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Psychedelic Theodicy – Denying Psychedelics’ Potential for Harm

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in this article
  • Introduction
  • ‘The Medicine Gives You What You Need, Not What You Want’
  • The Work of Wise and Benevolent Plant Spirits
  • Dark Experiences Are the Work of Dark Entities
  • Interpreting Adverse Effects With a Spiritual Framework
  • The Complicated Nature of Reframing

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Chemical Collective or any associated parties.

Introduction

A theodicy is an attempt to justify or defend the Omni-God (an all-powerful, all-loving, all-knowing god), given the fact of evil in the world.

The evil in the world is of two kinds: human-caused evil, and natural evil.

These refer, respectively, to the sometimes atrocious and abhorrent suffering that people cause to other people or non-human animals, and the pain and suffering that sentient beings experience as a result of natural phenomena (e.g. natural disasters or the predation entailed by natural selection).

Theologians and philosophers of religion have offered various defences of the evil that exists. Briefly, two main theodicies, which refer to the two kinds of evil mentioned, are:

  1. Human-caused evil is vindicated by the fact that it allows for the existence of free will and morality, which are goods that outweigh the resulting harm.
  2. Natural evil similarly permits expressions of morality – they give people the opportunity to respond virtuously to suffering, with compassion, kindness, love, altruism, and courage – which would be absent if natural evil did not exist.

I am not personally convinced of these justifications.

Firstly, I do not believe a genuinely all-loving God would consider it moral to knowingly put people and other sentient beings through horrendous life experiences to allow others to respond in a morally upright way. Secondly, it is an assumption that these moral responses outweigh severe harm in the world. This is not to say that there is no value in overcoming adversity, but to say that atrocities and tragedies are compensated – an assumption involving weighting – does not seem self-evident to me. The philosopher Alvin Plantinga, who himself is a theist, critiqued theodicies in the following way:

[W]e cannot see why our world, with all its ills, would be better than others we think we can imagine, or what, in any detail, is God’s reason for permitting a given specific and appalling evil. Not only can we not see this, we can’t think of any very good possibilities. And here I must say that most attempts to explain why God permits evil – theodicies, as we may call them – strike me as tepid, shallow and ultimately frivolous.

Indeed, theodicies often come across to me as a form of mental gymnastics and post-hoc rationalisation. They can sometimes feel like an attempt to explain away rather than explain, thus minimising the severity and amount of harm that exists in the world. Theodicies often run up against our moral intuitions and can appear to be a way of avoiding the more justified view that the world was naturally, rather than supernaturally, created.

I would like to extend this discussion on theodicies in the philosophy of religion to the topic of psychedelic-related harm. I believe there exists a phenomenon we can call psychedelic theodicy: the attempt to defend psychedelics in the face of the harm they can cause to certain users. This does not mean adverse effects and extended difficulties related to psychedelic use cannot entail benefits – or potential benefits yet to be realised – for some users. And such benefits may be significant and considered worth it by the user. However, I do think that psychedelic theodicies can sometimes serve to dismiss, minimise, or trivialise the difficulties some people experience related to psychedelic use.

For ideological reasons – the wish to paint all outcomes of psychedelic use as ultimately for the best – may even veer into gaslighting: a refusal to accept and appreciate a user’s direct, first-hand experience of their distress.

In this piece, I would like to describe some of the most common psychedelic theodicies and offer some responses to them.

‘The Medicine Gives You What You Need, Not What You Want’

While we might ideally want psychedelic experiences to be full of love and light, they can also involve confrontations with the darker aspects of the human psyche. Psychonauts may hold onto the notion that the ‘medicine’ always gives you what you need, no matter how painful the experience, or after-effects, might be. They might refer to the teachings of Carl Jung to get this point across, who said:

No tree, it is said, can grow to heaven unless its roots reach down to hell.

One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light, but by making the darkness conscious. The latter procedure, however, is disagreeable and therefore not popular.

Thus, all negative effects of psychedelic may become subsumed under the umbrella of ‘shadow work’: facing up to uncomfortable truths about ourselves. Other distress may be tied to facing up to ugly truths about the world and reality we live in, perhaps the widespread suffering that exists, or the nihilistic notion of inherent meaninglessness in the universe.

But again, while this can apply to many types of psychedelic experiences (and their impacts on people), it doesn’t apply to all cases. Sometimes, psychedelics don’t give you what you need. They can destabilise vulnerable individuals who could have been better off not having tripped at that particular moment in time. Perhaps the person’s set, setting, and dosage will be blamed for the adverse effects that follow, but harm can still follow even when these aspects are taken into account.

Psychonauts may still, nonetheless, apply a theodicy like the idea that the medicine gives some people a humbling experience. However, I’d still question whether this is ultimately beneficial if the end result is someone experiencing long-term, severe distress and disruption to normal functioning. This is the kind of distress we can deem excessive and unnecessary.

The Work of Wise and Benevolent Plant Spirits

Another common belief in the psychedelic community is that psychedelic effects are the work of wise and benevolent plant spirits. Similar to the last idea, even if one has distressing experiences on a psychedelic – or extended difficulties – this can be seen as the work of a wiser, benevolent force. This force, entity, or spirit is seen to have one’s interests at heart, and so tough experiences can be seen as a sign of ‘tough love’. 

Firstly, this assumes the existence of supernatural entities (which may indeed exist, but this is a belief about reality that requires justification). Secondly, and similar to the response to ‘the medicine gives you what you need’ idea, we may doubt that all effects of psychedelics can be explained by the existence of wise and benevolent plant spirits at work. Indeed, this bears a resemblance to the theodicies that Christians often promote, which try to make suffering consistent with the existence of the Omni-God. The idea of helpful plant spirits is an attractive idea, but it can be romanticised (and serve to dilute and distort what indigenous shamans and communities believe about spirits – since they believe negative spirits exist too).

We should be open to the possibility that the effects of psychedelic plants and mushrooms are not purpose-driven, directed by plant spirits with good intentions. Some effects of psychedelics could be better explained by the idea that there is not a benevolent motive behind them but instead are driven by the particularities of an individual’s circumstances (e.g. mindset, personality, beliefs, cultural context, setting, and so on).

If certain kinds of distress seem difficult to reconcile with the idea of helpful spirits, the common theodicy of ‘God works in mysterious ways’ may be similarly applied. It is just the plant spirit working in ways not clear to the user. However, this ignores the possibility that some negative trips, and after-effects, are just plain distressing. They can be related to mundane factors like poor preparation (e.g. not being rested, or tripping around the wrong people, in a chaotic environment, or when stressed out), and there is no deeper meaning or force at play.

Dark Experiences Are the Work of Dark Entities

Following on from the last point, some psychonauts might embrace the shamanic notion of evil entities or spirits being responsible for problems faced by individuals. Psychedelics can be seen to put one in touch not just with benevolent entities but also malicious ones. (See this post from Jules Evans for Ecstatic Integration on encounters with negative entities.) This can help to take the blame away from the psychedelic itself and redirect it to evil entities (perhaps even demons) that one is able to make contact with in altered states (which put one in touch with an alternate realm of spirits). 

I have several thoughts about this notion. First, as in the case of helpful spirits (which some might experience as angels), it needs to be justified that negative entities do in fact exist as mind-independent entities. In other words, do they exist in an external reality, outside of an individual’s mind? This is not to say that if these entities are mind projections then they lose all meaning and value. That would be a reductionist viewpoint. Nevertheless, it matters from the perspective of explaining the harms of psychedelics. If these dark entities are mind-dependent, then the harms are related to the way in which psychedelics interact with a person’s mind. This does not mean we should demonise psychedelics – but it does mean we have to be honest about the risks of these substances. On the other hand, if these threatening entities are mind-independent, then this might be used to shift blame away from the psychedelic, instead landing all blame with the entities.

One might argue that in the case of mind-dependent entities, the psychedelic is similarly only the doorway to these unpleasant entity encounters. That may be true, but I think what’s most important is the narrative that is employed; in other words, whether mind-independent entities become used as a form of psychedelic theodicy, used to minimise or overlook the risks of psychedelics.

Another potential issue with the evil entity narrative is that research has found belief in such entities (e.g. demonic beings and evil powers) is linked to worsened mental health. In contrast, belief in benevolent entities, such as angels, is correlated with improved mental well-being. These effects do not lend support to the existence of angels as opposed to demons, nor does it necessarily have any relation to the actual existence of either. However, if the aim of psychedelic theodicies is to offer more helpful narratives to psychedelic users, then the research indicates that belief in negative entities might not offer such a narrative.

Interpreting Adverse Effects With a Spiritual Framework

Another way to interpret adverse effects (e.g. brief psychotic episodes) or extended difficulties (e.g. depersonalisation, derealisation, nihilism) can be in the context of a spiritual framework. Concepts such as the ‘dark night of the soul’ – which in Christian mysticism refers to a crisis of faith or a painful period in one’s life, a phase in the purification of the spirit – may be used to explain distress occasioned by psychedelics. Again, while this framework may be helpful to some people in some instances, I don’t think it can be universally applied.

It is up to an individual to decide what framework works best for them. If someone (whether they be a fellow psychonaut or a psychedelic therapist) imposes a spiritual narrative of ‘dark night of the soul’ onto someone else’s experience, then this may disrespect the autonomy of that individual. In the case of psychedelic therapy, specifically, this could also amount to a moral quandary. After all, psychedelics can enhance a patient’s suggestibility, putting therapists in a greater position of influence. Power differentials are further heightened since the psychedelic therapist may be seen as the wise and knowledgeable navigator of these spaces.

Imposing specific metaphysical or spiritual frameworks on people would go against the notion of client-centred (or person-centred) therapy, which is often applied in the context of psychedelic therapy. This is the idea that the person ultimately knows the answers to their problems, and what their experiences mean to them, and it is the job of the therapist (or psychedelic) to facilitate the expression of these inner resources.

I can also imagine cases in which ‘dark night of the soul’ narratives worsen people’s well-being, perhaps creating confusion if the narratives don’t mesh with people’s authentic beliefs. They might, moreover, lead one to neglect alternative interpretations (and treatments) that may better help to offer relief from distress. Moreover, an enhanced spiritual life can follow from psychedelic-related difficulties without a specific notion like the ‘dark night of the soul’. This is not to discount the importance of the latter to many psychonauts’ lives, however. This framework has certainly helped many people out of difficulties, acting as a source of wisdom, healing, and personal growth.

Another popular narrative in the psychedelic community is that psychotic episodes caused by psychedelics should perhaps instead be interpreted as a kind of spiritual awakening. I am certainly open to the idea that calling an experience a psychotic episode (and therefore pathologising it) can be unhelpful in some cases. In a shamanic context, hearing voices, losing contact with material reality, and being in touch with the ‘spirit world’ can be viewed as a sign of spiritual insight or spiritual gifts – an indication that an individual has shamanic abilities. This cultural interpretation can help alleviate that individual’s distress and allow them to function well and serve a specific role in that society.

Indeed, pathology is certainly culturally determined to a large extent. As the mythologist Joseph Campbell famously said, “The psychotic drowns in the same waters in which the mystic swims with delight.” Thus, while one culture can pathologise hearing voices, and diagnose individuals as schizophrenic, another culture might interpret these voices as coming from spirits. The latter won’t diagnose or seek to treat that person but will instead help them to embrace and integrate their experiences in a way that benefits the community. 

Yet while I am open to these cultural differences, and some cultural frameworks being better for individuals and communities than others, reframing all psychotic episodes in spiritual or shamanic terms can be hasty and misguided. Many people who experience psychotic episodes very much see them as maladaptive and involving a loss of contact with reality. To deny their experiences by imposing the narrative that psychosis is insightful and useful (or at least potentially so) can be unhelpful for such people. For example, if someone hears evil persecutory voices or has paranoid delusions (e.g. that people are spying on them or poisoning their food), spiritual reframing might not feel relevant or helpful. Furthermore, it could be dangerous to view voices instructing that the person harms themselves or others in these terms. Sometimes, psychedelic effects are delusory and should not be heeded or trusted.

The Complicated Nature of Reframing

Cognitive reframing (changing how we think about a particular experience) can be incredibly helpful for dealing with distress, including in the context of psychedelic use. In his latest book, The Psychedelic Handbook, Rick Strassman argues that renaming adverse effects as ‘challenging experiences’ serves to ignore, minimise, or trivialise their true nature and impact. Conversely, terms like ‘entheogen’, ‘plant medicine’, and ‘plant teacher’ may glorify the potential benefits of psychedelics. Both types of reframing, he believes, have downsides. 

However, I can see the value of reframing difficulties as challenging experiences in certain contexts. Some psychonauts find this reframing useful, for instance, and there can be some situations in which the pathologisation of certain experiences increases (rather than decreases) that person’s level of distress. Mental health labels can, on the one hand, provide clarity and relief for people, but they can also lead to experiences of worsened self-esteem, isolation, and despondency.

I believe more nuance and balance are needed when it comes to cognitive reframing, which I hope I have been able to communicate in this article. I appreciate Strassman’s rejection of the tendency to view all adverse effects and extended difficulties as ‘challenging’. And I think there is a toxic positivity and dogmatism in the psychedelic community that refuses to acknowledge the negative side of psychedelics. Nonetheless, we should not lose sight of the potential utility of reframing. By taking into account individual differences and plurality of experiences when discussing risks, we will be better equipped to respect each person’s path towards healing and growth. Blanket statements and beliefs are quick and easy, but they don’t lead to the best outcomes for all.

Sam Woolfe | Community Blogger at Chemical Collective | www.samwoolfe.com

Sam is one of our community bloggers here at Chemical Collective. If you’re interested in joining our blogging team and getting paid to write about subjects you’re passionate about, please reach out to David via email at blog@chemical-collective.com

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