Philosophical Reflections on Shrooms

The present article will attempt to ask the question: what is happening to the mind when you take a psychedelic substance like psilocybin? If you want to read a literary description of what can occur during a trip, check out my other story I met a man who tripped major balls on shrooms”

We can examine positivist-scientific explanations for what occurs in the body. When psilocybin is ingested, the stomach breaks down the compound into another one called psilocin. The new compound then attaches itself to serotonin receptors called 2A resulting in “neuronal avalanching”, a dramatic and extensive activation of the entire brain. These diverse neural connections produce a radical change in consciousness. The visual cortex activates causing perception distortions and the “Default Mode Network” decreases activity resulting in a sense of loss of ego.

But these scientific explanations beg the question since they descriptively label the motions and movements of the body but do not answer the underlying problem of why the mind reacts in the way it does. An activation of neuronal networks could result in a countably infinite number of different ways: why they should result in a vast array of mystical experiences is another matter. To state the matter more explicitly: the conscious experience of taking shrooms is vastly different to its descriptive account.

In order to understand the nature of the mind, it might be helpful to review some Kantian philosophy, specifically transcendental idealism. Insofar as I understand part of this concept, the ground of all experience is conditioned on two absolute a priori concepts of space and time. It is impossible to experience anything unless you have these preconditions: for the sensory data required for experience must exist in time and space before it can even be realized as an experience. Some cognitions are pure a priori like time and space, i.e. absolutely independent of experience and others impure, or a mix of a priori and empirical. Kant gives the example of an impure a priori cognition: the proposition: “Every change has a cause” is impure because the universality and a priority of the statement is self-evident yet the make-up of any individual cause is colored by experience. That is I can know that every change has a cause but why a heavy body falls to the ground cannot be known other than through the experience of constantly watching and noticing heavy bodies falling.

Therefore three things might be happening to the mind as a result of the psychoactive psilocybin. 1. The psilocybin is distorting the a priori cognitions of space and time rooted in the physical structure of the brain, while leaving empirical sensory organs untouched. 2. The psilocybin is distorting the empirical sensory organs and thereby producing perceptional distortions while leaving the a priori cognitions untouched. 3. Both the a priori cognitions as well as the empirical sensory organs are distorted.

Two seems likeliest. We can tentatively rule out 1 and 3 if we consider that the a priori cognitions of space and time do not change as such, rather the conscious experience within space and time changes. When someone trips on shrooms they are still seeing the same kinds of things: the raw sense data is the same even if the mind’s interpretation is different, imposing a whole spectrum of new and unseen patterns. We must rely here on Kant’s analysis of the impure a priori cognition. We know the material form of a change, not a priori, but through experience. It is because I have seen a chair many times before that I know the ideas associated with the chair: its hardness, shape and touch and feeling. Only when my sensory organs cannot function normally, do the traditional concepts of hardness, firmness, and shape breakdown.

But can we really be certain that the a priori cognitions do not change? Sometimes a trip can cause a total out of body experience where the conscious experience does not reflect the immediate external reality of the person tripping. In fact the mystical experiences on shrooms are so profound that many consider it, and many ancient cultures as well, as a portal to the spiritual world. Maybe it is the change of space and time, which are so integral to ordinary experience, that results in the magical effect of psilocybin.

It is worthwhile here to ask the question of spiritual beings and whether psilocybin somehow “transports” the tripper to a spiritual world. The first thing to ask is what exactly is the spiritual world. I imagine most people would say something along the lines of a world immanent and transcendent to this one, somehow transposed over the fabric of our reality but not included within our reality. This is the realm of ghosts and spirits and demons and otherworldly creatures.

While we can never be certain about the spiritual world, I ask the reader to keep an open mind about its possibility: the universality and independence of the seeing, discussing and literature of spiritual beings from time immemorial should catch our attention. Modern science is still a long way from verifying the existence of all that lies out there; its methods justifiably slow and cautious.

We might conjecture a few things about the spiritual world in relation to psilocybin. If we accept the spiritual world as true, and that psilocybin somehow activates this innate capacity to tap into that world, we might have to take some aspects of the metaphysics of the Neoplatonists and Christians more seriously — that matter is some combination of spirit and matter. There must be some unifying force between all matter through something called spirit which allows an experience humorously presented in the story, where he legitimately thought he was communicating with the mushrooms he was eating, or the experience of “Lady Ayahuasca”, the spirit guide known to conduct those taking the most potent psychedelic in the world. Perhaps, the metaphysics of Aristotle that the like attracts the like was correct. Perhaps, as a combination of matter and spirit we can only see that which is also a combination of matter and spirit while the purely spiritual eludes us. And then perhaps it is the use of a compound like psilocybin that deactivates the matter and enhances the spiritual.

A more mathematical description of this transportation to another world might be related to the changing of space. Maybe the use of psilocybin opens new dimensions i.e. more layers to space, which could be the home of spiritual beings. This was the fictional hypothesis put forward by Edward Abbot in his “Flatland” where a two-dimensional square is visited by a mystical three-dimensional being.

Spirituality in a sense can only be experienced personally, and not within the realm of the traditional poke-and-prod scientific method. Some people truly believe in their altered state that they had become a total spirit, or that the spiritual component completely overpowered their physical component. But this experience itself cannot be verified independently since it belongs to the world of phenomenology, and given the West’s reluctance to take other’s on their word, means that it is automatically excluded from the legitimate sphere of scientific interest.

All in all, much remains to be discovered and philosophized on the meaning and mechanism of psychoactive compounds. The universe is truly an amazing and largely unexplored place. Do not let simplistic appeals to scientific authority, which often elide their own fundamental epistemological flaws, deter you from magic. Do not let science unweave the rainbow, rather let us understand every hidden aspect of the rainbow and bring it to light.

Writer, poet, philosopher