Objection to the Psychedelics Challenge

A friend replied to my post challenging philosophers to try psychedelics. Here’s the proposed counterargument:

There are plenty of good reasons to not do drugs. For me, my lack of interest is chief among them. As an autistic person I already experience the world in different ways than most people. In fact, most people in general interact and experience the world differently than other people.

So I don’t see the need for everyone to converge around certain experiences because they’ve been enlightening for others or helped with their mental health issues. There are many ways to get perspective on the world and feel better about your mental health without taking drugs.

What is enlightening for some may seem dull for others. I could just as easily see people who have gone to space arguing a similar argument: If you haven’t gone to space then you’re not serious about philosophical inquiry because seeing the world from the outside is a great moment in perspectives.

But you could easily counter that we can view the world from the outside via satellite feed or pictures or get a taste of it from people’s experiences. There’s no need to subject everyone to space travel just for the *chance* that maybe they’ll gain some new and profound perspective.

Similarly with drugs we can see how these affect people via studies, people’s stories, audio files, video files, second-hand experience of our friends doing drugs, etc. There’s also no need here to subject everyone to drugs or pressuring them to try them because we can already find out what chemically and mentally is happening, at least to an extent.

My main point here is that you could say this about anything. I could just as easily claim that you can’t be serious about philosophical inquiry without a trip into a particular forest that made me realize certain things about life. But that would be nonsense because that experience was highly contingent on my personal history, brain chemistry, mindset and other bits of context.

Overall I find arguments like this specious, unnecessarily condescending and reeking of no true scotsman.

This is a reasonable response, so I think it’s worth addressing it. It also offers me the opportunity to clarify something that may have been unclear in the original post.

The main point to clarify: I did not mean to suggest that everyone who wants to have a great life should take psychedelics. I might personally agree with the idea, but I wouldn’t argue for it. If I did, my argument would surely fall victim to the quoted criticisms.

My argument was much narrower: if you’re serious about philosophical inquiry, you’ll try psychedelics. What the hell does “serious” mean? I suppose that was a silly word to use. Here’s what I was trying to get at: someone who’s genuinely and wholeheartedly invested in a research project is someone who will look at all data, provided that data appears to be relevant, available, and not redundant.

Living a great, fulfilled life is not a research project. I don’t think it comes with these kinds of prerequisites. Neither does mental health.

Philosophical inquiry is a research project. Not all of it is the same, and there are some kinds of philosophical inquiry for which the psychedelic experience is not relevant. For instance, I can imagine political philosophers and logicians for whom metaphysical and epistemological assumptions are malleable and don’t bear much on their claims.

However, most philosophy does either address or depend on metaphysical and epistemological positions. The claim is that the psychedelic experience is a major piece of data regarding these positions. It is relevant, available, and not redundant.

The objection: people can claim that any kind of experience is essential for understanding reality.

People can, but they don’t. I agree that everyone has different kinds of experiences. Not all of them are relevant. To address the example, I assume the experience of being autistic is different from my experience of life. No one has ever told me, however, that it is uniquely relevant to understanding metaphysical issues. If enough people did tell me that, I would wish I could temporarily access that experience to see what I’m missing. But that wish wouldn’t do me much because there’s no easy and safe way for me to achieve it.

In other words, the autistic experience hasn’t been argued to be relevant to these issues. And even if it were, it’s not available.

The psychedelic experience has been argued to be relevant – by many people. This brings up the universalizability issue. I’m not arguing that my own subjective experience is relevant to philosophical questions. I’m arguing that the subjective experiences of millions of people are relevant. When millions agree that some practice is relevant to metaphysical claims, then it’s worth considering the possibility that that relevance is universalizable to most people who care about metaphysical claims.

Psychedelics are also not redundant. You can’t just read or hear about psychedelic experiences and get the point of the data that way. You need to have the actual experience. Millions agree on this point as well.

Of course, the fact that millions of people agree doesn’t prove anything. It just makes it worth checking out what they’re saying, if it’s reasonably safe and easy to do so.

Many people claim that praying and reading the Bible have metaphysical implications. To me, that seems like a silly view. But enough people hold it that it’s worth looking at. I’ve prayed. I’ve read (parts of) the Bible. Got nothing. I checked it out, did some research, and moved on. I wasn’t obliged to do this. I wanted to do it because so many people think it’s relevant to a research project that I take seriously.

Those who refuse to try psychedelics won’t do even a cursory look-see. It’s fine to give “lack of interest” as a reason. But that means lack of interest in data that is not redundant, is available and is relevant to metaphysical and epistemological positions. Having no interest in that is perfectly fine. But if you are interested in it, then “lack of interest” obviously won’t fly as a reason to avoid looking at significant data.

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