Interview with David Pearceby
Leisure Only Magazine
I recently took time out to speak with philosopher, director of BLTC Research and author of The Hedonistic Imperative. When we thought up this idea of psychedelia, my first instinct was to try and go beyond the familiar 60s youth culture angle and get my teeth into some serious philosophy. I found it in the writings Huxley and Shulgin, but was overjoyed when my research landed me on the countless eye-opening essays online by David Pearce on the roles various drugs can play in our future to achieve a utopian existence without any suffering. When I phoned him up, I genuinely expected the voice of a weathered old hippy with a quivering California accent, but became instantly charmed by an English gent with a wonderful sense of humour and perspective on his own research. Here is what happens when an idiot talks with a philosopher about the potential for biochemistry to rid the world of suffering:
DP: Good morning
RC: Hello, is that David?
DP: It is indeed.
RC: Hi, it’s Rhys calling back again from yesterday.
DP: Ah, hi Rhys! How you doing?
RC: Very well thank you. And you?
DP: Yes, good. It’s a little overcast here today in Brighton, I hope it’s sunnier where you are…
RC: Uh, it’s actually very, very wet in London, today.
DP: Ah, yes. I expect the weather has more to do than anything else with damping down the enthusiasm for mayhem. [this interview was conducted the day after the London Riots]
RC: Yes, the rain has put all the fires out, luckily.
DP: Yeah, I confess I've been taken a bit by surprise, it's not as though I've got my ear particularly close to the ground or know the word on the street, but I hadn't picked up on the level of discontent.
RC: Do you reckon if maybe some of the rioters and looters were to experience some sort of hallucinatory drug, it would change their outlook and make them more peaceful?
DP: Depends on the nature of the drug! It’s hard to imagine that taking MDMA, for instance, would give people anything other than the desire to give someone a hug rather than loot anything… On the other hand, with some of the other drugs, who knows? This is part of the problem. A lot of these drugs are wildly unpredictable in their effects. By contrast, MDMA is quite predictable. MDMA isn't really a hallucinogen: it’s nothing like LSD, for instance; I always feel a bit of a fraud pronouncing on LSD because people’s experiences of taking it are so diverse.
RC: There is a drug I read about called DMT, there seemed to be like a, I mean this is just from one thing I read, a lot of people experience, a very similar, vivid sort of vision of small, small people who came to talk to them.
DP: Yes, I've read about it. I haven't actually taken DMT myself, partly because I'm too scared. To some extent, these drug-induced visions are culturally-specific. Compare how in a religious culture, if anyone has a religious vision it tends to be of Jesus if they’re Christian, Mohammed if they’re Muslim etc. But, you’re right, these reports do crop up again and again.
RC: Yeah, it sounds quite, from what I understand… that’s quite a rare thing, for there to be a universal experience on a hallucinogen?
DP: Yes… but the more you get into the deeper cognitive stuff, the more variety you get.
RC: What do you mean by cognitive?
DP: If you were to take a pill right now and it’s only effects were to make you see a hippopotamus bouncing up and down, or something like that, the effect would be interesting, but it wouldn't radically shift your conception of who you are or what you are, or anything philosophically radical. But some of the experiences induced by psychedelics really do transcend our conceptual scheme. If one does go on to try and talk about such experiences, one easily ends up babbling nonsense. The primitive terms to talk about the weirdness just aren't there. Since you either say it’s inexpressible or tend to babble nonsense, it's all too easy for the drug-naive to dismiss the significance of psychedelia altogether.
RC: How did you get into all of this?
DP: My background is more in philosophy and philosophical psychology - and more specifically, the nature of mood disorders, depression, and ways to phase out suffering. The whole project of phasing out the biology of suffering is very much at a tangent with investigating psychedelia. Yes, I know a number of researchers speak highly of the therapeutic potential of some of these drugs. For some individuals, the effects can be life-transforming. I'm more sceptical. Losing touch with consensus reality and entering alien realms of psychedelia is probably not the best way to help troubled souls adapt to a Darwinian world where you've got a family to raise, bills to pay, and a job to hold down. Typically at any rate, psychedelia is not going to help you cope. My own trajectory, and particular focus ethically, has been on exploring ways sustainably to elevate mood without compromising intellectual performance or social behaviour. This hasn’t stopped me wishing I were brave enough to explore psychedelia in depth. Alas I'm not psychologically robust enough to do so. For some time now, I've lived in something (more-or-less) resembling consensus reality.
RC: Surely there is a will to be able to articulate it, especially in the writings of like Huxley for example…
DP: Well yes, to an extent. But no matter how experienced you are, nothing can really prepare you for the experience of a major psychedelic. In any case, so much of what one thinks one understands about one’s self is really just a sense of familiarity: it’s not real self-understanding. Under the influence of psychedelics, you lose the ordinary sense of familiarity and the illusion of understanding that goes with it. If you strip away this sense of things being familiar, this loss of familiarity alone is enough to make you re-examine the nature of who and what you are and the nature of thought…it's not that ordinarily you have a deep understanding of personal identity, but your ignorance is not disturbing since life seems normal.
RC: I've read some stuff on your various websites, about MDMA and the things that affect your serotonin, dopamine and oxytocin. Surely they would be the basis of the sort of hedonistic imperative where it’s more about creating a longer running existing happiness?
DP: Yeah, but what's critical ethically, I think, is sustainability - ensuring that everyone can be biologically guaranteed a high quality of life. The solution to life's ills is not taking short-acting drugs. All that short-acting recreational euphoriants do is kick into gear the negative feedback mechanisms of the brain. Admittedly MDMA / Ecstasy is more complex. As we know, MDMA can make people feel not just euphoric, but also trusting, self-accepting, emotionally honest, "loved up" - filled with a sense of “I love the world and the world loves me”. It’s a very beautiful experience. But the magic is not sustainable. For the next week or so, you will typically be slightly less friendly, subtly less empathetic, a bit less sociable than how you would otherwise be. That's negative feedback mechanisms in the brain at work. So, yes, my focus is on exploring ways we could replicate the action of an empathetic drug like MDMA without these adverse side-effects.
RC: Is that what you term the ‘hedonic treadmill’?
DP: Yes. We're all trapped on the hedonic treadmill. [I didn't coin the term myself. It dates to Brickman and Campbell's essay "Hedonic Relativism and Planning the Good Society" (1971)] Each of us has a natural hedonic set-point. It's partly genetically determined. Your life will tend to fluctuate around your hedonic set-point. If you compare people who have either won the lottery or had a terrible accident – well, six months after the lottery win or the terrible accident they will typically have reverted, pretty much, to their state of ill-being / well-being before the win / catastrophic accident. Unless we tackle the genetic roots of the hedonic treadmill, we won't be able radically to improve our lives. Critically, we need to recalibrate the hedonic treadmill so we all enjoy a higher hedonic set-point - ideally gradients of lifelong intelligent bliss.
RC: And you say different people are set at different levels?
DP: Yes, hedonic set-point tends to vary from person to person. Also, some folk fluctuate around their set-point more than others. An extreme example is folk with bipolar disorder ("manic depression").
RC: Would you have any advice for those who do everything right and are perpetually gloomy?
DP: Well yeah, there are anti-depressants. Unfortunately the term "anti-depressants" sounds very depressing. Even so, the different classes of clinical mood-brighteners are worth exploring. But first try an idealised stone-age diet, daily aerobic exercise, good sleep discipline, omega 3 essential fatty acid and folate supplementation; and an all-round healthy lifestyle.
RC: What about the moral issue… the double-edged sword of psychopharmacological research?
DP: I guess like many people I'm not wholly consistent here. I believe I have the right to try any agent I want: any food, drug supplement, anything! No one else owns my body. Yet at the same time, paternalistically, you wouldn't want your sixteen year old daughter to be self-experimenting in the same way. So yes, there is a double standard at work here. There is another problem for anyone who writes about drugs. Should one be writing for the most responsible proportion of the population - or always be thinking of the potential impact of what one writes on the most reckless, irresponsible minority. The issue is complicated because if you look at the history of science, there are many examples of scientists taking hair-raising risks in the course of their research. People who explore the wilder shores of psychedelia do the same thing. Arguably this is what intellectual integrity is all about: the pursuit of knowledge wherever it may lead.
RC: As we were talking yesterday, even Shulgin managed to hold down really respectable jobs, you know in the San Francisco hospital University or whatever it was?
DP: Yes, obviously Shulgin has an exceedingly robust mind. One of the many remarkable features of PiHKAL and TiHKAL is the way he was able to write about his experiences in such an extraordinarily lucid manner - and also provide the detailed chemical background for the relevant synthesis…
RC: And how about yourself? I've seen some of your lectures online… Actually you've published a lot of papers on your research too, are you able to support your research with things like that?
DP: Well I don't have official funding or anything like that. I own a web hosting company, but I don't have my own lab. And I'm not exploring psychedelia first-hand any more. My focus is on genetic engineering. Long-term, I think rewriting the genome is the way forward. For now, psychopharmacology is perhaps the only option for direct biological intervention; but it's just a stopgap. Despite one or two eye-catching headlines, I'm very keen to put out a responsible message. Perhaps my main frustration is that although the scientific counterculture has a lot of smart chemists at work designing exciting new compounds, their focus isn't on sustainability. All sorts of recreational drugs induce wonderful effects for a few hours. Then the effect dissipates. Negative feedback mechanisms kick in. Often users end up no better off than before - and sometimes worse.
RC: But it’s feasibly possible to eradicate suffering, isn't it?
DP: Yes! In the near-term future, we can genetically engineer lifelong well-being, immense optimism and vitality, even a powerful predisposition to altruistic behavior. You can begin by choosing the genetic makeup of your future children through preimplantation genetic diagnosis. We can start that stuff right now.
RC: It’s like this futuristic society… would you consider it a utopia?
DP: Yes and no… There are all sorts of aspects of life today that would once have seemed "utopian". We now take them for granted.
RC: So, what does the future hold for David Pearce then? What’s next?
DP: [Laughs] Well, I tend to live a web-based lifestyle, I'm never going to be a mover-and-shaker or anything like that. I just want to put the abolitionist perspective in the public domain. It's technically feasible to phase out the biology of suffering in humans and non-humans alike…
RC: Wow, thanks… we'd best wrap this up I'm afraid.
DP:Ahh, well if you are ever in Brighton we should meet for a tea!
RC: Yes, a tea would be good. Let’s leave the hardened hallucinogens to the psychonauts! THANKS!
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If you want to get lost in the various writings of David Pearce, please visit his BLTC website. There doesn't;t seem to be any logical structure to the assortment of writings, but I strongly advise going off on a link tangent and finding out where you end up!
By Rhys Coren
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more interviews 1 : 2 : 3 : 4 : 5 : 6 : 7 : 8 : 9
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UHI Interview (Jan. 2011)
H+ Interview (Sept. 2009)
Vanity Fair Interview (April 2007)