Tuesday, March 05, 2013

Tripping out

Matt McCormick said...

In my drug experimentation days, I was frequently struck by how powerful the feelings of poignancy and meaningfulness could be, especially about completely pointless stuff. If you can put a compound into your system and your brain's reaction is to have staggering feelings of hyperreligiousness, poignancy, and significance, how can we trust those feelings at face value in other cases where they happen?

The implied argument here appears to be that if apparent religious experiences can be induced by psychedelic drugs, then religious experience is just a figment of our imagination.

But there are several rather obvious problems with that argument:

i) Psychedelic drugs (e.g. LSD, Amanita muscaria) can cause us to hallucinate physical objects. By parity of argument, does that mean we should be sceptical of sense knowledge? If an acid trip causes me to hallucinate a tree that isn’t really there, then should I doubt the existence of trees and other empirical objects?

ii) To be sceptical of an experience I had when I was under the influence of hallucinogens is scarcely reason to be sceptical of my experiences when I’m stone cold sober.

iii) Since our brain is an important part of how we normally perceive reality, why wouldn’t we expect God to use our brains to experience him?


  1. What about the opposite conclusion steve? Namely, that the atheism the atheist professes is just a trick of his brain?

    Why target just theology and spirituality? If your going to be consistent, shouldn't you doubt it all? Even your doubts about doubts?

    Im an old school punker and one of my favorite bands DK had a song called "take this job and shove it", man replace job with atheism, cause Im so sick of the BullS!!!!

    Aint nothing cool about pissing in the wind, bro

  2. I guess that would lead me to a question about how you would respond to those who assert that Revelation must have been written while John was under the influence of some sort of psychedelic or other hallucinogen?

    I mean, one could counter that Revelation isn't just a bunch of random images, but it follows a tight, coherent narrative - but Samuel Taylor Coleridge's "Kubla Khan" was inspired by an opium dream and follows its own story with a pretty coherent narrative.

    I ask mainly because I'm sure every Christian who's been through college has heard that John the Revelator "obviously" inhaled a pile of shrooms before putting pen to paper.

    1. Because we have no actual evidence that the Apocalypse was drug-induced. Would John even have access to hallucinogens on Patmos?

      Moreover, the Bible contains lots of visions like this. Were all the seers high?

    2. That's true, I forgot that Patmos was a prison camp of sorts, if I recall correctly.

    3. In my experience, those who accuse John of writing when he was high say that because they think Revelation is unintelligible. But any good commentary will document the fact that this is a very sophisticated literary production.

    4. It doesn't even have the word "dude" in it!

    5. I might have more to add later but just a quick point or two for now:

      1. Wouldn't the Bible frown upon a drug-induced altered state of consciousness wherein we "lose ourselves" (e.g. inebriation from alcohol)? If so, then why would God sanction prophetic visions caused in a similar manner?

      2. Just because x has been shown to produce y doesn't necessarily mean only x produces y.

    6. Maybe one way to start to address the question is as follows:

      1. There are various categories of psychotic disorders. I suppose the most relevant one would be substance-induced psychosis. Broadly speaking this could be due either to substance intoxication or substance withdrawal.

      2. Hallucinogens would probably be most relevant to the question at hand. Nowadays common hallucinogens are LSD, cannabis, ecstasy, PCP, mescaline, psilocybin, and salvia.

      Let's take LSD. LSD is highly potent. LSD intoxication is characterized by perceptual changes, mood changes, tachycardia, hypertension, mydriasis, and tremors.

      Thus, if we had to see whether John experienced LSD intoxication, then we could start by seeing whether there's any evidence in Revelation or elsewhere that John experienced these signs or symptoms.

      3. Actually, let's take a further step back. We can ask, is there evidence in Revelation that John experienced any relevant neurological signs or symptoms? Say dizziness, migraines, paranoia, seizures, etc.? What about a reduced clarity of awareness of his environment with a diminished ability to focus, sustain, and shift attention? Is there evidence he had a wandering attention or was easily distractible? Did he experience a change in cognition like memory deficits, disorientation in time or place or person, or language disturbances? Did his disturbances in consciousness fluctuate in and out? These latter signs or symptoms may be indicative of delirium which in turn can be associated with various toxins or substance withdrawals.

      4. A hallucinogen doesn't necessarily only affect the neurological system though. There can also be other effects elsewhere in our bodies. Is there any evidence John experienced other effects? For example:

      a. Cardiac: chest pain, hypertension, palpitations, tachycardia, bradycardia.
      b. Respiratory: respiratory depression, dyspnea, hyperventilation, hypoventilation.
      c. Gastro: nausea, vomiting, constipation, change in appetite.
      d. Musculoskeletal: muscle spasms, jaw clenching, tremors, convulsions, shifts in psychomotor activity.
      e. Renal/urinary: polyuria, dysuria.
      f. Other: sluggishness, lethargy, restlessness, decreased or increased pain perception, dry mouth, mydriasis, passive behavior, aggressive behavior.

      5. I may be able to elaborate on more particluar effects if we have a specific drug(s) in mind. Although the drug should obviously be a drug that would've been available on Patmos in the first century. For instance, I've read some have implicated the use of ergot in ancient Greece. Depending on the level of ergot toxicity, its duration, and other factors, this could cause ergotism (aka St. Anthony's Fire). But I don't see evidence John experienced symptoms associated with ergotism or the like.

      6. Of course, the skeptic might respond that absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. However I would think this raises other issues such as why should the burden of proof be on the Christian at this point.