Comforting Delusions

In a new book, Philosophy of Psychedelics, philosopher Chris Letheby explores the possibility that the mystical experiences reported by people on psychedelics are simply “comforting delusions”. Just because they are strongly correlated with improvements in mental health conditions doesn’t make them true. The same can be said for people who hold religious beliefs. The fact that they are generally happier and healthier doesn’t mean that God exists, although it might suggest that belief in God has some evolutionary survival value.

Chris Letheby is a naturalist, and he is arguing from a position where naturalism is taken for granted. What is “naturalism”? It’s really just another word for materialism:

“It’s a view that says the natural world, the world studied by the sciences, is the only world there is. …

… reality is made of ultimately “non-minded” things like atoms and subatomic particles, and minds are something relatively recent and complex that gets built out of stuff that is ultimately non-minded.”

(From a recent interview with Shayla Love, Do Psychedelics Just Provide Comforting Delusions?)

In the Vice interview from which these quotes are taken, he mentions some alternative philosophical positions to the naturalist/materialist one, such as panpsychism and idealism, but doesn’t seem to allow for the possibility that they might actually be right. Apparently, the issue is pretty much settled:

“I think it’s probably true that most philosophers today consider themselves naturalists in this sense—and I think there are good arguments in support of this kind of view of the world.”

Naturally, there are good arguments in support of naturalism. But there are also good arguments against it. One perennial problem is precisely the problem of consciousness and minds. How can minds be “built out of stuff that is ultimately non-minded”? The only two options open to materialists are “emergentism” and “eliminativism”: either consciousness is somehow an emergent property of matter, or it doesn’t actually exist at all – it’s just an “illusion” created by the brain.

Letheby says that “naturalism, like everything in philosophy, is hard to define precisely, but it’s very easy to get an intuitive grasp on.” Once you see the philosophical implications of naturalism, however, it’s also very easy to intuitively grasp that it doesn’t make sense. Intuitively, it is clear that eliminativism is probably “the silliest claim ever made”, as philosopher Galen Strawson put it. And it doesn’t take much thought to see how the emergentist claim is just as philosophically problematic. How could any amount of complexly arranged non-minded stuff magically produce consciousness (unless you believe in magic)?

It may be true that most philosophers consider themselves naturalists. Does this mean naturalism is true though? Letheby is arguing that just because most psychonauts consider some form of mysticism to be true, it could be just a “comforting delusion”. But the same could be said of philosophical naturalists. Maybe they find naturalism comforting. After all, an indifferent universe that doesn’t care two hoots what you get up to is in itself quite comforting. There will be no final reckoning and no divine judgment – just cool nothingness. In any case, philosophical trends and fashions change all the time. There are philosophical golden ages and philosophical dark ages. And who’s to say that contemporary philosophy isn’t at a particularly low nadir of scientistic ignorance?

Be that as it may, there are important contemporary philosophers who make strong arguments against the materialist “consensus”. You will find a smattering of these here (as you may have noticed, I’m a sucker for the number seven!):

The Waning of Materialism by Robert Coons and George Bealer, ed.;

Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly False by Thomas Nagel;

The Return of the God Hypothesis: Three Scientific Discoveries that Reveal the Mind behind the Universe by Stephen Meyer;

Why Materialism Is Baloney: How True Skeptics Know There Is No Death and Fathom Answers to Life, the Universe, and Everything by Bernardo Kastrup;

Knowledge of God by Alvin Plantinga and Michael Tooley;

The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss by David Bentley Hart;

Consciousness and Fundamental Reality by Philip Goff.

A crucial internal contraction reductive materialists (or “radical emergentists”) must grapple with is the contradiction between the two statements, “the natural world, the world studied by the sciences, is the only world there is” and “minds are something relatively recent and complex that gets built out of stuff that is ultimately non-minded”. How can minds be admitted to be real (even if they ultimately derive from non-minded particles) if they cannot be studied by the sciences?

Minds obviously can’t be studied by the natural sciences (you can’t see a mind with a microscope) but they can be studied by the phenomenological sciences, including psychedelic-assisted phenomenology. As Stanislav Grof said, “the potential significance of LSD and other psychedelics for psychiatry and psychology are comparable to the value the microscope has for biology or the telescope has for astronomy.”

If this is the case, then the mystical claims of people undergoing psychedelic experiences should be taken seriously. Once we admit that minds and consciousness are ontologically real, we are no longer tied to the scientistic worldview which insists that the world studied by the physical sciences is the only world there is. Hopefully, psychedelics can begin to loosen the stranglehold of this limiting materialist ideology on the minds of the mind-deniers and mind-skeptics, including the minds of philosophers like Chris Letheby.