Depending on how we answer bigger questions about existence, the power of drugs could rest more in our minds than in the chemistry of our bodies.
It seems like a no-brainer to suggest that drugs work because of a chemical interaction between them and our body/brain. Everything we think we know about drugs relies on that basic premise. And that premise itself is built upon a number of other premises, most notably a metaphysical assertion that matter is the primary substance of existence.
That worldview is called Physicalism (alternately it is also known as materialism, naturalism or objectivism), and it underlies almost everything we think we know about the world. The problem is that we have nothing to verify that Physicalism is correct.
The academic term for this dilemma is ‘the hard problem of consciousness’ proposed by David Chalmers in 1995. While computational and memory functions can be explained by brain function, neurology is unable to explain where experience comes from. Why do I have a sense of self? Why would I ask a self-reflective question like that? Why do some experiences bring joy or pleasure to some individuals, while they bring out pain and suffering in others? Why do we have preferences for certain kinds of experiences over others?
Science, so far, cannot answer those questions. It may be that it never will.
However the hard problem of consciousness is a product of the modern western world. In other places and during other times human beings did not struggle with this problem because they didn’t limit the human mind to the human brain. Buddhism is a perfect example of ancient ideas about reality being a phenomena of consciousness rather than matter.
Today there is a growing movement of scientists, philosophers and other thinkers who are starting to question the Physicalist model of reality. From Rupert Sheldrake’s theory of morphic fields to Donald Hoffman’s theories on perception and reality, research is starting to wear down that veneer of objectivist literalism. And thinkers like Bernardo Kastrup have suggested that not only is Physicalism illogical and irrational, but that as a belief system it may have risen strictly as a psychological tool to protect the ego’s of the intellectual ruling class.
One way to view the absurdity of the Physicalist narrative is to look at it like this…
Imagine that a stranger came to your house who had never seen a television before. After a profound shock they begin to theorize how such a contraption might work. They conclude that the innards of the television must be so complex that they are able to make up fantastic stories and then animate them to life-like precision.
You would then try to explain that what is seen on the television does not come from inside of the television. The television, you would explain, is just a method of viewing all of those programs that are created outside of the television by a vast network of human beings working together to create those experiences. The television, you continue elucidating, is just one outlet for filtering what kind of programs are being watched.
Confusing the programs with the television is exactly what Physicalists seem to be doing. Through neuroscience they continue to investigate the brain to figure out how it is coming up with all of these shows.
In order to explain existence using this folly, Physicalist scientists and philosophers have come up with all sorts of silly theories that look more like stoned dorm room chatter than reason. Holographic, or simulation theory, is one of these. So are theories like ‘consciousness is just a delusion’ or that it is just the ‘byproduct of brain entropy’.
One thing all of these theories seem to have in common is a sort of self-loathing. After reducing human experience to some meaningless cosmic accident, they then gloat about how clever they are for figuring out and evangelizing how pointless and idiotically delusional the human mind is. Then they high five each other and hand out awards for telling humanity how much it sucks.
I am not impressed by this at all.
Even more frightening is that, if consciousness is the primary substance, poisoning our minds with ideas like that then poisons the reality we manifest. If you ever get the distinct feeling the world is going to shit it is probably actually going to shit because the persistent belief that it will go to shit. A self-fulfilling prophecy.
And if it turns out the Physicalists were wrong it means that we can harness what we believe and think to create a reality that is heading in unimaginably beautiful directions. If that is even a possibility, then there is no reason whatsoever we shouldn’t at least be trying to change the world under the assumptions that it is possible because we are a phenomena of consciousness with unlimited creative powers. Even if it failed, nothing would be lost.
So what does this have to do with all drugs being placebos?
If the Physicalist narrative is false then the reason drugs alter our consciousness is that embedded in our consciousness is the belief that they will do so.
The placebo effect itself already illustrates that this is happening.
Another strong piece of evidence is that newer drugs seem to be more unpredictable than older drugs. While marijuana generally acts how we expect it will, producing regular biological, mental and behavioral effects, synthetic marijuana products don’t seem to conform to any rules so consistently. Could this be because our general human belief in how they will effect us is too slim and full of gaps to produce consistent results?
Contact highs are also something to consider. Scientists have determined that second hand marijuana smoke in the environment, unless heavily concentrated, will not result in the absorption of enough THC to feel the drugs effects. Yet all kinds of people experience a contact buzz, which is the same thing as having one.
Myself and others I know who have experimented with a number of substances often develop an ability to sense a drugs presence. I can almost always tell when a person is tripping, regardless of on what, just by looking at them. I also then get a sort of empathetic buzz from them. The same thing happens when handling drugs. I can almost begin to feel them as though I have taken them already.
Is it more likely that these drugs contain some sort of spirit or essence of their own which affects me, or that my own beliefs are giving rise to these experiences?
I am open to both, but suspect the latter.
So what if it is true that all drugs are placebos predicted on a widespread belief of how those drugs will specifically affect us? Some really amazing shit, that is what.
We could cure all diseases and afflictions. We could create drugs for peace, drugs for prosperity, drugs for safety and drugs for understanding one another. There is no limit to how much we could take advantage of consciousness, belief and the placebo effect.
Better living through chemistry has had the past century to do it’s job, and in many ways it has failed. It has created new psychological issues, environmental disasters and existential aimlessness. And it has disconnected us from the joy of individual experience to the point that our greatest minds spend their days scoffing at how pitiful we are in the meaningless clockwork cosmos.
If doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results is insanity, then I say we try better living through consciousness.