“The safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato.”
–Alfred North Whitehead

The Place of Psychedelic Chemistry/Alchemical Consciousness in Philosophy


I wanted to see if you guys might help me think through Aldous Huxley’s psychedelic phenomenology, because I’m writing about it, preparing a draft of what will become a chapter in an anthology on the philosophy of psychedelics. I’m also writing about Descartes’ famous Meditations on First Philosophy and interpreting his experience as a bad trip, turning instead to the psychedelic phenomenology of Huxley but also, of course, Alfred North Whitehead, and seeing if there are other ways of perceiving space and time, other ways of perceiving selfhood or thinking in its relation to the world, or matter, or nature.

Descartes was in the course of his meditations forced into a corner, which then split him in two, where there was the world of extended things and there was himself: the inner activity of thinking, his own cognition. Descartes could see no way that these two things could be substantially or causally related, but he knew at least that both were real enough.

The thing about this dualism–I mean everybody has a critique of Descartes, right? So it’s not really much help for me to offer yet another critique of Descartes’ dualism. That critique has been done. I really want to try to reconstruct an alternative in Whiteheadian terms, and indeed in Huxley’s terms. The way that Huxley relativizes Euclidean space and linear time in his Doors of Perception (his recounting of his masculine experience), the way that he relativizes space and time is much like Whitehead’s own philosophy of organism, wherein space and time become abstractions from something more concrete. What is more concrete for Whitehead is our actual experience, which he described in terms of concrescence, or the growing together of the of inherited actual occasions that are objectified, that, in an efficient causal way, their intensity is received to provide us with momentum. Mechanical causality is perfectly real even in Whitehead’s organic cosmos, it’s just that it’s only half the picture. Efficient causation is this inheritance from the past, and it’s growing together in to the present through a process of concrescence. And there’s also the ingression of eternal possibilities (the lure of the future is another way to describe this). So to put it in a crude spatial way, on the front we’re receiving this river of lures from the future, and from behind we’re inheriting these pushes from the past, and in between concrescence occurs where concreteness unfolds and endures.

There is a some sort of an alchemical amalgamation, a synthesis or integration of these of these vectors of past and future such that an eternal present is continually born. The process of concrescence for Whitehead is not just eternal life, it’s also perpetual perishing. There is just as much death as there is a life in the eternal present. And for Whitehead to be able to surf this wave of concrescence is, well, it’s just as Socrates originally said: it’s to prepare to die. And it’s as Goethe said, we must die and become to fully participate in cosmic reality. You must die and become.

So death is not something we could avoid as living beings. We are made of death and we live by dying. What I want to try to say in my chapter that begins with Descartes is that, yes, his dualism is problematic, but there’s this other side of Descartes where he’s describing God, the infinite substance, that subtends or transcends (or maybe and transcends) his own finite ego. Descartes is leading us through this experiential gauntlet, he’s taking us on a journey. I’m saying it’s a bad trip, but it’s bad in the sense that we end up being severed from the world, severed from our own bodies, severed from one another by a gap that can only be closed by divine fiat. This is the limited letter of theological credit (as Whitehead puts it in Process & Reality) that Descartes uses to somehow tentatively tie the thinking activity of the soul back to the emotions and feelings of the body and the causal flows of the natural world. It’s a very tenuous connection that Descartes leaves us with. This is the bad trip! But when Descartes talks about God, often his discussion about God or the infinite is dismissed as merely another rehashing of Anselm’s ontological proof for God’s existence, that God is necessary being, etc., and that this is an idea that is greater than any idea which can be thought.

But this is not exactly what Descartes is saying. I think what he’s saying is, look, we each know that our knowledge of anything sensory, anything that exists in space or in time as we experience them phenomenologically, that we we lack certainty about it. We know that we make mistakes and errors when we try to interpret our sensory, bodily experience and our emotional experience. But when Descartes retreats a little bit from this outer world and into the realm of inner abstraction, he says we’re a little bit more certain at least about our ideas, since we can participate in them intellectually. Mathematics, for example, geometry and arithmetic: these are sciences of the mind where certainty is possible, where we can intellectually intuit truth in a more direct way. And Descartes wonders whether even here his Christian God, his Biblical Being, has such great power that He could even deceive us in our own thinking, that if God wanted to He could make two plus two equal five. That God’s power is greater than even the power of ideas.

So the question becomes: is God so powerful that God creates ideas, or is God sort of sharing power with ideas, co-eternal with ideas? The latter would be more Whitehead’s view, and I think probably also Huxley’s. They are both more Platonist in the sense that the Good is good intrinsically, not because God wills it or because God loves it. The Good is not good because God wills it; God wills it because it is good. It is then interesting to consider the theodicies that one could construct, where we’re able to deal with evil as something that isn’t eliminable, as if we could finally fight it off or defeat it, which some Biblical versions of the story seem to suggest. There are of course plenty of Christians who have alternative views: think of Origen who said that even Satan will one day be redeemed, that there are no people whose souls are eternally stuck burning in hell.

In Origen’s Christian cosmos, and in Whitehead’s, there are ways of dealing with evil that allow us to interact with it as the Trickster. And here’s the thing about psychedelic trips: often we can get pulled into the shadow, into the dark places of our psyche, into the demonic, during our psychedelic journeys because we imagine that the the dark might win. We lose contact with a deeper divine personality: it’s not Satan or Christ, it’s not Satan versus Christ. Rather, really Satan and Christ are two faces of the same Hidden God which is a God that’s more like a trickster than a pure light or a pure dark, a pure good or a pure evil kind of being. A trickster is more like a divine dramatist: S/He’s the comic-tragic poet who is able to move between light and dark to dance in the color. This would be the type of God the perception of which presupposes what Huxley referred to as mystical experience.

So the thing that I think makes psychedelic experience philosophically productive is precisely the way that it these these consciousness-altering chemicals reliably produce such experiences. There are a variety of them, and the set and setting within which one uses them are certainly co-constitutive of the experience. So when I refer to them as “chemicals” I don’t mean to simply locate their generative power in a molecule. The thing about the molecule is that it’s in vibratory resonance with the rest of the cosmos. So we’re talking about a field effect here, which is why anyone who’s ever walked into a room full of people on MDMA knows the sound or the vibratory frequency of the the voices of the group. In conversation with each other, even if you have not ingested the chemical, you can still feel it, you begin to get a contact high. So there is clearly a field effect going on here. So the reason these chemicals, these molecular frequencies, are philosophically productive, the reason that psychedelics have a place in philosophy, is that they reliably generate mystical experiences. This has been empirically proven by several psychopharmacology labs, at Johns Hopkins University and elsewhere, that these chemicals reliably produce mystical experience.

As William James and many others, including Huxley and Whitehead, have all said, mystical experiences are revelatory of reality. They are ontologically significant, not hallucinatory. It would appear, instead, that the rational Cartesian sense, the modern rational adult sense, of being fully autonomous and separate, absolutely free from the causal flows of extended nature, is the hallucination. As if there is truly a dualism between who and what we are as individual selves and what the world is, what matter is, what the universe is, who other people are… to think that there was actually an ontological rift, a bifurcation of the very fabric of becoming: that is the hallucination. This notion of a mind separate from nature that could come to have mastery over nature, or of a God separate from the the cosmos that could have created the cosmos out of nothing. These are the imaginary fantasies of a bad trip. There are other stories we can tell, other worlds we can build.

I think that’s some of what I want to try to weave together in this chapter. I’m curious what you guys think of all that.




5 responses to “The Place of Psychedelic Chemistry/Alchemical Consciousness in Philosophy”

  1. Daryl & Lori Vernon Avatar
    Daryl & Lori Vernon

    Do you ever do transcripts or partial ones of your non-written stuff (which I can’t access from dial up; don’t do anything special for me, but if somehow useful for your purposes, too)?


    1. Matthew T. Segall Avatar

      I just posted an edited transcript above!

  2. nochesdad Avatar

    Hey Matt—I love your mental wanderings through the philosophical gardens of Whitehead, Descartes, Huxley while weaving in entheogens. I like your term “bad trip” for Descartes’ yanking the western world into it’s subject object hallucination which continues like a bad hangover. Your reflections on death are timely with Saturn Pluto dragging the earth though some darkness. The archetypal valences of this Saturn Pluto cycle bubble through also; maybe it was your remark about a haircut. God I need a haircut. However, I am wondering if this virus event will spark a period of 60’s long hair styles. Your talk and my continuous stream of thoughts as I spend too much time alone makes me wonder when we will be able to scream to the world Rick’s message to pay attention to these cycles so that we can take them in stride as just part of another cycle and not the end of the world and, as you say, will end in greater possibilities. The forest background of your talk with the sound of birds filtering in was healing as was your message. I did get a sense from your talk a perspective on Descartes that was novel. I also cannot avoid grappling with the light and the dark. I personally met the devil on some purple haze a long time ago; mystical experience is a way to describe it that is sufficient since words don’t fit the hermeneutics. I can hear in your talk more of the beginnings of this emergent paradigm that is forming. I know from my experience being able to talk about an idea and grapple with it as a presentation to other people has always helped me clarify what is really going on in my head. I hope it helped you.

    1. Matthew T. Segall Avatar

      Thanks very much for listening and thinking with me. I hope we can get haircuts soon!

  3. R.E.Dames Avatar

    Hi, I found your blog from the CIIS faculty website. I am grateful you take the time to share your ideas and your work in this way. I am happy to virtually “meet” you! — In regards to this topic, I am intrigued by your references to the idea of an organic cosmos (such that a mechanical causality is only half the picture) and the role of psychedelics as triggers for mystical experiences, not merely hallucinogenic, that are ontologically significant as revelations of our reality. I suppose what struck me is how you said this universal principle, the divine, is neither satan or christ, neither dark nor light but can dance in the color. I find myself fascinated by the experience of color as a phenomenon (or epiphenomena?) of light and what an understanding of this might say about the condition of the cosmos – I, for one, am inclined to believe in a sentience, a veritable cosmic consciousness, as the fundamental or underlying nature of “reality” / existence. In this way, from my understanding of Einstein, light (a universal constant despite our experience of relativity) might reveal something about the nature of a cosmic consciousness. Many of these musings were triggered by my current read: Leonard Shlain’s Art and Physics, in which he discussed curious advances in the art world that coincide or prepare the way for advances in physics (literally seeing in novel ways allows for imagination in novel ways in like kind). The chapter I recently finished discussed the childlike mind and even the mind of the “other” (referred to as the “primitive” historically) and what he means by this is the minds that are not enculturated by a mechanistic, logic-saturated worldview. –So, in relation to hallucinogenics, might it be the case that these substances free the conditioned mind from its conditioning such that the mind can experience or even philosophize “outside” its typical bounds ?? Or, perhaps, it is a way of accessing what we already “know,” since the child mind seems significant as a “different way” to perceive than the conditioned adult mind..? I’ve always found it fascinating that study-participants seem to report strikingly similar experiences, and I wonder if these sorts of questions might suggest why this is so. – I’m not sure if this parallels Huxley’s work, since I am largely unfamiliar (though, I now plan to look into it!).
    Thanks again for sharing your mind!

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