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« Where Do Dreams and Visions Come From? | Main | Commies and “The Axis of Horganism” »

The Meaning of Ayahuasca Visions

A final comment on mystical visions, and then I’ll return to earth:

One of the best recent attempts to grapple with the significance of visionary experiences is The Antipodes of the Mind, in which the Israeli psychologist Benny Shanon focuses on ayahuasca. As my article “The God Experiments” notes, ayahuasca contains the potent hallucinogen dimethyl tryptamine, or DMT. Shanon has consumed ayahuasca himself more than 100 times, interviewed scores of others who have done so, read all he could find on ayahuasca and other mind-altering substances and poured his findings and reflections into Antipodes.

What distinguishes Shanon from New Agey ayahuasca enthusiasts is his recognition that the brew can be “the worst of liars.” He remains skeptical of occult claims often made for the tea—that it puts us in touch with ghosts, makes us clairvoyant, lets us leave our bodies and travel astrally. Ayahuasca visions are products of the imagination, Shanon suggests, rather than glimpses of a supernatural realm existing in parallel to our own.

This proposal may sound reductionistic, but it is actually quite provocative, and raises many questions requiring further consideration. Why does the imagination, when stimulated by ayahuasca, yield visions so much more vivid and powerful than those we encounter in ordinary dreams? Why are the visions of even a-religious people (Shanon falls into this category) so often laden with religious significance?

Shanon also experienced sensations of self-transcendence and unity, the hallmarks of mystical experiences. “With this brew, the boundaries between me and the world, between me and other human beings, between the human and even the Divine are blurred and even transgressed.” Ayahuasca, Shanon concludes, is rightly called a sacrament, because it “introduces one to realms that pertain to religion, to faith, to the Divine.” Ayahuasca left Shanon himself profoundly transformed. “For years I have characterized myself as a ‘devout atheist,’” he writes. “When I left South America I was no longer one.”

The devout atheist Richard Dawkins gamely tried out Michael Persinger’s “God machine,” but it didn’t work. But there are more reliable mystical technologies out there. For his next book, perhaps Dawkins should test his anti-faith by consuming ayahuasca, peyote (see my Discover article, "Peyote on the Brain") or plain old LSD.

Investigations of visionary experiences--induced by drugs or other means--will surely take science, philosophy and religion in unexpected directions. Inner space is science’s final frontier, and its reaches are vast, wild and strange.




My god John, you're starting to sound like Timothy Leary!


"Inner space is science’s final frontier, and its reaches are vast, wild and strange." - John Horgan.

Dr Samuel Glasstone wrote a booklet in 1972 called "Inner Space: the Structure of the Atom".

He had written the major physical chemistry textbooks in the 1940s, as well as nuclear and particle physics books for the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission.

In particular, he co-authored the treatise, "Theory of Rate Reactions", the first full application of applying quantum mechanics to chemical reaction rates.

In "Inner Space: The Structure of the Atom" (1972) he explains very clearly how the periodic table is built up from the permitted (possible) combinations of the four quantum numbers each atomic electron in an atom has under the Pauli exclusion principle.

However, he gets into causal basis (not Copenhagen Interpretation) by deliberately plotting graphs from Schroedinger's wave equation of all the electron configurations and explaining to the reader that the locations of peak electron probability correspond to the classical theory. Hence, the fuzzy picture is likely due to chaotic effects which would occur even in the real (planetary) solar system if all the planets and sun had the same gravity "charge" (ie, the same mass). In that case, the result would be chaotic because each planet would, as it moved, seriously change the orbit of each of the other planets.

Glasstone had earlier, in 1967 stated in the official U.S. Atomic Energy Commission "Sourcebook on Atomic Energy" 3rd ed.:

"It should be admitted quite frankly that, at the present time, the mathematical applications of wave mechanics have outrun their interpretation in terms of uncerstandable realities."

- Prof. Samuel Glasstone, PhD, DSc, 'Sourcebook on Atomic Energy, 3rd ed., 1967, p82.

In addition, in the atom you have loops of charges spontaneously appearing at random all over the place around a moving electron, out to a range of 1 fm.

This Heisenberg uncertainty principle was explained by causal effects (like splashes caused by waves clashing in a Dirac sea), which Sir Karl Popper did in 1934:

‘... the Heisenberg formulae can be most naturally interpreted as statistical scatter relations, as I proposed [in the 1934 German publication, ‘The Logic of Scientific Discovery’]. ... There is, therefore, no reason whatever to accept either Heisenberg’s or Bohr’s subjectivist interpretation of quantum mechanics.’ – Sir Karl R. Popper, Objective Knowledge, Oxford University Press, 1979, p. 303.

‘... the view of the status of quantum mechanics which Bohr and Heisenberg defended - was, quite simply, that quantum mechanics was the last, the final, the never-to-be-surpassed revolution in physics ... physics has reached the end of the road.’ – Sir Karl Popper, Quantum Theory and the Schism in Physics, Rowman and Littlefield, NJ, 1982, p. 6.

The problem here is explained by the mathematician Sir James Jeans (famous for his false speculations that the solar system was created by massive tides on the sun, and that "God is a pure mathematician"):

"It is now a full quarter of a century since physical science, largely under the leadership of Poincare, left off trying to explain physical phenomena and resigned itself merely to describing them in the simplest way possible.

"To take the simplest illustration, the Victorian scientist thought it necessary to 'explain' light as a wave-motion in the mechanical ether which he was for ever trying to construct out of jellies [elastic solids] and gyroscopes [Kelvin's vortex atoms, or Maxwell's gearbox-type displacement current]; the scientist of to-day ... has given up the attempt and is well satisfied if he can obtain a mathematical formula which will predict what light will do under specified circumstances."

- Sir James Jeans, MA, DSc, LLD, FRS, 'The Universe Around Us', Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1929, p329.

However, that is a cop out. Physics is about mathematical descriptions, but any final theory may well need to get its hands dirty and deal with the spacetime fabric and Dirac sea, because it is precisely the incompatibility between the continuity of general relativity and the quantum nature of the Standard Model which is under attack in finding a theory of gravity!

‘I think the important and extremely difficult task of our time is to try to build up a fresh idea of reality.’ – W. Pauli, letter to Fierz, 12 August 1948.

‘Niels Bohr brain-washed a whole generation of physicists into believing that the problem had been solved fifty years ago.’ – Murray Gell-Mann, in The Nature of the Physical Universe, Wiley, New York, 1979, p. 29.

‘... with the new theory of electrodynamics [vacuum filled with virtual particles] we are rather forced to have an aether.’ – Paul A. M. Dirac, ‘Is There an Aether?,’ Nature, v168, 1951, p906.

‘The idealised physical reference object, which is implied in current quantum theory, is a fluid permeating all space like an aether.’ – Sir Arthur S. Eddington, MA, DSc, LLD, FRS, Relativity Theory of Protons and Electrons, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1936, p. 180.

‘Recapitulating, we may say that according to the general theory of relativity, space is endowed with physical qualities... According to the general theory of relativity space without ether is unthinkable.’ – Albert Einstein, Leyden University lecture on ‘Ether and Relativity’, 1920. (Einstein, A., Sidelights on Relativity, Dover, New York, 1952, pp. 15, 16, and 23.)

‘... the source of the gravitational field can be taken to be a perfect fluid.... A fluid is a continuum that ‘flows’... A perfect fluid is defined as one in which all antislipping forces are zero, and the only force between neighboring fluid elements is pressure.’ – Professor Bernard Schutz, General Relativity, Cambridge University Press, 1986, pp. 89-90.

‘The history of science is full of beautiful ideas that turned out to be wrong. The awe for the math should not blind us. In spite of the tremendous mental power of the people working in it, in spite of the string revolutions and the excitement and the hype, years go by and the theory isn’t delivering physics. All the key problems remain wide open. The connection with reality becomes more and more remote. All physical predictions derived from the theory have been contradicted by the experiments. I don’t think that the old claim that string theory is such a successful quantum theory of gravity holds anymore. Today, if too many theoreticians do strings, there is the very concrete risk that all this tremendous mental power, the intelligence of a generation, is wasted following a beautiful but empty fantasy. There are alternatives, and these must be taken seriously.’ - Carlo Rovelli, arXiv:hep-th/0310077, p20.


It would certainly be a strange God who was accessible only through rare alkaloids. So strange, I suppose, that you'd have to take those alkaloids to understand Him.

Andrei Kirilyuk

“Investigations of visionary experiences - induced by drugs or other means - will surely take science, philosophy and religion in unexpected directions. Inner space is science’s final frontier, and its reaches are vast, wild and strange.” Here the last statement is true but too general (who would disagree, but who could specify it?), while the first one may be not as obvious as it may seem. For example, all the ALREADY PERFORMED, numerous enough scientific and less scientific “investigations” (thoroughly elucidated by John Horgan and others) did NOT reveal anything essentially new for science, philosophy or religion (apart from strong and maybe fascinating “personal impressions”, but that's yet another kind of knowledge!). Moreover, their results do not imply a possibility of essential progress because the applied scientific tools and methods of finding the truth by highly qualified, advanced intellectuals reflect well the highest possible level of investigation, which does not promise a forthcoming strong advance (just due to a “thorough”, logically complete approach and realisation).

And then, in general, why not to apply the old good criterion of truth asking for a real progress in problem solution (in pure knowledge or applications) as a result of any allegedly “efficient”, worthy-of-interest approach? OK, everybody tries mushrooms and any other possible and impossible chemistry. [In Russia or Ukraine, for example, they prefer drinking any volatile liquid at least vaguely resembling alcohol, probably also in the search for new impressions; they die from it by thousands every year and still continue to try – what a sacred thirst for the new knowledge and terribly high level of consciousness in a country proud of its universal education level!] Many people, including top intellectuals and scientists, describe their resulting “extraordinary” impressions, dramatic change of views, “new reality” and “new knowledge”. Everything is thoroughly investigated and processed scientifically. Very nice, but as far as one can see, all the old, nasty problems remain unsolved as a result, in brain science, any science and “usual” life (including by those scientists and intellectuals who tried and studied the “accelerating” stuff). If somebody “feels much better” with mushrooms rather than without them, well, so much the better, but it's not necessary equivalent to any scientific (or philosophical) revelation... Any genuine, unreduced truth involves a concrete result, it should bring about a clearly notable advance, at least some real problem solution (though maybe the one from fundamental science!). [Example: I do propose a provably consistent and quite “scientific” (rigorously derived) understanding of consciousness, , and I did not eat any particular mushrooms before it! Although... yes, we had Chernobyl here, twenty years ago! Oh, maybe that's it, the magic entry to another world?! Come quickly to Chernobyl, everybody, it's even better than mushrooms and still shining, you can have your portion of inspiration!] But if nothing real results, after many different attempts, then it's also a result, a “well-established” one (whether desired or not!). For how many centuries and millennia do people consume all those “magic” plants and mushrooms? And the result is what we have: no essential progress in the basic intelligence level, while the performed more superficial, “technical” progress is still attained mainly by “natural” brain power. Maybe we could rather try to “boost” it by equally natural efforts? (see also my comment to the previous post, ).

It will be difficult to establish it with certainty, but it seems more probable to me that practically all those cases of “artificial” brain stimulation to unusual visions represent in reality cases of regressive (restricting), rather than progressive (revealing), development of brain activity. The observed supernatural “brightness”, visible “greatness” and esoteric “spirituality” of “chemical” revelations are not good criteria of a real advance because straightforward satisfaction of various “basic instincts” can often provoke similar kind of instantaneous “inspiring”, “inexplicable” and fascinating effects. Of course, brain has a powerful chemical component of its activity, but it seems that its stimulation by hallucinogenic substances actually REDUCES the dynamic complexity of the whole, which is both a reasonable definition of regress (I rigorously confirm its universal validity!) and quite probable origin of unusually “bright” and therefore externally “inspiring” impressions. [Indeed, they are finally LESS diverse than “usual” brain activity because they actually “expel” everything else from the brain, while “normal” brain activity can, in principle, incorporate various such “inspiring” effects.] If not, let those mushroom enthusiasts solve at least one otherwise “difficult”, stagnating problem about the brain or elsewhere as a result of their “experiments”! One need that, real kind of evidence, rather than subjective descriptions of someone's esoteric pleasures obtained at the expense of unaware tax-payers (can't the whole official science today be described in that way?!).

Inspiring dreams and great ideas to everybody!

Andrei Kirilyuk

Nigel “nc”,

I am sorry to say it, but your above comment (a) has practically no relation to this post subject (here it's mushrooms, not strings, Nigel!) and (b) contains mainly a collection of someone else's citations about strings etc., which are often misleading and can hardly teach us anything useful (and it may even happen that it's not the first instance of items (a) and (b) in this blog comments...). For example, your last citation “against strings” comes from a researcher doing the same abstract and meaningless kind of science, although supplied with a different “etiquette” of loop quantum gravity. He just means to promote his personal abracadabra against the falling string abstractions, but his “science” belongs to exactly the same “family”. It's always funny, their family scandals (especially because they are always generously supported by public investments), but one “bullshit science” cannot be better than another, irrespective of details, and should we really waste OUR precious time and efforts on their selfish family quarrels?

With all my respect to personal liberties, it seems that our comments could be much more efficient if we try to (a) put them in a sensible relation to John's posts and other comments (“mushrooms to mushrooms, strings to strings”, you know) and (b) try to express mainly our own (desirably completely perfect) thoughts rather than citations from other, however “famous” or “relevant” authors (we already have quite enough of their “glory”, haven't we?). Every freedom should be reasonably used, and it would be a pity to degrade here to a spammy sequence of arbitrary subjects in our comments... I suppose that everybody could follow such elementary rules, and I do NOT expect further discussion of quantum field theory within THIS post comments (there is enough of other posts on strings in this blog and hopefully there will be other “physical” posts, but let's try to preserve at least some logic, if we are so keen on science). And note, Nigel, being a theoretical physicist myself, I make big efforts to avoid speaking about strings all the time... Mushrooms can also be VERY interesting, especially around the end of science... Maybe they can even increase the rigour of our logic?! John, for example, has a very clear logic, which is not usual for a journalist with a literary education basis. There should be something else there, some mushrooms maybe... Anyway, next meeting in South America! We should try it all together and found a really new kind of science, no but this time a really new kind of science based on a real delirium... Sorry, I can't be completely serious today, it should be the influence of your ironic science in your ironic world...

John Horgan

Andrei, thanks, I was thinking of writing something along those lines myself--although given how all-over-the-place my posts are I guess I can't complain if the comments get a bit unruly. I try to stay focused but there are just too many things I'm interested in. Stoner, if you want to see how different I am from Leary, check out Rational Mysticism, which contains copious warnings about the cons of psychedelics (including BZ and ayahuasca).



"Investigations of visionary experiences--induced by drugs or other means--will surely take science, philosophy and religion in unexpected directions. Inner space is science’s final frontier, and its reaches are vast, wild and strange."

This seemed to me to involk visions of extra dimensional parallel universes and that kind of thing. Sorry again!

Andrei Kirilyuk

Taking the opportunity of the appeared “deviation” of this post comments, I think that diversity of subjects and ways of thinking we have here can only be welcome and further “cultivated”, together with proper, quasi-“professional” concentration on each particular subject and its associations. This is not only interesting and amusing, but can well be a way to a new level of knowledge (and intelligence, if you want), where one can freely “wander” over the intrinsically unified, living “tree of knowledge”, without losing the necessary depth of analysis. For comparison, conventional science gives quite another kind of result that can be described as the “tree of life cut into pieces”, where there can be no contact between different fields and approaches, while any “free wandering” is impossible in principle. Correspondingly, “public understanding of science” always remains illusive, strongly incomplete for THAT kind of knowledge, irrespective of universal education level.

Extremely large, unlimited in principle, scope of knowledge has been a remarkable, though rarely mentioned feature of “The End of Science” analysis. I'd like to see a deep enough sign in it: not only John Horgan fixes the end of standard science, but he does it in the above “wide and focused” way, which is completely alien to the late science itself (for example, objections of Horgan's scientific opponents practically always take field-specific, non-universal forms). In other words, already deep enough understanding of the occurring end of (old) science takes a new form of “unified diversity” that should be a major feature of a desired new level of knowledge, considered “impossible” within the disappearing canonical schemes. Myself, I have arrived at that kind of naturally “wide and focused” knowledge in a different way, within my “universal science of complexity” ( ), but I think that irrespective of details, such KIND of knowledge and understanding “tries” to emerge today and can be the only possible form of future science, if it is to survive at all. That's why such activity as our “scientific leisure” here may eventually have deep enough and serious implications, maybe just due to its (properly specified!) freedom and width. Here again, it is (fortunately) different from conventional “popular science” forms where scientists or journalists deliberately “simplify” (“vulgarize”!) separated results of “professional science” thus losing their original “high level” but remaining abstract, technical, isolated and finally poorly understood. We can do better, really, all together, just due to constructive interaction of our different backgrounds, and that is a practically specified way to a higher level of WIDELY accessible knowledge.

Two (partially rhetorical) questions/problems related to these issues: (1) why “big” or even “average” professional scientists are visibly not so eager to take part in such free and widely accessible, real-time discussion when they should be the first interested in problems addresses here? what they're afraid of? and (2) why results of professional artistic activity (art works) are usually accessible to understanding and interest of a very wide public (almost everybody), while results of professional scientific activity (pieces of knowledge) are usually accessible to (relative) understanding and interest of only very narrow groups of “close” enough professionals or rare “amateurs of science”? (The underlying feature is that professional art and science involve equally deep and “difficult” work of the SAME brain power.)

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