TalkingDrugs interviewed Peter Sjöstedt-Hughes, one of the leading philosophers connecting the thought and practice around psychedelics with philosophical understandings of today. With a focus on panpsychism (that sentience is ubiquitous rather than emergent), Peter grew up in Cornwall, and became a research fellow and associate lecturer at the University of Exeter, where he currently runs an undergraduate and Masters module exploring philosophy and psychedelics. The conversation meandered through a variety of topics, including the content of his classes, how prohibition must have come into existence, the various modes through which to perceive psychedelics’ potential, colonialism, non-tripping psychedelics and much more. The interview has been edited for brevity and clarity. We’ve also added links for any reader to delve deeper into any texts or research mentioned.
Andre Gomes: I wanted to start off then just first congratulating you on your course in Exeter, and to ask if you could comment on your motivations behind teaching this class.
Peter Sjöstedt-Hughes: Well, long story really. When I was doing my PhD, I went to this conference in California and I met these amazing American Whiteheadians – followers of the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead, who was from England, but he moved to Harvard and died there, in 1947. That was co-organised by Christine Hausekeller at Exeter, who's now heavily involved in philosophy and psychedelics. In fact, we've just edited a Bloomsbury volume on philosophy and psychedelics coming out in a few months, with 15 contributors about various aspects of the two. So we set up the conference with the help of the "Center for Process Studies" as well as some other people. And then from that, I continued my postdoctoral with funds, part of which included creating a philosophy and psychedelics module, which I think is the first ever academic university module on the topic, I believe.
For the Master's module is an interesting one, because we had a lot of guest lecturers, experts in the field and it wasn't just me or just Christine. For example, we had Luis Eduardo Luna, the great anthropologist specialist on ayahuasca, give a lecture; we had my friend Robert Dickens, who was a great historian of psychedelia, who's the editor of Psychedelic Press. And we had Andy Letcher, he wrote: "Shroom: A Cultural History of the Magic Mushroom"; he's a doctor at Schumacher College. So that was an interesting Master's module. But for the undergraduate module, which now started in January , it's just mostly me teaching things as it's a slightly lower level, of course. And what have we done? Well, we started with an introductory session, just an overview of the whole field. And then we started sort of chronologically [putting] everything in context.
First of all, we started actually with Amerindian history. So looking at the Mesoamericans, certain archaeological evidence for psychedelic use, tracing back thousands of years, and so on, different cultures and different psychedelics they were using, speculations as it goes back upon history. And then there are cosmologies interestingly, linking their history to philosophy – cosmologies linking to psychedelic use and Amerindian culture. So, we looked especially at animism, which is the view that nature is alive with mind, and then sort of linked that to Western understanding of panpsychism which is the same thing really, that mind is ubiquitous within nature. Then the next session was history of Western use of psychedelics with an emphasis on philosophy. We looked at Bergson on the Eleusinian mysteries, and then we came up to the modern day, we looked at Thomas de Quincy, Bergson on William James, Ernst Junger… And then we looked at the 20th Century, especially what happened there, how you can frame psychedelics from many different angles.
So, for example, if a student were to look on the internet now they'd probably see just one angle, the medicinal angle. You look at [all] the 20th Century, you have so many different frameworks, so many in which to look at psychedelics. For example, the CIA and the British military used them for battling as an “incapacitant”. You can see them as demonic devices from certain Christian fringes, you can see them, as inducing schizophrenia from the first medical angle, of course, you can see them as spiritual catalysts. You can see them as political catalysts, you know, that was how Herbert Marcuse spoke about that. There's a variety of ways in which you can look at psychedelic drugs. And so we examined that. Last week was about metaphysics, which is one of my favourite fields. So I went into Spinozism, how you define mystical experiences through his scale, Walter Stace, William James, Bertrand Russell even. And then it's Christine speaking about the medicalisation of psychedelics and the ethical issues involved with that. We'll be looking at philosophy of mind later. In fact, there's so many things to look at in terms of philosophy, that we had to really whittle down what we had to focus on.
So the interesting thing about it all is that students seem to like it, it was oversubscribed. And we just got very good feedback from students. Interesting thing is, it's never really been done before. There's relatively very little literature on it. But it brings together all these different fields of philosophy. It's like a black hole that sort of attract them all. So we're looking at metaphysics and philosophy of mind consciousness, we're looking at ethics, we're looking at epistemology, theory of knowledge, how do we know that what we see is real or not, it's like a meta subject really, for philosophy students. You can bring in things from all over the place, from politics, from theology, and so on. It's really fun to teach.
And the feedback from the students has been positive?
Yes, very pleasant. I think it's something very new to them, you know: in philosophy you get very dry analytic philosophy, logic, epistemology… And a lot of it is not tied to their lives, but because we're now within the so-called "Psychedelic Renaissance", they're living through this change, as it were, here they can link it to their own life. Because when you talk about consciousness, or the self, or mental health, you know, it's a personal thing. So although there's a lot of abstract philosophy involved, ultimately, I think it's immediately apparent that it links to people's lives and the way they view reality, and to current political affairs, where things are changing rapidly now.
I imagine that conversations around prohibition and its legality is something that you cover at one point.
It's a very complex issue, we haven't yet done the legal class on this, but from what we've spoken of already, we've looked at the Mesoamericans: we looked at the Spanish Conquest, and how the conquistadores tried to bring in Christianity, the Inquisition came there, they burnt so many texts from the Aztecs. And they looked at their drug use which was part of the whole way of life – you cannot be separated, it was their mainstream – as demonic, because they saw it from these Roman Catholic eyes as inducing visions of the devil or demons in a veridical sense, so they didn't think these were necessarily hallucinations. They thought these were real visions, but they were visions of hell, basically, of satanic devices. So they prohibited it – there's an immediate prohibition coming from half a millennium ago. So we looked at that, and we saw how [psychedelics] should be prohibited if you are a Roman Catholic and believe in that stuff. If you don't know however, then the prohibition doesn't really make sense. It wasn't prohibition based on any foreseen physiological and mental health dangers, of course, that wasn't part of their framework. And then we will look at the prohibition of alcohol in America. How that came from Christian Methodism and other forms of Christianity. And then we looked at how LSD created turmoil in the US, especially, you know, from Hoffman to Leary, and then how the CIA were testing it out in the 50s, and how LSD didn't really work out for them. And then how the Nixon administration banned it, not based necessarily on science of reason; many racist reasons coming in, you see these racial elements which are very related to American society, and how that influenced the UN and how that then influenced the world. But then interestingly, the US are sort of deregulating it first as well. One of the readings was this great text by Buller, Moore and Gibson in the Bloomsbury book, "A History of the US' 20th Century Drug Use", and how prohibition came about.
You know, I find this interesting thing with LSD. LSD was not taken from indigenous peoples. It was a synthesised drug. Of course, it's similar to psilocybin, but it was synthesised by Albert Hoffman in Switzerland. He didn't know what to do with it, and because he was working in a laboratory, he sent it to psychiatrists, as they did at the time, and then it got into this medical framework, but that didn't really work, it didn't really induce what they consider to be schizophrenia anyway. And then Hoffman himself became quite spiritual with it with regards to Ernst Junger, who he writes about in his book "LSD, My Problem Child" [pdf available here] and they took LSD together and whatever. But the interesting [thing] about LSD is that Westerners didn't know how to deal with it. Such a powerful drug that came in and it just blew up society, it seems, and people could not frame what was going on. It just caused havoc, and had to be suppressed. And now slowly, in this so-called renaissance, which is again through a medical lens, we're seeing that maybe they don't fry your brain, maybe some psychedelics, on the contrary, can be beneficial to mental health, when defined in certain ways. I mean, even the concept of mental health and philosophy is problematic, because, how do you define normal for a start? You know, different cultures have different forms of normality. There's all these ethical issues and mental health about, you know, patient doctor relationships, patents, blah, blah, blah.
It seems like even going back 500 years ago, that contact with the West and unconventional uses of drugs and practices for reaching altered states of consciousness and contacting God was something that was rejected. It just scared people that this kind of contact that could happen.
This is why this is such a complicated issue historically. The whole Christian reformation in the 16th Century was about the level of directness to God. So, first of all, the Bible was not allowed to be translated into the native languages. That was illegal. And then Luther came around said "No, we should translate these things and give it directly to the people and the Roman Catholic Church". That meant the priests were not necessary as mediators (as direct spiritual sources), creating massive turmoil in Europe, especially in England as 20 years later the Church of England formed. It's exactly all about this direct route to metaphysical or spiritual realms. It's interesting in the Americas, it seems that Christianity could not compete as a spiritual cosmology compared to what they had already. It just didn't have the emotional intensity, the consciousness just wasn't there. I mean, it's not to say that Sunday Mass, or the Roman Catholic Church cannot evoke certain spiritual feelings, but compared to taking peyote or something, I don't think it really compares. But although they're trying to prohibit or suppress it all the time for centuries, it never went away. And then there was this really interesting compromise with the Native American church, where they were sort of blended the two, where they said, "We'll be a Christian Church, but we will also use peyote", and this was legalized in America in 1890 or so [under traditional Native American religious use of peyote]. The problem then was that peyote wasn't banned. It wasn't illegal. But then in 1970, when the whole war on drugs really officially started, there was a problem, because they banned it and became illegal. But they had a religious right. And they went through all these court cases, eventually, though, they were and still are allowed to use it in America.
At least from the policy side, it seems like the discourse around how psychedelics are going to be either used or accepted in society has always been through this medical lens, and that something needs to be wrong with you for you to be using them. There's also been a lot of talk around psychedelics that don't have the psychoactive aspect of it as well, so that you can reap the chemical benefits from the substances without "tripping". I don't know what you think about that, or if that's something you discussed.
Two things. First of all, I just say this with regards to the medical aspect. Humphry Osmond, the psychiatrist who was friends with Huxley, coined the word "psychedelic" in a paper in 1957 [and] in correspondence in 1956 with Huxley. In the '57 paper where he coins it, he himself a psychiatrist, says these substances have huge philosophical, social and religious ramifications that need to be addressed and thought out. So from the very start, when the word "psychedelic" was coined, the coiner himself talked about all this social and deeper metaphysical questions. And then in 1971, he himself wrote about philosophical implications of psychedelics. But from the start, it's that openness, from a psychiatrist saying, "this is not just the lens through which we should see it".
Psychedelic means "manifesting the mind", so if it doesn't manifest the mind, can you really classify it as a psychedelic? But, in the Osmond text again, he basically says that nitrous oxide is a psychedelic, he wasn't just talking about those that connect with the serotonin receptors in the brain. Sometimes people define psychedelics a bit too narrowly when they say that nitrous oxide and ketamine are not psychedelics. Look at the original coinage, it's anything “mind manifesting”. I work with the Psychology Department in Exeter, Celia Morgan and her lab, who is the world leading expert on ketamine. And you look at her reports of ketamine at high doses: you have visions, you have feelings of unity and whatever, it's nothing different than psychedelics. So Celia Morgan's lab has just looked at ketamine for alcohol addiction, and one of the mechanisms for action is that – although this is speculative, because it's hard to put into numbers – you see yourself in a larger perspective. And then you think that your personal problems for which you drink alcohol to numb the pain, they're trivial relatively speaking, you know. When you see a greater whole, your personal problems become less important. Thus, you don't need alcohol, because those problems are now little problems now, you've diminished the importance of the problems through psychedelics, concluding ketamine. This mechanism is dependent upon a metaphysical experience that you think, the common platitudes being: you feel connected to nature, you feel at one, feel a unity of subject and object, the unity of past and present, unity of mind and nature, unity of God and nature, whatever it may be. But it's this greater, grander metaphysical picture, which then puts in place your life, and this then has a therapeutic benefit. So if you take away that experience of yourself as "smaller", the mechanism of action for mental health must be something else. So it's a completely different therapy, I don't think it should be called psychedelic, because of the meaning of the word and probably the mechanism of action.
In terms of philosophy of the mind, that this experience itself can have an effect on your behaviour is what we call "mental causation"; and mental causation, like a desire causing you to walk to the bar or something, is extremely problematic for a lack of Western metal metaphysical framework of physicalism. You know, we think that the mind emerges from the brain. But surely one's intelligence, one's desires, one's planned conscious calculations, must have an effect on your behaviour. But that is not a known force of nature. And we think that everything just ticks along with mechanical forces and whatever. So this is a big problem. And I think that a lot of clinical work in psychedelics is, without really being conscious of it, a physicalist kind of framework. But that becomes very problematic with psychedelics, as there's mental causation, but also there's these mystical insights.
There's this thing that Michael Pollan and Chris Letheby talk about, the “comforting delusion objection”: should you really treat people by giving them delusions? Because obviously, these metaphysical views are not true, they must be hallucinations. Why are they hallucinations? Because we know that physicalism must be right. On that basis, you're not treating people's experiences seriously. You're also demeaning Native American experiences as being hallucinations, which brings in a lot of ethical problems, but also metaphysical problems. That's why I think philosophy is really important for psychedelic therapy, because if you have this great metaphysical experience, for it to have positive benefit in your life, you need to integrate it into your life. "What the hell just happened? What have I just seen? What does this mean? Where am I in comparison to this intense, intense, ineffable experience?"
In this Bloomsbury book, I compare Spinoza's philosophy to the 5-Meo-DMT experience, which seems to be the most unitive. And it sort of makes more sense in that framework than the common Western framework we have today. So if you have an experience and you can integrate it into that framework and the philosophy itself, you seem to get a kind of direct intuition through certain psychedelic experiences; it's symbiotic. This, I think, will give people a greater possibility of integrating such extreme experiences into their notion of themselves in relation to the world. This is something that might come in the next decade or so, some kind of greater fusion of metaphysics with psychedelic medicalisation. I think that's very feasible and quite important. Well more than that, it could be even political ramifications. So we'll see, we're in the midst of it all.
You touched on something interesting there, that some of these experiences can just be considered “hallucinations”; is it still valid to use this kind of language around psychedelic experiences, talking about hallucinations? About delusions?
Well, there's the word “hallucinogen”, which is a loaded word, right? Entheogens are also loaded in the theological sense and the other way around. I like the word psychedelic now. It used to have a lot of connotations to the 60s culture, but doesn't anymore because of its profound use now. I think this is a great word to use, especially when you look at that 1957 paper, which opens up all the philosophical possibilities. To call something a delusion or a hallucination means that you know what reality is. And nobody does. People think they do, but there's no agreement, people differ widely.
So in anthropology, we have this thing called the “ontological turn”: this movement [began] about 20 years ago, sort of looking down at other cultures, and saying "these primitives believe this and that because of their revolutionary fight for survival"; you take seriously their views, you at least pretend for a while that they're true. Because you also look at your own culture and see why Western culture has the beliefs it does, and when you look at that historically, you realize there's a general belief that we are the pinnacle of knowledge. And although we know a lot in terms of technology, even with physics, there's massive disagreements about [for example] the dimensions of space, [of] how relativity fits into quantum theory… But even broader than that, I think it's how mind fits into physics, and [with] psychology and physics combined we've got no clue, they just seem very incompatible at the moment. You can see correlates, and that's it. We don't even know that the brain is necessary and sufficient for consciousness. This can't be proved, you don't know that plants don't have sentience. Just because they don't have a brain, you cannot prove that the brain is necessary for any form of sentience, it cannot be empirically proven. Because this kind of so-called "hard problem of consciousness" exists, I don't think we're at a stage where we can call certain intuitions induced by psychedelics "delusions". You'd have to be very arrogant to say you know the truth, you know what's right and what's wrong. It's just not the case. It's like the conquistadors coming to the Americas and thinking we know the truth, the Roman Catholic version of Christianity truth, and this obviously fails. So it's a delusion when actually well, it's demonic in this case, but it's wrong in some form or another.
You were also talking about the political ramifications that both these experiences and expanding this field can have. I don't think that it's easy to talk about the political ramifications without talking about the access that people would have to these kinds of substances and experiences. I'm curious to get your idea about what really would be the best mode of access for these psychedelic substances.
I mean, it's very hard. There's no obvious answer. I was just reading about the peyote crisis in America, because this Native American church that we spoke about before, a lot of the members there do not want peyote to become decriminalised. They want it to stay illegal except for them. Because they see it as possibly sacrilegious to make this kind of plant widely available. There's also problems with legalizing with, especially the Sonoran Desert toads due to their numbers, and other cacti.
On the other side, there's the issue of spending years in jail for taking something that's not harmful to you or anyone else, and in fact enriches your life, which seems completely unjust. And then, of course, alcohol is legal but is regulated, you can't drink too much and drive, for example; I wouldn't want people on LSD driving down my street. And then, LSD is synthesised as opposed to naturally evolved compounds like mescaline and peyote or whatever. And so there's differences there as well politically because there's this certain questions of biopiracy, you know, taking other people's kind of compounds, stealing their cultural knowledge and then making profit out of it, this is a whole other ethical issue. So my personal view is, I don't think anyone should go to jail for taking them, it's a no brainer, right? You shouldn't be punished for taking them. I think, though, that it shouldn't be completely legalized and deregulated because, for example, with 5-meo-DMT, there's a synthetic version for a start. It's so powerful, but if you just made it widely available, you know, you'd have a lot of psychological cases. So there needs to be some kind of – doesn't need to be medical framework – but some kind of counselling, or some kind of guidance provided with it. I don't think it should be too easily available. It should be perhaps regulated, with some kind of mentoring service that come in parallel with it. At the same time, if you do that, you're still going to get as we have now these underground distributors and providers, drug dealers, so it wouldn't necessarily change that much anyway. But I think, however it changes, we have to be very careful. I'm talking about strong psychedelics, you know, with stuff like cannabis, it's different.