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Tripping For Knowledge: The Psychedelic Epistemologist

Interview by Lindsay Jordan.

One of the main ways we gain knowledge is by engaging with the world, talking to other people, and so on. So if a delusion like anosognosia saves someone from debilitating despair, then it is highly likely to afford them epistemic benefits by allowing them to keep engaging with the world in epistemically beneficial ways.

Lots of people have claimed this, but often the kinds of epistemic benefits in question relate to supernatural ideas: extrasensory perception, or directly apprehending the metaphysical nature of reality. I subscribe to physicalism or materialism—nuances aside, the idea that mind and consciousness emerge from the complex organisation of non-minded, non-conscious things—and so reject these kinds of claims.’

I do think that neuroscience, including brain scans, molecular pharmacology, etc. is absolutely relevant to studying the mind. The main reason why I think this is that it’s obviously true! Whether one is a physicalist, idealist, panpsychist, or whatever, it’s abundantly clear that the structure and function of the brain are crucial in determining the types of (conscious and unconscious) mental states we have, and when we have them. There are just so many incredibly robust and specific correlations between brain-changes and mind-changes.

Basically I think molecular neuroscience is linked to psychology by a nested hierarchy of multi-level mechanisms, with computational processes somewhere in the middle, implemented by neural circuits or assemblies whose combined interactions give rise to recognisably psychological phenomena such as episodic memory and visual perception. Folk psychology might suffer a bit from all of this, but I’m OK with that.’

Following their interview with psychedelic philosopher Peter Sjöstedt-H, Richard Marshall introduces a new series of interviews by Lindsay Jordan that explore the rapidly growing field of psychedelic studies.

Chris Letheby is a philosopher working on issues related to the therapeutic and transformative potential of classic psychedelic drugs. His doctoral research, conducted at the University of Adelaide, presented the first systematic analysis of psychedelic experience within the framework of 21st century philosophy of cognitive science. In his thesis Letheby argues that an ‘entheogenic conception’ of psychedelics as agents of epistemic and spiritual benefit is both consistent with philosophical naturalism and plausible in light of current scientific knowledge. Having been awarded his PhD in early 2017, he is currently teaching philosophy at the University of Adelaide and logic at Eynesbury College, while continuing to conduct research on philosophical issues relating to psychedelics.

Chris’s recent work addresses the question of whether the joyous cosmology of psychedelic consciousness is simply foisting a comforting delusion on the sick and the dying. His central argument is that, while psychedelic therapy has epistemic flaws, it also has epistemic benefits. In experiencing phenomena that may not be ‘real’, one gains ‘real’ knowledge into one’s mind and its possibilities. Psychedelic subjects gain experiential knowledge of their own psychological potential, and of the constructed nature of their sense of self. In this interview he explains why psychedelic experiences are not delusions, neuroscience is essential to philosophy of mind, and philosophers should have more access to psychedelic experience, while questioning the notion of a ‘psychedelic worldview’.

3:AM: What made you become a philosopher?

Chris Letheby: Existential questions. I was raised Christian, and rejected that in my early teens, but then in my late teens I spent a year or so as a hardcore fundamentalist Tibetan Buddhist. I swallowed whole a vast and complex metaphysical and cosmological system, and then got indigestion. After realising that I was far from sure I believed the Buddhist worldview (including psychophysical dualism, reincarnation, heaven and hell realms, etc.) I still wasn’t sure exactly what I believed, and as a consequence I had no idea what to do with my life or how to live. If you really believe some literal version of Buddhism, or Christianity, or whatever, then it gives you a very clear roadmap for life—purpose, ethical decisions, and so on. So I was existentially adrift but had this conception that philosophy was the place where people tried to answer these questions systematically. At first I was deterred by worries about the lack of job prospects, but eventually decided I didn’t care and it was important enough that I had to do it anyway. So I studied a BA majoring in philosophy, and within a couple of years came to some conclusions that I didn’t really like: atheism, moral anti-realism, and so on. But I also found that I enjoyed philosophy; I received encouraging feedback from my teachers; and I discovered that people would pay me to do this (even though back then this just meant the government paying me a student living allowance.) So I decided that as long as someone would pay me to do it, I’d keep doing it—and my endeavour to work out how to live became its own answer! A decade later, the rest is history…

3:AM: Psychedelics may be thought of as epistemically detrimental in that they cause us to see things that are not really there. An alternative perspective is that there actually is another Reality that puts this one in the shade. You argue that the picture is more complex than either of these, describing the psychedelic state as one of ‘epistemic innocence’; a term that has been applied to defensive delusions (like believing your partner is faithful when she isn’t, or maintaining that you’re in good health when you’re not). Let’s unpack this a bit. First, can you set out the conditions of epistemic innocence as you see them (maybe using one of the examples I just gave)?

CL: Lisa Bortolotti introduced the concept of epistemic innocence to encapsulate the idea that certain intuitively suboptimal cognitive processes—like delusions, biases, and so on—can have surprisingly complex epistemic profiles. It’s not a new idea that epistemically bad cognitions can have psychological benefits; ignorance can be bliss. The new and interesting idea is that sometimes these ‘imperfect cognitions’ can also have significant, unique epistemic benefits. Bortolotti’s two conditions for an imperfect (i.e. epistemically harmful) cognition to count as epistemically innocent are: first, it provides a significant epistemic benefit to the agent at the time it’s adopted, and second, less epistemically costly routes to that same benefit are unavailable to the agent at that time.

Take the example of anosognosia—maintaining you’re in good health when you’re not. Some theorists have defended the idea that anosognosia and other delusions serve a defensive function, saving the agent from psychological catastrophe (debilitating misery and depression) by shielding them from the terrible truth. Bortolotti argues that if this is the case, such delusions probably also provide a significant and otherwise unavailable epistemic benefit to the agent. This is simply because epistemic functionality depends on psycho-social functionality. One of the main ways we gain knowledge is by engaging with the world, talking to other people, and so on. So if a delusion like anosognosia saves someone from debilitating despair, then it is highly likely to afford them epistemic benefits by allowing them to keep engaging with the world in epistemically beneficial ways. That’s condition one: epistemic benefit. The second (‘no alternatives’) condition is satisfied because ex hypothesi, less epistemically costly cognitions—i.e. ones that don’t involve denying the terrible truth—will lead to psychological collapse. This just follows from the premise that the anosognosia is playing a defensive function. So other cognitions that don’t have the epistemic costs of the delusion (denying the truth about the illness) also won’t have its benefits, which result precisely from denying the truth in order to remain functional.

3:AM: Could you explain how the altered state of consciousness (ASC) brought about by a psychedelic substance would meet the conditions of epistemic innocence?

CL: The simplest way is directly analogous to the anosognosia case. Recent evidence suggests that one or two psychedelic sessions, under suitable conditions, can cause significant and lasting reductions in symptoms of addiction, depression, and anxiety. All these conditions (perhaps depending somewhat on the type of addiction) typically lead to less engagement with the world and other people. So, for instance, if a supervised LSD therapy session helps an alcoholic dramatically reduce their drinking, they will probably start engaging with the world more, and gain all sorts of knowledge in the process. In terms of the no alternatives condition, if preliminary results are borne out, it seems like psychedelic therapy—especially for patients who fail to respond to standard treatments—may be a uniquely rapid and effective psychiatric treatment. If so, then at least for those patients, there will be no alternative to the psychedelic trip that will lead to those same epistemic benefits (consequent on symptom reduction) at that time.

3:AM: Are there important differences between the epistemic innocence of the psychedelic state, and the epistemic innocence of the deluded state?

CL: I think there are a few. One is that the epistemic benefits brought about by delusions, on Bortolotti’s account, are all indirect: the delusion preserves some aspects of psycho-social function (while of course affecting others negatively), and the epistemic benefits result from that preserved psycho-social functionality. Now, the argument I just gave for the epistemic innocence of some psychedelic states also cites indirect epistemic benefits resulting from psychological benefits. But I think psychedelic experiences can also have direct epistemic benefits.

Of course, lots of people have claimed this, but often the kinds of epistemic benefits in question relate to supernatural ideas: extrasensory perception, or directly apprehending the metaphysical nature of reality. I subscribe to physicalism or materialism—nuances aside, the idea that mind and consciousness emerge from the complex organisation of non-minded, non-conscious things—and so reject these kinds of claims. But nonetheless I think psychedelic states can offer genuine knowledge. Specifically, I think psychedelic subjects gain what philosophers call ‘knowledge by acquaintance’ of their own vast psychological potential. They become directly acquainted—because it becomes manifest—with the modal or dispositional fact that there are vastly many, often very unusual, possible ways that their minds can be. And this knowledge often makes a strong impression; many spiritual seekers in the 60s became dedicated meditation practitioners in order to realise the psychological potential they’d discovered by tripping.

I also think psychedelics can offer knowledge by acquaintance of the constructed nature of the sense of self. I agree with Thomas Metzinger and others that our ordinary, everyday sense of being a substantial ‘I’ distinct from the rest of the world is a mere model created by the brain, and I think psychedelics can put people directly in touch with this fact—the famous ‘ego dissolution’ experience. Evidence suggests this is a powerful, sometimes existentially transformative experience. These kinds of direct epistemic benefits are also typically unavailable by other routes at the time. (There are other routes to these kinds of experiences, like meditation, but they are usually slower and less reliable. As Sam Harris points out, following Terrence McKenna, this is what distinguishes psychedelics from other consciousness alteration techniques—if you take a sufficiently high dose, then for better or worse, something remarkable is going to happen to your consciousness before long!)

Finally, supervised, therapeutic psychedelic experiences are different from delusions in that they are entered into voluntarily, and subjects typically retain insight: they are aware that their experiences are drug-induced, whatever they may or may not infer from this fact. This can make a difference to the overall epistemic and pragmatic profiles of these states.

3:AM: What, as you see it, does the concept of epistemic innocence add to the debate about psychedelic therapy?

CL: It’s a really neat way of encapsulating a specific position that seems to be relatively under-represented in the literature. There are three popular positions about the epistemic status of psychedelic experience, and the consequences thereof. One is that it’s good news because the mystical experience is veridical. Many psychedelic researchers take this view. Another, extremely popular, view is that the epistemic status of the experience doesn’t matter too much, as long as it has good therapeutic and transformative effects. Owen Flanagan has recently defended something like this. Finally, there’s the position that the psychedelic state is epistemically bad and moreover this is a real problem; at least a couple of philosophers have said this, and I’m sure many more think it. But the position that psychedelic experiences are epistemically innocent—they have epistemic flaws, but also significant and otherwise unavailable epistemic benefits—has received relatively little attention. Possibly some people already hold such a view, but the concept of epistemic innocence gives us a helpful and memorable way of summing it up.

3:AM: Many philosophers are skeptical of the value of neuroscience in studying the mind, but you say that’s there we need to start in explaining psychedelic consciousness. Could you explain why?

CL: Well, I think that neuroscience very broadly construed is where we need to start in explaining psychedelic consciousness. To be sure, in one of my papers I advocate a neurophilosophical approach to the question of naturalizing spirituality—start by looking closely at the details of paradigm cases of spiritual phenomena. But by neuroscience here I don’t just mean brain scans. The sort of multi-level, multi-disciplinary research that is going on in psychedelic science at the moment, trying to correlate changes to consciousness measured by psychometric scales and self-report with changes to functional neuroanatomy (e.g. patterns of connectivity at the large-scale network level) brought about by pharmacological interventions, seems to me exactly the right way to start making progress on problems of mind-brain relations. The main point I was trying to make there is that if we want to understand what spirituality is, and whether or how it might be compatible with naturalism, we should start with the phenomena, i.e. start by trying to get a detailed understanding of paradigmatically spiritual experiences, rather than with an armchair analysis of the concept of ‘spirituality’.

But I do think that neuroscience, including brain scans, molecular pharmacology, etc. is absolutely relevant to studying the mind. The main reason why I think this is that it’s obviously true! Whether one is a physicalist, idealist, panpsychist, or whatever, it’s abundantly clear that the structure and function of the brain are crucial in determining the types of (conscious and unconscious) mental states we have, and when we have them. There are just so many incredibly robust and specific correlations between brain-changes and mind-changes. In the face of this, one could maintain, as some have, that neural changes cause but, in some sense, don’t explain psychological changes. And there are many interesting arguments for this kind of view. But the view seems to me sufficiently implausible that it ends up looking like one of these sceptical-type situations where the real philosophical interest lies in diagnosing what goes wrong with the argument! E.g. hardly anyone accepts that the ontological argument for the existence of God is sound (pace a youthful time-slice of Bertrand Russell) but hardly anyone thinks it’s obvious which premise or inference is at fault.

It doesn’t seem to me viable to maintain that Phineas Gage’s rod to the head caused, but didn’t in any real way explain, the subsequent changes to his personality. It’s not a brute fact that knocking out this particular bit of the brain affects these specific aspects of personality and behaviour, in these specific ways. So then we get into issues about the nature of explanation. One classic argument is that scientific explanation involves laws, and there are no laws connecting neural goings-on to mental goings-on, so the former can’t explain the latter. But philosophers of science increasingly agree that scientific explanation doesn’t always involve laws. Often, especially in the life sciences, it involves specifying a mechanism responsible for the phenomenon to be explained. And these mechanisms tend to be multi-level, which immediately offers a way to bridge events at different scales described in the vocabularies of different disciplines. Philosophers like Carl Craver, Lindley Darden, and Bill Bechtel have elucidated this mechanistic type of explanation and done great work showing how it operates, especially in the neurosciences, to bridge gaps between disciplines and create ‘inter-field theories’, which is highly relevant to the extremely multi-level and multidisciplinary enterprise of psychedelic science.

Another famous argument is that applying psychological or ‘personal-level’ vocabulary to neural or ‘sub-personal’ entities involves a ‘mereological fallacy’: illegitimately ascribing properties of a whole to its parts. But again I think the multi-level mechanistic picture of explanation can help here. That, and a lot of foundational work in philosophy of cognitive science analysing the application of cognitive and computational terminology to neural processes—showing that this kind of application can be literal and legitimate, exploring its proper interpretation, and so on. Basically I think molecular neuroscience is linked to psychology by a nested hierarchy of multi-level mechanisms, with computational processes somewhere in the middle, implemented by neural circuits or assemblies whose combined interactions give rise to recognisably psychological phenomena such as episodic memory and visual perception. Folk psychology might suffer a bit from all of this, but I’m OK with that.

In general, one of the things I find most fascinating about psychedelic therapy is that it offers a dramatic case-study in this kind of multi-level explanation, and to my mind makes it extremely plain that explanatory relations of some kind must hold between the various levels. You start with molecular perturbations (5-HT2A receptor agonism etc.) which have effects on the behaviour of local circuits and in turn distributed large-scale networks, and the interactions between these network changes lead to global alterations in patterns of functional connectivity, accompanied by dramatic changes to thought, feeling, and perception. And then all of this in turn leads to durable changes in personality and behaviour, presumably accompanied by durable changes in ‘neuro’ variables such as receptor expression, resting state functional connectivity, and so on. Surely once we can chart the causal relations between all of these events in great detail, this will enable explanatory progress too, in the sense of giving us a fuller understanding of why molecules with these specific receptor affinities cause these characteristic types of changes to experience and personality.

3:AM: How do other philosophers respond to your naturalistic approach?

CL: It varies. Many of the philosophers I hang out with are initially a bit perplexed about why I even bother to announce or defend my naturalism—surely it goes without saying. But I also encounter philosophers who are incredulous that I am a naturalist because it’s such an obviously confused view. All of this tells me that I’m on the right track in stating and defending it!

Seriously, though, once they become aware of the prevalence of non-naturalism, or at least anti-materialism, in psychedelic circles—idealist, panpsychist and related views inspired by the mystical experience—my colleagues tend to understand why I feel the need to state and defend this view explicitly. In particular, the conjunction of materialism and the view that psychedelic states are epistemically beneficial is relatively uncommon both in mainstream philosophy and in psychedelic research. So it needs elucidating and defending. Of course, I also have philosopher friends who are idealists or panpsychists, who respond by arguing with me, and we have lots of fun!

It’s worth noting that some of the problems here are terminological. Words like ‘naturalism’, ‘physicalism’, and ‘materialism’ are notoriously ambiguous. I’ve tended to prefer ‘naturalism’ because it allows me to assimilate my project of ‘naturalising’ psychedelic epistemology/spirituality to the broader philosophical project of naturalising various phenomena (the mind, ethics, etc.) But I’m trying to be very clear these days that the metaphysical content of my view is simply that mind and consciousness emerge from the complex development/organisation of non-minded, non-conscious entities (which sidesteps thorny questions about defining ‘physical’, ‘material’, ‘natural’, and so on.)

3:AM: You suggest that psychedelic experience may be a means of acquiring knowledge about the potential of the mind, and the metaphysical nature of the self. How do your psychedelic-naive philosophy colleagues respond to this – are they curious to try it for themselves? How does that conversation play out?

CL: Well, I’ve been asked some very amusing questions when giving public talks. (It turns out there are only so many ways of saying ‘is your project inspired by personal experience’ and ‘can I sign up to be a test subject’—the latter, when serious, reflecting a misunderstanding of academic philosophical research.) But I’ve spoken to psychedelic-naïve philosophical colleagues who are very curious about the experience, and almost certainly would try it, were they able to do so in a safe, controlled way without threat of legal sanction, and with quality- and purity-controlled substances. Given the exemplary safety record of modern, carefully controlled psychedelic research, I think it’s a real shame that these professional thinkers about the nature of mind and consciousness are unable to access these experiences in a culturally sanctioned way—which, for practical purposes, given their very reasonable scruples, means unable to access it at all.

3:AM: You cite Nozick’s ‘experience machine’ to illustrate our intuitive sense that an experience not grounded in reality is bad; that we simply do not want to be blobs in tanks, however good it might feel. Do you find people feel the same way about taking psychedelic substances? What, from your perspective, is the difference?

CL: Absolutely not, and the difference is one of the main things I’ve been trying to elucidate in my work to date. Someone with little knowledge and extreme scepticism about psychedelics might think it’s a good analogy. But psychedelic users tend almost univocally to insist that they have gained real knowledge or insight of some kind—that their experiences are grounded in reality. A big difference from the experience machine, for my money, is that a lot of the time these users are right. I defend the idea that they do gain real knowledge from their experiences—for starters, knowledge by acquaintance of the potential of the mind and the contingency of the sense of self. I think there are several other naturalistically palatable kinds of knowledge that might be gained, and I’m trying to get a better handle on some of these at the moment. Benny Shanon makes some interesting suggestions in a 2010 paper. Perhaps the most obvious one is specific psychological insight into one’s previously unconscious or otherwise hidden memories, motivations, desires, etc. A lot of psychedelic therapy, especially low-dose stuff, appears to work in a psychodynamic way: by allowing difficult mental contents to be seen, accepted, and integrated. As Thomas Metzinger says, a simple explanation is that the putative insights are veridical. But of course there’s the sceptical possibility that even though people are getting better, the putative insights are not veridical. How to discriminate between these hypotheses experimentally is an interesting question that I’m thinking about.

Another key difference from the experience machine, of course, is the retention of insight. The main worry from a naturalist perspective is that when psychedelic subjects have the kind of overwhelming peak or mystical experience that seems to be important for transformation, it’s just a comforting delusion induced by the drug—a ‘metaphysical hallucination’, as Owen Flanagan says. If materialism is true, and the mystical experience really does represent reality as grounded in universal consciousness, the experience must be a hallucination. But it’s not as though every person who has this experience automatically accepts such a metaphysical view uncritically. Subjects find it extremely compelling, and describe the experience as ‘more real than real’. But if you read Benny Shanon’s book on ayahuasca, for instance, you get a picture of someone with a critical, sceptical mind who has had these kinds of experiences, been seriously impressed and transformed by them, and remains unsure what to think about their metaphysical import. Someone in the experience machine is going to have no such scepticism about their comforting delusion—unless their ideal pre-programmed existence, for some bizarre reason, involves taking philosophy classes!

3:AM: You present the bioethicists’ concern that changing someone’s personality through the use of drugs is ‘dehumanising’. Can you say a bit more about that, and your claim that – while mainstream antidepressants would fit that description, psychedelic transformation doesn’t?

CL: I should clarify: I’m not committed to the view that standard antidepressants are dehumanising in the relevant sense. I just think that our intuitive conception of how drugs like SSRIs work fits the description of what some thinkers regard as a dehumanising treatment modality. What’s the description? Basically, they re-wire you from the bottom up, and you, as a person, don’t really have anything to do with it. The change in personality or mood is alien—it’s inserted ‘from the outside’ of one’s biography, by the drug, rather than being a meaningful and comprehensible change that one goes through and can incorporate into one’s autobiography. This contrasts starkly with prototypical psychotherapies, be it cognitive-behavioural therapy, Freudian analysis, exposure therapy, or whatever, where there is a sense that the transformation results from learning and insight, and the subject, post-transformation, can tell a plausible story about how and why that particular experience or insight transformed them in the way that it did.

Well, a glance at the literature on psychedelic therapy, and in particular the reports of psychedelic subjects, gives you a picture much more like the second than the first. People are talking about being transformed by meaningful learning experiences, and typically they can tell a story about why that particular experience transformed them in that particular way. Of course, they might be confabulating. But I think it’s plausible that psychedelic therapy does in fact involve something more like the intuitive picture of psychotherapy than like the intuitive picture of pharmacotherapy—explicable transformation by a meaningful conscious experience. A philosophical slogan would be that psychedelic therapy is a personal-level process.

3:AM: Bioethicists are particularly troubled about non-therapeutic or ‘cosmetic’ personality change, aren’t they? Where does a personality change stop being therapeutic and start being cosmetic? Where would they draw the line? Where would you draw the line? Is there a line?

CL: Good question. We probably have to draw some such line, if only to work out who pays. What kinds of personality change should public or private healthcare agencies fork out for, and what kinds should the user pay for? I don’t know. I’m not a bioethicist, or any kind of ethicist (I’m a philosopher of mind and cognitive science by training, even though I use some of these bioethical discussions as a starting point for framing interesting questions about psychedelics) so I don’t have a well worked-out view about the policy matters. And I honestly don’t know if there’s a line. In fact, there’s almost certainly not—the distinction is going to be fuzzy, even if there are clear cases and clear non-cases. I’m attracted to the idea that a lot of what is diagnosed as mental disorder is continuous with tendencies and traits found in the broader, ostensibly mentally healthy population, and I don’t think our current DSM-centric psychiatric nosology is in any way sacrosanct. I also think the apparent efficacy of psychedelics in both healing psychiatric patients and beneficially transforming ‘healthy’ subjects is suggestive (though not conclusive) with respect to this kind of ‘continuity thesis’. But it seems to me that the distinction between therapeutic and cosmetic personality change turns on what counts as a mental disorder, so for now I have to pass this one, not just to the bioethicists but also to the more hard-core philosophers of psychiatry!

3:AM: You claim that psychedelic experience ‘involves meaning’. What do you mean by this, and why is it important in psychedelic transformation?

CL: My claim is not just that psychedelic experience involves meaning, but that psychedelic transformation does. I mean something very specific by this: that the causal process leading from psychedelic ingestion to psychological benefit (be it therapeutic or cosmetic) essentially involves phenomenally conscious mental representations. This is important because it is a way of making precise the claim that psychedelic transformation is a distinctive type of psychopharmacological intervention. If we come back to the contrast with mainstream antidepressants, SSRIs (for instance) are probably not a ‘purely neurochemical’ intervention, if that idea even makes sense—evidence shows that they have effects on emotional face processing, for instance. So even straight SSRI therapy, when it works, is a cognitive process; it involves drug-induced changes to neurally implemented information processing. But the standard story is that it takes some weeks before people start feeling better, so it looks like these cognitive changes go on largely outside of consciousness—or at least outside of availability for verbal report. This is definitely not the case with psychedelics. If, as evidence suggests, aspects of the psychedelic experience itself are essential to the transformative process, well, they are definitely not outside of consciousness! They may be outside availability for verbal report, but for very different reasons than with SSRIs…

3:AM: You pick up on Huxley’s view of the ‘utopian’ credentials of psychedelic drugs. Would you say there is such a thing as a psychedelic worldview – the principles underlying his utopian society in Island, for example?

CL: This is a very interesting question. Probably not. It’s often been remarked that many of the older cultures that practiced ritual psychedelic ingestion also practiced human sacrifice, which scotches any idea of a direct route from psychedelic mysticism to peaceful utopia. Set and setting, as always. On the other hand, it is interesting that psychedelic users seem to converge on a fairly specific kind of metaphysical view: as Benny Shanon puts it, “idealistic monism with pantheistic overtones”. One explanation is that this view is correct and psychedelics allow users to apprehend that truth. But I think there’s a very plausible alternative explanation to be had if one adopts a specific type of materialistic picture of consciousness—that it’s a brain-bound virtual-reality-style world simulation, as people like Antti Revonsuo and Thomas Metzinger say, and so ordinary waking perception ends up being a “controlled hallucination”. If this is right, then psychedelic-induced disruption to ordinary representational processes could draw people’s attention to the constructed or simulated nature of the reality in which they live, and they could correctly apprehend the fact that the entire world in which they exist is a product of, and exists within, consciousness. But the mistake lies in failing to realize that the entire world in which they (for all subjective purposes) live, which is grounded in and constituted by consciousness, is ‘just’ the VR-style world-simulation taking place inside their heads.

Anyway, short of a ‘psychedelic worldview’, there do seem to be specific types of ideations and emotions that psychedelics promote, once set and setting is taken into account. Their apparent propensity to engender feelings of connection with nature and pro-ecological sentiments is one thing that could be very valuable and needs further exploration.

3:AM: You cite the commonalities between the psychedelic state and other altered states brought about by meditation, mystical and near-death experiences, etc., to suggest that drugs are not essential to achieving an altered state of consciousness. How does the theory that the naturally-occurring psychedelic DMT is released by the pineal gland in these and other circumstances (e.g. tantric sex) affect your argument?

CL: Of course, my claim can’t be that chemicals aren’t necessary to achieving altered states, because they obviously are—whether endogenous DMT, endogenous serotonin, or whatever else! Clearly non-drug altered states involve changes to some patterns of chemical neurotransmission. But I’m very sceptical about the pineal-DMT altered state hypothesis. For one thing, although a lot of the science is way beyond my expertise, I attended a fantastic talk by David Nichols recently in which he argued—convincingly, to my layman’s ears—that compelling evidence for the hypothesis doesn’t really exist. So why are people so keen to believe it? I suspect that at least one reason stems from a misunderstanding of the role of specific chemicals in determining states of consciousness. People ingest DMT, and have these incredible experiences, and then think, quite understandably, that the experience in some sense is DMT, or is directly caused by DMT’s DMT-ness. Whereas, in line with my multi-level picture of the mind outlined earlier, I would suggest that the experience is caused and/or constituted by changes in the patterns of information processing both within and between large-scale neurocognitive networks. What DMT or other psychedelics do is perturb activity within certain of those networks in a way that reliably cascades into those sorts of macro-level, global changes. But there’s no reason, in principle, why you couldn’t achieve the same sorts of perturbations by altering, in the right way (e.g. through voluntary attention regulation), patterns of transmission of less exotic chemicals that demonstrably do function as neurotransmitters in the human brain—such as serotonin. So basically, changes to patterns of neurochemically implemented information processing are the key variable, and there’s nothing magic about the molecule as such.

3:AM: And finally, are there five books you can recommend to the readers here at 3:AM that will take us further into your philosophical world?

Paul Thagard (2010), The Brain and the Meaning of Life – not because I necessarily agree with all the substantive claims, but because it fits the bill; the opening few chapters, in particular, outline clearly and comprehensively the kind of naturalistic approach to philosophy that I favour.

Jesse Prinz (2004), Gut Reactions – offers a paradigm of ‘synthetic’ (as opposed to analytic) philosophy, integrating conceptual, theoretical, and empirical considerations into an overarching theory of the nature of emotions, and addressing legitimate philosophical issues without getting bogged down in them. Indispensable methodological inspiration early in my postgraduate research career; when I was stuck on the structure etc. of my Master’s thesis, I asked myself “If I were Jesse Prinz, writing the book on this topic, how would I proceed?”—and it worked.

Philip Gerrans (2014), The Measure of Madness – a synthetic philosophical treatment of the nature of clinical delusions, with particular attention to the long-running debate over their doxastic status; again, a paradigm of how to integrate multidisciplinary evidence into a philosophically and scientifically compelling account, with particular emphasis on issues concerning levels of explanation in psychiatry. Played a similar role to Prinz; at the very start of my PhD, I was fortunate enough to be hired to proofread and index this book, and thought “I want to do for psychedelics what Philip has done for delusions!” I’m still working on it…

R. E. L. Masters and Jean Houston (1966), The Varieties of Psychedelic Experience – a classic cartography of consciousness alterations induced by serotonergic psychedelics; alterations which form the backdrop to my current philosophical world.

Pema Chödrön (1996), Awakening Loving-Kindness – the most helpful book I’ve ever read about coming to terms with the human condition.

ABOUT THE INTERVIEWERS

Lindsay Jordan is a lecturer at the University of the Arts London and has written for the Guardian, the BBC and the Mail on Sunday. She is currently completing her doctoral thesis on the philosophy of higher education and has an academic interest in psychedelic experience.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Saturday, August 5th, 2017.