#2 How does one not sound crazy when communicating highly subjective states brought on by psychedelics?
I read John C. Lilly’s second autobiography, The Scientist, to better understand his mind and methods. It is equally informative of his educational and career years as it is of his general eccentricity regarding his experiences. He speaks of making contact with nonhuman beings/intelligences; arguably pushes himself too far in his ketamine research to the point of almost drowning, being locked up in an insane asylum, and estranging himself from people close to him; and he comes back from his psychedelic experiences with detailed information about the current state of human affairs on earth in addition to the motives of nonhuman actors that have an interest in our evolution as a whole and Lilly’s evolution at the individual level. It is no wonder that he saved these subjective tales for his autobiography; there is no way he could have published this information in an academic context.
With the above said, my prompt for this post is: How does one not sound crazy when communicating highly subjective states brought on by psychedelics? My first intuition—and speaking from personal experience—is that when you tell someone something about the contents of a psychedelic experience, the reaction from your interlocutor is usually not good. They either don’t understand, cannot understand because they have never altered their consciousness before on psychedelics, or what you’re saying is just too far-fetched. It seems to me that if people are going to listen to what someone like Lilly has to say, (1) you have to be as well-known as Lilly, or (2) you have to find some way accordant with the current scientific paradigm in which we all live and agree upon. How does one prove what they experienced? That is a good question, one I won’t be able to answer just now. But I think researchers should at the very least apply a cultural relativist approach to the secondhand accounts they hear and the firsthand accounts they personally experience. Classical anthropologists know this well. When they went into the field to study a tribe, or perhaps a subculture today, they were required to have an open mind, to not pre-judge or judge that which their informants disclosed to them about what they themselves or their people experience or how they view the world. When the shaman or medicine wo/man makes a claim, it is not the anthropologist’s job to confirm or deny such claims; rather, they should document as much information as possible in an attempt to understand why these people believe what they do. When it comes to psychedelic research, the best thing researchers can do right now is record as many experiential reports as possible from their own or others’ experiences. In theory, we should find common denominators, recurrent phenomena depending on very specific factors such as dosage, timing of dosing intervals, cultural variables, food eaten, how much sleep one got the night before, ad infinitum.
Being a scientist, Lilly must have known that what he communicated in his books of personal, unprovable experiences would be criticized. But he reported anyway for the record. He probably saw the value of documenting his experiences for posterity since someone in the future, following his guidelines, might be able to reproduce his findings. I’m speculating of course, but I think he would agree to the importance of documenting one’s findings, whether published in a book, an online forum like Erowid.org, etc. I found Lilly’s self-experimentation with ketamine to be fascinating, especially the scientific rigor he applied to his trials.
In expanding one’s consciousness with or without drugs, how does one maintain normality within, as Lilly calls it, “human consensus reality”? Are psychedelic explorers bound to end up like Lilly and the pitfalls he experienced? I imagine the reason he got into some trouble was because he was exploring unknown methods with both LSD and ketamine that led him to unknown interior, or possibly exterior, realities. When working with psychedelics in a therapeutic context or experimenting in order to explore and push the boundaries of the known, keeping a highly skeptical attitude toward everything experienced seems absolutely necessary to guarantee normal functioning within normal, conservative* society. (*I say conservative not in a political sense, but rather conservative/sober reality vs. psychedelic/intoxicated reality.)
With regard to Lilly’s personality and scientific career, I say what the French say, chapeau, or hat’s off. I think those willing to do what he did should be allowed under the right conditions, as safely and responsibly as possible. After reading both of his solo autobiographies I have a good idea what he meant by programming and metaprogramming, however, I would still like to read one of his most famous books, Programming and Metaprogramming in the Human Biocomputer: Theory and Experiments. One of the greatest lessons we can take away from Lilly is his scientific attitude toward exploring sober and altered consciousness and the vast spectrum in between.
Lilly, J. C. (1988). The Scientist: A Metaphysical Autobiography. Berkeley, CA: Ronin Publishing.
For more information on Lilly’s life work, see https://www.johnclilly.com