Why Naturalists Don’t Get High

In the recent Vice interview with the naturalist Australian philosopher Chris Letheby, Do Psychedelic Just Provide Comforting Delusions?, Dr Letheby wonders whether a better predictor for the benefits of psychedelics is not the much-touted mystical experiences that commonly accompany high dosage trips, but the psychological insights:

“These [studies] find another construct predicting the lasting benefits more strongly than the construct of a mystical type experience—and this is the construct of psychological insight. When you look at it, it is all about changes to what they call the narrative self, changes to people’s self conception, the autobiographical sense of who they are and what matters to them and what’s happening in their life.”

From a naturalist point of view, the only real value in introspection is to adjust out inner “predictive models” of the world so that they more accurately reflect “objective reality”. The most realistic and effective psychotherapeutic approach is therefore naturally considered to be some form of CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy). Unhelpful and unhealthy self-beliefs are challenged and replaced with more positive and pro-social ones. CBT psychotherapists basically help us challenge our limiting beliefs and destructive behaviours and re-write our badly written life-scripts.

This will necessarily involve compelling psychological insights that are felt to be meaningful and factually true. As Letheby says, “some of these psychological insights definitely do have the appearance of learning new facts. “I learned that my depression is due to these unhealthy emotional habits that resulted from this experience in my childhood.” Or, “I realized that the reason I keep failing in my relationships is because I’m self sabotaging myself because of this deep seated belief about who I am.””

It seems that these insights arise spontaneously under the influence of psychedelics. But where do they come from? One intriguing hypothesis put forward by the neuroscientist Andrew Smith is that it is on the return to our normal base level from a higher state of consciousness that we gain these insights and information, which are somehow associated with the release of accumulated mental energy. He discusses this phenomenon in the context of meditation, but it clearly also applies to the psychedelic experience. The prediction is that the higher you go, the “deeper” your meditation, the more powerful the insights will be on your return. Whatever the reason for this is, the fact is easily verifiable through personal experiment.

In this view, psychological insight is clearly correlated with mystical experience, whether accessed through meditation, prayer, psychedelics or any other introspective “spiritual” practice. Which is not to say that it is not possible to have psychological insights without mystical experiences, of course, as CBT attests. However, the quality and “noetic force” (truth value) of these non-mystical insights appears to be inferior and weaker than those arising from mystical experiences. So there seems to be something of vital importance about “getting high”.

In the interview, Dr Letheby also discusses the possibility of extracting the non-psychedelic ingredients from compounds such as psilocybin, which might somehow cure mental health conditions such as depression without any experiential element whatsoever. “It certainly is conceivable that out of these experiments, lo and behold, someone will come up with a molecular variant of psilocybin that has exactly the same therapeutic potential, but none of the altered state of consciousness.”

Naturalists welcome the therapeutic benefits of psychedelics. But imagine if we could produce the psychological insights without the mystical experiences! Wouldn’t that be great? But wait, imagine if we could get the therapeutic effects without the psychological insights! Wouldn’t that be even better? In other words, if only we could find the right mechanism, we could fix broken people like we fix broken machines. This is the logic of Naturalism, which is suspicious of messy, unquantifiable, airy-fairy mental phenomena and would rather stick within the materialist, mechanistic frame of reference. In terms of the traditional “Great Chain of Being”, Naturalism naturally gravitates to the lowest links of the chain.

The famous line in the Catholic Mass, “hosanna in excelsis”, means something like “praise to the highest” or alternatively, “I believe in the highest”. This exclamatory phrase is actually short for “praise to the highest heaven”. What is “the highest heaven”? If we’re talking mysticism, this must mean something like “the highest state of consciousness”. Surely everyone (including naturalists) know by now that “the kingdom of heaven is within”. When Saint Paul was “caught up to the third heaven” (2 Corinthians 12), for example, he was talking about an inner state of consciousness, not first century space travel.

There is unsurprisingly no clear consensus in any spiritual tradition, East or West, about which is the “highest heaven”. It is often referred to as the seventh heaven, but that may just be convention (seven is considered to be a magic number plus seven rhymes with heaven!) Andrés Gómez identifies six levels of the DMT experience, the highest of which is “Amnesia”. Usually, however, the highest heaven is characterised by an essential unity. In the West, this is expressed as “One God” or “One Love”. All other “heavens” are considered to flow down from the One. (If you are at all familiar with ancient philosophy, you will recognise that this vision is at the heart of Neoplatonism).

However much DMT you smoke, you cannot go higher than “the highest”, the One. If you do reach the One, however, you will no longer be able to call yourself a naturalist, because you will have “seen God”. But can naturalists even get that high? Can they reach “the highest”? Without “hosanna”? That is, without belief? Without faith? It may happen on occasion, but even if it does, it is easily rationalised away, especially be trained philosophers.

Naturalists don’t generally get very high on psychedelics, however much they take. Some of them, the psychedelic hedonists (the William Burroughs and Hunter S. Thomson types) will get royally “loaded”, but not really “high”. Other, more sober types, may get some visuals and some useful psychological insights into their childhoods or their emotional habits or limiting self-beliefs, but that’s probably about it. Once the limiting belief of naturalism itself is questioned and abandoned, however, then, and only then, will the gates of heaven be opened unto them.