An ontology of psychedelic entity experiences in evolutionary psychology and neurophenomenology, Michael J. Winkelman, 2018

An ontology of psychedelic entity experiences in evolutionary psychology and neurophenomenology

Michael James WINKELMAN

Journal of Psychedelic Studies, 2018.

Doi : 10.1556/2054.2018.002


Background and aims : Psychedelic entity experiences are examined from perspectives of evolutionary psychology and neurophenomenology. Their similarities with other entity experiences illustrate the need for a general biological explanation of entity experiences. Mechanisms are proposed to involve innate modules, operators, and intelligences that underlie ordinary cognitive inferences and provide the basis for supernatural thought.

Methods : Comparisons of ayahuasca and dimethyltryptamine (DMT) entity experiences with other types of entity experiences show their fundamental similarities to conceptions of spirit guides, mythological beings, divinities, extraterrestrials, angels, celestial beings, demons, gnomes, dwarfs, elves, and others. Entities exemplify the properties of anthropomorphism, exhibiting qualities of humans. Comparative methods are proposed to identify common features and differences in psychedelic and other entity experiences.

Results : Features of psychedelic entities reflect the functions of principal innate operators and modules (i.e., animacy detection, social role inferences, and mind reading) that have central roles in the explanation of the genesis of spirit experiences and beliefs. Humans’ innate psychology includes diverse forms of self and alien self-phenomena, providing mechanisms for explaining psychedelic entity experiences. Neurophenomenological approaches illustrate that the physiological effects of psychedelics can account for release of innate modules and mental organs. The concept of the phantasy mode of consciousness provides a mechanism through which our unconscious causal and explanatory mechanisms produce accounts of encounters with non-human beings. The extensive interaction of DMT with the receptorome explains why these experiences give such a powerful sense of ontological certainty.

Conclusion : Psychedelic entity experiences share central features with a robust innate human tendency to attribute agency, intentionality, causality, and personhood and to create accounts involving human-like qualities and entities.

Keywords : psychedelic entities, ontology, evolutionary psychology, innate modules



What are we to make of reports of psychedelic entities, experiences of autonomous beings often experienced on psychedelics ? Many reports of psychedelic entity experiences allege that they are not a hallucination nor merely some phenomena of experience, but rather a manifestation of some transcendent real noumenon involving communicative contact with another sentient being (e.g., see Luke, 2011; Meyer, 1994, 2010; St John, 2015). What is the reality of these experiences? How do we understand the ontology and origin of entity experiences, if we do not accept that they are reflections of a
transcendent reality ?

If we dismiss these experiences as irrelevant hallucinations without substance or meaning, we exclude significant information regarding the nature of the human mind. Yet, if we simply accept the phenomenological experiences of entities as transcendent realities, we commit an error of epistemological naivety. The Kantian distinction between phenomena and noumena is useful here. Do these psychedelic entities represent noumena, manifestations of a real transcendent reality, or are they merely phenomena produced by our complex brains, but ultimately nothing more than dream-like hallucinatory experiences ?

The experience of an entity does not mean that what we see is an actual reality. The tendency for the mind to play tricks is easily illustrated in visual illusions and with distorted figures that use irregular line orientations to force the eye into a perception of movement. Various visual illusions (Figure 1) do not move as we perceive them to, but rather are distortions produced by our brain and visual system.

Nonetheless, the distinction of phenomena justifies an acceptance of the reality of the experiences for the person. Accepting the phenomenal contents of experience as data for scientific exploration of the phenomena of the human mind provides an empirical foundation for characterizing the nature of these experiences. Analysis of these descriptions can provide data to determine if there is an objective (intersubjective) reality to these experiences; examine their nature as conceptual entities; and identify the mechanisms producing these experiences in terms of known effects of psychedelics on brain function, potentially explaining the processes producing these often convincing manifestations.

The ontological realities of psychedelic entities

Psychedelic entities are obviously experiences that occur. How are we to conceptualize this data with respect to ontology concerned with the nature of reality and the similarities and differences among basic categories of being that may exist (Encyclopedia of Philosophy)? The Merriam- Webster Dictionary’s (2017) definitions of entities help to clarify at least three types of psychedelic entities: transcendent entities (noumenon, “1a: being, existence; especially: independent, separate, or self-contained existence”); and objective (intersubjective phenomenon) and conceptual entities (“2: something that has separate and distinct existence and objective or conceptual reality”).

The meaning of definition 1 – “independent, separate, or self-contained existence” – implies an empirical entity with transcendent status. True believers who allege that psychedelic entity experiences are real represent the notion of a separate and independent existence, apart from our imagination – a transcendent entity that implies a noumenon. In my view, such claims have not been substantiated with rigorous methodologies (i.e., parapsychological research). I shall leave the evaluation of this transcendent reality of psychedelic beings for others and instead address the concepts of an objective entity (intersubjectively validated experience) and conceptual entity (an explanation for such experiences).

The concepts of an objective psychedelic entity can be derived from similarities in individual experiences that point to a shared intersubjective reality underlying the experiences – are there repeatedly encountered features/ qualia in psychedelic entity encounters? The question of an objective psychedelic entity is concerned with whether across observers there are common features. Can we agree objectively – interpersonally and intersubjectively, and ultimately scientifically – about whether there are regular features exhibited in these experiences?

If encounters with psychedelic entities produce a repeatable pattern of experiences across people, those patterns establish an objective psychedelic entity, as well as a phenomenon to be explained as a conceptual entity. Just as we explain the experience of rainbows as your physical perspective on the sunlight reflecting off of water droplets in the air, we can seek naturalistic explanations of the nature of psychedelic entity experiences that do not require evoking the notion of a transcendent noumenon. There is not really a rainbow where you perceive one, but we can explain this repeatable intersubjectively validated observation through a conceptual explanation involving an understanding of the physics of light and perception.