Tuesday, 15 July 2014

The Epistemic Innocence of (Some) Psychedelic States

Chris Letheby
Greetings! I'm a Ph.D. student at the University of Adelaide, Australia, writing a thesis on philosophical issues concerning scientific research into psychedelic drugs. This research raises questions in bioethics, philosophy of mind, philosophy of psychiatry, philosophy of self, naturalised epistemology, and philosophy of cognitive science. In this post I propose that some psychedelic states are epistemically innocent imperfect cognitions. I have omitted citations for stylistic reasons but will gladly supply them on request.

Psychedelic (or 'hallucinogenic') drugs are once again being studied as psychotherapeutic and transformative agents, and results thus far are intriguing. There is evidence that a single administration of a psychedelic can yield durable improvement in symptoms of such conditions as obsessive compulsive disorder, treatment-resistant depression, addiction, and anxiety associated with terminal illness. Moreover, psychedelic experiences have been shown to cause lasting personality change in healthy adults.

Psychedelic subjects often feel they have gained knowledge through their drug experiences. From a naturalistic perspective (understood minimally as the denial of the existence of gods, brain-independent minds, etc.) one might think these subjects are simply mistaken. Psychedelic states undeniably involve misrepresentation of the external world (walls 'breathing', etc.) and this might suggest we should endorse the popular term 'hallucinogen' with its connotations that misrepresentation is the central and defining aspect of the psychedelic experience.

But this would be too quick. Considerations of space preclude a thorough defence, but I will now sketch some naturalistically acceptable reasons for thinking that at least some psychedelic states are epistemically innocent imperfect cognitions. They are imperfect cognitions in that they are sub-optimal with respect to the brain's usual methods of forming veridical representations of the world. To call them 'epistemically innocent' is just to say that they (a) yield a net epistemic benefit for a given subject at a given time, and (b) are epistemically superior to any alternative cognitions available to that subject at that time.

Why think psychedelic states can be epistemically innocent despite their cognitive imperfection? Recent theorising about the mechanisms of psychedelic therapy, based on neuroimaging studies of psilocybin, proposes that psychedelic states yield improvements in 'over-rigid' conditions such as depression because psychedelics temporarily unconstrain the mind, yielding a renewed flexibility of thought and imagination which outlasts the acute experience. In a psychedelic state, the cognitive system roams more freely and widely in state space than at other times, and it visits distant and previously unexplored regions of that space. This means that subjects gain firsthand, experiential knowledge about certain previously latent potentials of their own minds.

Furthermore, people suffering from depression—due to the cognitive rigidity I mentioned earlier—arguably suffer severe deficits in modal knowledge. Certain adaptive strategies—cognitive and behavioural—are in some sense possible for such subjects, but they are unable genuinely to imagine these possibilities, and hence unable to gain action-guiding knowledge about those possibilities. Thus, the psychedelic-induced restoration of cognitive and imaginative flexibility proposed by recent theorising may well be therapeutically effective precisely because it revitalises capacities which are essential for the acquisition of modal knowledge.

Coupled with the fact that psychedelic subjects typically retain insight regarding their experiences, this set of observations renders it plausible that some subjects gain a net epistemic benefit from a psychedelic experience. And the fact that some subjects had treatment-resistant depression suggests the unavailability (in a very practically relevant sense) of alternative cognitions for those subjects at the time of their treatment. Many issues remain, but the old idea of drug-induced knowledge acquisition merits serious attention, even given naturalism.


  1. Hi,
    I am a psychology student at the University of Adelaide and found this very interesting so thanks for posting it. Do you know if there are any research centers for the use of psychedelics in psychological treatment in Adelaide? Also, if you don't mind my asking, were you able to write your honors report centered around this topic? Thanks so much, Madeline.

  2. Hi Madeline,

    Thanks for your comment! Unfortunately there is no psychedelic research being done in Australia as yet, but this organisation is trying to change that: www.prism.org.au. I did an M.Phil. rather than an Hons. degree at Adelaide, but my interest in psychedelic research only began shortly before my admission to the Ph.D. so I haven't done any work on the topic prior to this thesis. I don't know what the prospects would be for researching it in other disciplines, but I'd be very interested to hear!

    All the best,

  3. Hi Madeline,

    Further to the above, here's an encouraging update on the topic of psychedelic research in Australia (even though MDMA is often considered an 'entactogen' rather than a psychedelic proper):



  4. Hey,
    I am writing an argument research essay on this topic and would love to use your paper as a resource but I will need all the citations. It would be great if you can provide them to me asap please. Thanks.

  5. Hi there! Thanks for your interest, and sorry for the late reply. My paper on which this post is based will shortly be coming out in the journal Consciousness & Cognition. In the meantime, a final (pre-publication) draft, containing the full reference list, can be found here: https://www.academia.edu/18974403/The_Epistemic_Innocence_of_Psychedelic_States

    Another paper of mine on similar themes is here:

    All the best with your essay! (I hope this isn't too late to be helpful...)


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