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?

Let’s now pull these various themes together. When psychedelic seekers are compelled to explain the significance of mystical experience, they often feel a need to tender metaphysical posits that benefit from comparison and contrast with Kant’s aforementioned attempts to link up his practical and theoretical philosophies (even given the limited experiential content of Kantian concepts of pure reason). Like immortality, some of these posits (e.g., “a universal Godhead”) simply exceed available evidence. Like free will, some of these posits (e.g.,” cosmic identification with the world as a whole”) strain intelligibility.

Let’s introduce some unavoidable jargon (reaffirming the adage that philosophers use lawyers’ methods to address questions posed by six-year-olds). As we employ these locutions, “ontological” contrasts with “phenomenological.” Phenomenological elements of subjects’ experience include feelings of ineffability, awe, and profound positive emotions such as joy, peace, and love.[v] These are aspects of perceived experience per se, making no essential reference to anything outside the subject’s conscious mental states. Ontological elements include a perceived unity with a universal ground of being and transcendence of time and space, buttressed by a sense of insight into reality’s ultimate nature. These are perceived elements of the world, especially insofar as the subject stands in relation to it. Ontological proclamations are not mere reports of experience; they are expressions of metaphysical reification. We can experience ego-dissolution as a psychological phenomenon or as a metaphysical insight. When William James privileges his encounters with the “Absolute” over his encounters with prosaic sensation, he is not merely making a claim about the character of mystical experience; he is proclaiming knowledge of a higher reality based on the evidential authority he takes mystical experience to possess.

Beyond such phenomenological and ontological aspects of mystical episodes, there are other features of particular concern to psychologists and psychiatrists. These are the long-term upshots that such experiences often have on subjects, results which we might call affective. They include a diminution of materialism, increased altruism, an enhanced sense of personal meaning and significance, and an increased openness to experience.[vi] They include a heightened sense of well-being and life satisfaction, and an enhanced self-image and attitude.[vii] (Griffiths et al., 2006). They include relief from addiction and PTSD and reduced anxiety and depression, even in terminal patients.[viii]

The relevance of these affective results to our concerns is immediate, for many are of clear moral significance. Openness, altruism, and retrenchment of materialism obviously qualify. But more generally, an enhanced sense of personal and cosmic meaning, significance, and sacredness also counts. Thus, fortunate mystical trippers (as opposed to “bad trippers,” who experience revelations of a different, albeit equally important, sort) often return to humdrum existence electrified by the conviction that the ordinary is merely a curtain behind which lies a more sacred and ultimate ground of being.

On a naturalistic construal of ourselves and our position in the world, however, we are critters of flesh and blood, not airy denizens of the Empyrean. This observation helps us better motivate and precisify our question: to what extent need these practical “affective” benefits be supported or justified or rationalized by metaphysical postulation? To rise above judgment in a way that makes us perceive the world as “perfect” (in the sense that everything is as it should be) or to perceive ourselves as “undifferentiated from others” are all well and good. But need such perceptions be supported by metaphysical assertions about nature or supernature to be rational and stable? I would hope not. As noted above, such statements are mysterious at best and unintelligible at worst.

Moreover, there are epistemological challenges. No experience is self-interpreting. If anything, the threat of illusion poses more of a challenge in the case of mystical experience than it does in the case of ordinary sensory experience. The fact that an enhanced sense of veridicality often accompanies mystical experience does nothing to guarantee that it reflects direct contact with higher-order realities of which we are ordinarily unaware.  Mystical experience may be preternatural, but this doesn’t make it supernatural. It may feel like unmediated apprehension of ultimate realms, but this doesn’t mean it is. Many things seem obvious to us as the creatures we are, occupying this petty-paced realm just so in size between electrons and galaxies. But contemporary physics unequivocally informs us that our intuitions as to what’s obvious are not always to be trusted. Finally, there is no evolutionary account available of selective forces that might make our human intuitions indicative of supernatural, transcendent realms that parallels the detailed story we tell about how eyes and ears generally track empirical truth.

So, again our overriding question: must we suppose that mystical reification is necessary to provide validation for the affective benefits of mystical experience, drug-induced or otherwise? Or, more modestly, must we even hope, like Kant, that transcendent claims about “ultimate reality” beyond the empirical realm are true if we are to reasonably benefit from the experiences that prompt them. Certainly, the presupposition that we must can lead to embarrassing announcements. When asked if she is a spiritual trailblazer, Shirley MacLaine once responded, “we are all one.  I am everybody who’s seeking. And everybody who’s seeking is me. So, I make no differentiation.” [ix] Deepak Chopra purports to buttress his claims about mystical noumena by breaking wind about the Higgs boson and superstring theory’s metaphysical dimensions.[x] Even though we should be reticent to discourage the impulse and passion behind such proclamations (when they aren’t simple money grabs), we must certainly pause to a reflective pace over the simple-minded literalism informing their expression.

Let’s say that to account for such experiences at face value in mystical terms is to (allegedly) explain them, and to account for them in more prosaic physical terms while acknowledging their unquestioned existence is to explain them away. Using these locutions, we can say that to depict the effects of psilocybin as the result of contact with some higher non-empirical reality is to (allegedly) explain them. To describe these effects as the result of enhanced neural activity in the brain’s prefrontal cortex is to explain them away. This distinction allows us to articulate our question better: how can we explain away mystical experiences without rejecting their evaluative significance? How can we acknowledge Michael Persinger’s alleged ability to induce mystical experiences by manipulating temporal lobes with magnetic fields and yet not view these experiences as nothing more than neurophysiological artifacts?[xi] How can we simultaneously entertain such pairs of ideas as the following: experiences of mystical bliss (psychedelically induced and otherwise) result from distinctive firing patterns in the brain stem and parietal lobe, even while these experiences possess profound evaluative significance that provides us with indispensable insight into what we should regard as important and how we should lead our lives.

Once again, we are here dealing here with an old concern. It is an issue that recurrently arises when we attempt to understand the respective positions of value and ourselves in the world. To use a well-worn example, suppose we believe that romantic love is actually some kind of toy-model Freudian condition of displaced parental fixation. This equation itself might cause us no trepidation. But a problem arises when we rewrite it as “romantic love is just such displaced parental fixation.” The word “just” is the spoiler. But this is odd, given that the two equations are themselves literally equivalent.

In at least one crucial respect, this parallel with romantic love is imperfect, however. Mystical experience presents us with a greater puzzle. A first-person description of romantic love might highlight the likes of increased happiness, an enhanced sense of safety and attachment, and a subsequent desire for greater intimacy allowing for that greatest of emotional releases, i.e., the felt sense of permission to be ourselves. A third-person chemical account of romantic love might reference oxytocin and dopamine release. However, in the case of love, experiencers don’t typically feel threatened by the lack of metaphysical grounding for their sentiments. Lovers might be convinced at first that they must invoke some higher truth to explain their fortunate hookups, perhaps involving soulmates (as when we succumb to selection bias) or Kismet (as when we think, in the throes of embarrassing infatuation, “isn’t it astounding that we both like to breathe oxygen!”). But such appeals to the extraordinary don’t typically outlast the temporary insanity that accompanies radically enhanced cortisol levels and general limbic stimulation of the vagus nerve. When confronted by a chemical explanation of love’s phenomenology, we might be left amused at the fact that the experience can make life livable even though it’s all a function of just so many molecules. But our sense of love’s importance doesn’t readily diminish before the fact that such an account is in the offing. Our inclination is to say, “Well, after all, love is primarily a feeling, isn’t it? But what a ride!” Mystical experience is different. People who have it often feel a need to suppose that it is not just a feeling, but rather a supremely veridical window onto the way things “really are,” a window that is more trustworthy than the prosaic sensory experience that drags us through daily life.

This sense of a higher reality, of course, is most often expressed in religious terms. It is a central theme in William James’ The Varieties of Religious Experience. It is also a central premise of Huxley’s “perennial philosophy” and the universalist traditions that inspire it. In his essay Vedanta and the West, Huxley presents an outline of tenets allegedly common to all the world’s mystical religions, among which are the beliefs that there exists a transcendent and immanent Ground or Godhead behind everyday experience, a ground with which it is our final purpose to identify through obedience to an objective Tao.[xii] These are avowals that arise from felt senses of conviction emerging from experiences we can barely articulate, and those who say such things are generally the first to admit language’s inadequacies in this regard.

What is it about mystical experience that prompts subjects to talk this way, to attempt to say the unsayable about the world and value in terms of supernature?” Why do subjects even feel this need to identify a metaphysical backing for experiences to which they ascribe profound moral significance? This phenomenon requires diagnosis if we are to zero in on this essay’s seminal questions: what could such backing give us, and is such backing required? What possible explanation is there for the need to supply such a foundation? It’s not enough to say that people crave meaning, and such beliefs provide it. This merely restates the phenomenon we seek to explain.

Perhaps people desire security, a promise of safety before leaving the prosaic world of subtlety and cynicism. I platitudinously suggest above that one consequence of romantic love at its best is the space it opens for personal authenticity. But this results from belief as well as feeling. We are comfortable being ourselves only when we are convinced of others’ reasonably unconditional acceptance. Without this belief, the thought that we can drop our masks doesn’t inspire vulnerability: people are averse to bearing their throats to strangers and then gifting said strangers with knives. Consider again Shirley MacClain’s proclamation above. To trust a mystical experience of metaphysical and moral unity with other sentient and sapient beings, perhaps we need to believe that this experience accurately depicts some transcendent way the universe “really is.” Otherwise, behaving with unquestioning trust in the throes of such experience (as a result of the sense of familiarity with others it creates), telling others our blackest secrets to let them know that they are not alone, feels unsafe. Before baring our throats, perhaps we need to feel that the cosmos is on our side. No one wants to be a sucker. No one wants to be laughed at, either by others or by creation itself.

Let’s suppose that this account helps explain why we practice mystical reification. Even so, it can only be part of the story. Another aspect requiring attention is a qualitative characteristic of mystical experiences themselves. This is the impression of heightened veridicality that seems to accompany them. D.E. Harding lucidly describes this phenomenon as the overwhelming conviction that our prosaic notion of ourselves as anything other than a “luminous and absolutely pure void” identical to “all that’s on offer” is a “lifelong hallucination.”[xiii]

Though hardly settled, coherent accounts regarding the cause and nature of this sense of heightened reality are emerging. In addressing the related phenomenon of near-death experiences, Susan Blackmoore theorizes that ever-active minds construct the most stable models of reality that they can by using whatever materials are available to them at the time. Typically, this results in prosaic narratives of daily life. But, when standard input is disrupted, we must make do with alternatives. When starved for narrative, our minds scramble to construct stable theories of reality based on a model of memory even when we have no sensory material to process. By virtue of being our most stable anchors, these constructs are then taken by us to be the most real. Thus, many NDE patients return with the conviction that the world is not merely what we ordinarily see and hear. They return with profoundly altered views about the cosmos and the accompanying conviction that these views describe not just reality, but the very heart of reality hiding behind the deceitful veil of quantifiable, physical magnitudes. (One connotation of “Maya” being “measurement,” after all).[xiv]

The two-part account sketched above attempts to explain away the phenomenon at issue in terms of defense mechanisms and experiential character. As such, it seeks to diagnose peoples’ tendency to reify the mystical. We’ve noted that providing such an account is preliminary to the task of deciding if mystical reification is required for us to regard it as of profound evaluative significance. Perhaps this two-part account is correct in detail. Perhaps it isn’t. But let’s suppose for purposes of argument that it is. By doing this, we can use it as a stand-in for whatever “explaining away” account we might ultimately accept. This allows us to restate our main question one last time, but even more precisely: what are we to make of the temptation to treat mystical experience as a source of profound moral insight even when we know that it can be explained away in the kind of naturalistic fashion described above?

Two lines of response immediately suggest themselves. The first maintains that there is no special problem here. We don’t require natural or supernatural backing for our ascriptions of value to mystical experiences any more or less than we need it anywhere else. The supposition that we do invokes what moral philosophers call the “is/ought” fallacy. We cannot derive prescriptive claims about how we should be or act from descriptive claims concerning how things are. We cannot derive an “ought” from an “is” because prescription is to description as apples are to oranges. Such a derivation would meld the disparate categories of “evaluation” and “factuality” into an incoherent hybrid, as the very term “evaluative fact” fact” is an oxymoron. Thus, even if we discovered that Huxley’s “transcendent and immanent Ground behind ordinary experience” exists, we still could not perceive this ground as something with which “it is our final purpose to identify through [behavioral] obedience to an objective Tao.”

There are two distinct directions in which this first response might take us, one negative and one positive. The negative direction leads to moral anti-realism: because there is no moral factuality, moral insight is a sham. The positive direction takes us to Stephen Jay Gould’s “non-overlapping magisteria” account: perhaps there are moral truths, in some extended sense of “truth,” even while facts and values remain as apples are to oranges. On this telling, facts about mystical experience are of no immediate significance to evaluative truth, but this is only because moral truths obtain independently of all descriptive facts, be these facts about mystical experience or anything else.

A second response to our broadest question (i.e., is metaphysical reification required for mystical episodes to be of evaluative significance?) is that there are descriptive facts we discover through mystical experience that help us instrumentally to lead good lives. This is a promising suggestion. To rise above the kinds of nagging, petty judgment and worry that accompany our typical mentality of self-individuation might help us recognize how best to pursue aims we already possess. To become less self-conscious is to become less inhibited in our pursuits. If we care less about how we appear to others when pursuing our ends, we are likely to be more direct and effective in acquiring these ends. The tarot deck’s fool is plausibly interpreted as a happy traveler with a bindle containing his self-conscious fear. His step is light because he holds the judgments of others at a distance.

Note what this suggestion isn’t as well as what it is. It isn’t the suggestion that we might, after all, be able to mystically perceive evaluative facts. It is the more modest proposal that mystical experience might clue us into purely descriptive facts that we need to consider, along with independent prescriptive premises, to derive conclusions about how to act and be. Suppose a person were to decide, consequent to a mystical experience, that his pleasure is best served, not through comfortable mediocrity, but through some new and previously untried life strategy. On this description of things, the general character of the consequentialist evaluative premise at issue doesn’t change. It remains the self-same assumption that enjoyment, or something like enjoyment, is what counts. All that changes is the strategy for achieving it.

Of the above two strategies, the second is one according to which mystical experience has clear moral significance. But it has this significance by determining means, not aims. It provides an engineering guideline, of sorts, that tells subjects how best to pursue pre-existing evaluative ends. For some (perhaps those who buy self-help books with “executive” in the title), this can be enough. However, for others, this description of what’s at stake is not merely inadequate, but vulgar. These folks see mystical experience as a transformer of final ends, not merely a supplier of alternative proximate means. As they see it, the results of mystical experiences are realizations that the types of things we ordinarily take to be important really aren’t important. And such changes of ends result from a renewed understanding of what we are and what purposes are appropriate to us. On this account, the effect of a mystical experience is like that which the sight of his own grave has on Scrooge. It informs the subject through shock and awe that his life goals are deeply inappropriate to the type of thing he is and the place he occupies with respect to value. G.B. Shaw famously expresses the sentiment I am reaching for here, and he does so in terms that I have heard numerous fortunate trippers paraphrase: “This is the true joy in life, the being used for a purpose recognized by yourself as a mighty one; the being thoroughly worn out before you are thrown on the scrap heap; the being a force of Nature instead of a feverish, selfish little clod of ailments and grievances complaining that the world will not devote itself to making you happy.” (Not that I am suggesting here that G.B. was an enlightened man, given his views on Stalin and the euthanizing of “unproductive” people. He clearly has no place in any plausible spiritual pantheon, be its centerpiece the Dalai Lama or Timothy Leary.)

For example, to conclude, with or without hallucinogenic assistance, that one “proper” end of life is to be-in-immediate-presence, and not merely to act in various ways, is to display a profound reorientation of moral purpose. For, it is to conclude that the point of life is generally encountered in the current moment. As the central aim of Buddhist meditation (as I understand it), this is, I suppose, the master goal of enlightenment from which all affective symptoms are thought to spring. Here I must lapse into brief autobiography. However, I hope my lack of pretense is clear: this is not a state of “discovery” I claim to have ever occupied for very long, as I always manage, with pathetic swiftness, to return to the bitchy, whiny, nagging, judgmental echo chamber of my mind. My brief moments of crystal clarity are quickly interrupted by the startled thought, “What was that?” as I demonstrate, yet once again, that I am little more than a perverse child, hell-bent on breaking my most precious toys. But even so, I have found that this state of immediacy leaves in its wake a critical point of reference in possibility. Accompanying it is the sense of overwhelming gratitude for mere existence in the world that mystics perennially report. And it is this overwhelming sense of gratitude, I’d gamble, which does most to return us to everyday life with an ability to view it as play instead of drudgery, with a heightened perception of the miraculous in the mundane, with a strengthened ability to glance back over our shoulders at the world of bare flat black-and-white fact that spawned us and colorize it with stereoscopic lenses into a three-dimensional landscape of value and significance. To “discover” that a vital goal state in life is to simply be present, to exist as something distinct from the cacophony of thoughts and feelings that play under the big tops of our mental circuses, is to change our basic unit of moral analysis from action to being. Moreover, this discovery lifts us out of prejudice and pettiness as we recognize the superficiality of our differences from others and the extent to which our judgments of them are products of fear and defensiveness.

This is not to say that right action doesn’t follow from this state of being. The sense of an objective Tao does arise from it, leading, as mentioned above, to the likes of enhanced altruism.[xv]  But this perception of a Tao follows from a felt recognition of what we ultimately are rather than a set of rules we must force ourselves to follow. Or, better, to the extent we sense that we covered rules, they feel like exercises in Kantian autonomy. They feel like dictates that come from us as opposed to being imposed on us from without.

The aforementioned case of Scrooge is illustrative here. Imagine someone who, like Ebenezer, goes through life as a perfect example of homo economicus, but then, as a result of mystical experience rather than spectral visitation, realizes that what he had always taken for happiness is no such thing. This is not the mere realignment of means to pre-existing ends, but rather a realignment of ends to self. We might imagine this realization taking the form of an acknowledgment that one has seldom, if ever, previously been in a condition to recognize what happiness is.

Or consider a cinematic simile. In the film Knocked Up, a character describes marriage to a bachelor friend as “just like that show Everybody Loves Raymond, but it’s not funny. All the problems are the same, but instead of all the funny, pithy dialogue, everybody’s just pissed off and tense.” I trust that I am not presumptuous in assuming that anyone who has ever colluded in a hellish marriage understands this analogy. The effect of a mystical experience might be like elevation above an infernal matrimonial condition that one had resigned oneself to on the grounds that this is as good as it gets, and the most one can imagine, and that to expect any more is unrealistic. Such experiences might provide a shockingly sanguine reproach to Peggy Lee’s lyrical doubts, “Is this all there is?” by providing a reference point in freedom and bliss after a lifetime of reaction and greyness.

I don’t believe that this characterization is unduly romantic or overly dramatic. I don’t think that its talk of “knowing what happiness is” should cue the dancing cats. It captures my own limited experience with psychedelics and mysticism (and toxic matrimony), and it seems to capture the experience of other seekers I have known. The question now becomes the following: in having such an experience, what does one learn about how things “really are” behind everyday appearances. To discover something “objective” in this experience, need we lapse into Shirley MacLaine’s gushing new age expressions of “gee wow, total heaviosity”?

In undergoing a mystical episode, one clearly does learn something objective, not about reality from the standpoint of the universe, but about reality from the perspective of what philosophers call a phenomenological lifeworld. “Lifeworld” here designates the world as directly experienced in everyday existence; it is distinguished from the common world described by the mathematical sciences. “Objectivity” here is distinguished from “mind-dependence.” There are objective yet mind-dependent facts because there are objective facts about what the world is like from one’s point of view. In mystical experience, we acquire perfectly objective knowledge concerning what the world is like for us at our greatest level of spontaneity and bliss. If such an experience makes us reprioritize our aspirations by recasting things previously thought necessary as trivial, by repositioning our evaluative foreground and background in unexpected ways (so that, e.g., agonistic competition becomes less important than harmonious unity), then we have discovered an objective fact about what we find to be most rewarding. If other subjects of such experience report the same results, we have made an objective discovery about them as well. And if enough people report these such results, we have learned something objective about the shared lifeworld of non-pathological humanity. It can be an objective fact about the lifeworld of mystical human phenomenology that “we are all one” at the very same time that it remains an objective fact about the natural world that each person is located within the individual three-pound mass of tissue and fluid that occupies her individual skull. To paraphrase Allen Watts, it can be phenomenologically the case that “central to one’s own self is the eternal soul of the universe” even while one remains a “skin-encapsulated ego” (or, to use a more playful Buddhist expression, a “bone-bag filled with excrement.”)

But this fact alone about human phenomenology, if it is a fact, does not get us to moral prescription. It does not tell us how to act or be. For one thing, it doesn’t imply that the self of mystical experience is the “true” self rather than merely one self among many. Why should we suppose that mystical experience is more revelatory than prosaic experiences of the kind of thing we really are? That the former way of being can fuel a burning heart of solidarity, altruism, and bliss while the latter can produce heartless greed, alienation, dissatisfaction and, at its historical worst, the literal burning of people doesn’t tell us that we are “most ourselves” when immersed in seeming states of “cosmic consciousness.” Why aren’t we being embarrassingly Pollyannaish when we suppose that we are?

Well, what does it even mean to discover one’s “true self”? Whatever significance mystical experience has to one’s true self, to whatever extent it serves as a mechanism for reconciliation between our mystically informed moral impulse about how we should be and our naturalistic understanding of ourselves and the world, depends upon the nature we attribute to moral truth. If we assume that moral truth must somehow characterize mind-independent reality to have authority, then the character of our experience at our deepest moments of mystical bliss cannot tell us what to do or how to be without falling prey to the is/ought fallacy. But if we take moral truths to characterize a shared human phenomenological lifeworld because value only exists from the perspective of lifeworlds, perhaps we can take mystical experience to tell us something about how we should be by informing us about the type of thing we essentially are as sentient and sapient loci of consciousness. As we’ve noted, one thing mystical episodes provide us with Buddhist spectatorship; they give us distance from the thoughts and feelings which rip us from a state of being-in-immediate-presence. In my own sad case, such rare removal circumvents the shadow boxing that occupies most of my mental life and its obsessive preoccupation with revisits to the past in vain attempts to do the impossible by making said past turn out differently. When we can stand back from the passing mental show and amusedly wave adieu to distracting thoughts and feelings, we are present in a way we aren’t when we greedily clutch at them like bull riders risking life and limb for some vague promise of riches and glory. This is one way, I suspect, in which mystical experiences can leave us feeling that we have awoken from a fever dream.

We have made some progress. Consider four claims:

(1) The “perception of value” only obtains from the standpoint of a phenomenological lifeworld.

(2) It is in the course of mystical experience that we strip away the incidental personality features which do the most to distinguish and separate us from each other.

(3) As we strip away such incidentals, our felt perceptions of value converge to a maximal limit.

(4) Claims (2) and (3) are true of all (non-pathological) people.

I haven’t exactly argued for (1). Instead, I have conceded the is/ought fallacy by suggesting that the kind of objectivity it denies us (i.e., a grounding of value in the objective descriptive reality of natural science) isn’t something for which we should have ever hoped in the first place. I have argued for (2) by citing an oft described and personally witnessed feature of mystical episodes, i.e., the relation of spectatorship that allows travelers to rise above the ordinary preoccupying thoughts and feelings that work so diligently to distinguish and distance us from each other. I have merely gestured at (3) and (4), referring the reader to the many descriptions of mystical experience predominant in the literature and recurrent in the “perennial philosophy” of so many ages and cultures.

What do these premises give us? For some, they may not give us much. The reason, of course, is (1). For, in admitting that value cannot be grounded in objective mind-independent reality, don’t we simply speak past the demands of those who feel a need to explain rather than explain away mystical experience?

The answer to this question is “no” if we are willing to relativize our judgments about value to our own species (at minimum) and recognize that this is a concession to which we can attach no appropriate sense of loss.  The value of mystical experience is that it offers us a greater hope of articulating a species-wide morality than traditional so-called “moral sentiment” theory. Are people, as they strut fearfully through life, often feeling like tainted frauds who risk being found out at any moment, really motivated by Adam Smith’s “sympathy” or David Hume’s “desire to promote social utility?” Both news headlines and subway interactions make such claims hard to believe. But consensus about value does seem to emerge amongst mystic travelers, giving them something like the status of ideal moral observers. I submit the platitude that the primary reason people feel a need to ground value in objective, mind-independent fact is the fear that, unless we do this, there will always be disagreement and conflict. To the extent that mystical experience offers the promise of a common evaluative ground for humanity as a whole, it offers to address precisely this fear.

We can thus begin to see how a species-wide Tao might emerge. It is a human intersubjective Tao that fails the test of objectivity from the standpoint of the mind-independent universe containing us. However, this universe is not our shared lifeworld. It couldn’t care less about our shared ascriptions of value because it isn’t in the business of caring about anything. When we appreciate this fact, perhaps we can cease caring about values’ fully mind-independent objective status. The cosmos doesn’t care about us; it isn’t the sort of thing that could. Why should we consult it to ground the legitimacy of our moral saliences? With this shift in thought, I think we can make sense of the idea that mystical experience, drug-induced and otherwise, might ground our deepest attributions of value without lapsing into talk of an absolute, transcendent superfactual domain that is more “real” than that studied by physics.

I don’t find it often mentioned in the literature, but my own experience with psychedelics has created in me an overwhelming confidence in the truth of this idea. The demand for justification routinely governs ordinary life. However, this sense of demand is what dissipates most completely during my own fortunate tripping. What I experience at such times is self-assurance, a spotlighting of those parts of myself that I feel I can trust without reservation. I experience an overwhelming sense that I don’t need the world’s justification to value what I do, and that to even want such permission is to pass the buck in an exercise of supreme disingenuousness. This is why I find the need to reify to ground the moral insight obtained through mystical experience not only unnecessary, but bizarre.

Screw objective cosmic reality. People enter mystical states and experience a shared sense of Technicolor value in an intersubjective lifeworld, a sense of value that overcomes human loneliness by uniting us in an unparalleled adventure of felt purposive commonality. Why should we demand more? Why, like Kant, should we even hope for more?

So (if you will excuse the lightheartedness), perhaps we don’t need


or this

Perhaps all we need is enough faith in our common humanity, and consequent aspirational solidarity to say, in the words of Cartman from South Park this





[i]  Immanuel Kant: Everyone’s favorite little Prussian philosophical garden gnome

[ii] Barrett FS, Johnson MW, Griffiths RR (2015). “Validation of the revised Mystical Experience Questionnaire in Experimental Sessions with Psilocybin.” J Psychopharmacol. Nov; 29 (11): 1182-90.

[iii]  Yaden, David & Le Nguyen, Khoa & Kern, Margaret & B. Belser, Alexander & Eichstaedt, Johannes & Iwry, Jonathan & E. Smith, Mary & Wintering, Nancy & R.W., Jr, Hood, & Newberg, Andrew (2016). “Of Roots and Fruits: A Comparison of Psychedelic and Nonpsychedelic Mystical Experiences.” Journal of Humanistic Psychology 57.

[iv] Schultes RE, Hofmann A, Rätsch C (2001). Plants of the Gods: Their Sacred, Healing, and Hallucinogenic Powers. Healing Arts Press.

[v] Griffiths, R. R., Richards, W. A., McCann, U., & Jesse, R. (2006). “Psilocybin can occasion mystical-type experiences having substantial and sustained personal meaning and spiritual significance.” Psychopharmacology, 187(3), 268-283. doi: 10.1007/s00213-006-0457-5

[vi]  Scott A. McGreal (2012). “The Spirituality of Psychedelic Drug Users.” Psychology Today Online. Posted Dec 13, 2012.

[vii] Griffiths, et al., 2006.

[viii] Grof, S., Goodman, L. E., Richards, W. A., & Kurland, A. A. (1973). “LSD-Assisted Psychotherapy in Patients with Terminal Cancer.” Int. Pharmacopsychiat., 8, 129-144.

[ix] Lynn Okuro Huffington Post “Shirley MacLaine Discusses Her Lifelong Spiritual Journey On ‘Super Soul Sunday’ (VIDEO)” at 03/21/2014 09:00 pm E.T. Updated Mar 21, 2014.

[x] Chopra, Deepak (2017). “What is Cosmic Consciousness?” The Chopra Center Website.

[xi] Persinger, Michael (2001). “The Neuropsychiatry of Paranormal Experiences.” The Journal of Neuropsychiatry and Clinical Neurosciences. Volume 13, Issue 4, November. Download available at Experiences.

[xii] Huxley, Aldous (1960) “Symbol and Immediate Experience (Vedanta and the West).” Unknown Binding.

[xiii] Harding, Douglas (1961). “On Having No Head.” The Shollond Trust. Kindle Edition, 98.

[xiv] Blackmore, Susan (1991). “Near-Death Experiences: In or Out of the Body?” Skeptical Inquirer 16 (1991): 36.

[xv] Kristeller, Jean, and Johnson, Thomas (2005). “Cultivating Loving-Kindness: A Two-Stage Model of the Effects of Meditation on Empathy, Compassion, and Altruism.” Zygon: Journal of Religion and Science. Volume40, Issue 2, June. Available online at /doi/abs/10.1111/j.1467-9744.2005.00671.x

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