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Philosophy & Psychedelics

Alfred North Whitehead famously said, ‘Western philosophy is a series of footnotes to Plato.’ If Plato was inspired by psychedelics, then the whole of the Western canon is unwittingly inspired by these experiences.” - Peter Sjöstedt-Hughes

William James created the first American psychology course, he was also described as a philosopher. In The Varieties of Religious Experience, James wrote that, concerning anything, there are two orders of enquiry:

First, what is the nature of it? How did it come about? What is its constitution, origin and history? And second, What is its importance, meaning, or significance, now that it is once here?

The first, says James, is an existential judgment. And the second a spiritual judgment. He tells us that neither judgment can be gleaned from the other as they are from ‘diverse intellectual preoccupations.’ They initially have to be considered separately and then brought together.

In thinking about psychedelic developments, they naturally do fall into two orders of enquiry. Firstly there is the existential practicalities of research studies and outcomes, the legal and political views and the various organisations which are launching to deliver services. And secondly there is the philosophical and spiritual significance of psychedelics, on the life of an individual and then also the larger effect of psychedelics on a societal level, such as the development of human consciousness and the subsequent impacts on the planet. In the rush to meet the existential needs, we have to be careful not to neglect the philosophical.

Therefore, it was with great excitement that many in the psychedelic world welcomed the recent Philosophy of Psychedelics conference which took place over three days last week, hosted by Dr Peter Sjöstedt-Hughes and the University of Exeter. Sjöstedt-Hughes is an Anglo-Scandinavian philosopher of mind who specializes in the thought of Whitehead, Nietzsche, and Spinoza, and in fields pertaining to panpsychism and altered states of mind. He is the author of Noumenautics and presenter of the TEDx presenter on ‘Psychedelics and Consciousness’ and was the inspiration for the inhuman philosopher Marvel Superhero, Karnak. Together with Prof. Christine Hauskeller, he runs the Philosophy of Psychedelics Exeter Research Group. Videos of the presentations will be released soon, and we can review the wonderful messages from each speaker at a later date. What would be interesting to consider now is how conferences present the opportunity to open up bigger conversations around psychedelics and how we can keep the energy of enquiry moving forward, expanding a Philosophical Theory of Psychedelics.

I asked Adam Knowles, BPA board member and psychotherapist how necessary did he think it is, to keep the philosophical conversation about psychedelics moving forward. Adam's response:

Our philosophical understandings related to psychedelics are so important yet often go unattended beyond this conference and the work of its speakers. There are philosophies and ways of knowing beyond those of science. For instance, with ayahuasca, there’s the spiritism and animism of indigenous cultures. These cultures have rich traditions of shamanic practice that we could learn from, but those understandings are excluded from much modern research due to philosophical differences. The risk is that psychedelics are too easily subsumed, colonised even, by our existing systems. Psychiatry, for one. Capitalism for another. Meanwhile, in my readings, even our best, most popular, and ground-breaking psychedelic scientists rarely state or question their philosophy of science (positivistic materialism). Their regrettable oversight contributes to a problematic notion that science is the only game in town, the only proper way of knowing. The philosophy of science becomes a monoculture, to the detriment of science as much as anything else. More diverse, more philosophical thinking allows novel, innovative and creative thinking beyond the strictly scientific. For instance, once

we give up the idea that anxiety or depression are disease-like malfunctions of the brain, a world of new options becomes available. I’m glad you mention William James. He argued in favour of a plurality of views and that philosophy is deeply personal. Each of us has our worldview, and that worldview determines what understandings are possible for us. I encourage those researching psychedelics to reflect on their personal and professional philosophy. Any given philosophy both accesses and covers up knowledge. Psychedelics invite us to expand our understandings of what’s possible, to change our worldview. Through my encounters with ayahuasca, my worldview has changed radically. From a militant, Richard Dawkins-style atheism to a pantheism that probably aligns with the ideas of conference organiser Peter Sjöstedt-Hughes. I’m not sure I understand him well enough, yet, to say. His book Noumenautics is on my reading list. I’m keen to explore more! Psychedelics have shown me that my normal waking consciousness is what James describes as only one type of consciousness, parted from others by the filmiest of screens. Exploring beyond that thin screen demands a wide-ranging, informed philosophical investigation. This philosophical investigation should be integrated and influential, not in an ivory tower separate to the current wave of exciting research about people’s everyday lives. This UK conference was a good move in that direction, and I look forward to more.

Thanks for reading!


Plato quote - Peter Sjöstedt-Hughes:

For a list of speakers and abstracts from the Philosophy of Psychedelics conference:

Additional Information: Psychedelic Safari Book Club - New book for May: Noumenautics - Peter Sjöstedt-Hughes

Zoom meeting takes place 7-9pm UK time.

Dates in May:

Sunday 2nd/Monday 10th/Sunday 16th/Monday 24th.

Email to join zoom calls.


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