Better People Through Chemistry?

Many psychedelic proponents feel a need to ground their claims for the evaluative significance of chemically induced mystical experience in prior metaphysical claims about higher realities endowed with special moral authority. Herein, I recommend a shift in perspective according to which we need not posit moral supernature to justify the revelatory capacity of such experiences to tell us how to best act and be.

Many psychedelic seekers eschew talk of mere brain chemistry and hint instead at doors of perception affording insight onto higher realities to explain the numerous positive benefits of psychedelically induced mystical experience. And this isn’t the end of it. Not just any foundations will do. Such practitioners often intimate at metaphysical grounds that convey moral authority. But why invoke these additional metaphysical and moral trappings? What is the itch that they supposed to scratch? Could any amount of such scratching give seekers the relief they desire? Is the idea of such grounding even intelligible? And how could such grounding make the human condition either warmer or fuzzier?

Using metaphysics as a route to ethics, and value more generally, is as a well-worn strategy in the west as it is in the east. Think of the staples of philosophy 101. Plato equated the form of the good with the really, really, real. Augustine personalized Plotinus’ “One,” gauged excellence in terms of self-sufficiency, and bingo … the Christian God! Spinoza courted pantheism by perceiving godhood, of sorts, in the rationality of the whole shebang. And Hegel? Well, you tell me.

Then there is Immanuel Kant, everyone’s favorite little Prussian philosophical garden gnome.[i] His attempt to connect issues of reality with matters of value was indirect, innovative, and, many would say, a cheat. When faced with the prospect of a world ill-adapted to value, his choice was to gamble on metaphysical hope. In Religion Within the Limits of Reason Alone, he proffers three postulates that he judges to be “reasonable,” even if unprovable. These propositions are a priori, not in the sense of being self-evident or preconditions for experience, but in the sense of being preconditions for a reality in which moral convictions enjoy fit. Unable to demonstrate that these propositions are true, Kant argues that they had better be true if the objective world is to accommodate an intelligible moral order.

Kant posits freedom, god, and an immortal soul. These items are intended to bridge will and world in a way that gives us time to pursue a model of perfection to a goal state at which merit and reward might ultimately converge. Behavior, per se, is just motion, undeserving of praise or blame. The natural world is a fickle place in which saints suffer while bastards rise like cream, and in which our finite lives afford us scant opportunity to align our wills, constantly at war as they are with our desires, with the demands of rational moral duty. What we would like is a cosmic moral infrastructure that sources our behavior in us and guarantees that all comes out well in the end. If we are free, then we are responsible. If we are responsible and continue beyond this earthly life under the watchful eye of a righteous god, then we can hope that our efforts at moral perfection might end in ultimate success and consequent reward in well-earned happiness.

Of these three postulates, freedom requires the most radical leap of faith. Freedom is necessary if our behavior is to count as even the sort of thing to which moral judgment applies, irrespective of whether the objective universe is on the side of our ethical intuitions. Despite this, however, the nature of such freedom is difficult to fathom. A watered-down “compatibilist” freedom requiring only that our actions flow from our inclinations is not enough. We need to source our desires. Are we to originate them from nothing, somehow dredging them from the existential abyss? The postulation of an eternal God and an immortal self are leaps of faith but leaps of a more modest sort. We are asked to postulate that God and immortal beings exist, but we are asked to postulate that free will is even intelligible.

Two points before we proceed. First, in referring to “mystical experience,” I mean the sort of thing commonly measured by the Revised Mystical Experience Questionnaire-30, a standardized survey that I take to enjoy significant empirical validation.[ii] A test employed to detect the presence and gauge the intensity of mystical experience, the RMEQ-20 consists of thirty questions about the qualities of candidates’ experience (e.g., “Do you feel that you experienced eternity or infinity?”), each graded on a five-point scale (i.e., “none” to “extreme”). Second, in referring to “psychedelically induced mystical experience,” I mean conscious episodes relevantly like those resulting from various forms of meditation and religious discipline. There are good reasons to accept this assimilation. For one thing, psychedelic and spiritual episodes prove to have remarkably similar symptomologies.[iii] For another, psychedelic substances do not merely improve the cranial acoustics of Phish concerts; they have been long employed in religious and shamanic practice.[iv] These similarities are of particular importance to our present concerns. Our question is whether mystical experiences can improve the human condition. However, achieving such experiences solely through meditation and the like is a lengthy and painstaking process that can take years and cost millions of lives. Thus, this essay’s circumscribed question: can better living through psychedelic chemistry promote human moral improvement?

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