Toward a Critique of Psychedelic Reason, #4–Elaborations 1 and 2.

Mr Nemo
11 min readSep 18, 2023

By Otto Paans

(Vervaeke, 2022)

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TABLE OF CONTENTS

1. Introduction

2. Magic Mushrooms and Drug Use in Modern Society

3. A Preliminary Phenomenology of Psychedelic Experience

4. Elaborations

5. Conclusion

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This essay will be published in five installments; this installment contains the first two parts of section 4.

But you can also download and read or share a .pdf of the complete text of the essay, including the REFERENCES, by scrolling down to the bottom of this post and clicking on the Download tab.

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Toward a Critique of Psychedelic Reason

For every human illness, somewhere in the World exists the plant which is the cure. I believe that there is healing potential locked inside plants which is integral with their evolution, just as part of human evolution is to learn to tap this wonderful gift of Nature.[i]

To make biological survival possible, Mind at Large has to be funneled through the reducing valve of the brain and nervous system. What comes out at the other end is a measly trickle of the kind of consciousness which will help us to stay alive on the surface of this particular planet. To formulate and express the contents of this reduced awareness, man has invented and endlessly elaborated those symbol-systems and implicit philosophies which we call languages. [Every individual is its victim] in so far as it confirms him in the belief that reduced awareness is the only awareness and as it bedevils his sense of reality, so that he is all too apt to take his concepts for data, his words for actual things. (Huxley 2004: p. 11)

Philosophy is a battle against the bewitchment of our intelligence by means of language. (Wittgenstein, 1953/2009: p. 52e, §109)

The philosopher’s treatment of a question is like the treatment of an illness. (Wittgenstein, 1953/2009: p. 98e, §255)

4. Elaborations

In the previous sections, I indicated a few times that I would return to some or another theme in more depth. In this section, I make good on those indications. But it’s important to make it explicit that what I present here are only speculations and associations that strike me as plausible. Nevertheless, and once again in pursuit of real philosophy, I would like to formulate a few arguments about the workings of psychoactive compounds in general and of magic mushrooms in particular. Each point is preceded by the relevant passage from the text above.

Elaboration 1

The psychedelic experience deepens and extends reality; it does not remove or blur it but instead supercharges it. “Losing one’s mind” has little to do with psychedelics.

From its very introduction in Western societies, psychedelics had a fraught relationship with governments. This applies especially to any psychedelics that had the potential to expand reality beyond the customary boundaries of human experiences, but that also had the effect of inducing a reflective state. The innocent question “why would we spend our lives at a boring 9-to-5 job if we can explore psychic space instead?” is enough to rattle lawmakers, moralists and business-owners alike. The strategies that these groups have deployed to paint the effects of psychedelics and its users in the most ghastly of colors have been remarkably consistent throughout Western history. The users of psychedelics have been reviled as layabouts, dangerous utopians, half-mad bohemians, violent thugs and individuals with an inferior moral character to boot. The most interesting fact is that the only drug known to boost tendencies to violence, depression, addiction, and moral deterioration generally, namely alcohol, has only been prohibited for short amounts of time, but has consistently been part of Western culture.

Nevertheless, the core argument against any other psychedelic has always been that it entraps it users in a fantasy world that is dangerous to inhabit; and its close correlate, that those taking psychedelic lose their mind, become mentally unstable, are looking for cheap forms of escapism, and resorted to psychedelics because they were mentally unstable to start with.

This is a myth. The psychedelic experience shifts the position of everyday reality with regard to the observer. There is indeed a displacement going on, but one that is very unlike the blurring of reality induced by alcohol. The alcoholic rush boosts the ego and blurs out any details that are seen as irrelevant, even to the point that one cannot walk any longer. The ego-based character and the weakening of inhibitions leads to behavior ranging from mildly annoying the people sitting at the neighboring table to outright violence.

By contrast, the psychedelic experience enriches the experience of everyday reality to such a degree that it appears as if what we customarily perceive is a mere top layer, and not even a particularly interesting one at that. Instead, it appears to me that psychedelics (re)position the top layers of reality with regard to the hidden layers that underlie it. It does so by supercharging the imagination in real-life, causing reality to appear more fascinating, self-renewing, living, organic, meaningful and colorful than it was before. If anything, psychedelics hands us reality back in all its fullness, instead of blurring it. It does so through unlocking the fully natural capacity for continuous creativity that we all to some degree possess.

I spoke deliberately about a “(re)positioning of layers.” Let’s view it as a reworking of the Kantian insight that “[one] orients [one]self geographically only through a subjective ground of differentiation” (Kant 2001: p. 9). We might here exchange “geographically” for “spatially.” The very subjective ground of understanding is constituted by our bodies, through which we make gestures and act on possibilities. But equally, our understanding shifts once our (attitudinal) position towards reality noticeably changes, and our entire orientation towards the world performs a kind of Gestalt-shift, through which figure and ground change places or exceed their linear relation altogether.

I have earlier alluded to this shift as “creative piety.” Using mushrooms seems to me the most direct pathway to experience a shift like this, although one should not think exclusively of it as a kind of Paulinian “conversion moment,” although this could very well occur. Instead, just like meditation, intensive sports, or losing oneself in creative work, mushrooms can induce a mental disposition that re-orients one’s understanding, and after which reality is viewed not just differently, but in which its complexity is more readily grasped. Like an image in which one can discern all kinds of shapes, it is hard to “unsee” certain features of reality, especially when they are experienced intensely during a psychedelic trip.

The trip effects a kind of epistemic after-image that colors and directs any subsequent encounters with reality. In turn, this newly acquired insight thought-shapes one’s attitude and the possibilities that appear as plausible live options. We can compare this to the kind of knowledge that is acquired by a medical doctor. While the doctor does not have all his knowledge directly accessible (or ready-at-hand), the presence of this accumulated body of knowledge leads to the formation of accurate judgement.

The doctor may glance at a patient, and what he sees may — even before he is self-consciously aware of it — shape and plot a preliminary judgement and even a course of action. Even a cursory glance can be an effective analytical instrument when the perceptual contents are flawlessly combined with a rich reservoir of background knowledge. A similar thought underlies Martin Heidegger’s existential tool-analysis, Michael Polanyi’s notion of tacit knowledge, and the Aristotelian notion of phrōnesis (practical knowledge) more generally.

Elaboration 2

What happens next is that these two-dimensional patterns [during a trip] become three-dimensional. And I mean this not just in the purely geometric sense of “acquiring an additional dimension.” Instead, they organize themselves in rapid successions that not only evoke depth and distance, but that also cause the lived body to feel that depth and distance. So, the visual information causes a physical, felt change in proprioception, hence in how the lived body orients and anchors itself in space. Or, is it the other way around, and the lived body is stimulated so that it creates different patterns of visual information?

Each of us possesses to some degree the capacity for continuous creativity. For instance, you could imagine someone coming with a solution to a thorny problem by heuristically running various scenarios in his head. This is a form of conceptual imagination in action. I concoct various possible scenarios and compare them. But what if you could run all scenarios simultaneously, in real time, with a speed that leaves you breathless and with emotions and affects as well as with conceptual content, and supported by mental imagery as well?

All this cannot but exert effects on the body, which in turn are translated into new outputs. Usually, we are not deeply aware of the effect of our thinking on our bodies. This is exactly why a “eureka” moment stands out from the everyday course of things. It amounts to feeling the ecstatic effect of a good or illuminating thought on our body, resulting in feelings of elation, delight, and joy.

But if this process is sped up and intensified, the result is a trip in the literal sense, with your body taking you on a ride. The close connection between thought and mood is continuously experienced and can — due to continuous creation — be influenced and to some degree directed, as well as being experienced from an observer-like modus.[i] The full-on experience of depth, distance, and movement becomes mentally supercharged. It is literally as if the mind is in full control of how space feels, and movement is felt. In other words: the fully embodied mind is placed fully in control, while the frontal lobe (the faculty responsible for deliberative reasoning) is suppressed in its analytical capacity.

Notably, the connection between thought and the proprioceptive positioning of the body is brought to the foreground of lived experience. Awe, ecstasy, fear, and all the other emotions that form a backdrop to the activity of thought and that we often uncritically relegate to the “unconscious” are turned into states that can be self-consciously evaluated and apprehended. Put differently, the use of psychedelics seems to widen the scope of deliberative reason without constraining it to analytical reasoning. Simultaneously, the feelings and emotions that are encountered by deliberative reason are not rationalized away, and nor do they lose their affective impact. Whereas we are used to opposing reason (Verstand) and feeling (Gefühl), psychedelics conjoin them into a harmonious constellation in which they both exist without blocking each other out.

In everyday circumstances, one must really goes to great lengths to mute or disable the active frontal lobe and the overriding voice of deliberative reason (the frontal lobe is nicknamed “the big snooze” for a reason) as it can block out a great deal of emotional information, even leading to a variety of physical complaints. Usually, breathing techniques or meditation are required to tune down the frontal lobe temporarily.

We are not used to thinking about feelings as a form of information. We don’t usually interpret feelings as signals, but more like illustrations of a certain pre-existing mental state. (I cry, because I am sad, I laugh because I am happy). Wittgenstein in the Philosophical Investigations went to great lengths to find out how supposedly private sensations translate into communicable concepts — alas, with no definitive result. However, our everyday language is full of hints about bodily communication: “He makes my skin crawl”; “I got goosebumps from listening to her speech”; “This behavior makes me sick.” Quite literally, the body is providing information, but it does so in a thoroughly non-propositional sense.

In a psychedelic trip, the tortuous, winding, hiking trail that connects emotion, information and analytical reason becomes a highway. For this reason, many individuals experience a mental breakthrough during a psychedelic trip. It is as if all a faculties and capacities of the body are fully aligned to promote optimal and indeed revealing communication. Is it a coincidence that there are multiple links between astrological theories in which planetary bodies are aligned in certain constellations, and psychedelic rites that align the various capacities of the body? It might be a speculation, but maybe primitive humans had an inkling of the complexity of our bodies and looked for a close analogy of its workings to the night skies. Given the mythical worldview that our ancestors entertained about Nature at large, this seems to me a possibility. Perhaps they theorized an ontological encounter between the rhythms of our bodies and those of the cosmos, inspiring them to celebrate perceivable cosmic events like summer and winter solstices.

Note that this breakthrough experience need not in itself be pleasant. If one has unresolved trauma and has suppressed it, such events may equally well surface. However, even in such cases that may be psychologically challenging, there is little doubt on my mind, that they are in the long run existentially rewarding.

Returning now to the idea of re-orienting oneself in thinking: perhaps psychedelics provide an answer to how to achieve such a re-orientation. First, psychedelic experience must be an essentially embodied experience. It cannot be and therefore is not a purely intellectual exercise in which some analytical cognitive module “makes sense” of incoming data. Instead, the psychedelic experience is fully felt and essentially embodied. Without the visceral, bodily aspect, the entire existential import of the trip and its re-orienting character would phenomenologically flatten out, and the trip would not be more interesting than watching a movie at the cinema. Second, psychedelic experience cannot do without the felt agency of the active imagination to orient oneself. If anything, the psychedelic trip places one’s imaginative agency at the very core of the experience, even to such a degree that the experience is overwhelming:

Bizarre ideas, often hilariously funny, curious insights, some seeming godlike in their profundity, shards of memories and free-form hallucinations all clamour for attention. (McKenna 2021: 292).

Third, it cannot be achieved without changing and moving. To be moved, literally, is an emotional experience, and so is a psychedelic trip. Paradoxically (but not surprisingly), the best trips start with technique: fasting, then sitting in a softly-lit room in a safe and quiet environment with your eyes closed. Preferably, meditate beforehand and make sure the mind is as empty as possible. But it is the immobilization of the body that focuses the mind and concentrates the attention. In such a state, the trip itself (a term already richly suggestive of pilgrimage, journeys, exploration, sequential events and faraway destinations) constitutes the ultimate experience of “being moved” while simultaneously being the authorial agent and prime mover of the trip.

NOTE

[i] McKenna makes a similar point, but his choice of words may cause confusion (McKenna, 2021: p. 292). He says that creativity is “observed and not expressed” during a trip. He is certainly right: the creative impulse during a trip seems to come from somewhere buried deep inside us, as if a well had been found. But this is somewhat different from the creative agency experienced while making a painting, sketching, or sculpting. These expressions of creativity require deliberately applied technique and attention, and fully involve the analytical mind. But the trip simply “happens” to someone, and while one can guide and steer, to some degree, what happens, the entire experience feels like an encounter rather than a performance.

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Mr Nemo

Formerly Captain Nemo. A not-so-very-angry, but still unemployed, full-time philosopher-nobody.