Science, Drugs, God
“Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge? Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?” – T.S. Eliot, Choruses from the Rock
Regardless of what one thinks about the therapeutic potential or lack thereof of psychedelics, the long piece by Michael Pollan in the New Yorker of 9 February 2015 enters the disorienting, funhouse mirror world of contemporary science. Pollan does his usual fine job of reporting who’s saying what in the field. But the piece presumes indifference or hostility to those vast realms of human knowledge and wisdom that dwell outside the narrow, political world of government- and corporate-funded research that passes for “objective” science.
To read his 8,000-plus words on the topic, you’d think that psilocybin had been discovered by 1960s hippies or their immediate predecessors in the psychology labs of well-endowed northeastern universities. Not once does Pollan acknowledge that knowledge and use of the drug stretch back into prehistory, that the Native tribes of northern Mexico and the American Southwest have long incorporated it into their religious rituals, that they had a thorough understanding of and yes, science surrounding its usage, its potentials and its power, that the idea of consuming such a drug for recreation would have struck them as sacrilegious, that our government has for years actively persecuted them for taking it.
I’d like to think that Pollan’s book – presumably there will be one – will cover this territory, but Pollan writes with such gee-whiz naivete that I’m not so sure. In reporting the subjects’ drug experiences (“’I understand love is the most powerful force on the planet’”), he seems unaware that their testimonies rather hilariously echo the 1970s routines of Cheech and Chong, comics who made a profession out of scripts involving characters too high to find the deadbolt to open the door for their drugged-out friend fleeing the police — they were too lost in their great and all-encompassing love. Which is only to say that the experiences Pollan reports echo pretty much all drug trips (see, and only for starters, Walter Benjamin’s Hashish in Marseille, ca. 1932, not to mention Carlos Casteneda’s bestselling Teachings of Don Juan, 1968). And yet the scientists, some of whom are old enough to know better, gush over the outcomes with all the enthusiasm required to ensure funding for years to come. Good scientists that they are, they’re willing and eager to prevaricate and dissimulate when funding is at stake.
Recently I asked a psychiatrist and leading researcher in the field, “Why do we need MRIs and double-blind studies to tell us what our wisdom traditions have been telling us for centuries?” A question for which he could not summon an answer – but he will not soon be incorporating it into his grant proposals, where first, foremost, and above all one must admire the naked emperor’s clothes – the whole enterprise of presuming that with the application of sufficient funds, everything can and will be explained.
I’m not denigrating research into possibilities that psychedelics might be useful in treating various ailments, not at all, though I admit to blanching at Pollan’s report of a scientist who’s injecting active ingredients of hallucinogens directly into his subjects’ bloodstream. (I knew some of those high-flying guys who went the direct injection route. They’re all dead.) I only want to point out that in this area as in so many others, science is several millennia behind human wisdom, which is formed out of and responds to human experience, which understood and employed careful trial-and-error with psilocybin long before the invention of the double-blind study.
Reading Pollan is enough to make me doubt climate change, and that’s where the real tragedy lies. Science could offer us so much more, if it would only give up the notion that it has to reinvent the wheel, to tell us something that we *didn’t* already know. Do we need a double-blind study to “discover” that those who take psychedelics report a mystical encounter with God? In its insistence on its newness and nowness, science undercuts its own legitimacy with those of us who have some sense of the past, who trust their own experience of the world.
Pollan writes, “Meditation acquainted [Roland Griffiths, holder of a senior appointment in psychiatry at Johns Hopkins] with ‘something beyond a material world view that I can’t really talk to my colleagues about, because it involves metaphors or assumptions that I’m really uncomfortable with as a scientist.” Earlier in the piece Pollan quotes Griffiths as saying regarding psychedelics, “Can you think of another area of science regarded as so dangerous and taboo that all research gets shut down for decades?” I suggest that Griffiths has answered his own question, in speaking of “something beyond a material world view that [he] can’t really talk to his colleagues about.” What is shut down right now in science is any suggestion that knowledge has its limits; that there is a mystery at the heart of existence which can only be suggested through metaphor, through art.
But watch out. The scientists who are conducting such tests are, of course, at some point sooner than later (as in maybe yesterday, or well before they spoke to Pollan) going to yield to the temptation to experiment on themselves, and down that road lies the kind of madness about which Emily Dickinson, no stranger to the mystical experience, wrote:
Much Madness is divinest Sense –
To a discerning Eye –
Much Sense – the starkest Madness –
’Tis the Majority
In this, as all, prevail –
Assent – and you are sane –
Demur – you’re straightway dangerous –
And handled with a Chain –
“It didn’t take long for once respectable scientists such as Leary to grow impatient with the rigmarole of objective science,” Pollan writes. Maybe this time around, science will accommodate its mystics rather than casting us out. Maybe this time around it will come to see that for all its allure and beauty, empirical knowledge is only one of the ninety-nine ways of naming God.