Consciousness: co-extensive with emergence?

by Caspar Henderson

…And I have felt
A presence that disturbs me with the joy
Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime…

…A motion and a spirit, that impels
All thinking things, all objects of all thought,
And rolls through all things… 

These phrases from William Wordsworth’s Lines Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey (1798) will be familiar to readers of English literature, but what relevance do they have in a supposedly disenchanted age?

Following the discussion about panpsychism, or universal consciousness, between the novelist Philip Pullman and the philosopher Philip Goff that I described in A Conscious Universe?, I have been reading Michael Pollan’s book How To Change Your Mind: The New Science of Psychedelics (2018), and have been struck by the overlap with some of the experiences Pollan describes. In this passage, Bob Jesse, a former vice president at Oracle who seeks to revive the science of psychedelics “as a tool not so much of medicine as of spiritual development,” describes his own experience with LSD:

“…what opened up before me was, for lack a better word, a space, but not our ordinary concept of space, just the pure awareness of a realm without form and void of content. And into that realm came a celestial entity, which was the emergence of the physical world.  It was like the big bang, but without the boom or the blinding light. It was the birth the physical universe. In one sense it was dramatic — maybe the most important thing that ever occurred in the history of the world — yet it just sort of happened.”

Pollan asks him where he was in all this:

“I was a diffusely located observer. I was coextensive with emergence.” Here I let him know he was losing me. Long pause. “I’m hesitating because the word are an awkward fit; words seem so constraining.” Ineffability is of course a hallmark of the mystical experience. “The awareness transcends any particular sensory modality,” he explained, unhelpfully. Was it scary? “There was no terror, only fascination and awe.” Pause. “Um, maybe a little fear.”

From here on, Jesse watched (or whatever you call it) the birth of…everything, in the unfolding of an epic sequence beginning with the appearance of cosmic dust leading to the creation of the stars and then the solar systems, followed by the mergence of life and from there the arrive of “what we call humans,” then the acquisition of language and the unfolding of awareness, “all the way up to one’s self, here in this room, surrounded by my friends.” 

…How does this expanded awareness fit into the scope of things? “To the extent I regard the experience as veridical — and about that I’m still not sure — it tells me that consciousness is primary to the universe. In fact, it precedes it.”  Did he now believe consciousness exists outside the brain? He’s not certain. “But to go from being very sure that the opposite is true” — that conscious is the product of our grey matter —“to be sure is an immense shift.”  I asked him if agreed with something I’d read the Dalai Lama had said, that the idea that brains create consciousness — an idea accepted without question by most scientists — “is a metaphysical assumption, not a scientific fact.”

Exploration of the question of whether or not consciousness is co-extensive with emergence will continue. There has also been a revival of methodologically-rigorous study of the effects of psychedelics on human experience, beginning with the 2006 paper Psilocybin Can Occasion Mystical-Type Experiences by Roland Griffiths et al. And this is being picked up by some of those seeking radical change in the way society is organised. Gail Bradbrook, a co-founder of extinction Rebellion and a former biophysicist has called for “mass psychedelic disobedience.”

Back in the 1960s, scientific research into psychedelics was flourishing field in both the United States and Europe, and the drugs were shown to be effective in the treatment of depression, addiction and other disorders. But their use in the ‘counterculture’ of the time led to a backlash, and funding dried up. One of the reasons for the backlash, the psychiatrist Stanislav Grof suggests to Pollan, is that because the counterculture supposedly threatened unleashed the ‘Dionysian element’ in 1960s America, and this was seen as a threat to the country’s puritan values.

Roland Griffiths points out that U.S. culture is not the first to feel threatened by psychedelics. Centuries before, Spanish colonists had stamped the use of ‘magic mushrooms’ in Mexico. “That says something important about how reluctant cultures are to expose themselves too the changes these kinds of compounds can occasion,” Griffiths tells Pollan:

There is so much authority that comes out of the primary mystical experience that it can be threatening to existing hierarchical structures.

There are, of course, many ways to engage with the question of consciousness, and to approach cultural and political transformation. But it would seem ill-advised to dismiss psychedelic compounds altogether. Huston Smith, a scholar of comparative religion and volunteer in the Marsh Chapel Experiment, which took place at the height of the first wave of research into the effects of psychedelics, writes:

The Johns Hopkins experiment [from which the 2006 paper by Griffiths et al was a key output] shows — proves — that under controlled, experimental conditions, psilocybin can occasion genuine mystical experiences. It uses science, which modernity trusts, to undermine modernity’s secularism. In doing so, it offers hope of nothing less than a resacralization of the natural and social world, a spiritual revival that is our best defence against not only soullessness, but against religious fanaticism.

Caspar Henderson is an Associate at Perspectiva

Image: Diocese of Monmouth

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