Psychedelics as a technology: Tool or weapon?

A friend put the view to me recently of psychedelics as a technology that has been advantageous for human evolution, but has also been exploited by some groups to further their own ends at others’ expense.

The idea of psychedelics being advantageous to our evolution is an interesting one. Can we really say whether things are, have ever been, or will ever be, ‘better’ than they would have been had they not existed, or been discovered? Here’s a Tao parable of the man with the horses (via Cameron Adams and Danny Nemu):

There was a farmer whose horse ran away. That evening the neighbors gathered to commiserate with him since this was such bad luck. He said, “May be.” The next day the horse returned, but brought with it six wild horses, and the neighbors came exclaiming at his good fortune. He said, “May be.” And then, the following day, his son tried to saddle and ride one of the wild horses, was thrown, and broke his leg.

Again the neighbors came to offer their sympathy for the misfortune. He said, “May be.” The day after that, conscription officers came to the village to seize young men for the army, but because of the broken leg the farmer’s son was rejected. When the neighbors came in to say how fortunately everything had turned out, he said, “May be.”

Tao: The Watercourse Way – Alan Watts

Weaponry is another example of a technology that has greatly influenced our evolution. Weapons allowed us to increase the distance between us and our prey, conferring a definite advantage on us in terms of the power relationship between the hunter and the hunted. We could also use them to maintain hostilities with other groups, thereby – according to Kant (Palmquist 2004) – promoting the dispersal of the species across the earth. Primitive societies appeared to recognise their weapon-making abilities as a gift from the gods that gave them tremendous power over other species. They responded by offering up part of each kill as thanks to the gods, alongside other sacrificial practices. In my spiritually numb youth, studying ancient Greek and Roman culture, I thought sacrifice sounded dumb. Now, I can see the sense in it as a means of acknowledging our privilege and keeping ourselves in check.

We might ask what would have happened if we’d rejected from the beginning the notion of killing other animals for food and become uber-gatherers instead. Chimps, our closest evolutionary relative, are omnivores. As well as plants they also eat insects, eggs and hunt other small animals (including monkeys). Still, we could have turned away from it. Did we have to weaponise our gathering to the extent that we have today, with our agrarian machinery, factories and freight? This all adds distance, insulating us from the means of production, its dangers and its devastation.

Looking at the big picture, it is clear that Nietzsche was right; the fundamental human drive is the will to power. This is universally shared across all cultures, although some see it as power over, some as power with. Indigenous people use weapons to hunt; some even use psychedelic plants to tune into their environment, to sharpen their attention on their prey. A key difference is that such people see themselves as part of the ecosystem rather than separate from it, and therefore reject the technological approach:

“The entire project of conquering nature appears more and more of a mirage… technical progress becomes a way of stalling faster and faster because of the basic illusion that man and nature, the organism and the environment, the controller and the controlled are quite different things.”

Watts, 1966 (p51)

The film Arrival tells a story of aliens who come to visit the earth. The lead character, a linguist called Louise, asks why the aliens have come, and they answer – in their circular, graphic language – ‘offer weapon’. The Chinese translate this as ‘use weapon’, causing them to cease their communication efforts and prepare for war. Louise argues that the symbol interpreted as ‘weapon’ could just as well mean ‘tool’, and that China’s translation results from the competitive nature of their interaction.

Louise learns that it is the alien language itself that is the tool/weapon on offer; those who understand it are able to perceive both the future and the past as parts of the same whole. Watts refers to this phenomenon in his writing on noticing and notation; we attend to the things that we have notation for and vice versa. One of the limitations of any language is that it signifies a world that is ‘an assemblage of separate things that have somehow come together’ (p35) rather than ‘the tones and inflections… of a single singing voice.’

The Enlightenment, secularisation, scientific progress and specialisation have enabled an escalation in our domination over nature. Tools provide us with an advantage; a leg up in the system. If we fail to check that advantage and as it distances us from its effects, it may be that the system will eventually collapse, but what is arguably worse is that the ‘game’ becomes tedious and mechanical. Watts uses many examples to illustrate this, including universities, where ‘the paperwork, recording what has been done, seems to become more important than what it records’ (p42). Narby (1998) presents the common view of psychedelics as a tool for disordering the mind (some, like Claude Levi-Strauss, claimed the opposite, but they appear to be in the minority). If the current order of the mind is harming or hindering us, for example if we are stuck in depressive thought patterns, or we need to quiet our human concerns in order to attend to and hunt down our quarry, disordering can be just what we need. But the distinction between tool and weapon is only a matter of perspective. Here is one of the epiphanic fragments from the autoethnography I spoke about at Breaking Convention:

August 2015. I am at a music festival watching the headline act. I want to do something purposeful with my altered brain state, so I ruminate a while on the political situation in the UK. It is quite a struggle to do so; I find it hard to see any connection between this euphoric experience with the beautiful colours and the heavenly music, and the frowning, tired people in suits sniping and jeering across the despatch box. But I persist; there is nothing else to do, after all, and time is going rather slowly. I recall something I read in the first year of my EdD that described popular culture as a form of anaesthetic*, and it occurs to me that the government should be delighted that we are anaesthetising ourselves in a secure open space far from London, rather than waving banners outside Parliament, asking difficult questions. But, then… who is having the better time? Us, whose sensory equalisers are hitting the red at every frequency? Or the likes of Theresa May, who have presumably never and will never experience anything like this? I decide it is a moot point, as if you don’t know what you’re missing, you don’t miss it.

Frank Barron apparently described the psychedelic ‘movement’ as the ‘commitment to fight for personal freedom and to oppose everywhere the war mentality and the tyranny of dogmatic beliefs… [to stand for] equal rights for race and gender and for ecological Earth-respecting ways of thinking and acting’. That is one view of the psychedelic ‘movement’, but there are many. Taking the view that they are a tool for disordering the mind doesn’t contradict Frank’s vision. It also promotes a healthy caution and skepticism, and commits us to sober ethical debate.



*Held, D. 2004. Introduction to Critical Theory. London: Hutchinson

Narby, J. 1988. The Cosmic Serpent: DNA and the origins of knowledge. Orion Books.

Palmquist, S. 2004. Kant’s Ideal of the University as a Model for World Peace. In: International Conference on Two Hundred Years after Kant. 20-22 November, Tehran, Iran: Allame Tabataba’i University. [Online]. [Accessed 4 June 2015]. Available from:

Watts, A. 1966. The Book: On the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are. Souvenir Press.

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