Psychedelics : Appendix
The Case Against the Spirit Model of Psychedelic Action
Shamanism is about transformation, and the shaman must build models in which to produce transformational results. Traditionally the shaman has used the Spirit Model of Psychedelic Action which proposes that psychedelics work by allowing the brain access to a spirit dimension where information can be passed and received. There will always be entheogen users who adopt the spirit model for personal reasons, but others may not find any use in traditional spirit models. Any rational examination of shamanic power must accept the limitations of spirit models which fall short of meeting modern cultural expectations. The spirit world model of psychedelic action is not only inaccurate, it is also potentially dangerous when applied to modern society. Here is the best case against adopting the spirit model of psychedelic action.
The Rational Argument
Psychedelics are hallucinogenic drugs, which by definition means they make you see things that aren’t real. Some hallucinations, particularly those that are spiritual in nature, feel very real. But the same drug that can make you see spirits can make you see demons, memories, mandalas, mundane scenes from everyday life, an so on. No matter how real or bizarre or lifelike or spiritual the experience, it all fades away when the drug wears off. The pocket universe in your mind folds back into 3D space and the dream is over. To believe the dream is real is missing a very essential point of the entire hallucinogenic experience.
Psychedelics are about the self; they are a form of self-exploration. You get out of the experience what you put into the experience. If you have a spiritual experience it is because you are a spiritual person or at a spiritual place in your thinking; if you have a bad experience it is because you are at a bad place in your life or are being destructive or negative in your thinking. You would not blame the gods for a bad trip, or even a mediocre trip with no mystical fireworks, so why would you give them credit for the good ones? In other words, you are not an empty vessel passively receiving the mystical experience; you are the biological organism producing it. Take credit for your own visions.
Simply because you heard voices or saw gods or met elves does not mean that the experience has any deeper meaning beyond your own imagination. It is much easier to prove the case for delusional psychosis than it is to invoke an entire spirit world to explain your personal insights, so why make the spirit leap just because it felt real at the time. Dreams also feel real, but we dismiss them because they are often nonsensical and fade when we wake up. We should have the same kind of removed perspective for our waking psychedelic dreams. Use the content of the experience to see what it tells you about yourself, but don’t blindly believe everything you see as real.
The Physical Argument
The human brain perceives reality on a very narrow spectrum of visible light and audible sound waves; this is how external information enters into waking thought. The human brain is a biological device, and in order to see something there must be electrochemical stimulation in the visual cortex. If you are making the case for spirit beings or invisible landscapes that can only be seen under the influence of psychedelics, you are making a case for the human brain having a secret radio that can detect spirit energy that no other camera, spectrometer, or energy-sensor can perceive. While this is an interesting argument, it makes no sense. If there is a spirit energy out there that the human brain can perceive, other more sensitive devices should be able to perceive this energy as well. If the spirit world exists where is the spirit world camera? None exist. Invoking the clause of “only I can see it (when I’m on drugs)” makes the claims all the more far-fetched, and when you ascribe spirit power to a chemical that naturally bonds to receptors in your visual cortex, it demonstrates a fundamental misunderstanding of how neurochemical stimulation results in direct perception. The visions are the result of the molecule interacting with activity within your brain, not spirits emitting external waves on a higher-dimensional frequency that only you can perceive (on drugs).
If there are autonomous spirits and a spirit world that the human mind can perceive, then these spirit formations must be made out of something. In order to morph and become solid and reflect light and create sound vibrations that the retina or cortex or neural network can perceive, these entities have to have some substrate in which to exist. Without resorting to alternate dimensions or quantum space or dark matter, the average spiritual psychedelic enthusiast has no idea what the spirit world is made of, other than invisible energy fields. In order to perceive invisible energy fields there must be some emanation or gateway to information stored in those dimensions, and there is no physical fingerprint for those emanations other than the activity of neurons in a brain. Neurons fire in the brain all the time, and the brain creates artificial realities naturally while dreaming. There is no need to invoke alternate dimensions or invisible energy to explain these phenomena.
The Psychosis Argument
While there has been no satisfactory objective proof demonstrating that a spirit world exists, there has been an abundance of proof demonstrating that psychosis exists, and that the human mind is perfectly capable of fabricating detailed alternate realities without the aid of drugs or spirits. There have been many models of psychosis offered, including the dopamine model of psychosis, the cholinergic model of mediating waking/dreaming states, and the Ketamine/NMDA model of schizophrenia. Hallucinations, mystical experience, and delusions of grandeur are par for the course with psychosis, as is paranoia and irrational belief, yet many people who use psychedelics spiritually or recreationally are not fond of using the term acute psychosis to describe the effects, though this description clearly fits in high dose cases.
While psychedelics may lead some people into insights and expanded consciousness, they may also lead others to irrational behavior and the degradation of reason. In very simple terms, there is a psychedelic use threshold that eventually leads to some eccentricity or mental irrationality in the user. It is unknown what this precise threshold is, and it is likely very different for every person, but chronic use of high-dose psychedelics can either exacerbate existing psychotic tendencies or potentially lead to other forms of mental irrationality. If the destabilizing effects of psychedelics become chronic over time and begin to negatively affect personality and behavior, the promise of spiritual enlightenment may lead to chronic persisting delusional psychosis.
The Validation Argument
If we are to throw out all the arguments posed so far and concede for a moment that psychedelics offer some access to the wisdom of the spirits, there are still a few problems. In order to prove the autonomy of the spirits encountered on a psychedelic trip, various tests have been proposed to see if new information can be gleaned in the spirit dimension. According to traditional lore, shamen are able to use psychedelics to diagnose and cure disease, divine the use of plants, find missing objects, and perhaps even see the future. These all seem like very supernatural things when posed in a shamanic context, but if you take into account that human beings do all of those things naturally, all the time, without the aid of psychedelic drugs, then you can see how flimsy the whole spirit-knowledge argument becomes. There are a few famous reported cases of people making amazing discoveries with the aid of psychedelics, but the people who make these discoveries are brilliant to begin with. It would be one thing if history was filled with tales of Navaho medicine men finding the secret cure for smallpox, Mayan sorcerers finding the secret formula for gunpowder, Or Amazonian shamen finding the magical power to save the rainforests, but we know the opposite is true. When faced with real hard-world technology, the sacred wisdom offered by the psychedelic spirit realm shows its painful limitations.
If information is actually received from the spirit world during the psychedelic session, then it has become patently obvious that much of the information originating from the spirit world is not to be trusted. Even traditional shamen warn of trickery and deceit from the spirit realm, so what good is spirit data? One would assume that if you were to commune with actual spirits that they would not steer you wrong, but often they do. So what are we to make of their purpose, and why would we place such importance on their knowledge? Clinging to the spirit model forces one to adopt paradoxical conclusions, such as, “Spirit entities exist, but they confound and play tricks in order to make it impossible to objectively test their data.” As far-fetched as this statement seems, many people willingly swallow such logic if it allows them to retain belief in these entities. The other option, which is, “Perhaps I just imagined them,” seems overly simple in comparison; yet the simplest answer is usually the correct one.
The Dangerous Argument
If psychedelics are considered to be spiritual, and spiritual is good, then it should be good and spiritual to do as many psychedelics as we want. This may sound correct in theory, but it is hardly a guarantee in the real world. People who approach psychedelics with a spiritual attitude may be less likely to abuse them than people who take them recreationally, but others may cloak problematic abuse in spiritual terms to legitimize destructive behaviors. And even those who are spiritually rigorous and disciplined still run the risk of becoming occult, messianic, megalomaniacal, and obsessive about their entheogenic spiritual beliefs.
Spirituality and spiritual authority is inherently political. Adopting a shamanic spirit model gives the shaman political weight in the tribe. This goes for the shaman as well as all people in power who invoke God or spirits to back up their political beliefs. Invoking spirits gives legitimacy to the shaman’s decrees. It is easy to argue with a shaman, it is hard to argue with the spirits. The shaman is the tribe’s mediator to the spirit world, the shaman has the power to entrance the tribe and produce spirit visions. Control over mythology gives the shaman control over morality, judgment, and behavior. A rogue shaman can have tribe members of lesser intelligence all thinking and believing whatever he tells them, and thus he becomes like a guru or a living god. This is as true today as it was a thousand years ago.
Psychedelics were introduced to modern culture as spiritual sacraments. This is understandable, but in hindsight it appears to be an ethnocentric error in judgment. Instead of recognizing this error and correcting the shamanic mythology to reflect traditional beliefs, Western culture ran with the error and integrated psychedelic ritual as a form of hedonistic liberation and New Age journey of discovery. Within this guise the acts of psychedelic intoxication and self-indulgent revelry became synonymous with spirituality, and many ad-hoc mythologies and subcultures have formed around the meme of psychedelic intoxication as a means of evolving spiritual consciousness. Psychedelic spirituality can take many forms, but the most offensive and dangerous equate psychedelic indulgence directly to spiritual or intellectual growth. The notion that people who take large doses of psychedelic drugs are more spiritually pure or evolved than those who don’t is elitist, narcissistic, and petty. This meme is almost wholly inaccurate and is also recklessly dangerous, yet it has persisted as common wisdom in the subculture for many decades. The spirit model of psychedelic action allows the meme of psychedelics as mystical short-cut or one-true-path to enlightenment to propagate without sufficient scrutiny of the long-term results of this practice.
What to Believe about Psychedelics
While the case against the spirit model of psychedelic action is strong, there are many who still hold out the hope or belief that the spirit model is a viable theory. Weighing the evidence, the most probable theory is that subjects who have spiritual experiences on psychedelics have awakened a previously unknown spiritual aspect within themselves; all evidence points inward, not outward. The content of any psychedelic trip is typically the result of the context in which the substance is ingested; the spiritual or entheogenic trip is merely one of many possible results. Within the proper sacred ritual and setting, the ingestion of a psychedelic can result in a bona-fide mystical experience; this is something that should be emphasized strongly. A subject on psychedelics may hear voices; see spirits and disincarnate entities; feel the presence of God or Gaia or the other; or perhaps have an astral journey where they leave their body and travel through time, to alternate dimensions, or across the barrier of life and death into the spirit world. These are all what we would expect from any solid mystical experience, and it is true that psychedelics can deliver these experiences with far greater ease than any other technique known to humans. We should always remember that this subjective aspect of psychedelic spirituality is truth.
Since the entheogenic trip can be very sacred and awe-inspiring, it seems logical that any information revealed within the trip should be considered divine or spiritual in origin. And yet, when spirit information is revealed it is often vague or like a riddle, or perhaps it seemed important at the time but is in fact quite mundane, or is fascinating or meaningful only to the subject who received the epiphany, or is flat obvious or absurd in hindsight. This muddled-message syndrome can leave the subject feeling depressed and isolated for days after any mystical psychedelic experience. Like an alien abduction, the experience is so unsettling that people may feel unable to talk about their experiences without making friends and loved-ones worry about their sanity. It can be elating and devastating at the same instant, so how does one integrate such experiences back into the mundane doings of hard reality? How does one decide what to believe about psychedelics?
When the process of integrating psychedelic belief turns outward it leads to art and music and mythology where the psychedelic experience is translated into a set of symbolic archetypes that can be shared with others. This ongoing process of turning entheogenic experience into shared cultural form serves to strengthen and enlarge what we think of as the psychedelic landscape; a landscape that keeps expanding to match the capacity of our human imaginations. Where there was once only plant-spirits, jaguars, snakes, icaros and santitios, now there are machine elves, hyperspatial aliens, wicked jesters, trance music, robot doctors, and even the Beatles, Jesus, Mary, Buddha, Yahweh, and all the old-world Indo-European deities along for the ride. Hence, the spirit world is not a fixed space, it is an epiphenomenon of our own cultural imagination which grows and shrinks in proportion with our own subjective cultural awareness. The psychedelic space is not an autonomous spirit realm; it is an immediate transpersonal reflection of who we are as individuals and as members of the human species.
Citation: Kent, James L. Psychedelic Information Theory: Shamanism in the Age of Reason, Appendix, 'The Case Against the Spirit Model of Psychedelic Action'. PIT Press, Seattle, 2010.
Copyright: © James L. Kent, 2010. Some Rights Reserved. Please read copyright information before reproducing.