Mark’s post on the new ‘shroom study draws on many themes that those who read his work will be familiar with. Psychedlic drugs, psilocybin in particular, can be taken safely; they can produce intense experiences that positively affect mood and behavior; the side effects can be managed; it’s a shame that it’s illegal to take them even under the circumstances that make these things possible. Though it sounds as if the study had some flaws (per Hugo de Toronga’s comment at the study link above, doctor-patient interaction might have skewed the results) and though I wonder why Mark doesn’t apply to this case his usual skepticism about how legalization regimes can go wrong, I’m broadly convinced by all these claims.
What I’m not convinced by (and what he never really argues towards) is his conclusion that taking psilocybin is actually a good thing. Check out (via Kevin Drum) some of the study volunteers’ statements of what they experience after taking the drug. They seem grateful to have traveled much further down a road well worth not taking.
Here are some highlights:
“Virtually eliminated all religious practices; much more spiritual now.”
“Feel closer to family and friends. Incorporating Ayurvedic theory into diet and self care.
“Increased time for meditation…I now believe I have something important to tell people about how the universe works.”
“The energy experience stoked my curiosity about the spiritual awakening stimulus of kundalini [spiritual energy] and has opened a new path for me!”
On the other hand, Andrew Sullivan has this to say about when he took ‘shrooms:
They deepened my faith, brought me closer to lifting the veil my ego places over the beauty of God’s creation, gave me uncanny perspective on my life, and had me pondering the Incarnation and praying effortlessly as I gazed into the rippling water of Amsterdam’s canals.
In other words, religion in, religion out. Give mushrooms to a bunch of hippies and they’ll gain a new appreciation for yoga; give them to a heterodox Catholic and he’ll ponder the Incarnation. Give them to me and I might start to (wrongly) believe that I can understand complex mathematical proofs or conceive (wrongly) that I remember my once-adequate ancient Greek—which once gave me the very fulfilling experience of being able to read easy bits of Plato without a dictionary.
But in none of these cases is there any reason to think that the drug-takers have come to know anything that’s actually true. And I would have thought that this would be relevant. Mark writes that the drug can bring people “experiences and insights historically limited to a tiny minority.” Experiences I’ll grant. But for something to count as an insight, it has to be true. (“One side will make you grow taller, and the other side will make you grow shorter” is not an insight.) In previous conversation, Mark has explained to me why people who take psilocybin aren’t afraid to die: they “know that they’re immortal.” But if they know that, they’re buying happiness at the cost of knowledge. I’ll take Aristotle, thanks: all human beings are mortal; psilocybin users are human beings; therefore, sorry, they’ll die too.
Mark suggests that the only reason most people don’t pursue mystical experiences are that they take too long and are often big secrets. Astonishingly, he seems to doubt either the prevalence or the praiseworthiness of people who’d rather be maximally correct about how the world stands than maximally happy. He asks: “Just how much enlightenment can our current social order absorb?” He keeps using that word, enlightenment, but I do not think it means what he thinks it means. The right question, it seems to me, is how much superstition, how much rejection of enlightenment, can our social order absorb? As he says, “we may be on the road to find[ing] out.”