Does mindfulness short-circuit our evolutionary success?

This is a question that can only be answered empirically, but I’ll pose it as theoretical food for thought anyway.

In Why Buddhism Is True, Robert Wright discusses the relationship between the direct experience of emptiness or formlessness and the dampening of perceptions’ and thoughts’ affective tug. As a meditator, this idea spooks me a bit—partly because when I think about it, it rings true. I remain as obsessive a thinker as almost ever, but emotional reactivity just ain’t what it used to be—for better or worse. (Wasn’t that what I was signing up for?)

Anyway, Wright anticipates this concern and comments:

Remember, for starters, that when I talk about our affect being dampened, our feelings being subdued, I’m not saying that’s a bad thing. Indeed, I’ve tried to show why certain feelings are a poor guide to reality. And I’ve suggested, more broadly, that the entire infrastructure of feelings should be viewed with a certain suspicion, given that it was built by natural selection, whose ultimate aim isn’t to foster clear perceptions and thoughts but rather to foster the kinds of perceptions and thoughts that have gotten genes spread in the past.

First, I should say, I buy and deeply appreciate Wright’s cognitive-evolutionary approach. Wright’s exploration of mindfulness and the mechanisms it works on gives no quarter to ideas that meditation will tune you up to Darwinian ubermensch-hood.

Rather, his gist is that mindfulness of the body, feelings, and thoughts can help to deprogram a brain that natural selection has wired for perseveration and misery. Again, still fully onboard.

But what’s interesting is that on close inspection, Wright is speaking about our cognitive-evolutionary misery on 2 different levels.

The first is virtually timeless: natural selection would never have produced clear-seeing, untroubled minds, because these kinds of minds would have done a bad job at advancing competitive and reproductive goals.

The second is much more bounded, and makes a claim about our culture outside of evolutionary paradigms: the minds we have were shock-tested by natural selection for Paleolithic conditions, and are causing us misery because of their mismatch to our contemporary situation.

In theory, which of these accounts of our misery turns out to be truer has big implications for what mindfulness meditation means, in practical, everyday terms.

If our minds are as chatty as they are, and our feelings as sticky as they are, because today’s stimuli are less “honest” signals of danger and reward than those encountered by our hunter-gatherer ancestors, then it’s hard to imagine a downside to mindfulness meditation—except that it might make you a bit culturally and morally weird. Which you knew when you signed up, I’d guess!

I’m a 100%, unrepentant fan of letting go of temporally-specific, culturally-specific attachments. Perhaps non-attachment and non-judgment really are the keys to deep happiness. If not, though, those keys lie in elements of the human experience that are universal, long-evolved, time-tested, and antifragile—like love, family, community, and ritual.

But what if the difference between Lascaux Cave and Los Angeles hardly makes a difference in the grand scheme? What if, as Wright more often suggests, natural selection boosted our most fundamental biological drives with a set of cognitive-affective modules designed to rouse us out of satisfaction, and torment us into status-jockeying, mate acquisition, mate-retention, and resource acquisition with no concern for inner peace?

I suspect that this is the major part of the picture—and assuming for a moment that I’m right, this complicates Wright’s argument as to Why Buddhism is true.

On one hand, it proves Buddhist mindfulness practice and folk-psychology to be Herculean in their success at deprogramming some very fundamental circuitry. With sufficient effort and focus, you can effectively tone down tens of millions, nay, hundreds of millions of years’ worth of accumulated system-maximizing, inner-peace-indifferent signals.

But on the other, are we sure we want to do that? Say you sincerely want inner peace, and the dampening or cessation of reactivity that Buddha says will bring it. I know I do. But are you willing to give up everything that makes you a human ape—a loving partner, children, status, material comfort—for it? I don’t think so.

Not that great Buddhist laymen and post-traditional teachers have had to, necessarily. But I’ll be damned if there isn’t some kind of zero-sum dynamic. Caring less and reacting less means grabbing at less, and over time, grabbing at less means getting less. This is true for both the dreck we know we don’t want, and the human experiences we know we need.

So what I mean to ask is: Does mindfulness short-circuit our evolutionary success?

Why technology needs speed limits: confessions of an ex-libertarian

Used to think of myself as a techno-libertarian. Because when you’re 17 or 18, and a few years closer to the flat part of the exponential curve, it’s hard to imagine what could go wrong, or to care about collateral damage—and to this day, hard to have faith in government handling it constructively.

I’m still excited about the superintelligent, super-networked future, and I still believe that barring systemic crisis (this is a non-trivial caveat), it’s inevitable in one form or another. I’m not bitter about that.

But as I’ve grown out of ca. 1991-2008 “end of history” liberal triumphalism, I’ve come to realize that there’s *no guaranteeing* the valence that information super-technologies will have, and *no predicting* what values, if any, a strong AI will tend to express.

Even back in my Ray Kurzweil-boosting days, I could tell that the pure optimists were giving short shrift to questions of ethics and ideology. Nick Bostrom does a good job of mapping out the range of possibilities on this front in “Superintelligence”, all the while admitting that there’s only so much we can know.

I left Superintelligence a few years back convinced that the best we could hope for, as far as endowing the technologies of the future with benign values, was to have a frank, culture-wide conversation.

How is information technology already changing us today, and how will it more and more steeply change us in the decades to come? Note: the key question, over which we might be able to exert some control, is not If—it’s How.

Fast-forward a few years. The conversation has clearly broken out of Silicon Valley, but it remains an elite concern.

And even if it weren’t for the Trump circus, it would’ve continued (for natural, unsurprising reasons) to lurk in the background, churning along, while idiot lawyers and preachers stoked primal identity-based resentments and caricatured 18th-19th century economics.

Meanwhile, the largest handful of corporations in the world—mostly brand new money, unencumbered by the push-and-pull of regulatory politics—are leapfrogging ahead (as is natural), making the decisions for all of us, without our consent.

They are deploying the best engineering minds and the best algorithms in existence to build the most addictive, insidious products possible—taking advantage of the same neurochemical pathways as drugs, junk food, and sexual compulsion.

They are precipitating a mental health crisis at worst, and radically reshaping society, without the coordination of any of its other stakeholders, at best.

Like many people, I’ve struggled to figure out a healthy information technology regimen. One of my major personal goals right now is to develop a practice of mindfulness around my use of the internet, social media, and smartphones—but it’s a bitch.

As an instinctive libertarian, I think that developing our own personal ways of coping is all we can really count on, at the end of the day. But I’m not optimistic. Today’s information technology is just too well-engineered, attention spans have been shot to shit, and designing systems and regimens is something not many people are good at.

That’s why I think the obvious answer, speaking as a naive non-lawyer, is strict regulation (or, I’ll emphasize, *protection*) for the public good. We’ve come to a consensus that when it comes to anything with sufficient power to harm—cars, cigarettes, alcohol, factory mechanisms, food production pipelines, toxic waste—market mechanisms alone are not enough to stave off abuse and disaster.

Neurochemically and emotionally, this algorithmic crack is on another level. Sadly, I see just as little evidence of us dealing with this challenge frankly and maturely on a collective scale as I do on the individual scale. And remember, smartphones and Snapchat are just the tip of the iceberg.

Even if you disagree with them on *everything else*, I think this is a strong case for supporting economic progressives like Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders. Because with anyone else—the alt-right, the corporate right, the Clinton-Zuckerberg technocrat-naifs—you can be sure that the conversation won’t happen. How we handle our exponential journey past computation’s inflection point is a decision we have to make democratically—lest we cede it to a few soon-to-be-trillion-dollar companies.

Nobody serious—not Warren, not Sanders, and certainly not me—is talking about smashing the market. That would bring unspeakable tragedy, and if you wish for it, you must feel very safe in your social standing.

But the market and culture (here’s where cultural conservatives, of the Rod Dreher variety, have a point too) are accelerating so fast, ripping apart communities and soldering together networks of capital so astonishingly, that taking a breath, having a democratic conversation, and doing what we can to slow things down until we can get a grip is the least we can do.

Because if a superintelligent computer with dubious motives were to manifest right now in front of all of us, it’d be all too obvious we don’t have our shit together.

https://www.wired.com/…/our-minds-have-been-hijacked-by-ou…/
https://www.theatlantic.com/…/has-the-smartphone-de…/534198/

Summer reading list

If you’re interested.

So far:

Our Mathematical Universe by Max Tegmark
The Soft Machine by William S. Burroughs
Fooled By Randomness by Nassim Taleb
One Way Down (Or Another) by Calder Lorenz
The Map And The Territory by Michel Houellebecq
Meditations by Marcus Aurelius

In progress:

After Buddhism by Stephen Batchelor
The Gift of Fear by Gavin de Becker

On deck:

The Enigma of Reason by Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber
Mindful Tech by David M. Levy
Ulysses by James Joyce

Perennial online favorites:

Gene Expression
Meaningness
Slate Star Codex
Qualia Computing
Edge
Aeon

And—summer listening:

Offa Rex
Kacy & Clayton
Basement Signal
Led Zeppelin
Morrison Hotel by The Doors
No Blues
Bardo Pond
Hope Sandoval and the Warm Inventions
Amalia Rodrigues
Zeca Afonso

Hearing the self as sound, not meaning

Ego dissolution offers vivid experiential proof, not only that things can be different, but that the self that conditions experience is just a heuristic, not an unchangeable, persisting thing.

Philip Gerrans and Chris Letheby at Aeon on psychedelics as a spur to work more constructively with the bundle of cognitive mechanisms we call the self.

One of the more exceptional pieces in the flood of recent popular work on psychedelics and cognitive psychology.

For the love of Coimbra

I was originally planning on 2 nights here, but I instantly fell in love and extended to 5, moving from a mother’s house on a ridge on the north bank of the river, to a daughter’s on the south bank.

At first I thought it was a matter of Coimbra resembling Granada: the live music (substitute fado for flamenco, they say, and you’ll instantly grok the difference between Portuguese and Spanish temperaments) on hilly side-streets, the vague intimations of a Moorish past (much, much stronger in Granada, because there were 400+ more years of it), the spectacle of the gleaming monument quarter, an Iberian acropolis, looming over every point in the city.

But it was the early August weather, 90 and dry by day and 60 with a breeze at night, that clued me into the ghost’s actual identity: summers in Jerusalem. A friendly Brazilian goth who took care of my apartment in Porto warned me to choose Braga instead of Coimbra for my next stop, but that could not have been more wrong for me. Galicia and northern Portugal are humid and hewn of dark stone.

In Coimbra, the unsparing summer sun reflects off white stone squares and whitewashed façades—achieving a similar effect to the slightly golden limestone that by statute must cover everything in Jerusalem. Even the cathedrals here are bright, airy, and inspiring of contemplation; normally the aesthetics of medieval Western Christendom don’t do it for me at all.

Even the Coimbra fado, “Fado Dos Olhos Claros”, which hypnotized me as I heard it performed on the steps of San Tiago Church, rang with notes of the Jewish liturgy. Student and alumni troubadours ply their melodies on Coimbra’s streets wearing impossibly hot and heavy black cloaks, much like half of Jewish Jerusalem. And yesterday over mediocre falafel, the sight of a white trailer across the street announcing Aqui fazem-se milagres, no metal (“Here, make yourself miracles—in metal”) inspired me to write a strange poem about language and metallurgy in the Proto-Semitic community of the 4th millennium BCE:

In this trailer by the River Mondego,
miracles in metal
are blueprinted and set
in kludgy type—

in the beginning was
the three-letter root
which unfolded like protein
ripe for diverse expressions
and levels of analysis—

a formless aleph
innocent of glottal dreams
trailing black copper slag
into the Dead Sea.

The dial of significance

When the soul lies down in that grass,

the world is too full to talk about.

– Rumi

Is anyone familiar with the cognitive psychology literature (even terminology would be a good start!) on how we ascribe particular levels of significance to things?

That is to say, in everyday consciousness, objects, events, and agents feel significant/meaningful to varying degrees. These differences in significance tend to be stable across time, and seem to follow an intuitive evolutionary logic.

“Significance” or “meaningfulness”, as I see it, is a bounded conversation between internal states and feedback from the environment—the machinery of significance ascription is neither entirely scripted at birth, nor generated entirely by external stimuli.
 
By extension, significance levels don’t come fixed, but under normal conditions, it’s impossible to reprogram them arbitrarily.
 
That’s not the end of it, though. Experiments in philosophy/conceptual framing offer a peek into the wider possibility space. High school nihilism shows you that it’s possible to turn the significance dial all the way down to 0. Ecstatic, pantheistic spirituality—”everythingism”, you might call it—allows you to crank it up to, well, infinity.
Thought experiments will rarely get you there, though. We have a whole class of serotonergic compounds whose most fundamental, universal effect seems to be messing with significance ascription.

Is the answer in the serotonin system, then?

“To fathom hell or soar angelic / take a pinch of psychedelic,” wrote Humphry Osmond. But rarely does the psychonaut brush up against classical, embodied celestial beings. Hell, most generically, is the significance dial at 0; to soar angelic is to take in reality at significance-level infinity.*

*There are also experiences of pleasant meaninglessness and agonizing hyper-significance out there, so take my heaven/hell framing with a grain of salt.