We are delighted to have caught up with philosopher of mind, writer and stalwart member of the Psychedelic Press, Peter Sjöstedt-Hughes. In this interview he discusses his new book, Modes of Sentience, pansentient monism, metaphysics, problems with emergentism, and the paradigm of prohibition.
Hi Peter! Thanks for answering some of our questions. We recently published Modes of Sentience, your first essay collection since Noumenautics in 2015. Will you tell us a little about which direction your philosophical thinking has taken since then?
Noumenautics was published just as I began my doctorate; Modes of Sentience has come out during my postdoctorate. As a result, I think Modes is a little more polished in terms of academic style. With regard to the content, much of it incorporates work (amended) that I did on my PhD (on ‘Pansentient Monism’), including the chapter on panpsychism, on the ‘Pentalogy of Perception’, and the last chapter on the relation between sentience and the varieties of space.
There is also a general shift from Nietzsche and Bergson in the first book, to Alfred North Whitehead in Modes. My thought now is advancing on neo-Spinozism and a more secular-yet-paganized Whiteheadian process philosophy. Much of this metaphysical work is interwoven with psychedelic phenomenology. In fact, I’m beginning to realize that there can be no integration of psychedelics without metaphysics.
I understand that your PhD did not explicitly contain any discussion of psychedelic substances. Would you tell us a little more about ‘pansentient monism’ and how it has informed your thinking about the psychedelic experience?
Unfortunately, I could not do a doctorate on psychedelic philosophy as there was not enough literature and no one had the knowledge to supervise it! Since then, however, one can now study a PhD on psychedelics and philosophy with us at the University of Exeter. Regardless, there is actually a little on psychedelia in my PhD. I brought in neurophilosopher John R. Smythies – a good friend and associate of Aldous Huxley and Humphrey Osmond (who coined ‘psychedelic’) – as he was a vociferous opponent of the psychoneural identity theory popular in the mid twentieth century. He had his own radical theory on the mind-matter problem: that mind, contra Descartes, was spatial, and that it was a cross-section of a grander n-dimensional spatial continuum of which ‘physical space’ was but another cross-section. Some of this theory made it into the last chapter of Modes of Sentience (‘Deeper than Depth’). Smythies also wrote a philosophical essay on mescaline which Huxley alluded to in the Doors of Perception.
At any rate, I suppose my PhD on pansentient monism – an identity theory type of panpsychism – had a negative and positive fortifying impact on my understanding of psychedelic experience. The negative: I had a chapter on emergentism (the idea that the mind emerges from brain activity). When I understood the intricate, profound problems with this view, a view dominant in the West now, I understood that the default axioms of much clinical psychedelic research were flawed in ways it did not, does not, itself realize. Seeing such problems opens one’s mind to other natural metaphysical possibilities. The positive side is that a mind-matter monism metaphysic makes more sense of certain psychedelic experiences. Since the doctorate I have pushed these possibilities further by more intense research on the monism of Spinoza.
What sort of problems does your study on emergentism reveal in current clinical approaches?
Emergentism, prevalent as the underlying scientific cognitive framework since the 1970s (though there was an earlier period of ‘British Emergentism’ running from J. S. Mill to C. D. Broad), is not itself scientific and suffers innumerable logical problems. Firstly it assumes a neuroessentialism: the presupposition that mind is exclusively correlated with certain activity in the brain. This is of course not verifiable or falsifiable, and there are many reasons to doubt it. It is also, I would argue, unwittingly particularly Western because it stems from the anthropocentrism of Christianity: only humans have souls (something crystalized by Descartes) – as opposed to the ancient Greek pagan view that plants and other organisms had basic feelings (more akin to the animisms of the Amerindians, etc.). Emergentism implies ‘bridge laws’ connecting certain brain activity to certain mental events. These bridge laws are not part of the known laws of Nature, not part of science yet believed in by scientists. The so-called ‘neural correlates of consciousness’ merely present the problem rather than the answer as to how brain activity is correlated to mentality – per se they do not show that the relation is one of emergence.
Furthermore, emergentism has always struggled to escape from epiphenomenalism: the view that mentality has no power at all to affect the brain and body, even though the brain and body has power over mentality. There are evolutionary reasons to reject epiphenomenalism. Conscious concentration, intelligence, desires, perceptions, etc., all seem to necessarily play an important role in survival and development. I.e. mental causation has evolutionary (not to mention personal) effects. Yet mental causation is also not part of the known laws or forces of Nature in the current scientific paradigm. All of these paradoxes, and more, that emaciate emergentism are indicative that emergentism is not the correct way in which to understand the mind-matter relation.
This has serious implications for the clinical approach to psychedelic experience. For instance, it implies that mystical experiences must be seen as emerging from the brain as hallucinations, rather than seeing such experiences as potentially perceptions of other modes of reality that have causes other than neurological. Secondly, the common notion that it is the psychedelic experience itself, rather than the mere subvenient neurological activity, that has therapeutic effects does not cohere well with the also common notion of emergentism, due to the problems of mental causation mentioned. One could go on; the point is that the scientific approach need not actually be one dedicated to psychophysical emergentism. A Spinozist-Whiteheadian type monism, I argue, would be more parsimonious, coherent, and yet still make sense of the neuroimaging. Moreover, it would be more powerful in fortifying health benefits in terms of integrating experiences.
There’s been a rapid increase in psychedelic discourse within academia and the general public in the last few years. Amidst much talk of medicalization and corporatization, what role does the burgeoning field of psychedelic philosophy offer in terms of understanding these changes?
Firstly, then, integration of psychedelics for ‘mental health’ should involve metaphysics. This is one aspect of psychedelic philosophy that has practical implications. It seems that one important mechanism of action of psychedelics for ‘mental health’ is that certain induced psychedelic experiences are of a metaphysical nature in that they offer an expanded intuition of reality: one’s self is but a part of something vaster, of something extensive with intrinsic value and purpose.
This psychedelic-induced metaphysical picture can make one’s personal troubles, anxieties, problems, etc., appear of less importance in the now-intuited grander scheme. Thus is there less reason for, say, alcohol overconsumption to mask the suffering, because the suffering is lessened through the grander scheme. But – importantly – what is the truth-value of such metaphysical visions? Are they delusions or might they reveal deeper truths? To fathom that question, which might affect the longer-term benefits of psychedelic use, involves looking at the metaphysical options.
I believe that one such option, as mentioned – the (process-updated) metaphysics of Spinoza – allows an account of certain such experiences as plausibly authentic. Such knowledge would allow for greater integration of the experience (as opposed to vexed, unsatisfied awe), which in turn will be of greater psychological consequence.
More broadly, though, we can use philosophy to see that viewing psychedelics through a medical lens is only one viewpoint, and moreover a viewpoint with a host of ethical issues such as the concept of ‘mental health’ itself (who decides upon a standard of normality?), the ethical basis of prohibition, problems with patents, biopiracy, etc. History, furthermore, shows us that psychedelics can be seen through a variety of lenses other than medicine – e.g. psychedelics as battlefield incapacitants, as countercultural political catalysts, as spiritual catalysts, as creative catalysts, as psychological weapons, as metaphysical amplifiers, etc. Philosophy lets us analyse the ethical and epistemological dimensions of such multiple perspectives in relation to the nature of the self and of society – offering a variety of routes for the future integration of psychedelics into culture and cosmos.
I’m intrigued by the question of metaphysics and therapy, of placing or finding oneself in different contexts for different perspectives. Is this something that is explicit in current medical methodologies? A philosophical therapy, if you will. Or is it just an implicit component of the experience? It brings to mind some of the cross-disciplinary psychedelic networks in the late 1950s and 1960s such as the philosopher Alan Watts and LSD researcher Oscar Janiger…
Psychedelics often yield metaphysical experiences – that is, they can at times offer new ways of framing reality. For instance, there have been recent studies that, despite flawed methodologies, are nonetheless suggestive that psychedelic users shift their metaphysical positions (with a tendency to panpsychism from physicalism). If psychedelics are used for therapy, and if such psychedelic therapy involves metaphysical perceptions, it would be odd if metaphysics were not used to analyse those experiences. Yet, this is the predicament we find ourselves in at the moment: psychedelic therapy does not utilize the aeons of wisdom metaphysics offers. This may change of course. But therapy is not the only lens through which to view psychedelic experience, nor is metaphysics sufficient still yet to grasp all psychedelic experience. I think we’re all just trying to work out what the hell is going on and what, if anything, we should do about it…
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A rich variety of cultures and indigenous users around the world employ cosmological and metaphysical approaches to the ritual and practical interpretation of psychoactive substances that apparently differ widely compared to our own scientifically-centred ones. In philosophical terms, do you foresee a greater dialogue in the future between these approaches? And how might this fruitfully occur?
An issue that often crops up in philosophy with regard to psychedelic experience is the Perennialism-Contextualism debate. Simply put, perennialists claim that beyond culture there is a qualitatively-identical (and perhaps numerically-identical) universal mystical experience that all can have. Only the reports are flavoured by culture. On the other side, contextualists argue that not merely the report but the actual experience itself is conditioned by culture. The question reduces to this: Is certain psychedelic experience conditioned by culture or does it decondition one from culture? Most take some middle, mixed approach – even contextualist initiator Steven T. Katz takes such a mid-route, more so in responses to his seminal 1978 essay on the debate. This debate relates to core philosophy of mind and epistemology issues such as the extent of the conditions of human experience, and judging veridicality of experience based upon shared experience. The debate also relates to contemporary political and ethical issues such as biopiracy, the appropriation of indigenous knowledge, and the so-called ‘ontological turn’ in anthropology.
Though perennialism is often viewed as a form of Western imperial imposition of a singular framework, it should be noted that contextualism is also Western and leads to a postmodern relativism whereby deeply felt noetic psychedelic experiences are reduced to inculcation rather than reality, and thereby demean the beliefs of all. Regardless, such questions require study of cultures outside our own. The debate cannot be determined by neurological or clinical studies alone. Such anthropological studies or accounts do exist, such as those by Benny Shanon and Davi Kopenawa. They reveal differences and similarities between Western and Amerindian psychedelic experiences. For instance, Shanon writes of the Amerindian psychedelic brew ayahuasca that ‘[o]verall, Ayahuasca induces a comprehensive metaphysical view of things. I would characterize it as idealistic monism with pantheistic overtones.’ However, this somewhat perennialist interpretation has been questioned and more research is required, combining at the least philosophy of mind with anthropology. What I find especially interesting, at any rate, is that the panpsychism induced by psychedelics in the West does parallel in part the animism prevalent in the indigenous Americas. Precisely how such panpsychisms and animisms might map on to one another is something to which I’d like to devote more research.
Finally, although there have been some signs of relaxing attitudes to drug use in certain areas – medical research, some piecemeal decriminalization, etc. – prohibition remains a powerful force throughout the world. What do you think is the underlying worldview that has driven this paradigm over the last 100 years? And what do you foresee as the necessary fundamental changes in worldview that will alter our society’s relationship with psychedelic and other psychoactive substances?
In 1902 William James writes that ‘consciousness produced by intoxicants and anæsthetics’ is something that ‘public opinion and ethical philosophy have long since branded as pathological’. In other words, metaphysical experiences caused by exogenous chemicals rather than by established religious practice is seen as madness. I believe this points to one factor as to the current prohibitionist stance our Western culture carries.
The Church, with limited concessions given to other Abrahamic faiths, maintained a monopoly on spiritual experience. All was to be interpreted in this framework. The Eleusianian Mysteries were closed down by the Christian Emperor Theodosius I, the aforementioned Amerindian practices were condemned as Satanic and accordingly destroyed by the Roman Catholic conquistadors, even the alcohol prohibition of the early twentieth century in the US was led by pietists. So one can speculate that Christianity is one wide factor underlying the West’s prohibitionist stance.
There are other factors too, such as demographics based on race and subculture, genuine health concerns, alcohol lobby groups, and the fact that psychedelic experiences are often too anomalous to fit usefully into any extant societal category. Yet, one might argue that emancipation from the Church will allow for not just ‘atheism’ (which is often merely secularised Christian culture), but for other metaphysical Weltanschauung, such as the neo-Spinozism I favour. Such a shift may result in greater appreciation of other varieties of consciousness, which in turn would have an effect on our approach to the legal status of psychedelics. However, this may take a while – as Nietzsche warned: “God is dead, but given the way of men, there may still be caves for thousands of years in which his shadow will be shown.”
Thank you very much for your time, Peter!
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