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withdrawn as a legal research tools.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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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 hugeparadigm 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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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