I just watched “DMT: The Spirit Molecule”. It’s mostly interviews with some scientists who have done DMT lab research, some of their subjects, and some older folks from the 1960s. And it’s just so sad. So sad. Also hilarious. Reality is consciousness! There’s other levels man, other dimensions! Quantum mechanics! Dark matter! Science doesn’t know everything! It’s a metaphysical comedy club. Or maybe disaster area. It’s a great argument for the need for metaphysical harm reduction.
It’s sad because it’s tragic. It’s really tragic to have this powerful new way of studying human animals and then to watch these well-meaning people turn back to all the dualist gibberish. Why do they do this? Why don’t any of them try to see that this isn’t liberating – it’s a dead end. When you say something’s “spiritual” in this old fashioned dualist way, then, that’s it – you’ve killed it. We can’t study it anymore. And you can’t say anything more about it. It’s an epistemc trap. It’s worse than wrong. It’s like the cold hand of death reaching up into the very possibility of cognition and strangling it.
Sadly, most of these people can’t see that. Once you reach for disembodied minds, supernatural consciousness, or anything like that, well, game over. You’re not going to have anything more to say. You’ll just babble about higher dimensions. You won’t be able to help anybody. You won’t be able to cure any diseases. You won’t even be able to look into alternative metaphysical systems that really might provide some precise and clear understandings of your drug trip. I’m hardly opposed to metaphysics – I’m only opposed to dead end metaphysics. And mind-body dualism is the deadest of all the dead ends. A purely material way of approaching psychedelics is going to shed lots more light on what it means to be human – on treating human suffering, on helping humanity, and just plain getting at the really freaky stuff that drugs do reveal.
It’s sad that there’s no philosophical reflection here. And partly we philosophers are to blame. We keep dressing up the rotting corpse of dualism in fashionable new clothes. We’ve really failed in our mission to love wisdom here. Or perhaps we’ve just failed to communicate relatively new philosophical ideas of the twentieth century. You could do a lot of interesting metaphysics involving hallucinogens and possible worlds. What might be the modal semantics of psychedelic experience? And I’m perfectly happy to use old religious ideas in new and more purely naturalistic ways.
Here’s an argument so insidious I’ll call it the Evil Demon: (1) I’m having a vivld psychedelic experience; (2) if my experience is vivid, then there exists something which my experience represents; (3) therefore, there exists something which my psychedelic experience represents. Is it really so hard for people to see the absurdity of this argument? Especially after they’ve taken a drug which is known to produce visions of things that don’t actually exist? I say actually. Maybe they exist in other possible worlds. But so what? Can anything be done with that? If so, we need to get down to business and start writing about how the brain tracks locations in modal space, how there’s truth in fiction, and then truth in hallucionation.
It’s even more interesting to start with this: the experiences are absolutely irrelevant to the effects of the drugs. The experiences aren’t causes – they’re side-effects of deeply interesting therapeutic processes happening in the brain. The experiences are purely epiphenomenal and they just don’t matter. The fact that they have meaning to you doesn’t imply that they have meaning. They’re like a private language. Living with major depressive disorder has taught me to be very, very skeptical about what goes on in my head. There are perceptual illusions, emotional illusions, and deep cognitive illusions. Is the first-person perspective valuable? No. It’s a trap. Better to take a resolutely third-person perspctive on yourself. Never trust consciousness. We’re blind to our true selves because consciousness poked out our eyes.
Here’s a hypothesis. I’ve seen glimmers of it in the by now dozens of articles I’ve read on hallucinogens. It goes something like this: (1) Lots of things have happened to you, with varying emotional charges. Sometimes very positive, sometimes very negative. (2) Your experiences are recorded in your autobiographical memory. Some of these memories haven’t been properly consolidated, and they cause you a lot of mental pain. Maybe you have PTSD and you have really terrifying flashbacks of your trauma. Maybe you drink or do opiates to try to calm the demons haunting your memory. (3) Taking a serotonergic psychedelic shakes up this memory. It breaks up your unconsolidated memories into fragements. It especially works on activating old memories with negative charges which haven’t been properly consolidated. (4) It makes your default mode network less coherent. So your activated memories aren’t so intensely attached to your self-concept anymore. Your self-concept disappears as the activated memories are deconsolidated and then it reappears as they are reconsolidated, or even consolidated for the first time. This can be very therapeutic – it can help with PTSD and anxiety and depression, and with addiction, which is often caused by those other illnesses. That’s why psychelic trips are like dreams – they’re involved with memory processing. They’re like jet fuel that forces the consoidation process to deal with unintegrated memories. People doing these drugs often report great relief.
Maybe this hypothesis is wrong, even badly wrong. But it’s a hypothesis with some explanatory value that can be used to help alleviate human suffering. As they say in chess, it’s got continuations. It can be used to construct a naturalistic framework for psychedelic trips. This framework can be revised if it’s wrong. If it’s right, then these trips really are cleasing or purgative experiences. You can build a genuine spirituality around this. Taking serotonergic psychedelics is a way of cleaning the mind, not expanding it. All the stuff you see and hear when you hallucinate on them is junk, trash, noise, dirt, being cleaned out. The joy you feel is the happiness of getting rid of the nightmarish memories that you couldn’t consolidate. Metaphorically speaking, this is death and rebirth. If you’re into Christian symbolism, you can call it crucifixion and resurrection. It’s like pressing the reset button or turning the computer off and turning it back on again. But the visions aren’t profound. They’re junk.