Philosophy itself often arrives as a mind-altering experience, a new mode of perception unto our cosmos, at times so radical as to be hazardous. Thus can philosophy be seen as a psychoactive substance—yet the place of psychoactive substances in philosophy is not apparent. In this mildly chronological overview we shall shed light upon the history of the notable western philosophers who took psychedelic chemicals and how this may have influenced their thought—how psychedelics influenced philosophy.
“Half the time you think your thinking you’re actually listening.” – Terence McKenna
This article was written by Dimka Drewczynski and originally appeared in the PsypressUK 2013 Anthology of Drug Writing.
“There is no way you can use the word “reality” without quotation marks around it.”– Joseph Campbell
Appreciating how the world exists depends on how well you can see and interpret it. Life is basically just trying to understand the state of how things actually are and attempting to respond in the best way suited. This requires recognizing various environmental stimuli, analyzing them, and initiating some response sequence. There are countless factors involved in making any decision, in humans the most variable is how each individual thinks they should respond. But we take for granted the basic, and seemingly autonomous, nature of our sensory system, and leave it to do its own thing. For the most part, people have the appropriate amount of eyes and comparable amounts of rods and cones within them. But what if you could see more, or hear more?
Traditionally, people that claim to hear or see more are classified as deluded or schizophrenic, but it may be possible to increase your input bandwidth to provide you with a more representative worldview. Psychedelics show us our world in a different light, but are they showing us something that we are missing, something that is real?
The sensory system and the brain have evolved into a fine-tuned machine. This machine is unlike any other machine in that it changes, bends and skews all the data that comes in based on previous experience, biases, attention, current state of sobriety, mood, etc. and imbues it with all the rich textures that create our reality. However, in terms of objective bookkeeping, the brain is the most unreliable machine that could have ever evolved. Our perception of the world around us is merely an abstraction, far from the objective replication we consider it to be. Our world has been filtered through a system with some bits truncated, others stretched and some excised completely. The agents of this prejudice are the memories created by our experience and the subsequent tailoring of our sensory systems to optimize behavioural output. Learning is a dynamic process that relies on memory to encode, store and retrieve previous experiences in order to optimize this output. And, focused attention pushes irrelevant stimuli to the margins further still. You don’t need an update of the osmolarity of your lymphatic fluids when reading a novel, nor would you want to know how many leaves are on a tree while hunted by some godless killing machine. Yet although, at some level, your brain is privy to this information, evolution has deemed your consciousness too easily distracted to deal with it.
Although we are not aware of it, the pruned information looms in our subconscious (or unconscious). It can seemingly rise from the dead in the form of dreams when we lie down to sleep at night. Many studies show that our brain is more aware of this unconscious information than we think, and altered states allow slivers of this otherwise inaccessible information to shine through.
The tenets of the Tao Te Ching express the first anarchist or at least proto-anarchist political philosophy, to my knowledge. The Taoist opposition to government springs from a radical non-interventionist philosophy on all three major branches of philosophy. While Taoism rejects the normative, they recognize a sort of logic about the state of the universe, and that forced intervention into affairs of people is bound to cause even worse chaos.
This doctrine is known as Wu-Wei, translated imprecisely as non-action. Putting it very roughly, you do not need to force your will onto the world around you in order for it to yield positive results. There is also a principle of least action involved that many things are better left untouched than touched and then possibly worsened. You cannot know all possible effects of your actions. This doctrine does not urge people to never better things around them, but that such action should come naturally to them, that they should not be compelled whether under force or various social pressures to complete an action that they might otherwise not do.
The common libertarian nowadays is of the same non-interventionist temperament as the Taoists. They endorse individual preference, spontaneity and self-interest. They loathe the State and central planners of all kinds. Most libertarians identify, also, as individualists – both methodologically and ethically. However, much of libertarian culture is hostile to the idea of the slacker, of the non-contributor, of the lazy. Libertarians have very much embraced the protestant work ethic, that work in and of itself is valuable. It’s good to work, it’s good to be disciplined and rigorous. While all libertarians, in line with the non-aggression principle, must support the right to be lazy, most libertarians have taken to looking down upon those who simply don’t do much with their lives.