Prickles and goo in 2012

As I’m reworking this site in 2018, I’m going back through materials that I made over the past few years. In 2012, I presented this poster at the Psychedemia conference on psychedelic studies in Philadelphia, PA.

Here’s the poster (and you can also download it as a PDF):

I also made slides of all this information, and more, as an “annex” to the poster. (I designed the slides to convey a sample of my thinking and share the pool of memes I was drawing from, rather than tailoring them for a live presentation.)

You may notice that the poster has a university affiliation at the bottom. In 2012, I was starting my PhD research on dams and tropical migratory shrimp, at the University of Georgia. While I was immersing myself in water management studies, that work just didn’t evoke the same kind of intrinsic motivation that led me to drive cross-country for a conference on psychedelic research.

Systems theory and ecological urgency provided a tenuous bridge between these two parts of my life, and it wasn’t sturdy enough to hold them together. When I presented this poster again at a systems ecology symposium back in Georgia, I didn’t feel comfortable discussing the question, “Can psychedelic experiences catalyze changes in the ways we relate to ourselves, each other, and our ecological support systems?” Without that key piece, the poster felt more like a collage of ideas than a coherent plan or thesis statement. I struggled to come up with an “elevator pitch” summary of what I wanted to convey, about what actions might connect these concepts to positive outcomes for society. Without finding a way to tie that deep motivation and hope back into my thesis research, I eventually left the grad program.

Several years later, after going through an arc of discovery and dissolution in Peru, I articulated these themes in a more developed way, in the outline of the “Radical Ritual and Pragmatic Mysticism” talk that I prepared for Palenque Norte in 2017. In terms of the question of what to do next, I’m realizing that any answers will require more than one person working in isolation, and that’s the growing collaborative edge I’m working at now.

(As a side note: if I were making a similar poster today, I would be unlikely to include the image of chakras that I did. At the time, I viewed the chakra system as a fairly neutral example of a model that some people hold, and I’ve since developed a certain allergy which makes that a bit more challenging.)

“Why?” Questions

I don’t know anything, but I do know that everything is interesting if you go into it deeply enough.

—Richard Feynman

I’m fascinated by “Why?” questions! When I start following a well-framed question down chains of causality, I often find that the answers end up cycling among some combination of the following points:

  • Fundamental forces and physical constants and math

  • Probability

    (Derived forms include entropy and habit; combine with energy gradients to get evolution.)

  • Uncertainty

    (See also: the uncertainty principle, Planck scale, quantum foam, and Shannon entropy)

  • Computational irreducibility

    (See also: unpredictability and chaos theory)

  • Mutual causality

    The Buddhist idea of paticca samuppāda, or interdependent co-arising. Explored at length in Joanna Macy‘s book Mutual Causality in Buddhism and General Systems Theory. (See also strange loops.)

  • Game rules and social agreements

    This last one is less of a stopping point and more of a placeholder, signifying “If you aren’t willing to follow the rule, you can’t keep playing the game.” If it’s a multiplayer game like “Romantic Relationships!” or “Capitalism!” the limiting factor is often other people’s willingness to continue playing with you. In retributive justice games, rule violations can carry a risk of ostracism, exile, imprisonment, or other inconvenient punishments such as execution. In restorative justice games, social agreement violations may require extensive processing to repair empathetic connections before the player is allowed to rejoin the game.

    If it’s a single-player game like “Life!” or “Consciousness!” the limiting factor is more like, “If you don’t go along with the rules, it might undermine your ability to continue exploring the game space.” These conventions are very situation-dependent, but share a common feature: violations can carry a risk of impeding your access to the energy gradients necessary to maintain the homeostasis that supports the wetware that’s running your consciousness [to the best of our knowledge].

    These game rules are something like Sheldon Cooper’s shorthand for “non-optional social conventions,” but are they really “non-optional”? If we want to avoid getting stuck in a local optimum of awesomeness, important followup questions include: “Can this game rule or social convention be hacked or optimized?” and “What are the potential consequences of hacking it?”

    Some games may not be “worth the candle,” meaning the experience isn’t worth the energy expenditure. (For other games, “the only winning move is not to play.”) Perhaps the best question of all: “Can we find a better game to play?”

(This classification system is somewhat similar to a system proposed by Robert Anton Wilson in The New Inquisition, “in which propositions can be assigned one of 7 values: true, false, indeterminate, meaningless, self-referential, game rule, or strange loop” [source].)

These points can interact in interesting ways. If you ask, “Why are the fundamental forces and physical constants the way they are?”, potential answers could include:

  • Because if the forces and constants were sufficiently different, the universe could not support life and/or computation, and there would be no one around to ask the question. (See also: various flavors of the weak anthropic principle) [Physics + Mutual causality]
  • Because if the forces and constants were sufficiently different, the universe could not support conscious observers, and there would be no one around to collapse the wave function of the universe. (See also: the participatory anthropic principle) [Physics + Uncertainty and/or Mutual causality]
  • Because, if universes in the multiverse reproduce through black holes (or unimaginably advanced intelligent life), then seemingly “fine-tuned” universes will predominate through cosmological natural selection. [Physics + Probability]
  • Because we’re living in a simulation, and it’s been optimized for good computation. (See also: this SMBC comic) [Physics + Computational irreducibility]

More resources about “Why?” questions:

Dissolving the Question

More information and discussions from Less Wrong

SMBC Comics on “Why?” questions

(click thumbnail for full comic)


Dinosaur Comics on “Why?” questions:


Richard Feynman on magnets and “Why?” questions


Why are barns red?

How the price of paint is set in dying stars

A meditation by Yonatan Zunger, via BoingBoing

Radical Ritual and Pragmatic Mysticism

In September 2017, I gave a talk on “Radical Ritual and Pragmatic Mysticism” for the Palenque Norte speaker series at Burning Man. The short description was:

“Our spirituality and rationality need to be big enough to hold each other. Conflict between them can be a hindrance, or a chance for growth.”

Here’s a summary of the talk:

When I moved to Peru last year, I was filled with a sense of purpose. I was going there to hold space for a conversation between analytical and intuitive ways of understanding the world, and to translate between the realms of rigorous academic research and profound shamanic practice. I thought I was being hired to co-lead a field station for ayahuasca studies. Instead, I stepped right into the middle of a conflict between cultures. I was prepared for tensions to arise between me and my coworkers, but I was not expecting that this clash of rationality and mysticism would shake me right to the core of my own belief structures.

Getting fired from the center for being “too full of science” was both personally and professionally wrenching, and it also provided an intense motivation to seek better frameworks for integrating an expansive, flexible rationality with a pragmatic, grounded approach to mystical experiences. We need robust and resilient systems to help us navigate the challenges that face humanity, in ways that steer between the rocky shoals of nihilistic meaninglessness and the treacherous whirlpools of self-delusion.

These places where reason and spirituality come into conflict can provide fertile ground for cultivating new ways of understanding and relating. If we can turn towards the tensions that arise when our existing belief structures are not able to meet our needs, we can find opportunities to help those frameworks grow and expand. I want to make spaces where we can allow our sense of the sacred to encompass the deep and beautiful metaphors that science has discovered, and where we can allow our need for analytical understanding to take in the complexity and uncertainty of the world in all its rich variety.

I don’t yet know where these paths will lead, but I know that we will need reliable, innovative, and flexible tools to support us in these explorations. I believe that the mindful use of psychedelics can play a key role in this process by catalyzing profound mystical experiences, allowing us to see our patterns from novel perspectives, and helping us connect with self-compassion. We also need practical ways to integrate these insights into the systems of thought and action that shape our daily lives; in other words, we need to develop rational rituals for pragmatic mysticism.