The Epistemology of Soma

One of the most-referenced aspects of the society in Brave New World is ‘soma’, a euphoric and halluciogenic drug without any harmful side effects which is routinely used by citizens to escape stress or just for fun.

This is often something that people see as part of the ‘false-ness’ of BNWS, part of its lack of dignity or respect for humanity or truth. It’s also, relatedy, seen as a part of its political oppressiveness.

I want to look drugs more generally, in two ways: epistemologically, and politically.

Epistemologically, I would suggest, the way we typically think about drugs is the mirror image of religion.

Wait, what?

The Barefoot Bum wrote recently:

“The problem with religion, any religion, is that some privileged elite almost always has to speak for God. Some preacher, some priest, some theologian, has to tell us that he knows better than we do what God wants, and we’d better comply…Even “gnostic” religion, religion available to everyone, is dangerous. How am I to separate my own personal preferences from “that of God speaking to me”? Even a gnostic religion — if it is to be any religion at all — must hold that some dictates of my conscience are authoritative and beyond the bounds of rational criticism.”

We might put the matter like this: when we reason we are typically collating and comparing as many ‘data’ as possible, as many aspects and issues and considerations and trying to ‘do justice to’ all of them. Typically the solution that best satisfies all of them won’t totally satisfy any of them – each issue or piece of information or intution will be qualified and limited by an ‘on the other hand’ or a ‘but in that situation’ or such like.

The problem with religion is that if some intuition or insight is ‘the voice of God’ it can’t be qualified and modified in that way. It must be, as BFB says, ‘authoritative’.  That doesn’t stop liberal religious people trying to do so, but ultimately they have to rest on some ‘authoritative’ insight, some ‘when I pray God talks to me’ or ‘it says so here on the page’. Otherwise religion becomes rationalistic – which is great, except that none of the rational arguments in favour of religion is much good, and that’s been widely accepted for a while now.

Anyway, that bit of religion-bashing aside, what is your God-damn point, Warm-Fork? The point is that the mirror-image of treating some data (I’m going to use that word very loosely) as authoritative, incapable of being modified by others, is to treat some data as meaningless, unworthy of modifying others. This is typically how we conceptualise drug use.

If you take some LSD and become convinced that you are an insignificant part of a cosmic but benevolent universe, it is typically thought that this idea should be dismissed. It’s just the rantings of a druggie, after all. That hasn’t always been true – in some cultures at various times certain drugs have been treated in the opposite way: eat the sacred cactus and you will be given a mystic vision and the gods will appear to you.

To give such authority to narcotic experiences doesn’t make sense once we recognise that they’re just a bunch of chemicals whizzing around our brains. But equally, giving no authority to them at all doesn’t make sense once we recognise that the normal, everyday mindset is also just a bunch of chemicals whizzing around our brains. We have not evolved to understand the truth, we’ve evolved to reproduce, and to understand as much truth as helps with that.

What I’m suggesting is that the experiences, whether expressible in words or not, that drugs make accessible should be treated the same as other experiences – a view on the real world from a slightly different perspective, i.e. epistemically valuable, a source of knowledge (whether that’s other-knowledge or self-knowledge).

This view of the epistemology of drugs suggests that they should be a minor but widespread part of a full and rich life. We already tend to suppose something like this: drinking alcohol is, by most people but not by all, seen as an obvious component of a good life – it’s a way to have fun, to relax, to bond with friends. It’s not the only way, obviously, but the more ways the better. For drugs that produce more interesting experiences, and do less physical damage, the case seems even stronger.

Ok, so how does this relate to politics, and especially to the role of ‘soma’? I think ‘soma’ is presented as playing a social role congruent with the anti-narcotic epistemology – i.e., congruent with the belief that narcotic experiences tell you nothing and are just the effervescence of a diseased brain (are any brains not diseased?), it is used to close people off, to withdraw them from the world.

There’s nothing wrong with mild escapism, of course. When the world as it immediately appears is very difficult, it’s sheer puritanism to deny someone any opportunity to retreat somewhere else, whether by fiction, games, or drugs.

But obviously we don’t want too much escapism. Drugs may present a different perspective on the world but the perspective they present is in many ways very limited compared to the ‘normal’ one, in that you can’t do a lot of things, you can’t live the same kind of active and reasoned and intimate life (or can you?).

But I don’t really see this as being all that different from many other things. I know I personally would be quite capable of playing computer games for far too long. I have to work with that – it’s a perfectly respectable aspect of life, but needs to be kept in the right place. The same goes for anything else – seriousness, fun, solitude, company, salt.

Drugs are different because some of them are physically addictive (all of them are potentially mentally addictive but, to be honest, I don’t see that as picking them out from a good lot of other activities). But one of those physically addictive ones is alcohol. But most societies cope. There’s alcoholics anonymous, there’s NHS Stop Smoking programmes, there’s various structures in place to support those people who find this aspect of their hard to deal with. That seems to me like a reasonable pattern to apply more generally – not just to other drugs but to life in general. Accept that things carry risks: help people to understand the risks. When the inevitable minority of people screw up, support them in trying to deal with it. But don’t just say that certain arbitrarily selected things are not allowed (and seriously, very arbitrary).

Because it seems to me like the single most destructive drug-related problem the world currently faces is 1) the illegal drugs trade, and 2) law enforcement efforts against the illegal drugs trade. The number of people shot, brutalised, or imprisoned in this artificial, manufactured shoot-out between two groups of violence-hardened militarists is terrifying.

We shouldn’t really even phrase matters in terms of ‘ban cannabis and cocaine’. That makes it sound like what the government is doing, primarily, is making people not use cannabis and cocaine. But actually, what it’s doing, primarily, is arresting and caging people who use cannabis and cocaine. People can disagree over the link between smoking pot and going crazy. But nobody can disagree over the link between going to prison and going crazy. It is serious and severe psychological (and physical) violence.

If I was one a savage reservation and I found myself suddenly entering a new society, and I saw 22 year olds from deprived backgrounds serving ten years in prison for selling a herb, saw the conditions in prison, the brutality, the mind-numbing tedium, the culture of violence, the frequency of suicide, I might well feel that I had stumbled into a dystopia.

I hope there was a point somewhere in there. :S

9 Responses to “The Epistemology of Soma”

  1. Dan | thesamovar Says:

    Well there’s one obvious point that occurs to me: millions of years of evolution have settled on our brain chemistry being just so, and not some other way. One wouldn’t expect a computer program to do something useful or creative if you changed random bits from 1 to 0 or vice versa, why expect the same of a person?

    That said, it should obviously be each person’s choice what they want to do with their own bodies, and anyway the evidence is overwhelming that the social costs in crime and so forth of making drugs illegal is higher than the individual costs of drug taking.

  2. Alderson Warm-Fork Says:

    “millions of years of evolution have settled on our brain chemistry being just so”

    Right, but what has evolution been designing us for? I think it’s been designing us for practical uses – when there’s something that should be run away from, we can identify that should-be-run-away-from-ness. Etc. But actually understanding that scary thing, seeing things from its point of view, not from our own, etc. may be something that some features of our set-up actually work against us being able to recognise. It may be that a lot of the time, the evolutionarily fittest organism will be the most ‘self-centred’, the ‘blindest’ to seeing the rest of the world on its own terms. Similarly, the fittest organism may be one that is blind to itself, which never really attempts to understand its own nature or motivation but just throws itself into reproducing.

  3. The Barefoot Bum Says:

    If I was one a savage reservation and I found myself suddenly entering a new society, and I saw 22 year olds from deprived backgrounds serving ten years in prison for selling a herb, saw the conditions in prison, the brutality, the mind-numbing tedium, the culture of violence, the frequency of suicide, I might well feel that I had stumbled into a dystopia.

    Preach on, brother!

  4. The Barefoot Bum Says:

    millions of years of evolution have settled on our brain chemistry being just so, and not some other way.

    This is a perfect example of the naturalistic fallacy.

    One wouldn’t expect a computer program to do something useful or creative if you changed random bits from 1 to 0 or vice versa, why expect the same of a person?

    That’s precisely what creativity is: making random changes and discovering how they work out. Remember the foundations of evolution: natural selection operating on random mutation.

  5. The Barefoot Bum Says:

    And who says we haven’t evolved to seek out mind-altering chemicals in the first place?

  6. Dan | thesamovar Says:

    Well let’s take another example of a drug that most people don’t take recreationally, strychnine. According to wikipedia:

    Strychnine acts as a blocker or antagonist at the inhibitory or strychnine-sensitive glycine receptor (GlyR), a ligand-gated chloride channel in the spinal cord and the brain.

    In other words, strychnine is a drug that alters brain chemistry (much like other recreational drugs). Unfortunately, the side effect is to cause muscular convulsions and eventual death through asphyxia or exhaustion.

    What’s my point? That a drug that alters brain chemistry stops the brain from carrying out the functions it is supposed to carry out. In some cases, this disturbance is fatal (strychnine) and in other cases it appears to only cause a harmless temporary alteration of emotions (MDMA). There are intermediate cases (e.g. LSD overdoses can occasionally lead to lifelong problems with hallucinations).

    The point is that when the brain is not doing the task that evolution has ‘designed’ it for, its not clear that its actions have any meaning. Our sense of meaning itself comes from nowhere but our brains (well, and our embodiment, but that’s another story), and therefore the source of all human meaning must be those millions of years of evolution that have settled on a brain chemistry just so. Now obviously in principle changing our brain chemistry could be an improvement (in some sense) because if it couldn’t be then that evolution wouldn’t have been possible in the first place. But, evolutionary mechanisms tend to push us into local fitness maxima in the space of possible organisms, and therefore the large majority of changes will be detrimental.

    Getting back to drugs. It may seem that taking drugs gives us a new and possibly enhanced outlook on life because we certainly see things differently after taking them and that seems like a positive thing (diversity and all). But, if we are ascribing any meaning to the experiences we had after taking brain chemistry altering drugs, then we’re very likely making a huge mistake. Altering brain chemistry will create an alternative meaning of ‘meaning’, and one that hasn’t been tested by millions of years of evolution. Suppose I took a drug that made everything seem identical, i.e. that completely destroyed my ability to discriminate one thing from another. Well it all sounds very cool and the hippies would love it 😉 but if we kept taking it or based any important decisions on experiences we had whilst taking it we’d essentially be undermining a crucial aspect of human meaning.

    So taking brain chemistry altering drugs (even if not on a particularly regular basis) changes our natures, it makes us in some sense not human any more. Now in principle I’m not against that. But, if I want to change my nature fundamentally, I would like to understand in what way I’m changing it first. To take ‘Soma’ for example, taking it may be happy, but once I’ve made the choice to keep taking any time I feel a twinge of unhappiness I’ve obviously fundamentally changed my nature, I’m removed the concept of happiness and unhappiness essentially. Now I could understand that at some particularly unhappy point in my life, I might want to just take away the unhappiness, and so I could easily imagine going down this path without realising what a fundamental change to my nature I’ve embarked upon. So my problem is that although in principle taking drugs to alter our brain chemistry could be a positive thing, in practice a lot of the time if we go into it too blindly. I think this is what Huxley is getting at with Soma (with an added, overt political aspect too, drugs as a form of control).

    OK generic rant over, some specific replies:

    I’ll reply to Alderson’s reply by quoting this from the original article rather than his reply, and hopefully this’ll be satisfactory (come back at me if not):

    What I’m suggesting is that the experiences, whether expressible in words or not, that drugs make accessible should be treated the same as other experiences – a view on the real world from a slightly different perspective, i.e. epistemically valuable, a source of knowledge (whether that’s other-knowledge or self-knowledge).

    I’ll put my objection to this in slightly more formal terms. Taking drugs may have just this effect, but it may also have a significant and larger effect, which is to change what we mean by knowledge. Suppose someone just described their sensations having taken drugs, and we evaluate it with our non-drugged mind – THAT is a source of knowledge. We have an evaluation mechanism (which corresponds basically to the meaning of knowledge) and some data, the act of applying the evaluation mechanism to the data produces knowledge. However, if we take drugs we change the evaluation mechanism, so the effect of applying the new evaluation mechanism to some data is not the old form of knowledge, but a new form, say knowledge2. So drug taking isn’t a source of knowledge, it’s a source of knowledge2. Am I interested in knowledge2? That’s what I was getting at earlier in this reply, to be interested in knowledge2 over knowledge1 means changing my nature fundamentally (which is something I may want to do, but may not, but I doubt I want to do it likely). I’ll add that you get this problem even if you only take drugs occasionally and not regularly. If you ascribe significance to evaluations of data made whilst under the influence of drugs, that is also a change of your evaluation mechanism. It’s only if you treat them in just the same way that you treated somebody else’s description of their experiences of taking drugs that you don’t get this problem, but I guess most would say that this would miss the point of taking the drugs which is to change the experience and not just to generate new data.

    So to sum up in one pithy phrase: you cannot derive new knowledge from taking drugs without changing your fundamental nature (and thereby changing the meaning of ‘knowledge’ too).

    Barefoot Bum, did that post address your criticism about the ‘naturalistic fallacy’?

    That’s precisely what creativity is: making random changes and discovering how they work out.

    Maybe creativity is about applying our (roughly fixed) minds to essentially random data and seeing if anything useful comes out (this is the basis of several theories of cognitive function for example). This is very different from applying a random change of our mind to some data (which is the distinction I’m making).

    “Remember the foundations of evolution: natural selection operating on random mutation.”

    Incidentally, and it doesn’t really bear on our discussion here, it may be that mutation is less significant than recombination evolutionarily. This is still random so your point stands (but see my earlier comments about local maxima and so forth).

    OK last conclusion.

    What I’m disputing here is not the political stuff about taking drugs or what have you, but the specifically epistemic claim that Alderson made that drug taking can be a source of knowledge.

  7. Alderson Warm-Fork Says:

    On a few specific things:

    “if we kept taking it or based any important decisions on experiences we had whilst taking it we’d essentially be undermining a crucial aspect of human meaning.”

    I feel like I can imagine some cases where basing decisions on druggie experiences isn’t obviously worse than the alternative. For example, some drugs, which as you said produce a sense of connectedness or oneness, generate as part of this a sense of love towards other people. If I am, let’s say, a carnivore, and I take some such drug and then find myself wandering into a farm and looking at some pigs and feel overwhelmed with a sense of solidarity with them, and then realise that it makes no sense to eat them if I feel that solidarity (or rather, if I perceive that solidarity to be real and appropriate), and therefore decide to become vegan, then it’s not obvious to me that this is irrational. Why is the solidarity I perceive when drugged irrational, but the indifference I feel when sober not?

    Another example might be drugs that give me a feeling of limitless power (while not interfering with my knowledge of reality – I don’t think I can fly, but I think I can “acheive anything I set my mind to”). I then embark on the project I’ve been dreaming of for ages but putting off because I don’t have the confidence to start. Why is the feeling of power irrational, but the sober feeling of fear and weakness not?

    “if I want to change my nature fundamentally, I would like to understand in what way I’m changing it first.”
    Totally – understanding is always good. But it seems to me like experimentation and open discussion will be a good route to greater understanding.

    More general point: I think we’re coming at this with different views of what knowledge is and how we get it. Your view, if I’m getting it right, is that our methods of evaluating data are relatively specific, and distinct from the data that they evaluate; their specific nature is a product of a specific evolutionary process, and so things which interfere with the outcome of that process change us, even to the extent of changing what knowledge is and can mean to us.

    My view is quite different. I see reason and our ways of evaluating data and getting knowledge as based on combination and ‘transcendence’, in the sense of taking some datum or idea or viewpoint and stepping above it to question or amend or expand it. This sort of stepping-outside is what creatures like a borg drone lack, despite their ability to follow out the implications of given data, which is why I would call them logical but not rational. And this stepping-outside applies potentially to everything we can think of – including our methods of reasoning themselves. We can always jump to the meta-level. This process, this open-ended capacity to not just process ever more information, but use that information to adjust the method of processing it, is to an extent independent of our specific evolutionary history – evolution has brought us to the point of being able to use it, but doesn’t fix how we use it and what we produce from it. Hence my optimism that if we encountered an alien race that had also reached such a point, some sort of communication and understanding would be possible (even if fantastically difficult).

  8. Dan | thesamovar Says:

    I feel like I can imagine some cases where basing decisions on druggie experiences isn’t obviously worse than the alternative.

    Yeah, but aren’t you evaluating the outcome of basing decisions on druggie experiences based on a non-drugged evaluation mechanism? (I’m not trying to get you to admit to anything here! ;-)) In other words, isn’t it just saying that one can imagine specific drug taking experiences which might lead one to make decisions which one can see to be good decisions even without taking any drugs?

    But it seems to me like experimentation and open discussion will be a good route to greater understanding.

    Well, as long as we acknowledge that experimentation will also lead to harmful results (for example, in terms of long term effects that we can’t predict), and moreover that it will probably lead to harmful results much more often than harmless or positive ones (what with our brain chemistry being very precisely balanced, and what I said about evolutionary mechanisms producing local maxima). But absolutely if people want to try it out, then they should go for it. Cannabis and ecstacy, for example, seem to be pretty harmless (compared to say, crossing the road, drinking or smoking, which are all legal).

    But honestly, my personal feeling is that we won’t get anything new in the way of knowledge from any of this (for the reasons I said previously).

    This sort of stepping-outside is what creatures like a borg drone lack…

    Well I’m not convinced of the importance of stepping-outside as a fundamental aspect of intelligence. That’s sort of what Penrose pushes in his “The Emperor’s New Mind” as a reason why computers could never be intelligent in the way humans are. For a start, he’s wrong because you could program a computer to do this as long as you don’t program it to be confined to one logical system. (Time will tell on this, I’m about as certain as I could be that if humanity doesn’t destroy itself beforehand then artificial intelligence that is at least as good as human intelligence will be a reality. I’d guess less than a hundred years, probably less, maybe much less.) But anyway, my point was that I wasn’t convinced about the importance of stepping-outside.

    It’s not clear to me that we can step outside the box that evolution has put us into. I can see that we can step outside the boxes that we’ve put ourselves into (boxes based on the correspondence theory of truth, mathematical logic, etc.). But suppose we could really step outside the box that evolution has put us into. That would mean finding a decision that we would, based on being outside the box, make differently to what we’d make being inside the box. Now suppose we could tell in advance that once we were outside the box this would be the decision we’d make, but that it was different to the decision we would make based on our best possible thinking within the box. Wouldn’t we conclude that the out-of-the-box decision was wrong and therefore say that the outside of the box is not better? If we couldn’t tell what decisions we’d make out of the box, how could we know that they would be better? It seems there’s no logical space to do better by changing ones own way of evaluating stuff, other than by chance. That’s evolutions mechanism, but it also requires selection over enormous periods of time which I guess is beyond the scope of what we’re considering here. So we could change our evaluation mechanisms (and thereby ourselves), but we couldn’t know that we were doing better by so doing, only that we would be doing differently.

  9. Alderson Warm-Fork Says:

    “aren’t you evaluating the outcome of basing decisions on druggie experiences based on a non-drugged evaluation mechanism?”

    Yes, because I’m not drugged right now. In some drugged state I might dismiss as delusional some decisions I’d made when sober. The point is, it’s an empirical fact that these judgements are not always self-state-preferring: we don’t simply find ourselves always soberly judging that sober decisions are always best, and cannabis-ily judging that cannabisy decisions are always best. So it seems unreasonable to imagine that there are these separate and self-consistent systems, and instead makes more sense (at least to me) to say that there’s one, large, open-ended, inconsistent system, encompassing us sober, us drugged, us high on adrenaline, us depressed, us in a low-oxygen environment, as regions, and different circumstances will produce different judgements, and no single situation gives us the privileged position from which to decide everything.

    “moreover that it will probably lead to harmful results much more often than harmless or positive ones”
    Wait, I understand our beef regarding epistemology, but what do you mean by ‘harmful’? It seems like the vast majority of alcohol drinking leads to harmless or slightly positive results. If the appropriate care is taken over safety and setting, I don’t see why we should be so scared of harm.

    “a reason why computers could never be intelligent in the way humans are. For a start, he’s wrong because you could program a computer to do this”
    Yup, we’re in agreement there.

    “suppose we could really step outside the box that evolution has put us into. suppose we could tell in advance that once we were outside the box this would be the decision we’d make, but that it was different to the decision we would make based on our best possible thinking within the box. Wouldn’t we conclude that the out-of-the-box decision was wrong and therefore say that the outside of the box is not better? If we couldn’t tell what decisions we’d make out of the box, how could we know that they would be better? It seems there’s no logical space to do better by changing ones own way of evaluating stuff, other than by chance.”

    I fear I will betray the embarassingly Hegelian strand to my love of Marx if I say that this is all very undialectical.

    Like, for a start, we often make better decisions after seeing things from multiple points of view than after seeing them from just one. Part of being able to step outside the box is being able to them adjust the box in light of what is found.

    “by chance. That’s evolutions mechanism, but it also requires selection over enormous periods of time which I guess is beyond the scope of what we’re considering here.”
    Yes, but evolution is limited in that it takes a whole lifetime to find out that something is a bad idea. We as rational humans can experiment and seek out new experiences/observations.

    So I think it’s obviously possible for us to amend and adjust our evolutionary inclinations by a process of partly random, partly planned experimentation and reflection.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: