In the introduction I say that psychedelic experiences generally are often dismissed as hallucination.  Plant-people know that this is not so, but the dismissals often come from people who might be mistaken for experts, people who should know better.

It may simply be the case that science is not up to the job, but my feeling in this area is that the 'scientific community' is generally letting us down. 

For example, in ĎFood of the Godsí Terence McKenna suggests that the field of psychology has been satisfying itself with behaviourist theory making for the last 50 years, - and thereby doing humanity its greatest disservice.

Meanwhile it has been left to enthusiasts in other fields such as botany and anthropology to make the real discoveries at the frontier of consciousness research. McKenna suggests that psychology has been "content with behaviourist theory making", but one could point out that psychedelics were withdrawn as a legal research tools. Not much could be done about it then, one might argue, but also he, and others I have read since, make the point that the discipline of psychology as a whole did not really put up much of a fight in surrendering the use of LSD and other substances. Generally the faculty pretty much Ďrolled overí.

There are two explanations for this. One is that people are generally too frightened to bite the hand that feeds. The other is that even within the fields of psychology and of psychiatric research there was much controversy and disagreement about the use of these substances.

The internal controversy was fuelled by those who did not think that psychedelics were reliable tools, those who wanted to maintain the status quo, by and large (I maintain), the behaviourist theory makers.

Their reasons are obvious. The substances undermine their theories. Even under the most controlled and clinical of circumstances, where 'patients' were receiving 'treatment', paranormal phenomena such as experiences of a 'spiritual' or 'transcendent' nature were manifesting themselves. This must have been particularly embarrassing to the reductionists.

This, coupled with the external controversy, makes me question the notion of ever being able to do any meaningful research that might have paradigm shifting outcomes when one is (in effect) working for the establishment.

 

I put these points to a friend of mine, a Dr of Psychology.  The following text is based on our subsequent arguments (his input is shown black text against plain paper background) ...

 

WHY ISNíT PSYCHOLOGY INTERESTED IN CONSCIOUSNESS?


The problem with consciousness is the definition. I think what you are alluding to with drug experiences is consciousness as defined by experience.

At a fundamental level of human experience is (supposedly) the need to make sense of ones environment, that is, to construct a theory about what one is perceiving. In the study of perceptual illusions the conclusion is that, although light hits the retina at certain spot and that that in turn fires a certain set of transmitters at a certain site in the brain, humans still have to map that precept onto how they expect the world to be. Thus, illusions occur because the processing of stimuli is not all there is to perception. When someone sees a Necker cube (i.e., the 3D cube that the front face points downwards but then as you stare at it, it flips and then becomes the back face), the illusion occurs because causal theories of the world suggest that both outcomes are equally plausible.

A Necker cube

Note here that psychologists do not then go on to speculate on whether the cube is real or not. They are interested in the processing of the stimuli, not in the reality of the stimuli.

So how do we go about studying the drug experience? Well one answer is to conduct a qualitative experiment where we gather individualsí collective experiences and analyse the similarities in their narratives. Given the types of responses on your web-site, I suspect these narratives would reveal something significantly consistent.

However, what people say they see and what they actually see maybe two different things. For example, the Necker cube is just a 2D drawing that individuals universally see as 3D and see it flip, but it's just a 2D drawing. Iím not saying that drug experiences do not reveal something that is real, Iím just saying that scientifically, it would be easy to show that people perceived the same thing, but science canít tell us whether that thing is actually real. [How did you know the cube was Ďjustí a 2D drawing then? - editors comment]

You can collectively believe anything you want (e.g., alien abduction; god; reincarnation), but there seems no real way of testing whether that reality actually exists other than through what people say. People who believe that God exists present their case as vehemently as you do, the reality of a God is as real to them as your parallel universes>. Iím not saying that they are right, just that science canít sort these types of beliefs out. Science relies on hypotheses that are falsifiable; that people have a belief in God and parallel universes are certainly testable hypotheses, but the existence God and parallel universes themselves are probably not. Like I said, we probably need to invent another science to do that.

 

 

What Iím driving at is that the study of the nature of consciousness is a valid area for investigation, and that this investigation should not be a soft-headed affair. I donít want to throw the baby out with the bath water, some aspects of the Ďscientificí method are extremely useful here. For example, one can be sceptical. The thing about experiences induced with power-plants is that one is not being asked to believe. One can bring oneís scepticism along, by the wheel-barrow full if one wants. As long as you are prepared to put yourself on the line, to ingest, to experience, to ask "what is going on here?", then I think Ďscientificí ideas can be brought back. For example, the idea of psilocybin being a language facilitator is more like an observation, itís not something that Iím asking you to believe.

You say of me that, "People who believe that God exists present their case as vehemently as you do, the reality of a God is as real to them as your parallel universes."  Well, and this is critical, both might seem as equally real to you. - If you're outside both experiences, to you each experience can seem as equally believable (or, perhaps more accurately, unbelievable). But I would argue that many of those who say that God exists do so naively, and from a position of faith rather than from a position of experience. Also that there must be a critical difference in how respective arguments are made. The key thing is not how vehemently an argument can be made, but how convincingly.

 

 

My point is that is you can convince yourself you have seen God, or a ghost, and live the life that occurs as a consequence of such an experience, but there is still no way of validating the experience. I assume people who believe in God have not actually seen or experienced the thing that is God, but I'm not sure you can convince them they have not, as far as they are concerned they have.

I am not saying the salvia experiences are not real; Iím just saying that what I see, and what I think I see cannot be untangled in any scientific way. I'm sure you are aware of the counter-arguments to all of your experiences, but in the end, you rely on your own faith to validate your experiences. You present your case in exactly the same way as a devout Christian would, but your substantive evidence relies on the acceptance of a bunch of premises and logical leaps. For example, your belief that Salvia appearing at this moment in history is significant may be true, or it could be coincidence. You can construct an elaborate argument for the significance, but it requires faith to believe in it, no matter how convincing it is. I know you don't mean "convincing" in a loose way, after all, you can convince people of anything if you give them the right argument; I suspect you mean convince in the hardest way possible, that is, the argument is the truth; Iím not sure any argument is infallible. I suspect you can't logically prove the truth, you can only experience it.

Re proof: I accept there is a truth about the universe, and Salvia may help us see that truth, but I don't see the need to try and prove this simply because in trying to prove it, you may lose sight of the thing itself. Maybe it is better just to believe in it and try and understand it. Trying to prove things seems to me to end up in some sort of evangelism; if there is one thing that clearly does NOT need evangelism, then surely that is the truth?

 

You quote McKenna, well, Iím not so sure that psychology has been merely satisfying itself with behaviourist theory making. I agree that Skinner's claim that "eventually we will know the neural antecedents to the phrase "no thank you" was massively optimistic, and probably not true. I accept that our thoughts are caused by the firing of neurotransmitters [or is the firing of neurotransmitters caused by our thoughts? maybe it's both - ed.], and by understanding the configuration of these, we can understand what causes a thought. To believe in anything else is to believe in a non-causal structure to our experiences. However, given that we barely know what a single neuron does, then to understand what the main effects of three neurons firing together cause, and moreover, the interaction between them, is, well, pretty difficult. Times that problem by a million and you are attempting to solve a million way interaction. Causality may exist, and reductionism may conclude that these problems are solvable, but they are probably wrong.

 

However, clearly much of our behaviour is automatic and much of our understanding of our behaviour is post-hoc rationalisation, and to recognise this seems to me to be important. When I started psychology, I was impressed with the concept of implicit learning (learning without awareness); now I wonder whether anything is actually explicitly learned, maybe it is all implicit learning? What exactly does consciousness do, what does it actually make us aware of? A reductive way of thinking is at least one route to seeing a bigger picture because it demands that you question your experiences. Of course you can do it using other philosophies, but don't underestimate what reductionism can lead to.

 

On the same McKenna quote, which you seem to be agreeing with, well, you can't really blame psychology for legislation. Psychologists (like all scientists) will suggest an appropriate experimental design to test any set of hypotheses.

You say, "There are two explanations for this. One is that people are generally too frightened to bite the hand that feeds. The other is that even within the fields of psychology and of psychiatric research, there was controversy and disagreement about the use of these substances.

The internal controversy was fuelled by those who did not think that psychedelics were reliable tools, those who wanted to maintain the status quo, by and large (I maintain), the behaviourist theory makers."

This is just wrong. Psychology is regulated, it has to be. Psychology does not have a morality any different from what society imposes on it. It wasn't psychology that banned experiments on LSD, it was government. Like I said, psychologists will study anything you want them to, just give them the reins.

You say, "Their reasons are obvious. The substances undermine their theories. Even under the most controlled and clinical of circumstances, where 'patients' were receiving 'treatment', paranormal phenomena such as experiences of a 'spiritual' or 'transcendent' nature were manifesting themselves. This must have been particularly embarrassing to the reductionists."

A reductionist would explain that a transcendent experience has a cause and look for that cause. Now if McKenna is making a dualist argument, and suggesting that psychology is wrong not to look to the non-physical world for the answer, then of course he is right. Science exists in the physical world, in laws of cause and effect that are physical. If you want to invoke a non-physical link in a causal chain, then you go beyond science. Psychology is a science; it is not theology, or anthropology, or sociology; it contains bits of these, but only when these bits are testable.

What McKenna says is true, but he is wrong to blame psychology. After all, it was psychologists who started to investigate the effects of LSD, they just got stopped.

 

Psychologists study what they can. I'm not sure what exact definition of consciousness McKenna is talking about, but I think he is talking about the reality of people's experiences and as I have already said, there seems little way to actually test this because it may be beyond science. Just because psychology is bounded by science is not really psychology's fault.

 

 

I do not present my case in the same way that a devout Christian would. I accept that Salviaís appearance on the scene may just be coincidence. Iím just saying that from my perspective, i.e. that of a plant-person, the notion that its appearance is perhaps suggestive of an Ďintentioned otherí, that nature is perhaps Ďmindedí, seems more reasonable. It fits into a whole scheme of ideas, yes, - a philosophy if you like, but all of which stem from experience, all of which is experientially verifiable. - This is a form of testing; one can (and should) apply Occamís razor. The plantsí effects are richly variable, but on the other hand, quite reliable. Something does happen, unquestionably. In contrast, ask a Christian to show you God and they will not be able to deliver. They will go on about something else, faith, hope, devotion, repentance, forgiveness, opening your heart, etc, etc.

Ask a Christian to try Salvia, then what happens? Well quite often, strangely, the same thing as with many people that would consider themselves scientists, Örefusal. Iím not having a go at you in any way with all this. You have accepted a Salvia plant, and you experience mushrooms. Iím just concurring with your observation about many of your fellow psychologists.

I find the fact that this Ďoff limitsí notion can come from both the areas of science and religion quite interesting. Okay, Iím generalising about each of these here, Iíd hope we could find exceptions to the rule in either field, but the broad taboo and opposition from both camps is worth reflecting on. And I donít think it boils down as simply as acceptance of current legislature.

You say that I make my case in exactly the same way that a devout Christian would. But it seems to me that it is science that has by and large supplanted religion. - At least in its role of explaining reality. Science has tackled all sorts of questions in describing the world around us, and, as you know, itís rise and religionís decline are no coincidence. In that sense, accepted scientific ideas are a belief system. And, as with religion, orthodoxy does exist within science.

All great advancements in scientific thinking have to overcome the resistance of the establishment. Thereís nothing inherently wrong in this. Iím not saying that one should discard a theory when it works. Only when (and where) an idea is shown to be wanting, when it fails to properly explain observable phenomena, is it necessary to reconsider.

A good example is Newtonian mechanics. Newtonís discoveries were genius. - A giant leap in our understanding of the world around us. It was only much later, after observing discrepancies in the motions of celestial objects, that Einstein had to propose superseding theories. My point is that these ideas, for example, that matter and energy are interchangeable (E=MC2) and that time slows down as you approach the speed of light (which cannot be exceeded), entail huge paradigm shifts. - Itís the same for the later developments in quantum physics. One cannot continue to think about matter, energy or time in the same way.

Or can one? Well, in the day-to-day world most material objects donít travel at or near the speed of light, neither do we ordinarily directly perceive the world described by quantum physics, so one could argue that these new laws of physics are, by and large, quite irrelevant. An engineer, say designing a bridge, can happily continue to use Newtonian equations, in fact itís more efficient to do this. Thereís not much to be gained by factoring in quantum mechanical or relativistic effects.

But still, as weird as the implications of these far-flung reaches of physics are, no one would seriously argue that they are beyond science. They are just staggeringly strange. So much so that even the most gifted minds can find some of the ideas unacceptable, for quite unscientific reasons. Remember Einsteinís difficulty in accepting the implications of Heisenbergís Uncertainty Principle, "God does not play dice".

Why am I going on about physics so much? Because I think itís an excellent example of a Ďhardí science, one that has produced such impressive results that the newer discipline of psychology (if itís not been in complete awe of physics) has very much aspired to and tried to mimic.  * - see further footnote below.

So here is a metaphor. In trying to emulate physics, psychology (as a Ďwannabeí science) limits itself while (and in so far as) it adheres to strictly deterministic explanations of psychological phenomena. - While it remains in the realms of classical physics, Newtonian mechanics (and Cartesian dualism).

 

You say, "don't underestimate what reductionism can lead to." Iíll try not to, in the same way as I will try not to underestimate the skill of an engineer. But it seems to me that some scientists are pushing their deterministic theories too far in being otherwise unable to make an appropriate paradigm shift. Richard Dawkins, for example, in the Selfish Gene, frequently quotes examples of animal behavior to extrapolate a deterministic basis for practically all human action and interaction.

From your comments about Skinnerís claim 'eventually we will know the neural antecedents to the phrase "no thank you" '  I think you broadly agree with me about this. But perhaps there is a notable difference in our own particular spin. Whereas you might describe his claim as massively optimistic, I would simply say that it is incredibly naÔve. - A subtle (but significant) distinction.

 

But perhaps the major difference that remains between us is suggested in your comment "Now if McKenna is making a dualist argument, and suggesting that psychology is wrong not to look to the non-physical world for the answer, then of course he is right. Science exists in the physical world, in laws of cause and effect that are physical. If you want to invoke a non-physical link in a causal chain, then you go beyond science." Which leads you to conclude, "Just because psychology is bounded by science is not really psychology's fault".

However, this is not what Terence McKenna is saying. This is not what Iím saying. I am not talking about evangelism, theology, faith or anything like that. Critically, Iím not talking about dualism. Neither McKenna nor I make a dualistic argument. If this is where you are coming from (and it seems to be), then you are perpetuating dualism, and itís you thatís closer to the devout Christian. 

Orthodox religion may have started the dualistic myth, but much of science has since been quite complicit in perpetuating it. This is the point where I agree with McKennaís comment that "psychologists have been content with behaviourist theory making".

My take is that reality is ultimately undifferentiated. And consciousness is the leading edge of physics. Itís the richest, most complex and exotic phenomena in the universe, but still a part of the universe, - including the physical universe.

Consciousness research can mean many things, but I maintain that such a discipline is possible and that such investigation can and should be essentially scientific. It is, however, bound to be frontier science, and in the process some cherished paradigms are bound to be overthrown. Perhaps itís this that makes some academics feel a little queasy.

Iíll finish with some key quotes from an interview with Terence McKenna and some recommended further reading.

 

Extract from a Terence McKenna interview with Neville Drury (fuller transcript in the quotes section  ~/mckenna/prejudice>)

ND: You feel, don't you, that you are accessing quite different spiritual realms from those described by mystics and gurus from the Eastern traditions?

TM: Yes. Their stress on energy centers in the body, levels of consciousness, the moral perfection of spiritual dimensions - none of this I found to be reliable. What the psilocybin experience seems to argue is that there is a kind of parallel universe that is not at all like our universe, and yet it is inhabited by beings with an intentionality. It is not recognisably the universe of astral travel or of the Robert Monroe out-of-the-body experiments. What has always put me off about occultists is the humdrum nature of the other world. They talk about radiant people in flowing gowns Ė ascended masters and so on. My overwhelming impression of the other realm is itís utter strangeness - its "Otherness." It is not even a universe of three-dimensional space and time. The other thing about it, which the esoteric traditions never confront directly is the reality of it.

I am not an occultist. I am spiritual only to the degree that I have been forced to be by experience. I came into it a reductionist, a rationalist, a materialist, an empiricist - and I say no reductionist, no empiricist could experience what I have experienced without having to seriously retool their philosophy.

This is not a reality for the menopausal mystic, the self-hypnotised or the soft-headed. This is real. And the feeling that radiates out of the psychedelic experience is that it has a historical implication, that what has really happened in the twentieth century is that the cataloguing of nature that began in the sixteenth century with Linnaeus has at last reached its culmination. And the cataloguing of nature has revealed things that were totally unexpected - for example, the existence of a dimension that our entire language set, emotional set, and religious ontology deny.

What has happened in the twentieth century is that we have found out what the witch doctors are really doing, what the shaman really intends. This information cannot simply be placed in our museums and forgotten: it contains within it a nugget of incontrovertible experience that appears to argue that our vision of reality is sorely lacking. Somehow we have gone down a road of development that has hidden from us vast regions of reality-areas that we have originally dismissed as superstition and now don't mention at all.

 

ND: Do you feel that the shamanic reality is now the broadest paradigm available to us? Is it broader, say, than the Eastern mystical model?

TM: Oh, yes, I think so. What I think happened is that in the world of prehistory all religion was experiential, and it was based on the pursuit of ecstasy through plants. And at some time, very early, a group interposed itself between people and direct experience of the "Other." This created hierarchies, priesthoods, theological systems, castes, ritual, taboos. Shamanism, on the other hand, is an experiential science that deals with an area where we know nothing. It is important to remember that our epistemological tools have developed very unevenly in the West. We know a tremendous amount about what is going on in the heart of the atom, but we know absolutely nothing about the nature of the mind. We haven't a clue. If mathematical formulation is to be the bedrock of ideological certitude, then we have no certitude whatsoever in the realm of what is the mind. We assume all kinds of things unconsciously, but, when pressed, we can't defend our position.

I think what has happened-because of psychedelics on one level and quantum physics on another - is that the program of rationally understanding nature has at last been pushed so far that we have reached the irrational core of nature herself. Now we can see: My God, the tools that brought us here are utterly inadequate.

-/-

 
For further reading, particularly re science and paradigm shifts I recommend the book: ĎDNA and the Origins of Knowledgeí - by Jeremy Narby.

 

further footnote [...]

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