This article is about Sam Harris’ 127th Waking Up podcast in which he talks with Michael Pollan about his latest book, How to Change Your Mind, a New York Times bestseller that investigates the revolution now taking place regarding psychedelic drugs. On the podcast, Harris and Pollan discuss the psychological benefits of psychedelic drug use for those suffering from conditions like depression, addiction, etc., and the general benefits of its use for otherwise healthy people.
Note: I haven’t read the book, so my comments are restricted to what is discussed on the podcast. I also won’t be discussing potential societal/health problems regarding making psychedelics legally available to the public.
Claim 1: The main benefit Pollan and Harris focused on regarding the use of psychedelics among otherwise healthy people was their ability to distance one from the (illusory) self. Pollan talks about the drugs dissolving his sense of self, which was freeing in the sense that it gave him an alternative “way to be”, another way to react to what happens in his life. He realised he doesn’t have to listen to his ego all the time. Of course, being an experience, it fades with time and, as he recounts, shortly afterwards, his ego was back in full force. Nevertheless, the alleged benefit was that it had given him a glimpse of another way to live, a way that can be developed more robustly through meditation.
There are two ways we use the word ‘reason’ of interest to us here (I will be ignoring ‘reason’ used to mean ‘rational’). The first (A-type) is used to explain something with respect to factual events or the past; i.e. the reason the sky is blue is because molecules in the air scatter blue light more than they do red, or the reason I broke my leg was because I fell off my bike. The second type of reason (B-type) also explains something but is future-oriented; i.e. the reason she bought a bigger car is because she wants a large family. Importantly, while only conscious agents can have B-type reasons, anything can have an A-type reason.
The central problem I want to address in this article is whether all B-type reasons ultimately cash out as A-type reasons.
In its grandest conception the world is simply the whole of the physical universe. If this sounds about right, then you have probably accepted the scientific/materialistic paradigm that saturates the modern intellectual atmosphere without realising there are any alternatives aside from crackpot religious or new age ones. This article will challenge this prevailing scientific/materialistic notion of world, specifically arguing that it is neither (1) fundamental nor (2) complete, and is, in fact, both (3) meaningless and (4) misleading.
Of course, there is nothing incoherent about defining ‘world’ as the totality of physical matter in the universe. The problem isn’t one of coherence, but of scope and relevance. Given its limitations, my argument is that despite being coherent in an insular kind of way, it isn’t the best definition of the word, and doesn’t even reflect what we typically mean when we use it.