DMT Dialogues: Encounters with the Spirit Module
David Luke and Rory Spowers (eds.) | 352 pages | Park Street Press | Aug. 2018 | ISBN: 9781620557471 | $18.99
On Saturday, I wrote a bit about Jason Silva’s recent interview with the Daily Grail discussing awe, wonder, and the connection between altered states of consciousness and the experience of the sublime. I was somewhat critical of Silva’s approach, but after I published my post, Silva contacted me to talk about some of the issues involved. We had a productive and interesting conversation, and I was impressed that he was well-informed and thoughtful in considering some of the more challenging areas of the quest for the sublime. That’s really unusual for a TV personality. Trust me on that. I went to school with enough of them, and have met still more. Silva and I likely won’t agree completely, but it was a refreshing change from the usual round of vitriol and threatened lawsuits from the people whose work I’ve discussed on this blog to have an actually enjoyable conversation. Be sure to check out Silva’s YouTube channel, Shots of Awe, where he posts his thoughts about truth, beauty, science, and philosophy.
His recent video about psychedelic therapies and mental health is particularly relevant because it is a more rational and practical version of the topic of the book under review today.
Since Silva’s brand is inspiration, I found a bit of inspiration in our discussion to take on related topic that is usually a bit beyond my purview. An upcoming new release called DMT Dialogues: Encounters with the Spirit Molecule, due out in August, is an edited volume with chapters by a number of prominent figures in the nebulous field of “consciousness” studies, including Dennis McKenna, Erik Davis, Rupert Sheldrake, and Graham Hancock, originally presented at a British conference in 2015. The theme of the volume is ostensibly the mysteries of N,N-Dimethyltryptamine, a hallucinogenic substance best known as the active ingredient in ayahuasca, a plant used in South American shamanic rituals and in New Age spiritual questing. But the actual content of the book is weirder, focusing as it does on whether taking drugs can turn our brains into Wi-Fi hotspots to connect with space aliens or transdimensional godlike beings. This is an extreme, even fantastical form of what Silva had described as the therapeutic value of psychedelics.
The conference speeches offer a raft of unusual, Romantic, and at times irrational hypotheses to explain the visions experienced while tripping on DMT. These hypotheses include, in no particular order, recognition that our universe is a simulation, access to parallel universes via the multiverse, contact with spirit beings from an ethereal plane, contact with space aliens who engineered DMT to communicate across interstellar space, and Scientology-like interdimensional souls in “DMT World” who incarnate in human bodies. Oh, and of course mechanical elves. But all of these hypotheses share something in common. Their advocates take it for a given that an internal hallucinogenic experience cannot be confined to the random firings of the brain or the random release of brain chemicals and therefore must be connected to something larger and greater and more important. At heart, this is not a book about DMT. It is a quest for meaning in the cosmos by people who feel but cannot quite express the deep tension that exists between our emotional experience of the world as humans and the material functioning of the universe revealed by science.
The foundational problem is one inherent in the scientific project. Everyone involved in the book recognizes science as important, powerful, and prestigious, but they all attack it, at angles. Science is predicated on methodological naturalism, which is the assumption that the universe operates from material causes according to natural laws. While this assumption does not preclude the existence of the supernatural per se, it does mean that science inevitably explains the operations of the universe in material terms, shading heavily into outright materialism. Since the Victorian era, philosophers and scientists alike have recognized that the ability to understand reality without reference to God or the gods provides an essential argument for atheism. And those who quest for visions and omens and portents, and who want to speak with gods and angels and spirits, are deeply upset by the possibility of a material cosmos and yet find science so compelling that they cannot embrace traditional modes of faith.
The reason for that can be found in the offhand references advocates make to their concern about finding meaning or avoiding meaninglessness. In an atheistic cosmos, entirely made of matter and energy, there is no objective meaning, only a subjective one. I am not declaring that this is the actual universe we live in, but it is the one that the book’s authors fear. Without some sort of supernatural architecture to lay down the universe’s eternal law and declare our actions good or evil, the only meaning in our lives is the one we assign to it. Our visions are just hallucinations, our experience of the sublime but a bath in brain chemicals. Love and laughter, connection and camaraderie are but transient feelings produced by evolutionary forces and neurotransmitters. When we are gone, neither the stars nor the planets nor the cold gulfs of space will care that these flashes of electricity passed between our neurons. That leaves us as individuals to develop our own meaning and to claw from the icy edges of the infinite a sense of purpose and a reason to be.
Not everyone is able to do this. For many, it is terrifying to contemplate the possibility that in a real sense, we are alone. Descartes struggled to justify how we can know we are not all that exists, hallucinating the world beyond us. Early explorers pushed to the edges of the Earth in hopes of learning that we are not alone in our community, country, or continent. We scan space looking for others beyond our species. And the men—and they are mostly all men—writing in this book take drugs in the hope of breaking the walls of reality to peer behind the veil and prove to themselves that there is meaning in the world through recourse to the supernatural, that at some ultimate level they are not alone. One of the book’s editors admits this himself, writing that the purpose of these papers was to explore how “the synthesis of Science and Spirit, and even direct experience of the divine, [will] reshape our worldview.” He suggested that DMT research will prove that consciousness is an independent supernatural force in opposition to matter, but what he really means is that he hopes to go back before science had undermined spirit, to a time when the world was alive with animist forces. It is, at root, a fantasy.
After all, this is a book where one speaker, super-rich property developer Anton Bilton, who hosted the symposium, expected his audience to take seriously his belief that while tripping “in the astral” (presumably the astral plane of spiritualism) he met Hellboy (i.e., “a monstrous, horned, ten-foot-tall demon … his huge muscles rippling under his red leathery skin”) who told him in foul-mouthed British English that “you fucking humans” are too “bloody arrogant” before grabbing him by the neck to show him visions of the End Times. Bilton, who seems to lack a sense of the ridiculous, called this “more real than real” and said its reality pushed his “intuitive truth button.” The demon lectured him on the insignificance of humanity before the many bureaucratic hierarchies of angels and demons, and I wondered why exactly all these superior beings spend their free time haranguing drugged up humans. Is it similar to Thomas Aquinas’ cruel idea in Summa Theologica (supplement to Part 3, 94.1) that the sport of heaven is watching the torment of the damned? (Cf. Tertullian, De Spectaculis 30 and Augustine, City of God 20.22.)
I have spoken many times in the past of my own experiences seeing hyperreal visions in an altered state of consciousness when I was a child, brought on by illness and sleep deprivation. My visions were just as real but utterly absurd. At one point I sat amidst glowing blue vines and iridescent purple flowers with a frog wearing a leather jacket and a 1980s punk hairdo. Later in life, I met demons between wake and sleep, but they dissolved before my touch… because they weren’t really there, at least in no material sense. Yes, the visions felt real, but in what sense were they actually real? That question is perhaps philosophical, but lacking any testable way to distinguish between contact with another realm and a hallucination—they never seem to deliver any quantifiably useful data—it is ultimately a matter of faith, not science. (The conference participants idly speculate that perhaps they could ask their own demons for a fact not yet known to science to prove their otherworldly origin, but they never try.)
The core issue is the question of how to evaluate a set of indisputable facts. It is true that consuming hallucinogens such as DMT will induce an altered state of consciousness in which the user will see images from a storehouse of shapes and sensations that appear universally in the human mind, regardless of culture. But that is where the indisputable facts basically stop. How those shapes and sensations are interpreted vary according to cultural expectations, as David Lewis-Williams described in The Mind in the Cave. For example, a jagged line might appear a snake or a lighting bolt. A humanoid figure might seem to be a god, a demon, an ancestor, or a loved one. Lewis-Williams, taking the approach of methodological naturalism, explains these visions in terms of the conscious mind attempting to make sense of random internal stimuli derived from the evolution and architecture of the brain. But if you do not accept a material explanation, then it might also be valid to interpret these visions in terms of the supernatural or the divine. This, however, becomes problematic because the supernatural cannot be proved using naturalistic methods, and because it becomes challenging to demonstrate to someone who is not a believer how we can distinguish between the supernatural and Lewis-Williams’s explanation, given that both yield identical appearances, and only one can be tested. The conference attendees dance around some of these issues, but they never consider, formally, whether their experiences might be nothing but meaning they have constructed from random stimuli and cultural conditioning.
Bilton argues that the importance of DMT trips is that “entity encounters” are meaningful to the experiencer, and this might have been a useful point except that he then classified all types of entities, from aliens to fairies to “sexy succubi” as literal gods, and reality as “subjective.” He specifically complains that science (or “scientism,” the application of science to nonscientific questions) has crushed the supernatural out of existence. Another speaker railed against materialism and physicalism and tried to draw on premodern philosophy to wish them away. And yet at the same conference on the same day Bilton spoke, Dennis McKenna crushed the spiritual right out of the sacred to rapt applause from the same audience that had just acclaimed the opposite. McKenna attributed ancient Egyptian beliefs to DMT and entered into dialogue with an impressed Graham Hancock about whether the Egyptian “Tree of Life” was actually Acacia nilotica, a DMT-bearing plant, a claim Hancock found “a revelation … extraordinary!” Even in grasping for the otherworldly, they can’t help but try to cast it in the language of science to give the cover of the scientific to a quest for the profoundly unscientific—the spiritual.
It probably means something that H. P. Lovecraft’s name came up in the discussions at the conference, with attendees wondering how Lovecraft could have “known” in his story “From Beyond” that stimulation of the pineal gland gives access to supernatural entities, as they believe DMT acts on the body. The reference in Lovecraft’s story is to Descartes’s fanciful claim (extrapolated from Galen’s theories) that the pineal gland connected the soul to the body, but the conference attendees, who care not for literary analysis, instead declare that they cannot explain such a mystery and instead speculate whether Gothic horror and Theosophy both were drawing on a secret store of mystical knowledge from the dream world, alleging that Lovecraft gained all of his story ideas from dreams. The dream claims are overstated; they provided impressions and emotions, but the stories themselves were carefully constructed from a variety of traceable influences. In truth, Theosophy and weird fiction influenced each other, via fringe historical claims about Atlantis and Lemuria, driving one another to ever more extreme and bizarre ideas that eventually escaped reality altogether. Bulwer-Lytton’s science-fiction substance vril ended up in Theosophy, and their Venusian interstellar ships became UFOs. None of it was real, just a merry-go-round of mutual delusion. McKenna, Davis, and the rest said they pitied Lovecraft for being a materialist who refused to fully embrace the alternate dimensions of reality they think he accessed in his dreams. Many, many years ago, when I demonstrated that Lovecraft’s fiction was deeply connected to the fringes of science, archaeology, and history, many of these same people—particularly Hancock—were angry and offended. Now they openly discuss Lovecraft as a prophet. I’m not sure that this is progress.
Writer Erik Davis is admirably blunt in admitting the underlying truth. He spoke of his concern about “modernity” and his worry that science “controls” knowledge and has “disenchanted” the world, and he explicitly claims that “materialism” is an enemy that the “spiritual” must conquer. Psychedelic drugs are, for him, a gateway to the old animist world before science and industry, before the stress of work and bills and politics. They are a silver key back to glories and freedom of childhood, when imagination made the world seem magical. Underneath some fancy claims about the occult and spiritual traditions, he implies that the drugs are hope against the darkness. “Psychedelics open up a space for new kinds of religious experience, for new kinds of mysticism, and for new ways of thinking about God.” I find that sad, to be honest. It seems like an admission of failure.
At one point, neurobiologist Andrew Gallimore comes close to the abyss as he tries to interrogate whether the “DMT World” is “real” and whether the world outside our heads is “real.” He comes perilously close to solipsism, since it is ultimately impossible to prove conclusively to ourselves that anything exists beyond our own minds—reality could always be an illusion—but he pulls back by suggesting that DMT accesses “information” from a hypothetical other world that our brains reconstruct based on cultural input. How is this different from hallucinating and dreaming? Faith, I suppose. He claims that he can resolve all of the problems of mind and body by declaring reality subjective, a creation of our minds. “We need to basically forget about the objective world,” Gallimore said, if we want to accept the DMT world in our mind as equally real to physical reality. He even speculates that everything around us is a simulation or an illusion. But if our minds can create reality, then how do we know we are not all there is? Solipsism it is, then.
Rupert Sheldrake speculates on the nature of God and whether DMT can connect us to God. He also talks about the fact that he believes that science and faith are both arguments from authority for all but the elite, since only a small number of people ever actively engage with their ideas at the granular level. Therefore, he concludes that argument and analysis are irrelevant to the understanding of reality and only “direct experience” can create deep understanding. This is less an argument for DMT than it is an argument for education.
Hancock delivers a lecture on the similarities between DMT and UFO abductions, and he draws on a lot of bad data and old chestnuts drawn from ancient astronaut theories and ufology, from the “UFO” in Aert de Gelder’s Baptism of Christ to the Betty and Barney Hill abduction to the faulty Passport to Magonia of Jacques Vallée, attributing all of this not to the demonstrable influences on ancient astronauts and ufology (not to mention frauds) but to a supernatural realm of pure form. He never bothers to explain why we should assume that similarities between ufology, folklore, and DMT tripping should connect to an objectively real otherworld rather than an internal mental one; it is simply assumed. He cites David Lewis-Williams approvingly, but again claims that only a supernatural realm can adequately explain what would otherwise be seen as internal mental phenomena. “I’m not aware of anything in science that allows us to reduce hallucinations to changes in the brain activity that accompany them,” he says, omitting that nothing in science supports spirit dimensions of gods and monsters either. Hancock is an odd case in that he recognizes that his DMT trips are not “really” happening; instead, he attributes the impulse behind the hallucination to information leaking into his head from occult intelligences via a “secret door” in his mind. This seems to be a question of faith, though, insofar as such a dimension exists outside of physical reality. He says that he refuses to accept a material explanation because he can conceive of no evolutionary purpose for DMT visions. It does not occur to him that they could also be an accidental side-effect of other processes rather than a naturally selected development. But that would be because he is uninterested in evolutionary theory, despite opining about it. That’s why he speculates that aliens could have seeded the universe via panspermia and encoded DMT receptors into our DNA so we could communicate with them across space and time. However, he said he prefers parallel universes to ancient astronauts.
At the end, DMT researcher Rick Strassman said that he started his research assuming that DMT experiences were simply hallucinations, but he discovered that this was unsatisfying because users didn’t want to share with him their darkest secrets if they sensed that he thought they were seeing things. So, he began to act as though the experiences were from another reality, and then his research subjects talked his ear off about their trips. He understands that getting to the nature of the objective or subjective reality of a DMT experience is difficult, but he also claims to believe that the distinction between the real and unreal is “facile.” He cites the Hebrew Bible as a guide and argues that its “sophisticated” view of religion provides an organizing principle that can help us find the divine reason behind tripping balls. He swirls around an ecstatic acceptance of Biblical prophets as experiencing altered states of consciousness, and he suggests that prophets enter the DMT dream world, which he claims operates under Biblical principles such as “the Golden Rule.” This is best known as Christ’s Great Commandment (Luke 6:31), but here Strassman attributes it to Judaism (presumably Leviticus 19:18, 34), which is for him the objectively correct faith (well, he calls it “ethical monotheism”) because it matches his DMT experience. It does not occur to him that DMT experiences might draw on preexisting Judeo-Christian cultural beliefs operating through the believers’ minds. It is a strange speech, but an appropriate place to draw this discussion to a close since it returns us to the ultimate origin of the quest for another world—the effort to seek the divine. Strassman brings it back to the beginning, before Einstein and Darwin and the Enlightenment, when God the Father sat unchallenged on the throne and we never needed to think about anything because the answer was always God. “This God existed before, and will exist after, cause and effect,” Strassman said. But it is telling that he needs to appeal to psychedelic science to justify God’s existence in a modern, more secular era.
Formally, DMT Dialogues is a transcript of the conference, with each speaker’s speech given unrevised and verbatim, followed by audience discussion. I am impressed that anyone took such time to transcribe the whole thing word-for-word, but the downside is that the book is occasionally choppy and confusing, since unrevised spoken language rarely makes for a smooth reading experience. As a record of what true believers say to one another when no one is watching, it provides valuable insight into the cognitive processes of a group of people who want to use science to attack the findings of science in the hope of justifying their belief in the spiritual. But as either science or spirituality, it is an infertile hybrid, reducing the sacred to alchemical formulae and the scientific to an ill-understood respect for its outward forms. DMT Dialogues is suffused with references to Theosophy, science fiction, horror movies, mysticism, and all manner of outré topics on the edges of the intellectual world. Reading it proves that the quest for DMT “entities” was never about the drug, or “scientific” questions of consciousness. It was always a cry against the overwhelming fear that God is dead and we have killed him. The conference attendees don’t want to be alone in an unfeeling universe, and so they have conjured a whole dream world to escape into. Whether you choose to join them depends on how you elect to handle the tension between the material and the immaterial, the physical and the spiritual, the objective and the subjective.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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