psychedelics. His book (due in May 2021) - Philosophy of Psychedelics - is a masterful tour through the cognitive science of psychedelics. Specifically, his focus (and fascinating theory) is on explaining ‘ego dissolution’ from a cognitive perspective, in order to ‘naturalize’ psychedelic experience (and thus, spirituality). To do so, he presents a theory of what the self is, how it arises from cognitive processes, and how psychedelics ‘unbind’ the self.
Next, Erik Hoel is returning to talk about his upcoming novel, The Revelations. The novel is about a young scientist obsessed with developing a theory of consciousness. Last time, we spoke about his stunning essay, Enter the Supersensorium. Erik (like Kierk, his protagonist) is on the frontiers of consciousness research. The conversation will be a fun opportunity to explore that terrain.
Rome, or Modern U.S.?
The below is a description of the fragmentation & degeneration of Rome in Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age. But does it sound much different from the U.S. today?
“The world was levelled off spiritually into two languages (Greek and Latin), into a shallow ethical system which, because it was without effect on the masses, made room for enjoyment for its own sake and for the desperate sufferings of slaves, of the poor, and of the vanquished. . . . Where nothing is really believed any more, the most absurd beliefs gain the upper hand. Superstition in manifold guises, doctrines of salvation of the most extraordinary kinds, circles gathered round peripatetic preachers, therapists, poets and prophets, in an endless confusion of vogue, success and oblivion, present a garish picture of narrow fanaticisms, wild adorations, enthusiastic devotion, and also of opportunism, imposture and knavery.”
As always, you can respond directly to this email with thoughts, comment on the Substack version of this post for public discussion, or reach out on Twitter. You can find more essays & podcasts on my website. I’m here for conversation & community.
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Until next time,