December 2, 2013
Michael Hoffman's entheogen theory

Expanding on the post below, a few more comments may be in order with reference to Michael Hoffman’s theories on psychedelic cognition. As he deepens his philosophical inquiries he carries the persistent idea of self-revealing artifice with him into new conceptual domains. What began as a perceptual observation grows into a mental reflex leaving its signature almost everywhere it goes. A few quotes to highlight this tendency:

“The ego-entity exists as a real set of patterns and dynamics spread across time, but the ego is not solid, continuous, or autonomously powerful in the way the mind originally imagines. The self exists as a mental construct in the form of a time-slice series...“  (This sounds very similar to buddhist cosmology, but there’s more in store): “…This mental construct exists both as the entire series and as individual time-slices, with the continuant agent’s motion and control-power mentally projected from within each time-slice. Seeing the illusory aspects of mental representation of oneself, and feeling static spacetime unity in the absence of the accustomed sense of personal solidity, can be experienced as death. This death-experience is the ending of personal existence, because the egoic-mode mind identifies one’s existence with the projected image and sensation of the moving continuant agent and its control-power."

In other words, if I understood Hoffman correctly, the cognitive self-exposing reflex is vast enough to embrace the totality of one’s person, which is (as always) found to be artificially made up in order to be ontologically presentable. The buddhist idea of discrete mental quanta as the only real basis for a thinking ego is combined with two Western notions, one which is that the perception of time (and space)  correlates with the continuous flow of the ego-mind, the other which is death as an existential result of lost power and lost freedom. As the basic time-slice (quanta) nature of consciousness is revealed by our own reflexive scrutiny, the foundation for existence dissolves, since the notion of a solid, continuous ego existing in time, turned out to be false. The end result is the psychedelic ego-death, a familiar event given an interesting context by Hoffman’s theory.

I am not sure what he means  by “This mental construct exists both as the entire series and as individual time-slices, with the continuant agent’s motion and control-power mentally projected from within each time-slice”, but it seems to address a problem similar to that in Buddhist metaphysics, concerning the initial creation of ego-awareness when there’s nothing that exists except the energy quanta. The buddhists have, to my knowledge, not truly solved this rather central philosophical dilemma, settling for the invocation of transitional solutions such as ‘store consciousness’ in order to avoid getting stuck. Although these questions of individual existence and awareness appear very vital to the Western mind, the Buddhists (and possibly Hindus too) do not linger upon them with any particular fervor; except for the Abidhamma it is difficult to find existential topics covered at all. It is therefore not surprising that Michael Hoffman’s detailed exposition of mental time-slices is his own invention, even if the basic idea of the quanta came from the East.

When Hoffman states that “This mental construct exists both as the entire series and as individual time-slices”, we are dealing with a psychedelic philosophy that should be treated on its own terms, because there are no such ideas expressed in Buddhism. There is a certain affinity to the 'monads' of Leibniz, including Leibniz' use of the concept of 'necessity' but again the impression is of inspiration rather than true influence. Hoffman's model would have been well served by a lengthier description, but appears to mean that each time-slice aquires a self-awareness that clarifies its subordinate role in the total cosmology. These atomic time-slices contribute in the way that “the continuant agent’s motion and control-power [is] mentally projected from within each time-slice”. I e: from the aggregated attributes of all time-slices there arises the notion of a solid and continuous ego, which unfortunately does not know that it is artificial and phony until its physical vessel takes a psychedelic trip. Under psychedelics, the constructed, artificial nature of the coherent ego is revealed and the illusion is scaled back to reveal the underlying sequence of discrete timeslices instead.

Assuming that I understood this right, I think it’s an interesting model that goes some way to maintain its internal consistency. There is a formal elegance in how the same reflexive meta-analysis is applied first on the epistemological level of Plato and Kant, and then on the ontological level of Buddhist-inspired existentialism. There is however an aspect to the model which I cannot follow in full, and which concerns the event when the presumed ego realizes its nature as a timeslice only. The realization comes as an effect of freeing the consciousness through psychedelic drugs, where among other things the reflexive self-scrutiny and insight follows. This sounds like a perfectly possible thing to occur during an acid trip, but again its hard to see it as a generalized model experience. Does it happen every time, to everyone? One might also object that an understanding of the ego’s illusory nature can come about in several ways, including the meditative paths the Buddhists prescribe, and not only as the distinct process that Hoffman describes. Once more, it is useful to look at actual psychedelic experiences for a helpful ‘acid test’.

Mapped against a real-world experience of ego-loss (my preferred term for ego-death), there is an interesting parallel between Hoffman’s suggested revelation of the true, discontinuous self, and an often reported trip vision in which the subject visualizes him or herself pass through a variety of “roles” or “personalities” that make up the totality of the ego. This sequence, which again is familiar from Eastern thought (Hesse describes it in Siddharta), has received a memorable presentation by Richard Alpert in a passage concerning his earliest psychedelic experience (see Be Here Now, or Jay Stevens’ Storming Heaven). As the various personas that made up the totality of Alpert one by one fell away, he was left with what he considered the essence of his being, the fundamental ‘Alpertness’, and as this too began to fall away, he began to panick. But rather than dying or passing out, a voice in his head asked him ‘Who’s minding the store?’, proving that the mindstream continued even when all the fundamental elements of the ego had been removed. For Alpert this experience was an obvious step towards Eastern spirituality which he would take on in full a few years later.

What Alpert/Ram Dass found was in a sense the opposite of what Hoffman describes—beyond all the layers and ornaments that made up the totality of his personality there existed something that was larger than them all, and which maintained an individual existence; a thought which incidentally is decidedly non-Buddhist. Michael Hoffman on the other hand seems to say that once the psychedelically iluminated mind has realized its inferior position as one of many timeslices in a sequence which maintains the false illusion of a continuous and solid ego, the idea of the existing ego and its presence in spacetime collapses (ego-loss/ego-death), leaving no higher order residuals behind. What exactly is left behind after the false-ego revelation in Hoffman’s model? The notion of one-self as an atomic timeslice, powerless in its predetermined course through time and space? Or does the collapse of the maintained ego illusion put one in a nirvanic void? None of these variants seem to match observed effects of psychedelic ego-loss very well.

In the introduction to his main essay Hoffman has added that after the revelation, “Experiencing this model of control and time initially destabilizes self-control power, and amounts to the death of the self that was conceived of as an autonomous control-agent. Self-control stability is restored upon transforming one's mental model to take into account the dependence of personal control on a hidden, separate thought-source, such as Necessity or a divine level that transcends Necessity.” However, the possible transformation of the subordinate time-slice state into an allegiance to some form of intellectual supra-state (much like the voice Alpert heard) is never elaborated upon in the actual essay, leaving the issue unresolved on any finer level.

The classic description of psychedelic ego-loss is a period of bliss in a space completely free from attributes and dualism, from which one is ultimately returned back to the 3-dimensional ego realm, usually in an exhilarating mood. If the effect of this elusive event infallably or frequently would be what Hoffman describes, the state should come with warning signs attached, as it looks rather much like a nihilist-determinist inversion of the joyous breakthrough that Alpert and others have reported. I feel confident that Michael Hoffman and others familiar with his theories can clarify the “what happens next?” issue that I’m raising so there is a better understanding. For now, my view is the same as I stated above regarding the purely epistemological aspect of Hoffman’s model: the model seems to me a fully credible description of a cognitive process that can occur during a psychedelic session, but I do not consider it to be the standard or most common development of the trip.

Read more here:

*Note that I have not addressed the extensive use Hoffman makes of Christian history and Graeco-Roman mythology in his writings, mainly because they do not seem germane to his arguments and may even distract more than inform.
**Hoffman refers to Salvia Divinorum as his entheogenic guide, which may account for some discrepancies visavi the classic psychedelic experiences, as Salvia belongs to a phytochemical and experiential class of hallucinogens all of its own

Posted by Patrick at Lysergia at 20:55 CET
Updated: December 14, 2013 23:29 CET

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