Measured Against Reality

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Faith's Evolution, as demonstrated by psilocybin.

Researchers at Johns Hopkins have found that psilocybin, the hallucinogen in peyote and other psychedelic mushrooms, can trigger “mystical experiences”.

Technically this isn’t new news. It’s been known for a while that psilocybin can have these effects. But what is novel is the rigorous and longitudinal design of the study. This gives the findings much more weight.

Continue reading...The study focused on people with heavily religious backgrounds, feeling that they would be best able to interpret the results as mystical. In my opinion, also adds some comparative value, as these people are more likely to have had previous mystical experiences, if only feeling “in the presence of God.”

When they took the drug, a full third of the participants felt it was the most meaningful experience of their lives, and another third ranked it in the top five.

This is mind boggling to me. Can you imagine tripping on shrooms being more meaningful than having a child, graduating from college, or falling in love? Maybe it’s one of those things you really have to do to understand.

Regardless, the researchers shy away from the religious implications of this, giving the old standby of “This work can't and won't go there.” Which is good science. The material cannot address the immaterial; the physical cannot address the metaphysical.

However, I think you can infer enough to make the argument. After all, a mushroom triggered the most meaningful experience of some of these people’s lives. The drug can only act on pathways in the brain, pathways that can be triggered in other ways, possibly independent of drugs.

All that happened was an alteration of the participants’ state of consciousness; and it occurred completely naturally. Natural mechanisms lead to mystical experiences that will be interpreted supernaturally without proper context. Hence they lead those ignorant of the phenomenon’s natural origin to some kind of supernatural conclusions. Is this how religion started? It’s been hypothesized before.

But what’s really telling is that 79% of the participants felt that their lives improved afterward, and this was corroborated by family and friends. Mystical experiences on their own aren’t necessarily a survival advantage, but if they can improve your mood and outlook toward life for an extended period of time then they very well could be. Human faith has been explained many times before as conferring a survival or reproductive advantage upon the faithful, (Matthew Alper’s The God Part of the Brain is one example). Now it seems that mystical experiences, which can be a key part of faith, are also.

It would appear that the evidence for all parts of human faith having evolved is mounting. I find it ironic that soon scientists will understand the faithful better than the faithful understand themselves.

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4 Comments:

  • Have you read Sam Harris's "The End Of Faith"? After viciously condemning religion, he talks about the need to more closely examine the neurological processes that govern our consciousness. He hopes that a rational approach to "spiritual" experiences could remove the need for the ones allowed by religions. He's studied Buddhist and other meditation techniques, for instance, and seems to have an (only philosophical?) interest in mind-altering drugs.

    Here's a quote from the book that mentions psilocybin:
    When one looks at our drug laws...the only organizing principle that appears to make sense of them is that anything which might radically eclipse prayer or procreative sexuality as a source of pleasure has been outlawed. In particular, any drug (LSD, mescaline, psilocybin, DMT, MDMA, marijuana, etc.) to which spiritual or religious significance has been ascribed by its users has been prohibited. Concerns about the health of our citizens, or about their productivity, are red herrings in this debate, as the legality of alcohol and cigarettes attests.

    By Blogger Jeremy, at 1:19 AM, August 14, 2006  

  • Experiential knowledge, rather than knowledge through assertion or evidentiary belief, is extremely valuable. I've taken psilocin/psilocybin mushrooms, and they will completely tear your world apart. They act on the pineal gland, producer of serotonin and melatonin, the tryptamine link between the material world of molecules and the mindblowingly expletive world of experience.

    I know you've condemned drugs for all time, and I greatly respect that. Hell, you know I wasted a great deal of my young life on the damn things, but I came out of it with a mindful of knowledge and respect for both the material and the spiritual and a belief and both and yet neither.

    All is one, as you know. I had an argument today with my composition professor about the meaning of the English prefix uni- as in unicycle (meaning one wheel) or unisex (per bathroom or hair salon) meaning all-inclusive.

    Is it all or one or both?

    The answer is yes.

    By Blogger Red Fish Blue Fish, at 6:53 PM, September 11, 2006  

  • Psilocybin is NOT the active ingredient in peyote. The active ingredient in peyote is mescaline.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 7:53 PM, June 30, 2007  

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