The irrational is political: the problem with reductionist science and psychedelics

Scientific materialism is the driving force of corporate capitalism and neocolonialism. Psychedelic political and spiritual culture challenges this destructive ideology

Scientific materialism is the dominant philosophy of the modern age, and has been for over a century. The combination of science and technology as a tool, and capitalism and colonialism as the ideology driving its progress, has led to a widespread transformation of habitat and global indigenous communities. Alongside this essentially atheistic materialism, liberal secularism, originally a religiously motivated ideology that came out of the European Enlightenment, attempted to mitigate the destructive aspects of this transformation, but time and again has been cast aside, as corporate profit and nationalism remain a brutal mental and emotional driving force that has been effective in redirecting popular dissent at confrontation and crisis points, preserving the authority of establishment elites and institutions.

In the midst of these dominant ideologies, much progress has been made on a surface level, in saving and prolonging life, engineering fuel and communication pathways, journeying to other planets, a deeper understanding of the composition of the natural world, and deeper still into the very substance of matter.

Liberal secularism has also broken ties with church and state and allowed human autonomy in specific areas of life. But as ecological and social breakdown rises, and the limits of corporate capitalism are exposed, racism, sexism and bigotry have intensified. Psychological anxieties seem also to be on the increase, and extreme militant religious fundamentalism has become the focal resistance to corporate capitalism and materialism in its willingness to use violence as a reaction to the violence inherent in the system. The fundamental nature of being remains elusive for the materialists and the venom with which they attack competing ideological worldviews, particularly those of a religious or spiritual nature, is very likely to be psychologically connected to this frustration at the limits of physicalism to understand the nature of consciousness and a denial of the connection between reductionism and globalisation.

The development of psychedelics over the past 50 years offered a bridge between the physical and idealistic perception of reality, between science and religion itself, and it seemed for a time that ideas and philosophies were converging, and a political revolution was somehow linked to this, nowhere more evident than in the late-1960s and again in the late-1980s where alternative communities challenged the dominant modes of thought. But the political establishment, a mixture of traditional religious and atheistic worldviews, joined forces each time against a set of ideas that demonstrated nonconformist even revolutionary attitudes, threatening those who sought to retain control of the narrative, of the ultimate power to define reality. So laws were tightened, rebellious individuals and groups were militantly policed and imprisoned, and idealistic political resistance was attacked by all means deemed necessary.

But a new development began to take shape in the 1990s, as scientists consciously distanced themselves from the political elements connected to psychedelics and began to focus on neurochemistry and developing brain-imaging technology, which demonstrated the positive benefits of certain psychedelic substances to treat a variety of physical and psychological conditions causing distress in individuals. While alternative and more psychospiritual treatments continued, the dominant worldview found it much easier to accept this less political, more physicalist model, and the scientists focusing on this aspect seem to have become the spokespeople for the resurgence of psychedelics in the mainstream media with calls for medical licensing rather than an outright end to prohibition. Now it seems that the very notions of spirituality, religion, shamanism, even spiritual political views once intimately bound with psychedelic use, are being marginalised in favour of this sanitised, corporate friendly model of psychedelic health.

The risks with taking the reductionist, scientific approach is that at the very moment when a libertarian culture, with its open-hearted view of spirituality, sexuality and multiculturalism, is being attacked in quite vicious ways by the ascendancy of post-fascist ideology, psychedelic science is playing handmaiden to these forces by remaining apolitical and hoping these repressive forces will grant some licensing to allow the doctors to prescribe psychedelics as medical treatment, while researching the effects of these substances on brain chemistry. The possibility that these substances could provide the revolutionary perspective that might challenge the evidently repressive forces, perhaps even offer insight that might aid activists and campaigners in looking for alternative methods of challenging these tyrannical structures, is being pushed aside for a different kind of political expediency, one that is compliant to the forces of repression.

Can psychedelic, political and spiritual activists who want a complete end to prohibition find common ground with scientists and politicians? Can an integrated worldview to face the ecological and social challenges of the 21st century be created? Or is it time to recognise that legalisation of psychedelic substances will never be granted in this present system and to recognise the nature of the challenge and to find common cause with activists rather than government-approved scientists? The cognitive freedom to explore consciousness and create spontaneous recreational spaces, including non-materialist, non-rational, even post-factual perspectives, must be fearlessly demanded, not only from the political establishment, but also from the scientific establishment, and current reductionist ideologues who have become prominent in the field of psychedelic research have to be challenged. The transformation of the social and political order, which is visibly sinking into totalitarianism as it destroys the planet and any semblance of civilisation and humanity, no longer allows for politeness in these matters. Silence is compliance.