Magic mushrooms and non-magical thinking

Mark is no doubt right that taking magic mushrooms under controlled conditions makes people less depressed, in the extreme case beatific. The question is whether that state is worth having at the cost of false beliefs.


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.”


Author: Andrew Sabl

Andrew Sabl, a political theorist, is Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Toronto. He is the author of Ruling Passions: Political Offices and Democratic Ethics and Hume’s Politics: Coordination and Crisis in the History of England, both from Princeton University Press. His research interests include political ethics, liberal and democratic theory, toleration, the work of David Hume, and the realist school of contemporary political thought. He is currently finishing a book for Harvard University Press titled The Uses of Hypocrisy: An Essay on Toleration. He divides his time between Toronto and Brooklyn.

43 thoughts on “Magic mushrooms and non-magical thinking”

  1. It seems to me what’s going on here is something more than just claims to know new things. People aren’t just bundles of true and false propositions. They also seek awareness of new affective and evaluative possibilities, and that’s a part of what these subjects claim to have been afforded.

  2. What is it about the idea of a “trip” that you don’t understand? Here instead of traveling to a foreign land, imagine an expat enjoying a guilt (and other overhead) free journey to a long lost “home”. I believe the smart person’s term is alienation.

  3. 1. “Doctor-patient interaction might have skewed the results” would be a reasonable objection if the idea were to study the chemical in isolation. In fact, the study looked at a process of which the chemical was one element. But the process is reasonably reproducible; therefore, one would expect the result to be equally so.

    2. The same applies to the objection that the subjects were pre-screened for spiritual interests. Again, that wa the point.

    3. Andy for once has fallen deeply into the trap set by analytical philosophy: the tyranny of the cognitive, leading to the notion that anything not reducible to well-formed formulae must therefore be nonsense and superstition. Reading The Iliad Homer is not an efficient process for picking up true facts about the history of the Eastern Mediterranean in the Bronze Age; its utility lies in a different domain. Spiritual experience is more like literature than it is like science. The Incarnation is no more inconsistent with kundalini than Beethoven is with Shakespeare.

    4. If a spiritual practice – yoga, Catholicism, or psilocybin – actually improves individual well-being and social functioning, that’s a fact like other facts. I don’t expect working out to teach me new facts; I expect it to make me stronger and healthier.

    5. Woody Allen once said “I don’t want to be immortal through my work; I want to be immortal by not dying. It is not that childish desire for immortality that real spiritual experience supports; it is, rather, the recognition that one’s own body and one’s own consciousness are parts of greater wholes, and that – since the wholes continue even after the parts are extinct – death is not, in fact, the end. That understanding – about which Bertrand Russell wrote movingly – can be profoundly liberating. And no, contrary to what others (not Andy) have suggested, suicide bombing is not among its consequences.

    Of course legalization regimes can go wrong. I don’t want to see ‘shrooms marketed by breweries, or, for that matter, by televangelists. But if there are safe and effective ways of bringing about beneficially life-changing experiences, we ought to consider how to get the drug laws out of their way.

  4. Hi Mark,
    Point by point:
    (1) I didn’t read the study and if your characterization is correct, your conclusion is correct. But then the result is that the drug does what it’s supposed to when and only when it’s taken under conditions that would be difficult and costly for most people to reproduce reliably.
    (2) By your analogy, it seems that the study’s results are equivalent to a finding that certain exercise program has good results for those who are already fit athletes: an interesting finding, but not as useful as a finding that it works well for couch potatoes. It also begs the question: shrooms help you become more spiritual, but the question is whether that’s a good thing in the same way that physical fitness is good.
    (3) I have nothing against artistic experience and hope I value it deeply myself. (I’m told I can play Brahms movingly; I certainly feel moved myself when I either play his music or hear it, as I do when watching Shakespeare, reading great novels, etc.) If those who hold religious experiences–or drug experiences in this case–were willing to say that it’s the same kind of thing *as* artistic experience, rather than throwing around words like “truth”–or even *the* truth–I’d feel much better. But they aren’t. The problem with these types of experiences is that they move people as deeply as art, or love, while making them think their insights are somehow, or in some mode, as reliable as those of medicine or science.
    (4) Similar point. If people want to say that shrooms, or meditation, or prayer, make them serene and calm, I’ll buy it. If they want to say that it makes them wiser about the world, that’s another matter. It’s like Socrates’ point: the problem with the craftsmen wasn’t that they didn’t know things, but that they believed that knowing their craft was equivalent to knowing all they needed to know. As for “stronger and healthier,” I’m not sure I buy the analogy. It seems to me that taking shrooms has similar effects to those of an exercise program that makes people look and feel stronger without necessarily being stronger. See Plato’s *Gorgias* on how rhetoric is to philosophy as a good tailor is to a good trainer. But this represents a larger and deeper way in which you and I differ: you think that subjective satisfaction and well-being are closely allied concepts whereas I seriously doubt that they’re even positively correlated. “Better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied,” and the effects of shrooms sound to me like foolish satisfaction.
    (5) I deny that the idea that one’s consciousness is part of a greater whole can coherently be described as an personal and quasi-esthetic “experience” rather than a factual claim. Either my consciousness ineffably communicates with something outside itself through the methods other than the obvious ones or it doesn’t. And if it doesn’t, any conviction that it does represents a highly pleasing illusion. The case of the body is similar. I agree that my body is part of a larger whole known as the physical universe. The water molecule I just consumed in my coffee may once have been part of David Hume. The question is whether this makes any philosophical difference, and a drug experience can’t change the right answer to that–namely, “no.”

  5. Andrew, thank you for expressing well the doubts that I was at pains to express over Mark’s previous post. I perhaps disagree with both you and Mark over what sorts of truth claims art might be able to make (I consider the art ‘experience’ a long-term project in a Hegelian way, which to me seems a vastly different idea of experience than what Mark is referring to about psylocybin, which appears to be a brief, visionary or prophetic mode of truth), but for the most part, I agree with you wholeheartedly.

  6. You seem to completely miss the point. According to the article you cite, “the behavior changes most frequently cited were improved relationships with family and others, increased physical and psychological self-care, and increased devotion to spiritual practice.” For people suffering from crippling post-traumatic stress, depression or anxiety, this kind of benefit could be life-saving. Would you really deny that kind of relief in service to an ascetic desire to worship “the truth” no matter the cost?

  7. So what really counts is not whether someone hurts themselves or others, but whether a person after the experience agrees with your view of reality?

  8. Hi, Andrew,

    Two thoughts:

    In 3, you say, “If those who hold religious experiences–or drug experiences in this case–were willing to say that it’s the same kind of thing *as* artistic experience, rather than throwing around words like ‘truth’–or even *the* truth–I’d feel much better”. Yes, I’d like that better, too. Of course, art–especially story and song–is at the base of this atheist materialist’s religious beliefs.

    As to 5, again, I agree that any sort of “cosmic consciousness” is a highly speculative idea supported by very little evidence and in which I personally place no belief. (Could be, and maybe I’m wrong, but I’d have to be convinced.) However, the perception that I am intimately connected to our planetary eco-system is highly fact-based, as well as fundamental to our survival as a species with hopes of reaching civilization one day.

    Oh, one other thing. You say, “The water molecule I just consumed in my coffee may once have been part of David Hume.” I have no idea how to make an exact calculation (nor any real desire to carry it out), but given that the water molecule dissociates in so many chemical processes, you might have consumed a atom that was once part of David Hume, but it’s quite unlikely you consumed an entire molecule.

  9. Andy, the people recruited for the study had some spiritual interest and pursued spiritual practice. That’s the equivalent of having a health-club membership, not of being a trained athlete. The actual difficulty and expense of the program was eight hours of preparation plus a day of supervised experience. As I said, about the cost and difficulty of a week in Cancun. Not out of reach for most people.

    I agree that the ambiguity between the sort of truth-value that can be reasonably claimed for “the speed of light is the limiting velocity of the universe” and the sort of truth-value that can be reasonably claimed for “God is Love” can create confusion. Heraclitus said, “That which alone is wise and good does, and does not, allow itself to be called ‘Zeus.’ ” In saying that, of course, he flatly violated the Law of Non-Contradiction, and equally of course was right to do so. Holding spiritual claims to Aristotelian standards is a category mistake, and a violation of Aristotle’s own warning about not demanding mathematical precision about ethical propositions.

    If someone returns from a mystical journey and tells me he relived his past life as one of Alexander’s generals, I will think – though I hope I’d be too polite to say – “bullsh/t!” But if he comes back reporting that the Golden Rule is the Truth, I’m mostly going to hope that his future deeds match his new convictions.

    The question of whether someone no longer breathing – Socrates, for example – is still “alive” is not question that can be resolved by scientific inquiry. His words and actions are still influencing yours and mine, in ways neither mechanical nor “ineffable.” Someone who grasps that truth emotionally as well as logically may be able to face death with more equanimity, and put greater weight than he otherwise would on his legacy in that sense compared to the number of toys he manages to die with. Of course I expect to stop breathing, and to stop being conscious when I stop breathing. As Col. Lawrence says in the movie, “The secret is not minding that it hurts.”

    If it were true that most mystics became fanatical persecutors, then I’d agree with you that mystical experience ought to be discouraged. But the historians and sociologists of religion more or less agree with the claim of the mystics that they tend to be on what might be called the “ecumenical” side of the question, more capable than their dogmatic co-religionists of holding in mind the possibility that their truth might not actually conflict with someone else’s truth. Joshua the dogmatist tried to suppress an outbreak of prophecy; Moses the mystic told him not to be jealous. Hildegard tried to prevent the genocide against the Cathars waged by the institutional Church (and the French monarchy). The Sufi within Islam have often been persecuted, never (to my knowledge) been persecutors.

    So I conclude that we ought to continue to discover – according to scientific, Enlightenment principles of inquiry – whether enlightenment could safely be made widely available under conditions that would lead to improvements in subjective well-being and pro-social behavior.

  10. As someone who very much enjoyed psychedelics in their heyday (and only stopped using them once I could no longer trust their content), I have to say that my life was profoundly changed by that experience, and for the better in my opinion, but society would not necessarily agree. I remember those times fondly, when in the company of a few friends I would spend the day, usually walking in the forest for hours, or at home listening to music–the same music I still enjoy today, or doing art of some kind.

    Most of all I remember the overwhelming sense of being a part of all life, and the profound beauty and immense good fortune of living on this planet. Try as I may, words do not adequately describe what I experienced, but many (all?) of my subsequent life choices were founded on that enhanced (yes, enhanced) perception of my existence. Foremost is that I never had any interest in making myself work only to earn money–my work had to matter to me and had to somehow make the world better, and definitely not worse. And, I was never interested in earning more than what I needed to live a good and simple life, well under median income, but more than poverty. I am content to rent, well aware of the various trade-offs I’ve made.

    I was not raised in any religion, and came out of the experience with a distinct Buddhist outlook, although I would not call myself a Buddhist either. “Everything that has a beginning has an end. Make peace with that and all will be well.”

    The reason that society probably would not support the effects that I experienced is that it resulted in my becoming distinctly uninterested in status, and wage-earning, and materialistic pursuits. What matters most to our society is money-based, and I lost all interest in money as a focus of my life.

    I always believed that the drugs (LSD, mescaline, psilocybin only; somehow even in my youth I knew not to touch anything else) produced perceptions that were merely the result of some of the “filtering” normally done by brain processes having been canceled out; everything was simply more intense, and time was more fluid, and my awareness was more wide-open, with perception and sensation flooding in. I always knew that the change from everyday reality was the fleeting result of the drug lowering my inhibitory filtering system, and for the most part, it was all quite wonderful. The only times that were less than wonderful were due to having to observe maliciousness in any form, as it too was heightened. But even then, I was grateful for being given the understanding of that maliciousness.

    It’s been close to 40 years now since my last journey, but the memories of that time are still with me, along with the gratitude they’ve inspired. I would love to relive those times again now, to see what I’ve learned in the meanwhile, but even though it would cause harm to no one, I am not allowed to do so. In my opinion, this is solely because money and the forces of greed and subjugation have won control over this world.

    But I have my memories, and my simple life, and my gratitude, and I am content. It was great while it lasted, and maybe someday, people will value such life experiences, or at least allow those of us who do to engage in them. Or, not.

  11. Karim and Gus: I think that if you read more carefully you’d find that we agree more than you realize. I’m not denying that shrooms should be legal, under certain conditions, nor that under those conditions their effects are harmless or even, at least on the surface, benign. (Shrrooms seem to provide most of the benefits of chocolate while containing fewer calories.) I’m arguing over whether mushroom use is a good idea, not whether it should be legal. Of course if it’s harmless it should be legal.

    Mark, I admit that I read your original post a bit too quickly and didn’t get your concession that the safe conditions for shroom use would resemble in cost a week in Cancun. Now I hope you’ll admit that someone earning the median income, with the usual expenses, cannot readily afford a week in Cancun!

    You and I will probably never agree on what to do with “The Golden Rule is the Truth”—because I’m an ethical and moral theorist and you’re not. For most ordinary people and most ordinary purposes, it makes sense to take such statements as aspirational and largely admirable, to bracket their truth value, and to hope people come to believe such things by any spiritual means necessary. But if I thought that reason had nothing to tell us about such matters or should remain silent about what it can say, I’d have little reason to go on living (besides my family: I’d presumably quit and pursue some useful and higher-paying job for their sake). I would think, though, that any intellectual would have to admit at least a few of my vocational responsibilities to ask the intellectual’s questions: “how do you know?” and “what makes you think that principle is superior to others that lots of intelligent people believe?”. We’re thinkers, not preachers.

    Socrates still lives on because people remember his life and ideas. For most of us, 2500 years after death, not so much–and the trick is not minding that “not so much.”

    That mystics are less likely than fundamentalists to persecute seems right. To that extent, if you’re saying that mysticism is good for people just as drinking straight ethanol is good advice if you’ve swallowed antifreeze, fine. But better not to drink the antifreeze in the first place.

    Note that I’ve not been saying all along that mystical experience is bad for society. I’m worried that it’s bad for intellectual judgment. You could probably run a pretty peaceful society on Soma too. And sure, maybe one should do some social science to see whether that “probably” amounts to truth. But doing so would not entail a reason to drop Soma. Or shrooms.

  12. I can tell who has had their mind opened by the fungus. I have no idea how that is a bad thing, especially in these times.

  13. Sounds like, from the descriptions of the experiences, the drugs shut down the left brain letting the right brain off its leash.

  14. It’s me, “Anonymous” from 8:20PM again…..

    Andrew Sabl wrote:

    “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.”

    There is a fallacy in your Aristotelian logic, because your initial premise is not proven. Yes, there is a lifeless corpse when we die, but beyond that we do not know anything, and therefore cannot claim to know that humans (or life in general) is mortal in its entirety.

    The psychedelic experience that I’ve had led me to believe that all life is connected, and that all life shares a consciousness that does not die, and our experienced-as-individual consciousnesses go back into the “pool” upon our physical death. I can no more “prove” this than Andrew can “prove” that all human beings are mortal, and there is no known method we can use to get at whose “truth” is the real truth. The only course is to agree to disagree.

    Something by Denise Levertov really spoke to me and my intuition about the immortality that I perceive:


    Surely we were to have been
    earth’s mind, mirror, reflective source.
    Surely our task
    was to have been
    to love the earth,
    to dress and keep it like Eden’s garden.

    That would have been our dominion:
    to be those cells of earth’s body that could
    perceive and imagine, could bring the planet
    into the haven it is to be known…

    from “Tragic Error,” in The Life Around Us (1997) by Denise Levertov

  15. “But if I thought that reason had nothing to tell us about such matters or should remain silent about what it can say, I’d have little reason to go on living (besides my family: I’d presumably quit and pursue some useful and higher-paying job for their sake).”

    You’ve put yourself at a strange place in this argument. We aren’t at the point where anyone is saying that reason is USELESS on such matters. The part of the argument we are actually at, is the one where the materialist skeptics such as yourself are asserting that such experiences are completely useless for insight. (See for example you above with “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.)”)

    Even if it were true that such experiences cannot provide ‘true’ sensations for the brain to interpret, mushrooms could still make way for ‘real’ insight by allowing the brain to make connections that its former habits and training wouldn’t stumble across. These insights can be followed up in normal mental states later. If mushrooms provide a dream of a benzene ring, must you ignore the science that comes after?

    Your brain is highly trained on what to attend to and what to ignore. This certainly allows you to avoid many errors, but also at least some truths. Mushrooms allow you to very temporarily short circuit some of that training, and to attend to things that it normally wouldn’t while connecting things that it normally wouldn’t associate. If that was ALL you made of the experience, yes it might be nearly useless. But people can and do follow up on the associations, connections and insights. Some may be dismissed as ephemeral. Others may be shown to have a more concrete character which would never have been appreciated otherwise.

  16. Andrew, I think you should try it.
    And all this talk about, ‘controled circumstances’ and taking some eight hour preparatory class is really a bunch of bunk. Don’t take too much, don’t opperate heavy mechinery, don’t try to have a conversation with your boss,… Do take it with a trusted friend, do be sure you are in a place and time when you can do what you feel like doing, do go outside and take a walk and don’t worry that you will frighten people with the strange things you want to say to them. I have had the expierience of thinking I was really acting wierdly and later apologised to people explaining that I was tripping and the response was ALWAYS, ‘Really? I didn’t think you acted in any way odd.’
    But mainly, it’s not what you think it is. Anonymous and Sebastian have both touched some points but it really is the whole expierience that allows you to look at the world from a different perspective. Once seen from that angle it stays with you as a point of comparison.
    It is a ‘vision quest’ but the vision isn’t the big technicolor billboard the hollywood media tried to sell or the soul shattering hedonist hell the TV preachers warned about. It is little and connected and everywhere you look and when you get back from the exhausting journey you will always look to see those little connections and will be glad for the infinite detail that is so simple. It won’t change you or the world but it will make you pay closer attention to things that always seemed too insignifigent to matter.

  17. I accept that you have the right question — is it better to face the truth or be happy. I think you do have to distinguish this question from a different question — is it better to face the truth or be temporarily happy, that is, typically failure to face reality causes suffering in the long run. The second question can’t be answered by the study — it didn’t follow the subjects for the rest of their lives. But the distinction is philosophically interesting. Oddly, I think your conviction that it is best to face the truth has a religious origin “you shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free.” The conviction that it is good to accept the truth developed when basically everyone was convinced that there is a benevolent God and God’s will is justice.

    OK another question is whether it is better to know the truth or to be happy, given the problem that, for example it is nice to be a physician who is sure that Ayurvedic medicine works but not so nice to be a patient of such a physician, since it doesn’t. The reality bites can refer not to the future but to the experience of other people who don’t get the mystical experience but do suffer the consequences of the mushroom smokers mysticism. Again, here I think it is interesting to focus on the question of happiness (summed over all people for all time) vs knowledge — to assume that any practical costs of mysticism in the near or distant future and for the mystic or for others are tiny compared to the benefits. Here I think that religious faith can make people better citizens and neighbors (I am quite sure that all religious faith is false — I recognize that this is atheist faith).

    I am convinced that happiness is better than knowledge. In other words, I disagree with Jesus Christ about many things including the bit about the truth setting us free.

    OK now to speculate offensively. [Necessary disclaimer and apology]. OK now I will dare to psycho analyse Prof. Kleiman’s post. I perceive him to be a very reluctant atheist. An atheist who is studying the bible. It seems to me that the post wasn’t just written by the Prof. Kleiman who considers drug policy and is horrified both by the suffering caused by some drugs and the additional suffering caused by the war on drugs. I think it was written also by the Prof. Kleiman who very much wishes he wasn’t atheist.

  18. Thank you Robert Waldmann for an insight that I have been unable to grasp until now (no mushrooms required). I am an atheist who wishes he wasn’t which is why Richard Dawkins so pisses me off.

  19. It it sounds like the decision to engage is this particular controlled psilocybin experience would certainly make better off some people at some times in their lives. Andrew has not yet convinced me that the transfer of facts is required to make such an experience “good for someone”.

  20. As a young college student my friends and I did a whole lot of experimenting with psychedelics (LSD)and we thought we made profound discoveries about life. So first we decided to write down our thoughts while under the influence and later even recorded episodes. The following days we would read and listen to what we wrote and discussed. It turned out to be pure babel and drivel. Even so I believe my mind opened to a new, different maybe higher level of conscientiousness, though our experiment leaves me skeptical.

  21. Music is the biggest lie ever told. Every day, it suckers people out of millions of dollars and untold hours of time. It springs from an infantile desire to be comforted by a mother’s lullaby. Music is truly the opiate of the masses.

    Why do you listen to music? Is it a crutch to get you through the day? When you go to a concert, what on earth do you get out of it? Do you feel “warm fuzzies” when you are walking out of the building? Maybe it makes you feel all happy inside. Well, the real world isn’t like that. Music has no answer to the problem of evil. As long as you are a listener, you have no chance of fully participating in a rational discussion.

    Ask a professional musician (professional shamster, more like) why he plays his kind of music instead of another and you’ll never get a straight answer. What makes a clarinet better than a Japanese koto? Why play jazz instead of classical? “I like it more.” “I’m more familiar with it.” Non-answers. “They’re about the same.” Then why play music at all?

    Musicians tell you they love their fans… then they sell the T-shirts and CDs at the door. Some even take donations– as long as they can separate the marks from their money, their gig is a success. Music is nothing but an organized scam.

    From the beginning of a child’s life, her parents indoctrinate her to believe in a myth called “music”. They force her to believe that certain arrangements of sounds is somehow more important than other ones. Never in the history of humankind has a more insidious waste of time and money been conspired. Start her on Baby Mozart; buy her “children’s music” (the very name betraying the unethical, Orwellian scheme); raise her on piano and jazz, and buy her a Beatles CD on her 16th birthday. The most popular songs lie to you: “All you need is love.” Others are simply nonsense: “Bye, bye Miss American Pie.” Some songs have no lyrics at all! They do not even make an attempt at meaning. The veil is lifted; the stupidity of the whole exercise is transparent before everyone, and yet they continue listening as if brainwashed.

    When I point this out to the thoughtless listeners, they tell me not to argue with something so “beautiful”. Can’t they see that they are wasting their time on mere noise, that rarely says anything akin to common sense? “Well, Shakespeare, he’s in the alley / With his pointed shoes and his bells, / Speaking to some French girl, / Who says she knows me well.” What on earth is that supposed to mean? Can anyone tell me? I’m guessing no.

    Music plays in our schools, in malls, even in elevators. A rational man is surrounded by this flim-flam whereever he goes. It’s impossible to escape from it. It even receives government funding! Why waste my taxpayer dollars to endorse a particular form of music, or music at all? We must separate music and state immediately.

    Music is a product of primitive and backwards societies. Undeveloped cultures with little spare resources waste them on the manufacture of instruments and training of professional musicians, out of pure stupidity. In the Roman Empire, music began to be supplanted by more useful pursuits, but a musical obsession plunged Europe into a long Dark Ages. Entire schools of music were developed despite their lack of relevance to anything in the natural world whatsoever. Thankfully, as people become rational and scientific, of course, music naturally wanes in influence. Desperate performers may deny it but the eclipse of music is already upon us. I can only hope that one day, it will disappear altogether.
    An answer to critics
    If music is so pointless, why do so many people listen and perform?
    It’s a function of several things. First is the indoctrination as I have described above. Second, people are not born perfectly rational, but rather need to learn how to become mature and abandon their childish needs. We need to fix our school system to make sure bad influences like “music classes” are eliminated. Students should learn how to think for themselves and they will naturally abandon music.
    Proof of the Musical Delusion

    If you’re not convinced yet, here’s a magic trick that will show you exactly where you have erred.

    Sing the following notes on a musical scale:


    Now sing these eight syllables in monotone:


    Does the first sound like “music” to you and the second “non-musical”? This is the result of your indoctrination. In fact, in the world of science there is no difference between these two lines. They convey exactly eight syllables of information.

    Here’s the $100,000 challenge to the Musicals: Prove to me that the first string of letters requires more visual information to convey than the second.

    If you can’t prove it, you must accept the logical conclusion: what you call “music” is in fact meaningless!

    You may be in a state of shock right now, but don’t worry. With less time wasted on music, you can pursue more rational forms of human inquiry, such as science. Without music your life will really be in your own hands.

    Some have asked me to prove that music does not have meaning. In fact, the burden of proof is on you. I reply with this: Imagine that if you tune your radio to 11.975 megahertz, you will eventually hear in the white noise the words “I’m a little teapot.” While it’s theoretically possible that the white noise at 11.975MHz could convey some information not found elsewhere, it’s highly unlikely. Just like the meaning of music.
    On the label “amusical”

    The English language requires me to call myself “amusical”, but I think such a term is unnecessary. Would you call yourself “a-leprechan-ous”, or “a-Santa-ist”? No, because it’s clear that these things are fairy tales. Well, music is a fairy tale for adults. We should call people who listen to it “ear-slaves”, or better yet, “sheeple”.

  22. Why are some of you so convinced that happiness and knowledge can’t go together? If you’re all so into “scientific truth,” wouldn’t you have to say you have no opinion on it? You can do lots of things in a lab, but you can never prove there is no God there. To me, this is as strange as the people who think God and evolution can’t go together.

    And I agree that maybe people on drugs don’t see “God,” but a) if I haven’t tried it, why do I need an opinion on it, if it does no harm? and b) if I tried it and didn’t see God, that wouldn’t prove anything either. There are many experiences that can change us permanently (often the painful ones most). We have the power to reflect on them and try to understand their meaning over time. Whereas, if nothing ever happened to us, we would just know less, right? Or even be less?

    And if you don’t want to be an atheist, then stop. No one’s making you. Saying to yourself that maybe, just maybe, I will leave a little window open in my mind to the *possibility* that there is more than what I can see with my eyes is not going to turn you into one of those guys yelling on street corners.

  23. In my view Anomalous and NCG, as well as some earlier commenters, make compelling points.

    The psilocybin experience has been demonstrated to be safe.

    Set and setting have a significant impact on the kind of experience.

    Many people have taken it who are demonstrably as competent in their lives as others regarded as competent.

    Those who report deeply positive experiences will doubtless say that world cannot really capture it. Certainly that was the case with me.

    So for those who haven’t taken psilocybin but have strong views on the experience’s illusory value – either take it and then have some basis for people taking your views seriously, or stick to issues where you have some basis to know what you are talking about. Otherwise you look a lot like the theologians who knew Galileo was wrong and refused to look through his telescope.

  24. Sorry, Gus, but it won’t work. My hypothesis is that taking psilocybin would make me intellectually worse while giving me a strong conviction that I was intellectually better. As John Passmore has pointed out, philosophers are “fanatics” in the limited sense of having little patience towards poor arguments, contradictions, and the like. It sounds from all the descriptions I’ve read as if psilocybin makes people non-fanatical in *that* sense as well as all the others. And I don’t want that to happen to me.

    “Try it and see” is not a rational way of testing this hypothesis. Granted, nothing else is either–as is common with arguments involving the goodness or badness of religious states.

    If Galileo had promoted his telescope as mind-altering, as opposed to just vision enhancing, then the analogy would work.

  25. Am I the only confused by the “Ayn Rand and so forth” posting. I’m not at all sure what that has to with entheogens and the nature of reality.

    But, being a musician, I’ll point out that the solfege string “do re me fa sol la si do” and the string “do do do do do do do do” do in fact contain (and require) different packaging to transmit simply to transmit the pitch information. We haven’t opened the discussion to duration and amplitude (yet). The second string is easy: repeat pitch 8 times. The second is rather more complex. Let k be the (real-valued) 12th root of 2. The first string then translates: pitch, (k^2)*pitch, (k^4)*pitch, (k^5)*pitch, (k^7)*pitch, (k^9)*pitch, (k^11)*pitch, 2*pitch. (That’s 12-tone ET, change tuning systems and you have to change the constants.)

    Now, those strings don’t look any more similar than do the original solfege pitch strings. There is information there. No less an authority on the visual depiction of data than Edward Tufte has noted that music scores are information-dense visual representations of music. Which is one reason machines can produce musical notation with the appropriate markup language, but can’t sight read it worth a damn. Incidentally, a machine can do a decent job with solfege syllables (once do is specified), but have an easier time with the second specification.

  26. By the way, I mean “intellectually worse” not in the sense that I’d lack some practical competence that I now possess, but in the sense that I’d gain new beliefs that would be either false or, if construed in a way that places them beyond truth and falsity, experienced with a degree of subjective certainty that would amount to self-deception given the actual unknowability of the things believed. I’d fear becoming the loser in point of Socratic wisdom.

  27. I think our discussion may have reached the end of usefulness, but are you saying that the experience of looking through a telescope wouldn’t change someone’s perception of what is knowable?

    And what is the difference between a brain on mushrooms, and our brains on whatever chemicals are in our blood at a given time anyway? There was a poster on here a few days back talking about how the brain wires itself in certain ways, as we grow. I have no idea if it’s true, but it was thought-provoking. Physical experience is a huge part of how I “know” anything. I would posit we may all be “on” something all of the time. But I’m not a neuropsychiatrist, or what-all.

    And I don’t agree that “unknowable” = false.

    But I also don’t think that not taking drugs means you are living a lesser life. You can think all kinds of interesting things without them, I’m sure.

  28. Andrew, it looks like you’re still making a category error between propositional beliefs about the universe, which beliefs are either true or false; and ways of experiencing or understanding the universe that are not propositional. You say you have a concern that you’d “gain new beliefs that would be… if construed in a way that places them beyond truth and falsity, experienced with a degree of subjective certainty that would amount to self-deception given the actual unknowability of the things believed.” But by the nature of ways of understanding that are “beyond truth and falsity,” they do not partake of knowability or unknowability – to use those terms brings those ways of understanding back into the truth/falsity question. So your last comment is not actually internally coherent – it says that beliefs that are beyond truth and falsity are false.

    I think “beliefs” is a confusingly loaded word here – it connotes propositions that are true or false. “Ways of understanding” is a better concept for this. To look at it from another angle, think of a scientist who’s brainstorming to come up with a new theory. He/she can make a list of possible theories from first principles, and test each theory to see if seems to be true or false. Or he/she can, say, go to a concert and not focus his/her thoughts on the problem at hand, but rather be moved by the music and forget himself/herself. The second approach often results in valid new ideas abruptly surfacing, even though those ideas were not arrived at analytically. I think you would be mistaken in saying the second approach, the second way of understanding, is “non-Enlightenment thinking.”

    To put it a perhaps less generous way, you sound like the Square (I believe it is) in Flatland – if I cannot show you the 3rd dimension using only your 2 dimensional perceptions, then clearly the 3rd dimension is nonsense. The way you’re defining “true understanding” begs the question and rules out the ability to discuss this.

    I believe this is what Ayn Rand and The Methods Of Being Less Wrong is, successfully, getting at above: The concepts of “truth” or “falsity,” and propositional statements simply do not cover everything important in human experience, knowledge, or understanding.

  29. @ NCG

    Or someone deep into the foundations of mathematics, someone who has read Russel and Whitehead’s Principia Mathematica. No, wait, that’s what’s getting us into this briar patch.

    @ freight train

    If that’s what Ayn Rand was getting at, she didn’t succeed at all. Unless perhaps dancing about architecture is about motorcycle maintenance.

  30. Sorry, that was about the commenter above who goes by the name “Ayn Rand and the Methods of Being Less Wrong.” Not a statement about the actual Ayn Rand.

  31. I experimented heavily with psilocybin when I was very young. I was of a very ‘spiritual’ persuasion at that time. I ‘knew’ the shrooms were a door to revealed mysteries, profound secrets, true happiness. And in a way they were! At least, if you asked me at the time, I would have said that I achieved all three through the shrooms. But as the years went on and I reconsidered what I really, really achieved, my views changed completely. The experiences were valuable in ways, I still think. For one, it showed me that my perception and mood could be dramatically affected by chemicals. The only time in my whole life I cried for joy was on shrooms. I had a phenomenologically complete ‘near death experience’ – complete with tunnels, geometry, beings, oneness with the universe. I’m still impressed with the closed-eyes visions. Amazing. Flights over jungles. Giant buildings. Impossibly intricate, impossibly colored dynamic fractals. At the time they all seemed so alive with meaning, so profound. But they didn’t really mean anything, I don’t think. To me, at this point, I think of my psilocybin adventures the same way as, for instance, my white-water rafting adventures. Fun, sometimes terrifying, but not really providing me with any special insight or knowledge. I think Terrence McKenna

  32. @freight train–I agree with you about Ayn Rand and the Methods of Being Less Wrong’s comment. That’s what I got from it too–quite clever, I thought.

    A sort of meta-point about propositional truths: We do indeed obtain some propositional truths about the nature of the human brain from psilocybin, LSD, and mystical practices generally–i.e., the brain is capable of all sorts of stuff that we would normally not know about (e.g., visualizing “impossibly intricate, impossibly colored dynamic fractals,” feeling at one with the universe). We can argue forever about whether any of them contribute to human well-being, but it’s a fact that they’re capacities of the human brain we don’t ordinarily have access to. Which raises the question, why do our brains have these abilities? That’s certainly worth pondering.

  33. @Andrew – you didn’t seem to read me very closely.

    I said try it and see OR stop attacking those who do in the absence of evidence they become less competent in living their lives or that it is physically harmful. Those of us who have tried it usually say that the experience is beyond words to fully express – and clearly the words people write down in the midst of the experience do not impress anyone, including the authors, afterwards. I can say that speaking as an artist ( I paid for my PhD as the “starving academic who did art for a living” ) I saw colors (plural) that I could not then or now place on a spectrum. I found and still find that impressive. What does it mean? Damned if I know.

    There have been any number of experiments and tests of psilocybin and to the best of my knowledge all conclude what users also say: the experience is fleeting, but in many cases it gets people interested in spirituality. Sometimes that fades, sometimes it doesn’t. But even many commenters on this thread who believe it did not profoundly impact them in a lasting way say they found the experience valuable. Given you have no experiential basis for your views why should anyone take them as amounting to more than a personal opinion perhaps based on fear? You essentially grant the point in some of your subsequent comments. Fear of the unknown is not usually regarded as a good basis for making broad philosophical statements about much of anything.

    Your role model Socrates, by the way, was inspired by what the Delphic oracle told a friend about him, listened to voices for making major decisions, decisions that in many ways founded Western philosophy, and in the Phaedrus even channeled a spirit. Maybe you’d better pick a different person as your mentor for wisdom? Perhaps Ayn Rand, since she pops up here so often like a persistent pimple on the face of knowledge.

  34. As for “stronger and healthier,” I’m not sure I buy the analogy. It seems to me that taking shrooms has similar effects to those of an exercise program that makes people look and feel stronger without necessarily being stronger.

    Andy, this is a bad analogy. A exercise program primarily is supposed to affect physical health. As such, whether it makes us feel stronger is largely irrelevant to its purpose. (I hedge, because neither of those statements is entirely true.) Using psilocybin as described in the study is almost entirely about mental health. The funny thing about mental health is that it’s all in your head. In many cases, feeling stronger in and of itself means that you are stronger. It’s not a panacea, but it definitely helps.

  35. I’ve never been a spiritual person, but my handful of mushroom experiences are among the most valued of my life (even the “bad” trips).

    As another commenter described above, I felt like mushrooms temporarily disabled a “filter” on my perception that works constantly to categorize and contain sensory input. Every single signal is experienced directly within the moment on a shroom trip, a profoundly different mode of operation from everyday life. It really gave me a whole new appreciation for exactly how much our experience and intelligence depends upon brain functions which are completely beyond our control. By experiencing what happened when the cognitive filter on my perception was removed, I felt like I really had a new understanding of exactly what that filter is and how it shapes us.

    So no, I didn’t see God or even any “spiritual truth” — but I did feel like I gained a new appreciation of the intricate process involved in transferring sensory input to human experience, and how such a process builds constructs like the ego.

  36. “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”

    Wrongly? The double-helix structure of DNA was first visualized under the influence of LSD, as was the mechanism of the PCR chain reaction that led to the genetics age. Lots of mathematicians have made breakthroughs in their thinking as a result of psychedelic use, reporting an expanded capacity to “connect the dots” while under the influence. There was nothing “wrong” about these just because they were accomplished under the influence of a psychedelic. The mechanism of the drug’s action provides the answer for why these things happened… ultimately, these drugs permit the mind access to usually disparate information, expand the function of “short term memory” and allow connections to be made that were not possible before (through the mechanism of non-contingent release of glutamate, which essentially causes heightened and extended transmission of signals among neurons, overlaid with what might be likened to “reverb” if you will permit an audiological analogy). These are not “true” hallucinations, but “pseudo-hallucinations”–that is, they arise from an enhancement of normal activity, not an imposition of abnormal activity (at least, until high dosage levels are reached.) If you take these drugs, at a reasonably low dosage level, with the intent to reach the “next stage” in your understanding of some complex idea, such as a mathematical proof, which you have studied in its many parts and have a reasonable grasp of, but for which you just can’t seem to “get all the pieces to fit together at once in your mind,” you are very likely to have success. Of course, if you suffer from magical thinking and a lack of good factual information, and have in mind the various pieces of a false cosmology, you may succeed in “fitting those pieces together” into an even larger, more ossified, false understanding of the world… many of these people, if they keep experimenting, will find that as they accrete more and more information, their false cosmology crumbles under the weight of new information. But it is wrong to suggest that everything experienced under the influence of a psychedelic is somehow, perforce, “delusional.” These drugs can only enhance the representation of, and access to, what is already in your mind. Garbage in, garbage out, as they say.

    As for the rest, whether you imagine yourself part of a larger collective consciousness or not is really beside the point. People end up more amenable to life in general after such experiences simply because the experience allows them to “run through” all the permutations of their current thought patterns, and most people come out the other side with a better-integrated view of the world, or at least of their thought-processes’ relations to it. Typically, this includes the rejection of what are realized to be non-productive or incompatible ideas, such as ideas about having bad luck, worries about things the subjects have no control over, etc. This is on top of the effects of enhanced oxytocin levels during the experience, which produce feelings of empathy and “connectedness.” Essentially, assuming you “go down the right path” in your thinking (don’t have a “bad trip”), you come out the other side more “chilled out” and not as oppressed with the perceived complexities of life. Life goes on, que sera, sera, and all that. Also, “Gee isn’t it neat what the mind is capable of if you give it the right stimulus. Wow, man, just wow!” is very often enough to put one’s life into perspective and make it more interesting and worthwhile going about, even if you still have a lot to learn. Yes, people who come out the other side with even more grandiosely magical concepts of the world need to be smacked and sent back when they’re more educated and ready to take another step forward in their thinking, but that step isn’t doomed to be a wrong one because the drug perforce imposes or creates delusional thought patterns… that simply isn’t how these pharmacological agents work. Your use of the word “wrongly” is evidence that you have a deluded concept of what is going on in the brains of these subjects, because you take their self-expressions of their delusional worldviews as proof that the drugs somehow imparted these views upon them. That is quite simply incorrect… these folks may be deluded, but their thinking is less disordered than it was before. The world “makes more sense” to them, even though they may still be wrong. But the drug didn’t make them *more* wrong. In most cases, it moved them *closer* to a functional, practical (if still ill-informed) worldview than they were before. People with a better grasp of reality are likely to benefit in quite different ways, which reflects their relative sophistication. Don’t knock it ’til you try it, in other words.

  37. Andrew, frankly you’ve already philosophically and cognitively disallowed yourself from finding any truth at all from the looks of it.

    You’re trying to take the study outside of the context it was carried out in and place it in your own self-involved sense of truth, which is not the point of the study. While science does philosophically attempt to tease facts out of truth, it philosophically is always open to a larger picture of things. Philosophy on the other hand does hope to rip the heart of truth right out of the facts. This study is not doing this, nor is it intending to, nor should it. How can you illogically assume that a single study on psilocybin mushrooms will prove that there is an inherent truth about the experience of them?

    NCG is totally correct in pointing out that it is impossible to assume that the chemicals already in each of our brains isn’t affecting our sense of truth. Everyone has a slightly different balance of various neurotransmitters and these things affect our emotional and cognitive processing quite a bit, even without external input. Not to mention that some of these are chemically related to psilocybin and that DMT, a chemical both chemically related and with similar effects to psilocybin, has been measured in the bloodstreams of normal people sans any external chemical intake. To even assume that any particular balance of chemicals is more or less truthful or truth-prone (especially without knowing about other possibilities) is a philosophical crapshoot. It’s totally arbitrary.

    If you are thinking that the standard human brain is the ideal medium for discovering ultimate truth, then you are sadly mistaken. There is no standard configuration for such a complex and organic mechanism that grows and changes based on its experience and environment. Not to mention that there are other beings on this planet (dolphins, whales) that have bigger brains than us and are most likely much more intelligent.

    I’m glad that you’re an expert on these kinds of things, but most of all I’m glad I’m not you.

  38. Andrew, you express (very rational and sane) misgivings about the possible intellectual damage one might suffer by taking psilocybin. I don’t disagree that this risk exists (having personally had interesting experiences like trying to spare a philosophy student from having to endure the “philosophical” musings of a mushroomhead at a rave). However, I’d like to raise the question if you have any basis for claiming there to be much more of this sort of risk from taking psilocybin than there is from, say, debating on the internet. As a simple example that this risk is real, I’m going to close this window after making this post, feeling smug that I’ve somehow added some insight to this debate, and maybe even believe myself to be pretty smart to have done so (and I don’t doubt that others here have done the same). Of course, my post might be entirely trite, or complete horseshit, but I’ll probably still want to tell a friend or two about it in order to show off how clever I am.

    You seem to have decided that the intellectual risk invovled in debating on the internet to be an acceptable risk (having initiated such a debate yourself), so in order for the risk posed by psilocybin to be unacceptable, I suppose that it should be different in some way.

    (Also, this shouldn’t be taken as a criticism of this debate which, frankly, is one of the better ones I’ve seen online)

  39. Though not on point of the dispute between Andrew and Mark, it’s worth noting the great amount of art which (according to its creators) was provoked by the psychedelic experience. Some of it is exquisite. In particular, my personal vote for the greatest English-language novel of the twentieth century would go to Ken Kesey’s Sometimes A Great Notion.

    And this is, perhaps, on point: Given that the purely psychedelic experience and the purely spiritual experience are often quite similar, but that the purported cause of the former is physical and the second is not, it may well be that the long-term effect of spiritual experiences initiated by psychedelics is a continual weakening of the belief that purely spiritual experiences have non-material causes. More bluntly, that it isn’t a spiritual experience at all, but a physical one. As an atheist and a materialist, I believe that counts as progress.

  40. C: “These drugs can only enhance the representation of, and access to, what is already in your mind.”

    Or via Homer Simpson on a psychedelically-hot pepper, talking to a coyote:

    Coyote: [voiceover] Find your soulmate, Homer. Find your soulmate.
    Homer: Where? Where?
    Coyote: This is just your memory. I can’t give you any new information

  41. I misspoke–“non-contingent” should be “asynchronous.” Signal to noise ratio goes down in both cases, but in the former it would imply an increase in noise only, due to non-contingent activity. The latter implies a rise in both signal and noise, and is contingent upon the signal. Mea culpa.

    Steve: Exactly. ;]

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