Tripping on Science: The Psychedelic Community Contests Terms
cross-posted from The Revealer, a daily review of religion and mediaby Peter Bebergal
Despite their common, and mostly fringe area of concern, the psychedelic subculture -- whose kaleidoscopic reflection includes Johns Hopkins scientists, transpersonal psychologists, dozens of independent (non-affiliated) researchers, writers, visionary artists, and the users themselves -- is often at odds with itself. Above board researchers take pride in their work, adhering to the strict peer review process that all science is subject to. But to some, the work of psychedelics is the work of the spirit, of the non-rational, of connecting ourselves to something that may well not be testable or empirically verifiable. There are also clashes of personality, of ideologies, and of intention. Sometimes it’s simply a disagreement over words, what they mean, and how they should be used.
At the heart of a contest of terms within a very small subculture is another more essential divergence, one that reflects a wider cultural conflict between science and spirituality.
One of the most remarkable developments in the past ten years is the trending toward acceptance in the scientific community of research involving psychedelic drugs after an almost forty year period of disregard. But like other recent fields of research, such as work done with stem cells, DNA, and even evolutionary biology, researchers find themselves up against ideas of spirituality.
The word psychedelic was coined in an attempt to more appropriately categorize those drugs capable of turning off what Aldous Huxley referred to as a filter in our brain, allowing a more undiluted experience of reality to flow in. In response to a frustration that Aldous Huxley and his friend Humphry Osmond had with words like “hallucinogen,” Osmond came up with psychedelic. In a 1957 article for the journal Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences Osmond wrote, “I have tried to find an appropriate name for the agents under discussion: a name that will include the concepts of enriching the mind and enlarging the vision.... My choice, because it is clear, euphonious, and uncontaminated by other associations, is psychedelic, mind manifesting”
Once psychedelic drugs lost their academic foothold--after Timothy Leary and Richard Albert were fired from Harvard in 1963--and the drugs themselves became illegal, psychedelic research faded into the invisible margins. But the high-minded work continued. Psychologists and others realized that if these substances were ever to again have any legitimacy they had to first undo the damage wrought by that often pesky foe to truth, language. The word psychedelic, meant to refer to those drugs that had the potential to illuminate and transform human consciousness, was now becoming a word to toss around and attach to anything that was characterized by those once ineffable qualities, far out, groovy, trippy.
By the late 1960s the term psychedelic had become so far removed from Osmond’s intended meaning that it made sense to come up with something new. And more importantly, it was becoming clear that these substances were special, not just because of their ability to mobilize a counterculture (which a wide-spread consumption of LSD did remarkably well) but because of their capacity to deliver a profound and peak spiritual experience. A new term, it was thought, must reflect this.
In 1979, for the Journal of Psychedelic Studies, CarlRuck and a group of researchers--including the ethnobotanist Jonathan Ott and the mycologist Gordon Wasson--formulated the term “entheogen.” Taken from an obscure greek word entheos--“the god within”–entheogen was typically used to describe an ecstasis or divine madness when the god Dionysus had come calling. The authors designated entheogen as a word that is "appropriate for describing states of shamanic and ecstatic possession induced by ingestion of mind-altering drugs." Entheogen’s usage was cemented when it became the preferred term by the Council on Spiritual Practices (CSP), the group that initiated and supported the psilocybin and mystical experience study at Johns Hopkins. CSP’s convenor, Robert Jesse, explained by phone that CSP uses the word entheogen because it connotes the more profound, insight-giving uses of the psychoactive substances to which it refers.
But many find "entheogen" to be problematic. Ethnopharmacologist Dennis McKenna, brother to the late psychedelic and speculative philosopher Terrence McKenna and a respected researcher in his own right, believes these drugs are capable of much more than inducing a mystical hierophany. The word entheogen privileges that experience over all others, but even more importantly, a true spiritual experience with these substances is a rare thing indeed. Why use a term that contains a built-in promise that cannot always be realized?
In an email McKenna explains, “Only under certain, highly controlled circumstances do they manifest 'god within,’ whatever that means.” For the whole range of substances and the even greater range of their effects, McKenna prefers psychedelic: “I like 'psychedelic' even with all its cultural baggage because it reliably describes what they do: they 'manifest' the mind.”
Rick Doblin, founder of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS), concurs. “I never use the term "entheogen." I feel it is positively biased to imply drugs that catalyze positive experiences of the divine, and is similar to hallucinogen that is negatively biased to imply drugs that catalyze fundamentally false and delusionary experiences.”
This disagreement over what word best expresses the possibilities of psychoactive substances such as psilocybin, mescaline, and DMT reveals how even a culture as small as those engaged in research of this kind can be split on what part of human potential should be developed. Psychedelic science is, the argument suggests, either a science of the mind or a science of the spirit.