Psychedelics and the Nature of Reality

The philosopher’s stoned.

There are experiences, and then there are experiences. Psychedelics induce the latter — with almost perfect reliability. By tickling the brain’s serotonergic system, these compounds open up vistas of mind, dimensions of experience, landscapes of Reality, entirely unfathomable to the uninitiated. They’re even good for you. But what, if anything, do they tell us about the ‘ultimate nature of Reality’? How, if at all, do they affect our implicit/explicit philosophical theory of everything? Are they really, as it’s been supposed, windows onto a different — and even much more fundamental — Reality? And do they truly reveal — as anyone who’s taken enough DMT will swear — the existence of aliens? Or, are they instead just a bit of fun, solicitors of psychological pyrotechnics that, while certainly capable of inducing some amount of ontological shock, leave—upon rational inspection— our prevailing worldview intact? These, if nothing else, are the kinds of questions that psychedelics conjure. They are for this reason alone — or so they should be — of eminent interest to any philosopher worth the name.

While anyone who’s tasted the rainbow for themselves might expect the subject of psychedelics to be central to the philosophical conversation, one eventually learns they’re not. In fact not only do psychedelics receive very little — “serious” — philosophical attention, they’re highly taboo. Although the intellectual landscape is certainly changing, with the recent resurgence of scientific interest in psychedelics, the subject — as a whole — remains radioactive — almost especially (ironically enough) within the field of philosophy. While more PhD’s are being minted than ever, there remains curiously little interest in the philosophical implications — if there be any — of the psychedelic experience. Now why, we ought to ask, might that be?

First, and surely above all, there is the inconvenient matter of the law. That is, the fact that psychedelics are illegal mostly everywhere. As even one outside the ivory tower could readily appreciate, participating in illicit activities is not, as a rule, a ticket to tenure. And so the lack of academic interest in psychedelics makes perfect sense against this background fact. But why, we must then ask, were psychedelics made illegal in the first place? Why, if they’re even half as medically valuable as the recent literature suggests — and if they’re as intellectually interesting as experience attests — would they ever be legislatively divorced from the human experience?

The history here is complex — as with every piece of it, an infinitely bizarre and wonderful and disheartening confluence of all kinds of human stuff. It really is, for those interested, the ultimate tale of sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll. And politics — plenty of politics. Although the history of prohibition is beyond the scope of this — whatever this is — there is one pertinent dimension to it worth illuminating.

Among the variety of factors that led to the prohibition of psychedelics, there was an element of concern that psychedelics would somehow erode the social order. For those who took the so-called “acid test” developed, it seemed, an entirely different set of priorities and behaviours — indeed something of a different worldview. Should, prior to the psychedelic experience, one have happened to be a corporate professional, it was not entirely uncommon following, say, 200mg of LSD, for one to abandon their suit and tie uniform and don bare feet and beads and join a commune instead. To a corporate America that depended on suits and ties over barefooted hippy communes, this naturally presented somewhat of a threat — a threat, indeed, to the “establishment”. Thus, among other considerations, psychedelics were outlawed. Or so — part of — the history goes.

This is of course the trope of the psychedelic sixties, the infamous counter-culture movement that defined — or didn’t — a generation. And while it represents an absolutely cartoonish picture of the psychedelic experience and its effects, it nevertheless contains a kernel of truth: psychedelics change people. Of course, there’s a trivial sense in which all experiences change people; all experiences are instantiated in changes to the brain, after all, and all changes to the brain result in changes to the person. In this regard, psychedelics aren’t exactly in a class of their own. However, few experiences change people quite so profoundly — or quite so reliably — as the psychedelic variety tends to. Again, there are experiences, and then there are experiences.

What is it, then, about the psychedelic experience that makes it such an experience — so potent in its capacity to induce change? There is, naturally, a fast-developing neuroscience here; that is, a scientific investigation into the myriad ways in which the psychedelic experience manifests at the level of brain activity. However, this is not, I suggest, the relevant level of inquiry. And even if it is, it’s not the subject of my focus here. Instead, I’m interested in the psychedelic experience, and the ways in which the experience itself — that is, the phenomenology — affects changes at the phenomenological/psychological level — the level of thoughts, ideas, values and beliefs. The “contents of our consciousness”.

One of the many fascinating things about the psychedelic experience is that it doesn’t simply change people, it changes people in reliably predictable ways. It softens, heals, opens, nurtures. It renders one, among other things, more compassionate, more aware, more — as it were — whole. Underlying all of these changes are changes at the level of one’s belief system — changes, that is, at the conceptual/philosophical level.

Interestingly, to those who are “experienced”, as Hendrix put it, panpsychism — the notion that “everything is conscious,” from gluons to galaxies — seems infinitely more believable. Additionally, one is much more inclined to believe in such notions as spirits or immaterial phenomena, following the ingestion of enough psychedelic material. The utter bizarreness of the experience opens one’s mind, it seems, to the possibility of a Reality that doesn’t succumb to the physicalist paradigm. That there could be such stuff as non-physical stuff appears, in the light of such things as “self-transforming machine elves” and neon-lit geometric landscapes, if not entirely plausible, fairly close to.

The hard-nosed materialist would here push back, asserting that the psychedelic experience is nothing more than a hallucination, a woke dream. Sure, our brains are readily capable of playing highly compelling tricks on us —but that’s no reason, in itself, to challenge the dominant metaphysical paradigm. Now maybe, maybe not. But even if the psychedelic experience doesn’t — or rather shouldn’t — necessarily alter our metaphysical conception of things, it does — or at least should — alter how we think about how we reason our way into such conceptions. That is, how philosophy actually works.

See, western philosophy views itself, as an enterprise, as doing something akin to mathematics; that is, following — with mathematical precision — the logic of logic to transform thoughts into words on a page and words on a page into meaningful insight into Nature and her mechanics. It is, of course, a wholly objective, detached enterprise — of the utmost rigorous, logical analysis! There is only the world, which the philosopher studies from the outside, applying his/her mind to it like a scalpel dissects a cadaver. According to this conception of philosophy, the particular experiences of any given philosopher are entirely irrelevant — beyond equipping them with the requisite logical tools. It shouldn’t matter one bit, for instance, whether or not a philosopher had, say, experienced the world as a kaleidoscopic vision replete with alien entities. For in both cases, there remains the same world and the same tools by which to study it.

But is there really the same world in both cases? In one case, there is a world of kaleidoscopic visions replete with alien entities, however ephemeral, where in the other such stuff is absent. Although it may be the case that there is ultimately only one, singular world or Reality which all philosophers study equally — that obeys all the same rules — in the phenomenological sense, however, there are effectively two distinct worlds here, two “worlds of experience”. Where one philosopher must explicate kaleidoscopic visions and alien entities, in all its vividness, the other suffers no such burden. Ultimately, in practice, even the latter philosopher will attempt — out of good faith, on the other’s word— to reconcile such an experience with their own metaphysic/ontology. However, no matter how far one stretches their imagination, without said experience, one is incapable of investigating the relevant phenomena sufficiently. Just as we couldn't possibly hope to ascertain the actual cause of a person’s death based on an imaginative dissection of a purely fictitious cadaver, we can’t expect those to understand — let alone reconcile — that which they haven’t experienced. However distasteful one finds it, experience is, in the end, all we’re studying as scientists and philosophers. There may well be a purely physical ground to, and separate from, experience — that is, there may well be an objective, universal Reality, as per our current sense of things. All we have direct access to, however, is our experience.

The tragedy that is the philosophical neglect of the psychedelic experience — and transcendent/mystical experience more broadly — is thus the tragedy of excluding, from our world picture, an irrefutable aspect of it. We have, by divorcing ourselves from the psychedelic realm, shrunk the world of experience, reduced the object of our inquiry. It is, I suggest, not at all a coincidence that materialism, as the predominant metaphysical paradigm, emerged at precisely the time in human history wherein we’d lost contact with the dimensions of existence most likely to induce non-materialist beliefs. Indeed materialism is not, as it’s generally assumed, the reflection of millennia of philosophical progress — nor is it the obvious implication of the scientific revolution. On the contrary, it is, for all its parsimony, above all a reflection of the body of experience from which the modern mind draws its world picture. A world wherein the psychedelic adventure is part and parcel of the human experience is, I dare to predict, a world with a very different sense of Reality — a world that takes far more things far more seriously, philosophically speaking.

Beyond the loftiest — potential — metaphysical implications of the psychedelic experience, there are possible epistemological and even scientific ones, too. Even if physicalism holds, in the face of psychedelic/spiritual experience, there are other aspects to the experience that must be reconciled with our best scientific and philosophical theories. Take, for instance, the epistemological piece. It is an entirely common experience for one to take psychedelics and feel as though one has learnt something — that one has, in fact, gained some kind of meaningful insight into the world and its essence. For example, one might come away with an almost unshakeable belief that “everything is connected” or that the universe is “made of love”. And yet, such insight has not been had — if insight has indeed been had — by the usual accepted means by which we come into knowledge. No experiments have been run, no hypotheses conjectured, nothing like rational analysis, and certainly no math. Instead, the felt experience is that one has “downloaded” such knowledge, that they have procured it via direct communion with something of a superintelligence — the ‘G’ word, even.

Here, the psychedelic experience appears to lend credence to the idea that introspection is — contrary to the Western, analytical perspective — a valid epistemic tool, that looking within be a legitimate means of understanding without. It also seems to support something of a Platonic epistemology, that is, the notion that we’re pulling ideas/knowledge from some other — perhaps transcendent — realm. Creativity, according to the Platonic conception, is more a process of discovery — of “tuning in” — than it is development or invention. We channel, it seems, rather than create.

More sophisticated philosophical concerns aside, the psychedelic experience also calls our attention to all kinds of simply strange phenomena that challenge our conception of the way things work and thus demand explication. There is, for instance, widely reported claims of telepathy or “group mind” under the influence of such compounds as psilocybin and DMT. Indeed not only are such experiences widely reported amongst so-called “psychonauts,” it’s practically commonplace — an accepted fact of mind. Now either such experiences are simply hallucinatory, or they are in fact real experiences, in which case our understanding of the mind is necessarily and vastly incomplete. While it’s certainly much easier to adopt the former position, given the volume of anecdotes, however, the latter view simply can’t be dismissed.

Then there is the experience of past lives and past times. Incredulous as it is, the experience of reliving an apparent past experience from an apparent past incarnation is an incredibly common one under high-doses of certain compounds. It is, to the subjects of such experiences, irrefutable proof of reincarnation. Now even if such experiences aren’t in fact memories from previous incarnations, it’s possible that these experiences are nonetheless actual memories from other past minds/lives — in which case it would lend a new level of support to the Jungian conception of the unconscious, not to mention imply an as yet undiscovered biological mechanism for the storage and intergenerational transmission of memory.

There’s also the innumerable anecdotes of profound physical healing affected through psychedelic medicine. Many of these apparent healings fall within our scientific conception of psychosomatic therapy but many more than stretch the bounds, too. According to the variety of indigenous South American medicine traditions, for instance, practically any physical ail can be healed via plant-mediated therapy. If even half of the accounts hold up, it would radically undermine our current scientific conception of the human organism and its fundamental mechanics. This promises, at the least, to be a highly valuable line of scientific inquiry.

Finally, there’s the issue of the entities — y’know, the aliens. As in people see them, talk to them. Now are these entities existent in the same way as we? Are they on the same ontological footing, so to speak? Or, are they instead — as one might hope — merely figments of our imagination, pieces of ourselves? In any case, the fact that these are open — and I suggest legitimate — questions is a remarkable fact of our existence, and a potent reminder of the utter incredulity of our shared situation.

“In all times and all places, with the possible exception of Western Europe for the past two hundred years, a social commerce between human beings and various types of discarnate entities, or nonhuman intelligences, was taken for granted.”

Terence McKenna

The future of psychedelic studies

The fact that psychedelics are back on the scientific menu is great. Their study and renormalisation — and eventual legalisation — will undoubtedly result in enormous positive public health impact. We are, after all, amidst a public health crisis — in every sense of the term — and these compounds are, definitively, medicinal technologies of the highest order. As good and well as all that is, though, psychedelics have much more to offer us than merely more effective therapy. Indeed, as I’ve suggested, they have fundamental wisdom to impart re the ultimate nature of Reality — they provide keys to the doors of perception, rooms of Reality that remain, in our modern context, tragically under explored. Before we can safely unlock these doors, however, we must first work to remove the prejudice that currently so characterises the psychedelic experience, to expunge the stigma that presently impedes intelligent, rational, psychedelic discourse.

For although the future is inherently uncertain, the future of philosophy is almost certainly psychedelic.