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Science, Spirituality and Psychedelics

April 03, 2021

I was part of a zoom meeting this week, (hosted by the Psychedelic Society) with Thomas Roberts, professor emeritus at Northern Illinois University. He has spent the last forty years exploring the potential of psychedelics to open new doors of inquiry across a host of academic disciplines from art to anthropology.

Roberts began his presentation by quoting English novelist and physical chemist Charles Percy Snow:

The intellectual life of the whole of western society was split into two cultures - the sciences and the humanities - which was a major hinderance to solving the world’s problems.

Roberts also pointed to Edward O. Wilson’s book, Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge, in which Wilson says:

The greatest enterprise of the mind has always been and always will be the attempted linkage of the sciences and humanities. The ongoing fragmentation of knowledge and resulting chaos in philosophy are not reflections of the real world but artifacts of scholarship.

Consilience is the key to unification. William Whewell, in his 1840 synthesis The Philosophy of the Inductive Sciences, was the first to speak of consilience, literally a “jumping together” of knowledge by the linking of facts and fact-based theory across disciplines to create a common groundwork of explanation.

Roberts then presented his theory of the Four Stages of the Psychedelic Renaissance:

Stage 1: The medical-neuroscience stage:

This stage predominates now. Advances in medical schools, biology labs, and clinics mark this stage. And with mystical experiences and changed attitudes toward self and others often the main variable in healing, this stage naturally leads to…

Stage 2: The spiritual-religious stage:

This stage is characterised by the contributions of psychedelics as an aid on spiritual paths. Psychedelics that are used intentionally to invoke a spiritual experience are known as entheogens- they generate (engen) an experience of god (theo) within. As 21st century research shows, it’s possible to experimentally study spirituality, meaningfulness, altruism, sense of wellbeing, social relations, textual interpretation, motivation, the origins and history of religion, and much more. But these topics often lead out of the spiritual realm with crossover in the humanities and social sciences, giving rise to…

Stage 3: The intellectual-artistic stage:

Psychedelics make experimental humanities possible, offer new theories for psychocriticism, inspire the arts, start new lines of social science research, and even - using psychedelics as research methods - offer to invent new intellectual paradigms. Together they provide a fresh lens for numerous academic fields from women’s studies to linguistics, orchestrating a new ‘Psychedemia’ as Prof. Nese Devenot named it.

But a natural question arises: Besides cannabis, psychedelics, and other psychoactive substances, are there other drug-free ways of exploring and empowering our minds? The answer leads us to..

Stage 4: The multistate-mindapps stage:

Often referred to as ‘altered states of consciousness,’ Multistate Theory recognises that any complete study of our minds must include all the mind’s variations, not just our ordinary default state of waking consciousness…yoga, chanting, breathing routines, martial arts, contemplative prayer, meditation, sensory overload and isolation, biofeedback and neurofeedback, and a host of brain-based techniques. What happens when we combine these states in different ways? (Ayahuasca in a sensory deprivation tank. anyone?) What opportunities for growth and study might these combinations present?

Each stage of the theory from Roberts is fascinating and requires reflection. In focusing on stage 2, we could ask - is science and spirituality meeting in the middle to form strong conclusions? And will the next stage of psychedelics lead into spiritual and/or religious development?

A recent article written by Alberto Cantizani López in Open asks:

Should psychedelic guides keep spirituality out of the therapy room?

The article looks at psychedelic therapy through a spiritual framework lens:

While the use of psychedelics has been closely entwined with spiritual practice, prominent voices in psychedelic research have called for the demystification of these substances and the adoption of more secular approaches to psychedelic therapy.

Two Opposing Views:

Professor Matthew Johnson from John Hopkins has raised concerns about ‘imposing religious beliefs’ on those undergoing psychedelic therapy and worries about ‘conflating religious beliefs with empirically based clinical practice.' He believes that, ‘researchers and clinicians should adhere to a secular approach and refrain from introducing any “non-empirically verified beliefs” into their therapeutic protocols.’

Buddhist Psychedelic Chaplain, Daan Keiman, from Synthesis, has concerns and acknowledges that psychedelics can evoke feelings of vulnerability, so therapists must be vigilant and aware of these shifts in perspective. He says, ‘Under the effects of psychedelics, the suggestibility goes up significantly and we know that people often have noetic experiences: a feeling that something is being revealed to them that is incredibly true.’ Daan says that through his training as an interfaith spiritual caregiver, he has mistakenly assumed that Buddhist stories would be ‘universally applicable.’

The difficulty as expressed by López is that, ‘the main psychotherapeutic frameworks used nowadays in psychedelic research are shaped by spiritual beliefs and practice.’

Daan refers to Johnson’s argument as coming across as:

Yet another white man pretending that his secular psychotherapeutic perspective is the position of no-position; as if it is neutral, as if it doesn’t come with its own baggage and its own set of assumptions which are not empirically verified.

López goes on to state that ‘excluding all spiritually oriented elements from therapeutic and research protocols would only perpetuate their non-empirical status.’ And suggests that more research around setting and therapist competencies could be implemented.

Whilst Daan calls for spiritual awareness in the vein of shamanic practice, as a narrative, not as definitive truth, the interpretation from Johnson seems to imply that meaning can be side-lined in favour of clinical professionalism.

Daan is not against empowering patients to explore their experience’s metaphysical aspects, but says ‘as a spiritual caregiver trained to talk about existential questions, I think you need particular competencies to discuss these issues with patients.’ He is in favour of psychedelic chaplains providing an interfaith approach or with full disclosure of their own beliefs. This could help people navigate their experience and he believes that looking at the experience from a secular perspective could be difficult and potentially could ‘actually harm the existential or spiritual integrity of the client.’

López calls on patients to have the last word.

Additional Information:

A Research paper, FromRosalind Watts and others:

We propose that processes underlying conferral of meaning and truth in psychedelic experiences may act as a double-edged sword: while these may drive important therapeutic benefits, they also raise important considerations regarding the validation and mediation of knowledge gained during these experiences.

The science versus spirituality conversation will no doubt continue. Please join the discussion on our facebook page.

Thank you for joining our psychedelic safari this week. Hope everyone has a wonderful weekend.

Warmest wishes,


Diane Elliott

Links We Like:

Psychedelic Practitioners: A group for those that are already practising as psychedelic practitioners in the UK and for those aspiring to become one.

To educate health professionals and the general public with current, accurate, evidence-based information about psychedelics; to support the safe exploration of psychedelics for health, healing, well-being and the ease of suffering; to connect with like-minded organisations; to advocate for the rational and responsible use of psychedelics.

A Professional, Educational and Community Building Initiative.

Psychedelics Drug Development Tracker: This overview seeks to map out drug discovery & development activity in psychedelics.

Why Canada Is Pulling the Plug on Its War on Drugs.


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