Psychedelics change metaphysical beliefs. Will their widespread use change society?
My thoughts, which I admit are a bit all over the place:
I can't help but suspect that widespread use of psychedelics would lead society as a whole to trade one kind of mental illness with another -- you may certainly see less depression, anxiety, PTSD, etc., but you may definitely see a dramatic increase in hallucinations, delusions, addiction, brain injury, hallucinogen persisting perception disorder, homelessness, etc. I have no problem with people seeking out psychedelics specifically for recreational and/or spiritual uses, as well as those whose mental illnesses are otherwise extremely treatment-resistant -- however, I believe this group self-selects for people who are more likely to act responsibly around these drugs (although of course there are plenty who don't or won't). If we encourage this kind of use to a larger population, who may not have the experience or personality characteristics to be as responsible, I can see this going the way of widespread prescribing of opiates in the 2000s and early 2010s.
I also can't help but think that this is part of this larger trend of "harm reduction" in the psychiatry and mental health fields these days. The theory behind it makes sense, but we're already seeing the negative consequences play out -- for example:
And also: I'm a social worker whose job is to provide case management for people with brain injuries receiving specialized services to keep them in the community. I have a number of clients who use or want to use marijuana (medically, therapeutically, or both), and I am willing to go out on a limb and say that none of them are being helped by their use. Many of them were previously addicted to harder drugs and are using the marijuana as a kind of "crutch" that's keeping them from developing coping skills that would make it more likely for them to pursue and achieve their goals, and sometimes the marijuana is interacting with other medications that reduce the effectiveness of both. So forgive me if I don't think psychedelics would be much of an improvement.
"Art and culture undergo a renaissance, heavily influenced by the psychedelic experiences of artists. The boundaries of what is considered art expand, with immersive and interactive experiences becoming more common. Music, visual arts, theater, and literature incorporate themes of unity, interconnectedness, and transcendence."
We already had a surge of this in the 1960s and 1970s, and without going into too much detail ... let's just say this didn't have the intended effect. Quite the opposite, in fact.
I'll just leave these links from Scott Alexander, a proponent of psychedelics in psychiatry whose opinions I otherwise respect:
I remember Camille Paglia saying that a lot of the psychedelic revolutionaries of the 60's were too lazy and stubborn to write any books or to even go to higher education. Thjs is always a risk with a drug that gives you wisdom without any effort required to obtain it. I would personally not allow people to use it recreationally.
I suspect these effects are strongly influenced by various individuals' priors. I also strongly suspect a publication bias for these kind of results.
I can attest that some people find themselves even more in the materialist/physicalist/naturalist position after psychedelic use than they were before. Many have no changes in metaphysical commitments. We're still in the early stages of this whole thing, much more to be seen and difficult to predict.
I definitely have seen psychedelics draw many people back to/into valuable spiritual practices *but* if they just become a new a religion that would be missing the point entirely IMO! It’s completely understandable that people earlier in history viewed these compounds in a religious way and used it as a sacrament. However, we know that they are not divine - we know that psychedelics aren’t magic.
Every psychedelic plant worshipped as a deity or entity has an active ingredient (or two) and they’re all strikingly similar: every single one contains nitrogen, resembles existing human neurotransmitters, and is a biased and relatively potent agonist at the post-synaptic serotonin 2A receptor.
Making a religion out of psychedelics is incompatible with our basic knowledge and practices of biology, chemistry, philosophy, etc. We know they don’t have an essence. A molecule of psilocin or LSD has no more absolute spiritual value than a benzene ring or a fatty acid.
They’re poisons that plants and fungi and a couple rare animals ended up producing because it even though it’s fairly energy intensive it makes them *much* less appealing to consume (they’re physically toxic to most animals and psychologically damaging to others). Of course, a healer can use a poison to heal, while a villain can use a medicine to harm, and so it’s not surprising that such potent poisons would also be (after much trial and error to find the right dosage, proper setting, and risk & protective factors) very powerful medicines if used properly. I suppose one unique property of psychedelics is they don’t require a clinician - if you are properly trained/experienced, your body will perform the necessary procedures without a need for external aid or specific conscious purpose. Many people see this as some evidence that these molecules do somehow possess a spirit or a being inside of them - something guiding the experience towards where it needs to go - but that’s an illogical conclusion.
When something we ingest radically changes our conscious experience and brings feelings and thoughts into our direct attention in a way that wasn’t previously possible, we can go in one of three directions. The superstitious route is to call it magic, anthropomorphize or deity it, and insist it has a divine power beyond human understanding.
The route of disembodied science, which would say that these are simply chemicals that cause people to hallucinate and become delusional, with perhaps the most notable delusion being a breakdown in the ability to think logically and a fanatic conviction that what they experienced was incalculable and of immense meaning even though they say why and often just go on with life without any sign of a deep change in behavior or character. This would also attempt to monopolize the use of psychedelics for use by a particular experts (in the West, physicians) by arguing that while too useful to make illegal, they’re too dangerous to let people use on their own for non-medical purposes. Tbf this would be far worse than a profusion of gnostic cults.
A person like this might say that psychedelics are just another way to get high; less dangerous than toxic drugs that give more consistent pleasure, but intellectually perilous because even the most levelheaded people tend to come away from the experience with some wacky beliefs they previously would have thought were ridiculous. This is IMO the greatest danger of safe doses of psychedelics - people don’t realize that the feeling of revelation and sacred knowledge is a feeling induced neurochemically and that the experience will feel life-changing even if it’s vapid and you do no integration and forget about it by the time Monday comes around.
I’m on the middle path and I think most ppl with a lot of experience using them end up on it. They’re tools - very, very useful tools whose art and craft is a thing of beauty - but they’re not inherently good or bad. Like a tool, the effects vary based on the skill of the maker and the intent and training of the user. They should be free to use for the many purposes they’re useful at the convenience of any adult, but some kind of training or brief apprenticeship would be ideal.
Taking psychedelics in a large group can be an incredibly powerful experience and if people need to put some religious bells and whistles on that to feel comfortable then I suppose that will happen. But there will be a lot of harms too. Psychedelics are amazing tools for cults and abusers, and could be used to create a religion that would make Wahhabi Islam look like the Unitarian Universalists.
Many of the new psychedelic religions and churches are robbing their ‘congregations’ blind. They can help convince people to believe in things that don’t exist and neglect things that do exist and are immensely important like family, physical health, financial stability, finding a way to make a living, building/maintaining relationships, etc. The leader can so easily become an infallible guru/shaman/priest who can abuse people with impunity. Each cult will believe it possesses The Truth and ppl who believe in older faiths or use different psychedelics would come to be seen as heretics. We would start to see psychedelics administered to people without their knowledge or even actively against their consent to break them down for cult programming.
I hope that psychedelics liberate people from thinking that there is a divine reality or God separate from their daily lives. Psychedelics don’t lead to enlightenment or make a person better. Some people with certain medical conditions or family histories shouldn’t take them. Most historical religious experiences were not drug trips and the founders of every religion weren’t just sitting on a fat stash. A lot of people who seem and act spiritual (in all the best ways) have never done psychedelics, and a huge number of shorty people have.
The religion = psychedelic thing threatens to go wayyy overboard. Yes, there obviously are some long traditions of psychedelic use for ritual purposes. Obviously psychedelics can trigger religious experiences in people inclined towards them to some degree. But the hypothesis that every or even most religions started as gnostic psychedelic cults that later purged knowledge of the real sacrament and substituted a purely symbolic one is not borne out by science or history. We have vast amounts of historical attestation for the use of opium, marijuana/hashish, alcohol-containing drinks, Amanita, etc in Eurasia and yet basically none for psychedelic use (either written or archaeological).
The only reasonable conclusion an academic historian could come to right now is that in Eurasia, very few people had any knowledge about psychedelic drugs until the 20th century and use was limited to small populations of indigenous cultures living on the distant peripheries of major population centers (the Americas is completely different but it just never became a common practice or even hidden institutional knowledge in Eurasia.
I also worry about the overuse of psychedelics to replace older, safer practices, the importance of good deeds, and causing discord with people of
faith who don’t consider their religion to be similar to psychedelic narratives and imagery. You can reach similar states of mind through many different practices - psychedelics are fast and reliable, but other methods are more durable in their benefits (and having multiple methods complements your spiritual practice). The entities people encounter on psychedelics are just as fascinating and archetypal and imaginary and nonexistent as dreams, mythical creatures like dragons and trolls, and the pantheon gods of old - beautiful if taken as metaphors or inspiration for artistic creativity, crazy if taken as objective knowledge.
The last thing the world needs right now are more factions convinced that they possess knowledge of existence that makes them uniquely qualified to tell you/order you how best to live your life. If all they do is leave us in even greater existential chaos and weaken the structures of life that are necessary for human happiness and wellbeing than it would have been better for us not to discover them. Being able to look past the surface and think symbolically is crucial so that people don’t believe the psychedelic experience to be any more or less true than their ordinary consciousness.