The last sixty years have witnessed what may well be the greatest unplanned mass experiment in the history of neuroscience. Thousands of people have deliberately experimented on themselves by taking chemicals that altered their experience of reality — chemicals like LSD, mescaline, psilocybin and DMT.
I’ve never experimented with these myself and don’t plan on it; I value my brain’s unimpaired function, thank you very much. But I find this mass experiment fascinating because of the chemistry of these chemicals (see previous posts) and what they reveal about consciousness. There are several things we can learn about life, consciousness and our religious beliefs from the reported effects of these drugs. Please note that these are not scientific conclusions; I’m not claiming they are because they aren’t. These are just my personal opinions, a chemist musing about life and consciousness if you will. But they’re also what seem to me like obvious if unscientific conclusions we can draw from our mass experiment with drugs.
Note: I apologize for the speculative, unscientific and perhaps (to some) offensive nature of some of the conclusions in this post. But these are interesting questions to think and/or argue about. So if you disagree with me — that’s what the comments box is for!
1) Brain biochemistry IS consciousness.
Briefly glance at the structure of some neurotransmitters and some popular drugs and you’ll notice something interesting.
You don’t have to be a chemist to see the resemblance between the drugs and the neurotransmitters. The drugs are similar and yet different. Those differences are crucial to the way they work and how they get processed inside your body. But even without knowing anything else about their chemistry, you can make a guess about how these drugs work based on their structures: they mimic or interfere with the activity of neurotransmitters in your brain.
If you talk to anyone who’s used DMT or psilocin/psilocybin (aka magic mushrooms) at one time or another they’ll tell you they experienced some very vivid hallucinations — and an almost completely altered perception of reality. This clearly implies that brain biochemistry is consciousness. If consciousness resided in some kind of soul or spirit as the ancients believed, then taking chemicals would have no effect on your consciousness. If you can alter your consciousness by taking a chemical to interfere with or mimics neurotransmitters, on the other hand, then consciousness must be biochemical in nature.
2) There is probably no afterlife.
This follows from (1). Psychedelic drugs like shrooms demonstrate that consciousness is a property of the brain, and the brain is a biochemical engine in the same way that the engine in your car is a mechanical one.
When your car’s engine dies, does another car nearby immediately start up as the “spirit of the car” transfers from one automobile to another? Of course not. You intuitively know that makes no sense. So if consciousness is a property of the brain (which is a biochemical engine), why would it transfer from one vehicle to another when the brain dies? that doesn’t make any sense.
The counter-argument in favor of an afterlife would be near-death experiences. I don’t honestly know very much about these beyond the occasional news story; psychedelic drugs, however, illuminate a possible explanation for these too. We know from users’ experiences with LSD and other drugs that altering brain biochemistry can induce vivid hallucinations where the brain takes things you see or have experienced (colors, shapes, voices, etc.) and reassembles them into something you’ve never seen or experienced, a little like cutting up ugly photos to make them into a beautiful collage. NDEs are typically people who are hospitalized, anesthetized and on the verge of death — undergoing experiences, in other words, that are likely to alter brain biochemistry in ways that might generate vivid hallucinations of the kind that have been reported. Please take note that I’m speculating here — I don’t know this for sure — but it would make sense.
The probable non-existence of an afterlife is definitely kind of disappointing — I’m sure all of us would like to live forever if that were possible. But to me anyway (and please contradict me if you disagree) it seems like a logical conclusion that follows from (1).
3) Traditional religions are probably false.
This follows from (1) and (2). Most religions claim that consciousness resides in some sort of non-material entity called a soul that persists after death. Experiments with psychedelic drugs, however, demonstrate that brain biochemistry is consciousness which probably doesn’t persist after death. So our experience with psychedelic drugs suggests the two main claims made by most religions may be false. Indeed, psychedelic drugs like psilocin/psilocybin tend to induce spiritual sensations similar to those reported by devotees of traditional religions during fasting and prayer, which suggests that spiritual sensations during prayer and meditation are also a kind of hallucination that has its roots in brain biochemistry.
This doesn’t mean there is no God or higher power necessarily; it just means that if the universe was created by a God, it’s not any of the ones from the religions we know, but rather an unknown agent or agents who started the show then left it to run on its own without intervening further in observable ways. The usual name for this belief is Deism.
Just like the non-existence of an afterlife, this may sound like a fairly bleak and disappointing conclusion. But in many ways, it’s a much brighter prospect than the one offered by most religious traditions. Consider, for example, the story that is Christianity:
Don’t tell me that isn’t what Christians believe; it is. I used to be one, I ought to know. This IS the Bible story neatly summarized in one paragraph, and frankly it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, at least not to me anyway. Back in ancient times, however, it probably made more sense. People back then were used to serving kings who often behaved like arbitrary lunatics. They knew that kings were different from ordinary folk; kings were whimsical and cruel and powerful and beyond reproach like a force of nature or something. So when our ancestors invented the Bible/Koran/Talmud/Roman mythology etc. they imagined God(s) who acted much like the kings they served. Hence the strangely inconsistent behavior that God displays throughout the Bible.
But again — and I want to emphasize this because people in our modern religion-vs.-atheism debate seem to forget this — atheism and traditional religions aren’t the only two alternatives out there. It’s entirely possible the universe was created by an entity beyond our imagining or experience, something akin to George Lucas’ “The Force” (and yeah, I know, I’m indulging in some very unscientific speculation right now). This belief as I said before is usually called Deism, and if true it would mean the universe and possibly even our lives are part of some kind of plan we cannot alter (albeit one we know nothing about). Nowadays I think a growing number of us incline to this view, which is why you run into so many people who say they are “spiritual but not religious”; they agree that traditional religions are pretty crazy but aren’t willing to say the universe is an unplanned accident (because that seems pretty crazy too).
And even if the universe IS an outright accident that doesn’t make life purposeless either; we can all find meaning in doing the best we can to make life better and more livable for each other while we’re here. I think this quote sums it up nicely:
4) Perception is not necessarily reality.
Like optical illusions, psychedelic drugs demonstrate that the biochemical engine called the brain is easily fooled. Our perceptions are clouded by our emotions, our experience, the drugs we take (e.g. caffeine or alcohol or THC), our desires and the limitations of our biology (bees, for example, can see some wavelengths of ultraviolet light as a color invisible to us). This is one of the reasons why we invented science as a way to figure out how our world works. We need controlled experiments that can be repeated because we’re all too liable to believing what we want to believe and seeing only what we want to see.
5) Who you are is more malleable than you imagine.
There are two ingredients in the recipe that determines your personality: genes and experience, aka “nature” and “nurture”. Clearly your genes play a critical role; identical twins tend to have many more similarities in terms of personality and behavior than unrelated strangers. But so too does experience. Bear in mind that when you learn or form memories there are actual physical changes taking place in your brain; connections between neurons are being formed or strengthened or weakened. So the things that happen to you cause physical changes in your brain that in turn become part of who you are. Which means that your identity and personality may be both more and less malleable than you probably imagine.
Psychedelic drugs demonstrate just how malleable these things truly are in an alarming and direct kind of way. If taking a drug like DMT can alter the way you interact with reality so briefly and so completely, what does that imply about “who you are”?
You’ve probably wondered at some point what life would have been like or who you would have become if you’d lived in another time period, i.e. who would you have been if you’d lived in the Middle Ages? This is actually a meaningless question, because if you’d been born in any other time period your childhood experiences would have been different and so you would be a completely different person. Just like your genes, your experience is part of who you are, because it caused physical changes in your brain that became part of the way you think.
Out of the five conclusions I draw from humankind’s experience with psychedelics, this is possibly the most profound. I think at some point in the future it will change how we think about criminal justice. Your personality and inclinations are shaped by your genes and your experience, and you chose neither of these. So perhaps we should see criminals not as perpetrators but as people who thanks to a particular combination of genes and experience have ended up with antisocial tendencies. Perhaps these antisocial tendencies can be reliably corrected. Perhaps someday in the distant future, criminal justice may cease to focus on punishment and turn instead to treatment, curing prisoners of their antisocial tendencies rather than punishing them.
At this point in time it’s tough to imagine what such a world would look like; “an eye for an eye” is built into our culture. But surely culture is also more malleable than our ancestors believed. Perhaps a world where criminal treatment and criminal justice become synonymous is closer than we imagine.