**note: I deviated from this week’s notes pretty heavily in the show, with extended discussion of the “REBUS” model of psychedelics – Dane ***
In 1954, English author, Adolous Huxley published The Doors of Perception – an essay that chronicled how his spiritual and metaphysical worldview shifted as result of his experiment with mescaline. There, Huxley remarks “at least one Professional philosopher has taken mescalin for the light it may throw on such ancient, unsolved riddles as the place of mind in nature and the relationship between brain and consciousness…” Ever since that bestselling book caught the imagination of the U.S. and Europe, the west world has been fascinated with the idea of neurochemically driven insight into the nature of reality.
Now, we need to be careful – because the word ‘insight’ is normative. That is, to call a shift in beliefs ‘insight’ is to assume that beliefs are shifting in a way that is more accurate. But, what if psychedelics shift our beliefs in ways that are less accurate? Then we would say that they foster, not insight, but delusion.
One of my favorite author’s, Philip K. Dick, frequently wrote about the idea of substances inducing delusions. For example, his novel “Through A Scanner Darkly” deals with a DEA agent who is stalking himself – unbeknownst even to himself, he is addicted to a drug that causes split personality disorder. In another novel, The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, Dick introduces “Can-D” a drug that allows people to experience themselves as being ‘translated’ into the body of a doll. The purpose of this drug is to allow vivid virtual reality-type indulgences that stave off cabin fever. These are people living in an alternative universe or dimension.
So, the idea of mind-altering substances being tools for helping us cope with life, by compromising our access to reality, is well-established in the world of fiction. I certainly think we should not accept this idea that psychedelics inherently promote either expanded or degraded consciousness, either insight or delusion.
S3 (Spectral Skull Session) is a show about possibilities. So I want to ask: what does the picture of what psychedelics do to our minds look like if we unburden ourselves of the baggage of assuming either that they induce enlightenment, allowing us to access alternative worlds, or that they induce delusion – causing the user to develop a “weirded out” worldview.
And it turns out: we DO know something. We know that psychedelics change how people see reality. They change people’s philosophical views.
Stay tuned for an episode that is as reality-bending as anything Huxley or Dick ever wrote…
There’s a new research publication out, supplying evidence consistent with the hypothesis that psychedelics change people’s metaphysical beliefs. Metaphysics is a branch of philosophy that deals with the fundamental structure of reality. Previous research has found that psychedelics induce mystical experiences, but this is (as far as I know it) the first study that found that psychedelics induce lasting changes in people’s belief systems.
Specifically, shifts their beliefs away from ‘materialism’ and towards supernaturalistic metaphysical viewpoints, including dualism and panpsychism. I’ll unpack what this research means. At the end of the episode, I’ll make an argument that the research has potentially radical implications for how we think about philosophy and psychedelics.
Let’s start with this research article. It is actually titled ‘Psychadelics Alter Metaphysical Beliefs’ The main author is Chris Timmermann. He works at Imperial College London where he is a PhD Candidate at the Centre for Psychedelic Research / Psychedelic Research Group, based at The Computational, Cognitive and Clinical Neuroimaging Laboratory (C3NL). His research focuses on the effects of DMT in the human brain.
What they did is advertise to people who were about to attend retreats using psychedelics. “Respondents planning to attend a ceremony involving a psychedelic substance (psilocybin/magic mushrooms/truffles, ayahuasca, DMT, San Pedro, LSD/1P-LSD)” They found 800 people who were going to attend a retreat. They compared them to people who were taking a prescription anti-depressant for major depression. All participants were given a survey of their beliefs to fill out one week before the retreat. And then they were resurveyed four weeks later. They were given a survey called the MBQ. The Metaphysical Belief Questionare (MBQ). This questionnaire consists of 13 questions, touching such topics as:
- Idealistic/solipstic – the physical world is an illusion
- Literal transcendence of the constraints of the unverse
- Dualism – the belief that the mind and body are distinct substances.
- Monism – the view that there is only one substance
- Belief that there are other worlds that one can visit.
- The notion that all mental events are due to brain activity.
- The notion that mental events are embedded in the brain, body, and world.
- Panpsychism – the belief that mentality is a fundamental feature of the universe.
And here is the MBQ in its entirety (taken from the supplement on the website hosting the preprint):
There exists another separate realm or dimension beyond this physical world that can be experienced and visited. (Ontological transcendentalism)
Visiting such immersive “realms” or “worlds” can sometimes depend on a supernatural / magical transition process or event. (Supernatural transcendentalism)
There are two separate realms of existence, the physical (body, brain and external world) and the mind, the latter being non-physical/non-material. (Dualism)
There is just one primary reality: the mind and/or consciousness and all material things derive from it. (Idealism)
There is just one primary reality: the physical; the mind (and/or consciousness) is just physical/functional properties of the brain and has an entirely material explanation. (Materialism)
There are other realms of existence which are more important than everyday reality. (Primacy of other realms)
The universe obeys a unifying principle which is beyond any possible material or scientific explanation. (Non-naturalism)
The universe obeys a unifying principle which is (in theory) completely addressed by a material or scientific explanation. (Naturalism)
The physical world is an illusion generated by consciousness or the mind
Mind, consciousness, or soul is a fundamental quality of all things in the universe, either animate or inanimate. (Panpsychism)
My conscious experience is entirely a construction of reality performed by my brain. (Internalism about consciousness)
My ‘self’ is entirely a construction of my brain (Virtual self theory)
My experience and my ‘self’ are deeply rooted in my body and its interactions with the world and not the sole construction of my brain. (Enactivism)
What they found is that, among people who participated in at least one psychedelic retreat, there was a significant shift towards affirmation of statements about the reality of the supernatural, the distinction between mind and body, and the non-existence of free will. Specifically, participants shifted towards dualism, panpsychism and away from materialism. They also shifted towards views like Ontological Transcendentalism, which holds that There exists another separate realm or dimension beyond this physical world that can be experienced and visited. (Ontological transcendentalism). And supernatural transcendanetalism which holds that “Visiting such immersive “realms” or “worlds” can sometimes depend on a supernatural / magical transition process or event.” The changes remained detectable in the six month follow-up. In fact, many of the changes increased.
They also found that lifetime psychedelic usage strongly correlated with these same beliefs – so people who have had more psychedelic experiences in their lives were less sympathetic to materialism, and more inclined towards transcendentalism, pan-psychism, dualism. But, interestingly, those people were ALSO more inclined towards fatalism. Fatalism is the view that history including the future is fixed and there is nothing you can do about it. In the six month follow-up, all the beliefs associated with non-physicalism increased, except for this one which was “There are other realms of existence which are more important than everyday reality “
It’s also worth noting that the degree to which beliefs changed was found to correlate with the participant’s experience during the retreat as well as features of the participant themselves. So people who score higher on ‘peer conformity’ changed their beliefs more. But a much bigger factor impacting belief change was how much emotional synchrony the participants achieved with the retreat group. People who had higher levels of synchronization with the emotions of the other members of the retreat had more belief change. And the degree to which a person synchronized with the rest of the retreat was determined by such factors as ‘gender’ (with women changing their beliefs more) and age (with younger people changing more) and trait absorption (the degree to which a person is amenable to highly focused states). So the more you’re able to focus and enter trance-like states, the more likely your beliefs were to change away from physicalist type beliefs and towards non-physical beliefs.
The authors noted that the ways in which beliefs change – this shift away from materialism, towards non-materialistic views like dualism and panpsychism, it seems to be a reflection of the beliefs of shamanistic societies and also the beliefs of psychedelic influence cultural groups in the West.
Now, this raises a bit of a chicken v. egg question. And that question is: is it that PSYCHEDELICS cause people to believe in the supernatural and mind/body distinction (as well as in fatalism). ORRRR…is it that participating in a psychedelic ceremony in the United States causes people to shift their metaphysics in these ways? The question is a live one. It could be that psychedelics open your mind to another way of seeing reality, or help us gain access to hidden realms. But it could also just be that when you participate in a very intense ritual alongside people who believe in weird things, that you are likely to adopt some weird beliefs. It’s not clear from this study whether psychedelics transmit metaphysical change innately or whether it’s the ‘psychedelic culture’ that transmits metaphysical beliefs.
I’m pointing out a ‘flaw’ in the study: it seems like it should have been designed comparing psychedelic usage + retreat attendance to retreat attendance (only). Comparing psychedelic usage + retreat attendance to anti-depressant usage seems like the wrong comparison to make. That said, I think they probably designed the study this way on purpose – because they need to show that there’s some kind of metaphysical change associated with psychedelics FIRST (to get funders and journals interested) and then they can always do a follow-up study to tease out the respective contributions of psychedelics and retreat participation.
Do we have any independent reasons for thinking that psychedelics have some innate ability to change our metaphysical beliefs? Well, one of the things that these guys mention in the preprint is that there’s a prominent theory of how psychedelics work to change beliefs, called REBUS – relaxed beliefs under psychedelics. So I found this other paper. It’s from 2019, and it’s titled “REBUS and the Anarchic Brain: Toward a Unified Model of the Brain Action of Psychedelics” And this paper explains that REBUS is a model in which beliefs are a function two kinds inputs: (1) your prior commitments and (2) your current inputs. And psychedelics work to shift the weightings – the respective priority you give to one or the other – away from prior commitments and towards your current inputs. So you form beliefs based more on what’s happening to you right now and less on what beliefs you formed awhile ago. But…and maybe I’m not getting something here. I don’t see how this explains psychedelic belief change. Because…..as the authors not themselves, the study didn’t find that people generally relaxed their beliefs, but there’s a shift in a particular direction. There’s a shift away from materialism, and towards non-materialist views of the nature of reality.
So one way to make sense of this with the REBUS model, would be if psychedelics BOTH relax your commitment to your priors AND they also cause you to experience things that are consistent with alternative spiritual views such as pan-psychism, or the mind being somehow independent of the material world. So, I would think you would need both a relaxing model of belief formation and also you’d want some other factor to explain the shift. It could be that psychedelics cause you to directly experience reality differently. But we have to also consider that it could just be a fancy version of placebo effect – maybe because we all have this background idea that psychedelic culture is sort of mystical, and eastern, and spiritual whenever any of us do psychedelics we think a bunch of mystical and eastern thoughts, and then shift our beliefs towards those ideas. I concede it is very hard to know.
So what do we know? Well, I don’t think we can hang very much on this one study. After all, it’s just one study. But it’s very consistent with something that a lot of us have noticed or suspected already – that spiritual activities associated with psychedelic usage induces our philosophical beliefs in directions that are more consistent with what we traditionally think of as eastern spirituality.
So what is the upshot here? Well, the study does a good job of pointing out that we can’t really infer anything direct about the value of psychedelics from this finding about how they impact people’s beliefs. As I noted in the introduction, it could be that materialism is true, and psychedelics induce delusional thinking. Alternatively, it could be that psychadelics help people ‘wake up’ to the reality that materialism is a sort of narrow-minded ideology that we mistakenly conflate with being smart and sophisticated.
But we can study how changes in beliefs correlate with well-being and different social outcomes. The authors of the paper note that there’s some mixed bag here. On one hand, they say that bigger changes in beliefs correlated with increased well-being. On the other hand, they note that fatalism, and anti-physicalists beliefs have been associated with some maladaptive coping. Fatalists, for example, are more likely to cheat – I suppose they figure that they’re destined to do one thing or another so they can’t help it if they cheat. This is not very good logic, but it’s not worth elaborating here.
One of the big picture issues I want to raise is only touched on by the article. They note:
One popular historical narrative is that spiraling psychedelic use in 1960s catalysed counter-cultural views and activities that provoked prohibitionist policies which effectively suspended research and clinical/therapeutic work with these compounds Recent evidence suggests that psychedelic use has increased exponentially in the last decade in the US and is set to scale-up further due to increasing public interest and liberalising policies on acess.
So here the authors acknowledge that it seems that psychedelics alter people’s beliefs, and they do so in a way that can be destabilizing to society, or at least highly threatening to certain power-structures. So I think this is really important. We have talked on this show about the power of the psychedelic counter-culture in the 1960s and 1970s, and how complex this community was. We have also talked about archeological research suggesting that the ancient Greek world may have been held together by a psychedelic ritual. So the potential social power of psychedelics may be quite awesome and is probably currently underappreciated.
Ultimately, I think this paper raises a really important point, that goes unexplored by the authors. But I am going to explore it right now: if psychedelics change your worldview, that has value in only two ways
1.) Psychedelics shift your worldview in a direction that has pragmatic value (making you happy, or ‘better adjusted’)..
2.) Psychadelics shift your worldview in a way that makes your views more accurate.
I’ve mentioned 1.) throughout this episode – the evidence that psychedelics help people let go of their past, and become more flexible, and how this helps people psychologically. But let’s talk now about 2.) – the truth-value of psychedelics.
Consider this argument:
- Consciousness expansion, if it existed, would include, by definition, forming a more nuanced and accurate, representation of our reality.
- Psychedelics shift people’s beliefs away from materialism and towards panpsychism and dualism:
- There are philosophical arguments for and against both materialism and panpsychism.
- But, if you believe that materialism is true and panpsychism is false or implausible, then psychadelics undermine consciousness expansion. You might say that they cause consciousness shrinkage.
- If you believe panpsychism is true or plausible, and materialism is false or implausible, then taking psychedelics facilitates consciousness expansion
So, whether you should see psychedelics as enhancing consciousness or diminishing consciousness, would seem, at least from this argument I gave above, to be a function of whether you think the philosophical arguments are.
So I would strongly encourage everyone in the audience. If you’re thinking about doing psychedelics. Maybe do some reading on materialism, pan-psychism, dualism first. I would say, you might read the modern philosophers – people like Descartes and Malebanche. And then pan-psychism. I think that’s Spinoza. I also know that Chrisitan philosopher Alvin Plantinga has a so-called “Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism” which is a unique line of criticism of materialism. So you might want to look at these different arguments and follow some of the debate before you do psychadelics.
And similarly, if you’re planning a psychedelic pow-wow, or a retreat. I would encourage you to consider I would encourage you – maybe hire a philosopher. And have him come and give you a presentation and do a Q&A. Maybe assign some readings. And have the participants think over materialism, pan-psychism, dualism, BEFORE you start doing drugs.
I would think that you might do the readings and take the seminar and decide “oh hey, well, I think pan-psychism is nuts, and I wouldn’t want to be a person who believes it,” but you might also say “oh well the arguments for pan-psychisms are interesting, and I think they make sense, but I have trouble taking the view seriously.” Well, you might be uniquely situated then to benefit from psychadelics because it would reduce your cognitive dissonance.
And I would wager that if you go into psychedelic experiences better informed – philosophically – you’ll ultimately be able to handle whatever the experience throws at you. I don’t have any hard scientific evidence for this. But it’s my very strong hunch.
Thanks everyone for listening, remember – don’t drop acid until you’ve consulted first with a philosopher! Thank you, everybody.
Stay strange and Stay Sane!