The Ultimate Thought Experiment


Imagine taking a substance that alters your perception of reality such that the language you have developed so far according to your naturally occurring experience is useless to convey these new thoughts. But you know they make sense, and you know if you could talk about them they would make sense to others too.

Well, you can’t really, unless you’re the one taking the trip down these newly carved neuronal pathways. In this case, it’s me and the magic mushrooms I just took. I came out on the other side all shaken up/out and with one main question: If a philosopher takes a mind-altering drug alone in her room, is she still philosophizing?

Let me start off by saying it is very rare for me. In the few times I have taken psychedelics I have been too modest in my dose to achieve anything resembling a trip (with the exception of salvia, which I do not recommend). This is the first I’d felt, if I can attempt a vague metaphor, an opening of the mind. I thought I’d have to wait until my deathbed to have any entirely new thoughts, and yet here they were a fungi away.  I felt frightened, exhilarated, frustrated, and like I wish I did this more often, though my typical arrangement does not think that’s a good idea.

I’ll stop here at the risk of sounding…mystical…and ask the questions which belong here more than my half-baked attempts to translate what just happened. How do drugs and philosophy mix? Do they? Should they? Are drugs opposed to philosophy, which should require consistency and clarity of thought, or are they tools to philosophy for the gift of the unique perspective? Or are they better done and not spoken of, as in “whereof one cannot speak, thereof one should remain silent“?

Neuroscientist/philosopher/wordsmith Sam Harris broaches the very subject in the first entry of his Waking Up podcast, entitled Drugs and the Meaning of Life. Listen or read it here. He supports what he calls the”fundamental right to peacefully steward the contents of one’s own consciousness” while acknowledging the risks involved. In any case he gives the following disclaimer to keep in mind: “Psychedelics do not guarantee wisdom or clear recognition of the selfless nature of consciousness. They merely guarantee that the contents of consciousness will change.” 

And that’s just it. They liberate your mind from familiar patterns, from the boring to the psychologically destructive, and in that way remind us that we are not as stuck as we think we are. That’s where psychedelics can come in handy artistically and clinically. Philosophically, they might just give us more to contemplate and give us a different angle from which to contemplate the familiar.

They can also make you lose your grip in the bad way, and like maybe some things are better left unawares. Says Harris, who’s been there:

“If you are lucky, and you take the right drug, you will know what it is to be enlightened (or to be close enough to persuade you that enlightenment is possible). If you are unlucky, you will know what it is to be clinically insane. While I do not recommend the latter experience, it does increase one’s respect for the tenuous condition of sanity, as well as one’s compassion for people who suffer from mental illness.”

But it’s a risk that I’m going to keep taking, and one that I will recommend.  Just try not to assign value judgments to any new thoughts.  If there was ever a time to be a relativist it’s definitely while on drugs.  And that’s why I’m not really making any point here. Just the suggestion to give yourself a philosophical shake out and try some drugs. Observe yourself on the drugs. When you come back to reality, you can pick and choose what new thoughts and perspectives enhance it.





10 thoughts on “The Ultimate Thought Experiment

  1. You write, “But it’s a risk that I’m going to keep taking, and one that I will recommend.”

    Such a position strikes me as stupid. Why would anyone dose themselves with substances that bring about experiences that cannot be articulated? How is doing drugs any different from doing religion?

    Go to the gym. Go for a twenty k hike.


    • Whoa Nelly! You’re going to have to answer to “why not?” before you go throwing around the s-word.

      Falling in love is also an inarticulable experience but I doubt you’d recommend against it. It sounds like it’s the natural high you’re a fan of, exclusively.

      There were a lot of articulable ones, too. “Revelations”, if you will. I kept them! Perhaps it’s the insights that can be “unlocked” that makes it so promising in treating depression. What do you think of the trial?

      The drugs + religion parallel is worth discussing though. I guess one difference, in this case, is that I refuse to take what I couldn’t make sense of at the time back into my sober reality instead of trying to force it in. Hence the experiment 😉


    • Ha I can’t tell if this is a reference this part of my bullshit work story or you’re trying to freak me out and know this would do it. Oh no, I can’t banter anymore…I need to lay off the shrooms!


  2. EVERYONE knows the difference between imagining a thing and believing in its existence, between supposing a proposition and acquiescing in its truth. In the case of acquiescence or belief, the object is not only apprehended by the mind, but is held to have reality. Belief is thus the mental state or function of cognizing reality. As used in the following pages,’Belief’ will mean every degree of assurance, including the highest possible certainty and conviction.

    There are, as we know, two ways of studying every psychic state. First, the way of analysis: What does it consist in? What is its inner nature? Of what sort of mind-stuff is it composed? Second, the way of history: What are its conditions of production, and its connection with other facts?

    From William James – Go here.


  3. Ahhh, the ineffable. Go here for a review of a new book.

    Jonas begins by arguing that there are four types of entity which might be called ineffable. First, there are ineffable objects or properties, like ‘the Absolute’ or ‘the One’ (as in Hegel and Plotinus). Second, there are ineffable propositions — truths which cannot be linguistically uttered or communicated. Third, there are ineffable contents, mental states that cannot be linguistically expressed. And fourth, there is ineffable knowledge, epistemic states that are not linguistically communicable. There is clearly overlap between these, since knowledge is a mental state which seeks to express some sort of objective reality, but Jonas uses the division to allow her to consider — and largely reject – a number of different moves in contemporary philosophy which might be thought to support claims to ineffability.

    Liked by 1 person

Please join the discussion!

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s