What Else is Happening?

“I had a mystical experience but still re-emerged a naturalist because what else was happening but the drug beautifully interacting with my brain?”

Someone tweeted this in response to my response to the Vice interview with Chris Letheby, Do Psychedelics Just Provide Comforting Delusions?

I replied, “Yes, that’s a common problem” and she came back with, “I don’t see it as a problem.”

Stale mate.

Is there a problem? Well, only if you want to be a mystic, that is, only if you want to continue having mystical experiences. Especially if you want to have them while sober.

But being a mystic requires hard work and commitment. It’s a perilous path. It could mess up your life. At any rate, it will turn it upside down.

Where does this path lead? It leads to a certain state of intimate connection with Reality, with the world and God. This state is precisely the mystical state, of which mystical experiences are brief glimpses. It is blissful, peaceful, blessed. It is like being in paradise.

The spiritual path, if followed faithfully to the end, leads back to that state of lost connection we seem to have lost somewhere along the way.

My Twitter friend was in Paradise during the time of her psychedelic-induced mystical experience. Then she was back in hard “reality”, the reality of hard soil and hard labour (in both senses of the word). Did she, like Eve, eat fruit from the Tree of Knowledge? One bite is all it takes to be banished from the Garden of Eden, and the simple thought, “it’s just a drug” is a pretty good bite.

But she doesn’t see it as a problem. Presumably she’s fine not living in Paradise. But there are those who do see it as a problem. The writers of Genesis, for example.

Personally, I have dedicated my life to trying to solve this problem and to finding my way back to the Garden. Why do some people long for this return? Some people listen out for the clock to strike thirteen, like Tom in Tom’s Midnight Garden. And some people refuse to count beyond twelve. Why?

Who knows? It’s a mystery. It seems that not many are called, and even fewer are chosen. And there is absolutely nothing I can say to convince those who still re-emerge as naturalists that what they experienced is in any way real, that mystical experiences are more than just “comforting delusions”.

The testimony of the saints and mystics throughout the ages won’t do it. Jesus won’t do it. Buddha won’t do it. Rabbis, priests and imams won’t do it. Sadhus and bhikkhus won’t do it. Without metanoia, without a change of heart, there is no God, Nirvana, or Enlightenment, no Garden of Eden, Kingdom of Heaven or Pure Land. There is only, occasionally, “drugs beautifully interacting with the brain”.

Religious people don’t need drugs though. They seem to get their mystical experiences through prayer, meditation, fasting and engagement with the powerful symbols and artifacts of their religion, with poetry and music, sacred spaces and magical rites, smells and bells and stained glass windows. A naturalist would say, “what else is happening but religion beautifully interacting with the brain?”

For naturalists, religion itself is one great “comforting delusion”. The mystical psychedelic experience is just an extension of the general delusion. From a purely metaphysical point of view, however, the naturalist “God Delusion” claim is unverifiable and unfalsifiable. It isn’t a scientific claim, but a philosophical one. And, as I pointed out in my previous blog, Comforting Delusions, naturalism is far from a philosophically unassailable position. In fact, it has run into a whole host of internal contradictions and logical inconsistencies, making it currently the weakest metaphysical option on offer. David Bentley Hart even goes so far as to call it a “philosophy of the absurd”:

“Naturalism, as I have said repeatedly, is a philosophy of the absurd, of the just-there-ness of what is certainly by its nature a contingent reality; is it, simply enough, an absurd philosophy. As I have also said, however, there is a certain circularity in that claim, inasmuch as naturalism, if it is true, renders all reason debile; so it is possible to believe that what has the appearance of absurdity may in fact be the reality of things, even if one cannot consistently act upon that belief, or even conceive  what it would mean. I at least, am willing to grant naturalism its proper dignity as a kind of pure, unreasoning faith: absolute fidelity to an absolute paradox. Theism has nothing magnificently wild and rhapsodically anarchic to offer; the faith it supports depends at some point upon a consistent set of logical intuitions, and so lacks the sheer intellectual brio of that sort of madly, romantically adventurous absurdism. In a few of my more purely passionate moments I find myself a little envious of materialism’s casual audacity and happy barbarism.”

In any case, the typical naturalist claim that psychedelic mystical experiences don’t count because they are nothing but “the drug beautifully interacting with the brain” is also unverifiable and unfalsifiable. An equally possible explanation is that the drug opens a channel whereby some portion of the “divine” beautifully interacts with the brain. And this is much closer to how it actually feels.

The same can be said of all spiritual disciplines and techniques. Prayer doesn’t “beautifully interact with the brain”, but opens a space within which the devotee can commune with their God, with the transpersonal “spirit” beyond the usual limits of the mind. Psychedelics, like prayer, meditation or yoga, especially when taken in a spirit of piety and devotion, are about opening channels of communication between worlds:

“Prepare ye the way of the LORD, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.”

Isaiah 40:3

If you think it’s more like creating beautiful colours by mixing reactive chemicals in a test tube, you have a severely limited understanding of the extraordinary potential of these sacred plant medicines. You will be unlikely to make straight a highway for God, and your naturalist worldview will end up being self-confirming. This is why, as I argue in a previous blog, naturalists don’t get high.