Psychedelics, Society, and Reality

That tweet came after I listened to several episodes of the recent NYMag/Psymposia podcast series “Power Trip.” Having now finished the series and shared a mixed review, I wanted to collect further thoughts on the subject. The NYMag/Psymposia series focuses on the dangers of both underground and clinically regulated psychedelic psychotherapy. The basic criticisms being leveled by coproducers Lily Kay Ross and David Nickles at what we could call “the psychedelic movement” are important and worth amplifying. These chemicals put those who ingest them into states of heightened suggestibility and thus increased vulnerability. Given the potentials for extreme transference and projection, and the probable incompatibility of the traditional indigenous shamanic social role with (post)modern western culture, psychedelic guides/therapists have a special responsibility to empower those they work with by upholding clear agreements, sexual boundaries, and ethical standards. Knowing many people who work in this field, both above and below ground, I think it is fair to say that the majority of practitioners are working with tremendous integrity to make these healing experiences available to ailing people. Unfortunately, there is also a lot of evidence of loose boundaries and less than virtuous behavior. Despite my criticisms of the way it was all packaged and delivered (see this twitter thread), Ross and Nickles’ plea to slow down and listen to the stories of those who have been trampled in the rush to mainstream psychedelics is worth your attention.

Bracketing Buddha’s First Noble Truth, I’m privileged enough to have gotten to this point in my life without debilitating trauma or mental health struggles. As a result, my interest in psychedelics has been primarily political, philosophical, and spiritual, rather than psychotherapeutic. “Political” because since I was 18 and began to seriously research the Drug War and the psychedelic counterculture, it was immediately apparent to me that a society intent on repressing such powerful consciousness technologies must be profoundly unwell. As I discussed in this recent Psychedelics Today podcast, I worry about the corporate capture of these medicines. Consumer capitalism has swallowed everything it’s touched, including much of the counterculture. I used to think psychedelics were impervious to commodification, but now I am not so sure. On their own, these chemicals are simply “non-specific amplifiers,” as Stanislav Grof puts it. Our intentions shape their effects. We should not be so naive as to think they could not be used to further the aims of the military-industrial complex or for broader cultural control.

I appreciate the work the non-profit organization MAPS has been doing to advance psychedelic medicine. This despite the fact MAPS founder Rick Doblin has been criticized for taking money from Peter Thiel and Rebecca Mercer. I don’t like their politics, either, but I tend to agree with Doblin that those trying to undue the repression of these sacred substances should be willing to build bridges across political divides. I also think those of us critical of the capitalist world-order need to spend less time preaching to the choir about how evil corporations are and more time designing and building alternatives (e.g., social threefolding).

While I think medicalization may be one of the paths forward, I am skeptical of an allopathic medical model that treats isolated brains as though the human psyche could be understood or healed in a way decontextualized from its social and cosmological contexts. I do wonder if the religious or cognitive freedom approach might not bear more nourishing fruit (e.g., see this talk on the psychedelic eucharist and this paper on psychedelics and religious studies). These issues came up in my conversation with Earth and Fire, the founders of back in 2017.

When it comes to the metaphysical implications of psychedelic experience, I’m grateful to have a chapter in an upcoming anthology put out by Bloomsbury titled Philosophy and Psychedelics: Frameworks for Exceptional Experience (forthcoming 2022). Here’s the original draft that had to be shortened substantially for inclusion in the anthology: “Alchemical Consciousness After Descartes: Whitehead’s Philosophy of Organism as Psychedelic Realism

Abstract: The study of consciousness is today’s most exciting philosophical frontier. Such an inquiry provides an obvious example of the relevance of psychedelic experience: what better way could there be for coming to terms with the intimate mystery our own consciousness than through the ingestion of psychedelic—literally, “mind-manifesting”—chemicals? In the chapter to follow, I offer a creative reading of Rene Descartes’ Meditations on First Philosophy, reinterpreting his famous Gedankenerfahrung (“thought-experiment”) as a sort of psychedelic trip through hell and heaven and back again. I next turn to Whitehead’s process-relational reimagining of modern Cartesian philosophy, detailing how his approach more adequately incorporates the psychedelic ground of consciousness. I argue that Whitehead’s philosophy of organism opens up the possibility of a psychedelic realism that would allow us to take the ontologically revelatory nature of these experiences seriously. My hope is that this comparative reading of Descartes and Whitehead opens up a road not taken by modern natural science and philosophy, one leading away from the self-alienation and cosmic disenchantment that have so plagued contemporary science and society. Self-integration and world re-enchantment are possible. Ingested responsibly and in service of philosophical inquiry, psychedelics may act as alchemical catalysts providing an especially powerful medicinal aid in service of this Great Work.

The brain is not a computer, and thinking is not information-processing.

Sharing an email response to a question I received about the possibility of explaining human consciousness computationally, and whether such explanations might be compatible with Rudolf Steiner’s spiritual science.

I do not think the computational paradigm has much to teach us about the sort of Sophianic consciousness Steiner attempted to unveil. I summarized my thoughts on this in an essay back in 2012:

The computational paradigm does have something to teach us, but it is not what proponents of computationalism may intend. What it teaches us, I think, is that human consciousness and the thinking activity at its root cannot possibly be understood as a merely computational or algorithmic operation, or as information-processing. If our consciousness was explainable as computation, then we would not be here to understand the explanation. We’d be robots who only talk as if they are conscious, as neuroscientist Michael Graziano suggests (I address his views and the computational paradigm more generally in my recent journal article on the place of consciousness in the physical world). 

Thinking is a spiritual activity, an intuitive and transformational process, not merely the rearrangement or exchange of information between fixed transistor nodes in a finite network architecture. In other words, thinking is something we know from the inside and freely, not something that can be measured, objectified, or programmed. Even self-programming computers/machine learning algorithms cannot reproduce human consciousness. Human consciousness gives rise to such insights as Gödel’s incompleteness theorem, Heidegger’s Dasein, and Berkeley philosopher Hubert Dreyfus’ brilliant refutation of computational cognitive science in light of existential phenomenology (See his famous book What Computers Can’t Do, as well as the follow up, What Computers Still Cannot Do).

Human consciousness or Anthroposophia, like all spiritual entities, is an animate, intelligent, compassionate presence striving to participate in the further evolution of the world-process. Computers might be able to (re)program themselves, but they will never be conscious or be capable of thinking, never have aims other than those given them by their programmers. Computers are a product of thinking, not the other way around.

That said, the more we surround ourselves by screens and computer algorithms, the more our thinking becomes machine-like, the more we begin to imagine ourselves and other people as mere automatons. Thinking is not easy. Emerson as well as Steiner agreed that thinking is the hardest task in the world. But it is the task of our age. 

“Intersect: Science & Spirituality” – a conference in Telluride, CO

INTERSECT: Science & Spirituality

Join us for a 2-Day Conversational Conference (July 27-29th) for the purpose of Exploring Syngergies between the world of Science and the world of Spirituality.

Topics to include CosmologyEcologySustainability, and Consciousness.

Speakers include: Drew Dellinger, John Hausdoerffer, Matthew Segall and Brian Swimme (via video).

Register here:

Dogen, Spinoza, and Whitehead by Seth Segall

Check out this interesting post by my cousin, Seth Segall, over at the Existential Buddhist. The topics Seth discusses include whether consciousness is emergent from or intrinsic to the physical world, the place of values (human or otherwise) in the universe, and the variety of God concepts available to those willing to philosophize about such matters. Seth also compares the ideas of the 13th century Zen Buddhist monk Dogen, the 17th century Jewish philosopher Spinoza, and the 20th century mathematician and cosmologist A.N. Whitehead.


Seth writes:

I could never believe in a supernatural, anthropomorphic God, an omniscient autocrat standing outside of creation, judging it, and miraculously intervening in accordance with our prayers and petitions—in other worlds, the kind of God that Whitehead describes as having the attributes of “a Caesar.” “God talk” doesn’t interest me or turn me on. As I’ve mentioned in another post, when I hear “God” mentioned in a Dharma talk, my mind wanders off.  But how different — really — are Spinoza’s and Whitehead’s naturalistic, creative, immanent Gods from Dogen’s understanding of the dharmakaya? How different is Whitehead’s God who experiences the experiences of the world and nudges us towards love and beauty from Dogen’s compassionate Avalokitesvara who hears the cries of the world and awakens us to wisdom beyond wisdom? Even if one dispenses with Gods and Buddhas, if mentality, morality and aesthetics can be features of reality right down to the bone, why can’t reality also include some non-supernatural “spiritual” dimension as well? Some beneficial principle that encourages us and the world towards greater love and compassion, beauty and understanding, and our own best selves? I’m not convinced, like Whitehead and Spinoza, that God is either necessary or tenable, but I’m more open to consider it than I once was. That’s why I’m an agnostic rather than an atheist; it’s what keeps me from joining the secularist camp.

I appreciate Seth’s pragmatic (in the Jamesian sense) approach to these questions. I do not pretend to any metaphysical certainty about the existence of the Whiteheadian or any other God. From my perspective, we inhabit a cosmos that is always on the edge of chaos with nothing guaranteeing continued peace, goodness, or beauty. I do believe these ideals are realized in the ongoing genesis of this universe to a degree far greater than mere chance, but I cannot go so far as to claim they are metaphysical necessities. I think the process-relational God articulated by Whitehead allows us to recognize the realization of these ideals as somewhere in-between utterly contingent and totally necessary. They are potentials freely realized by the creatures of this cosmos because of their intrinsic desirability. Nothing is to stop any particular being in some particular circumstance from desiring otherwise. On the other hand, Whitehead makes it clear that we cannot speak of a “cosmic order” without already assuming the realization of an ideal of beauty. For Whitehead, all order is aesthetic order. In other words, no beauty, no cosmos. So the fact that there is a cosmos at all is already evidence enough that the scales are tipped toward harmony.

“Expanding and Re-Enchanting the Psyche: The Pioneering Thought of Stanislav Grof”

If you’re a Bay Area local, do try to attend this conference celebrating the work of Stan Grof Oct. 24-25 (Friday and Saturday) at the Hotel Whitcomb. It is being sponsored by the new Center for the Study of Psychedelic Medicine at C.I.I.S. and the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies.


>>More information<<       >>Registration<<       >>Presentation descriptions<<

This fall, the California Institute of Integral Studies and the Philosophy, Cosmology, and Consciousness Program is hosting a unique conference honoring the lifetime achievements of Stanislav Grof in the several fields to which he has made such major contributions, including consciousness research, psychiatry and psychology, psychedelic studies, religious studies, philosophy, and esotericism. Scholars and researchers from many disciplines will explore and build upon Grof’s extraordinary expansion of our understanding of the human psyche as well as the range and power of psychotherapeutic approaches. Grof will respond to the diverse presentations, followed by open dialogue with the participants. 

Presenters will include:
Christopher Bache, Ph.D.; John Buchanan, Ph.D.; Fritjof Capra; Rick Doblin, Ph.D.; Jorge Ferrer, Ph.D.; Leonard Gibson, Ph.D.; Charles Grob, M.D.; Paul Grof, M.D.; Stanislav Grof, M.D.; Diane Haug, M.A., LPCC; William Keepin, Ph.D.; Sean Kelly, Ph.D.; Ralph Metzner, Ph.D.; Annie Mithoefer, B.S.N; Michael Mithoefer, M.D.; Thomas Roberts, Ph.D.; Tav Sparks; Richard Tarnas, Ph.D.; Kylea Taylor, M.S., M.F.T.; and Jenny Wade, Ph.D.

Schelling on Nature, Humanity, and God (re-reading Iain Hamilton Grant)

Last year, some colleagues and I at CIIS participated in a panel discussion on Speculative Realism called “Here Comes Everything.” My lecture drew primarily upon Grant’s text Philosophies of Nature After Schelling (2006). This summer, I’ve been doing research for a comprehensive exam on the recent resurgence of Schellingian philosophy (HERE is my reading list). I saved Grant’s book until last, since I think it provides the strongest case for Schelling’s contemporary relevance by foregrounding the extent to which his long life of philosophical creativity remained, from beginning to end, focused on the problem of nature.

What is the problem of nature? Grant locates this problematic in the Kantian revolution, when the transcendental gap between freedom and nature reduced nature to mere appearance, a phenomenal ghost lying in wait for the practical projects of human industrialism. “The whole of modern European philosophy has this common deficiency,” wrote Schelling in 1809, “that nature does not exist for it.” Grant suggests that, in adopting Aristotle’s “physics of all things,” rather than Plato’s “physics of the All,” Kant made it impossible to ground his transcendentalism in anything but the anthropocentric ethical projects of practical reason (p. 7). From Schelling’s perspective, this is hardly a ground at all, since the transcendental subject cannot account for the genesis of its own subjectivity. Kant isn’t blind to this problem, but is forced to posit a logical concept of ground as the supersensible substrate underlying both nature and freedom. Schelling is not satisfied with a merely logical ground, so he retreats from Kant’s Aristotelian approach to physics (what Grant calls somaticism) to pursue Plato’s physics of the All. Instead of conceiving of ground as an underlying substrate or substance, Schelling, following Plato, grounds subjectivity in the dynamic activity of matter itself. Schelling here inaugurates a form of process ontology that will later be picked up by Whitehead, though the latter seems unaware of the former’s contributions to his own project. Whitehead bypassed any explicit acknowledgement of Schelling’s naturphilosophie, going back to Plato himself to find in the Timaeus the same possibility for a physics of becoming that Schelling did.

“Nature is subject,” says Schelling, which is not to say that nature necessarily conforms to the transcendental structure of the human mind (a form of anthropomorphism), but rather that the human mind is a recapitulation of the uncanny subjectivity of nature. Where Kant says we can’t know nature in itself, Schelling turns us back upon the strangeness of our own humanity to ask “do we really know what we are?”

In his celebrated 1809 text, Philosophical Investigations into the Essence of Human Freedom, Schelling delves into traditional theological, cosmological, and anthropological problems only to re-emerge, not with new answers, but with surprising new questions. Schelling discovers that human reason is itself a recapitulation of the sublime tension of cosmogenesis itself: the eternal struggle between darkness and light. Our human freedom to choose good or evil, according to Schelling, irrevocably separates us from the animal kingdom. Evil isn’t an obedience to brute instincts that might draw us back into animality; no, evil is unmistakably spiritual in origin. Schelling draws approvingly upon the work of his theosophical calibrator Fr. Baader: “…it would be desirable that the corruption in man were only to go so far as his becoming animal; unfortunately, however, man can stand only below or above animals” (40/373).

This spiritual freedom of humanity should not be confused with a “capacity” for freedom, as this characterization would entirely miss the literally decisive importance of freedom. Freedom is not a capacity, since this implies some more original subjectivity which would employ freedom as a means. Freedom is the very ground of subjectivity, the abyss from which subjectivity first emerges. I am the freedom to choose good or evil, and nothing besides. There is no me behind or before the spiritual crisis of freedom. My personality just is the decision between good and evil, a decision made eternally time and time again. This is not some special human difference, some special capacity, as though our essence was just to be some other kind or species of natural being. Our uniqueness as humans is that we recapitulate the very being of nature itself self-consciously, while other organisms remain submerged in the unity of natural becoming. Like the divine, humanity is eternally beginning, always deciding anew to erotically reproduce ourselves in relation to some irreducible otherness within ourselves (i.e., evil). But unlike the divine, there is no necessary assurance that love will overcome evil, that the otherness will be dynamically engaged in the sacred marriage of eternal circulation. Hence the fall into history, the rise of the state, and the suffering and confusion of earthly human life wherein evil is constantly externalized and projected. Evil appears real precisely when a human being denies the evil in themselves to wage war against it in others. Schelling saw no hope in national politics, since the state is merely an evil made necessary by the fall. True human salvation lies elsewhere, in a democracy of spirits who freely chose the Good out of love, not due to fear of secular or religious punishment.