You'd have to be of a certain age to make sense of some of the stuff being written about Albert Hoffman after his passing last week. LSD, which he invented - or accidentally stumbled upon, better said - was a big part of youth culture in the 1960s and early 70s. It has hardly been available for the past thirty years, so I suspect most people wonder what all the fuss was about. But those of us who experimented with it are taking the opportunity to dust down some of our wilder memories.
One is Susan Blackmore, a contemporary of mine at Oxford University in the early 1970s (although I had no interest in parapsychology then, and our paths never crossed). Blackmore has always been very open about her use of cannabis, and it didn't surprise me to find her writing a paean to Hoffman in the Guardian at the weekend. Like many regular users, she says, she used to take acid once or twice a year in her mid twenties - 'quite often enough for a drug that last 8 to 12 hours, has extraordinarily mind-bending effects, and can leave you exhausted and full of amazing lessons that you need time to digest.' That was exactly my view of it - it always astonished me that other people could drop acid as casually as they would roll a joint. I remember one poor soul did it two or three times a week, and got seriously raddled as a result.
Blackmore adds that Hoffman had already had mystical experiences long before he took LSD, and was therefore 'well placed to appreciate the deeper significance of its mind-altering effects'. I wonder what she means by 'deeper significance'. It's always interested me that Blackmore combines an interest in Buddhism - she meditates and follows the practice of mindfulness - with an aggressively materialist view of consciousness that owes more to Richard Dawkins than Stanislaf Grof. As I understand it she belongs naturally to the school of thought that sees in the neurological correlate, that is the fact of altered brain chemistry engendering transcendent experiences, the 'final nail in the coffin of religion' - in fact I seem to remember coming across that dread cliché somewhere in her writings recently. Certainly, she's at pains in Dying to Live to account for the near-death experience in reductive terms, and her attempt there to explain away veridical out-of-body perception is so forced that I have to wonder if deep down she really believes in what she is doing.
If you've never tried acid it's perhaps natural to follow the scientific and secular logic. But my impression is that most people who experience the awesome power of psychedelics really are fundamentally changed by it. They have the insight famously expressed by William James after dosing himself with nitrous oxide that there are other realities, other forms of consciousness besides our daily experience which are potentially at least as significant. That has been my experience: it's a long time since I took acid, and I only ever did it a few times. But ever since, it has provided me with perspectives on life, on consciousness and on reported mystical experience which I'm not sure I could have gained in any other way.
It's tempting to wonder how our society might have developed if it had embraced psychedelics instead of running away from them. Would sceptics be so aggressively dismissive of reported psychic experiences? Could a book like The God Delusion ever have been written if the writer had any direct appreciation of mystical states of mind? Would thinkers and researchers in consciousness be so totally wedded to the computational theory of mind and brain if they had actually experienced altered states? The alternative that LSD experience naturally promotes is the 'filter' theory - the idea that the brain acts as a barrier to undifferentiated reality, and can be subverted by certain chemical modifications to allow full contact with it - which Aldous Huxley picked up from Henri Bergson and popularised. As far as I'm aware, it's not seriously discussed in scientific circles, for obvious reasons, but if scientists dropped acid now and then it might at least get an airing.
You might think that Blackmore's example stands in contradiction to such ideas. Here is an open-minded, curious and imaginative thinker, someone willing to experiment with altered states of consciousness that in other people typically encourage a non-materialist interpretation, yet who resists that with the dull, dogmatic inflexibility that characterizes far less adventurous spirits. There may be a good reason for this, and perhaps, to be fair, she explains it somewhere that I have yet to come across. Yet it seems paradoxical, and it leads me to wonder, as I often have before, whether with her strident scepticism it is really herself she is trying to convince.