Psychedelics and the Case Against Reality
Three books that blew my mind-at-large
When a crisis is at hand, it is sometimes necessary to dig deep and redefine some fundamental concepts. Reality is a pretty big concept to redefine, but it is starting to get a serious makeover.
A small collection of molecules that have the power to alter human consciousness is helping neuroscientists deconstruct reality, which, I have come to believe, emerges from Mind at Large. How did I come to this conclusion? It happened after reading three fascinating books back-to-back. These books are very different from each other…but they have some important similarities.
The first book I read, The Case Against Reality, by Donald Hoffman, published just this year, introduces a fascinating, cutting-edge idea. Unfortunately, it is poorly-written.
When I started reading the second book, Food of the Gods, by the late Terrence McKenna, published in 1993, I had no idea that I would find common themes. In terms of the sheer reading experience, McKenna’s book was more satisfying (despite the hippiespeak and ‘60s-style radicalism).
So, what — you may ask — do these books have in common? I can’t wait to tell you!
First, I need to mention: I did not set out to read these books in a short span of time, nor was it intended that they be read in the order that they were — although in retrospect, I’m so glad Pollan’s book was the last.
The overlapping themes of these three books — written by different authors with different agendas, experiences, and backgrounds — have coalesced in my mind to form a wide-angle view of something amazing that is happening, something that has the potential to transform the human race…hopefully for the better.
And you probably agree; the human race needs to transform, one way or another.
Evolution did not give us truth
Perception is construction.
I would summarize Hoffman’s thesis as follows: we cannot see reality as it is, because our senses did not evolve to see “truth”. Our senses evolved to allow us to survive — just like everything else in our bodies, brains, and cultures. Many respectable scientists have claimed that our sense organs evolved to give us an “accurate” view of the world. But this is shortsighted. What has actually happened is that our sense organs have evolved to give us the ability to adapt marvelously well, within an arbitrary situation on a tiny blue ball circling a star, upon which a blind watchmaker (evolution) has been performing a billion-year hack job with DNA.
It is difficult for any of us to imagine that reality is fundamentally different than what we experience with open eyes, ears, and hands. This idea is not easily or readily accepted. Everything in our brains and culture is telling us, “this is how it is — my eyes are wide open and I am sober…THIS is reality”. But perhaps we (DNA-based earthlings) have been fooled by a few billion years of evolution.
Hoffman goes even further to suggest that the very concepts of space and time are fabricated in our brains, to give us inner-representations that allow us to make sense of the world and, ultimately to continue reproducing — to survive, which is the ultimate driver for evolution. At the quantum level of physics, the very notions of space and time break down and become meaningless or ambiguous. This, I assume, is what the reader can assume is meant by “reality” (hardcore reality, in terms of fundamental particle physics).
I do not personally reduce the definition of reality to such a low level. Since the big bang, the universe has been in the business of building galaxies, stars, planets, oceans, mountains, rivers, and…life. Whether or not space and time had existed before brains came along, it would seem to me that at least some observable (in the quantum narrative) properties must have emerged along the way, as a product of the laws of nature — and consequent structure — that came out of the big bang.
But that’s just my take on the matter. It’s not necessary to identify the exact point in time in the history of the universe when time and space emerged. The reductionism serves to emphasize a point: that spacetime may be fundamental to our reality, but it is not fundamental to physics.
Just hearing my short explanation of the case against reality may sound confusing. It is not easy to imagine that reality is nothing like we think it is; that it is an illusion, all the way down to the quantum level (which we can’t understand anyway). But if you take time to read the book (or better, take much less time to read this review in Quanta Magazine), letting the idea sink in, it will likely become more convincing.
If only Hoffman had provided more real-world examples, metaphors, and familiar narratives to help drive home his point. If only he had spent more time on what consciousness might feel like for familiar animals (dogs, birds, fish, worms, and on down — as Daniel Dennett does), allowing the idea to gradually seep out of our normal anthropocentric seat, by way of a multi-course pedagogical offering.
If only Hoffman had eaten some mushrooms.
The human world is intensely social, and our reality is steeped in the context of society, language, and technology, which is a very different reality from that of the polar bear, who enjoys solitude…and eating seals. Hoffman habitually returns to the same trite, low-dimensional examples from his psychology laboratory (looking at a red apple on a table, or staring at an optical illusion).
Hoffman also makes weak claims about having proven that evolution favors fitness over truth, by using a simple genetic algorithm. Any respectable scientist would expend some effort explaining such a lofty claim.
Despite Hoffman’s delivery, the logical machinery in his thesis is convincing. The import of this book just goes to show that Darwin’s dangerous idea continues its relentless erosion of cherished assumptions. But I admit I came to this book already biased, having iterated on similar ideas in several of my previous writings, including:
Evolution gave us mushrooms
Fortunately for me, my uninspiring reading experience found some respite while I was reading McKenna’s book. Even better; I started seeing connections with Hoffman’s idea, which I didn’t expect — coming from such a different perspective. One of McKenna’s core theses is that the use of psychedelics (psilocybin, peyote, ayahuasca, etc.) by early humans boosted neural evolution, and partly made us who we are. (McKenna was a long-time proponent/advocate of psychedelics such as psilocybin.)
The idea is provocative, but the science is a tad shaky. McKenna’s “stoned ape” theory doesn’t fully explain the causal connection between consuming plants and fungi that affect consciousness-expansion among early Homo sapiens, and the effect of this behavior on natural selection. But the full spectrum of the book’s subject matter offers an interesting alternative point of view on human history. That perspective, as radical as it is, is worth thinking about. The implication for me is that psychedelics are tools that have been used, and still can be used, by humans, not just to reimagine reality but to redefine it.
How to Change Your Mind
What I found lacking in Hoffman and McKenna, I found, crafted with eloquence, in Michael Pollan’s book. The book turned out to be a perfect way for me to tie together the ideas and claims presented by Hoffman and McKenna — each coming at human subjectivity from different institutions and world-views. Although, at its core, the main characters in Pollan’s book are members of a small collection of molecules that can drastically and temporarily change human consciousness, the book is not merely about psychedelics. It taps into the deepest questions about the ego, religion, and human suffering.
It would not be too far-fetched to say that neuroscience is actively trespassing the soils of philosophy and religion. There are now animated 3D views of human brains shifting between egocentric ways of thinking on the one hand, and having spiritual and mystical experiences on the other…
Researchers can now see see in real-time the altered states of consciousness that come with obsessive-compulsive disorder, psychosis, religious awe, and tripping on mushrooms. The diverse palette of conscious states is being mapped. And it seems the science is just getting started.
The default mode network (shown in glowing red above) is strongest when a person is obsessed, self-narrating, depressed, anxious, or just idly mulling over thoughts about thoughts. This is the ego at work. This structure breaks down during meditation, or under the influence of psychedelics. As the ego fades into the background, unexpected connections arise, causing metaphorical synesthesia — not merely a hallucinogenic crossing of the senses, but an enhanced connectivity between cognitive regimes, memories, concepts, causes, and effects.
The reports of mystical experiences and unity with all living things from psychedelics research leads Pollan (and those he has interviewed) to believe that the dissolution of the ego caused by psychedelics is a good way to “defrag” the brain’s hard drive, to “shake the snow globe”, and to introduce “entropy” into the system, thereby jolting the wiring of reality out of its normal grooves.
Jolting the wiring of reality out of its normal grooves
Most people, including myself, recoil at the idea of giving up their egos, even if it is temporary and perfectly safe. After all, my ego is “me”, and “I” am my ego. But this connection is tenuous. And loosening this connection might be beneficial. Evidence is mounting that a brief shaking of the snow globe (whether aggressive — causing a jarring mystical vision, or gentle — causing a soft micro-dose sparkle) is safe; the ego always comes back…usually with a memory of having opened a few doors of perception.
The return of psychedelic therapy, since its decline during the unsuccessful war on drugs, and the renewed use of psychedelics for basic brain research, is promising. It will result in new therapies for depression, addiction, and existential distress in terminally ill patients. The science is getting more solid: dissolution of the ego by way of psychedelic molecules can relieve people of the tyranny of the ego and its self-regenerating tendencies, which is the basis for a host of common neuroses.
But in addition to their therapeutic potential, these molecules are useful tools for studying the nature of consciousness…
…which has everything to do with Reality.
Communication…with a spirit world?
It is common for people who are given high doses of psychedelics to report direct communications with a “spirit world”. Looking at this from an objective, scientific point of view (and not having any personal direct experience…yet), I assume this is due to the fact that for these people, their normal rambling internal monologue has been unmoored; since it has lost the anchor of the ego, it begins communicating with whatever it can find that might listen. Perhaps it is merely a sensation — an illusion.
The internal ego monologue is habitual, automatic, and often unconscious. I often notice this fact at the end of a stressful day as I lie in bed with insomnia; I catch myself in an anxious state, with voices chattering away in my head like a pack of monkeys.
And then I STOP…
…and I ask myself to meditate: to silence those voices, and to focus on my breath and that quiet space just behind my eyelids. I focus intensely on nothing. Sometimes I get to nothingness. When this happens, I feel a brief and gentle wash of here-now, a twinge of bliss, which is all the more noticeable because the chattering had been so loud. I can almost feel the brain chemistry changing. Of course, this state doesn’t last long. Soon enough, my mind is back to its normal rambling about my personal past and my personal future, and the conundrum that my past and future selves are at odds with each other.
Lather, rinse, repeat…eventually, the softened chattering gives way to sleep.
But the sleeping state is not the only opportunity to silence the default mode network. While fully awake, a person under a high dose of psilocybin may experience copresence with something other (higher?) than the self. Perhaps, when the self is removed from the seat of language, the brain — ever the relentless language machine — keeps on communicating…with…what? Without an I, the only thing left is a Thou.
Mind at Large
In Food of the Gods, McKenna quotes a passage from Aldous Huxley’s Doors of Perception, written in 1954. It says something rather deep that would have been helpful in Hoffman’s explanation:
“The function of the brain and nervous system is to protect us from being overwhelmed and confused by this mass of largely useless and irrelevant knowledge, by shutting out most of what we should otherwise perceive or remember at any moment, and leaving only that very small and special selection which is likely to be practically useful. According to such a theory, each one of us is potentially Mind at Large. But in so far as we are animals, our business is at all costs to survive. To make biological survival possible, Mind at Large has to be funneled through the reducing valve of the brain and nervous system. What comes out at the end is merely a trickle of the kind of consciousness which will help us to stay alive on the surface of this particular planet.”
The conclusion at the end is radical: now that we have disturbed the planet to the point of causing a climate crisis, we may need to open the reducing valve…to change our minds.
A trippy future that might be necessary
My agnosticism is both automatic/somatic and deliberate/intellectual. My refusal to side with either staunch atheists or devout believers comes from a visceral reaction to dogma, and an innate indecisiveness that famously frustrates friends, family, and colleagues.
But it is also a choice to try to open my mind to possibilities. Thus, I want to be open to the following idea: what we humans experience as God, spirit, or a sense of some consciousness that is bigger than our egos, is really a deepened recognition of commonality and integration with all systems on Earth, forged over billions of years in the genetic web of Earth’s ecosystems. There may be a kind of consciousness that is Mind at Large; I have only caught small glimpses (from passing thoughts, experiences in deep nature, lucid dreams, and some trying times when I found myself praying).
I have had a few recent micro-glimpses of the expanse outside my ego with the help of a familiar fungus. And some higher visitations may be coming soon. Like Pollan, I do not expect these experiences to cause a change in theological belief. This is a tool — a cognitive tool — that may come in handy as I approach my 60th year on the surface of this particular planet.
Could it be that in this dire age, with a looming climate crisis, humans need to partake in the food of the gods in order to reduce their egotistical urges, and become more subservient to the Earth and its overall health? It’s all very hippie-trippy-sounding, but I’m ready to roll with it. This a form of consciousness that we can all use a little more of.
Meditation is the cleanest avenue. But it’s a hell of a lot of work, and many people don’t have the time (or the brains) to practice meditation regularly. As Pollan suggests, occasionally chomping down on some mushrooms to defrag your hard drive and experience compassion for the harmony of nature might be the most efficient way — if done responsibly, and with the right intentions.
A simple Google search reveals that this idea might be about to bubble over…
There’s one huge problem with this idea, besides its sheer radical nature: this kind of consciousness, which Tim Leary and his many followers promoted in the ’60s and ’70s, has deep antiestablishment underpinnings. Pollan points out that psychedelic molecules create a strong orientation toward original nature and a general retreat from structured human enterprises. The very foundation of many institutions that are the engines of industry, government, and commerce could be challenged if a critical mass of eco-trippers partake, for the sake of Mother Earth.
But in the end, Earth may truly want us humans to partake of her ancient medicines, as McKenna suggests. These medicines were allegedly used by our hunter-gatherer ancestors over a long period of time, compared to the short explosion of modern civilization. A little perspective helps to make this seem less far-fetched.
The human ego serves a purpose. But it has also caused global damage and discord. Consider the cancerous ego-tumor that currently occupies the White House.
Do we have the existential guts to redefine reality for long-term survival?
Where is Reality?
Yes, in order to solve the climate crisis, we may need to change…not just our minds…but reality. Because we can. Reality is not absolute, and it is not objective; it is a construction within the emergent minds of ecosystems and organisms, culminating in the biggest ego explosion in Earth’s history. Here’s a picture I drew that expresses the idea that reality is constructed within the minds of observers:
Another picture I drew expresses the idea that perception of reality is fundamentally different when the ego and the fabric of spacetime are eliminated:
The posthuman brain
There can be little doubt that we will continue to become more posthuman over time, whether we like the idea or not. Try prying a cellphone from the hand of a millennial, who — twenty years from now — may expect a conversational AI to be on-hand every minute of the day. Human memory is being expanded online, where several AI algorithms may eventually engage in a new level of post-genetic evolution — above and beyond our reach. If the AI algorithms we invent evolve to serve our common needs and the needs of the planet instead of the needs of a corrupt government, or a profit-hungry corporation like Google, then perhaps we can call it a success.
Assuming this is the case, we may ask our AI algorithms to help solve the climate crisis, using the power of machine-learning without an ego getting in the way. Egoless AI may be better at solving this problem than we are.
Our brains and bodies evolved in and for deep, ancient nature — a place where we may choose to spend more time once our algorithms get better at these tough, high-dimensional problems. Perhaps, without our realizing it, the human progress that our egos have enabled us to make is being progressively uploaded to AI algorithms. Eventually, our egos may only be needed on a part-time basis.
I am not advocating a future where humans continually partake of psychedelics, join the bonobos, and stop building cities, airplanes, and computers. We love our cities, airplanes, and computers. On the other hand, if we can’t find other ways to tone down the rampant negative effects of the human ego, reduce our carbon footprint, and stop the destruction of nature, we may have to partake, and truly change reality.
Also, it might be fun.