Psychedelics seem to crop up among the people and writings I’m interested in, and I’ve read your accounts of acid effects a few times now, the latest due to Jacob Falkovich’s recent essay. You describe feeling like you’re drinking raw truth from the universe’s faucet, which seems in line with many others’ experiences, with the exception that you then decided to put your mouth on the pipe (sorry). I’m a sucker for this idea of self-destructive truthseeking.
But I imagine a substance – we’ll call it bacid. Bacid is an asshole. It makes you think you’re seeing truth, but then forget what you learned or how to communicate it. “Attempting to explain it defeats the purpose,” you desperately rationalize to yourself, “I know it was real because I experienced it.’ Despite doing nothing but fuck with you, bacid attracts users because its entire benefit is unfalsifiable.
Is this just a sinkhole for smart people waste brainwaves trying to pattern complete compelling-sounding noise, like some kind of upgraded version of dream interpretation? I’ve always wondered if people look at Mary’s Room backwards. Obviously she experiences a new sensation, which is not the same as learning a new truth – but then why do people who take psychedelics want to make claims about truth? I can’t square the complete and utter certainty people express in the importance of their experiences with the immense and varied power of brains to be wrong,e specially with the help of chemicals.
tl;dr Should I drop acid? Asking for a friend.-Email from Ragnar
This is a great way of framing a question or premise I’ve heard many times – that psychedelics induce delusion, wireheading, that they press the “I’ve got the truth” button in your brain without it corresponding to any actual truth.
Of course we see a lot of people who take psychedelics and develop concrete beliefs – stuff like aliens, the spirit realm, or telepathy – things that don’t seem to have much evidence from the outside, which really supports the idea that the drug we’re taking was actually acid’s asshole cousin Bacid all along.
There is a bit of a distinction I want to make here, one I’ve slowly come to suspect over watching a lot of people trip. I want to propose two categories of “things you can do with your mind while tripping” – belief construction and deconstruction.
As I’ve written about before, acid tends to change your relationship to your beliefs, kicking the legs out from things you thought you knew. The resulting confusion is intolerable, and our response to this is to try to build (unconsciously!) beliefs to give structure to the ensuing nonsense. For example, you might process ‘noticing subtle changes in body language” as “telepathy, obviously”. This results in a “shift along a belief plane” – the nature of the beliefs are unchanged (believing in telepathy feels pretty similar to believing in body language), but the beliefs themselves have shifted into something new – sort of like unplugging one wire and then plugging in another into the same port.
This explains a good deal of how people on psychedelics want to make “claims about the truth”. And with this, I would agree this is pretty consistent with people taking Bacid – it’s a drug that scrambles our understanding of reality, but we’re not actually learning anything that important or useful.
But sometimes you can do a mental move that’s not plugging a new wire into the same port, but rather fucking with the port itself. This usually involves tolerating confusion – instead of looking for a new belief to make sense of the world, to experience the search without trying to satisfy it. Another way of saying this is that you would take your ‘looking for reality’ sense as object, something to which you exist outside. This leads to some extremely hard-to-articulate experiences that do not interact with belief in the way we typically know, and the claims made from this are not the same as claims made about other things. Koans are a good example, where they’re often deeply nonsensical and not meant to be processed intellectually.
But a lot of people who go through this, myself included, still seem to try to make claims, write blog posts or whatever about philosophy and truth or something, and this looks a lot like ‘trying to make claims about the world.’ Often it might be! The distinction is subtle and possibly an illusion – but this desire to communicate comes from the part of your reality that is not in direct contact with the Knowing or whatever, because communication itself relies on so many belief systems to start out with (that you exist, how words work, etc). This is fine, but I acknowledge the paradoxical nature of it and why I often put “nothing I say is true, do not ascribe truth unto my words” at the beginning of many of my blog posts.
But how do you know that this category of experience isn’t ‘Doing Bacid’? My answer is that you don’t. Your frame of ‘this drug is making people delusional and this isn’t useful’ isn’t that wrong.
This ties strongly into my experience of doing acid as insanity – I feel extremely aware how my perception of reality is so deviant from the norm, and the part of me that’s modeling reality perceives myself as insane.
You’re not wrong about your concern. It’s a real concern, and probably true. If your ultimate decision is decided by this frame, then you should not do acid, it will make you crazy.
But I have access to the frame where I am insane – I can feel my insanity from the belief where I’m doing Bacid, not acid. I seem to be just as functional and rational in the world as I was before. All the weird claims I make around psychedelic experiences don’t seem to impact my ability to function.
My ‘insanity’ does not feel like it exists on the same plane as the types of beliefs you’re worried about changing. I haven’t plugged any different wire into the same port. The normal wires still get plugged into the same ports, and my body goes around acting like normal.
The experience of intense revelation and understanding were not about functional beliefs (though they can be, but these results are practically beneficial in the normal world and in ways you care about, such as how doing LSD concretely and measurably healed a lot of childhood trauma I had). The intense revelation came in a meta layer, around what it means to hold a belief, about my sense of self and my relation to those beliefs. In that way they become very difficult to communicate, and people often do it extremely poorly and with a lot of confusion.
Sure, maybe acid is actually the asshole cousin Bacid, but that’s not really the thing that matters. If you think it matters, then you’re worried about our ability to do truth detection and it getting corrupted – but this concept of truth detection is a functional belief that exists on the plane where we plug wires into ports. Bacid doesn’t (have to) change your ability to plug the right wires into the right ports, but it might change your relationship to the port itself, and thus has nothing to do with the kind of truth detection you’re worried about corrupting.
Now of course some people take acid and end up with really weird beliefs, but for the purpose of this article I’m going to assume that you’re sort of like me and don’t end up with weird beliefs. If you’re not like me, then I’d recommend starting with very low doses and working up, and then stopping if you notice belief changes on the concrete level. Or you don’t have to take it at all. If you don’t have a pull towards it, then don’t worry about it.