Psychedelic corruption, politics and other random thoughts

Source: Wikimedia Commons.
As we leave yet another intense week behind, there is a confluence of concerning thoughts in my mind regarding recent developments. The common theme seems to be increasing corruption, for financial or political gain, of areas of human activity that should, at least in principle, be above all that. It's a long story, so bear with me.

For years now I have been a member of a closed Facebook group called 'Reality Sandwich Writers Circle,' a discussion forum for those who write for the Reality Sandwich website, a psychedelic community e-zine. A few days ago someone posted there claiming that the website had been taken over. Upon visiting it, I realized it was indeed completely different, looking silly and atrocious now, rather like a mixture of McDonald's with SpongeBob. I understood that the previous management, to whom I was committed, was gone, which prompted me to leave the group. Today, I saw a concerning post on Facebook making serious claims about what happened. (Update: a more complete account was later provided here, by one of the people directly involved in the events.)

I don't know what the facts behind this conflict are. But financial motivations at least seem to be behind it. If so, this is rather new, as for decades now the psychedelic community hasn't been a promising corner of society for those looking for profits. These are people generally motivated by the pursuit of inner development and healthy relationships with others and the planet, not material goods. They are probably some of the lowest-spenders on the planet.

Be that as it may, it lines up with other recent developments. In a video I posted on Facebook a couple of weeks ago (see below), Jamie Wheal suggests the possibility of pharmaceutical businesses co-opting the psychedelic renaissance. They would do it precisely by removing the psychedelic effects from the substances and patenting the resulting drug. The idea is this: research done e.g., at Imperial College London and Johns Hopkins University, indicates that psychedelics may have therapeutic effects helpful in tackling depression and anxiety. If pharmaceutical companies can create a drug that keeps the desired effects whilst removing the trip itself, it will be marketed as a high-margin problem-solving drug, instead of a path towards self-discovery. This may not be possible, as the therapeutic effects may originate in the trip itself; but unless and until this is proven, it is conceivable that the results of psychedelic research will be monetized in ways previously unimagined. Commercial creativity seems limitless.

In the same day I posted the video above, someone sent me a link to a for-profit start-up company in the UK, backed by big Venture Capital investors. This start-up synthesizes psilocybin—the active component of psychedelic mushrooms and truffels, which grow spontaneously in backyards and can be cultivated at home by anyone—in the laboratory. I understand that lab synthesis produces the purified substance, which may have advantages, but it still sounds to me like trying to sell bottled tap water... Oh wait, Coca-Cola did exactly that, so perhaps it's not as absurd as I think... Maybe I am just too old-fashioned.

Anyway, I did notice that the two key researchers of Imperial College's newly founded 'Center for Psychedelic Research,' Prof. David Nutt and Robin Carhart-Harris, are in this company's advisory board. I am not sure this means anything, but it's factually true. Also factually true, as I have recently learned, is that psychiatrists are charging north of $800 for supervised psychedelic therapy; per session. Next to my earlier writings arguing that psychedelic research and its reporting are appallingly biased (see this, this, this, and this), all this adds to my already significant concerns.

But who am I to know, right? The only thing I do know is my personal experiences: I have cultivated psychedelic-containing organisms at home, legally, safely and very easily. The experiences they provided me with years ago have been of tremendous learning value and considerably helped my personal development. I paid very little to achieve all that, basically acquiring spores (also legally) and some basic tools. I had no professional supervision for my experiences and neither did I require any (although I do recognize that others may indeed need it, depending on their psychological health). I simply had a sober person (my partner) in the house during my experience, just in case something went wrong; which fortunately never happened. Beyond that, the only professional help I ever got was from my doctor, to ensure that everything was okay with my heart and liver before I first took the substance. If I were offered free psychiatric supervision for a trip today, I would politely decline (as, in fact, I have), for I consider the experience the most personal activity one could possibly engage in. These are my humble personal views, for what they are worth. I fail to see any need for any big-money commercial infrastructure around psychedelic usage.

The thing is, psychedelics are well on their way to legalization. Everyone can see the writing on the wall. And this is very, very good. Prohibiting naturally-occurring substances less toxic than most over-the-counter medications, and with demonstrably beneficial psychological effects, is just preposterous. But legalization is also a business opportunity that many will spot. Given the norms and values of our society today, it would be naive not to expect the sharks to jump into the pool to 'monetize'—a handy business word I often use in my day job—these new developments. One could argue that researching psychedelics requires a lot of money, so there must be returns, otherwise why would investors, well, invest? Alright... perhaps nothing—not even the most sacred—can be spared an 'economic rationale' with 'return on investment.' A community and life-style that were once the antithesis of commercial gain, may, after all, be commercialized, just like medicine, education, basic utilities, food... and bottled tap water.

Which brings me to something totally different... Or is it really? You see, I was looking the other day at the Twitter pages of the likes of Sam Harris, Jordan Peterson and others. I did it because there are clear overlaps between what I talk about and what they talk about. But they have hundreds of thousands, even millions of followers, whereas I have a few thousand. I have always known that and taken it for granted, but the other day I suddenly wondered why such disparity after a whole decade (I published my first book almost 10 years ago). It doesn't really bother me, as my 'daemon' is all about publishing, not gathering followers, but my curiosity was piqued. What is the difference between how I bring my message out and how they bring theirs? As far as rigor, academic grounding and 'respectability' are concerned, I dare suggest that my record betters theirs. So that's not it.

And then I got it: they all put politics in the mix. These guys take overt, polemical political positions. Sam Harris is supposed to be a neuroscientist and talk about consciousness, but politics and religion are all over his online presence. This, I presume, is what commands large audiences. A rather lackluster and substance-thin exchange between Jordan Peterson and Slavoj Žižek the other day was billed "the debate of the century." Really? Why? Perhaps because both have clearly defined, easily labelable (yes, it's a word) political orientations? (Note: I sincerely respect both Peterson and Žižek, something I can't say of many others.)

But I talk about metaphysics, a subject—I strongly believe—well above politics. I do have political positions, but they are too nuanced to get any popularly-recognizable label. I am probably as much conservative as I am liberal; as rightwing as I am leftwing. Or, better yet, I am neither conservative nor liberal; neither rightwing nor leftwing. Instead, I believe I am simply thoughtful. I reject these labels because they make the story too easy, too flattened, too artificial. Society has too great a variety of problems and potential solutions for us to divide the pot in two. Our problems and issues aren't that simple; they aren't reducible to slogans.

Moreover, it seems that every minor political militant knows a lot more about what is going on in the world than I do. I am convinced I have way too little access to the unbiased truths of the matter to dare identify myself with any camp. Perhaps this is my weakness. For me to talk about politics as I talk about metaphysics would require, I think, a depth of understanding I just don't have. I feel I should leave that to pundits, political scientists and other experts. I could cause stir by stating that, say, we are all going straight to hell on the back of the horses of democracy and capitalism, but who the hell am I to know this? (Before you rush to conclude that I've just revealed my covert political views, think again.)

Finally, I would hate for people to reject what I have to say just because my political views may be different from theirs. I want to keep the focus on what matters to me most, and that is metaphysics, the ground of reality underlying all the madness of economic gain and political activism. Yet it seems one can't stay above the fray of politics and business and be popular at the same time.

Everything that attains popularity seems to be eventually politicized or economically corrupted; even the most sacred. It's a funny world...

Evolution is true, but are mutations really random?

Source: Wikimedia Commons.
The evidence is overwhelming that evolution by natural selection is true: organisms change from generation to generation by the accrual of genetic mutations. These mutations are selected for, or against, according to the ability of the resulting organisms to survive and reproduce in their respective ecosystems. A video released by Harvard Medical School a few years ago vividly—if didactically—illustrates the process:

However, an extra idea is often conflated with the foregoing: whereas natural selection is demonstrably not a random process, the mutations underlying the process are consistently assumed to be. The problem is that evidence for natural selection is not evidence for random mutations: nature will select for survival fitness whether the mutations themselves follow a trend or not.

To demonstrate that the genetic mutations underlying evolution are random, one would need a fairly complete record of (a) the mutations themselves, as they occurred throughout the history of life on Earth, including those discarded by natural selection; and (b) the corresponding phenotypic characteristics. Only then could one run a randomness test to verify that no phenotypic trends are present before natural selection plays its role. Of course, the fossil record is far too sparse to allow for such a test.

So the assumption that genetic mutations are random has, strictly speaking, no empirical basis. Its motivation is merely subjective: many cannot fathom any plausible mechanism that could impart a pattern on the mutations themselves. Compelling as this may sound, lack of imagination and a subjective sense of plausibility aren’t valid reasons to pronounce scientific facts.

The spirit of scientific investigation is precisely to look for yet-undiscovered natural patterns, thereby implicitly assuming—if anything—that they, in fact, exist. To affirm, on account of subjective dispositions, that genetic mutations are pattern-less is arguably antithetical to the very spirit of science.

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Moreover, scientific results and speculations have violated our sense of plausibility so often that, by now, we should have learned to be cautious about it. For instance, when compared to the hypothesis—seriously pushed by many physicists to explain the bizarre fine-tuning of universal constants—of countless parallel universes, for which there is no shred of empirical evidence, the possibility of an inherent natural bias underlying genetic mutations doesn’t seem so absurd to this commentator.

In an attempt to be more objective, one could argue that genetic mutations are quantum-level events, which have been demonstrated to be inherently random. But since the hypothetical trends in question are phenotypic—that is, biases towards certain body structures, functions or capabilities—they necessarily entail many quantum events. At such a compound level, global patterns across events can be consistent with individual events meeting randomness criteria. Let me illustrate this with a simple analogy.

Imagine that you toss three dice on a table, multiple times. After each toss, you inspect each die separately and verify that they randomly display a number from one to six. But when you look at all three dice together, you realize that either they all display an even number or they all display an odd number. The resulting global pattern not only clearly violates randomness, but is also constituted by individual events that, when inspected in isolation, meet randomness criteria. Therefore, that individual quantum events are random doesn’t preclude the possibility of non-random global mutation patterns.

Indeed, the possibility of there being global patterns of behavior in nature that transcend locality restrictions is opened up by quantum mechanics itself. In the words of physicist Erich Joos, “Because of the non-local properties of quantum states, a consistent description of some phenomenon in quantum terms must finally include the entire universe.

Moreover, although physicists can test individual quantum events in the laboratory and verify that they are random, it is impossible to discern a global pattern within the complexity of the physical world at large; there are just too many ‘dice’ to keep track of under controlled conditions. So for all we know and even can know, genetic mutations may follow yet-unrecognized phenotypic trends operating non-locally across mutation events.

As a matter of fact, there are empirical suggestions of fundamental natural regularities—‘laws of nature’—irreducible to microscopic events. If so, such a precedent should compel one to avoid outright discarding, on the basis of mere intuition, the possibility of unknown macroscopic laws biasing the genetic mutations that drive evolution.

Finally, one could argue that we don’t need anything other than random mutations to explain the variety of life, so that postulating a pattern prior to natural selection would violate Occam’s proverbial razor. But we don’t really know that randomness is enough, do we? The only way to verify it would be to run a quantum-level simulation of the evolution of life to see if, with trendless genetic mutations as input, we could reproduce the biological variety empirically observed. Such simulation is, of course, impossible. Only toy models are feasible, but these aren’t representative of the complex reality we are trying to understand. If anything, the amazing richness of life seems to suggest precisely a natural bias in that direction.

Notice that I am not claiming that such bias exists; I don’t know it either way, this being precisely my point. I am simply pointing out that the hypothesis cannot be discarded. Moreover, I am not hypothesizing any deliberate intervention in natural affairs by some supernatural agency. I am simply raising the possibility of yet-unrecognized but natural regularities, which impart trends on genetic mutations. Nothing we know today precludes this possibility.

I also acknowledge that, to many, the hypothesis of an irreducible phenotypic bias feels so implausible as to be ignorable. There is nothing wrong with holding such an opinion. But passing opinion for established truth is a problem, for if we make an exception to the scientific practice of separating subjective views from objective facts, we open Pandora’s proverbial box.

The very notion of ‘randomness’ is already loaded and ambiguous to begin with: although it is defined as the absence of discernible patterns, theoretically any pattern can be produced by a truly random process; the associated probability may be vanishingly small, but it isn’t zero. So the claim that a natural process is random not only amounts to little more than an acknowledgement of causal ignorance, it can also be construed so as to be unfalsifiable.

On top of such inherent problems, today the idea of random mutations has become so intertwined with that of evolution by natural selection that, remarkably, the overwhelming empirical evidence for the latter is implicitly misconstrued to be evidence for the former. This is a serious inaccuracy, for there is arguably no other natural process as relevant to us as the nature of life.

If anything deserves the full rigor of interpretation required by the scientific method, it is the evolutionary mechanisms that produced us humans. Humbly acknowledging what we do not know about them is imperative, lest we arbitrarily eliminate interesting avenues of investigation.