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psychic phenomena

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.

Scrubbing up religion to make it fit for polite society

I had the pleasure of meeting Jonathan Haidt on Monday at the RSA. Haidt, as you all know, wrote The Happiness Hypothesis, which really inspired me. I gave him a copy of my new book, so if you see it in a bin near the Strand, it’s yours! Haidt’s own new book is called The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Religion and Politics.

It’s a very interesting and quite ideas-packed book. A lot of ‘intelligent non-fiction’, particularly in psychology, can be easily boiled down to a 10-minute TED talk (indeed many books should have stayed as TED talks), but Haidt’s book – shock horror! – has more than one idea in it. It talks about the emotions beneath different political ideologies, how our brains generate sacred values, and how religions help societies to cohere and bond.

It’s this last idea that Haidt discusses in his very slick TED talk on religion and ecstasy (I love the animated slides – it’s lecture-as-movie-experience). His talk begins with William James, and a brief look at revelatory ecstatic experiences – those moments where, as Haidt puts it, a door seems to open in our heads, and we are suddenly lifted from the profane to the sacred. Haidt talks about how such revelatory experiences can involuntarily happen to us (we are seized by forces, as the young Wordsworth feels himself to be), or we can voluntarily engineer them by taking psychedelic drugs, as shamans did (or do).

Then Haidt moves, quite rapidly, to a social or Durkheimian explanation of religion. Sacred values, he says, give societies something to cohere around, to coalesce around. They help us bond, and help our societies endure and resist external shocks. He shows us the fascinating work by the anthropologists Richard Sosis and Eric Bressler, who studied American communes in the 19th century, and found that the religious communes which demanded a lot more from their members survived far longer than the secular communes which demanded less (see the graph below).

So, and this is Haidt’s main point, perhaps there’s an evolutionary purpose to religions. Perhaps they evolved at a certain period in human evolution, around 10,000 years ago, to help human tribes to cohere and cooperate, making them more adaptive and resilient. They are the product, he suggests, of ‘group selection’ – apparently a rather controversial idea in biology. You can be an atheist, as he is, and still have respect for the sacred and its socially adaptive function. ‘

And you don’t need the supernatural for a sense of the sacred’, he insists. ‘You could get it from your country, or from nature.’ Well, maybe, though I’d suggest if people get really worked up about their country, there’s probably a bit of the supernatural mixed in – think of how American nationalism is often mixed in with a sense of manifest destiny.

Haidt is certainly right that religions can bond societies together and help give them a collective sense of meaning, and that this can help them respond to shocks and threats. Others have also argued this recently – from the philosopher Charles Taylor to Robert Wright to Alain De Botton. At a time of riots and revolutions, it’s unsurprising that liberals suddenly start talking about how religions create social stability, as Edmund Burke and William Wilberforce did after the French Revolution.

But I think the Darwinian social function theory of religion leaves something out. It leaves out the phenomena that Haidt begins his TED talk with – the sheer strangeness of revelatory and ecstatic experiences. In such moments, humans feel invaded by external powers, filled with the holy spirit, possessed, overwhelmed. There is something extremely wild, psychotic even, about some religious phenomena, and I think both Haidt and De Botton, in their eagerness to rehabilitate religion for a polite secular bourgeois audience, leave some of that wildness out.

Haidt presents a nice evolutionary story: at a certain stage of evolution, humans came up with religion to help our tribes cohere. But the story is weirder than that. At a certain stage in evolution, humans became conscious, and felt bombarded by messages from gods and angels. We tripped into consciousness, and this must have been both an awesome and a completely terrifying experience. It seems to me that William James appreciated the savage rawness and weirdness of the revelatory experience. Haidt does to some extent, but not sufficiently. (That’s St Theresa on the right, by the way, getting slapped around by some angel. Take that Theresa!)

I put this to Haidt, and he began by saying that James was a depressive recluse, so was focused very much on the individual aspects of religious experience rather than the social. Fair enough, though a bit harsh on James. Haidt then suggested that homo sapiens believed the universe was full of spirits as a side-effect of evolving a theory of mind. It was very adaptive to be able to infer other humans’ intentions, and as a result, we started to infer intentions everywhere – the sky thunders because God is angry etc (this is a theory known as the Hyper-Active Agency Detection Device, which Jesse Bering ably explored in his book The God Instinct).

But, again, I don’t think this adequately explains revelatory experience. The experience of hearing voices, seeing visions, feeling suddenly filled with the holy spirit etc is simply far more powerful and immediate than inferring divine agency when you hear some thunder. It’s a feeling of being actively invaded and overpowered by an external agency. Such experiences can certainly be socially cohesive, but they can also be highly socially disturbing. They are weird, uncanny, abnormal, frightening. The people who experience them are, traditionally, weird, frightening figures, half in the tribe and half out of it (half in the profane world and half in the sacred, as Mircea Eliade put it in his study of shamanism). They might be revered by their tribe and followed. Or they might be executed for being demonically possessed.

Haidt emphasizes the social cohesion role of the sacred, and seems to suggest our Enlightenment cultures need a bit more of the sacred in our lives and societies. But the sacred is notoriously hard to manage, politically, as King Pentheus knew (he’s the hero of Euripides’ Bacchae, who tries to ban the ecstatic cult of Dionysus. He even tries to imprison Dionysus, but the god of ecstasy escapes and sends Pentheus into madness. He ends up getting ripped apart by the maenads). What I admire about ancient Athens in the fifth century BC is its ability to balance the rationalist with the irrational and daemonic: Socrates and Sophocles, two sides of the human personality balancing each other out. But our Enlightenment societies have far more difficulty in seeing any value in the ecstatic, the revelatory or the daemonic. It simply terrifies us. It’s too weird, too uncivic, too impolite.

The last generation to be genuinely OK with revelatory experiences was the civil war generation of Oliver Cromwell, the Quakers and John Milton. In some ways, you could read Milton’s Samson Agonistes as the swan-song for revelatory experience in western culture. Samson sits in jail, wondering why God isn’t sending him any more messages. Well – we’re all wondering that now Samson. Why aren’t we getting any messages? What’s up with our reception! After the prophetic violence of Milton’s generation, England settled down to a calmer and more polite culture that was very suspicious of religious ‘enthusiasm’. And with good reason: the ‘voice of God’ often told people to kill, as God tells Samson to do. Such experiences have to be controlled and even banished in a multicultural rational commercial society. (Check out this excellent video of Stanley Fish discussing the inherent weirdness and illiberal savagery of Samson Agonistes, by the way).

Soren Kierkegaard was right, I think, to insist on the strangeness and irrationality of religious experience in his 1842 book Fear and Trembling. Kierkegaard was surrounded by 19th century Deists and Hegelians trying to turn religion into something nice, polite, rational and civic (as Haidt and De Botton are trying to do today). And he responds, forget all that – religion is God telling Abraham to kill his son, and Abraham agreeing.

Religions certainly fulfill an important social role. But they also grow out of the fact that, as a species, we sometimes feel invaded and possessed by external forces. Religions make sense of such experiences and give them a structure and meaning. And perhaps they give us a way to tell the good messages from the bad ones – the pro-social from the anti-social. We could try and come up with an explanation for these experiences of receiving messages from beyond.

There are two possible explanations, it seems to me. Firstly, western science’s explanation: the feeling of being invaded by spiritual forces is a deluded by-product of human consciousness. I’m absolutely fine with that explanation. Secondly, perhaps there really are external beings ‘out there’ in the multi-verse, which communicate with humans and inhabit them. Perhaps some of them can be good for the host and their society, and others bad for them. Perhaps it’s all a question of letting the right one in.

I know such speculations are somewhat beyond the pale of polite rationalist Enlightenment discourse. Nonetheless, this is how humans have, for the last 10,000 years, understood their experiences of the daemonic (daemon means a messenger, and eudaimonia, by the way, means ‘having a good daemon within’ – tell that to the Office of National Statistics the next time they come round to measure your eudaimonia). It’s how most of the human species still understands such experiences. So I think it should be acceptable to at least entertain such a thesis, without being labelled insane.

That’s not to say that religions are all correct and true – they couldn’t be. But it would suggest that religions grow out of actual interactions with non-human intelligences. Such a theory doesn’t have to make any claims about the identity of these beings – if there is one God communicating with us, or many gods, or no gods at all, simply other intelligences, mortal or immortal, who can communicate with us through revelations. These are all possibilities. It simply suggests that the reason humans came to believe that other intelligences send them messages is because they actually do. I’m going to call this the animist theory of religions.

I certainly don’t mean to attack the Enlightenment and all its achievements, and to welcome in some sort of degenerative age of magic like that of late antiquity. I personally don’t like talk of ‘malevolent demons’, because it seems to me to open the door to all kinds of unhealthy superstitions (nicely illustrated by the famous ‘sleep of reason’ drawing, on the right). But I wonder if we should at least entertain the hypothesis that revelatory experiences genuinely are communications with other beings in the multiverse – some benevolent, some perhaps malevolent.

Skeptics, at this point, will charge me with being an utter loon, and will insist that science’s great achievement was to free us from all our spooky fears of being in what the astronomer Carl Sagan called a ‘demon-haunted world’. But Sagan himself thought higher beings might be trying to communicate with humans, and imagined such a possibility in his book and film, Contact. Aliens, angels – same same, but different?

Well, maybe speculations about where such messages come from are pointless, unprovable either way, and we should ask more pragmatically what people do with such experiences, to what social uses they put them, and how we can hold them to rational account (unlike Kierkegaard, I think we must hold revelations to rational account and try to make sense of them). But if you’ve had such experiences, as much of the population have, I’m sure one can’t help but wonder…where did that come from?


Here are some interesting other links for newsletter subscribers:

Here’s Angie Hobbs robustly defending philosophy’s ability to teach us how to live.

Here’s Mark Williamson of Action for Happiness talking about the ‘Sachs effect’ – or what Jeffrey Sachs’ support for national happiness measurements means for the ideology of happiness.

One thing that amuses me about happiness economists is that they tell us that constantly comparing ourselves to others makes us less happy, but their own international rankings of country happiness leads us to do just that. Here, for example, is a journalist in Malaysia worrying about his country being less happy than Singapore (but at least it’s happier than Thailand).

This chap from Nesta thinks the arts and humanities should be more willing to measure their impact scientifically. I’m fine with that, as long as social scientists are happy to express their theories through dance. Wait…they are happy to do that! Check out all the YouTube entries for ‘dance your PhD’, like this. OK you crazy scientists, we’ll try.Here’s an Economist piece on the drive to make academic journals open access.

Two pieces showing the harshness of our cultural and media attitudes to female celebrities’ bodies (and hence the harshness of our attitudes to women in general). First, the actress Ashley Judd responds to the media / internet abuse over her ‘puffy face’. And then, a nasty time-lapse video appears on YouTube showing Lindsay Lohan’s face ageing. The New Republic suggests it shows the corruption of celebrity. Well, maybe, I think it also shows how vicious we can be to women. Everyone has some bad photos of them, right? We don’t subject male celebrities to this sort of body-policing.

Ilona Boniwell, who teaches a masters in Positive Psychology at University of East London, is one of the people behind this Personal Well-Being Centre, which has devised a ‘well-being curriculum’ for schools, and which also does free (or very cheap) ‘psychology in the pub‘ sessions. Cool! I shall go to one to discuss my daemon obsession.

Finally, here’s my favourite philosopher, footballer Joey Barton, on Lucian Freud, trans-genderism, body-consciousness and other stuff. ‘I’m body-aware, not body-conscious’, sighs Joey. Do I see the beginning of a floppy wrist for football’s hard-man?

See you next week,