Graham Hancock questions Richard Dawkins on psychedelics and challenging his world view

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Professor Richard Dawkins is best-known as a vociferous critic of religion and a champion for the cause of science. So much so that he is often attacked for being dogmatic himself, in believing only his own preferred worldview should triumph. Some thought his latest book, The Magic of Reality – aimed at children, and explaining the scientific truth behind primitive mythologies – had gone beyond the pale in preaching literalism as the ‘one true way’.

More than a few times I’ve heard people say “what Richard Dawkins needs is a good hit of LSD”. Surprisingly, Richard Dawkins appears to agree with that view. Late last year, Dawkins visited the British city of Bath to promote his most recent book, doing a reading at the city’s library. In the question and answer session that followed, local resident Graham Hancock – best-selling author himself on topics including ‘alternative history’ and shamanism – asked if Dawkins would be prepared to take a hallucinogenic drug.

Hancock framed his query in terms of how ancient cultures believed in a spirit world through their use of psychoactive plants for shamanistic purposes, and whether Dawkins – as a scientist, and critic of religious and mystical views – would be interested in using such substances to give him direct experience of the worldview he so often attacks. “As a scientist,” Hancock asked, “have you ever seriously engaged such techniques to have first-hand experience of what they’re talking about, and perhaps even to challenge your own concept of what is real?” He suggested that Dawkins might want to try the (DMT-containing) shamanic brew from the Amazon, ayahuasca.

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58 COMMENTS

  1. More than a few times I’ve heard people say “what Richard Dawkins needs is a good hit of LSD”. Surprisingly, Richard Dawkins appears to agree with that view.

    From my own experience, it fortifies the rational thinking of those that have no woo woo in there heads to attach onto and exploit. Electronic (acid) music along with visual aids such as plasma balls, lasers, mirrors, strobes and trippy fractal videos all add to the experience.  http://www.metacafe.com/watch/… That was all quite a while ago and I don’t think any lasting damage has been done.

    Of course one has to experience it to comment on it.

  2. ” would be interested in using such substances to give him direct experience of the worldview he so often attacks. “

    Confusion of experience and reality. One would get an experience though!

  3. The only sense in which I’d personally find such an experiment interesting is in connection with a question I’ve always had as to whether ‘normality’ is actually normal. I mean…our normal waking selves are surely just as much a chemical contrivance as any ‘drug induced’ state. Insofar as our sense of normality is itself the result of chemicals, we are always in a drug induced state !

  4. I really don’t see their point. I am a scientist and an atheist. 20+ years ago I was a in college and an atheist. I experimented with LSD along with my peers. While I do consider it to haven been a valuable experience and did give me keen insights into why psychoactive drugs have been used by primitive cultures it did not change my opinions in any way, shape or form. The experience did show me that these drugs are not anything to be played with, there is a very good reason why the are approached with such reverence and ceremony. Your experience is dictated by your state of mind when you take them and the most certain way to have a very bad experience is to use them in an unsecured unsupported enviroment

  5. The Big Question, as framed by Jimi Hendrix:  Are You Experienced?  Have you ever been Experienced?

    Those answering No are unqualified to speculate on the experiences of those answering Yes.

    More important than medical supervision, Prof Dawkins would be well advised to have a trusted companion who is Experienced in this sense, as a guide and protector, a location well provided with nature’s beauty – such as a secluded garden on a fine day, music of his favorite genre in high fidelity, access to original artworks or detailed reproductions, and a nice collection of fossils.   No TV or computer screens, and no tinny little loudspeakers. (This stuff is more important than the Un-experienced might expect).  A japanese bath or heated swimming pool would be nice-to-haves.

    There should be a legal way for Prof Dawkins to follow in the footsteps (as it were) of Aldous Huxley and find out for himself.   I wish him a positive, joyful and enlightening experience, and eagerly await his report.    Remember, Albert Hoffman lived to 102, and he’d had much larger doses of LSD than most.

  6. Quite a fine answer by RD, and a reasonable discussion.  It’s a pity the comments at that blog were mostly wooshite.

    A little experience with psychedelics inclines one toward the banal exotica of “religion” and general wooiness.  With more experience and maturity, one sees past all that nonsense, and watching a human mind – my own – at play is both a wonderful and embarrassingly refreshing experience.

    LSD, properly used, is an agent for clear-thinking and insight into the delusions that our minds create in constructing a “rational world”.  However, most people use it in the way a vibrator.is used to imitate sex, though, and that’s almost always a mildly pleasant, empty experience,… like watching a Michael Bay movie.

  7. I agree.  My memories of these types of experiences are very positive and strangely, the memories are still very vivid to me even two decades after the fact. What I never considered for an instant is that they were some sort of port hole to another dimension or any type of religious experience.  That would have been a bad trip for sure! With no knowledge of chemistry or neurology at that time, I thought that when a person ingests a quantity of certain chemicals, there is a very weird and wonderful effect on the brain. Parsimony. Embrace it.

  8. From the linked website a comment by emlong:

    “I love the idea of getting him to take an hallucinogen. These armchair academics are distinguished by their reluctance to have physical experiences – they are like prisoners who love the padded cells of their overstuffed armchairs – so anything we can do to get them out of their armchairs and actually use their nervous systems more fully would be welcomed.”

    I wonder if the commenter even knows any actual academics.  Here in the States we have academics being vilified for being ultra lefty liberals that are a bad influence on kids these days by brainwashing them with their socialist and commie pinko ideas.  Now we have this bunch accusing academics of being pedantic stuffed shirts who need to trip, trip, trip a little.  Apparently the shenanigans that were going on at Harvard in the 60′s are completely unknown to them.

  9. “…whether Dawkins – as a scientist, and critic of religious and mystical views…”
    i don’t presume to speak for dawkins, but i would think that dawkins doesn’t criticise these views per se so much as some of the interpretations that are applied to them.  i assume that he would not be against a rational exploration of these things but would reject the idea that they are evidence of anything supernatural.

  10. I can tell you that Bill Wilson, Co-founder of the faith based group Alcohlics Anonymous, tried LSD in the ’60s.  He was intrigued by the drug’s possibilities because the effects reminded him of his ‘spiritual experience’ that he had in the Fall of 1934. 

  11. I’ve had LSD on a couple of occasions, back when I was young and foolish. (See avatar to left) Although it was indeed an interesting experience, I wouldn’t repeat it now because I’m not convinced it is at all safe.  It’s a drug that plays havoc with your brain.  Anyone who thinks it could lead to some kind of epiphany is deluded.  Look what it did for Charles Manson, Sid Barrett and others. This is just a recasting of the old “you’re too closed minded” argument.  Come on, the sixties ended 40 years ago, man.

  12. The corruption in the chalice is that of oppression, subversion and general ruthless dominance. Purveyors of these sorts of recommendations are most usually free of all the aforementioned and hence have little to halt their indulgence. Don’t be blinded for a second that this market; one for your minds eye, is one of awe and splendor. It is what it is; another self biased delusional neuron magic that, the world over, bullies the masses into servitude due its higher ranking peddlers of potions. No need to sample to know this surely?

    In this sense it’s the market, rather than the science, that is wholly corrupt and corruptible. But then who is so stupid not to see this as bleedin’ obvious anyhow?

    If one selects to sample the powder, or whatever the likes of Sam suggests, then think it more like the kid on a wet dream or the dog humping an armchair, and not some life changing universal truth. It satiates a curiosity of psycho-biological potential. It maybe chills the furore in search of an outlet. It’s basic. It’s crude. It’s very, very, human!

    Don’t let’s sophisticate ourselves people, as if we ever had the option!

  13. Criticisms of rationalists such as these really should define what “worldviews” are. Are they opinions on how the world is, or on when a belief is warranted? In the former case, take a science class; in the latter, take an epistemology class. Actually, take both either way – and stop pretending you have a response to rationalists’ case against your views, and stop pretending they have merely different opinions rather than also backing up their position while tearing down yours. I find it amazing anyone would think, “X *does* exist – you just need to be high to detect X!” Imagine a science paper reporting such drug-induced findings. They’d never be taken scientifically seriously as indicative of, say, detected beings, even if the results were reproducible. All it would tell us is interesting things about the brain.

  14. “Sam Harris is the ultimate example that reaching those peak experiences – even through non-chemical means such as Buddhist meditation “

    Sam Harris has admitted to experimenting with LSD, Opium and MDMA.

  15. …perhaps not that drug

    Richard is right to be wary of ayahuasca. I know many who love their hallucinogens but I’ve never met anyone who has gone for a second helping of that one.

    …..but something like LSD or mescaline

    I found them to be very different experiences. For kids, or dons, who won’t just say no, I would recommend a small dose of mescaline for their first trip. It’s a friendlier buzz that is much easier to handle and it doesn’t last as long. And it’s easier to judge the dose.

    The taste of the San Pedro cactus is truly vile. I’ve never tried peyote but I don’t think it’s any better. But taste aside, I can’t think of a bad word to say about it. And, I believe, in Blighty it’s legal right up to the moment you brew it up.

    I would be prepared to do that under proper Medical supervision

    Why on Earth would anyone do that? If things get scary, then some alcohol, comforting words and a cuddle are the best bet. My best trips have always been around nature. For a first trip, a garden would feel safer. Then if you feel confident, go for a walk in the park, or better still, some woods.

    Analise the experience afterwards. You will remember it. Fun is the order of the day. Being introspective can spoil a trip.

    If you have a great time, then you can think about LSD. But while I’ve had some of the wildest and finest experiences of my life on acid, like most people of my age, I don’t do it anymore. For one thing, it goes on too long for the middle aged me. And I’m a bit younger than the Professor. .     

  16. In my first and only “experiment” with LSD, I looked in the mirror and watched my hair grow until I looked like Rambo, then thorns came out of my head and I looked like Jesus. Not sure whether to be a Christian or Stallone Worshiper?

  17. In his position, Richard could only do something legal. He’ll also only consider something thoroughly tested to be safe. It is hard to find a psychoactive that is both.

    I suggest Salvia Divinorum. It gives a few minutes of beautiful psychedelic tripping, intense perspective shifts and colorful visuals and has no after-effects apart from occasional mild headaches. It is as safe as a drug can get – and legal (in the UK). It is also used by indigenous people for divinatory purposes (hence the name), so it fits Mr Hancock’s purpose.

    Conprehensive info on the stuff:
    http://www.erowid.org/plants/s

    DMT and Ayahuasca, on the other hand, are neither legal nor completely certain to be safe. Millions of people have benefitted from them, but they don’t fit Richard’s criteria.

    I’m totally in favor of Richard tripping. I want to see what the mind that came up with the Selfish Gene and Unweaving the Rainbow can do with the inspiration that psychedelics provide.

  18. For me it was a journey into the simulated nature of experience and complete disintegration of the ego. This mind became a system of independent though occasionally interacting processes. There was eventually no concious observer and the situational narrative was drowned in recollective static. That was along with the usual changing tessellated patterns in darkness, hairy face in the mirror, the sensation that clothes were wet and so on. My memories of the events of that night are very fragmented.

  19. “ultra lefty liberals that are a bad influence on kids these days by brainwashing them with their socialist and commie pinko ideas”
    Translation: are concerned with facts, evidence and things that are true, and making that knowledge public and widely available. Such accusations are independent of the actual ideology of the accused (unless it is radically right-wing, in which case they typically won’t have such concerns in the first place).

  20. As an experienced ex-hallucinogenic drug user I can report that I had absolutely zero spiritual experiences or feelings of any spiritual nature. My mind did race out in all directions but it was always toward real thoughts about real subjects.

    I find that on hallucinogenic drugs I think pretty much the same as I do now but with far more abstract input and imagery. My artwork took on a more colourful nature but subject matter was still within normal parameters.

    All of the experiences and mental images you engage with on an hallucinogenic trip you brought with you from the start. You don’t discover anything new or realize a different way of thinking, it’s all crap that was already there. To have a spiritual experience on hallucinogenic drugs you need to be spiritual before you take them; otherwise, you need to be easily manipulated and horribly forgetful that you are on drugs.

    If Richard is not already experienced with hallucinogenics, he will only gain some understanding of how less reality grounded people can be fooled into thinking something perfectly natural and easily explainable is somehow meaningful and special.

    I would argue a think tank of hallucinogenic drug takers could return some interesting results but I would remove the spirit freaks who rather play in La-La Land than do serious thinking.

  21. When they talk about “worldviews” they are (possibly unconsciously) talking about personality types, AFAICT. Essentially, it’s a form of egotism. “My type of person is best, if you were more like me you wouldn’t believe all that terrible stuff.” Hm, does that sound familiar?

    LSD, etc, can temporarily disrupt and make ineffectual parts of the brain one relies upon and so force a greater use of other regions, a little like walking blindfold. Perhaps this can give insight into how other people think that’s otherwise hard to come by. It’s also a preferred state of people who don’t like the rational parts of themselves (I mean rational as in language-based reasoning).

    For some people, comfort creates their model of reality.

  22.  “From my own experience, it fortifies the rational thinking of those that
    have no woo woo in there heads to attach onto and exploit”

    It’s the thinking you bring to the mind party that decides how good the trip is, the acid just lets it out. If you are scared shitless of the idea of demons and ghosts, guess what you see on acid. Mind fuck coming—ha ha ha ha. People are their own worst enemy.

  23. Taking it would only be used to shred any future credibility on any topic.  Unlike medical drugs, there is no established dosage relative to the effects (and even those aren’t very well defined) and there is no guarantee against permanent damage from first time usage (though highly unlikely).  There may be a lot of things in life that should be tried before commenting on, but using a hallucinagenic to ‘qualify’ a right to argue points of an argument unrelated to the drug use doesn’t make sense.  Drug induced religious experiences doesn’t encompass the majority of claims made by people, so why entertain it?

  24. As someone with more than a passing knowledge of LSD, I have this to say — once you’ve had a trip (as the ancient jargon called it) you really are never the same. That is because you realize in the most personal way possible just how much of our perception of reality is based on brain chemicals. Once you’ve actually seen (or think you’ve seen) the molecules of the air around you dance like a sea of shimmering fireflies, well, you never take those invisible gases for granted again.

    But the real change occurs afterward. In my case I can look down a tree lined street and I get a sense that it’s not really 3-dimensional at all, it’s actually flat and though I can walk down it and the shadows play on me and I hear the birds sing and see the bees clinging to the flowers, I’m not going anywhere. I sometimes feel like a computer creature navigating a simulation. Time-space feels like an illusion. I ‘think’ it’s endless and stretches off in all directions, but it doesn’t, there is no space, it’s just a projection of some kind. Whether this is some kind of drug induced madness or borderline psychosis, I cannot say. But I do know that when I get those moments of seeming clarity, it is deeply reassuring and I don’t take the world as seriously as I might otherwise. For the record, I’ve not taken LSD in over 30 years, nor do I wish to. It is powerful stuff, and should not be used for trivial recreation. It changes you.

  25. Besides alcohol, LSD was the first drug I ever tried, back in High School. I laughed my ass off. That was about 20 years ago. Have a go, Richard… never mind the “medical supervision”, they’ll just bring you down. Put on some music and just hang out with the missus.

  26. I agree wholeheartedly with Richard’s assessment of the likely outcome of such an experience: “I think it very unlikely that, whatever happened to me, I would interpret it as indicating anything supernatural…”, being a non-believer and not prone to any sort of “mystical” interpretations of events, my experiences with such compounds (LSD and psylocybin) have never done anything more to me than leave me fascinated at what kind of perceptions the mind generates in such states. I once was left giddy with the novelty of how some tall grasses at the periphery of my sight became ominous men in hooded cloaks until I looked at them directly and resumed their insidious character when again looked at askance – then grass, then cloaked men, then grass and back again. It will probably do nothing more than move the idea of altered perception from theory to practice for the Professor.

  27. I fail to see the point, you can take all the drugs you like, it will not change reality.

    All this talk of experience is bullshit too, one can ‘experience’ ghosts, angels and the like, still does not make them a reality and any drug induced experiences of such should not change anyone’s world view.

  28. Ram Das (Richard Alpert) is one of my favourite people. He told all sorts of LSD stories and stories without rational explanation on cassettes.  He is anything but dogmatic. He is the very opposite of a Christian who thinks he knows everything but can’t provide any evidence for it.  I have had hundreds of very peculiar experiences  personally (some possible drug induced, but not by drugs I took myself). I wrote many of them up in an essay on my website called “Reality is a Hallucination”.  They ensure me there is plenty unexplored.  Dawkins has not made it suffciently explicit that he believes science is incomplete, but I suspect intellectually that is his position. Reality is too subtle to be explained by comic book gods like Jehovah.  If there is god, he would be absolutely nothing like Jehovah. He would have to be billions of times more marvelous. People keep using a straw man argument against him that Dawkins holds that anything not explained by current science cannot exist. What he actually says is fanciful BS concocted without evidence is fanciful BS concocted without evidence and as such has very little chance of being true.  He does not talk much about what science has not yet explored or what might or might not be out there.  When new science is presented, Christians denounce it as the work of the devil.  I think Professor Dawkins would be first in line to have look.

  29. I’ve experimented with LSD, opium, MDMA to name a few. :-)
    It only showed me that by changing the biochemistry of a brain you can alter the perception of reality. (Nothing new here.) Never did I think that the melting ball I held in my hand was really melting. I saw it like that, but it was as always a subjective experience.

    How dumb do you have to be to not understand the difference between reality and perception?

    P.S. I wouldn’t recommend hallucinogenic drugs to anyone though. It can be quite an intense experience and I’ve seen some people go mental on it.

  30. No alcohol.   It can have seriously unpleasant effects when taken with any kind of hallucinogen.   A sugary drink such as fresh orange juice is reputed to help diminish the effects, if the subject feels uncomfortable and wants to head back towards normality.

  31. > All this talk of experience is bullshit

    I take that as a “No” to the question “Are you Experienced?”.

    As for failing to see the point,  yes, you are.  It is not reality that changes, it is the observer and the observations, and to an extent that can only be conveyed by direct experience.  There is no worthwhile answer to “What’s it like?”, except possibly “It’s interesting (and if you don’t agree you can fuck off)” – to steal a line from the editor of the New Scientist.

  32. Do you think that traveling to new and exotic places can change someone’s worldview?  Entheogens often do the same thing. While they may not cause someone to believe in the supernatural, they can certainly change perceptions of reality.

  33. Let’s all gather together to pray nonstop for several days, chant for hours, and fast during this entire period. We could also whirl around with our hands up in the air like a Dervish. It’s really an awesome experience being in a meditative marathon. We could hire Krishna Das and get a rhythmic vibe going. Man, his music is intoxicating. You can really get in tune with your inner self and see the world in a whole new perspective. You may even get a profound insight into this world and see this world in a whole new perspective (Hey man, Deja vu. That was profound how that happened.) and see yourself in a whole new light. Deep meditation changes you.

    Why do people need popcorn(God) to experience movies (life)?  Are (Is) movies (life) really that boring?

    What does it matter if what we experience is true or not anyway?

    Richard, I know some really cool churches you could check out.

  34. Those answering No are unqualified to speculate on the experiences of those answering Yes.

    Those who do not believe in God are unqualified to speculate on the personal spiritual experience of those who believe in God.

    Interesting how the tables have turned in this conversation…or we have lots of visiting theists. Just an observation and it really has nothing directly to do with your comment OHooligan.

  35. Person,  When I was younger, I was interested in psychedelics, but never used any drugs. Little did I know that I had a heart condition that was diagnosed later. I could only imagine the potential danger I could have experienced if I dabbled in cocaine or certain recreational drugs. Richard has longevity in his genes, but one bad trip and it could change this. Why fry brain cells at this point in life anyway? I’d rather keep as many living as possible the older I get.

    I find it odd how one minute this site is bashing people for walking on fire, praying in deep meditation, being involved in charismatic spiritual activities, and doing other activities that are seen as nonsensical, but somehow drugs get a stamp of approval from some. I’m not saying that there is anything wrong with experimenting with drugs, each situation is unique. Yet I wonder if people here would be egging Richard on if he said he’d like to try Shamanic Trance Dance.

  36. Agreed, experiences can also make life not worth living. I suppose the point I was trying to convey is that experience is how we determine value. Drugs don’t change reality but they do alter our perception of it, and altered perception is interesting.

  37. Faith in God and entheogenic experiences are not analogous.  One requires a belief in the supernatural and the other does not.  Most people don’t “need” psychoactive substances to enjoy life, in the same way that most people don’t “need” popcorn to enjoy a movie, it just enhances the experience.  Dancing can also alter ‘consciousness, as can sleep deprivation, sensory deprivation and deep meditation.  As Sam Harris explains, none of this implies or requires anything unnatural or unscientific.

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