#42 Are psychedelic visions physis or poiēsis?

What Is Philosophy of Technology? (Ch. 1) by Andrew Feenberg, pages 5-16

Again, another seemingly random-placed stream of a post, but if this is what I’m reading at the moment for my research, then this is what I do: I stream about whatever texts I’m reading whether for my journal articles, book, or podcasts.

Ok, now, we’re going to go deeper than usual in this blog. Are you ready? The kernel of the idea in my mind is ready to pop, but I don’t know how or in what direction this will happen. I’m excited to find out where my mind will take me, what I’m tapping into right now. This is when it gets freaky, also since we’re talking about psychedelics.

Book cover of a penny-farthing bicycle with one large wheel and one small wheel.
Philosopher of technology and critical theorist, Andrew Feenberg, wrote a great piece in 2006 called What Is Philosophy of Technology? as part of an edited volume. I highly recommend it for a quick pulse on what is a philosophy of technology. Later in the paper he speaks about different flavors or stances a philosopher might adopt when considering technology, such as determinism, instrumentalism, substantivism, and critical theory, i.e. differences between autonomous vs. humanly controlled and between neutral vs. value-laden. Additionally, and although he doesn’t speak of them, we can also think about technology in terms of technoscience postphenomenology (Ihde), mediation theory (Verbeek), actor-network theory (Latour), value-sensitive design (Friedman and Kahn), and so forth. But that is not my aim with this stream. I want to go back to the roots, the ancient Greek origins of nature and technological thinking, and Feenberg is our guide on this techno-historical safari.

Feenberg highlights two fundamental distinctions that originated with the Greeks and that lead up to and influence all of Western philosophy. The difference between physis and poiēsis and between existence and essence.

Physis can be defined as nature, a self-generating thing. Inanimate things such as rocks are a part of nature, but for argument’s sake and to put the kibosh on you panpsychists out there, let’s just say that physis encompasses all biological/“living” things, such as animals and plants. Poiēsis, on the other hand, is a human activity, the human production of artifacts such as art, craft, and social convention (Feenberg, 2006, 6). Within this poiēsis, this production of stuff by a living creature such as the human being, there is a subcategory called technē, which “signifies the knowledge or the discipline associated with a form of poiēsis … includes a purpose and a meaning for its artifacts … [showing] the ‘right way’ to do things in a very strong, even an objective, sense” (ibid.). Here we have two instances of creation or genesis: nature follows its evolved blueprints in making all of its creatures, they just seem to spring out of nowhere, they just are. How does this happen, what intelligence is behind the creation of life? On the other hand, one of nature’s creations, human beings, have the ability to also create, also by using nature’s raw materials. Other species also create, from birds making nests, beavers building dams to termites making colonies, but these forms of poiēsis pale in comparison to human creations. Right? I mean we split atoms and send dogs, monkeys, and people into space and even neighboring planetoids. One of our rich idiots even put a car in space just because he could!

I’m fascinated by the idea of presence vs. absence. Related to absence, I love talking about the unknown, the numinous, Plato’s world of forms, that which is completely unknown until maybe one day and depending on circumstance it becomes known, therefore the absent becomes present. Feenberg talks about the second fundamental distinction: existence and essence. Easy quote drop time: “Existence answers the question of whether something is or is not. Essence answers the question of what the thing is. That it is and what it is appear to be two independent dimensions of being” (Feenberg, 2006, 6). And so, when it comes to human creation, we can create anything within reason, whatever we bring into this world exists. But what is its essence? Sartre famously said: “existence precedes essence.” Is this true? I mean, it sounds good, it sounds clever, it is clever actually, but I would disagree. (To be clear, I believe he was referring to physical phenomena.) Is not the essence of a thing, before the thing is built, contained first in the idea of the thing in someone’s mind or rather accessed by mind? In this case, essence precedes existence. Feenberg says something similar when speaking about Plato’s concept of the idea. Feenberg also says about technē that the thing’s essence exists in a reality independent of the craftsman that brings it into existence and that bringing into existence follows a plan and purpose and is objective (2006, 7).

But now, we enter the weird… The very essence of an idea itself has its own existence in a nonphysical way, again, existence comes first. But one could argue that essence stills prevails, still comes first, because, according to Plato, all ideas and ideal forms are/were always already extant. Thus, it is the clever person that “tunes into” a particular thought channel or “frequency” wherefrom the always already idea was always and forever will be there. Therefore, the essence of ideas which lead to physical artifacts which embody said essences precede, and it is the human mind that brings the thought, the idea proper, into existence. Once the essence of an idea is brought into existence by the mind, the human proceeds to bring the idea’s essence’s nonphysical existence into physical existence, wherefrom the physical artifact’s essence is embodied in said artifact. So, we have something that looks like this: nonphysical realm [idea’s essence –> idea’s existence] brought into physical realm [artifact existence –> artifact essence]. The key component in this equation is the human being between the nonphysical and physical realms that brings forth ideas, gives birth to them in our physical dimension. Does your head hurt? Mine does. But we must push even further…

We are going to examine the creation or manifestation of psychedelic visions. To reiterate Feenberg, “…The things that make themselves, nature, and the things that are made, artifacts” (2006, 8). If the human and his mind obviously are a part of nature, then are psychedelic visions physis or poiēsis? In other words, is an experienced psychedelic vision (of a living creature or a technological artifact) considered physis because my mind made it or poiēsis because it is constructed by not the human hand but by the human mind?

Mind (I think) is tied to human body, likely stemming from the brain. If the human being is a part of nature, and the mind is a part of the human, then the mind is a part of nature (physis). However, poiēsis is uniquely a human affair that entails the production of artifacts including nonphysical social and cultural constructs. Therefore, if the mind is a work in progress, continually evolving and shaped by its environment and other human artifacts, and psychedelic visions are in some unknown way (assumedly) a part of the mind, then psychedelic visions are a part of nonphysical artifactual creation (poiēsis).

Are psychedelic visions physis or poiēsis? Are they auto-generative as in other living organisms found in nature albeit nonphysical, or are they constructed by the human mind? Fuuuuck, I don’t know. Maybe it’s a bit of both as in reciprocal determinism? I hate this kind of cop out answer. Let’s continue digging…

If existence and essence are inexorably tied, irrespective which comes first, then how do we make sense of nonexistent things that we cannot prove but might have experienced, such as psychedelic visionary content? What are we supposed to make of nonexistent objects in a Meinongian sense? As well, Meinong’s concepts, for example a unicorn, must always be nonphysical. This must be so because in a physical sense there is no such thing as a spiral-horned horse-like animal. And thus, by pure logic alone, it is paradoxical that a nonexistent object does indeed exist, why?, because we’re talking about it right now. It doesn’t exist in real life, but we all have a picture in our heads what a unicorn would look like. It exists. Unicorns certainly exist in Plato’s world of forms; maybe we haven’t found their fossils yet, they haven’t evolved yet or we haven’t genetically manipulated a horse’s DNA yet for our 5-year-old daughters’ magical enjoyment.

The difference between Meinong’s nonexistent objects and psychedelic visions is that nonexistent objects don’t really exist but they sort of do because we can imagine them, they exist in our mind’s eye, while we cannot say the same for psychedelic visions because we literally SEE them, they are there, they are moving around and appear to have an agency of their own. They seem to will themselves into our conscious experience. Sometimes these visions have the ability to will their own objects into existence from seemingly their own desire and ability. Even if they don’t will themselves into our experience, the experiencer can at times will visions into existence. So, what is going on here?

Perhaps the distinction between psychedelic visionary content being physis or poiēsis depends on whether one ingests a natural plant-based substance such as mushrooms or an artificially created substance such as LSD. However, this is one step further removed from the nut I’m trying to crack. Again, are psychedelic visions a natural occurrence or are they humanly created? Is the answer both? Does the answer hinge upon whatever the mind and its subsequent alterations are? Moreover, I haven’t even discussed the technē subcategory of psychedelics because technē is a part of poiēsis. I just don’t know, and it bothers me.

Feenberg, A. (2006). What Is Philosophy of Technology?. In J. R. Dakers (Ed.), Defining Technological Literacy: Towards an Epistemological Framework, (5-16). New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

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