Mixed feelings about psychedelic science


The attached article is a perfect example of why I have mixed feelings about all the excitement around the scientific approach to integrating psychedelic experience into our civilization.  Let’s begin with the title: “Psychedelic Drugs Really Do Lead to a Higher State of Consciousness.” Yes, it is satisfying to see that fact affirmed. However, did we really need the experiment reported in the article to tell us that? Not if we have experienced psychedelics for ourselves. But experiencing something directly yourself is not “scientific” according to the modern, science-worshipping view of what science is. It is mere anecdotal evidence.

The scientific method grew out of a period when thinkers began to follow the empirical principle: try it and find out for yourself, instead of accepting whatever The Philosopher (Aristotle) said about it. Our modern version of quoting The Philosopher is citing what “the science” says and being dazzled by numbers and jargon. Replacing “Try it and find out for yourself,” the new principle is “It is real only if it can be measured.” From the attached article: “The scans looked for tiny magnetic fields produced in subjects’ brains to measure neural signal diversity, or the complexity of brain activity.” We go immediately from something apparently value-neutral and relatively uninterpreted (“tiny magnetic fields”) to something implying interpretation (“neural signal diversity”). A signal is something that is meant to convey some meaning to somebody. But these scientists strain to appear to be doing nothing more than measuring something without saying whether that something is a good thing or not.

Fancy titles and institutional affiliation help lend an aura of authority, too. Well, who am I to talk? After all, I am Janitor and President of the Institute for the Advancement of Psychedelic Christianity. Anil Seth, co-director of the Sackler Centre for Consciousness Science at the University of Essex is quoted in the write up as saying, “Since this measure has already shown its value as a measure of ‘conscious level,’ we can say that the psychedelic state appears as a higher ‘level’ of consciousness than normal—but only with respect to this specific mathematical measure.” If we already have what really are signals, and not just “signals”, whatever those might be, we already have a mind doing the signaling. Do any of us consciously send signals to the scientists to show how stoned or unstoned we are by producing tiny magnetic fields in our brains? Are we to say it is our subconscious minds doing it? I feel sure the working assumption here is that the mind is nothing more than the brain, and it is that assumption that I believe to be false, since what it is like to be the subject of an experience is not an object or process that can be described from an impersonal, third-person point of view. If we consider the field of consciousness and the brain of a particular person, to claim that the field of consciousness is nothing more than the processes going on in his or her brain is to claim that the field of consciousness is nothing more than a part of itself. A person’s brain, whether one’s own or someone else’s, to the extent that it is an object of consciousness at all, is always a circumscribed portion of one’s own field of consciousness.

There is always something going on in the brain of a living human being, and it is not surprising that there will be correlations to be discovered between observable brain processes and reports of experiences by the person whose brain it is. The question is whether discovering these correlations help us understand more about what we care about. Robin Cahart-Harris, head of psychedelic research at Imperial College London, is quoted as saying, “People often say they experience insight under these drugs—and when this occurs in a therapeutic context, it can predict positive outcomes. The present findings may help us understand how this can happen.” I have several questions and comments:

1) Why the qualifying clause, “when this occurs in a therapeutic context”? Is an insight that occurs outside a therapeutic context automatically suspect or less valuable? And what counts as a therapeutic context? Does putting a subject into an MRI machine or using some other apparatus to detect the magnetic fields inside his or her brain enhance a therapeutic context, or does it detract from it?

2) If someone says they have experienced an insight, then unless they are lying or mistaken, this is a positive outcome. It is not just a predictor of a positive outcome.

3) The suggestion that “the present findings may help us to understand how this can happen,” i.e., how someone can have an insight as a result of psychedelic experience, is just another one of those promises we hear about the wonders neuroscience is likely to bring in the future. The present findings themselves are nothing more than a stamp of “scientific” approval on what we already know.

I think this scientific approach to psychedelics is intended to make it more respectable to take psychedelics. And it may do that. I am no expert on how to make things respectable. But if it does, and if it comes at the price of hiding the fundamentally religious nature of psychedelic experience, it isn’t worth it. Studying religion, philosophy, art, music, or literature in the light of one’s own psychedelic experience are more likely to lead towards wisdom than is studying someone else’s psychedelic experience by aping the methods of the physical sciences. This is not to say that science itself is not worth pursuing. I will be happy if neuroscience discovers some cures for neurological diseases. But neuroscientists shouldn’t think they know any more about consciousness itself than anybody else.


Scientific and Religious Authorities

Under what circumstances and to what degree is it wise to rely on scientific and religious authorities?

(This is an excerpt from Psychedelic Christianity.)

Psychedelic Christianity is based on the empirical principle: try it and find out for yourself. It is a distortion of empiricism to think of it as belief in only what can be confirmed by what appears to the senses, or else we must expand our concept of “the senses.” If I feel joy, for example, is that something I know through sense experience? Out of all the people I know about, I know which one I am. Is that something I know through sense experience? Whose sense experience? Empiricists prefer belief in what is experienced by oneself directly over belief based on someone else’s claim to authority. Ironically, all too often people who think of themselves as believers in science betray empiricism by accepting unquestioningly the pronouncements of authority figures who claim to speak for science. If we are to accept a claim as based on scientific research, we must understand the claim and at least something about the research. Of course, we don’t always have the time or desire to look into it for ourselves, and so we accept the word of someone whom we regard as an honest expert. But we at least have to do a little thinking about whether there are other credible experts who disagree and about criteria for deciding who is more likely to be reliable. Otherwise, our acceptance of a supposed authority’s claim is worthless.

Similar considerations apply to supposed religious authorities. Psychedelic Christianity is not an appeal to the Bible as “the inerrant word of God.” The appeal is always and only to what rings true in the light of one’s own experience. This doesn’t mean that we should never rely on authorities or that we shouldn’t regard the Bible as authoritative. It just means that there is no escaping the fact that one has a choice as to whether or not to believe a particular source is a reliable authority; that when one does rely on an authority, one can only really do that by understanding what the authority says as it applies to one’s own experience; and that accepting that a person is an authority doesn’t necessarily imply that everything he or she says is correct.

God and the Paranormal

I presented this paper on God and the paranormal as a guest lecturer in Dr. Bruce Solheim’s Paranormal Personal History class at Citrus College, Glendora, California, on Tuesday, Oct. 23, 2018.

God and the Paranormal

When Bruce asked me to give a guest lecture for this class, I asked him what he would like for me to talk about. He suggested “God and the Paranormal.” I replied, “Good idea! If God isn’t paranormal, who or what is?” But what does “paranormal” mean, anyway? Philosophical questions are rarely, if ever, answered simply by looking up a word in a dictionary, but it is a place to begin. Here is the definition from Webster’s New World Collegiate Dictionary:

paranormal designating or of psychic or mental phenomena outside the range of the normal

I don’t know about you, but I’m not wildly enthusiastic about that way of defining it, since I don’t think we have a clear, uncontroversial conception of what is outside the range of the normal for purposes of this definition. For example, presumably the mental phenomena experienced by someone suffering from Alzheimer’s disease are outside the range of the normal, but I don’t think we would usually use the word “paranormal” to describe them.

Google Dictionary has the following:

paranormal denoting events or phenomena such as telekinesis or clairvoyance that are beyond the scope of normal scientific understanding

This definition is an improvement because it includes some helpful examples of what the term was coined to designate. And I won’t deny we need some idea of what is normal if we’re going to know what is para- or beyond normal. But this definition raises the question whether there might be some kind of non-normal scientific understanding and, if so, how it would relate to normal scientific understanding. For example, what about the psychic effects of ingesting a psychedelic substance such as LSD? Are they beyond the scope of normal scientific understanding, or not?

Cambridge Dictionary (online) gives us this:

paranormal impossible to explain by known natural forces or by science

I like this one the best because it doesn’t rely on knowing already what is “normal science” or what is inside or outside the “range of the normal.” Here is something to consider about this definition, though. Since “paranormal” is defined as “impossible to explain by known natural forces or by science,” we might ask: known by whom? Will what is paranormal be relative to each individual’s knowledge of natural forces or science? If so, one might think that the more ignorant a person is, the more things will be paranormal for him or her. Or, do we say that what we mean by the “known” in “impossible to explain by known natural forces or by science” is “known by scientific experts,” i.e., by those who know the most about natural forces? In that case, something that a less educated person about science would count as paranormal might be explainable in terms of natural forces by a more educated person about science, so that it wouldn’t really be paranormal after all. Furthermore, it could happen that something that was impossible to explain by the most well-informed scientific experts of an earlier era might have become explainable by experts of a later one.

Here is another thing to consider. Think of the examples of the miracles attributed to Jesus in the Gospels. Being able to do something of a certain sort indicates possession of effective knowledge of that sort of thing, doesn’t it? If Jesus was able to perform miracles, then he must have known how to perform miracles. So, even though those miracles seem paranormal to those of us who don’t know how to do them, including, presumably, the most well-credentialed physical scientists, they weren’t really paranormal because they would have been possible for Jesus to explain, had he chosen to do so.

Someone might object, “Well, sometimes people are able to do something without being able to explain how they do it.” Yes, that’s true, but in the case of Jesus, whom his followers came to believe was the son of God at least partly on the basis of his ability to perform miracles, it doesn’t seem likely that he could just do it without really understanding how. It seems more likely that if he didn’t explain how he did it other than by saying that whoever had seen him had seen the Father, it wasn’t because he didn’t know how he did it, but rather because he thought that we wouldn’t be able to understand the explanation, or else possibly because he didn’t think the how of it was what mattered.

So, again, either the miracles performed by Jesus weren’t really paranormal after all, or else we have to say “paranormal” means “impossible to explain as a result of natural forces by the experts on natural forces, except for the one who knows the most of all about natural forces, i.e., the one with the power to create or change natural forces.” In other words, if only God can understand it, then it’s paranormal.

A different objection would come from those who don’t believe Jesus really performed those miracles, that either they were made up later by people who had other reasons for believing in Jesus and wanted to enhance his reputation by getting people to believe he could perform miracles, or else that there was really some sort of natural explanation for what seemed to be a miracle in each case. Lazarus wasn’t really dead, but in a coma, for example. Or, it was probably an exaggeration that there were five thousand, and members of the crowd were satisfied with just a crumb of bread and a tiny piece of fish — it seemed like a feast to them — because they were so excited by Jesus’ teachings. Or, in the cases of miraculous healings, the blindness or lameness was hysterical and healed by the emotional well-being generated by the attention paid to the blind or lame person by the charismatic center of the crowd’s attention.

“Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence” is a motto we are likely to hear when talking about miracles or the paranormal. So, here the question would be: does it count as extraordinary evidence that we have written records of multiple claims of Jesus performing miracles that have been preserved and handed down as sacred scriptures for 2000 years? Obviously, there will be disagreement about the answer to that question. So, we need to ask the general question: What would count as the kind of extraordinary evidence that should convince us that a miracle has taken place?

Before attempting to answer this question, let’s take a look at a dictionary definition of miracle. This is from Webster’s New World College Dictionary, 3rd edition, 1997, and I’m including the etymology, which I think is worth taking note of.

miracle OFr<L miraculum, a strange thing, in LL(Ec), miracle<mirari, to wonder at < mirus, wonderful < IE base *(s)mei-, to SMILE
1 an event or action that apparently contradicts known scientific laws and is hence thought to be due to supernatural causes, esp. to an act of God 2 a remarkable event or thing; a marvel 3 a wonderful example (a miracle of tact) 4 MIRACLE PLAY

In the “Guide to the Use of the Dictionary” at the front of the volume, the editors state that the order of senses in the definitions are usually in historical order, from the etymology (the sense or senses of a word before modern English times, through the original modern English sense to the most recent senses. They then admit that the exact historical development of a word is often obscure and that sometimes different meanings developed at about the same time. Now, for purposes of our discussion we aren’t interested in the fourth sense listed here, of a miracle play, which was a type of medieval religious dramas dealing with the lives of the saints. And I’m not particularly interested in sense 3, which seems to be the use of the word “miracle” as a bit of hyperbole, not to be taken literally. So, if we look at just senses 1 and 2, I think it is clear that sense 2 most closely reflects the etymology of the word. After all, in the etymology there is nothing about apparently contradicting known scientific laws, as in sense 1.

Here is one question we should ask: can something be remarkable, amazing, a marvel, mind-blowing (in the parlance of the 60s), and yet not be something that contradicts known scientific laws? I think it is clear that the answer is Yes. Aren’t there certain big moments in life, such as the moment one first discovers romantic love, or the moment one first sees one’s child, that are amazing, a marvel, and yet that don’t contradict known scientific laws? When we ask whether an event or action contradicts scientific laws, we are asking about how things are objectively, leaving aside anyone’s subjective, emotional feeling about it. When we ask whether something is amazing, wonderful, a marvel, something that makes us smile—a miracle in the original sense—we are asking precisely about someone’s subjective, emotional feeling about it.

Suppose a miracle in sense 1 occurs and is witnessed by a scientist who knows all about the scientific laws which are apparently contradicted by what he or she has just witnessed. For such a scientist, the event would probably be a miracle in both sense 1 and sense 2. He or she would know that it appears to contradict scientific laws and would also probably feel a sense of wonder, amazement, perhaps even dread about it. In contrast, I can imagine that there could be some non-scientist who observed the very same event—it might just be an arrow moving towards a certain number on a dial, for example—and would not be amazed or even all that interested. That event would not be a miracle in sense 2 for that non-scientist, even if told by the scientist that it was a miracle in sense 1. And for either a scientist or a non-scientist, I can imagine that an event—say the birth of a child or the successful recovery from a dangerous and life-saving surgery—could be a miracle in sense 2 but not in sense 1.

Now that we’ve differentiated between the subjective sense (sense 2) of miracle and the objective sense (sense 1), let’s see what light it sheds on our original question: What would count as the kind of extraordinary evidence that should convince us that a miracle has taken place? If we are asking about a miracle in sense 2, the answer would be simply the subjective feeling that something wonderful and amazing has just occurred. If we are asking about a miracle in sense 1, that subjective feeling of amazement may or may not be present. We would need whatever kind of evidence would be required to convince us that one or more scientific laws appear to have been contradicted by what just happened.

According to the eighteenth-century British philosopher, David Hume (1711-1776), the definition of miracle is exclusively that of a real and not just apparent violation of the laws of nature, and he claims to prove conclusively that we could have, at best, only a reason for believing that such a thing had appeared to happen, not that it had really happened.

He has a point, I think, at least about this: that when we use the word miracle in the objective sense (sense 1), we are saying more than that an event or action apparently contradicts known scientific laws. If it really is a miracle, then it really does contradict known scientific laws. For instance, we wouldn’t say that a trick performed by a magician was a miracle, even though it appeared to contradict known scientific laws. We might say that it appeared to be a miracle. So, a sense 1 miracle is something that really does contradict known scientific laws. Then we can ask if there really are any miracles in that sense of the word. That is what Hume does, and his is answer is No. I don’t think he is right, though, that this is the only meaning of miracle that is worthy of philosophical attention. And I don’t think he has proved the impossibility of a sense 1 miracle, as I will try to explain.

Hume argues as follows:

A law of nature holds without exception, so if an exception does occur, then it wasn’t really a law of nature after all. Since a miracle is, by definition, an exception to a law of nature, and a law of nature, by definition, holds without exception, a miracle is a contradiction in terms. Suppose someone reports to us an event which apparently conflicts with a law of nature. According to Hume, the only reason we could possibly have for believing such a report would be if we believed that that person’s trustworthiness was, in effect, itself a law of nature, that he or she always tells the truth and is never mistaken about anything, without exception. Then we would either have to abandon our belief that the reported event contradicted a law of nature or abandon our belief that the person’s trustworthiness was a law of nature. If we were more convinced of the person’s trustworthiness than we were that the event violated a law of nature, then we would believe that the event had actually happened, but that it was only an apparent miracle. Conversely, if we were not convinced of the person’s absolute trustworthiness, then, since what he or she reported appears to contradict a law of nature, we would believe that he or she was mistaken or lying. Either way, any subjective amazement would be irrelevant because we would still be assured that there is no possibility of a real miracle happening. [This argument in Hume’s own words is on the handout.]

If Hume’s reasoning is sound, it would show that if our only reason for believing in God is our belief in reports of miracles handed down in sacred scriptures, then we don’t really have a good reason for believing in God. Applying his argument to the reports of Jesus’s miracles in the Gospels, for example, we would have two alternatives: either 1) it is a law of nature that the writers of the Gospels infallibly told the truth, so that what they reported actually occurred but only appears to violate the laws of nature; or 2) what they reported really does contradict the laws of nature, didn’t actually happen, and we were wrong if we thought the Gospel writers were infallible truth-tellers. We would need a reason for preferring the first alternative, independent of believing already that God guarantees the truth of the Gospels, in order for the reports of Jesus’ miracles in the Gospels to count as evidence in favor of God’s existence. And it seems unlikely there would be such a reason to prefer the first alternative, since we know that even the best and brightest people at least sometimes lie or have mistaken beliefs, and it is pretty clear that the miracles reportedly performed by Jesus go way beyond what one would ordinarily expect to happen in the circumstances described, to such a degree that it isn’t a stretch to say that they are contradictions of laws of nature. People who have been dead for several days don’t naturally rise and walk out of their tombs upon being told to do so. Mixing dirt and spit and putting the resulting mud in the eyes of a blind person isn’t normally a cure for blindness. It isn’t a natural turn of events when a crowd of five thousand people can all be satisfactorily fed by a few fishes and loaves of bread. Normally, people can’t walk on the surface of a non-frozen lake.

But is Hume’s reasoning sound? The dictionary gives us a reason to doubt his premise that “miracle” just means a contradiction of one or more laws of nature, namely, that there is another sense of the word—and etymologically the original sense—according to which a miracle is something that is a cause for wonder and amazement, without regard to whether or not it contradicts a law of nature. But Hume if he were here, or a defender of Hume, could readily admit that there is this other sense and ask us to consider the soundness of his reasoning if we focus on the sense of the word according to which a miracle is something that at least apparently contradicts one or more laws of nature. The point of the argument is that this can never be anything more than an appearance, since a law of nature doesn’t allow for exceptions. Someone who doesn’t really understand the law of gravity, for example, might think that it is contradicted by the weightlessness of astronauts in the Space Station, whereas a scientifically educated person would know that their weightlessness is perfectly consistent with the law of gravity.

So, the question is: is it true that a law of nature, such as the law of gravity, would not be a law of nature after all if there were even one genuine, and not merely apparent, exception to it, as, for example, if a man really did walk, with no special equipment, across the surface of a non-frozen, water-filled lake, here on earth?

Suppose the following is true: God exists and is the creator and sustainer of the universe, so that what we discover and call the laws of nature are the predictable regularities he builds into the universe. He could change them any time he wants. Most of the time he doesn’t want to, because it would make it difficult for us to live and learn to love him as he loves us if the world were too unpredictable; but at certain times he suspends one or more laws temporarily. He does this in order to remind us of his existence. Then he restores the laws just as they were before. If all this is the case, would Hume be right to conclude that these laws of nature—the ones God suspended—were never really laws in the first place? Surely, it is more reasonable to think that this is one way in which a law of nature could have an exception, that is, that the creator of that law could suspend or change it and then reinstate it. [This view is expressed by Milton in the passage on the handout.]

The point is that Hume’s premise that a law of nature cannot have any exceptions and still be a law of nature depends on the assumption that either there is no God or that, if there is, He never temporarily suspends a law and then reinstates it. And it would be circular reasoning to think that an argument proves what it assumes to be true.

So, here is where we stand. If Hume’s argument is sound, it would show that if our only reason for believing in God is our belief in reports of miracles, then we don’t really have a good reason for believing in God. However, his argument is not sound unless either there is no God or, if God exists, He never performs miracles. We seem to be at a stalemate that leaves us unsure whether his argument is sound.

Can we get beyond this stalemate? One consideration that seems to tip the scales in Hume’s favor is the observation that it is a sound methodological principle in science to assume that there is a natural explanation, in terms of physical laws, for whatever one is trying to explain. Bringing in the acts of a supernatural being as part of the explanation means it is no longer a scientific explanation. Science is the pursuit of the kind of knowledge that gives us more predictive power, and to bring in the power of the deity in order to explain something is to admit that we don’t have predictive power concerning that thing.

But, I said “seems to tip the scales in Hume’s favor” because I believe we can give due weight to that methodological principle and still realize that science does not and cannot give us the whole truth about reality. The reason is that another methodological principle of science is to omit any emotional or otherwise subjective considerations from its account of things. A scientific description is an impersonal one, as if from no particular point of view, or from an all-seeing God’s-eye point of view. And yet each of us experiences the world from a subjective, first-person point of view. When we are pursuing science or trying to act justly, we can and should put aside our personal biases and try to imagine the situation from the perspective of an ideal, impartial observer. But that we each have a subjective, first-person perspective is just as factual, just as much a part of the way things are, as any objective, scientific fact.

We have already noticed how Hume’s argument depends on the premise that only the objective sense 1 of the definition of miracle matters. It isn’t surprising, then, that his argument concerns the trustworthiness, or lack of it, of other people’s testimony about the occurrence of miracles. He doesn’t talk about a case in which you see for yourself what appears to be a miracle.

One can doubt the testimony of one’s own senses up to a certain point. We know there are such things as optical illusions, mirages, and hallucinations, and that when we wake up from a dream, those dreamed events didn’t occur in our waking life. But if we doubt everything that our senses tell us, we have to give up any thought of empirical scientific proofs. And I submit that anyone who has had a mystical or religious experience cannot doubt that nature is not quite as mechanically predictable as Hume’s conception of exceptionless laws of nature would require.

This is related to an independent reason for believing in God—independent of whether or not he ever suspends or changes the laws of nature—and one that has convinced me that God exists. This reason is that it is a fact that, out of all the people that there are, I am just this one and nobody else, and the same is true for you and for everyone else. An account of reality that omits that fact would be incomplete. It would be like trying to use a map to get somewhere without knowing what point on the map represents your current location. It would render you incapable of using such words as “here,” “now,” “this,” and “I.” This fact, of which person I am, which person you are, is an essentially personal fact, and it doesn’t make sense to me to think that it could be given by some set of impersonal laws of nature. It makes more sense to me to believe that God, who is a person and not a thing or a force or a collection of things and forces, creates a universe that is predictable enough to be interesting to all the subjects of experience he also creates, each being one particular creature and not any other, and each with his or her own first-person perspective from which he or she experiences the world. Given this independent reason for believing in God, reports of miracles in sense 1 as well as sense 2 become much more believable. Surely, the one who creates the predictability can also suspend it or change it in ways that we don’t understand.

Thus, I think that Hume’s argument is not sound, because it depends on the false assumption that either there is no God or, if there is, He never performs miracles. So, Hume hasn’t convinced me that if our only reason for believing in God is our belief in reports of miracles, then we have no good reason for believing in God. Furthermore, believing that miracles are possible makes one more open to the possibility of experiencing a miracle oneself, so that it isn’t only a question of believing the reports of others. And if one has experienced a miracle, it makes it more likely that one will believe in some miracles reported by others. Of course, it doesn’t follow that every report of a miracle or of some paranormal phenomenon is true. As I said before, even the best and brightest sometimes lie or are mistaken in their interpretation of what they have experienced. For that reason, it is reasonable to be skeptical when someone claims something has happened that is impossible to explain by known natural forces or by science. The Bible itself warns us against false claims of miracles. But it is not reasonable to dismiss automatically all claims of miracles or paranormal phenomena, on the grounds that a miracle is by definition a contradiction of one or more laws of nature, and that a law of nature, by definition, can have no real contradictions. We simply don’t know that, and furthermore, I think we have good reason to doubt it. We have no good reason to restrict the meaning of miracle to the objective sense 1, and a miracle in the subjective sense 2 is just something amazing or wonderful, whether or not it conflicts with a law of nature. And we don’t have any good reason to think a law of nature cannot be temporarily suspended or changed.

The foregoing reflections lead me to the following conclusions:

Paranormal phenomena, which are impossible to explain by known natural laws or by science, may yet one day be so explained; so they call out for more scientific research. A miracle in sense 2 that turns out to be explainable in terms of natural forces may be one of the realest and most significant things that have happened in one’s life. But if it turns out never to be explainable in that way, we should not for that reason conclude that it is unreal or insignificant. It would then be a miracle in sense 1 that is not just apparently but actually impossible to explain in terms of natural forces. And it would still be one of the realest and most significant things that have happened in one’s life.

A revision to my new book prompted by reading Galen Strawson’s

I recently read and enjoyed Galen Strawson’s new book, Things That Bother Me. The chapter called “The Unstoried Life” was so persuasive to me that I wish I had read it before I wrote Psychedelic Christianity, because there is one sentence in it that I would like to take back and change. This reminds me of Jorge Luis Borges saying that his father had given him one piece of advice about pursuing a literary career: Don’t rush into print.

Here is the original sentence (p 58):

“No matter what one’s profession or calling, everyone’s greatest work of art is the story of his or her life, told by living it.”

And this is how I would now rewrite it:

”No matter what one’s profession or calling, everyone’s greatest work of art is the living of his or her life, moment by moment, even though most of those moments are quickly forgotten as they flow into new ones.”

And I would add the following sentence at the end:

”That is more important than any object one creates and leaves behind.”

This is what shines like gold in the light of the ultimate goal.

While I’m at it, I wonder if anyone has noticed that Schelling is misspelled as “Schilling” near the bottom of p. 21.

What is wrong with Strawson’s argument against ultimate responsibility

In his new book, Things that Bother Me, Galen Strawson argues against ultimate moral responsibility (or free will) as follows:

(1) You do what you do—in the circumstances in which you find yourself—because of the way you are.
(2) So if you’re going to be ultimately responsible for what you do, you’re going to have to be ultimately responsible for the way you are—at least in certain mental respects.
(3) But you can’t be ultimately responsible for the way you are. [I will say something about his reasons for this below.]
(4) So you can’t be ultimately responsible for what you do. (p. 113)

This argument goes wrong at the first premise, which is only half the truth. You do what you do because of the way you are, AND you are the way you are because of what you do.  And this explains why premise 3 is also wrong.

Strawson says, “Sometimes people explain why number 3 is true by saying that you can’t be causa sui—you can’t be the cause of yourself. You can’t be truly or ultimately self-made in any way.” The unqualified (“in any way”) claim here contrasts with the qualification he added in number 2: “you’re going to have to be ultimately responsible for the way you are—at least in certain mental respects.” (Emphasis added by me) Why can’t you be truly or ultimately self-made, not in all ways, but in certain mental respects, and thus ultimately responsible for what you do?

I agree that I am not ultimately responsible for being a human with certain physical and biological features, who is male or female, or short or tall, who is subject to physical laws and biological needs and desires. I just find myself in that situation. But we don’t hold someone responsible for being male or female, short or tall, or for being subject to the law of gravity or for needing to eat food, drink water, and breathe air to stay alive. The question is whether I or anyone else is ultimately responsible for the kind of choice as in Strawson’s example of choosing on a particular occasion between buying a cake for a party or, instead, giving the money to a person in obvious need outside the cake store. True, I or someone else could explain the choice I make in that situation as the effect of the way I am in terms of what I most want. I choose to buy the cake because I want the party to be a success more than I want to help someone who wants and needs my help. Or vice-versa. So, we could say that I made the choice I made because of the way I am. But it would take a pattern of such choices to justify the claim that this is the way I am. At any rate, we could say that I am the kind of person who made this choice on this occasion. But what does that add to saying more simply that I made this choice on this occasion? The only thing it could add is the claim that this choice is part of a pattern of similar choices, and that whatever caused the pattern of past choices is what determined this choice and will determine future choices in relevantly similar situations. Unless determinism is true—and Strawson said that his argument is independent of whether or not determinism is true—this leaves it open that I am what caused the pattern of past choices by making those choices. When it comes to what counts for believing someone is ultimately responsible, the kind of person I am = what I do. So yes, it’s true that in order to be ultimately responsible for what I do I would have to be ultimately responsible for the way I am, because what I do = the way I am. This leaves it open that I can do something different from what I have done in the past, so the way I am does not have to be the same as the way I was in the past. That is why, in regards to the kinds of situations in which we normally believe someone is ultimately responsible, I am ultimately responsible both for what I do and for the way I am.

In addition to simply finding myself being a human who is subject to physical laws and biological necessities for which I am not responsible at all, there is another, deeper fact about who I am for which I am not ultimately responsible, and that is which person, out of all the persons there are, that I am. I am not responsible for which person I am. That is just given. This is the sense in which I can’t be the cause of myself. But given which person I am out of all the persons there are, I am ultimately responsible for what kind of person I am = what I do. I am the cause of myself in this way: I am the cause of the kind of person I am.


Spinoza’s stone example and the “illusion” of free will

Spinoza asks us to imagine a stone that is moving through the air (say, because someone has thrown it or it has been dislodged and is falling over a cliff) and says that if that stone were self-conscious, it would be convinced that it was moving of its own accord. (And Einstein, following Spinoza, used a similar example involving the moon being self-conscious and believing it had freely decided to orbit the earth.) And this is supposed to help convince us that we are similarly deluded when we think we can freely decide to raise an arm, for example. But when we are pushed by someone else or trip and fall, we don’t think we freely decided to move. And we clearly conceive the difference between, for example,  1) freely deciding to lie down on the ground, and 2) tripping and falling and finding ourselves lying on the ground. Furthermore, if we imagine a stone being self-conscious, we can easily imagine two alternatives in which it is not deluded: 1) it, the magically self-conscious stone, realizes it can never move on its own; 2) it, the magically self-conscious stone, can freely decide to move on its own and also knows that it isn’t moving on its own when someone has picked it up and thrown it or when it has been dislodged and is falling over a cliff. Spinoza’s (and Einstien’s) example should convince no one that free will is an illusion.

Some thoughts after reading Nietzsche

What Nietzsche is right about

Selflessness is a bad ideal. (He explains it as cruelty turned inward.)

Morality motivated by resentment is bad.

Rejecting life and longing for nothingness is bad.

If Christianity holds selflessness as the moral ideal, motivated by resentment of the powerful, and rejecting the only life and world as one has known it in the unrealistic hope for an afterworld that is better; then it should be rejected.

It is good, not bad, to want to have more power over one’s own life.

Antisemitism is stupid and boring and born of the resentment of a feeling of inferiority.

What he is wrong about

The will to power is the only real motivation in all living things, including humans. Master morality celebrates the will to power and directs outward the cruelty that it necessarily involves. Slave morality condemns the will to power as immoral, even though it is just as motivated by the will to power as master morality is. It directs inward the cruelty required by the will to power and hence promotes the false ideal of selflessness.

Christianity holds selflessness as the moral ideal, motivated by resentment of the powerful, and rejecting the only life and world as one has known it in the unrealistic hope for an afterworld that is better. Hence, Christianity should be rejected.

God is dead, and we have killed him.

The goal is to overcome oneself as one now is and to become Superman, like the god Dionysus.

Pity is bad.

There is only one world, and we each have only one life, although this same world and life in every detail recurs eternally.

Considerations in support of the claim that he is wrong about those things

From a subjective point of view, there is no discernible difference between living your life only once and never again and living your life over and over again eternally in exactly the same way each time.

If God is dead, that means that what you previously thought to be of ultimate value you no longer believe to be so. But as long as you believe there is something of ultimate value, you believe in God, whether you use that word or not. Thus, to be an atheist is to deny that there is anything of ultimate value. But that is contrary to experience.

Jesus said that the supreme commandment is to love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your mind and all your strength and that a second command that is like it is to love your neighbor as yourself. This implies that you should love yourself, because if you don’t love yourself, then loving your neighbor as you love yourself would mean not loving your neighbor. It also implies that loving God with all your heart and all your mind and all your strength and loving yourself are like each other.

Loving God also means loving your life as it has been given to you, with all its limitations on your ability to control things, such as unavoidable suffering, grief, and loss. Thus, your having power over those things is not what is of ultimate value, and the will to power is not the ultimate motivation for everything you do.

There is no good line of reasoning, either deductive or inductive, to believe that you will ever be permanently unconscious, even though there are plenty of good reasons to believe you will die at the end of this life. You have never been permanently unconscious, since you are conscious now, so first-person experience could never show that permanent unconsciousness is a likely outcome; and the nightly and daily transitions from being awake to dreaming and from dreaming to waking up constitute a strong inductive base for the conclusion that the transition from being alive to being dead is probably experienced subjectively as something similar. Therefore, you have good reason to believe you will have other lives besides this one in other worlds besides this one, even though the life you live will always just be your life, and whatever world you find yourself in will always be the one you call “this world.” Alternatively, we may say that this world consists of many worlds and your life consists of many lives. Either way, it is perfectly rational to hope that sufferings you have to endure will be compensated by future as well as past joys, even when the suffering takes the form of sickness leading to death.

There is nothing condescending about true pity, which recognizes in the suffering of someone else the same thing as one’s own suffering. We should all feel pity for each other because we all suffer and die and see loved ones suffer and die. But we should also feel a brotherhood and sisterhood of joy, because it is a good and joyful thing to be alive, and none of us is going to die utterly into nothingness ever.

The root causes of war and religion

The following is a dialogue on the root causes of war and religion, and, in general, on whether religion is a good thing or a bad thing. It consists of comments made by Dread Jo Davies and my replies to his comments, on a Facebook posting promoting my new book, Psychedelic Christianity. The Facebook posting featured an endorsement of the book, along with a link to the Amazon page for it. The endorsement read as follows:

”A highly trained philosopher, Jack Call (Ph.D., Claremont) takes great care to present clear and convincing arguments, and as someone who has walked the walk, speaks with authority about both psychedelic and religious experience.”—Kurt Smith, Ph.D., Professor of Philosophy, Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania


The dialogue went this way:

Dread Jo Davies: Why get fucked up on religion or drugs when you can do both!

Me: The trouble with saying “fucked up” is that it sounds like something bad.

Dread Jo Davies: Yes, religion is one of earth’s diseases with seemingly no cure.

Me: All religion? Are you sure? Because my religion doesn’t feel like any disease I’ve ever had — more like healing.

Dread Jo Davies: Religion=war, has done for thousands of years, an atheist world would be a peaceful world, especially if they did away with currency too.

Me: I doubt very much that if everyone ceased to believe in God and to use currency, there would be fewer wars. But if so, I would think that it was a good thing that there were fewer wars but not a good thing that people had ceased to believe in God.

What I would say is that no genuinely religious goal is advanced by forcing anyone to do anything.

I don’t think I would prefer a world without the use of currency. I suppose that would be one in which people would barter for goods? But I confess I haven’t given it much thought.

Dread Jo Davies: Yep, bartering with goods and favors, probably wouldn’t work but we all know the two main factors of all war going on right now, and that is money and religion.

Me: I think the root cause of war is the desire to control other people’s actions.

Dread Jo Davies: I think the same as that last sentence — just replace war with religion.

Me: I think the root cause of religion is the realization that there are important things that one cares about very much that are not under one’s control, either individually or in concert with others, and never will be.

Michael Pollan’s new book and psychedelic revisionism in general

Psychedelic Revisionism, as evidenced most recently in the spate of publicity about Michael Pollan’s new book and in interviews with him about it, says that if only Timothy Leary, who was, after all, just “a washed-up psychology professor,” had kept quiet, we would all now be enjoying legal access to psychedelics in controlled studies, wearing eyeshades and headphones, listening to “a very carefully curated playlist” (retch!), having diminished activity in a “very important brain network called the default mode network” because the psychedelic substances “take this network offline,” and then filling out surveys so that scientists can “crunch the data” to find that “a very important personality trait that psychologists call openness” has increased in us— “a very unusual finding.”

Enough with the eyeshades and headphones already! Opening your eyes and looking at the amazing world is not going to turn your trip into an external experience. Choose your own music if you want to listen to music. Don’t spend all your time listening to music anyway, unless you want to.

And enough with the scientistic bs and with seeking respectability in the eyes of people who think everything can and should be kept under control! Psychedelic experience shows that some of the things you care about most—your mortality or immortality, whether or not you love and are loved, your suffering and the suffering of those you love—are not and never will be under your control, and that it is a good and joyful thing that that is the way it is. This is religion, not science. Aldous Huxley got that right in the first place.

To scientists, people are objects to be studied. Psychedelic experience causes some interesting observable effects in those objects, but it is the experience itself, from the point of view of the subject of the experience, that is the realization that everything is fundamentally all right.

It isn’t Timothy Leary’s fault that LSD and other psychedelics are illegal. It’s the fault of those who have the power to make them illegal or to repeal those laws. Since we live in a democracy, that is supposed to be all of us. Timothy Leary expected that when enough people had experienced psychedelics, the very thought of making them illegal would be laughable. His mistake was in believing that that would happen right away. And he wasn’t always scrupulously honest in trying to bring it about. And he was a publicity hog. But he was right about the importance and the value of psychedelic experience. And he was right that it blows the lid off the pretensions of polite society, academia, and institutionalized “science.”

I wish Michael Pollan well. I wish MAPS, the Beckley Foundation, and similar groups well. I think their hearts are sort of in the right place. They just don’t seem very stoned.