What Psychedelics Reveal About the Nature of Consciousness

May 20, 2019

Dr. Peter Sjostedt-H is something of a rockstar “philosopher of mind.” His specializations include the English “process” philosopher Alfred North Whitehead, the German Übermensch philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, and psychedelic drugs.

An Anglo-Scandinavian based in Cornwall, England, Sjostedt-H took his PhD at the University of Exeter. Earlier this year, he delivered a TEDx Talk on the daunting subject of consciousness and psychedelics.

He lectures, authored the 2015 book Noumenautics: metaphysics – meta-ethics – psychedelics, and believes psychedelics can lift the lid on our sentience. He is a proponent of panpsychism—the theory that everything material has an element of consciousness. His work even helped to inspire the new form of Marvel’s “inhuman philosopher” character, Karmak.

Image via Marvel

Altogether, speaking with Dr. Peter Sjostedt-H promised to be quite the trip. In conversation, there was a measured quality to his words that only deepened the fascination. I delved into his mind in an attempt to learn more about my own.

Kiran Sidhu: Put simply, what is consciousness?

Dr. Peter Sjostedt-H: “Acquaintance without inference” might be the simplest way to put it. We infer that external events exist but we need not infer that consciousness exists, as it is that with which we are directly acquainted. This is the way Bertrand Russell understood itbut it leaves unanswered what such acquaintance is.

Within human consciousness we can distinguish various modes, such as sense perception, emotion, thought, imagination, memory, intentionality, alertness, etc. But even such prosaic human consciousness can be radically altered through chemical means, thus enabling a more comprehensive understanding of what consciousness is, what it can be.

So immediately we can see how psychedelics are of immense value to studies of consciousness. Consciousness, or “mind,” is often differentiated from “matter”but at the deepest, fundamental level, I consider mind and matter to be identical, implying that a basic form of mind is ubiquitous in nature.

Psychedelics are often described as “mind-expanding.” What, in your opinion, happens to a person who is under the influence of a psychedelic drug, in terms of consciousness and perception? And can I get the same effect from a serious dose of meditation?

There is a vast variety of mental states that are caused by these drugs, so there is no singular state that is the psychedelic state. Psychedelic states of sentience occupy a mindscapepossibly infinitethat is yet to be observantly mapped; this is the remit of a yet-to-be-undertaken psychedelic phenomenology, and this needs to precede a psychedelic neurology (as we cannot seek neural correlates of consciousness without first mapping those states of consciousness).

Completely unknown, alien emotions can emerge. The perception of space can warp.

But to begin that phenomenology, to return to your question, certain fascinating disturbances can be enumerated.

The “specious present,” the duration of the present, can be stretched out so that, say, five seconds become the instant of “now.” Sense and cognitive modalities may intertwine, manifesting a colour of logic, a scent of memory, or a terror of time. Completely unknown, alien emotions can emerge. The perception of space can warpeven to the extent of ripping open the three-dimensionality of space and thereby invading a hyperspace of four or more spatial dimensions, a dimensionality mostly forbidden to our everyday normal human phenomenal consciousness (but not to modern mathematics).

I think these alone transcend the typical modes of meditation, and are but a taster of what is possible for the mind to experience.

You said psychedelics help “by making conscious what was before unquestioned.” That sounds pretty essential to the study of philosophy?

I wouldn’t go so far as to say that psychedelics are essential to philosophy generally, but I would say that they are to the philosophy of mind and metaphysics what microscopes are to biology: With this new tool of perception cells, bacteria, a whole microcosmos were discovered, which in turn had vital ramifications upon our knowledge of disease, digestion, evolution, and so on.

I believe that the psychedelic tool of perception could yield extended knowledge about the mind and the cosmos in likewise fashion. For instance, the breaking down of the subject-object dichotomy in the psychedelic state can enable an experiential verification of the proposed relation of mind to matter in process philosophy.

Some may dismiss psychedelic experiences as mere vacuous hallucinations, with no more significance than dreams. What would be your response?

There are no doubt hallucinatory elements to psychedelic experiences, but one must juxtapose this with the fact that ordinary experience also presents us with false views of reality: We only see a fraction of the electromagnetic scale; we are blind to the curvature of spacetime; language twists our conceptualization of the world; we have evolved an average human speed of time and specious present that is not at all objective.

Other creatures will experience the same world in very different different ways, and we cannot say that our human way is correct, theirs incorrect: We filter the world in our own way.

Now psychedelics can replace the filter. They can provide us with alternate ways of comprehending reality, which in certain cases may provide us with a less human but thus more veridicalrealview of Nature.

Though some see similarities between dreams and psychedelic states, the former are generally far more akin to ordinary consciousnesswith their clear implicit distinction between self and other, their narrative structure, known feelings, etc.

I personally see dreams, nightmares and night terrors as interesting and insightful areas for study. But we must distinguish these from the varieties of psychedelic experience, and from hypnagogiathe primarily visual experiences one can have at the cusp of sleep.

Nietzsche is well-known for taking drugs and for his idea of the Übermensch—someone who can break free from traditional thinking and beliefs to create their own values. The way you describe the properties of psychedelics is reminiscent of that Übermensch quality. How much of Nietzsche’s philosophy do you think was influenced by drugs?

Nietzsche was a drug fiend, as I show in my essay, “Antichrist Psychonaut.” He took large doses of opium, potassium bromide and chloral hydrate, amongst other chemicalsand was known to self-prescribe drugs because, as a doctor, he had the possibility of doing so (the pharmacists never thought to question whether he was a medical doctor).

Furthermore, especially in his later works, Nietzsche professed that he was a disciple of the god of intoxication, Dionysus. He speaks of Dionysian values as contrary to those of Christianity, of which modern Western morality is the legacy. If, as he says, the Christian “God is dead,” then the basis of Christian and Western morality has passed away, allowing for the rise of a new Dionysian world where the ideal of God is replaced by that of the Übermensch, the Overman or Superhuman.

Broadly speaking, certain psychedelic states conduce to radical questioning of whether the concepts, ideologies, views to which one is accustomed have any objective truth. This can certainly lead to the type of revaluation of values that Nietzsche advances.

Friedrich Nietzsche c. 1875. Photo via Wikimedia Commons

Are there ethical considerations that we should apply to psychedelics? Could the revaluation of moral parameters that they might enable lead to a kind of nihilism? It’s well known that the Nazis used Nietzsche’s philosophy for egregious harm.

Nietzsche distinguishes various types of nihilism, but two are pertinent here.

Passive nihilism is the belief that if the traditional valuesin which we have in this culture been inculcatedare not absolute, then there are no values at all. This can lead to pessimism, apathy, depression, decline.

Active nihilism, on the other hand, is a positive Dionysian stance that takes the destruction of these older values as a godsend, as it were. It provides a freedom not to mope in the abyss of a valueless world, but rather to create new values. It is life-affirming.

As intimated, some psychedelic experiences allow and catalyse such nihilism, a tripping beyond “good” and “evil” to new ethical realms. Of course, such transitions will appear as a danger to older moralities as their power is thereby threatened. Danger is a matter of perspective.

Bill Wilson, the founder of Alcoholics Anonymous, famously tried and approved of LSD, describing it as an “ego reducer.” And psychedelics are linked to “ego dissolution.” Would you say the ego is a hindrance to our greater selves?

There are many psychedelic reports of common concepts of the self being torn apart, often leading to what is called “cosmic consciousness”a feeling of unity with the universe rather than of merely one’s body in time.

Is this a veridical, real experience, or a mere hallucination? That question can only be answered if we already know the true nature of reality, which involves questions such as the character of space and time, the relation of mind and matter, and the extent of the bias of our human perceptual apparatus in view of evolution. As mankind has certainly not reached, and perhaps never will reach, such a comprehension, we therefore cannot judge the veridicality or otherwise of “cosmic consciousness.”

The psychiatrist R. M. Bucke, in his 1901 book Cosmic Consciousness, has a small section on the philosopher Spinoza’s proposed type of profound “ego dissolution” (which the pantheist Spinoza calls “the intellectual love of God”)and I believe that a study on Spinoza’s metaphysics in relation to psychedelic experiences will yield fascinating results.

Spinoza argued that mind and matter were ultimately one, a view Einstein enthusiastically adopted (he even wrote a poem about Spinoza). So let us explore and not judge at this juncture the question of the reality of such cosmic psychedelic experiences.

Further, for balance, I should add that “ego,” in Spinoza’s sense (conatus), is of the essence of life: If we did not strive to advance, we would stagnate and disappear. Likewise for Nietzsche: Life is will to power. The striving for self and for others is a fundamental aspect of Nature, and so its criticism is ultimately a criticism of Nature itselfand yet further, to criticise is itself to manifest one’s ego.

Psychedelics were once strongly associated with intellectualism—through Jean-Paul Sartre, Aldous Huxley and so on. Are you on a mission to rekindle that link?

That is the lineage I seek to restore, starting really from the first scientific psychonaut, the Cornish chemical philosopher Sir Humphry Davy, who experimented frequently with large doses of nitrous oxide in the late eighteenth century.

It is known that the great ancient Greek philosophers also experimented with altered states at the Eleusinian Mysteries (the annual festival near Athens, closed down by the Christians in the fourth century), but all were forbidden to write about them.

So in the West, the tradition of intellectually analyzing such exceptional states of experience started late, but then stalled: In the mid-twentieth century the states were relegated to mere hallucination, recreation and criminalization.

This downgrade reflected interlaced political and scientific creeds of that time, which we are now thankfully leaving behind.


Top photo by Wei Ding on Unsplash

Kiran is a London-based writer and journalist. She has written for publications including the Guardian, the Telegraph and I Paper.

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