Are We Not Doing Enough Drugs?
“To admit to any intention to use chemical substances, whether found in nature or synthesized in laboratories, in the aim of changing one’s apprehension of reality, is to leave the guild of the philosophers behind, with all its constricting norms and shibboleths, and to join the company, over in the deep end of the pool of life, of sundry countercultural weirdos and deviants.”
So writes Justin E. H. Smith (University of Paris 7 – Denis Diderot) in an article in Wired, in which he discusses, in his characteristically erudite manner and enviably delightful prose, his use of psychedelic drugs.He continues:
This shows, I think, just how conservative philosophy remains, in some respects, as an academic discipline. At a cultural moment when psychedelics are getting a second wind, and even someone as upstanding as Michael Pollan has moved from counseling us to eat our roughage to praising the benefits of microdosing, philosophers are conducting themselves as though it were still 1950, when we wore skinny ties to colloquia, got funding from the RAND Corporation to work on decision trees and other such narrow and straitlaced endeavors, and all knew that it is the unaltered and wakeful mind that has exclusive access to the forms and qualities of the external world.
Yet we don’t know any such thing:
For all our efforts, we still are not one step closer to apprehending the things in themselves. It is not that science hasn’t progressed—of course it has—but rather that the problem is conceptual and not empirical. You can’t perceive the thing that lies behind what you are perceiving, since the instant you do perceive it, it no longer lies behind but is front and center. Given what appears to be this logically necessary stalemate between us and the world, it seems inevitable that alternative accounts of the fundamental nature of reality—alternative ontologies, as we say—should keep returning and drawing off at least some philosophers who get fed up with an external world that demands our loyalty yet refuses to show itself.
In at least some of these alternative ontologies, the visions that come to us unbidden, in the liminal states of insobriety, hypnagogia, or theurgic ecstasy, are not to be dismissed out of hand as obstacles to our apprehension of truth, but may in fact be vehicles of truth themselves.
And so we get this professionally- and self-aware “confession” and recommendation:
I am aware I’m pushing up against the limits of respectability dictated by the implicit norms of my discipline, but I’ve gone about as far as I was ever destined to go in the ranks of this guild, and I’ve got nothing, and no one, to be afraid of. So I’m just going to come right out and say it: I am a philosopher who has taken an interest, of late, in psychedelic experimentation, and I find that my experiments have significantly widened the range of accounts of the nature of reality that I am disposed to take seriously. If you think you are in an emotional state to handle it, and in a legal jurisdiction that permits it, and you think you might benefit from being jolted out of your long-held ontological commitments, then I would recommend that you try some psychotropic drugs as well.
What’s to be gained? Perhaps more of that thing philosophy is most certain to produce: uncertainty. Smith says:
I am significantly less cocky now, my cluelessness is more evident to me, a constant that accompanies me in each moment of the day. No one seems more pathetic to me, now, in their own cluelessness, than the self-styled “realists” who prejudicially and without any grounds go on supposing that they have a firm grasp of concepts like “nature,” “matter,” “being,” “thing,” “world,” “self,” that this grasp flows directly from their acceptance of the plain evidence of reason buttressed by empirical discovery, and that the question of how many kinds of being there are, and of the nature of these beings, is one that has been definitively settled over the past few centuries of naturalistic inquiry…
While I remain as uncertain as ever about the ultimate structure of the world, I also have new inclinations, and new sympathies, toward accounts of it that had previously struck me as altogether off the table. That widening is itself a sort of newfound knowledge, even if it contains no new certainties.
Smith shares how some of the insights he has gained or developed while experimenting with drugs. Understanding how far out he might sound to the rest of us—while the article appears in Wired, it does seem like he is writing especially to his fellow philosophers—he voices, and answers, some skeptical questions:
Are any of these lucubrations to be taken at all seriously? Or do they just describe how the world appears to one sorry fellow who’s got a “brain on drugs”? (Readers of a certain age will at this point picture an egg in a frying pan.) Well yes, of course it’s a brain on drugs, but this just returns us to the original problem: Your brain is always on drugs. That is, there is always a neurochemical correlate to any of your conscious perceptions whatsoever. You might be tempted to say that supplementing gets in the way of correct perception, and that the only reliable way of apprehending the world as it is must depend only on the default setting of the mind, with no extras. But again, even this setting delivers us delirious hallucinations for about eight hours out of each 24. Moreover, it is hard to conceive of any valid argument against supplementation…
Read the whole thing here.
Smith is not the only philosopher who has been paying attention to psychedelics lately. Chris Letheby (University of Western Australia) authored Philosophy of Psychedelics, published by Oxford University Press in 2021, as well as a number of articles about psychedelics (for example, he makes points about the possible epistemic benefits of psychedelics in his 2016 “The Epistemic Innocence of Psychedelic States“). Last year saw the publication of Philosophy and Psychedelics: Frameworks for Exceptional Experience (Bloomsbury), a collection edited by Christine Hauskeller and Peter Sjöstedt-Hughes (Exeter). This year, a collection edited by Letheby and Philip Gerrans (Adelaide), Philosophical Perspectives on the Psychedelic Renaissance, is due out from Oxford.
Sartre, apparently, wrote the Critique of Dialectical Reason with the “help” of benzedrine, and of course Naus was written after taking mescaline. I’m happy to leave it to others as to whether they think this gave him any deeper insight into reality or not.Report
My psychedelic experiences approx. 30 years ago made me a Kantian.Report
And yes, I greatly enjoy the irony of this.Report
Indeed! One sees that empirical reality can both “demand our loyalty” and be such that it cannot “refuse to show itself.”Report
Ugh. Just an alternative perspective from someone whose entire life has been about managing other peoples’ drug problems and watching them die from them in multiple cases: I don’t doubt that psychedelics are mind-opening and have advantages of certain kinds. But:
(a) encouraging people to do drugs for that reason that have serious harms associated with them (yes, even psychedelics have serious harms associated with them! and I might add, they are particularly dangerous for college student/early grad student aged people… I literally watched a friend induce a psychotic episode while on LSD in high school, who has since suffered from extremely bad mental health and addiction problems) without mentioning those serious harms, is, I think, problematic. Please mention the potential for harm. I’m not trying to police people’s drug use and I’m not moralistic about this stuff but I think this is irresponsible (“be better at philosophy by doing drugs! ignore everything that could go wrong!” is a message that I don’t think is cool, personally).
(b) Those of us who have spent a lot of time around others who are on psychedelics, while not being on them ourselves, can tell you that people on psychedelics are just as stupid as drunk people, high people, etc., at least in terms of how they act and communicate about what they are experiencing (maybe they can later call up their experiences and reason about them in some beneficial way, or something, but…). Probably this should be factored into things somehow. I’m pretty sure that’s not just my closed-mindedness (and I have taken psychedelics before so I do speak from some personal experience as well).Report
Well said- risks are real and young people are reckless. Street drugs are extremely dangerous.
Certainly, listening to someone tripping is an experience in itself, not to be missed. How else would we know the passion behind such declarations as:
“The world is all vibrations!”
“We are all stardust!”
“All death ends in life!”
Note “all” as a common mystical quantifier. (Hegel may have been a mushroom cultivator).
Again, a little goes a long way. Such “insights” are indeed interesting, if hopelessly vague, but that’s what sober philosophical analysis is for: clarification.
Taken completely out of context, but apropos to nonsensical drug-induced revelations:
“My propositions serve as elucidations in the following way: anyone who understands me eventually recognizes them as nonsensical, when he has used them – as steps – to climb beyond them. He must, so to speak, throw away the ladder after he has climbed up it.”
— Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-PhilosophicusReport
I think Marijuana has a higher risk of transition to long term psychotic illness and I’m pretty sure taken alone LSD has a lower risk profile than Marijuana for even acute psychosis.
Just as stupid, strikes me as underspecified and in conflict with the literature in terms of relative impairment in fluid intelligence, long term memory retrieval. Inhibition decrease etc.
The effects are quite different. The “delusions of increased insight” as its often called
that are often present in psychedelic use and cannabis use is almost as tiresome as the slurring and psychomotor retardation thats commonly found in drunkenness.Report
You raise a great point about caution! These are very serious states to explore and to be taken with great care, especially given the relative dearth of time-tested traditions of usage for most explorers.
strikes me as tremendously inept and shallow almost to the point of comedy. Yes, we are all only human, all too human. But to expedite the phenomenological significance of a vast and by all accounts oceanic area of experience by its visible index should be fairly philosophically impermissible, no?Report
I mean there are pretty heavy implications the early Greeks were into using psychedelics. I like the idea of Plato tripping on mushrooms and conceptualizing the cave.Report
Taking psychedelics is definitely an epistemic advantage–at least for many. Alternative ways of experiencing the world, whether spontaneously occurring for who knows why, or else achieved through meditation, psychedelics, or other deliberate means, literally expand the mind. I really like mushrooms, but acid is good too, and toad venom–assuming toads aren’t harmed by its collection–is making me curious.Report
A little LSD goes a long way.
Epistemic humility, not philosophic insight per se, is the benign side effect of even brief states of altered consciousness. Your mileage may vary.
“The man who comes back through the Door in the Wall will never be quite the same as the man who went out. He will be wiser but less sure, happier but less self-satisfied, humbler in acknowledging his ignorance yet better equipped to understand the relationship of words to things, of systematic reasoning to the unfathomable mystery which it tries, forever vainly, to comprehend”
— Aldous Huxley, The Doors of Perception
But how much is enough? Once? Once a year? How long can you remember a sense of awe? Is it time to humble oneself again?
“If you get the message, hang up the phone. For psychedelic drugs are simply instruments, like microscopes, telescopes, and telephones. The biologist does not sit with eye permanently glued to the microscope; he goes away and works on what he has seen.”
— Alan Watts, The Joyous Cosmology: Adventures in the Chemistry of ConsciousnessReport
I hate it when philosophers trash philosophy, especially when they haven’t done their research.
How is that Justin Smith, who’s a philosophy professor, isn’t aware of the well-documented fact that philosophers do far, far more drugs than any other undergraduate major. A simple Google search would have taken him to the many surveys.
Justin mentions some of the recent, and excellent, work on psychedelics by philosophers, work that Smith seems to just ignore. Work by Thomas Metzinger, Nicholas Langlitz, and Chris Letheby, to name just three. And Smith has apparently never heard of the new book on philosophy and psychedelics by Christine Hauskeller and Peter Sjostedt-Hughes. It would be easy to list other currently active philosophers who write excellent books and articles about psychedelics.
Smith just didn’t bother to look at what other philosophers have done. Report
What about academic philosophers? In particular, ‘analytic’ philosophers? Report
Edit for clarity: Justin *Weinberg* mentioned some of the recent work on psychedelics by philosophers. Justin *Smith* ignored it.Report
I do think he’s basically right though that a lot of writing on philosophy of mind – including much of the literature on hallucination! (https://philpapers.org/s/hallucination) – discusses psychedelic drugs *much* less than one would expect. And many of the philosophical works that use drug-induced hallucination as examples seem to engage with the empirical facts of drug-induced hallucination to precisely the same degree as the ethical literature engages with the empirical facts of how trolleys interact with large people on the tracks (i.e., they just stipulate an effect that is convenient for a philosophical point, regardless of whether or not it matches the reality in any way).Report
There’s so much good literature on psychedelics now. Check out Chris Letheby’s work in particular.Report
A lot of philosophizing goes on by people drunk, high, coked up, and tripping – on pretty much any drug that it isn’t an opioid. As “irritated” said, such philosophizing rarely, if ever, seems insightful to sober people around them at the time, and, I would stress, rarely to the people themselves the next day. Per Wilson, people come up with stuff like (actual examples) “Simplicity is the enemy of life, “We hang around with people not because our personalities are the same, but because they fit together,” “Everything is a social construct,” or “Reality is very different than we perceive it to be.” However, if anything distinguishes psychedelic insights, from pot (etc.) insights, it’s there persistence. More people will continue to insist much longer that “Everything is contingent” is a deep insight into Reality. Is this because psychedelics really do lead to insights? Or is just brain damage? Opinions differ.
In my experience people do drugs late in life for the same reasons they do them early. Boredom and, as Smith stops just shy of admitting, a desire to “join the company…of sundry countercultural weirdos and deviants.” Personally, it took me a long time to realize that if Hemingway, Bukowski, or Burroughs is worth reading – if – it’s despite their substance abuse issues, not because of them. Ditto philosophers.
“When the sage says: ‘Go over,’ he does not mean that we should cross to some actual place, which we could do anyhow if the labor were worth it; he means some fabulous yonder, something unknown to us, something too that he cannot designate more precisely, and therefore cannot help us here in the very least. All these parables really set out to say merely that the incomprehensible is incomprehensible, and we know that already.” – Franz KafkaReport
I wouldn’t say that the point is that the drug-induced state is a better state to do philosophy in than other states. Rather, the point is that the drug-induced state is a *different* state, and experiencing a different state helps identify features that are similar and different between these states. It can be advantageous for a political philosopher to spend some time living under different political systems, even if some of them are objectively worse ways to live and less conducive to doing effective philosophical work.Report
So, the claim is that a drug produces a different state which the user can then compare with their non-drug state and this leads them to some kind of insight. For example?Report
The point is that it’s a form of experience, and quite possibly a very novel one, and that more experience is generally a good thing for philosophers or anyone who wants to make grand claims about life, the universe, and everything. Is it necessary or even a good idea for everyone? No. Is LSD or whatever some magical way into reality as it is in itself? Definitely not. Understood in that way I think your demand is unfair. Experience generally doesn’t just teach us by allowing us to compare one bit of experience to another like they’re paint swatches. Or to put it another way I can’t think of any particular insight I owe to say living in Germany for a year, regularly visiting art museums, or hiking a bunch of trails in the Smokeys when I lived in Knoxville, but I’d bet all have made me a better philosopher.
Also, Carver’s probably a better example for our purposes. Bukowski and Burrows aren’t worth reading and drink seems to have mostly gotten in Hemingway’s way. But I don’t know if most of Carver’s work is imaginable without drink. (Not that that’s a point in favor of drinking since drink also made an awful mess of Carver’s actual life).Report
Your argument is that (i) any quantitively greater or novel sort of experience is a good thing for philosophers.
(ii) LSD, or some drugs, constitute more or a novel experiences.
Therefore, LSD is a good thing for philosophers.
I feel like no one needs me to refute that, but…
Premise 1 counterexamples include: prolonged boredom, torture, and bad LSD trips are neither directly good nor good for as philosophers’ as experiences.
But the real problem is how hopelessly vague this is. Unless someone defends a link between a specific drug experience and some kind of specific insight all of this just idle speculation.
I can’t imagine Carver’s work without drink because that was the subject matter of much of it. But for the life of me I can’t see why one would think that the work that he did was better because he drank than it would have been if he hadn’t drank. I’m no Carver expert, but I’ve heard people argue that his drinking was a response to being unable to deal with his sexuality. If he hadn’t drank and had dealt with that maybe his fiction would have been more compelling. Again, unless there is a feature of his work that links in some discernable way to drinking (other than it’s subject matter), this is so speculative that it is not even false.Report
I believe at least one of you is thinking of John Cheever, not Raymond Carver.Report
Lol. You may be right. But which one?Report
Before I get to the claim about a drug-induced state, here is a simpler case:
Seeing things in a poorly-lit room is generally an epistemically less-favorable state than seeing things in a well-lit room. But I would not trust anything about perception written by someone who has only ever experienced the world as well-lit, because there are so many important insights into the ways that perception sometimes goes wrong that are clearer when you have experienced the same room both in a poorly-lit state and in a well-lit state. There’s a reason that so much literature on both the epistemology and the phenomenology of perception includes discussions of poorly-lit rooms, even though they generally provide for objectively epistemically less-favorable states.
But there are also some special things for which a poorly lit room actually provides a much more favorable epistemic access. There’s a reason that theaters are usually very poorly lit over the audience, because it makes it so much easier to attend to the activities on stage when there is less lighting. But there can be other reasons too – if someone has released fireflies into the room, there are some ways that you’ll be able to see them better if the room is well-lit and other ways in which you’ll be able to see them better if the room is poorly-lit. Some of the ways in which one might think that a poorly-lit room gives one good epistemic access may be mistakes, but that doesn’t mean that all of them are. A biologist will usually want to do their detailed observations of fireflies for an anatomical study in a well-lit room, but if they’ve never seen fireflies in a poorly-lit space, they may easily miss something important.
The kinds of obscuring and revealing that one gets from low lighting are not the same as the kinds of obscuring and revealing that one gets from hallucinogenic drugs. But there are some useful analogies.
You can better understand the ways that good-case perception goes wrong by experiencing the (much easier to understand) ways that bad-case perception goes wrong. For instance, the top-down impact of expectation on perception is much clearer in the case of hallucination than ordinary perception, even though it is present in both. The fact that certain kinds of stationary visual patterns give rise to a phenomenology of motion is much clearer in the case of hallucination than ordinary perception, even though it is present in both.
You can get some insights in the bad case that can then be verified in greater detail when investigated in the good case. (Most such insights will sound banal when described from the hallucinatory perspective, but the actual experience has given many people the confidence in the insight that then allows them to work it out in more sober detail later.)
Some of these things are describable in words, but some are easier to discuss by ostension to audiences that are already familiar. Jackson’s neuroscientist Mary needs to put in a lot more work to understand color vision than those of us that have actually seen red need to do, even if there are ways she understands it that we don’t. Similarly for the effects of hallucination.Report
Well, there you go. You’ve located the source of our disagreement. I think there’s no epistemic advantage at all in having been in a poorly-lit room. Nor does one have to have suffered to know what pleasure is (a student favorite). Taking drugs that, for the sake of arguments let’s say, distort your perceptions does not improve your understanding on nondistorted perceptions. If I am wrong, why don’t people try to imporve their vision by hanging out in poorly-lit rooms or squinting. Why don’t people improve their hearing by listening to distorted recordings? Why don’t people improve their sense of smell by smelling lots of…well, you get it.Report
That post needs a lot of editing. Sorry.Report
I guess I should have responded specifically to the theatre example. You say you can’t see a movie if the ambient light is too bright. True. But it’s the movie and not the poorly lit room that you experience. I would never to to the movies and think, “It’s a good thing I have experience in poorly lit rooms, else I could not see this movie.”
But suppose I am wrong about that.
Again, I don’t see literally any evidence that there are things that people perceive or learn or intuit or whatever on drugs that they could not otherwise. When I ask people to articulate their insights, even here, I get nothing except people angrily suggesting there’s something terrible about asking, ‘If you learned something from taking drugs, what was it?” IReport
You don’t *improve* your vision by hanging out in poorly-lit rooms, but you absolutely do improve your *understanding* of vision by doing so. Even better if you explore many *different* ways that vision can be systematically mistaken.
There’s a reason that many of the most interesting optical illusions are created by psychologists of vision, and why visual artists often practice techniques like looking at things upside-down, or painting haystacks under different lighting conditions.Report
You improve your understanding of vision by hanging out in poorly-lit rooms? How? Is that something then that optometrists and computer vision scientists should do more often? It seems like that’s just an unsupported assertion.
Do you improve your understanding of hearing by listening loud, random sounds? Maybe, you could. Like your optical illusions idea, if the sounds were designed to get you to notice something, maybe you could learn something. But if taking drugs has ever improved anyone’s understanding of anything even vaguely philosophical, then what? What’s the example? Why is such knowledge supposed to be ineffable and also knowledge?
Do you disagree with this claim? Being intoxicated, often makes people think they understand something even when they don’t, maybe especially when they don’t.
If that’s true, why would we think that intoxication gives people insight into deeper matters, rather than thinking that people who think they had deep insights on drugs are just another example of the general phenomena of people with distorted perceptions thinking they know things that they don’t?
Maybe, it’s unfair to lean so heavily on the call for a specific example. If you told me, Spinoza came up with monads on acid, I wouldn’t be impressed since I don’t think there are monads. But don’t you think it is at least a little suspicious that people say they get insights from drugs and then get irritated if you ask them, ‘Like what?”
I’m done now. But I am interested in your reply if you have the time.Report
Having seen enough tragedies in my life, I humbly yet strongly urge everyone, including my esteemed former fellow graduate student and logic TA, to stay away from this stuff before it’s too late.Report
Agreed. It is like getting laid or having kids: You simply cannot take your previous preoccupations as seriously once you have attained knowledge by acquaintance and are on the other side.Report
I like Smith’s writing, but I find this — and similar arguments from those who take or have taken drugs — to do a poor job of responding to the obvious objection (which, to his credit, he notes) that taking these drugs is not to “open the doors of perception”, but rather to *distort* one’s ability to perceive. It’s not as if we don’t know anything about the brain and body processes that enable cognition, nor how those processes are changed by hallucinogens, and furthermore changed in a way that we can say why certain drugs make us “see” x, y, or z.
Smith’s response to this is “Your brain is always on drugs”, i.e., there is a neurochemical component to all cognition and experience. But to say that is to quite simply deny everything we know about the typical function of neurochemicals and the way that they are altered by psychotropic drugs, in particular the specific way they are altered by hallucinogens.
It does seem true that people’s experiences on such drugs can wake them from one or another dogmatic slumber, open them up to new ideas, or get them to see things in a new way. But I’d argue: a) there is nothing unique about drugs to perform this function, as many life experiences can have that effect (though it is possible that only the experience of some drugs are able to suggest certain ideas to us, though that’s debatable); and b) such ideas as are suggested, or new avenues opened, will ultimately depend for their cogency on the arguments and evidence for them, not on the hallucinatory experiences that may have caused one to expand their philosophical horizons.
I’ll also note that this is by no means a new thing — William James, partly because of his personal experiments with nitrous oxide, was bolstered in his view that there are “other states of consciousness just as valid as the ordinary” (this is an off-the-top-of-my-head paraphrase of a famous quote from _Varieties of Religious Experience_). But as far as a I can tell, Smith’s reasoning here is just as lacking as James’ was over a century ago.Report
Most of the evidence that we have is anecdotal. The empirical data on the effects of psychedelics on creativity is inconclusive. There’s a number of studies suggesting that there may be a kind of placebo effect occurring: a user’s prior expectations of a drug’s effects (and not the drug itself) will influence self-reported increases openness and creativity.Report
I feel as if a number of the issues people bring up here are bordering on straw men.
1) “We should talk about dangers.” Don’t we in the U.S, get indoctrinated in the dangers of drug use from elementary school on? I sure did, my wife sure did, and my son (in third grade) certainly is.
2) “Some people have bad outcomes, e.g. addiction/abuse and/or mental health issues.” This is true, although with reasonable precautions regarding dosage, informed consent, and a basic psychological screening can minimize such negative outcomes. It’s worth noting here too that A) psychedelics in particular have a high threshold of abuse and almost no chance of addiction as we understand commonly it, and B) that the outcome of the anecdotal mental health decline(s) mentioned above don’t have obvious causal links.
3) “People who are under the influence of psychedelics are inarticulate.” I fail to see how one’s ability to have an important experience is in any way linked to one’s ability to articulate it. Cf. religious experiences, sexual pleasure, major aesthetic events.
4) “People don’t remember what they thought was so cool the next day.” This is of course a purely anecdotal assertion, but even if we are generous to the claim, it has no bearing on the reflection upon the psychedelic experience after it is over. In fact, I’d argue that it is very much that reflection that makes the experience.
5) “There’s nothing unique about drugs here.” Absolutely true. I’m not sure anyone has said otherwise. Meditation, breathing control, exhaustion, fasting, great physical pain, deep love and so forth can lead to similar, if less long-lasting, experiences. Psychedelic drugs are one way to access such experiences. If that way or those experiences don’t appear to you, I don’t think anyone is suggesting you should experiment.
6) Someone above said “or do psychedelics lead to brain damage?” Really? I mean really? Do we have any reasonable evidence or consensus that informed experimentation with psychedelics leads to brain damage? If so, there are lot of folks with brain damage out there that is imperceptible to those around them, my dude.
My view is this: Experiences are often risky in one way or another. I doubt that anyone would respond the way we are seeing above if Smith were to make a similar argument about skydiving or mountain climbing, which I would imagine are statistically far more dangerous than reasonable use of psychedelics. Even sex is risky, for all sorts of reasons — ought we then rule it out? What if I become a sex addict? What if I catch syphilis? Surely had I never opened Pandora’s box, if I had never had sex, I would be fine.
In fact, I’ll just be clear — the assumption that the base state of consciousness that we all more or less experience is in fact more valid, better than, more accurate, or even clearer seems to me just incorrect. No one is suggesting constant intoxication Brave New World-style. That’s not healthy for one’s body, relationships, ability to work, etc. But the idea here I think is this–one gets perspective by stepping out. It’s not Archimedean, and most people don’t turn into Terrence McKenna or Tim Leary. If you’re interested, consider it. If you’re not, or have a history of schizophrenia in the family, or suicidal depression, maybe it’s not for you. But I think the puritanical approach is just wrongheaded, and I think that if you are interested in epistemology and/or perception and/or estrangement from the base state of consciousness for the purposes of learning about that base state, rather than for purposes of self-annihilation, experimenting with psychedelics in the appropriate context, in an informed way, and with mild and infrequent doses, might be of interest.Report
That was well said, thank you, as it allows me to be rather more anecdotal. Back in the 1970s I experimented with both LSD and psilocybin mushrooms and have no regrets. I took the latter again later, shortly after I was married (and then attended a divine liturgical service at a Russian Orthodox, replete with icons, incense, etc.), and again the experience was on par with earlier instances, but in my case, and in the spirit of what several folks have said on this subject, “I (finally) got the message, so I hung up the phone.”
I knew people who had bad experiences with psychedelics (yet not nearly as many who had horrible experiences with PCP or ‘angel dust,’ alcohol, barbiturates, and speed … sometimes a combination of any of these!), one in particular who seemed addicted (I can’t say for sure, but I know he took them frequently). Such things are of course not for everyone, and some people should definitely not take them. How to decide if you are one of those? That is not an easy question to answer, and presuming one would not benefit from a paternalist response, one should solicit advice from those believed trustworthy and/or who are particularly well-informed on the subject, perhaps even psychiatrists or psychoanalysts with some expertise in this area. There are questions of “set and setting” that I’ve found helpful (the former involving one’s mind-set or dispositions as it were, so it involves notions of attention, self-awareness, and the like), the meaning of which was first explained in (Dr.) Andrew Weil’s classic work on the subject, The Natural Mind: A New Way of Looking at Drugs and the Higher Consciousness (1st ed., 1972; I’m unsure of the latest edition). Dr. Weil is far more well known today than back then, as he writes and speaks on all manner of health topics. In addition, one might read Peter Matthiessen’s novel, At Play in the Fields of the Lord (Random House, 1965; in particular, what the character Lewis Moon decides to do as it relates to his being part Indian). Finally, I was further informed and influenced by a radio program of lectures (largely having to do with ‘Asian philosophies’ but including some discussions of altered states of consciousness) by Alan Watts back then on the Pacifica radio station, KPFK in Los Angeles. Questions of motivation are paramount: why do you want to take psychedelics? If it has anything to do with, as we say, escaping reality, or relieving depression, or simply kicks, psychedelics are decidedly not for you. For myself, I was interested in alternative states of consciousness and how these may or may not be related to mystical states of consciousness found in various religious traditions. One thing I learned is that the highest states of same, when involving notions of “emptiness,” “nothingness” and the like, are rather different than the states attained through use of psychedelics.Report
On point #1 I would recommend charity. I think most of the folks who are urging that we temper these conversations with recognition of both drug abuse and the changing nature of developing brains aren’t Just Say No types. They can agree with you that there is a politicized anti-drug ideology that is at best ridiculous and at worst positively harmful.
In fact, those of us who have lost our loved ones to drug abuse one way or another know this all too intimately as it’s part of what keeps abuse shameful and in the dark when it should be a part of normal health conversations like this one.
There are definitely Just Say No crowds. I doubt this is one of them. From what I’ve been hearing, its a this crowd:
we’ve been in the trenches caring, loving, and losing people for whom even casual drug use turns out to have consequences that most people, including us, didn’t expect or know, or anticipate. After all, Nancy Regan didn’t talk about that, she just said “no”.
Life, and death, are more complicated than that. If not charity, then, please, a bit of care.Report
Yes. It’s not puritanism for some people; it’s bearing witness to tragic deaths or damaged lives that began innocuously enough with small experiments. For most, the experiment has minor effects. The problem is we can’t easily predict who will suffer worse effects. I wouldn’t tell people who need painkillers after surgery not to take them simply because a small percentage will develop an addiction, but I also wouldn’t advocate taking them recreationally knowing this Is one of the possible outcomes. Psychedelics may not seem as risky but they can have profound and unpleasant effects. Some people with mental illness use them to self-medicate. PCP and ketamine can be damaging even after one use.Report
In response to both of these comments, I agree and charity is always good. I don’t think I connected real people’s experiences with bad outcomes with puritanism in my initial post, and like anything else that involves risk, there very much is a danger.
But I’ll double down on the notion that the risk-aversion case is relatively weak. I don’t have numbers but I would say the vast majority of–and it’s important that we’re specific here–occasional experimenters with psychedelics neither find their lives negatively impacted as a result nor in any way regret their experimentation. I would also imagine that most of such experimenters do not continue use over longer periods of time (5+ years). Indeed, our anecdotal evidence on this thread shows this desistance pattern–a desistance pattern that, I should note, is probably not generally caused by worries of addiction or “brain damage” or terrible experiences but rather by the feeling that one has experienced what one has found useful and that there is no pressing need to experience it again.
It’s a truism to say that alcohol, opiates/opioids, benzos, amphetamines, cocaine, PCP, ketamine, and even cannabis are likely more risky in terms of addiction and causing real life problems. And certainly, there are people who are prone to addiction (but again the experience of psychedelics is unlikely cause true addiction — euphoria is not guaranteed, psychedelic experiences are often quite long and can be rather exhausting, and rather than dulling sensitivity psychedelics will tend to enhance it, meaning that those looking for release from emotional pain will not typically find it).
So of course, caution is advised as I said above. But for a healthy adult with no indicators of a history of mental illness, taking e.g. 100-150 micrograms of LSD is while being monitored by a friend in a pleasant setting and not as an escape from reality is I think very unlikely to result in whole life falling apart.
In terms of charity to those who have dealt with suffering due to addiction (and the presumption seems to be that I have not, which is incorrect), it is noteworthy that U.S. society is, and has been for at least 120 years or so, incredibly and forcefully anti-drug (and yes, even alcohol–remember prohibition?). And, I want to suggest, the consequences of that position (black markets, tainted drugs, drug wars, cartels, and so on) have very likely resulted in far, far more damage than has “tune in, turn on, drop out.” There is literally no one out there who has been through public school in the U.S. since the early 1970s who doesn’t know that drugs can be dangerous.
Further, of all classes of “recreational” drugs, studies indicate that psychedelics are the least likely to be abused. So ultimately, I don’t buy the “we should talk about downsides too” claim simply because it is not the case that we aren’t fully aware, even completely misinformed (e.g. flashbacks, Jodie Foster jumping from the second floor, “brain damage,” etc) by downsides.
I don’t think Smith or I or anyone here says “you ought to do this.” I don’t think any of us think there aren’t very real dangers. And yet, there are at least some folks here in this very thread who have found value in these experiences. I would suggest that driving your vehicle is statistically (much?) more likely to result in life-altering suffering than taking a moderate dose of a psychedelic as an informed adult. Again, if you aren’t into doing so, don’t! If you worry about addiction or just don’t like drugs, cool! But I suspect you’ll find that of people who have reasonably experimented with psychedelics, the majority will not only not have regrets, but consider having done so valuable intellectually and/or emotionally. (And just to reiterate, I have not used psychedelics since roughly 1996).Report
“There is literally no one out there who has been through public school in the U.S. since the early 1970s who doesn’t know that drugs can be dangerous.”
I went to a large suburban public high school in the 1970s (graduated in 1975). I can recall no official communications from the school administration about the dangers of drugs (there may have been some such communications, but I can’t recall any). I can recall no mandatory assemblies with speakers about the dangers of drugs. It was a topic that never came up in any classes, as far as I remember. Some kids smoked pot on the school grounds and the administration mostly looked the other way. (I didn’t smoke pot, because I didn’t want to; possibly my general attitude was also influenced by having seen the harm done by nicotine addiction, in the form of cigarette smoking, in my own family.) In short, “official” messages about drugs in the public schools I attended were either minimal or nonexistent. Report
I’m not doubting your account, but I think it somewhat strange. I mean Nixon declares the war on drugs in a televised press conference in mid-1971, the Controlled Substances Act goes through earlier in the year, “Go Ask Alice” is published the same year, and by ’73 we have the DEA.
I’m willing to shift the time frame up a decade to 1983 when D.A.R.E. begins, if you like. Even then, if a person graduated high school in 1983 when D.A.R.E. begins, they would now be in their late 50s. I find it difficult to believe that a reasonably well-informed person in their late 50s would not be aware of some of the downsides of psychedelic drug use.Report
I am the one who said, “Is this because psychedelics really do lead to insights? Or is [it] just brain damage? Opinions differ.” This is what is known in the wider world as a “joke,” or really, I suppose, a joke with no quotation marks.
The first clue that the remarks were meant to have a comedic effect was the gratuitous use of “Opinions differ.” The second clue was the structure of the remark. Compare, “People keep watching ‘The Last of Us,’ despite how boring it is either because they loved the original game or because the original game gave them brain damage’.” See? “Do people with brain damage read comment threads? Or do comment threads cause brain damage?” For someone who calls people, “my dude,” and wants to experiment more with drugs, you don’t seem have a light touch.
Wait! – I picture you saying – if that was a joke what is the point? I am glad you asked.
The point is that if it is true, as I just claimed myself in my comment right before the quote, that people on psychedelics seem to persist longer in their claim that while tripping they had an insight than people who do other drugs, it might be true that they do, in fact, have some insight(s). But their insistence alone is not much evidence, in part, because (as I said earlier) if you ask them to explain their insight, in my (for what’s worth) experience, they don’t do any better than people on other drugs. And, here finally the point, isn’t it just as likely that the persistence of the feeling that you have had an insight, much like the feeling that you had an insight, is itself a side effect of the drug and not the doors of perception left slightly ajar? Report
I see. So when a joke falls flat, it is due to the lack of appropriate sensitivity in the audience?
I’m not precisely sure what you mean by “a light touch,” but since we’re being mildly pedantic here, you might consider reading what I have said. It is not my position that the experience one has on such drugs (“insight” or “feeling of insight,” as you call it) can or should be articulated in the moment or that it is the specifics of the experience (e.g. “I saw colors”) that are important. If your objection is that people on drugs are not articulate about what they are experiencing, I think you have missed the point. Again, as I write above it is the exposure to perspective that matters, and it is crucial that one reflects upon that experience, viz. ceremonial use of intoxicants throughout human history. I’m afraid that if you head to the Amazon and speak to a person experiencing an ayahuasca ritual about what they are experiencing when they are, colloquially, “tripping balls” you are not going to get an articulate response. If, however, you ask that same person a week later what they experienced or learned as a result, you might find something interesting. Or, you can just continue to be dismissive. Your call.Report
The point is not about when people can be articulate about their drug experiences, or at all, the point is that people who are intoxicanted often think they are insightful, but there is a little or no evidence for that. One kind of evidence would be their ability to articulate what the insight was, not just right away, but ever. There might be other sorts of evidence. But I don’t see any. As far as I can tell the claim that one took lsd and had a profound insight as a result is very much on par with the claim that after praying and fasting you had a vision of God. Absent some further evidence it’s not dismissive to say I don’t see the evidence.Report
I officially take the ‘light touch’ bit back, btw. Sorry. Clearly, your a barrel of laughs.Report
It is strange how I tend not to engage with humor when when my interlocutor is pedantic, condescending, and simply doesn’t read what I write.
I would add, and I’m done with this thread after this, that your claims of lack of “evidence” seem to be based on exactly nothing that you have presented here. You’re just asserting that this is so in the direct face of others who are, it is worth noting, are presumably just as educated and capable of intellectual success are you are. Humility, it would seem, is not your forte. Nor is listening. Indeed, your game here is is simply to be dismissive.
If you were to educate yourself on this subject by, for example, reading therapeutic studies, taking seriously what others have said in this thread, reading up on ceremonial use of enthnogens, and so forth I suspect you would find that your dismissiveness, and yes that’s what it is, is both uninformed and unserious.
And again as I have said now more than once, neither I or anyone else is saying that anyone should do this. What I think I have been fairly clear about here is that many of the objections raised in this thread are if not unfounded then less based on reality than on certain prejudices.
Elsewhere on this thread you mention alcoholic writers as analogues and you impute motivations of boredom and what you consider presumably callow countercultural leanings. The first case is apples to oranges for a number of reasons already laid out here and easily discoverable by a quick Google search. In the second case, it is profoundly ungenerous to impute foolish motivations esp. when it has been explained to you over and over that these assumed motivations are not the case.
And then the ad hominem attacks begin. I’m not going to take your bait in regards to that. And unlike you, I’m not going to speculate about my interlocutor’s character. I’m just going to be be direct — Your sum total of comments on this thread are uninformed, judgmental, unexamined, based on prejudicial assumptions, and dismissive. You take no care to actually address the points brought up, you poison the well, you confuse pedantry for discussion, you make poor analogies and drop red herrings, you accuse your interlocutors of being either naive or confused while offering no evidence for your blanket pronouncements, and you are unable or unwilling to draw distinctions between cases.
I’ve laid out my case, and I think it’s absolutely a slam dunk. I don’t know you, and I don’t know what you are like, but gotta take the L here my friend. You’re not only being a smirking a**hole, and even if you were right that’d be unnecessary, you’re not even engaging seriously.
Maybe you don’t think this topic merit serious engagement. If that’s the case, consider shutting up and moving on rather than arguing in bad faith and insulting people.Report
I think suggesting one is a little over serious is hardly on par with referring to someone condescendingly as “dude buddy,” pedantic, a “smirking a…hole,” uniformed, naïve, and confused, By my count you are way, way ahead on ad homs. Plus, talk about not reading, I’m done after, but here again…
The point is not about when people can be articulate about their drug experiences, or at all, the point is that people who are intoxicanted often think they are insightful, but there is a little or no evidence for that. One kind of evidence would be their ability to articulate what the insight was, not just right away, but ever. There might be other sorts of evidence. But I don’t see any. As far as I can tell the claim that one took lsd and had a profound insight as a result is very much on par with the claim that after praying and fasting you had a vision of God. Absent some further evidence it’s not dismissive to say I don’t see the evidence.
Is it rapier-like wit or poisoning the well? Opinions differ.Report
As to wit, I can only say that even a molehill looks like a mountain on a perfectly flat plane.Report
Since I am sure accusations of plagiarism are next on the menu, I should be clear that that’s a paraphrase of Marx on Mill.Report
I am a UK based psychiatrist with an interest in philosophy. I really agree what Ian has written here and in the ensuing comments. In particular, psychedelics are not the class of drugs we see in connection with serious mental health problems with any frequency (these instead are cannabis and stimulants associated with psychosis, and opioids, alcohol and stimulants associated with dependence). Use of psychedelics clearly isn’t risk free but it’s been long established (see the work of David Nutt) that their risk is far eclipsed by that of alcohol and various other activities (e.g. some contact sports). I’m sure many could tell of their time spent caring for those whose lives have been ruined by alcohol dependence.
Secondly, most will be aware that there has been a recent resurgence in research around the use of psychedelics therapeutically. I have had a small amount of experience in some of this research and have a couple of friends who are heavily involved in the field. It’s a broad church that spans pharma-funded psychopharmacologists to evangelical countercultural spiritualists.
The point relevant for this discussion is that in most cases the model of treatment that is emerging as supported by evidence is one of psychedelic assisted psychotherapy; i.e. it isn’t taking a daily tablet ala SSRIs or microdosing, but having a psychedelic experience (in a setting designed to minimise the risk of a bad trip) which are then reflected upon in psychotherapy sessions. One of the principal hypotheses as to why this approach is effective is that the experience opens up new ways of thinking (or feeling), i.e. new cognitive pathways, and this is thought to be particularly useful to those whose thinking has become stuck in particular patterns (e.g. entrenched depression). There is also now data (in addition to years worth of anecdote) to suggest that the general mental wellbeing of those not previously considered mentally unwell may also be improved by the same mechanisms.
In addition to the subjective experience of therapy clients and their therapists, fMRI data also suggests that this is (at least one) mechanism of therapeutic action for psychedelics (if interested Google “psychedelics and the default mode network”). Michael Pollan’s book explores this all in more detail.
Importantly, this is qualitatively different to alcohol or opiates, which don’t seem to offer any lasting therapeutic role outside of breifly suppressing angst, offering disinhibition or treating established dependence. (MDMA, on the other hand, has an established therapeutic role in treating PTSD)
If there’s a growing consensus amongst researchers that psychedlics can help individuals improve their lives through accessing new ways of thinking, in a way that other drugs don’t, doesn’t it seem reasonable to at least consider the fact that they might be useful for philosophers, rather than dismissing their effects out of hand as being no different to alcohol intoxication?Report
To discover other dimensions of this topic, check out Osiris Sinuhé González Romero’s work here: https://chacruna.net/author/osiris-sinuhe-gonzalez-romero-ph-d/Report
What legal liabilities might a philosophy professor espousing psychedelic drugs as an epistemic aid to undergraduate students be exposed to?Report
All of them.Report
You mean an adult offering an opinion to other adults which they are free to take or not take?
There should be no legal liabilities for that.
Possibly some lawyer should find a way around that.
Our freedom is being continually restricted so it’s only a matter of time.
But fortunately, at the moment, adults are usually free to speak their views about the world at large and are not legally liable for the actions other adults take on the basis of those opinions.Report
Aidan Lyon also has a forthcoming book on the psychedelic experience, as well as current work on drugs, meditation, and other related psychedelic experiences: https://aidanlyon.com/Report
Is this why philosophers (and academics in the humanities in general) may have lost the respect of the general public? Who has the time, luxury and job security to ‘épater les bourgeois’ anymore (and isn’t what this is partially about?), except the tenured professariate – and there is hardly anyone whose life circumstances could be more bourgeois. Who else could dimiss reality as a ‘counter-intuitive picture’, a reality which weighs so heavily on the rest of us?
If one reads the original post in it’s entirety, one can see that Smith near admits that he was just replacing one addiction (alcohol) with another.
(In another post on his personal blog, he recounts ordering $600 worth of cheap wine at the beginning of the pandemic, and says ‘it didn’t last very long’. Egads!)
But apparently drunkedness is just mundane, while the other stuff leads to apparently profound insights.
If one really wants to ‘dwell in uncertainty’ or upend one’s perceptions of life in a sustainable way, I would suggest going to live, or better yet, work, in some other part of the globe. Maybe one will learn a bit more than can be communicated by means of trite truisms about the interconnectedness of reality. And having said that, I am rather surprised that the author, who seems to have done plenty of both, doesn’t seem to have found these experiences to be a source of the kind of upendedness he seems to be seeking.Report
Having an interest in the ultimate character of reality is perfectly consistent with serious political engagement in lived world of everyday experience. Look at how politically engaged Kant was, Nor did Russells interest in the foundations of logic and mathematics lead him to serene quietism in the face of evilReport
The answer to the question in the title is “yes.”Report
Philosophers on Drugs?
Justin Smith wrote, “For all our efforts, we still are not one step closer to apprehending the things in themselves.” I suppose Smith knows this because, were we to apprehend things in themselves, we would be apprehending things as they are apart from being apprehended since what could a thing in itself be other than a thing as it is apart from its interactions with other things, things such as ourselves, who by all accounts must interact with things in order to apprehend them? This makes a certain amount of sense.
Smith clarifies this insight: “You can’t perceive the thing that lies behind what you are perceiving, since the instant you do perceive it, it no longer lies behind but is front and center.” I suppose Smith knows this because even when you play peek-a-boo with a baby for the fifth time in a row, when the baby certainly knows what is behind the crib side she perceives, she still does not laugh until you pop up and say “peek-a-boo!”
I enjoyed the exchange of views in this thread and remain undecided on the title question but I would like to amplify the comment by Nick that “there are pretty heavy implications the early Greeks were into using psychedelics.” I see the evidence for this in Parmenides vivid poem on his trip to the Palace of the Night (obviously recounted after his return), which is filled with psychedelic insights that bypass argumentation. For example, “It is the same thing to think and to be.” Let us compress Parmenides wide-ranging insights into a necessarily incomplete psychedelic aphorism: “All is One.”
Parmenides alludes to his predecessor, Heraclitus, as part of the “blind, amazed, uncritical hordes, by whom To Be and Not To Be are regarded as the same and not the same …” Heraclitus also philosophized in a manner that bypassed the need for premises leading to a conclusion. He expressed his insights in an aphoristic form that demanded little of his extended short-term memory, and they read as having been transcribed as he tripped. His fragments are far more wide-ranging than Parmenides and are hard to compress into one aphorism, but since almost all rely on antithesis or irony, and since irony is any meaningful gap between the expected and the actual, let us integrate Heraclitus’ motion across these gaps (voids?) into one all-encompassing term, “flux”. Flux carries us instantaneously from “is” to “is not” making them simultaneously true. His psychedelic aphorism: “All is Flux.” As Aristotle remarks on this fundamental idea, “The doctrine of Heraclitus, that all things are and are not, seems to make everything true …”
We need not fret that these psychedelic aphorisms are contradictory and thus cast doubt on the utility of the psychedelic shortcut to insight. Rumor has it that insights based on reasoned arguments from demonstrable premises have also reached contradictory conclusions. On the other hand, axiomatic insights such as Aristotle’s “The same attribute cannot at the same time belong and not belong to the same subject in the same respect,” though not based on prior premises, seem unlikely to have originated psychedelically. Report
Justin’s article was one of the most insightful and moving that I have read in a very long time. As a publisher of several books that treat psychedelics in various capacities and a person of interest in my own right, he is closer to the spirit of philosophy than any number of members of the guild.Report
Letheby’s precis of his book provides a nice overview in about 20 pages: https://philosophymindscience.org/index.php/phimisci/article/view/9627Report
“For all our efforts, we still are not one step closer to apprehending the things in themselves.”
Well, it could be that, e.g., perception furnishes us with a way of apprehending things in themselves. When you slurp that oyster, it could be that you’re apprehending how it really tastes. Of course, we can know things only if they’re related to us, or if they’re under our forms of perception, or if they fall under our conceptual schemes, etc.—we can’t get out of our own heads—but it doesn’t follow that he can’t know things in themselves. As David Stove pointed out, that’s the worst argument in the world.
Now, maybe you want to know whether we can know that we know things in themselves, but that’s a fool’s errand, and it might drive you mad. Report
A note about some of the comments I’ve already read on this page:
It’s fine to provide warnings about the risks and hazards of experimentation with psychedelic drugs,which can uncover or trigger some very serious problems in vulnerable people. It’s important for people intending to experiment with psychedelic substances to check their mental stability beforehand through a co-evaluation with another person who’s trustworthy, and then prepare an environment conducive to a successful experiment. Set and setting are at least as important as obtaining the proper substance at a reliable strength and purity. (Know your source.)
But no one who hasn’t experienced the substances for themselves as an adult (and without the complications of street drug-culture style polydrug ingestion) has any business pontificating about them, disdaining their effects, or indulging in smug, witless comparisons with entirely different classes of substances (like alcohol) that they happen to have experienced at firsthand. It’s pompous to do so.
Psychedelic enthusiasts are not indemnified from the temptation of pomposity by virtue of their experiences. But at least they aren’t broadcasting it from a stance of utter ignorance.
Debates on the possible value,or lack of value- or the essential character, or lack of character- of psychedelic voyages need to take place between people who have visited those realms firsthand. There’s a wide variation of opinion on these questions, but personal experience is a non-negotiable precondition for someone having any basis for knowing what they’re talking about in that regard. We’ve had over a half-century of living under rules made by people who boast of having had no experience with the substances that they’ve forbidden. The results have been an unmitigated disaster.Report