The Philosophy of Psychedelic Transformation
Journal of Consciousness Studies.
Introduction and Methodological Preliminaries
Psychedelic drugs are remarkable substances which have been hailed as indispensable epistemic instruments for the sciences of mind, as unparalleled psychotherapeutic interventions, as unique sources of insight into the nature and genesis of psychosis and religion, and as keys to the survival and flourishing of the human species (Osmond 1957, Sessa 2012). After a politically driven decades long hiatus, scientific study of these drugs in humans has resumed with impressive results. Given the magnitude and variety of significance ascribed to the substances, it is surprising that philosophers have not shown much interest in this ‘psychedelic renaissance’.
Here I aim to remedy this deficit. Recent philosophical work on psychopharmacology focuses on bioethical questions of authenticity and autonomy with respect to enhancement (Parens 2005, Glannon 2008, Stein 2012). As such, this is a natural place to begin philosophical analysis of psychedelic phenomena. The psychopharmacological enhancement literature is driven by a concern that certain
psychopharmacological interventions may be dehumanising or may compromise the authenticity or identity of patients. Without committing myself to the view that other drugs do compromise authenticity, I want to explore the notion that psychedelics respect authenticity in a unique way—by involving the person in a transformative process which is somewhat transparent, rational, and meaning involving. This is similar in spirit to contrasting utopian and dystopian views of psychopharmacology which the philosopher M. H. N. Schermer (2007) finds in the work of Aldous Huxley. In Huxley’s novels, fictional psychedelic work of Aldous Huxley –like drugs are depicted as humanising and empowering while non- psychedelic-like drugs are depicted as dehumanising and disempowering (Huxley 1932, 1962). I am not committing myself to the dystopian view of non-committing psychedelic drugs, but exploring the possibility that psychedelic drugs have uniquely utopian credentials. My conjecture is that this difference arises from the fact that psychedelics engage the self in humanistic transformative process transformative process which is (somewhat) transparent and meaning–respecting, rather than performing sub–personal surgery on the constituent parts of a passive self. I begin by briefly reviewing the history and phenomenology of psychedelic, and recent evidence for therapeutic and transformative efficacy. Next, I discuss my conjecture about the meaning–involving nature of psychedelic transformation. This conjecture depends on the empirical claim that the altered state of consciousness (ASC) induced by psychedelics is causally relevant to the long–term benefits caused by the drugs. I discuss four lines of evidence for this claim——three briefly, before spending longer which on the fourth, which draws on recent neuroscientific studies of psilocybin. This research has been claimed to support a theory of psychedelic transformation which implicates the ASC. I describe this theory and argue that it not transformation which implicates the ASC. Clearly the transformative process cannot be entirely transparent——subjects may be directly aware of subjects the conscious mental states involved, but not of the neural and sub–neural mechanisms causing and/or constituting those states only implicates the ASC in the transformative process, but supports the idea that psychedelic transformation is an epistemic process. It is tempting to assume that psychedelics are fundamentally agents of misrepresentation (as suggested by the popular term ‘hallucinogen’). From this perspective, one might think that whatever psychedelic therapy is not a process of knowledge acquisition. I suggest this is a process of knowledge acquisition. I suggest this is too quick, and there are good reasons to think that psychedelic experience can too quick, and there are good reasons to think that psychedelic experience can sometimes lead to knowledge gain.