the imagination on psychedelics

What is happening when we imagine? What processes are taking place? And what, if anything, do these processes reveal about the origin of imaginal content? Could it be that when we imagine, objects that had never before existed are ‘brought into being’ by the mind, assembled from the raw materials of ordinary sense perception?

Dozens of psychedelic states of consciousness have precluded me from taking this possibility seriously. Some of the places and ideas presented under the influence of DMT, for instance, have been so extraordinarily rich and complex as to make such an account of their origin laughable. I realize that this does not constitute a refutation; one does not refute a possibility by laughing at it. But the ultimate origin of imaginal content- indeed the ultimate origin of anything- is for a priori consideration, not for empirical investigation, and as such will remain speculative. I hope that my chemically induced dissatisfaction with the above hypotheses gives me adequate license to explore a more likely story.

Here is a possibility that, as Terence Mckenna quipped, ‘is worth entertaining- not necessarily because it’s the truth, but because it is entertaining’: that of the imagination as an organ of perception. The suggestion is that the imagination is a passive faculty with unmediated access to a platonic superspace- an actual world that is fully populated with existent objects. The imagination is the capacity to “peer into” this superspace; it is thus an organ of perception. Rather than generate its content, the imagination discovers it, in the same way that our sense organs discover the phenomena described by physics.

For the loose-headed like me, this is candy. And as an added bonus, there is some fascinating evidence from fMRI studies with psilocybin that, despite the common assumption that hallucinations are produced by stimulating brain activity, the most intense subjective experiences are associated with decreased brain activity. Whatever this amounts to, these findings should be especially interesting to those who are seduced by Aldous Huxley’s metaphor for the mind as a receiver or limiter of consciousness; for a better understanding of Huxley’s hypothesis, I quote from pages 10 and 11 of his book The Doors of Perception and Heaven and Hell (2004 edition):

“The suggestion is that the function of the brain and nervous system and sense organs is in the main eliminative and not productive. Each person is at each moment capable of … perceiving everything that is happening everywhere in the universe. The function of the brain and nervous system is to protect us from being overwhelmed … by shutting out most of what we should otherwise perceive or remember at any moment, and leaving only that very small and special selection which is likely to be practically useful.”

The data presented in altered states of consciousness, or in any state of consciousness for that matter, cannot reveal anything definite about matters of ontology. They can, however, lend more or less plausibility to competing hypotheses. To my mind, the ‘imagination as organ of perception’ hypothesis is made more plausible than the ‘imagination as consciousness-generating’ hypothesis due to the overwhelmingly rich and complex nature of the data presented in the psychedelic experience. I realize that this conviction is driven by feeling rather than by logical probability, and as such is not very different in kind from religious conviction. But I suspect that at bottom, all strong convictions are this way; they originate as revelation, and are only later found to be sound or unsound in the light of empirical evidence or reasoning. When I am confronted by some of the data in the psychedelic experience, I haven’t much more to say than that if anything is real, this is it.

Our mostly unsystematic experimentation with psychedelics can give rise to unexpected and, at times, profoundly disturbing phenomena. While the extraordinary character of these phenomena itself doesn’t reveal anything novel about the ultimate nature of things, I think it ‘raises the stakes’ by adding a certain urgency to the contemplation of ancient questions.

What are your thoughts on this? Could the psychedelic experience shed any light on the origin of imaginal content?


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facts and values: bridging the chasm

That child is drowning. You should help her.

When you’re not wearing your philosophy pants, you might find the second sentence of this coolly-stated argument to flow naturally from the first. But when you’re forced to abide by the laws of logic, you may suddenly find the procession from the one to the other impossible. The difficulty is that the first sentence expresses a descriptive fact about the way the world is, while the second expresses a value, a prescription of what one ought to do, that appears to make no necessary reference to the fact.

The conceptual gap between these two kinds of statements is made explicit by the brilliant 18th century Scottish philosopher David Hume. In the Treatise of Human Nature, Hume observes that philosophers ‘proceed for some time in the ordinary way of reasoning’ with regard to observations concerning human affairs, ‘when of a sudden, I am surprised to find that instead of the usual copulations of is and is not, I meet with no proposition that is not connected with an ought, or an ought not. As this ought or ought not expresses some new relation or affirmation ‘tis necessary that it be observed and explained; and at the same time a reason should be given for what seems altogether inconceivable, how this new relation can be a deduction from others which are entirely different from it’ (Bk 1, Pt 1, §1).

I don’t wish to disagree with Hume that values are not logically entailed by facts about the world, and that the two are conceptually distinct. And this is, as far as I understand, all that he meant to uphold. But there is a more radical construal of the fact/value dichotomy, sometimes left unarticulated but pervasive in popular thought, according to which fact and value come apart in reality; the two are not only conceptually but are fundamentally distinct. I think this misunderstanding arises from and is reinforced by the abstract cases that make it difficult to see that facts come packaged with values.

It is true that in the case of deductive reasoning, which makes use of propositions abstracted from concrete states of affairs, facts and values are employed in a way that makes them seem wholly independent from one another. But it seems this way not because facts are in reality devoid of value. What is easily overlooked is that somebody selected that fact, among infinitely many others, as worthy of attending to. When the descriptive fact, “that child is drowning”, is declared by a concerned onlooker, it is selected among so many possible alternative facts (e.g. “the water is warm” and “that is a nice bathing suit”). It is chosen because the concerned onlooker considers it more worthy than these other relatively unimportant facts. And when I choose to use “That child is drowning” as an example of a descriptive fact, I am selecting it in favor of other possible examples because I consider it a better way to illustrate the concept of a descriptive fact. That is the value from which the fact is borne out.

The motives that guide a selection among facts, though they’re sometimes suggested by the context, are seldom suggested by the bare fact. They can be especially well hidden when the facts are at a second or third remove from a concrete state of affairs, like in the case of scientific claims or the premises of an argument. But that the presence of value in fact is disguised or dimly perceived is an epistemological difficulty, and to conclude from that difficulty that facts and values are two fundamentally different species, completely independent and never interacting, is a mistake. In reality, facts and values are co-instantiated, and to separate them is to rip reality in two.


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the view from nowhere and self-identity

If you’ve read any of Thomas Nagel’s work, then you’re probably familiar with his favorite problem: the problem we face as human beings of reconciling an agent-centered, subjective “view from here” with a centerless and objective “view from nowhere”. This latter perspective, a sort of “God’s eye view”, is possible by virtue of our human capacity to detach ourselves from the peculiar coloring of our own point of view. The clash of these two perspectives is manifest in the areas of ethics, metaphysics, epistemology and the philosophy of death. Nagel gives it a thorough treatment in connection with each of these areas in his well-known book The View From Nowhere. But I want to focus very briefly on the appearance of this problem in connection with the philosophy of self identity.

Only from a detached point of view can we support the theory that bodily continuity, or sameness of the physical body from one moment to the next, is the right condition for ascribing selfhood to that body. And the same holds for theories of psychological continuity; it is from this same centerless perspective that we can observe behavioral and functional manifestations of beliefs, desires, memories, etc and are thus able to regard them as belonging to an ostensibly self-same individual. But psychological and physical continuity, while both may serve as conditions for the ascription of selfhood from a third-person or a centerless perspective, could never either of them figure in an explanation of the sense of self as experienced in the first-person, the view from here. For this a criterion for belongingness to a self and for a self seems needed, and without one, a satisfying answer to one who doubts one’s own existence seems impossible.

I suspect that there are more than a few interesting responses to this problem, and that at least one can be found in Wittgenstein. But because of my still impoverished understanding of his later work, I’m at a loss to find it.
Someone please help lead me out of this fly bottle…


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the significance of the name

As a careful preface to his bizarre and almost unbelievable cosmological story, Timaeus urged Socrates that “we should accept the likely tale on these matters. It behooves us not to look for anything beyond this” (Timaeus, 29d).

I’m not the first to have adapted a famous passage from a Platonic dialogue to a provocative title for a blog (the Partially Examined Life comes to mind, an outstanding blog and podcast). The name is admittedly a bit awkward. I would have chosen likelystories if it were still available; or thelikelystory, or alikelystory, or justalikelystory; but these too were all taken. So I opted for TheMostLikelyStory, which has the added advantage of sounding pretentious. So much for the name.

Tomorrow’s entry will be substantial, I promise 😉


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