Sunday, 2 August 2015

Frontiers 4 - Counting Stars: Altered States, Psychodynamics & Revolution

"Everything That Kills Me Make Me Feel Alive"

It may seem odd to include the altered mental state as a frontier alongside space exploration and the effects on culture of theoretical physics and cosmology but a disciplined appreciation of the altered mental state has the same relationship to the scepticism about the world discussed in the previous posting in the series as the search for exoplanets has to the near-term exploration of the inner solar system. The investigation of further reaches requires a sound grounding in near-term achievement - scepticism, in the philosophical sense, is the first requirement in investigating consciousness.

Scepticism About Meaning Not Potential Value

Our sceptical view of what we can know, yet without diminishing our desire to know, has a 'further reach' within our own personal psychologies. Individuation is as great a frontier for persons as the edge of the solar system is for the species. We increasingly understand that abnormal mental states are not always sickness or deviance but also nor are they insights into anything but themselves as they stand. There is no need to replace a closed-in fear and condemnation of altered states with an absurd belief that they actually tell us anything more about the external world than our 'normal' senses and scientific method can do. They do provide, however, other analogical ways of describing our own experience. By experiencing ourselves in relation to the world with new mental tools may not give us an insight into the world as it is but it may give us an insight intio our own relationship to the world as it is - in other words, what we are. We are not simply a component of the world (which we are in a material sense) but are makers of worlds through our perception and imagination, the emergent property of matter which is consciousness.

The relationship between scientific method and technology, and so functional normality, is always going to be a preferable for mode of existence for humanity as a whole and for most individuals in most situations for most of the time than the faux-transcendence of non-normal mental states. But this is not to say that offside states are valueless - far from it. The central point here is that 'altered states' are and must be temporary to be useful and to be distinguished from permanent or unwilled states of psychosis or total 'shifts of consciousness' that can happen with or without the intervention of an intervening 'altered state'. Culturally, we must be interested not in the altered state as a state in itself (other than aesthetically as a 'pleasure' or medically as an immediate cause of distress) but as a temporary cause of further possibly long term effects, functional and dysfunctional.

The altered state in itself, if unconsidered, is often quite the opposite of a frontier. It is a settling into something very conservative, a settlement behind the frontier, a means of avoiding or evading the real issue which is not to change or shift consciousness for a short period in order to 'cope' with life but to transform consciousness in a healthy and productive way from one 'normal' state to another. The second state is one more functional for the person (society can perhaps go hang at this point). It can also be dysfunctional and dangerous - states in which the mind might be manipulated from outside (as in hypnosis or the exploitation of ecstatic states by religious institutions) - and there may be direct harms to the brain and body from drugs which can seem to affect different people in radically different ways, allowing little opportunity for reliable rules of use. 'Taming' altered states while permitting the dionysiac is the challenge.

There is also a failure to understand that experience is not creativity - creativity is a rational dialectic with the unconscious. The loss of self in psychedelics seems to provide us with relatively little of value in terms of meaningful art. Experiencers struggle to express their awe (which is somewhat same-y in fact) in variants of the brightly coloured fractal and in sentimental approaches to the universal. The stuff can be unutterably dull and even laughable to non-believers. Such creativity is like that of the East Asian religions, interesting variations on what is a very closed experiential system in which the converted are speaking to each other. Very little is actually said within most of this closed system artistic expression about what it is to be human or about the human condition, except in extremely indirect terms, other than that it experiences certain things or believes certain things.  Once those things are understood to be experienced or believed in, there is nowhere else to go.

The romantic idea that creativity and madness are alike is also absurd ... it expresses only the experience of the intensity of neurotic emotion that some great craftsman and creative minds feel experientially when driving forward their art. Great creativity does not require the altered state. The very way that the psychedelic lobby clings on to a few very specific examples of links between altered states and creativity (ah, the discovery of benzene - again!) suggests that these events are the exception rather than the rule. This is not dismiss another aspect of the case - the ability of altered states to break logjams in thought and being that can release creativity that is inherent, closed down only because of social conditioning or neurosis.

The 'virtue' of (for example) psychedelics may lie precisely in the 'desemantic process' (going beyond language to see what lies below rational linguistic rule-based mental models). We will return to the problem of language later but what we can hypothesise reasonably enough is that our survival in evolutionary terms has relied on a working consensual reality based on language ('normality') but that personal models of consensual reality disconnect from 'real' reality (what actually happens in the world) and that language binds one into models that may work for others but do not work for oneself. At this level, language and ratiocination take one around in circles without some other means of breaking the logjam.

Similarly, the working model for personal reality can fail to provide enough information or provide far too much information to permit functionality. Gaining more information may be a matter of further analysis and ratiocination but perhaps the information you need is non-semantic and instinctive while overload of data might require either concentration on what matters or the sweeping away of overload to find some core of value - as in meditative practices. It is axiomatic that the vast biochemical differences between persons mean that there are vastly different responses to practices linked to altered states and that just as the State cannot create a uniform progressive experience for all persons so no person can claim the superiority of their particular mode of personal salvation. The point here is not for this posting to be that of the investigator and go deep into possibilities and risks but to point out that altered states are at the point of investigation into problem-solving, creativity and the understanding of personal psycho-dynamics. This is the 'frontier'. The crossing of this frontier will have profound social effects which the Leary era of disorganised border raids somewhat hid. The frontier needs to be crossed not by enthusiastic amateurs and wild-eyed ecstatics but by scientists and professionals who can build the infrastructure for safe settlement, mimimise risks and stop people settling in unsustainable or dangerous environments.

Altered Consciousness & Change

A shift of consciousnes might disconnect the person from prevailing cultural normality or re-connect with it. There is a kind of dynamic tension between the individual and society that is progressive and potentially revolutionary, allowing new calibrations between individual and competing social visions mediated through both rational thought and experiential change (in which altered states may have a role). It is this last frontier, that within the person in his or her relationship to the social, that interests us here - it is at the other end of the scale from space exploration and equal to the simple minded curiosity about matter as a simple-minded curiosity about mind of and in itself. Not mind as matter but the use of mind-matter (techne), not the experiential mind being described but the transformative mind transforming, not a state but a process. The action-ness of the praxis that derives from the knowledge is not the point - like a taxi driver, the knowledge is an aid to the real purposes of the exercise, geting from A to B and providing a living to the driver and if sat nav does it better, fine.

The outcome in the case of consciousness might, in fact, be a reaffirmation of existing personal and social paradigms (the conservative model) or the transformation of a personal paradigm so that it is different from the social (with the opportunity then to demand changes in the social). It could equally be a detachment of a new personal paradigm from a normality that is just seen as 'other' (a model of withdrawal from the world which is the model most fitted to overwhelmingly restrictive and totalitarian cultural models). The greater frontier here is often cast as the study of consciousness but consciousness is as slippery and as possibly non-existent as God - consciousnes studies may have to go the way of theology in the end. The study should not be the futile one of consciousness in the abstract (as opposed to brain function or neuroscience) but of what humanity may become as it evolves and what machines and alien creatures with a sense of self might be.

It is the working out of self-ness that is at issue. It is a speculative endeavour, like much of cosmology yet a rational approach to the absurd and unknowable may still create more knowledge about what can be known without ever being able to tell us that we can actually know what we set us to know. What has to be avoided is a confusion of categories - the great, absurd and dysfunctional speculations that thinking about the cosmos is thinking about God, that thinking about the mind is thinking about consciousness and that thinking about the cosmos is thinking about minds. What may be truly interesting is when we find that the altered human state may prove to be the normal state of another conscious or highly evolved creature in our cosmos while altered states' effects on normal consciousness and society may not only be 'bad' and problematic but also 'good' and transformational in a creative and positive way. An AI that develops a sense of selfhood may construct its world in ways wholly based on different senses and a different sense of embodiement ... if it does so, this alone wil challenge our understanding of it.

There is also accident or intent to take into account. If an altered state is accidental or pathological (trauma, epilepsy, oxygen deficiency, infection, unintentional or pathological sleep deprivation or fasting and psychosis) the matter is one of coping or medical intervention. The 'frontier' is an ameliorative or preventative one of scientifically or practice-based improvements in techniques for understanding, transformation or alleviation of distress. Psychosis is particularly problematic because some intentional states mimic it (delusions, paranoia, de-realization, depersonalization, and hallucinations), raising the key point that a transformative altered state has not only to be something you can enter into at will but also come out of, if not at will, then within a reasonably known time-frame - its temporary nature is important as is the fact that the activity is under the control of the subject. Psychosis is particularly problematic because serious distress and dysfunction are more likely to be averted if the psychotic aspects of a personality are identified early on in the process (much like cancer) and yet psychotic episodes might be interpreted by some as a positive 'spiritual' state in which society is unwilling to intervene without more cause - the problem of totalitarian intrusion into private life competes with the honourable desire to alleviate future suffering and the contradiction poses a challenge to cognitive libertarians.

This is not dissimilar to the problem of consent in sexual matters except that non-normal sexuality does not generally cause distress except where a society treats the sexually different person as a problem a priori. Change the society and you change the problem for many people: this too has to be hypothesis in relation to altered states. There are arguments that say that adaptive psychosis is a positive force for individual survival in a dysfunctional society but few clinicians are happy with this, faced with the facts of severe distress and the truth that you cannot change society quickly or feasibly even in the long term to fit the needs of the vulnerable even if it was proven to be true that the psychotic would be happy and adaptive if you did so. The point about sexual orientation and 'deviation' that harms no other is that it can be permitted without changing the balance of power betwen the strong and the weak. The strong come to realise that there is no benefit to them in repressing the weak and that they may have merely allowed one category of the weak to oppress another. So it may be with altered states in due course: as priests oppressed single mothers so may it be that police officers oppress shamans. But the rest of society would not take kindly to being restricted or forced into behaviourial limits (and putting up with 'bad behaviour') by totalitarian radicals seeking to prove that madness was entirely social, any more than they would take kindly to gay culture being imposed rather than simply present. We have two binary extremes of all being permitted and all that is not 'normal' being forbidden when the cultural position that we are advocating and which is emerging as the civilisation of the more advanced portions of humanity is that all is permitted if and only if it is an act of personal will on reasonably full information and causes no harm to others.

Prior to the intentional altered state thus lie four critical questions - is it temporary in itself, do I have reasonably full knowlege of risks and rewards, do I freely choose it without third party or social pressure and will it cause any harm to others. The social context is the corollary of all this - is it permanent (in which case, as accidental or pathological, social services are there to help), is there an honest and evidenced educational structure to advise on risks and rewards, does society allow free choice to responsible adults and (the final check and balance from authority) can harm be reasonably defined (including harm to the individual beyond reasonable risk) and can corrective measures be put in place, if necessary denying the right to the altered state under certain circumstances. This takes us far into matters of social ethics and law which are not the 'frontier' but only the policing and settlement of the frontier as it is being crossed and the land is settled. The customary business of getting drunk on a Friday night has scarcely been considered in this light making some English towns like Wild West settlements for a few hours each week.

The States & The Frontier

Let us turn to a taxonomy of states so that we are clear what we want to investigate which are inadequately investigated. We may take it as read that pragmatic day-to-day consciousness and sleep are the subject of psychology as we see it today - the improvements in understanding and functionality are not the frontier except to the scientists involved. There are seriously bad altered states - coma, most (though not all) forms of hysterical consciousness and most (though not all) forms of fragmented consciousness which are associated with disease. These are frontiers of medical science. What need to be investigated at the frontier of what it is to be more-than-human are things like our ability to connect with our bodies (psychosomatics), stored and hidden memory, 'stupor' and dreaming, lethargic and hyperactive consciousness. These are the psychotherapeutic investigations, if you like. There is a second level where the matter is not only one of psychotherapy but of transformation - rapturous consciousness, relaxed consciousness, daydreaming, trance consciousness and the famous expanded consciousness. The last is really only the tail end of the game and should not be privileged. Disruption of temporal-spatial and sensory impressions, reassessments of memories, vivid symbolisation and the integrative experience, the 'false friend' of individuation if it takes over the ego in that silly busines of ego-dissolution as reality, are all of vital interest in creativity and change.

The accidental, pathological and ethical aspects of the case are not the frontier in the sense that our series means the term - not a great limit to be overcome. These are little more than correcting the habits and material problems left by evolution on minds that are evolving separably from their condition. It is just progressive improvement of already settled territory. The 'frontier' lies in the intentional - that is, how the individual in society and society deal with altered states not as problem (the historic approach to altered states) but as creative opportunity or as an anti-pathology in more general terms. Is it possible to manufacture positive temporary altered states for psychotherapeutic and creative purposes in ways that will transform society or are altered states not a frontier at all but just a pleasure and entertainment that simply require more effective administration, policing, education and investment in healthcare and social services? Are intentional altered states simply illusory states that imply temporary dysfunctionality coated with spiritual guff and in which there is no material change between the prior and the succeeding states of normality or are there altered states that are not only personally but socially transformative? This is the frontier question and the answer could go either way. Bear in mind that I am not advocating altered states but simply representing altered states as a significant cultural issue based on constant advances and changes in pharmacology and the cultural restlessness and inquisitiveness encouraged by new information and communications technologies.

It may be that the independent consensus is that altered states are, in fact, always pathological and are to be avoided because they are not liberatory and they are not more transformative than other more rational and normal (and social) forms of transformation. But the very fact that the question has to be asked makes this a frontier to be crossed and investigated if only to establish that what is on the other side is indeed repetitive desertland, beautiful but infertile, rather than a bounteous forest that can be cleared for settlement. So, if I move (unlike other essays) into a somewhat enthusiastic mode in what follows, it is an enthusiasm for the possibilities but with a preparedness to find that, well, actually there is nothing there but illusion and pleasure (and distress). If so, then our future society has still made a discovery of importance - putting mystical and spiritual nonsense into a box marked entertainment and distraction and allowing us not to infect the future with false meaning. But we do not yet know that this is a true assessment of the situation.

The Mysterium

Consciousness itself remains a mystery and we think it is a mystery for the same reason that God is a mystery - there is nothing there there. It is a word used to try to reify a state of being inside us much as God reifies the state of being around us. We think we know what it is because we are conscious simply by thinking of it as an idea but there is no intellectually satisfactory explanation or full description of it. Worse, we have to assume that we are not solipsistically the only consciousness in the universe despite having no possibility of experiencing otherwise. We can never prove an instinct that there is no universal consciousness and no consciousness that is shared (or the opposite) just as we cannot prove that there is or is not a God. Absurd thinking cannot be challenged through rational means at this level of absurdity. Consciousness remains a peculiar set of felt assumptions about our own relation to being and others. All human thought and reasoning is based on those assumptions which creates a very wobbly base for our much-vaunted Reason. But if we can dispose of God through reasoning and a shift of mentalities (as Nietzsche famously accepted) so we can do so with consciousness as a 'thing-in-itself' with the same initial traums succeeeded by the same necessary liberation and problem of the cultural detritus to be washed away afterwards. Western culture is stuck with God today as a habit and no doubt it wil be stuck with consciousness in the same way for several hundred years after the intelligent members of it have long since abandoned the notion.

If the assumptions are ever firmly disproved in one direction or the other, our entire culture transforms whether it be proof positive that two humans can actually merge consciousness, that a machine or alien emerges with a consciousness that is Borg-like or that God (or some exceptional philosopher or scientist) really does appear on earth and explain that we are all part of some transcendent whole in a way that is wholly irrefutable. We can imagine these possibilities but imagining something is not making them true. For example, to date, there is no convincing proof or evidence for the more creative ideas around the 'quantum mind' and those who try to present it as fact or probability rather than possibility are neurotically clutching at straws for reasons that probably have more to do with their desperate need for meaning than any scientific validity. The search for external meaning is, in itself, the root of most human errors. Instead of searching for meaning, we should be searching for value in the delivery of internal meaning. And this is why 'consciousness' or rather mind studies are a frontier just as much as space exploration.What started in the latter as a search for the ways of God became something very different before too long ...

We can certainly make philosophy out to be coherent through reasoning processes but that does not make it coherent except within the framework of the reasoning. The assumptions may be incoherent yet the system derived from them be coherent - we might call this the scholastic mentality where everything falls down on the simple business of there being no God revealed by an Iron Age text. We can make things seem coherent. No mechanistic explanation of consciousness is, as yet, more than theoretical or a belief. We can no more know non-human consciousness than we can know whether one's lover or priest is conscious (though it is functionally and pragmatically effective to believe so because we have to do things with lovers and priests that require the assumption of consciousness which we do not have to do with rocks and cattle). We have no tools for its recognition other than belief in the context of experience which gets too easily extrapolated to rocks and cattle. There are issues that are more resolvable perhaps surrounding the link between the perceived phenomenon of consciousness and language but it is an enormous leap of faith to start assuming that consciousness is created by and requires language. It is not a foolish belief but it is not a certain one either.

Similarly, there is fruitful philosophical and scientific work on the relationship between thoughts and mental processes and materiality and the physical but we are no further forward on fundamentals than Descartes - all we know is that he was certainly wrong about the Pineal Gland. Dualism in its permanent war with Monism is never final victor or loser and it may even be that both models are false and that the evolution of consciousness involves something that is both - a dualistic emergence embedded in matter and unable to be separated from matter. On this issue, I tend to stand with Ryle that we should speak not of minds, bodies and the world, but of individuals or persons acting in the world. Above all, we are now challenged by a question that has displaced the search for insights into the mind of 'God', moderated by the famous question of what it to think like a bat - what is it going to be like to think like a machine when the machine has become aware of itself and 'conscious'.

So, as with questions of time and reality, questions of consciousness have this paradoxical aspect that we now know that we cannot know anything ultimately true about fundamentals but we can know a great deal more than we do now about the business of being aware - as much as there is a great deal more to consider about matter and time. The search becomes a much more measured and patient one, an incremental process, like that of moving from the Moon to the asteroid belt. The first steps are necessary in order to find our ultimate limit which may, indeed, be an inability to go beyond our own solar system. But we do not know this yet and we do not yet know that we cannot understand 'being' so we have to keep moving until we do know what it is that we cannot know.

The Pragmatics & Methodologies

This non-existent God, consciousness, pardoxically remains worth studying regardless of philosophical qualms because of the relationship of the belief in consciousness, mind and health and happiness. This has become the territory of medicine, psychology, neuropsychology and neuroscience. The altered state becomes interesting, beyond the self medication of altered states for troubled or confused souls, as a means for pychotherapeutic change on the one hand and individuation and transformation on the other. We are shifting back to the mature position on (say) drugs of Huxley and Junger that they are gateways to new ways of perceiving and constructing existence as part of a considered and reflective process of inner exploration and away from altered states as escapist palliatives or cultural narcissism.

One of the very many great cultural failures of the 'Sixties Generation' was the damage it did through its excesses to the possibility of altered states being normalised as a methodology for secure and stable persons to expand their inner horizons. The primitive conservative reaction to excessive and then criminalised activities that required a degree of care and regulation threw human progress in this area backwards by three generations. Leary may have spoken with care of 'set' and 'setting' but his own behaviour made these important claims to seem like just one amongst many increasingly fantastic claims about the world when rational discourse required that they be explored as prior to the dialogue with machine elves. Only today are respectable career scientists being allowed to dabble in these areas and under severe constraints. Careers have been harmed when scientists have tried to move faster than their ignorant political masters. This is changing but not enormously fast so the frontier in this case is still not one being crossed by many settlers. We are still at the stage where explorers forbidden to cross the border for decades can only go across under armed escort into bandit territory despite there being more danger from the cavalry than the Apache.

Regardless of this, 'consciousness studies' within psychology has moved into altered states territory for quite some time, attempting to define as scientifically as possible what alterations take place in awareness in conditions of trauma, illness and drugs, making a close link between somatic and psychological change. The work is limited by, first, the necessity to rely on human report of its own experience under conditions where the experience, in being mediated by language, is transformed by language into only a simulacrum of the experience, a shift of the experience from an absolute one to one defined by its relationship to 'normality' which is one of language. Secondly, the science, to claim objectivity, requires a shared initial conceptualisation of consciousness that is functionally and pragmatically useful but still tells us nothing of 'what it feels like to be a mad or drug-happy bat'. The scientist is here in the same position as the scholastic with Reason merely replacing the role of God in the system. It ensures a degree of scepticism about claims unless the claims 'work' in the field.

Everything, in the end, depends on verbal report. There is an automatic 'scholastic' assumption that being self-aware somehow depends on language (one of the ways in which a higher primate is to be judged to be less conscious than a human). This may be true if we beg the question by defining our awareness as conceptually the normal state of the normal human being but it does not help us with altered states that may have no or limited verbal elements and yet where the subject is perfectly aware of their state. Post-modern philosophers have perhaps gone too far in denying the organising and aware and continuous Self but the Self is not necessarily Reality. Altered states may offer a profound challenge to the standard concept of consciousness which is used to define the research into them: the methodological problems are significant. This is not an argument for not doing the research but an argument for caution in treating it as anything other than probabilistic and useful in its effects in the normal world. What thr findings achieving in relations to persons in the world is what matters rather than the description. It is not that subjects can be wrong about their own experiences when expressing them verbally but that language may not be a sufficiently capable tool for describing the experiences.

This is a problem that might apply to deeper levels of conscious experience (the sort that ends up as poetry rather than a scientific paper), raising those doubts (fully shared by scientists and philosophers) that anything has been said or may ever be said that is meaningful about conscious experience.  Daniel Dennet has suggested the term heterophenomenology to describe an approach to this problem - means treating verbal reports as stories that may or may not be true. This is probably correct but not very functionally useful so that the 'scientist' is reduced, unscientifically, into making best judgments on meaning in the context of peer questioning (good) but also accepting social norms in interpreting meanings (not so good). This may help to explain why so many scientists, in this liminal zone, find themselves constructing their own stories, ones that sound so intuitively exaggerated when they go to the next level of trying to explain what they think they have found to the public.

Language is not the only indicator of consciousness in its brute form, but levels of arousal, brain activity and purposeful movement merely gives us gradations of consciousness as a thing-in-itself. These do not tell us much about what is going on inside the thing-in-itself, its meaning and purpose. The movement can be observed but not the purposefulness. Even the extensive and sometimes counter-intuitive findings of neuroscience in relation to free will only tell us (as I understand it) that certain material events argue against free will but they cannot yet make the absolute connection between the material events and the exercise of all faculties. A lot of the argument collapses into a somewhat magical argument by analogy, an assumption that because the sun rises every morning, it must necessarily rise the next morning which as all philosophers know is not quite how things can be argued safely. On the other hand, excessive scepticism is equally absurd - Gallups Mirror Test, as one example, seems to be a very reasonable basis for differentiating some higher mammals and birds as 'conscious' of their own presence at a level greater than humans who have been out of the womb for under eighteen months. Whether this is 'consciousness' is an entirely different matter.

Working Hypotheses

But let us step back back and take up a working hypothesis (disputed, of course) which is not true but is useful, that of Ned Block. As Wikipedia on consciousness neatly summarises it: there are "two types of consciousness that [Block] called phenomenal (P-consciousness) and access (A-consciousness). P-consciousness ... is simply raw experience: it is moving, colored forms, sounds, sensations, emotions and feelings with our bodies and responses at the center. These experiences, considered independently of any impact on behavior, are called qualia. A-consciousness, on the other hand, is the phenomenon whereby information in our minds is accessible for verbal report, reasoning, and the control of behavior. So, when we perceive, information about what we perceive is access conscious; when we introspect, information about our thoughts is access conscious; when we remember, information about the past is access conscious, and so on." This is plausible enough to get things going.

Thinking about altered states is very much a problem of A-consciousness even if the description of what happens in those states is P-consciousness. What I mean is that the altered nature of the raw experience elicits an enormous 'so what' insofar as it is just 'different' from normality. It is the meaning and difference in terms of 'access' that is more interesting - specifically, that this material is available not just in terms of "verbal report, reasoning, and the control of behavior" (which it may be during and after the state) but in terms of internal psychic transformation, brain rewiring and creative insights which may or may not be communicable. The perception, introspection and even information (which may have only a contingent relationship to external reality) is radically different from the 'normal' or standard model consciousness of the world. The access is ambiguous - it is not a matter of cogitation and reasoning but of the emergence from within of different rationalities much as, in physics, it may be postulated that there are universes which do not have our physical laws. By analogy, just as there is a multiverse behind the universe so there may be a multi-mind behind the minds that we see before us. It may be that we can only exist psychologically in one such mind and that the other minds are mere possibilities ... but we do not know that.

Understanding the access under conditions of altered states to the multi-mind is the 'hard problem of altered states' which is both a sub-set of the 'hard problem of consciousness' and a different problem entirely, one of the status of experiences that are neither this nor that, neither demonstrably insights into other material realities nor demonstrably to be understood in terms of reliable verbal report, reasoning and control of behaviour. Block's A-consciousness is centred on communications and the social but altered states are centred on abstraction from communication and society, internal dialogue and the outright subconscious or chemical invention of entities with which the 'self' appears to communicate. All the parsing and categorisations of philosophers like William Lycan may have to be re-done for altered states once philosophers are allowed to investigate these states with more ease. The point is that altered states are (of course) part of the problem of consciousness but their modalities and experience are also part of the problem that consciousness represents a problem.

It would be too easy to say at this point that altered states is simply a human problem and a matter of dysfunctionality (and many would like to say this). It is quite possible that a machine's normal consciousness (once avowed or avowing itself to be conscious) might have its own problems of 'altered states' derived not only from faulty energy supply, software or hardware but active choices designed to alter perception and analysis. Perhaps this thought is being evaded by humanity - that artificial intelligence far from being simply a vastly superior rational being might existentially choose to experience the world differently as an experiment, as a challenge and as an exercise in boundary breaking. One might postulate a highly advanced AGI seeking to manufacture the altered states (for it) of human emotions, creating highly intelligent creatures engaged in rage, fear, passion and so on as well as distortions of reality for the sake of experience. There is no prima facie reason why an AGI might not be as interested in experience as its maker. This is something that may emerge (or not) out of the deliberate strategy being employed to investigate artificial awareness.

We should also remind ourselves what altered states are - they are conscious states even if forgettable. They are not non-dream sleep, coma or death. Or at least this is what we believe them to be because no one has reported back from death, comatose means what it says on the tin and dream states may be experienced but are generally not remembered - hypnogogic and lucid dream states, however, can be classed as altered states. Being aware is claimed to be central to the experience although what is really meant is that the experience is 'reportable' (see above). But if we think about what is claimed for altered states - changes in thinking, disturbances in the sense of time, feelings of loss of control, changes in emotional expression, alternations in body image and changes in meaning or significance - then there is not only altered experience that can be recalled under conditions of 'normality' (and described by verbal report as a normalising process) and not only experience that can be expressed verbally and non-verbally during the state (perhaps in terms of madness, ecstasy or what have you) but a shift to a new normality in which aspects of the altered state remain to create a new normality.

The Experience & The Social

Religious conversion is the obvious example but it could as easily be new ways of perceiving the world, new mental constructs about the world, greater rationality as much as problems with reasoning, changes in personality or self-perception and relationships. Perhaps this is the frontier of most interest - the psychotherapeutic use of altered states (chemically-induced, situationally-induced and transgressional or dionysiac) that transform a person into or out of normality or contribute, in the mass, in the creation of a new social normality by example. In other words, the relationship between normalities is the frontier, with the frontier concept not just being the altered state within individual self awareness but the altered within the social. Perhaps what we are working towards is a new dialectical frontier between accepted normalities and change where, thanks to technological developments which encourage the possibility of transformation and altered states, the process of transformation is not accidental but is self-engineered or engineered within society by groups of persons from above and below.

Let us remind ourselves (from 'Psychology for Dummies') what an altered state can do that is interesting so long as it is temporary and can be analysed and reflected upon in a  'normal and presumably rational state after the event:-
  • Sensory: An altered experience of space, time, and other sensory phenomena.
  • Recollective-analytic: An experience in which individuals develop novel ideas and revelations about themselves, the world, and their role within the world.
  • Symbolic: Identification with a historical figure or famous person accompanied by mystical symbols such as having a vision of a crucifix or an angel.
  • Integral: A religious and/or mystical experience usually involving God or some other supernatural being or force. The person usually feels merged with or at one with the universe. This state has sometimes been called cosmic consciousness. Krippner and other experts believe that very few people are actually capable of attaining this level of consciousness.
The problems are self evident. Apart from having to come back to reality and make use of the experience, a person has to be mature enough to be able to critique the meaning of a 'revelation' (otherwise we end up with another standard issue blood-soaked religion), see visions and identifications as means and not an ends in themselves, understand that the God-thing and universal consciousness are experiences but not (necessarily) a reality and that 'cosmic consciousness' is an evasion and solipsism if used to represent the world in which one has to live. It may, however, be a lovely way to ensure that millions of people do not question their material lot or social position or for materially comfortable people to evade their own termination and loneliness.

Personally, I find this prospect rather grim but a libertarian must be consistent - if people want to retreat into magical thinking because of their life situation then they must be allowed to do so as long as it does not have deleterious effects on others. A world of billions in a state of cosmic illusion is unlikely to be able to function well as a democracy or progressive provider of needs so perhaps such a world is for the time when all material needs have been fulfilled, no one is scrabbling for resource advantage but death has not been conquered. Aum! It won't make it true but it might make it beautiful in a sterile sort of way.

The big ticket consciousness illusions are not the point. Most people most of the time are not weak-minded hippies or New Agers. They have families to provide for, other experiences like travel and work to cater for and they like good steak and wine if they can get it. The losers might lose themselves in illusion, claiming that the world of steak-eaters and workers is the illusion but the workers and steak-eaters are not the binary alternative to the dreamers. The techniques of altered states, in their capacities of being psychotherapeutic and creative, beyond alcohol and music, have been abandoned in part out of fear of loss of control and mental damage but also in part because of their association with millennia of arrant nonsense, psychopathic manipulation and priestly parasitism. Like sexuality and risk, altered states need to be brought out of the closet precisely because this is the best means of critiquing the pretensions of Aum Brigade.

The process is already starting. Meditation is moving steadily from being a side attribute of Buddhism to being seen as a technique with positive health benefits, especially in dealing with negative stress effects and increasingly in psychotherapeutic contexts. Buddhism can be jettisoned. But it is not necessary that a technique should obviously have some 'socially good' effect in psychological or social terms. Dour cultural puritanism also needs to be jettisoned. We should also permit ourselves the option of harmless pleasure which, in turn, leads us on to a different attitude to temporary mind-altering drugs where pleasure has to be seen as a worthwhile outcome alongside physical and mental health. Just as Buddhism is the dead weight on meditation so Christianity is the dead weight on an appreciation of pleasure for its own sake as part of a balanced life.

Drugs in Society - Dialectics & Trialectics

Handling drugs in particular requires dividing the approach to them into two: the direct evidence-based assessment of addiction, brain damage, mental illness and psychological distress with a view not to assuming that drugs must be removed from the social under legal penalty but with the effort to improve and make safe what they do that is so attractive to people; and then, on top of this, social and legal changes should be more specific and focused in legislating on harms in order to permit the pleasures and benefits. At the moment, let us be clear, 'normal' people who want to succeed in the world are foolish to dabble in the semi-criminalised world of radical pleasure partly because censorious morality has made these worlds dangerous and partly because deferred gratification is the path way to survival in a world of limited resources. That does not make lack of gratification good but merely useful and gratification is perfectly fine if the resources are to hand and no harms are to result. For example, I could afford steak three times a week but I choose to have it only once because I enjoy it. I find that I need the iron and get health benefits because the rest of my diet is well balanced but would probably see cholesterol rise with excess red meat if i eat it more than once a week.  Not eating steak because it is 'wrong' is not on my radar screen. It works for me - I make that choice and no one else on full information. The art here is to separate pleasure from criminality under conditions of free choice (consent), 'temporariness' (that effects be defined in time), full information or evidence-based education and personal and physical safety.

The overall dialectic socially is really a trialectic - the transforming person, those who would transform society together and those who would transform society from above. An altered state is a state of alteration which is well described in the case of the individual (say, in a psychic crisis) but not well described in the case of the social except in overly intellectualised models of anarchism and 'nudge'. The trialectic of persons resisting manipulation by 'zombies' and by government, the activists trying to mobilise persons to change governance and governance seeking to keep persons well behaved or to out-smart the activists rather well describes the political economy of the twenty-first century. The concept of altered state can thus be radically extended to describe equally well the revolutionary and counter-revolutionary process. The politics of drugs, sex, freedom and control of information and power are intimately related because the individual's altered state can be so personal as to result in their quiescence and withdrawal from participation in taxation and allegiance.

Consciousness (in the formulation of the Marxists) becomes a political, social and cultural frontier. The loss of one state of 'normal' being in society in search of another is a potentially political act insofar as the person decides to visit the new state temporarily and continue as before (the conservative option) or find a new reality (which might mean a libertarian withdrawal from public life or activism). The State has and will have a serious interest in this because its old instinct (as in dealing with the inchoate mass narcissism of the 1960s and 1970s) has historically been to appropriate and repress. But the 21st century is radically different in terms of flows of data, ability to defy the structures of society and preparedness to combine, detach and re-combine at will. We have an internal frontier (very different from our space frontier) where the barriers to change are not only falling within the individual but also in society. Indeed, to take our Wild West analogy, the frontier may be opened up not because the system wills it but because vast numbers of settlers looking for a better life cross into Indian Territory and the State has to find ways of managing what it cannot control. It is not so much that anything is possible but that nothing is individually or socially predictable and superego or elite attempts to control the transformations are doomed to failure.

Everything changes in this 'brave new world' - power relations begin either to equalise or conservative models of leadership are accepted so long as the person or the society are left alone (which may partly explain the surprising Conservative victory in the British election). And just as the individual may choose to stay 'normal' within a normality that is no longer normal because society is changing so fast so another individual may actively wish, with less fear, to regard as normal something society has yet to be. All this seems to have nothing to do with 'altered states' in individuals but the new world has two great virtues for those who are in a transformative mood - it is increasingly not a case of either/or (that is, it is not a case that altering how one's mind works is a dialectical struggle between social acceptance and heroic but relatively isolated freedom and secrecy) while the interest of authority is no longer in repression because it can no longer afford anything more than the equivalent of occasional show trials. Authority has to find a way to manage the transformative impulses within society by accommodating them (which is all that many people want).

The trajectory is thus three-fold - i) towards increasing state acceptance of a moderated libertarian position for individuals (we see this in the new debate on drugs laws) in return for a new boundary or frontier where organised crime and violence really do threaten well-being and into which troops can be sent, ii) towards more fluidity amongst individuals within social organisations that paradoxically create more stability as new organisational structures permit this flow to happen safely and fairly and iii) active encouragement of the sort of research into what altered states in individuals really mean as part of a concern both to improve mental health and manage crime and activism in society. The new frontier sounds radical but it is really the death of the narcissism that emerged in the generation of the 1970s. The entire culture of pragmatic flexibility no longer gives narcissists in their character of activists the ability to dictate terms by seizing the commanding heights of normality and turn it into a new normality by force. What we have instead are sets of normalities co-existing and resisting the imposition of ideology and simple 'truths'. Such a society is more likely to get to Mars (to take up our earlier theme) because social commitment is no longer an either/or but a path which many will want, many will be indifferent to and the few wanting to argue a threat or danger irrelevant. Progress will come from the indifference of the mass to the dynamism of the few. Things will happen.

The Future

What personal adaptations of altered states might we find applied science offering humanity in the coming decades, states that question the 'given' and suggest creative alternatives without making the past mistake of believing that these states will magically transform the material world without rational or social action. What transformative methods will shift persons into people creatively engaged with their own worlds and so contributing to the creative development of society? I suggest the following speculatively:
  • the extension of lucid-dreaming and virtual reality into techniques where the experience can be guided into private psychotherapeutic solutions, pleasure and better remembered afterwards; 
  • the scientific refinement of safe psycho-active drugs (safer than alcohol) which are socially acceptable and will be used for psychotherapeutic, end of life and transformative and creative purposes under professional guidance; 
  • the further scientific investigation of the health benefits of meditation and, if proven, introduction into the educational curriculum and healthcare practices as technique;
  • a fuller scientific understanding of how minds (which may just be some minds) can shift their exteroception (sensing the external world), their interoception (sensing the body), their input-processing (seeing and creating meaning), emotions, memory, time sense, sense of identity, evaluation and cognitive processing skills, motor output and interaction with the environment as positive choices rather than as things imposed on them by others and life. 
  • investigation of intelligence increase
  • investigation of the psychotherapeutic and creative benefits and risks of other altering modes such as sleep deprivation, sensory deprivation, sensory overload, boredom, sexual behaviour, dance, music, binaural beats, ritual performance, trance states, daydreaming, biofeedback, hypnosis, 'brainwashing'and new technologies such as the 'God helmet' (raising the interesting question of how rational belief in God can possibly survive the mechanical induction of temporary religious psychosis without becoming a permanent if manageable form of psychosis) (1)
  • public education about risks and rewards that are evidence-based (rather than based on populist fear or special interest advocacy) with a view to a rational programme for isolating high risk threats and managing medium and low risk threats - it remains curious that alcohol is scarcely regulated in terms of use despite its effects compared to marijuana: marijuana use is widely criminalised yet both it and alcohol contain similar risks and both can be regulated to avoid the worst forms of harm (as in driving vehicles or working machinery)
  • exposure of fraudulent uses of altered states (as in past life regression or belief in the supernatural as really existing) in order to create a rational framework for experience
  • active endorsement and even promotion of positive temporary mind-altering activities in safe contexts and new regulations to limit or (in evident cases) carefully regulate unsafe and non-consensual methodologies that will negatively affect particular types of individual or ban extreme and non-consensual alterations tor all individuals [2]
The ideal state would be controversial but would be a balanced state in which logical and rational education (which is sorely lacking in the West) was matched by the ability to experience critically the illusory experience of unity, the illusion of spiritual experience, blissful states, insightfulness, disembodiment, complex elementary mental imagery, audio-visual synesthesia and changed meanings of sense data. This is what I mean by a frontier - the ability of society to act rationally whilst allowing a much broader sense of human perceptual capability. Rational discourse and scientific method (whether neuroscientific, psychological or pharmacological) would expose the irrational meanings attributed to the experiences but the experiences, under controlled conditions, would not be the object of fear but of wonder.

I have emphasised the socio-cultural aspects of this new frontier only because the parallel and equally important medical frontier is well understood. The doctors are practical men and women. Their view of consciousness is not theoretical but driven by the alleviation of pain and distress - the effect of disease, accidents, poisoning and 'bad' altered states (those which cause distress or physical harm). The medical profession also has its frontiers of consciousness in dealing with particularly tragic situations - not only death itself but locked-in syndrome, vegetative states and coma. There can be no romantic view of altered states - the scientific approach is not to pretend that they are not present or sought out but to engage with them and make them safe and not distressing to all intents and purposes. Some cognitive libertarians may seek out distressing and risky experiences and that is their privilege, I would say 'right' if I believed in rights but even they are not free to cause harm to others. The frontier is a joint frontier not merely to make the distressed normal more normal if they wish to be so (the role of medicine) but to give this choice to create new personal and collective normalities that harm none. Each expresses different sides of what it is to be free - free from and free to.

We leave with the words of Dr. John Baker in 1994: "Psychedelics, then, are a double-edged sword. Used incorrectly, they can undermine the sources of individual stability. Used correctly, they can enable a person to stand back and reevaluate his position in and relationship with the world. Any attempts to use these compounds in a constructive manner must bear in mind that the psychedelic pathway is a means to an end, not an end in itself." We would extend this thought to all forms of deliberate alteration of consciousness, not excluding alcohol and music. All such tools should be regarded as means to an end and not ends in themselves. The question remains much as it did at the beginning - what are those ends?


(1) This is perhaps the most interesting frontier of all. Nietzsche announced the 'death of God' but the idea persists as does the idea of a universal consciousness. The mechanical induction of mystical experience does not, in itself, eliminate the need for a religious framework or the undisprovable existence of God but it does cast serious doubt on the validity of mystical or spiritual experiences as 'true' beyond brain function. The human being has an amazing capacity for self-delusion and fitting new facts into old paradigms. The social challenge is one where the mechanical induction of mystical experiences might create a social phenomenon - a stubborn mass belief in absurdity because of intense experience. This might have terrifying effects on evidence-based public policy. It might be argued that mystically-orientated altered state technologies (not just psycho-active drugs) could be devastatingly politically more disruptive than opiates in the long run of history. Imagine a world in which loopy empaths repressed anyone with an ounce of energy and organisation as 'psychopaths'.This argues for the psycholytic rather than the psychedelic approach to (say) psycho-actives as a social imperatives although the former seems to have less positive effects than the illusory states constructed by the latter. The truth will almost certainly remain that psychedelics require as much energy put into the set and setting issues of the matter as into understanding the substance itself. A rational set and setting that removes the 'white coats' and restores power to the subject strikes me as an 'absolute' to avoid both premature psycholytic therapies and the false interpretation of psychedelic episodes. This means that the restoration of power to the subject does not arise from the act of taking psycho-actives but is prior to the act - it is an act of aware and mature decision guided by professional understanding. The sweeping away of New Age pre-set visions would be a helpful precursor to a new society in which all forms of altered state were regarded as temporary readjustments to restore power to rational individual models of personal reality over and against a flawed consensual reality.

(2) The logic of this may be that particular individuals under particular conditions might be regarded as safely positioned even to take opiates. Regulatory action might be far more interested in banning some forms of political, charitable and commercial manipulation as non-consensual. There are clear dangers to freedom in this, especially when special activists presume manipulation (in order to enforce a regulatory manipulation in their own ideological interest) and do not allow some degree of perceptual 'caveat emptor', but the least that might be done is honest education in schools about perceptual risk and techniques of manipulation. A line might be drawn between 'caveat perceptor' and bullying so that use of images of beautiful women in society (usually a pleasure in any case) cannot be unilaterally be banned by latter day nut-job iconoclasts but we can finally get 'chuggers' (charity muggers) off our streets.

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