The metaphysics of laughing gas

William James, Nitrous Oxide and Fatalism

Laughing gas, nitrous oxide, NOS… whatever you like to call it, this gas gets a lot of bad press in the contemporary world. Like all things, with incorrect use it indeed can be dangerous. However, whether it be in the dentist’s chair, in the hospital after a broken bone or while giving birth, or at a music festival with a balloon in hand, the experiences afforded by laughing gas are familiar to most of us. The American philosopher, William James, was also familiar. He too saw “the ultimate secret and explanation of existence… revealed.” However, he came to view this revelation as horrifying, writes Jonathan Bricklin.


William James, the father of transpersonal psychology, took laughing gas, aka nitrous oxide, in search of a revelation. According to Benjamin Paul Blood, the author of “The Anaesthetic Revelation and the Gist of Philosophy,” the gas provided a “fixed impression” that “the ultimate secret and explanation of existence stands revealed…as finite knowledge never has and never could reveal it.” As it turned out, James did experience this ultimate secret, and accepted it as a “genuine metaphysical revelation.” It’s hiding in plain sight in what may well be the most quoted passage from his Varieties of Religious Experience:

“Our normal waking consciousness, rational consciousness as we call it, is but one special type of consciousness, whilst all about it, parted from it by the filmiest of screens, there lie potential forms of consciousness entirely different. We may go through life without suspecting their existence; but apply the requisite stimulus, and at a touch they are there in all their completeness.” 

“All their completeness” is where it’s hiding. James’s famous “filmiest of screens” was conceived in response to a specific “thrillingly intense metaphysical insight” that he saw as the “keynote” of his nitrous oxide trance. Trance literally means “to cross beyond." And crossing beyond this specific “filmiest of screens” brought James to a form of consciousness unlike any other: “consciousness in all its completeness." He described this completeness as follows: “The mind sees all logical relations of being with an apparent subtlety and instantaneity to which its normal consciousness offers no parallel.”


Up to a point, James felt consciousness in all its completeness as rapturous, “living in the midst of infinity” (literally without bounds)


The poet Robert Southey called the nitrous oxide trance “the atmosphere of heaven." To appreciate how such atmosphere might apply to “consciousness in all its completeness” consider the heavenly music of Mozart. In his Principles of Psychology, James quotes Mozart’s method of composing, with bits and pieces coming together until…

“at last I see the whole of it at a single glance in my mind, as if it were a beautiful painting or a handsome human being; in which way I do not hear it in my imagination at all as a succession— the way it must come later—but all at once, as it were. It is a rare feast! All the inventing and making goes on in me as in a beautiful strong dream. But the best of all is the hearing of it all at once.”

“Consciousness in all its completeness” as heavenly harmonious music? 

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James, as it turned out, found a reason not to appreciate it. But first let’s highlight what he did appreciate. They are all significant contributions to his radical non-dual insights.

Up to a point, James felt consciousness in all its completeness as rapturous, “living in the midst of infinity” (literally without bounds). Somewhat like the ego dissolution in alcoholic inebriation, he mused, “only a thousandfold enhanced,” multiplying (or rather dividing) him into “spirit become its own object,” an “intense bewilderment, with nothing particular left to be bewildered at save the bewilderment itself.” This bewilderment might well be the source of his “confession” in the Principles of Psychology that “the moment I become metaphysical . . . I find the notion of some sort of an anima mundi [world soul] thinking in all of us to be a more promising hypothesis, in spite of all its difficulties, than that of a lot of absolutely individual souls.” And it surely played a role in his promotion of non-dual sciousness (consciousness without consciousness of self) as prime reality, “leaving who the knower really is wide open.” Sciousness is "a simple that” before it is “doubled” into “a state of mind,” and “a reality intended thereby." Just think of a sunset before you say “how beautiful." And it can be experienced on either side of the screen. James even brought a word back from the other side of his screen that describes it perfectly:  “onsense.”

James felt rapture, too, in “the reconciliation of opposites,” and the illusion of real differences and “so-called contradictions.” This revelation even may have led him to his understanding that the very feeling of “I” was a by-product of the interplay between feelings of welcoming and opposing.    


As Xenos Clark expressed it to James: “The truth is that we travel on a journey that was accomplished before we set out.”


But when he glimpsed that the sense of completeness suggested his "I" had no role whatsoever to play in all this reconciliation, he balked. Blood viewed the anaesthetic revelation as so complete that it was “prior to and deeper than manifestation or form.” And that priority very much included the future. As Blood’s co-revelationist Xenos Clark expressed it to James: “The truth is that we travel on a journey that was accomplished before we set out.” James detested the possibility of having no possibility. (He nonetheless felt obligated to share it in the Varieties, albeit in a footnote.)         

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It is one thing to believe that the future can be seen. Anaesthetic gas’s prodding of that prowess may well go back to naturally arising ethylene inhaled by the Pythian Oracle. And beyond the significant advances in clinical precognitive testing, there are startling anecdotal accounts accessible online. (Paul Stamets’ psilocybin-induced precognition and David Booth’s well-documented precognitive dream come to mind.) It is quite another thing, though, to say that everything you encounter “has been always there,” as the chemist Sir William Ramsay reported from his anaesthetic trance. And the moment the entranced James sensed the completeness of consciousness might be that complete, that it entailed “ineluctable fate,” his “rapture” turned instantly to “horror,” “the strongest emotion I have ever experienced.” It was not until the last year of his life that James allowed publicly that the anaesthetic revelation of “consciousness already there, waiting to be uncovered” might indeed be “veridical reality.”

Anaesthetized patients, returning from the other side of the filmiest screen, routinely glimpsed a nondual illumination of being “existence in general”. And the origin of James’s so-called neutral monism directly links to his own emergence from anaesthesia; immediately after sharing it in the Principles, he starts challenging the presumptions of dualism. But there is a vast difference between emerging from the other side of the screen with a glimpse of consciousness in all its completeness and feeling trapped inside a changeless totality “whose parts have no loose play." “I always get a hint of the mystery when the clock stops by itself,” Blood wrote James. James did not take the hint. He did not want to conceive of consciousness in all its completeness as in any way changeless. He even created a vivid caricature that has facilitated many others in rejecting that degree of completeness. With his nitrous oxide descent from rapture to horror very much in mind, he was the first to match the word “block” to the word “universe”—actually, in its first appearance, “the absolute block." In a later appearance, perhaps fearing “absolute” was not up to the job of suggesting total change suppression, he upped it to “iron block.”

The caricature in such an absolute, iron block universe is that it implies complete stasis, even though there can be no concept of stasis without change, and vice versa. And the reason Blood and Clark could see consciousness in all its completeness as rapture, where James saw horror, was that they never lost sight of that. The clock stopping by itself is just a reminder that what might seem like a ceaseless flow of movement is actually a succession of static moments. Both Clark and Blood agreed, and agreed emphatically, that such successively arising moments of “already there” content is the key to the Anaesthetic Revelation, reinforcing its “cosmic indifferentism” as ultimate realization. Blood called it the Supreme Genius of Being, “where the glory is not what it does but what it is”. 

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On this side of the screen, it is mostly intuited by meditators, who access the gap between thoughts that reinforces the impersonally arising succession of the Revelation. As Krishnamurti puts it: “…though the response, the movement of thought, seems so swift,​ there are gaps, there are intervals between thoughts. Between two thoughts there is​ a period of silence which is not related to the thought process.” 

Brain scans, as it turns out, help confirm the link between the Revelation and meditation. The scans of Zen monks’ brains show the wider Theta waves that you would expect for those accessing the gap between thoughts. So when we read the startling report from anaesthesiologists that  “Nitrous oxide has control over the brain in ways no other drug does,” and find out that the change is widening brain waves, we need not rush to criminalize it. In fact, we might even seek to protect it.

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Brian Quass 10 September 2022

Like almost every other scientist and philosopher today, Jonathan reckons without the Drug War. He discusses the effects of laughing gas but fails to even note by way of disclaimer that modern science is actually forbidden from investigating the potential insights that William James experienced under the influence of that gas. Sure, we can speculate on them at will from our "drug-free" universities, but even to repeat his modest experiment would risk bringing law enforcement down on our heads. As for undertaking his experiments using alternative mind enhancers, like psilocybin or MDMA, the DEA will put every roadblock that they can find in the way as they struggle to maintain their pernicious relevance in 21st-century America.

For the fact is that we live in a world in which scientists are censored every bit as much as Galileo when it comes to what lines of research they can follow, and authors should be pointing that out via disclaimer in every single paper that they write about a subject dealing with expanded or improved consciousness and the use of psychoactive substances. After all, the anti-scientific Drug War will never end if we never admit that it actually exists, that science today is not being performed from a natural baseline but that we are forbidden from even accessing substances whose use might cause us to challenge the assumptions upon which reductive materialism is based.

Of course, as a lifelong depressive, I applaud Jonathan for concluding that "we need not rush to criminalize" laughing gas, but for all intents and purposes, laughing gas is already criminalized, at least here in the States. I cannot legally obtain laughing gas to help with my depression and the only places it is available therapeutically are in very expensive clinics wherein the N20 sessions take place in a room filled with chart-holding clinical assistants. That emotionally sterile environment would be so off-putting to folks like myself that it would surely negate any benefit that the drug might supply.

Meanwhile, materialist doctors are still trying to wrap their heads around the once obvious fact that laughing can help the depressed. Take it from me, it would have to help, and not just the laughing itself but the mere looking forward to that laughter. It's called the power of anticipation, and it is (or at least it used to be) psychological common sense. And yet the eminent Dr. Robert Glatter asks (apparently with a straight face) in the June 9, 2021 edition of Forbes magazine: Can Laughing Gas Help People with Treatment-resistant Depression?

Are you kidding me? Of course it would help, by definition. Reader's Digest has known this for decades, hence their time-honored motto: "Laughter is the best medicine."

But Glatter is a materialist. He doesn't care how much I laugh when using laughing gas, he wants to know if it "REALLY" works: i.e., does it work in a reductive way that may be demonstrated quantitatively? This reminds one of Descartes, who wasn't convinced that animals felt pain, no matter how much they cried when they were being tortured. Descartes wanted to know if they "REALLY" experienced pain: i.e., do they experience it in a reductive way that may be demonstrated quantitatively? (His answer, alas, was no.)

It's ironic to think that it is materialists like Glatter, with their glacially proceeding search for "REAL" cures, who are keeping me from accessing substances whose use might help illuminate a non-materialist way of seeing the world. That sounds like ontological self-dealing to me.

But this illustrates a so-far unrecognized fact that materialism is a major benefactor of the Drug War, because Drug Warriors demonize precisely those substances whose use might conduce to a non-materialistic way of seeing the world.

I'll close with just one example to demonstrate this point

About five years ago, I visited Arizona to take peyote legally (at least as far as that state's laws were concerned). Instead of gaining the sweeping ontological insights that William James reported with laughing gas, the drug experience provided me with a sharply focused neon-green slide show of what appeared to be pre-Columbian imagery of the type that may be seen today at the Mayan city of Yaxchilan or the Quetzacoatl of the Aztecs. This result raised fascinating philosophical questions for me, for pre-Columbian imagery was not in my mind when I traveled to Arizona, nor had I even consciously considered the subject since I took some related college courses a decade earlier.

It seemed to me like the peyote cactus was telling me something about how the world worked, that it was not a chaos of separate atoms but an integrally connected "web of being," so to speak, and that the whole was far greater than the sum of the parts. To put it poetically, I had what Wordsworth called "a sense sublime of something far more deeply interfused."

And yet the Drug War prevents me from following up these hints about the true nature of reality by outlawing precisely those substances that provide such clues..

Surely this is the worst form of censorship imaginable, the kind that makes it illegal for us to pursue the Platonic goal of knowing ourselves and the world around us.

This is why I believe every author who writes on these subjects must remind their reader that we live in an age of a Drug War, for it is Drug War prohibition which tilts the philosophical playing field in favor of reductive materialism by outlawing mere research into other ways of "being in the world."