Wednesday 15 May 2024

From Altered States to Metaphysics: The Epistemic Status of Psychedelic-induced Metaphysical Beliefs

Today's post is by Paweł Gładziejewski (Nicolaus Copernicus University) on his recent paper, "From Altered States to Metaphysics: The Epistemic Status of Psychedelic-induced Metaphysical Beliefs"  (Review of Philosophy and Psychology, 2023).

 Paweł Gładziejewski 

Psychedelic experiences sometimes lead people to revise their belief systems in far-reaching ways. My paper deals with the epistemic status of a particular class of beliefs that people sometimes acquire after a psychedelic session. These are the metaphysical beliefs about the fundamental nature of reality itself. Imagine someone in a deep psychedelic state, where their usual sense of self dissolves into an all-encompassing unity lacking an subject-object distinction. Chances are that the experience will inspire this person to modify her beliefs about the existence of God or the relation between consciousness and the physical world. Is updating metaphysical beliefs in this manner epistemically irrational? Or can psychedelic states, at times, rationally lead to a new perspective on reality? If so, then how?

In my paper, I argue that psychedelic states can play a positive epistemic role in a person’s epistemic life, acting as a (fallible) source of evidence or reasons. I develop this view in three steps.

First, I propose a general account of psychedelic-induced metaphysical belief changes as stemming from an epistemically transformative experience (in a technical sense introduced by Laurie Paul in her seminal work). I point to certain epistemologically relevant aspects of such transformations. For example, they do not involve an impediment of a person’s normal critical/rational faculties (metaphysical beliefs usually crystallize and stabilize during the sober “integration” stage that follows the psychedelic trip itself). Also, such transformations are graded and often involve belief revisions that are much subtler and less epistemically risky than full-blown mystical-experience-based religious conversions.

Second, I propose that psychedelic states can be treated as forms of radical metaphysical imagination, whereby a person temporarily gains a capacity to enter conscious states that are usually unavailable for neurotypical human subjects. These exotic states disrupt the structures of normal experience - related to time, space, or self – that underpin the Sellarsian “manifest” image of the world. As such, psychedelic experiences act as a form of exploration of one’s representational repertoire. I argue that bursts of such exploration can be epistemically beneficial in the long run.

Third, I show how such exploration can yield results that are evidentially relevant for metaphysics. For example, I argue that acute psychedelic experiences can undermine appeals to normal experience made in certain metaphysical debates (e.g. about the passage of time) or that they can validate certain concepts in metaphysics that have previously been posited on purely theoretical grounds (e.g. the notion of non-dual consciousness in recent debates on cosmospychism).

My hope is that this perspective offers a nuanced alternative to other prevalent approaches to the issue at hand. These alternatives include (1) treating psychedelic-induced metaphysical beliefs as ideations lacking any rational foundation or (2) treating such beliefs as directly, non-inferentially justified by their underlying experiences. While the first option might appear preferable to philosophical naturalists, the second tends to be favored by religiously minded authors. But there is an alternative on the table, one that treats non-ordinary experiences as epistemically relevant for metaphysics but evaluates whatever evidence they provide against a broader backdrop that includes other lines of inquiry, including science and philosophical reasoning.

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