Only recently has the topic of psychedelics fully broken through into the public consciousness. An exciting area of new enquiry for scientists and philosopher alike, we are now beginning to understand how they can be used to help us solve mysteries regarding the nature of life and reality. In this article, John Vervaeke explores the transformative powers of psychedelics, arguing that they provide the possibility for ‘self-transcendence’; a state which brings us closer to reality.
The question as to whether the use of psychedelics can bring us closer to reality depends on what we mean by the use of psychedelics, and what we mean by the perennially vexed question as to what reality really is. I will be making some important relevant distinctions. One is between the phenomenology of a mental state or process and its cognitive functionality, i.e. how does it help to gather knowledge about the world. Another distinction is between a psychedelic experience and a mystical experience. Along the way I will be distinguishing between knowledge and wisdom. From these distinctions I will build an argument that psychedelics within the appropriate context can afford self-transcendence which is an integral dimension of wisdom. Wisdom is the virtue (beliefs + skills + perspectives + character traits) that empowers one to cut through self-deception, zero in on relevant information, shape one’s agency to what is relevantly real to solve otherwise complex and messy problems. I will then argue that this is a plausibly good measure of getting closer to reality, and that we should prefer it to claims that psychedelic and/or mystical experience give us factual knowledge about the fundamental nature of reality. I will endeavor to steer between a position that simply rejects altered states of consciousness as subjective and illusory and a position that considers them a direct and indubitable perception as to the true nature of reality.
Psychedelic means mind disclosing. A psychedelic experience is one that reveals some aspect or dimension of the mind that has been hidden by our default normal state of consciousness and self-awareness. This disclosure can be caused by ingested chemicals, but it can also be caused by breathing practices, chanting practices, mindfulness practices, etc. Realizing, within a flow state, that one’s everyday consciousness and cognition were being distorted by a narrative egocentrism and that one can be more at one with the environment, is therefore a psychedelic experience. It carries the potential for self-transcendence by affording us the ability for a systematic kind of insight. In most ‘Aha! moments’ we realize, and thereby transcend, an inappropriate framing of a particular problem. We may say “oh I thought she was angry, but I just realized that she is afraid, and I have been misinterpreting her actions.” However, psychedelic experiences have the potential for an insight into a family of problems, e.g. “so much of my experience is being distorted by a narrative egocentric framing, I could be more at one with the world.” We get an insight that integrates a lot of experiences and that reframes them in concert. This can, in turn, provoke a serious challenge to our sense of self because large scale patterns of how we interpret our actions are being reformulated.
Notice that if we focused on the phenomenology of an insight and drew a conclusion about reality, e.g. that the flash of insight indicates that reality is made of light, and therefore, tried to create more light induction experiences, then we could seriously mistake cause and effect and actually impede our capacity for insight. Likewise, focusing on the bizarre phenomenological content of a psychedelic experience could impede gaining wisdom from it. If, in contrast, one tried to transfer the flexibility of framing that obtained in the experience into many different domains of one’s life and thereby fostered systematic insight throughout one’s life, one would be cultivating wisdom.
Psychedelics experience can afford systematic understanding, and thereby make us wiser and more in touch with reality
In some of our most sophisticated artificial intelligence (AI) we face a convergent point. These systems are so powerful at picking up complex patterns that they suffer from overfitting to the data. Any information they are given is always a sample of all the information available about a domain. If you are trying to get it to recognize car, you show it pictures of some cars, but you cannot show it all possible cars. The problem is that there will be patterns in that sample that are not true of the population of cars. For example, all the cars in the shown pictures are American manufactured cars, and there are subtle patterns shared by just those cars. The system will fixate on those patterns and therefore be unable to recognize European made cars. It is overfitted to the data it has been presented. So, what AI researchers do is to introduce noise or disruption into the system. For example, in a neural network you may turn off half of the network in a process called drop out. This breaks the system out of overfitting and enables it to look for broader patterns in the world. Similarly, if you are stuck with a problem and you know you need to reframe it, then moderately distracting yourself from the problem can afford the needed insight. The content of what is happening during drop out or distraction is not crucial; it is the process of affording insight that is key. There is a serious theoretical proposal that dreaming also functions to protect us in this way from overfitting. There is convergence from several researchers that these kinds of processes are exactly what psychedelic experience engages, i.e. that it engages something like drop out by turning off normally dominant brain areas, and it distracts us from normal modes of framing by connecting brain areas not typically connected, all the while putting us into a state similar to dreaming. It is the facilitation of self-transcendence that is crucial, and not the content of the drop out, distraction, or dreaming that may be happening during a psychedelic experience.
These states do not give us knowledge about the nature of reality, e.g. that it is controlled by hyper-dimensional space elves, but they can afford the systematic insight that makes us wiser, i.e. capable of zeroing on deeper patterns while solving a family of problems. It is the return from these states and the affordance of the recovery of deeper patterns and more comprehensive problem solving that puts us closer to reality. It is in return and recovery that we find realization.
Understanding is distinct from knowing in that understanding means we grasp the significance of what we know and can apply it to solve previously unsolved problems. Knowledge is about evidence while understanding is about relevance. Insight is a moment of understanding that affords solving a problem by restructuring how and what we find relevant. Psychedelics experience can afford systematic understanding, and thereby make us wiser and more in touch with reality.
Mystical experiences are different from psychedelic experiences in that they do not disclose features of the mind, instead they are events in which individuals experience a sense a profound insight and unity with the oneness of Being. There is no content to this experience because it is ineffable and beyond conceptualization. It is pure process, pure insight. It is the most systematic insight possible, viz., how to frame reality or being as whole. People experience this as really real, i.e. as more real than everyday experience. Yet, there is no object of thing being pointed to, and there is no theory or explanation on offer. None of the machinery of knowledge is in place. However, it is plausible to propose that they have had something like a flow experience except their sense of reduction of self and their sense of being at one with their environment are significantly more intense. We can think of the flow state as a cascade of insights, an extended ‘Aha!’ experience. The flow state is one of optimal experience in two senses. We feel the experience is deeply rewarding and meaningful, and we are performing at our very best. The mystical experience is similarly deeply rewarding and meaningful, but what about the optimal performance? There is a sense of insight and discovery in the mystical experience just as in the flow state, but it is not specific as in most flow states. Perhaps mystical experience is the most systematic insight of all. Perhaps we realize we have overfitted our attention to specific beings, situations, and problems and now we are recovering and realizing Being itself; what it is for anything and everything to be real. Perhaps we are optimizing our sense of realness, so it transfers broadly and deeply in our lives. People who have these experiences of the really real transform their lives, roles, and sense of sense of self to get closer to that sense of the really real, and by several objective measures their lives do get better. They become wiser. When drugs trigger not just a psychedelic but a mystical experience this may have the capacity to make us wiser and thereby bring us closes reality. However, this wisdom is not a theory about nature, or a philosophical argument about reality. It is enhanced self-transcendence.