Simon G. Powell is the author of The Psilocybin Solution (2011) and Darwin’s Unfinished Business (2012), and he’s been kind enough to answer some of PsypressUK’s questions ahead of his appearance at the Hoxton Gallery next month.
In the past, you’ve described having “an extended bout of ‘mushroom fever’ brought on by excessive psilocybin use” and that when “this ‘mushroom fever’ subsided, [you] were left with a case of chronic biophilia compounded by chronic gaiaphilia.” Can you tell us a little bit about how this felt and how it ended up effecting your life?
The initial effects of my extensive psilocybin use were devastating. Not only did I feel forced to continually ponder the significance of life on earth, I found myself divining some kind of purposeful intelligence intrinsic to both life and the evolutionary process that engineers life. These notions of ‘natural intelligence’ filled my inner world and continued to grow unchecked despite the contrary opinions of esteemed thinkers like Richard Dawkins. I thus found myself becoming more and more alienated from scientific orthodoxy, which sees evolution as a totally dumb and mindless process. When you hold the opposing view that life is a kind of intelligent technology built by an intelligent nature, the social consequences can be crippling. People look at you ‘funny’ and consider you an ‘animist’, or ‘vitalist’, or worse. This is why people need to handle psilocybin mushrooms with great care. People need to know that their effects can induce pantheistic spasms and gaianesque paroxysms. In any case, I am convinced that if one pursues the psilocybin experience one will eventually be forced to acknowledge the existence of natural intelligence.
In your book The Psilocybin Solution: The Role of Sacred Mushrooms in the Quest for Meaning (2011) you delineate between normal consciousness and entheogenic consciousness. Could you explain what is changed and introduced into consciousness by the intake of an entheogen like the sacred mushroom?
Well, people often speak about ‘expanded’ consciousness under the influence of psychedelics and I think that this is an apt description. Certainly consciousness varies in degree and scope. The literal meaning of consciousness means ‘knowing together’. So one can be more, or less, conscious, and one can know more, or less, together, or all at once as it were. I think psilocybin potentiates new forms of consciousness in which larger fields of information—both external and internal—are accessed and grasped. This is why psychedelic visions are usually full of symbolic elements—as symbols are the only way huge amounts of psychological information can cohere and self-organise. So I think ‘entheogenic consciousness’ is connected with a mind that has had the usual constraints removed and is able to access information normally occluded to it. This equates to accessing ‘higher truths’—truths about oneself and the larger world around one. In any case, the fact that psychedelic consciousness and mystical states ultimately remain mysterious is no surprise really as we don’t even know what normal consciousness is!
In recognition of the observations of an entheogenic consciousness, how do you think Western society could integrate both the entheogen experience itself and its lessons into our cultural functioning? And, furthermore, what effect do you think this would have on our society?
I reckon a civilized and constructive thing to do would be to open centres throughout the world where ‘ordinary’ people—particularly those who do not normally have anything to do with ‘drugs’—could, if they so chose, have facilitated sessions with agents like psilocybin and ayahuasca. And by ‘facilitated’, I mean that these centres would be designed to maximize a beneficial set and setting (this would include access to an extensive outdoor garden area) There would be guides on hand if necessary to help ensure people have a safe and rewarding voyage. This would echo the ancient Greek mystery rites at Eleusis where in all likelihood a psychedelic potion of some kind was employed. People would return from such centres in a spiritually revivified psychological condition—potentially at least. I think this would work wonders in society for any number or reasons. I think our relationship with the biosphere would improve as would our relationships with one another. Psychedelics like psilocybin and ayahuasca are called strong medicines for good reason. They can help bring people to their senses by putting them in touch with the unconscious (wherein lies great wisdom), along with the fact that one can see the world in a new and vibrant way. To be alive and conscious in the universe is a fantastic state of affairs that we have become rather dulled to as our culture fills our minds and senses up with all sorts of trivial concerns. The mushroom wakes one up and brings one into what Terence McKenna called the felt presence of the living moment. Even the science being done at Johns Hopkins university in the USA drives home the point that psilocybin has various valuable therapeutic and even mystical effects. A civilized society is thus surely obliged to integrate psilocybin and to stop treating it as a dangerous Class A bedfellow to heroin and crack cocaine.
Can you tell our readers about the genesis and content of your new book Darwin’s Unfinished Business (2012) please?
Writing this book was one way in which I was able to cope with my chronic biophilia and chronic gaiaphilia. The book takes a long and deep look at the information gaining and learning aspects of biological evolution, and makes the case that evolution through natural selection is, in fact, a naturally intelligent process that weaves together naturally intelligent systems of bio-logic. This intelligence is not outside of life but is life. And whilst such natural intelligence may not be conscious, I argue that it is still warrants the term ‘intelligence’. Further, the whole system of nature can likewise be considered to embody intelligence as it is the whole system of nature that provokes, nourishes and sustains evolutionary processes. In other words then, I am entertaining the idea that intelligence of one kind or another is always needed to generate intelligence of another kind. We are smart only because the system that we are embedded in is smart. Life is smart only because that which sculpts and hones life is smart. Evolution is smart because it is only smart bio-logic and smart behaviour (of one kind or another) that gets (naturally) selected. Nature therefore represents an unconscious intelligence in action. This vastly distributed unconscious intelligence is evinced by the specific laws and forces of nature along with the creative evolutionary processes provoked and nourished by those specific laws and forces. In consequence, through biological evolution this unconscious intelligence of nature is gradually and inexorably becoming conscious through the evolution of highly advanced cortices. Which means, in effect, that nature, or the universe, is in the business of waking up to itself and knowing itself. That is the gist of my DUB book. I do not invoke any new entities or new phenomena, rather I call for a new interpretation of the current facts of life that are at hand. And it is not simply a case of words and definitions at stake here either. It is a whole new way of appraising life. As I state in the book, how we view and interpret life determines how we live life. If we do not correctly understand what the web of life on earth actually is, how can we possibly find a healthy and sustainable place within that web?
In your recent film Metanoia: A New Vision of Nature you discuss natural intelligence and mention that it should not be confused with intelligent design creationism. Can you tell us a little about your film project and the difference between these two approaches to ‘intelligence’?
This natural intelligence paradigm that I bang on about in both my Metanoia film and my DUB book, sits between a rock and a hard place. On the one hand neo-Darwinists don’t like it because they are keen to keep humans as the sole arbiters and possessors of advanced intelligence. For them, evolution is simply a case of bits and pieces changing over time. There is no overall direction to evolution, and everything just happens mindlessly and purposelessly. There is no real design to life (hence Richard Dawkins’s coining of the word ‘designoid’ to describe living things) and living things are certainly not a kind of technology. No surprise then that natural intelligence is never discussed by neo-Darwinists. Artificial intelligence might be talked about, but not natural intelligence. On the other hand, intelligent design folk do see an intelligence to life, but they see this intelligence as lying outside of nature, usually in some supernatural domain. For various reasons (usually religious), the intelligent design fraternity do not like the idea that intelligence could be an intrinsic aspect of the fabric of nature. So this puts me in a decidedly unpopular position. That the psilocybin mushroom led me to the unorthodox notion of natural intelligence shows just how hazardous and slippy such fungi can be…
Thank you Simon!
Simon will be at the Hoxton Gallery next month:
When: Sunday 9th December 2012
Doors Open 3.00pm – Film starts 3.45pm
Where: Hoxton Gallery – Drysdale Street, London N1 6NG
Entry Fee: £5.00 / £3.00 (Concession)