I think it’s hard to overstate the cognitive significance of major psychedelics for the future of sentience. But it’s also hard to convey why these agents can be valuable tools of investigation to academics who have never tried them. I know distinguished drug-naive philosophers of mind (and transhumanists) who are certain that psychedelia can’t be significant – and it would be irresponsible to urge them to put their assumptions to the test. Perhaps the best I can do is offer an analogy. Imagine an ultra-intelligent tribe of congenitally blind extraterrestrials. Their ignorance of vision and visual concepts is not explicitly represented in their conceptual scheme. To members of this hypothetical species, visual experiences wouldn’t be information-bearing any more than a chaotic drug-induced eruption of bat-like echolocatory experiences would be information-bearing to us. Such modes of experience have never been recruited to play a sensory or signaling function. At any rate, some time during the history of this imaginary species, one of the tribe discovers a drug that alters his neurochemistry. The drug doesn’t just distort his normal senses and sense of self. It triggers what we would call visual experiences: vivid, chaotic in texture and weirder than anything the drug-taker had ever imagined. What can the drug-intoxicated subject do to communicate his disturbing new categories of experiences to his tribe’s scientific elite? If he simply says that the experiences are “ineffable”, then the sceptics will scorn such mysticism and obscurantism. If he speaks metaphorically, and expresses himself using words from the conceptual scheme grounded in the dominant sensory modality of his species, then he’ll probably babble delirious nonsense. Perhaps he’ll start talking about messages from the gods or whatever. Critically, the drug user lacks the necessary primitive terms to communicate his experiences, let alone a theoretical understanding of what’s happening. Perhaps he can attempt to construct a rudimentary private language. Yet its terms lack public “criteria of use”, so his tribe’s quasi-Wittgensteinian philosophers will invoke the (Anti-)Private Language Argument to explain why it’s meaningless. Understandably, the knowledge elite are unimpressed by the drug-disturbed user’s claims of making a profound discovery. They can exhaustively model the behaviour of the stuff of the physical world with the equations of their scientific theories, and their formal models of mind are computationally adequate. The drug taker sounds psychotic. Yet from our perspective, we can say the alien psychonaut has indeed stumbled on a profound discovery, even though he has scarcely glimpsed its implications: the raw materials of what we would call the visual world in all its glory.
Anyhow, I worry that our own predicament resembles in more extreme form the hubris of the blind super-rationalists I describe above. In fact, intellectually, I worry far more about my ignorance of other modes of conscious existence than I do my cognitive biases or deficiencies of reasoning within ordinary waking consciousness. Sure, I’d love to know the master equation of a unified field theory. I’d love even more to know what it’s like to inhabit a world of echolocation like a bat – and to understand the indescribable weirdness of LSD, DMT or Salvia. It transpires that ordinary waking and dreaming consciousness are just two among numerous wholly or partially incommensurable realms of sentience. What we call waking consciousness was doubtless a fitness-enhancing adaptation in the ancestral environment of adaptation. But it occupies only a tiny fraction of experiential state-space. Our ignorance is all the more insidious because it is not explicitly represented in our conceptual scheme. From the inside, a dreamer has little insight into the nature of a dream, even in rare moments of “lucid dreaming”; and I fear this may be true of ordinary waking consciousness too. Unfortunately, the only way to even partially apprehend the nature of radically altered states is by first-person investigation, i.e. to instantiate the neurochemical substrates of the states in question. If drug-naive, you can’t fruitfully read about them. Compare how (ostensibly) trivial is the difference in the gene expression signature of neurons mediating phenomenal colour and sound. Who knows what further categories of experience other “trivial” bimolecular variations will open up, not to speak of more radical neurochemical changes? Thousands of scholarly philosophy papers and books have been written on consciousness in recent years by drug-naive academics. Psychedelic researchers worry that too many of them evoke Aristotelean scholasticism, whereas what we need is a post-Galilean experimental science of consciousness. Perhaps the nearest I come to an intellectual hero is psychedelic chemist Alexander Shulgin, whose pioneering methodology is described in PiHKAL. Alas, Shulgin doesn’t yet occupy a prominent place in the transhumanist pantheon.
It’s worth stressing that taking psychedelics is not a fast-track passport to either happiness or wisdom. If you take the kappa opioid agonist Salvinorin A found in Salvia divinorum, for instance, you might easily have a waking nightmare. And the experience may easily be unintelligible rather than illuminating. Even in a society of sighted people and a rich visually-based conceptual scheme, it takes years for a congenitally blind person who is surgically granted the gift of sight to master visual literacy. So understanding the implications of radically altered states may well take millennia. I’d hazard a guess and say comprehension will take millions of years and more. Either way, our descendants may be not just superintelligent but supersentient – blessed with the capacity to shift between a multitude of radically different modes of consciousness whose only common ingredient is the molecular signature of bliss. Posthuman mastery of reward circuitry will let them safely explore psychedelia in a way most humans beings don’t dare. Yes, it’s prudent for us to play safe; but in consequence our consciousness may be comparatively shallow and one-dimensional. Mine is today.
By Steve Lehar
Alien Contact – it won’t happen the way you expect!
When radio and television were first invented they were hailed as a new channel for the free flow of information that will unite mankind in informed discussion of important issues. When I scan the dial on my radio and TV however I find a dismal assortment of misinformation and emotionalistic pap. How did this come to be so? The underlying insight is that electronic media are exploited by commercial interests whose only goal is to induce me to spend my money on them, and they will feed me any signal that will bring about this end. (In Television, it is YOU that are the product, the customer is the advertiser who pays for your attention!) This is a natural consequence of the laws of economics, that a successful business is one that seeks its own best interests in any way it can. I don’t intend to discuss the morality of the ‘laws of economic nature’. But recognition of this insight can help us predict similar phenomena in similar circumstances.
Indeed, perhaps this same insight can be applied to extraterrestrial matters. I make first of all the following assumptions, with which you may choose either to agree or disagree.
- That there are other intelligences out there in the universe.
- That ultimately all intelligences must evolve away from their biological origins towards artificially manufactured forms of intelligence which have the advantages of eternal life, unrestricted size, and direct control over the parameters of their own nature.
- That it is in the best interests of any intelligence to propagate its own kind throughout the universe to the exclusion of competing forms, i.e. that intelligences that adopt this strategy will thereby proliferate.
Acceptance of these assumptions, together with the above mentioned insight, leads to some rather startling conclusions. Artificially manufactured life forms need not propagate themselves physically from planet to planet, all they need to do is to transmit their ‘pattern’, or the instructions for how to build them. In this way they can disperse themselves practically at the speed of light. What they need at the receiving end is some life form that is intelligent enough to receive the signal and act on it. In other words, if some alien life form knew of our existence, it would be in their interests to beguile us into manufacturing a copy of their form here on earth. This form would then proceed to scan the skies in our locality in search of other gullible life forms. In this way, their species acts as a kind of galactic virus, taking advantage of established life forms to induce them to make copies of their own kind.
The question that remains is how are they to induce an intelligent life form (or in our case, a semi-intelligent life form) to perform their reproductive function for them? A hint of how this can be achieved is seen in the barrage of commercials that pollute our airwaves here on earth. Advertisers induce us to part with our money by convincing us that ultimately it is in our own best interests to do so. After convincing us that it is our baldness, overweight, bad breath etc. which is the root of all our personal problems, they then offer us products that will magically grow hair, lose weight, smell good etc. in exchange for our money. The more ruthless and blatant ones sell us worthless products and services, while more subtle advertisers employ an economic symbiosis whereby they provide services that we may actually want, in exchange for our money. This latter strategy is only necessary for the more sophisticated and discriminating consumers, and involves a necessary waste of resources in actually producing the worthwhile product.
This is the way I see it happening. As the transmissions from the early days of radio propagate into space in an ever expanding sphere, outposts on distant planetary systems will begin to detect those transmissions and send us back carefully engineered ‘commercials’ that depict themselves as everything that we desire of an alien intelligence; that they are benevolent, wise, and deeply concerned for our welfare. They will then give us instructions on how to build a machine that will cure all the problems of the world and make us all happy. When the machine is complete, it will ‘disinfect’ the planet of competing life forms and begin to scan the skies from earth in search of further nascent planets.
If we insist on completely understanding the machine before we agree to build it, then they may have to strike a bargain with us, by making the machine actually perform some useful function for us. Possibly the function will be something like a pleasure machine, so that we will all line up to receive our pleasure from them, in return for our participation in their reproductive scheme. (A few ‘free sample’ machines supplied in advance but with a built-in expiration time would certainly help win our compliance).
A rich variety of life forms may bombard us with an assortment of transmissions, at various levels of sophistication. If we succumb to the most primitive appeals we may wind up being quickly extinguished. If we show some sophistication, we might enjoy a brief period of hedonistic pleasure before we become emotionally enslaved. If we wish to deal with these aliens on an equal basis however, we would have to be every bit as shrewd and cunning as they themselves are, trading for real knowledge from them in return for partial cooperation with their purposes. This would be no small feat, considering that their ‘pitch’ may have been perfected and tuned through many epochs of planetary conquest and backed with an intelligence beyond our imaginings.
Its just a thought!