“Effective in the same sense as coffee”

And my position on the larger problem of meaning is to notice that my life always seems really meaningful and great when I have coffee. If I’m going to try to figure out what the actual meaning of life is, in some sort of deep principled way, I’m going to do it with as much attention to Truth as possible. And if I’m going to give myself some emotional hack that lets myself go on and continue finding life worth living, I think caffeine probably has fewer side effects than falsehood, and is just as effective.

And if you don’t respond to caffeine as well as I do, then I think the overall lesson is that the emotional problem of meaning is a basically biological one, that doesn’t connect with the philosophical problem of meaning nearly as much as you think. Get a good psychiatrist and you’ll solve the emotional problem. The philosophical problem might not be solvable, but “helping others” or “creating a positive singularity” or “[your ingroup’s political goals here]” are, though not Perfectly Objectively Grounded, grounded enough that most people don’t really want to question them once the emotional problem is solved.

I find some of Peterson’s non-truth-value-having writing effective in the same sense as caffeine; it makes me more emotionally willing to follow the truths I know I should be following. Since, jokes aside, I can’t literally be drugged 100% of the time, I appreciate that. And maybe the drug would be stronger if I were to swallow his truth-value-having claims too. But that’s not a risk-benefit profile I’m okay with right now.

— ibid.

The romance of Semitic

Most researchers of Semitic morphology refer to the principal characteristic of Semitic morphology as non-linear or non-concatenative. Namely, instead of morphemes being placed linearly, one after the other before or after the word stem, as prefixes and suffixes, as in English, the morphemic structure of Semitic words is characterized by at least two morphemes interwoven (or interdigitated) within each other in a discontinuous (or non-concatenative) manner. One morpheme is inserted into the other (call it template, pattern, or scheme) in certain slots of the word stem structure. As two morphemes, the root and the template are incomplete in every respect, morphologically, phonologically, and semantically, until they merge to form a word or a word stem.

— Joseph Shimron, Language Processing and Acquisition in Languages of Semitic, Root-Based, Morphology

On disorders of totalization and fragmentation

It may be that we need to acknowledge a second kind of life, outside of time, for those who are not capable of living in time. It consists in palliation of the eternal now, rather than plans for the future, like a really horrible version of Zen Buddhism that’s not half as funny, but that is more comfortable than the alternative. The technological and material wealth of modernity could allow a new kind of human zombie to exist, who would have in earlier eras perished by suicide.

Feeling the Future, Sarah Perry at Ribbonfarm

Social cognition and “no-self”

To put it in more sociological terms: Reasons are social constructs. They are constructed by distorting and simplifying our understanding of mental states and of their causal role and by injecting into it a strong dose of normativity. Invocations and evaluations of reasons are contributions to a negotiated record of individuals’ ideas, actions, responsibilities, and commitments. This partly consensual, partly contested social record of who thinks what and who did what for which reasons plays a central role in guiding cooperative or antagonistic interactions, in influencing reputations, and in stabilizing social norms. Reasons are primarily for social consumption.

– Mercier and Sperber, The Enigma of Reason

It seems to me (but what do I know) that the things I cling to most tightly are the things I perceive as most inseparable from my unique self—memories (and the sense of having a sharp memory), quirks, moral traits, and as Mercier and Sperber remind me, reasons. Reasons on all tiers, for all objects: reasons for supporting decentralized governance, reasons for abstaining from pork, reasons for trusting A and not trusting B. Turns out, all of these things are inaccurate by design, hazy at best.

The good news is that even a momentary release from identification with them—whether experienced or merely conceived—feels very freeing. I want more of where that came from.

This is not to distort Mercier and Sperber (or any descriptive attempts at cognitive psychology) toward the end of an idealized post-self that overcomes its “deceptive” programming, and casts off the shackles of narrative once and for all. We are built to deal with our environment exactly as we need to, given the constraints of our evolutionary history. There is nothing sinister about this.

And even if there were, we’d be kidding ourselves if we thought there was a way out. That said, our self-awareness shouldn’t be limited to the psych lab and the page. An honest appraisal of why we tell the stories we tell about ourselves reveals a bundle of fictions. What does that mean for that grand frame story, identity?

1. That it’s functionally important, and largely for social reasons.
2. That it’s not so important that we should let it hurt us.

The work of taking our attachments (and the I they add up to) less seriously is what we might call a “mental health hack”, with roots as far back as the Gangetic Plain, 2,500 years ago. Studying cognitive psychology, and chewing on its ideas, wherever we find ourselves, can be part of this work.

Who can really say?

When I see other people making a big deal out of seemingly-minor problems, I’m in this weird superposition between thinking I’ve avoided them so easily I missed their existence, or fallen into them so thoroughly I’m like the fish who can’t see water.

And when I see other people struggling to understand seemingly-obvious concepts, I’m in this weird superposition between thinking I’m so far beyond them that I did it effortlessly, or so far beneath them that I haven’t even realized there’s a problem.

— Today’s Slate Star Codex, “Concept-Shaped Holes Can Be Impossible To Notice

Particularly resonant today.

Yesterday I reviewed a good summary of Kegan’s developmental stages, and since then, I’ve found myself every few hours waffling between “I’m so metasystematic I can’t even remember Stage 4” and “I’ve never learned how to cope with systems”.

Dharma, Mindfulness, and Muck

Israeli therapist, spiritual teacher, and psychedelic activist Galia Tanay talks about deep dharma practice, the problems with mindfulness, acceptance and commitment therapy, and how psychedelics shape the self.

From Erik Davis’ Expanding Mind—it doesn’t get any better than this podcast. Most valuable episode of the last few months, for my money.

Nihilism, serotonin, and sacrament

Only in 2017 could a conservative mag run a thoughtful Burning Man decompression essay—that it’s The American Conservative is no surprise.

Robert Mariani’s lead claim—Burning Man staves off nihilism, if only temporarily—is a biting jab that happy-go-lucky San Franciscans would do well to take. He highlights all the usual pros and cons of the Burn with an older, conservative audience in mind—and in a few cases does it quite tenderly.

But to the point of how effective Burning Man is at staving off nihilism, he misses one huge factor.

While you’d think the high churchies at TAC (I say this affectionately) would be the first to acknowledge the power of sacrament, Mariani completely leaves the Playa’s serotonergic host out of his account. This is like talking about The Beatles without mentioning that their entire post-1964 oeuvre was directly shaped by psychedelic molecules. Which serious people do all the time.

Ritual, community, aesthetics, and alcoholic drink all have the bittersweet effect of staving off nihilism until they leave the bloodstream—moving the needle incrementally, at best. Psychedelics are a different story. Not a panacea, but a reliable, indelible means of getting enchanted. Of allowing meaning itself to get up in your face.

Psychedelics (and their cousins, empathogen/entactogens) are the sacrament that animates much of Burning Man’s post-post-modern, transparently “made-up” ritual and spirituality.

Except that unlike wafers and sweet wine, psychedelics are neurochemically guaranteed to get you somewhere. Where you take it from there is largely up to you.

This is not to say I’ve found the cure for secular, post-postmodern nihilism. But I’m less pessimistic than Mariani.

The work of restoring meaning and duende for this age—in the form of what David Chapman calls “the fluid mode“—starts on the level of the brain’s serotonin system, something everyone has. By some crazy grace, we have the tools to probe it.

Metaphysical musings from the Playa

Suffice to say that under qualia formalism both the feelings of oneness and separateness come from the properties of the mathematical object isomorphic to the phenomenology of one’s experience. In particular, the topology of such an object (and its orientability) may determine the degree to which one feels a self-other barrier. This is highly speculative, of course.

Analogous to the planetary habitable zone (neither too close to a star and thus burning nor too far and thus freezing), there might be a psychologically tolerable range for how much you believe in universal oneness. That is, it’s best to feel neither completely merged nor completely separate. Close enough that one can relate to others and not feel separate, but not so close that one’s existence feels redundant and cosmic loneliness sets in. Incidentally, this seems to be roughly the place at which Burners see themselves relative to other humans.

This from Qualia Computing, a true powerhouse of Whitmanic dynamism.

Complexity and the magical thinking boom

As societies became literate (and then hyperliterate), “as if” thinking jumped out of its box, and useful fictions proliferated. Only the old forms of “as if” thinking, the shameful remnants of an ignorant past that we think of as “magical thinking,” were tabooed.

Magical thinking “confuses” the relationship between symbol and referent, between mind and world. Our modern world, to confuse matters even more, is mostly made of minds. As societies became literate (and then hyperliterate), “as if” thinking jumped out of its box, and useful fictions proliferated. Only the old forms of “as if” thinking, the shameful remnants of an ignorant past that we think of as “magical thinking,” were tabooed.

This from Sarah Perry at Ribbonfarm.

Two more excellent psychedelic links

They keep coming—we might have to start a digest/newsletter.

At Quillette, The Case for Psychedelics, which has two psychologists making the case for use on many fronts. This endorsement—not a puff piece or a hedged, tired feature about the psychedelic revival—is a big step. Happy to see it run at Quillette, an up-and-coming home for sanity and freethinking.

And at The Scientist, Decoding The Tripping Brain is a well-linked article summarizing the state of researchers’ understanding of how psychedelics fit into our wider understanding of serotonin psychopharmacology, and how their effects are made manifest on the network level.

Most semi-scientific coverage has focused on psychedelics’ molecular level of action, because this is what was established during the first era of psychedelic research. Understanding the role of psychedelics, and serotonergic compounds more generally, in modulating the activity of the default mode network, and its interaction with the salience network, provides a crucial link between the neurotransmitter level and person-level, describable effects.