It may be a little off our usual beat, but Graham Hancock’s piece in the New Statesman (longer version here) raised some interesting thoughts.
It’s the ‘war on drugs’ that is Hancock’s real target, but he says it’s really a war on consciousness…
This extraordinary imposition on adult cognitive liberty is justified by the idea that our brain activity, disturbed by drugs, will adversely impact our behaviour towards others. Yet anyone who pauses to think seriously for even a moment must realize that we already have adequate laws that govern adverse behaviour towards others and that the real purpose of the “war on drugs” must therefore be to bear down on consciousness itself.
That doesn’t seem quite right. It’s true there are weak arguments for laws against drugs – some of them based on bad consequences that arguably arise from the laws rather than the drugs – but there are reasonable ones, too. The bedrock point is that taking a lot of psychoactive drugs is probably bad for you. Hancock and many others might say that we should have the right to harm ourselves, or at any rate to risk harm, if we don’t hurt anyone else, but that principle is not, I think, generally accepted by most legislatures. Moreover there are special arguments in the case of drugs. One is that they are addictive. ‘Addiction’ is used pretty widely these days to cover any kind of dependency or habit, but I believe the original meaning was that an addict became physically dependent, unable to stop taking the drug without serious, possibly even fatal consequences, while at the same time ever larger doses were needed to achieve relief. That is clearly not a good way to go, and it’s a case where leaving people to make up their own minds doesn’t really work because of the dependency. Secondly, drugs may affect the user’s judgement and for that reason too should arguably be a case where people are not left to judge risks for themselves.
Now, as a matter of fact neither of those arguments may apply in the case of some restricted drugs – they may not be addictive in that strongest sense and they may not remove the user’s ability to judge risks; and the risks themselves may in some cases have been overstated; but we don’t have to assume that governments are simply set on denying us the benefits of enhanced consciousness.
What would those benefits be? They might be knowledge, enhanced cognition, or simple pleasure. We could also reverse the argument that Hancock attributes to our rulers and suggest that drugs make people less likely to harm others. People who are lying around admiring the wallpaper in a confused manner are not out committing crimes, after all.
Enhanced cognition might work up to a point in some cases: certain drugs really do help dispel fatigue or anxiety and sharpen concentration in the short term. But the really interesting possibility for us is that drug use might allow different kinds of cognition and knowledge. I think the evidence on fathoming the secrets of the Universe is rather discouraging. Drugs may often make people feel as if they understand everything, but it never seems to be possible to write the insights down. Where they are written down, they turn out to be like the secret of the cosmos apprehended by Oliver Wendell Holmes under the influence of ether; later he discovered his notes read “A strong smell of turpentine prevails throughout”.
But perhaps we’re not dealing with that kind of knowledge. Perhaps instead drugs can offer us the kind of ineffable knowledge we get from qualia? Mary the colour scientist is said to know something new once she has seen red for the first time; not something about colour that could have been written down, or ex hypothesi she would have known it already, but what it is like. Perhaps drugs allow us to experience more qualia, or even super qualia; to know what things are like whose existence we should not otherwise have suspected. Terry Pratchett introduced the word ‘knurd’ to describe the state of being below zero on the drunkenness scale; needing a drink to bring you up to the normal mental condition: perhaps philosophical zombies, who experience no qualia, are simply in a similar state with respect to certain drugs.
That seems plausible enough, but it raises the implication that normal qualia are also in fact delusions (not an uncongenial implication for some). For drugs there is a wider problem of non-veridicality. We know that drugs can cause hallucinations, and as mentioned above, can impart feelings of understanding without the substance. What if it’s all like that? What if drug experiences are systematically false? What if we don’t really have any new knowledge or any new experiences on drugs, we just feel as if we have? For that matter, what about pleasure? What if drugs give us a false memory of having had a good time – or what if they make us think we’re having a good time now although in reality we’re not enjoying it at all? You may well feel that last one is impossible, but it doesn’t pay to underestimate the tricksiness of the mind.
Well, many people would say that the feeling of having had a good time is itself worth having, even if the factual element of the feeling is false. So perhaps in the same way we can say that even if qualia are delusions, they’re valuable ones. Perhaps the exalted places to which drugs take us are imaginary; but just because somewhere doesn’t exist doesn’t mean it isn’t worth going there. For myself I generally prefer the truth (no argument for that, just a preference) and I think I generally get it most reliably when sober and undrugged.
Hancock, at any rate, has another kind of knowledge in mind. He suggests that the brain may turn out to be, not a generator of consciousness but rather a receiver, tuned in to the psychic waves where, I assume, our spiritual existence is sustained. Drugs, he proposes, might possibly allow us to twiddle the knobs on our mental apparatus so as to receive messages from others: different kinds of being or perhaps people in other dimensions. I’m not quite clear where he draws the line between receiving and existing, or whether we should take ourselves to be in the brain or in the spiritual ether. If we’re in the brain, then the signals we’re receiving are a form of outside control which doesn’t sound very nice: but if we’re really in the ether then when the signals from other beings are being received by the brain we ought to lose consciousness, or at least lose control of our bodies, not just pick up a message. No doubt Hancock could clarify, given a chance, but it looks as if there’s a bit of work to be done.
But let’s not worry too much, because the idea of the brain as a mere receiver seems highly dubious. We know now that very detailed neuronal activity is associated with very specific mental content, and as time goes on that association becomes ever sharper. This means that if the brain is a receiver the signals it receives must be capable of influencing a vast collection of close-packed neurons in incredibly exquisite detail. It’s only fair to remember that a neurologist as distinguished as Sir John Eccles, not all that long ago, thought this was exactly what was happening; but to me it seems incompatible with ordinary physics. We can manipulate small areas of the brain from outside with suitable equipment, but dictating its operation at this level of detail, and without any evident physical intervention seems too much. Hancock says the possibility has not been disproved, and for certain standards of proof that’s right; but I reckon by the provisional standards that normally apply for science we can rule out the receiver thesis.
Speaking of manipulating the brain from outside, it seems inevitable to me that within a few years we shall have external electronic means of simulating the effects of certain drugs, or at least of deranging normal mental operation in a diverting and agreeable way. You’ll be able to slip on a helmet, flick a switch, and mess with your mind in all sorts of ways. They might call it e-drugs or something similar, but you’ll no longer need to buy dodgy chemicals at an exorbitant mark-up. What price the war on drugs or on consciousness then?