Skip to content

Ecstasy

Science can be a powerful ally on the spiritual journey

Last month I attended a conference at Oxford University’s Ian Ramsey Centre for Science and Religion called Religion, Society and the Science of Life. The premise was that there is something called the ‘new biology’ which is perhaps more sympathetic to religious or spiritual views of existence than the ‘old biology’.

What is this ‘new biology’? No one really laid it out at the conference, but from what I gathered, it refers firstly to the rise of systems biology. Computational analysis has given us a picture of nature as ‘a system that operates at a very wide range of scales’, as Cambridge plant biologist Ottoline Leyser put it, ‘and the whole system is soaked in feedback’.

If Darwinian biology studied life at the level of competing species, or competing genes, the new biology studies how systems interact from the very small scale (cells, DNA) to the very big (planetary eco-systems). The emphasis is now perhaps more on interdependence and feedback loops within holistic systems rather than Darwin’s war of all against all. Perhaps that view is more sympathetic to holistic spiritual visions than the more reductionist and mechanistic ‘old biology’. 

However, the ‘new biology’ can also refer to the rise of synthetic biology – the ability to create new forms of life, to de-code and edit genes. This seems to me more of a super-Darwinian vision, in which we can upgrade our genetic fitness not slowly, over generations, but instantly through CRISPR (a new genetic editing system, recently used to eradicate illness-carrying genes in human embryos). It is an exhilarating vision but also one that raises the prospect that humans will be surpassed by a superior species – homo deus of some sort – or we’ll mess up and wipe ourselves out by creating a super-virus. You can now order CRISPR gene-editing starter-packs on the internet…Yes, for $100 you too can make your own species! 

Universities as universes

The conference was a good attempt to get different disciplines to talk to each other. That’s what universities should be: ‘communities where you always recognize that someone else’s questions are as interesting as yours’, as Rowan Williams puts it in this interesting new book. I’m reading the philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre’s book, God, Philosophy, Universities, in which he talks about the medieval university as a place offering a universal vision of existence –  of the cosmos, human biology, and man’s purpose in the cosmos.

That universal vision broke down in the 17th century, when Aristotelian science was supplanted by the mechanical materialism of Descartes, Hobbes and the rest. Disciplines became increasingly specialized and compartmentalized, with completely different and sometimes clashing visions of the universe, man, and man’s purpose. There’s rarely any effort to combine those visions into a universal vision – the faculties simply don’t talk to each other enough, and when they do, it’s with suspicion or incomprehension. 

If there is any over-riding vision for modern universities today, it is probably materialist utilitarianism: there’s no God, no afterlife, let’s try and make money, expand the economy, and maybe improve society. In the UK, 97% of the £3 billion the government gives to university research goes to sciences, with only 3% going to the Arts and Humanities Research Council. Only one in ten undergrads study the humanities – by far the most popular degree is business studies and other vocational degrees. If there is any sense of purpose in this vision, it’s the blind drive for economic growth: get up the career ladder, get tenure, win funding, attract publicity, expand your department, attract more students, build more buildings.

What’s lacking in this vision of academia is any real understanding of consciousness, how it arises, what it’s for,  how it relates to the consciousness of other humans, animals, the natural world and the cosmos. Nor is there much understanding of how to transform consciousness, how to help it flourish and even reach enlightenment – a mission that was central to the first universities in ancient India and ancient Greece. 

Let’s imagine, for a second, a future model of the university in which the study of consciousness and the transformation of consciousness is central, rather than marginalized and excluded. For one thing, it would have a much greater sense of the importance of the arts and humanities. 

On science and spirituality

Personally, I have faith that science and spirituality are not at war with each other, that they both lead to one truth. I don’t believe that God – a word that denotes a higher dimension somewhat beyond our comprehension at present – requires us to believe in absurdities. I think both science and spirituality are driven by the hope that it all makes sense in the end, that our minds are moving towards greater understanding of ourselves and the cosmos.

One reason I think people mistakenly believe science and spirituality are enemies is because they confuse the empirical method with the worldview of naturalism and mechanical materialism. One of the key-note speakers at the conference was Massimo Pigliucci, prominent Skeptic blogger and recent convert to Stoicism (he’s just written a book called How To Be A Stoic). Massimo took issue with an Aeon piece I wrote on ecstatic experiences recently, and he wrote

Despite his skepticism of disenchanted materialism, Jules does bring in science when it seems to favor his take on things,

Massimo equates the scientific method with the worldview of disenchanted materialism. If I don’t believe the latter, I must be against the former. This is a standard mistake, highlighted by Rupert Sheldrake in his banned TEDx talk: ‘There’s a conflict at the heart of science between science as a method of enquiry based on reason, evidence, hypothesis and collective investigation, and science as a belief system or worldview. And unfortunately the worldview aspect of science has come to inhibit and restrict the free inquiry which is the very lifeblood of scientific endeavour’.

I think William James was right that we need a more ‘radical empiricism’ which is open to human experiences as a valid source of data – experiences of happiness, meaning, despair, transcendence and so on. If we accept subjective experiences as valid data, then we’d accept that most humans have occasional experiences of a higher dimension of mind, spirit or power which they describe with God words or spirit words. This is a common aspect of human nature which we need to include in any biological description of homo sapiens. We could then try to work out what this dimension is (not easy) and how we can access it in ways that help people flourish (somewhat easier). 

My intellectual heroes – James, Frederic Myers, Aldous Huxley and others – saw no contradiction between science and spirituality. They developed a sort of evolutionary spirituality, in which homo sapiens unfolds her spiritual potential from culture to culture and religion to religion. Wisdom –  sapiens – is a golden strand in our evolutionary code. We’re not quite sure where the sapiens came from – the biologist Alfred Russell Wallace thought it comes from a spiritual dimension which occasionally intervenes in evolution, while a few conspiracy-theorists have suggested wisdom-teachers like Pythagoras or Dionysus are really visiting extra-terrestrials, intervening benevolently in our cultural evolution. Pythagoras did have a golden thigh, after all, which sounds like a cyborg to me.

Anyway….we do at least have some idea how to develop the golden strand of sapiens in our minds and culture, so we can rise up the ladder of the helix.  I hope humans are just at the beginning of our evolutionary journey, and that we will develop more advanced forms of spirituality in which we don’t kill people with different definitions of the divine. Universities may have a role to play in that spiritual evolution, as far-fetched as that sounds today!

Crossing the Is / Ought divide

One of the challenges of combining science, ethics and spirituality is the Is / Ought divide. Can one go from an ‘Is’ – a scientific description – to an ‘Ought’, a moral prescription? Many Skeptic philosophers like David Hume and Friedrich Nietzsche have insisted you can’t, which has led to the sense of ethical confusion today. Must we try and pin our ethical or religious theories to the latest scientific evidence? Not easy when the evidence changes so quickly. 

And yet many contemporary thinkers, including me, have arrived at a sort of empirically-supported virtue ethics, in which the good life for individuals and cultures is the life in which we fulfil our natures as rational, social, political and spiritual animals.  The virtue ethics of Aristotle, the Buddha, the Stoics, and Christian philosophers like Thomas Aquinas are all based on models of human nature and theories of how to train the mind and body to find flourishing and liberation. They’re both ethical and biological systems – and also, at a deeper level, systems of physics and metaphysics, theories of consciousness, what it is, what happens to it after death. They’re universal theories. 

Findings from empirical psychology, psychiatry, sociology and neuroscience can help support classical virtue ethics. For example, Cognitive Behavioural Therapy and Positive Psychology have tested out some of the techniques for self-transformation from Stoicism, Buddhism and Aristotelianism, and found that they ‘work’ – they help some people change chronic habits of depression and anxiety.

The empirical science of ecstasy and transcendence, which goes all the way back to William James, has also found that homo sapiens often has ecstatic experiences – moments where humans go beyond their ordinary self and feel powerfully connected to something greater than them. Psychologists have even developed scales to measure the depth of a person’s mystical experience. Psychology and neuroscience is increasingly finding that such experiences are good for us. So we can incorporate our yearning for ego-transcendence into an expanded virtue ethics (as, say, Iris Murdoch does in The Sovereignty of the Good). 

In both Philosophy for Life, and The Art of Losing Control, I described how recent findings from the psychology and the social sciences support this sort of expanded virtue ethics, how scientific evidence gives us hope that we can free ourselves from suffering and find flourishing in this life. I tried to build an agnostic model of virtue ethics, where people can accept the usefulness of both Greek philosophy and ecstatic practices as a means to flourishing, even if they don’t believe in God or a higher power (although I, broadly, do). 

But we also need to be honest about the limits of empirical science. CBT and mindfulness may help some people overcome emotional problems, but that doesn’t mean it makes them more virtuous people (as Stoicism and Buddhism claim). It’s difficult for science to measure how a person behaves all the time, whether they behave virtuously, without following them around their entire life or keeping them in a confined space (like a monastery).

This point was well made by the philosopher Owen Flanagan in his 2011 book, The Boddhisattva’s Brainwhich explores how contemplative science can tell us some useful things about Buddhist virtue ethics, but not whether the dharma actually makes people good, let alone whether it helps them reach Nirvana. 

Likewise, we can try to assess if ecstatic experiences help people flourish, but we can’t know for sure, because we don’t know what happens to consciousness after death. Socrates drinking hemlock, or Jesus dying on the cross at 33, appear to be a non-optimal outcomes from the point of view of their personal flourishing in this life. But they would argue it led to a greater flourishing in the next life.

Empirical psychology, then, can provide some support for virtue ethics theories, but they can never be entirely ‘proven’, because not everything can be precisely and objectively defined and measured.

A systems theory understanding of religions and revelations

Let me end with two things that I didn’t see discussed at the conference, which I think usefully connect the ‘new biology’ with spirituality. The first is to consider how systems theory help us understand individual and communal flourishing.

When I was mentally ill, I was stuck in a toxic feedback loop of rumination. I had a toxic idea of my self as damaged, broken and unloveable, which made me relate to other people in an avoidant and defensive way. This made other people react to me with suspicion and hostility, and it became a feedback loop – reinforcing my toxic idea of self and my alienation from the world. I was caught in a whirlpool of ego. 

I then had a near-death experience, which broke the loop of fear and rumination. It felt like some external force hit me and re-set me, a sort of external shock, like a spiritual meteor, although it may have been something within my own mind manifesting. Anyway, the experience helped me realize I was causing my own suffering through my thoughts. I couldn’t control what others thought of me, but I could learn to accept myself, and this gradually changed the feedback dynamic between me and other people (wisdom epigrams like ‘you get back what you put in’ refer to this sort of feedback loop between people’s intentions and other minds).

So that’s one point: mental illness can be understood in terms of getting stuck in feedback loops of rumination and alienation, and people are sometimes liberated from these loops by mystical-type experiences. That seems to be what happens in psychedelic therapy, for example. In Alister Hardy’s database of spiritual experiences, one often finds people saying they felt more and more cocooned in a loop of negative rumination, and then suddenly a spiritual experience breaks them out of the cocoon and they feel re-connected to their soul, their body, to other beings, and to the sparkling wonder of existence.

I subsequently became fascinated with the idea of nature as a self-regulating organism, and the idea – which one finds in many different cultures – that when a civilization becomes alienated, out-of-balance with nature and with the gods, when it worships itself and forgets its dependence on nature and the spirit-world, the eco-system seizes on individuals to act as regulators, to bring the system back into equilibrium. The shaman, prophet, artist and visionary are all figures who are seized by the eco-system (or the spirit world if you prefer), and used – possessed – as regulatory mechanisms to bring the alienated civilization into a new equilibrium with the spirit-world. 

Brand’s Whole Earth Catalog, introducing tools to shift human consciousness and culture

This systems theory of religion and revelatory experiences isn’t entirely original. The work of Stewart Brand, Brian Eno and David Byrne incorporates systems theory into their exploration of communities, religion and the arts. Stewart Brand helped to organize the first Trips Festival in 1969, developing the idea of the rave as a self-regulating system in which he acted as the Regulator, tweaking the system to produce communal ecstasies (this is described in Fred Turner’s excellent book, From Counterculture to Cyberculture). He saw his mission as introducing new ideas and tools into the system – like the idea of the Whole Earth – which would then help the system to find a better equilibrium.  It’s interesting to think of religions as systems of information-sharing and consciousness-connection which form new holistic systems through collective ecstatic experiences.

DNA and the forgiveness of sins

The second idea which I think usefully connects spirituality with the ‘new biology’ is the idea, in classical Greek culture, that we carry around the sins of our tribe within us, and we somehow have to pay the karmic debt for these sins. I think this is an interesting way of understanding DNA – the double helix is our long ancestral history, and it contains both unfulfilled potential and inherited curses. The spiritual journey involves developing the potential while healing or breaking the curses.

I’ve inherited a genetic or epigenetic disposition to anxiety and other emotional problems, possibly from my mother, who possibly inherited it from her mother, who possibly inherited it from my great-grandfather, who either developed it during World War I, when he was gassed in the trenches, or perhaps inherited it from his ancestors. It’s hard to know where it began, but it’s there, in our genes, and a lot of my spiritual journey in this particular life is trying to work with these tendencies in my mind, in order to change the story, change the tune, while also helping other people going through similar stuff.

How do you change the story? Through things like wisdom, philosophy, spiritual practices, and also through therapeutic psychedelics. One way to understand the healing use of psychedelics – particularly ayahuasca – is that they give you the capacity to see your personal and family history, and to change bits of the story so that they don’t just repeat themselves over and over. It’s the spiritual version of CRISPR, the gene-editing technology. You see the emotional loop, and you can go snip, I want to change that loop so it doesn’t keep replicating.

Perhaps psychedelics can help break ancestral patterns of violence and suffering. But that doesn’t mean they’re essential to spiritual growth – Jesus suggested we just need to take the Eucharist, believe in Him, and we will be liberated from all ancestral sins going back to Adam. The Buddha and the Stoics, meanwhile, suggested we just need the wisdom to realize the emptiness of our thoughts and we can be liberated. Anyway, God knows what gene-editing is going to do to our understanding of the meaning of sin and suffering. Who needs karma or original sin when you have CRISPR! 

The ethical and the numinous in psychedelic culture

I’ve spent the last two days at Breaking Convention, a conference on psychedelics at the University of Greenwich organized by some brave academics. It’s my favourite academic conference, by a long stretch.

Academic conferences are typically uptight, dull, low-energy events, driven largely by ambition, fear, awkwardness and resentment. Breaking Convention isn’t like that at all, it’s a warm, friendly, freaky place, that brings together chemists, neuroscientists, therapists, artists, historians, philosophers, shaman, witches, performance artists, and a lot of DIY psychonauts. There’s some great critical research there, but it’s also totally fine to discuss your own weird experiences – they’re also valid data. And there’s a healthy pluralism of philosophical viewpoints, from naturalist to animist. That’s totally different from the exclusive naturalism of most academic conferences.

When I attended the previous Breaking Convention in 2015, psychedelics looked on the verge of going primetime. We heard reports from scientists at institutions like NYU, Imperial College and Johns Hopkins of the remarkable therapeutic benefits of psychedelics: just one or two doses of psilocybin (the drug in magic mushrooms) helped 60% of participants in a small trial to overcome chronic depression; as well as 80% of participants in another trial to give up smoking. Psychedelics also significantly lowered death-anxiety in people with serious cancer, apparently by triggering a ‘mystical experience’.

In the two years since then, I’ve been struck by how positive media coverage is of psychedelic therapy, even in the right-wing media. There have been enthusiastic articles in the Daily Mail, the Express, the Telegraph, and even a segment on micro-dosing on BBC daytime TV show, Victoria. If psychedelics really do help people overcome depression, anxiety, addiction and the fear of death (and they do), then it seems only a matter of time before they’re legal, and available as a therapeutic treatment through the NHS.

I remember Rick Doblin, head of the psychedelic research organisation MAPS, saying in 2015 that psychedelics needed to stop being a transgressive counterculture and go mainstream. Less hippy freaks, more soccer moms. Well, microdosing for emotional healing is likely to be the way that happens. With careful microdosing, your reality is barely altered, you don’t even get any visuals, but the psychedelics apparently still have an emotional or neuro-chemical effect at the subliminal level. Look at the citizen science movement in the US to legalize microdosing for cluster headaches – they don’t want a revolution, they just want to stop having awful headaches (preferably paid for by medical insurance). 

Keeping it weird

Yet what struck me most, during this Breaking Convention, was an anxiety about what might be lost if / when psychedelics are legalized and go mainstream. While there were sessions on new therapeutic trials of psychedelics, the main emphasis seemed to be on ‘keeping it weird’ – to quote the title of one session. I mean, look at the conference poster – this is not a movement rushing into the mainstream.

At one presentation, religious studies scholar Erik Davis said he wanted to resist the instrumentalization and medicalization of psychedelics. He liked the psychedelic counterculture – its weirdness, its trashiness, its transgressiveness. The audience – a motley crew of thai-dye freaks and feathered urban shaman – cheered their support. They’re a guerrilla movement not ready to come out of the jungle.

Next to him, Dennis McKenna – ethnobotanist and brother of famous psychedelic guru Terence McKenna – told the story of a legendary psychedelic trip his brother and he undertook in their 20s, when they munched a huge amount of magic mushrooms in Colombia. Dennis disappeared for 14 days, ‘dislocated in the space-time continuum’, while his brother witnessed a giant UFO landing and spent the next decades of his life trying to construct a magic box which neither he nor anyone else fully understood. The psychedelic counter-culture loves this sort of weird tale, which eludes easy classification.

Psychedelic studies at the moment remind me of 17th-century natural philosophy, with its love of ‘strange facts’. As historians Lorraine Dalston and Katherine Park explored in Wonders and the Order of Nature, there was a moment in the 17th century, when natural philosophers circulated accounts of anomalous events – weird animals, odd astronomical events, freaky experiments with electricity – partly as a means of chipping away at the hegemony of the Aristotelian worldview, and partly just for fun. But then, in the 18th century, these anomalous incidents become subsumed into the new consensus of materialism. Wonder and a yearning for the freaky came to be seen as vulgar.

Likewise, many psychedelic explorers are fascinated by the weird and marvellous. But eventually, either psychedelics will become absorbed into the existing secular materialist medical paradigm or – more likely – a new paradigm will emerge, a new consensus on reality, with its own rules and enforcers. What could that new paradigm be? What theology or ethics could emerge from the psychedelic renaissance?

The most obvious way psychedelic therapy is likely to change our worldview is by changing our idea of the self. You can either dismiss all psychedelic visions as meaningless, or you can interpret them as messages from some sort of Jungian or Jamesian subconscious. As Jung said, the subconscious seems to communicate to us through symbolic imagery. Trips are often healing – some intelligence in the subconscious wants to guide us to wholeness. The mainstreaming of psychedelics is also likely to underline the interconnectedness between the mind and the body, particularly the subconscious mind and the autonomic nervous system.

But what about the interconnectedness of our mind with others’ minds, with the natural world, with the cosmos? What about people’s encounters with spirit-beings? 

As Tamara Freimoser and Elena Fountoglou have found, around 50% of people who take ayahuasca report ‘encounters with supra-human spiritual entities’, as well as 36% of people on DMT, 12% on psilocybin, 17% on LSD. Often, these encounters are healing – psychedelic trips seem to lower death-anxiety in patients with cancer because they report an encounter with some sort of ‘higher power’ which makes them believe materialism isn’t the whole story and death isn’t necessarily the end. The animist aspects of psychedelics are sometimes fundamental to the healing experience (though not always).

But not all encounters with spirit-beings are pleasant. According to the ‘global ayahuasca project’, which has interviewed around 1600 people who’ve taken ayahuasca, around 20% report the feeling of being under spiritual attack. In Rick Strassman’s famous DMT experiment, participants reported encounters with weird alien creatures who probed, devoured and even raped them.

Are these experiences projections from the individual subconscious, or encounters with something real and transpersonal – a collective unconscious, the spirits of nature, ancestor-spirits, cosmic consciousness, aliens, Whatever? Who the hell knows. Strassman himself has now returned to Judaism and insists we need to learn the discernment of spirits to protect ourselves against malevolent spirit entities.

This is the trickiest issue for psychedelics as they go mainstream. On the one hand, psychedelics are very healing, and who’s not up for healing?  On the other hand, they sometimes involve spirit-encounters, and spirits are just…well…verboten in the existing secular materialist paradigm of medicine.

I would suggest that we, as a culture, don’t get too hung up on the freaky. Weird things happen on trips, as they do on meditation retreats, pilgrimages, near-death experiences, and in ordinary life. You may encounter spirit-beings and not be entirely sure if they’re projections or independent entities. You can get lost down that rabbit hole. The main thing is to try and become a wiser and more loving being. That’s harder, and superficially less interesting, but more meaningful and valuable in the long-run. Maybe a personal encounter with Jesus Christ has hugely helped you to become a wiser and more loving person – that’s awesome. But I don’t think it’s essential. 

As the religious scholar Rudolph Otto said, every religion needs to find a balance between the numinous (ie religious or mystical experiences) and the ethical. You shouldn’t exclude the numinous, but neither should you obsess over it and forget the ethical. The great theologian Huston Smith, who took psychedelics with Timothy Leary and was sympathetic to psychedelics, nonetheless warned:

A religion made up solely of heightened religious experiences would not be a religion at all…. The major religious traditions address the mysteries (with or without entheogens), but they have other business to do: widen understanding, give meaning, provide solace, promote loving-kindness, and connect human being to human being. This is my litmus test for any mental experience however induced: does it enhance your whole life, and then do you in turn enhance the lives of others?

Psychedelic culture needs to find a balance between numinous experiences like the McKennas’ UFO encounters, and more basic ethical tasks – how to help people, how to make them more open, loving and wise. ‘Traits, not states’, insisted Huston Smith. Don’t get hung up on seeking altered states for their own sake. Seek altered traits – are you becoming a kinder and wiser person? Psychedelics can help with that (there’s some evidence they help make people more open and more reverential to nature, for example), but so can many other less dramatic spiritual practices like meditation, prayer, volunteering.

On the way to Breaking Convention, I listened to this great interview by Russell Brand with Sharon Salzberg, a leading Western practitioner of loving-kindness meditation (you can download it on iTunes here). I love Salzberg’s pragmatic worldview – she doesn’t exclude the supernatural, but she doesn’t obsess over it. Brand constantly tests the limits of her worldview – does she believe in reincarnation? Yes. Does she believe in God?  She notes how the Buddha remained silent on this question, suggesting that – whether there is a God / higher power or not, the human task remains the same of developing our consciousness and trying to become wiser and kinder beings, rather than getting stuck in disputes about whose God is better.

What about weird ‘siddhis’ or powers like telepathy or bilocation, which some holy people supposedly develop. Does she have any weird powers? No. Has she met holy people who do? Yes, but so what. ‘If you really want to, you can learn to read minds, but it’s not a path of wisdom, it’s a path of power. I had a woman teacher, my most important teacher. She came to practice after losing her husband and two children. The doctor said to her you’ll die of a broken heart unless you learn to meditate. So she went to the temple to learn to meditate. When she emerged, she was so compassionate and loving. She was radiant. They say she had powers. They say she could bake a potato in her hands. But so what? When I think of her I don’t think of that. I don’t care. She’s the person who was loving to everyone.’

I think there probably are spirit-beings ‘out there’, but I don’t think we should obsess over them. And attempts to describe God / the higher power are just attempts, we shouldn’t get hung up on our imperfect verbal definitions, much less attack others for their different definitions. The main task facing homo sapiens is to become wiser and more loving beings. That’s the North Star we need to stay focused on. The weird is fun but it’s not the main event.