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Minds Manifesting: A Meandering Meditation

James Hughes interviewed me for an episode of his Changesurfer Radio program. In that interview I told him that in my teens I was a hard-core atheist materialist. After some unexpected experience arising from my admittedly reckless and largely recreational use of psychedelics in my late teens and early twenties my certainty gave way to a general agnosticism on the topic of the relationship between mind and brain. In response, Michael Anissimov wrote:
As a young teen who was an atheist, rationalist, materialist, and reductionist, my experiences experimenting with psychedelic drugs did nothing but reinforce these positions. Taking these "drugs" demonstrated to me how the interpretation of external reality is contingent upon the physical arrangement of neurons in the brain. It also shows how the brain can easily be fooled into being overconfident about non-deterministic realities, whereas experiments strongly support a deterministic reality. The fact that human conscious is occasionally cited as the only exception from deterministic reality is actually indicative that consciousness is just the last holdout of deterministic explanation.

My conversion was certainly not a thunder clap event. Well into my late 20s I continued to take a definite side in the Churland/Searle debate. I hewed to the position that conscious is "substrate neutral," which is to say that consciousness can be sustained in mediums other than squishy gray matter. That pre-supposes a materialist basis for consciousness.

Actually "substrate neutrality" doesn't necessarily pre-suppose that consciousness arises from its physical substrate. One could hold that consciousness is substrate neutral and that the organismic brain serves as a "reducing valve" for universal consciousness, but I suspect that fewer than one in a hundred advocates of "substrate neutrality" would have any tolerance for talk of "reducing valves for universal consciousness."

In any event, in re-reading Micheal Anissimov's comment, I've tried to tease out some meaning from it other than the very obvious: He and I started with basically the same belief system, and while my certainty in the correctness of that belief system softened into agnosticism, he started off certain and ended up dead certain.

That raises the question of why psychedelics would erode my certainty yet buttress his, but this formulation of the situation is so simplistic as to be completely useless. Our use of psychedelics is one of an unknowable number of influences that affected our attitudes about belief in general and about the merits of reductionist materialism in particular. While the same set of labels applied to both sets of beliefs and attitudes, we probably didn't really share the same head space going into our psychedelic experiences. Most likely we came to our atheistic materialism via different routes. Our belief systems had distinct causal histories, followed distinct developmental trajectories, and, unsurprisingly, eventually flew in different directions.

What's more, it is unlikely that we took psychedelics under identical conditions. Certainly we were in different locations, different decades, and with different people. Likely the substances we ingested were not chemically identical to one another, and likely the dosages varied as well.

Finally, I return to the content of my statements in the Changesurfer interview. Without going back and listening to that conversation again, I can't be certain whether I told J. Hughes that my belief system changed after my psychedelic experiences or whether my experiences with psychedelics caused me to relinquish my certainty. The latter treads dangerously close to the logical fallacy post hoc ergo propter hoc.

I had some really weird experiences in my late teens and early twenties, and over the subsequent years, my belief system and attitudes changed. Even if I hadn't had those weird experiences I doubt that I would have championed the exact same belief system at 28 or 38 that I did at age 18. I'd certainly hate to think that at age 18 I had the universe sussed and that I've just drifted away from Truth as I've aged.



( 2 comments — Leave a comment )
Jun. 16th, 2008 05:17 am (UTC)
Re: the effects of psychedelic experience on atheism/agnosticism/etc.:

I've actually found even in the most bizarre psychedelic-induced states I've had that I am simultaneously capable of thinking a) that what is going on is purely due to unusual neuron & neurotransmitter activity, and b) that what is going on is a spiritual experience of some kind.

I increasingly think that there is some underlying level on which people either want or don't want to have spirituality in their lives, and that if they want it there, it will be there regardless of how rational any atheist argument may be, and if they don't want it there, then they won't have it regardless of however curious they may be about what it's like to have spiritual experiences. What the underlying basis for this 'want' may be, I don't know though.
Jun. 16th, 2008 05:00 pm (UTC)
Spiritual Physicality
I've actually found even in the most bizarre psychedelic-induced states I've had that I am simultaneously capable of thinking a) that what is going on is purely due to unusual neuron & neurotransmitter activity, and b) that what is going on is a spiritual experience of some kind.

Absolutely. Anti-spirit reductionists tend to play on the presumption that a spiritual experience must also be a supernatural experience. Of course, this has to remain an implicit premise as it doesn't stand up to rational scrutiny.
( 2 comments — Leave a comment )

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