The power of psychedelics is gaining increasing interest in several fields of science. Some professional philosophers are attracted to the impact of psychedelics on philosophical thinking, particularly on metaphysics, which is the science of the most fundamental questions of knowledge. In the TED speech below Peter Sjöstedt-H digs up the “psychedelic history” of philosophy and manages to bring up names like Plato, William James, Sartre, and Nietzsche all of whom had some experience with substances that could be considered psychedelic. It is quite difficult to find convincing evidence for the contribution of psychedelics to the works and thinking of these philosophers. Rather, it seems that Sjöstedt-H wants, as it were, to secure the claim of philosophy for psychedelic research although the questions remain unanswered for the time being. The most important message in his speech seems to be just the wish that psychedelics would also be taken seriously in science:
The philosophy toolkit
In the light of current research, the wish is more than well-founded, but it may still be appropriate to ask whether there is enough torque in the toolbox of philosophy to make that wish come true? As such, psychedelics and philosophy are an interesting combination—not because of synergies (there are none), but because they both are united by the pursuit of the same mystery—the fundamental nature of reality. They just do it very differently. Philosophy does it by reasoning and theorising, psychedelics just show reality by changing the human psyche in practice. The observations made by many philosophers about human perception are certainly justified, no doubt about that, but as philosophy is built on rather naive belief in man’s unique position in nature (which is referring to man’s ability to reach reality better than other beings), the starting point to evaluate psychedelics and their effects is almost non-existent.
Philosophy will not allow psychedelics to be placed on an equal footing with itself.
There are some clear reasons for its reactions. First and foremost, psychedelics threaten to make metaphysics an unnecessary discipline by threatening to nullify scientific realism. Actually psychedelics nullify all metaphysics by offering much more than metaphysics can handle. Reason so highly valued by philosophy has no special status in the realm of psychedelics, in fact it has no status whatsoever. Maybe that is why it assigns a higher position for itself. Psychedelics will be just a subject of study, not a parallel way of understanding consciousness. Philosophy has used to keeping questions so fundamental that it no longer notices plain answers, even if they were brought under its nose. Even at this stage it does not realise how useless it could be in describing reality. A academic philosopher studying psychedelics is like an armoured sprinter, he doesn’t understand what he’s after and therefore uses inappropriate tools. The stubbornness of that kind of thinking is in danger of turning out to be a ridiculous. This happened in philosophy a long time ago, as one author once put it:
“We have arrived at a stage of development in which concepts begin to deviate from their original meanings and gain the most obvious self-purpose, a state in which science becomes a sleepless, gray, and leaden reflection of its own laws and in which the sole aim of philosophy is to define the sole aim of philosophy”. —Tatu Vaaskivi (a Finnish writer)
Psychedelics vs. philosophy
Metaphysics is a branch of philosophy which, by definition, deals with the fundamental nature of reality. Philosophical views about the fundamental nature of reality are mostly based on so called scientific realism, which argues that the reality described by the theories of science is true reality, that is, reality as it is. Psychedelics reveal reality in a way they are difficult if not impossible to fit into the reality of scientific realism. They don’t provide actual answers, they only give clues that should be able to be put in the proper frame of interpretation. Philosophy, however, refuses to accept realities in which rationality has no place or worth. Because of this, philosophy inevitably drifts into irreconcilable contradictions. In order to break the deadlock, we should find out how to explain why scientific realism is not the only frame of reference for explaining psychedelics.
Psychedelics are still an exotic phenomenon that threatens to go unexplained if explained in the context of scientific realism. The question still remains but the focus is beyond academic philosophy and scientific realism: why do psychedelics work the way they do, do they have any function, what do they say about consciousness and the human mind in general…? The revelations psychedelics produce are an uncharted area of humanity’s impenetrable, dark jungle—human mind. That vast darkness cannot be penetrated just by a scientific flashlight, which spreads only the light of rationalism. It seems that philosophy is only trying to discover new kinds of intellectual potentials. I think we should look for something much more specific: the key to the functions and activities of the human psyche, that is, the separate states of subconscious and consciousness. Incidentally, this is something that cannot be found out through psychedelics solely. The reason is that because psychedelics cause an artificial, or “unconnected” altered state of consciousness, the ultimate function of the state they produce cannot be unequivocally inferred from it (the experience itself).
But there is another way to do that…!
Mystical experience gives us a clue
Psychedelic experiences have a special and rare “twin sister”, if you could say so, which so far only a few people know it at all. That twin sister is the naturally occurring altered states of consciousness, meaning that the body’s own mechanisms occasionally trigger a state that leads to a radical change in the psyche. This is also called a mystical experience, mainly because it occurs for no apparent reason and completely without warning. As such, a mystical experience is similar to a psychedelic experience, it only arises without any psychedelic substances, it only happens to some people, and usually appears only once in a lifetime and usually in late adolescence. Why this is happening this way in the first place is not yet known to science.
However, there is a clue what it might be due to.
So where does this phenomenon come from? It is not a higher consciousness, not a deeper reality, not our superhuman nature, but, on the contrary, a return to the archaic mind of homo species. It is a profound psychic change in which, at the end of his/her physical and mental development, the human individual finally grows into a rare state of archaic adulthood. The change refers to the original mental state of homo species’ adults, which we have unfortunately lost due to evolution and a faulty growth mechanism. That particular defective growth mechanism of the psyche can only come to light through a naturally occurring altered state of consciousness. It should definitively end a period of human growth, a period that was only intended as a preliminary stage in life the purpose of which was to protect us during the early years. The end of this period means the death of ego and individuality and also the death of free and active volition and cognition, as many already know from their psychedelic experiences. It should make room for instinctively controlled actions and let us abandon our cradle and expand our home circle to cover the whole nature. Without the loss of individuality and ego, we are unable to experience anything genuinely and deeply, we are mentally lost and cannot understand the meaning of life. No matter how delightful the experience, it will remain short-lived and will pass away. However, if the mechanism worked properly, this should remain actively affecting the psyche. We are talking about the integration of psychedelic experiences only because the mechanism does not work. It is specifically the passing that tells us that the altered states of consciousness are malfunctioning and that the original function of change is to transform the individual permanently—from teen to adult!
The occasionally occurring mystical experiences, that also contributed to the birth of religiosity, are a partially functional remnant of this mechanism that our ancestors lost when they fought for their survival about 120,000 years ago. It is rather comforting to man that mechanism can be activated, even if only for a moment, by artificial chemical compounds. As you can see, in this way, psychedelics can be linked to the emergence of human species.
It is likely that, as interesting as philosophy may be, its thorough practice will only take us further away from the right answers and understanding of reality. Philosophy should step out of its cave of shadows. Because analytic philosophy is not in the business of giving answers but only questions, every philosopher who provides the right answers nullifies himself as a philosopher.
It would be a good time for philosophy to think about how well its tools really work and replace them if they don’t.