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Gregory Michael Nixon University of Northern British Columbia (UNBC), Canada

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Sjöstedt-Hughes, P. (2021). Modes of sentience: Psychedelics, metaphysics, panpsychism. Psychedelic Press, pp. 206.

Peter Sjöstedt-Hughes has brought together a collection of essays that on first glance seem to be about disparate subjects – the process metaphysics of A. N. Whitehead, the philosophy and phenomenology of psychedelic experience, and the ontological worldview of panpsychism. Yet, the book is thematically united and Sjöstedt-Hughes impressively weaves these philosophical threads together to produce a rare fabric, a fabric of universal sentience that comes together in a refreshingly new worldview in his final chapter. The book has significant depth yet is written in as non-obscure a fashion as any book that deals with such abstruse matters can be.

The author outlines the much respected but not widely read philosophical metaphysics of philosopher and mathematician, A. N. Whitehead. (The more famous Baruch Spinoza was probably the second most-cited philosopher). He elucidates various historical writings based on personal psychedelic experience to suggest how both philosophy and such experience are alternative mirrors for the same revelation, which includes the fundamentality of time – a preconscious, intuited creative process forever unfolding into an undetermined future. This leaves perceived “objective” reality as a secondary effect, more mutable than current physics can know. Both are real, however. This is panpsychism, not idealism. This I understood and happily embraced, but the author challenged my boggle limit by also indicating multiple dimensions of reality and even of other realities with other sentient beings, neither of which is perceivable with our everyday senses, but both of which are possible in a panpsychist universe and directly experienceable for the attuned psychonaut.

I missed having an index, however, and I am not convinced the book has the best title. Modes of Sentience is descriptively accurate but might have worked better as part the subtitle because it does not capture a browser's attention with a dramatic declaration. Something like Cosmic Process — Psychedelic Panpsychism would also have indicated the book's subject matter but perhaps have been more attention-grabbing. And, with regard to the cover image, in spite of its symbolic significance, moths are not liked by everyone, so perhaps something more colourful? Still I found the book itself intellectually exciting, which only proves the old adage about covers.

Let me briefly outline my own responses through its ten chapters, some of which are longer with more detail and others that are more or less short outlines. Please note that my summaries in no way indicate the nimble prose of the actual book, which needs to be read in its original context.

Chapter 1, “Panpsychism: Ubiquitous Sentience”, is the keynote. It is also a good, basic introduction to panpsychist thinking, the possibility that all entities or systems in what we term the objective physical world are in reality also subjectively experiencing. The author also provides an introduction to the ultimate metaphysical categories in general. I very much liked how the author immediately cleared up his use of the term “sentience” by identifying it (to my mind) with non-conscious or unconscious (or pre-conscious) experience, as in Whiteheadian panexperientialism or pancreativism: “In the hierarchy of states of mind, ‘consciousness’ is an uncommon complex crown of sentience. All has mind though not all has consciousness, let alone self-consciousness” (p. 2). My only difficulty with this is that some equate mind with consciousness, so it might be more accurate to say, “All have experience though not all have conscious experience.” He follows this with a deft deconstruction of emergentism and the assumptions of physicalism, as well as an excellent summary of why panpsychism is so abhorred by physicalists. The evidential proofs required by science are not enough to reach a deeper understanding, for “beyond proof we must employ evidential reasoning (inference to the best explanation) rather than inductive empirical verification,” including the “experience of other experience” (p. 10). Early on, I might suggest, the experience of other experience is all we have, what we are, which indicates primary empathy may precede individual selfhood. This primary empathy might help explain the self-transcendence and universal love experienced by many on psychedelic or entheogenic journeys.

Chapter 2, “Conspectus of A. N. Whitehead's Metaphysics”, is another attempt to provide a very brief point-form summary of the vast canvas of Whitehead's complex thinking. I would say he is more successful here than most, but for the uninitiated such a sudden introduction of new terminology will be confusing; still as an outline it serves its purpose. It was necessary for the author to attempt to simplify Whitehead's cosmic process philosophy, so at least it could be basically approached before he demonstrates how well it works as a psychedelic metaphysics.

Chapter 3, “The Concrescence of Dissent”, is a succinct discussion of Whitehead's life, his place in the history of philosophy, and his rejection of the orthodoxies of both science and religion, “Whitehead as the arch-heretic” (p. 30). This was most intriguing to me as it fleshes out Whitehead's complex concept of “God”, which is associated with the ultimate creative dynamic (i.e., process) of reality, making Whitehead more pagan than Christian (in spite of determined attempts by the latter to claim him, as in process theology). According to his biographers, it is unlikely that Whitehead had any experience with drugs beyond Earl Grey tea or, at his wildest, a sip of Bristol Cream sherry (see, e.g., Lowe, 1985/1990), but the depths of his insight and the extent of his imagination seem to have quite made up for it. His “God” seems to be the process of time in nature and creativity itself, with which many have felt participation during psychedelic trips. Experiences of supernatural deity seem to be more rare.

Chapter 4, “Psychedelic Experience” is an introduction to just that. The author asks if such experience is “revelation, hallucination, or otherwise” (p. 57). He notes that discovering the neural correlates of psychedelic experience does not imply that the experience is hallucinatory. He rather dismisses ontological physicalism entirely noting that if the hard problem consciousness indicates that physicalism can't explain consciousness, “it cannot be an adequate understanding of reality” (p. 61). He lists the usual criteria to determine if an experience is veridical – sensibility, shared objects of experience, coherence with other beliefs, and rationality – but notes that even combined they can't disprove the reality of someone's experience. “However, the fact that many types of psychedelic experience have shared objects of experience – such as the unreality of time, or the unity of subject and object – is suggestive of veridicality” (p. 60). Thankfully, he also notes that such shared experiences are often contingent on culture. “Thus we see that one's underlying ideology subjectively determines whether or not we understand psychedelic experiences as hallucinations or revelations” (p. 62). Later, however, he makes it clear that on many occasions the “doors of perception” are cleansed, and other realities, including panpsychist realities (mentality in other than the expected organisms) are experienced.

Chapter 5, “The Psychedelic Influence on Philosophy”, if taken at face value, would place psychedelic experience as the foundation of all philosophical thinking, if not of human consciousness itself. He includes his pick of major philosophers and scientists whom he considers to have been influenced by psychedelic drugs (which includes here nitrous oxide and opium). I found this chapter a bit of a stretch for my sense of credibility and the thinkers mentioned do not have viewpoints that readily congeal (e.g., Spinoza and Foucault). He ignores many of the big names explicitly doing psychedelic-influenced philosophy or science in the contemporary era, but that may be coming in the future.

Chapter 6, “Substance and Process” is a chapter as brief as a flashback on the important difference between those two ideas. “Does some thing underlie, or sub-stand, change – or is change itself fundamental without need for a substratum?” (p. 87). A very big question indeed. Of course the world is deterministic if it's based in substance, which is subject to the laws of physics. But since the unexpected – creativity – is the essence of process, “The future is theoretically unpredictable, and the possibilities for experience are infinite” (p. 97). Essential reading for those who sense the limitations of reductive physicalism.

Chapter 7, “The Great God Pan is Not Dead” had special relevance for me since I, too, have written of the return of Pan (Nixon, 2009), including as a prefix, in our cultural consciousness. “Pan-” is a refreshing, if wild, antidote to both physicalist reductionism and the nihilistic cultural fragmentation of the prefix “post-” in recent thought. For me, this was the best chapter in the book (though the first and last are close seconds). Here Sjöstedt-Hughes no longer speaks through the viewpoints of others but comes to the fore in his own voice, which is both original, engaging, and zesty. I deeply appreciated his reconceptualization of Whitehead's process cosmology in a more mythic (i.e., archetypal) context, “…with its panentheism, panexperientialism, divine mischief and intense hedonism, kinship to pagan animism and its Romantic nature worship, we are better to re-designate the god of Whitehead's philosophy of organism, as Pan. We thereby paganize Whitehead under the symbol of this seducer goat-god.” Then he sums up this line of thinking of a renewed worldview, “The decline in Christian belief and its offspring, modern cosmology, allows for a revival of a truly naturalistic ontology. God is dead; Pan returns” (p. 105). Rousing stuff! Not the Whitehead – the staid, elderly (he didn't begin doing philosophy until he was over 60 years old) British philosopher-mathematician without a scandal or social controversy in his life (Lowe, ibid.) – many would recognize. But I recognize him and certainly enjoyed the chapter.

Chapter 8, “The Penology of Perception”, Sjöstedt-Hughes analyzes the various ways of fundamental experiencing, i.e., perceiving in the broadest sense: sensing, “the temporal action of being sentiently affected by the spatiotemporal environment” (p. 117); perception, “the atemporal qualitative object or type of a perception” (p. 117); ecto-physical correlate, “the physicality external to the perceiver that is partly causative of the perception” (pp. 117–8); endo-physical correlate, “bodily correlates of sentience” (p. 118); and demeteption, the last a neologism meaning “perceptions that are not sensings of the physical environment” (p. 138). The last one should be much appreciated by those of us who have experienced inexplicable apprehensions; in fact, I wonder that Sjöstedt-Hughes did not use that word, apprehension, instead (though his term includes the important category of imagination). He notes that it’s also important that Whiteheadian “prehension” be understood as the foundation of all sensing, for any thing or any system even without sense organs may prehend its environment.

Chapter 9, “The First Scientific Psychonaut: Sir Humphrey Davy” is the longest chapter, but it's engaging as it is mostly a narrative. I admit that I found Davy's life story and his deep engagement with nitrous oxide very interesting, but I fear not as fascinating as the author himself did. “I am one of the Roman deities!” Davy heard a voice declare one stoned night in the ruins of the Roman colosseum (p. 146). Nitrous oxide is not chemically a psychedelic, but it does seem able to produce entheogenic experiences. The chapter includes a good discussion of “cosmic consciousness”, the loss of individual identity in becoming “one with the universe”. Best was that the author embraced the direct apprehension of the reality of panpsychism via empathic awareness in highly attuned people in non-ordinary moments (demeteption?). Indirectly positing panpsychism by default (consciousness is otherwise inexplicable) is the lesser route to understanding.

Chapter 10, “Deeper than Depth: N-Dimensional Space and Sentience”, is indeed the deepest chapter, sometimes baffling but most often quite soaring. It is a wonderful combination of the frontiers of science and the considerable expanse of Sjöstedt-Hughes's own intuitions. He embraces rational speculation “though hyperspace” to explore “1. Mind, Matter, and Space, 2. The Varieties of Space, 3. The Dimensions of Space and Sentience” (p. 156). In another of his groups of three, the author asserts a “threefold space: physical, perceptual, and conceptual” (p. 159), a triangle. He presents deft critical comparisons based on the triangle among substance dualism, “the triangle and the neural correlates are separate substances, not dependent on each other”; emergentism, “the triangle emerges from the neural correlates”; idealism, “the neural correlates emerge from the mind”; psycho-neural identity theory, “the triangle is the neural correlates”; and the More-Broad-Smythies Theory, “the triangle and the neural correlates are both cross-sections of a deeper hyperspace” (p. 162). Needless to say, he leans toward the latter, which is the one that indicates each dimensional world is nested within worlds of higher dimensions, up to that of the posited n-dimensional “world”. He concludes, “This is all to say that the More-Broad-Smythies Theory … is one, albeit radical, way to respond to the mind-matter mystery. It is a radical monism of space and sentience” (p. 181). To examine the details of this proposition, you'll have to read the book, and, most likely, go well beyond that.

I was enthralled but also mystified by these conclusions and I admit it. However, the implications are that psychedelic experience may lead to ways of knowing and revelations that exceed rational explanation or physical reductionism. The “hard problem” in this case is to express such revelations in a manner that all can grasp, question, or embrace, as they see fit. This is a short but often quite wonderful book that I sincerely recommend to open-minded, intelligent readers, so it may also challenge your assumptions and may lead to unexpected experiences in heretofore unrealized worlds. It may well help one understand oneself, but also provide a fine philosophic support system for those of the psychedelic community who have experienced what they've experienced but have been unable to find a mode of expression, explanation, or argumentation that is communicable to the rest of us back here on Earth.

References

  • Lowe, V. (1985, 1990). Alfred North Whitehead: The man and his work (2 vols., 1861–1910 & 1910–1947). The Johns Hopkins University Press.

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  • Nixon, G. (Sept, 2009). Skrbina's Mind that Abides: Panpsychism in the New Millennium (review article). Journal of Consciousness Studies, 16(9), 116121.

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  • Lowe, V. (1985, 1990). Alfred North Whitehead: The man and his work (2 vols., 1861–1910 & 1910–1947). The Johns Hopkins University Press.

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  • Nixon, G. (Sept, 2009). Skrbina's Mind that Abides: Panpsychism in the New Millennium (review article). Journal of Consciousness Studies, 16(9), 116121.

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Journal of Psychedelic Studies
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