Tripping Truth

What might be the connection among love, evil, free will, and psychedelic drugs?

Argument From Evil

You may be familiar with the “argument from evil;” the idea that there cannot be a God because God as He is conceived would be all-powerful and all-good, and therefore would not allow evil. But there is evil, therefore there is not an all-powerful and all-good God.

Among the answers to this argument is free will: that God made man with free will, and man chooses evil. God allows the evil because He does not wish to interfere with man’s free will. He does not interfere because He desires an unforced, voluntary love relationship with us. He therefore gives us freedom to choose to love Him, or not to. This is moral free choice, God given. To disallow evil would be to compromise man’s moral freedom.

Moral Freedom

The implications of man having moral freedom are profound. We assume the existence of this freedom in the most basic ways. For example, we ascribe to man agency: moral responsibility for one’s acts and omissions. Our whole criminal justice system is based on this understanding of moral agency. If a defendant is not responsible for what he does, what business do we have punishing him?

Remember the Timothy McVeigh bombing? If you’re young, perhaps not, but it was an earth-shattering moment for those of us alert to what was going on in the world in 1995. Deep hatred drove McVeigh to bomb a federal building in Oklahoma City, killing 168 people, including 19 children in a daycare. People die all the time, so why was this shocking?

Well suppose that instead of tragedy caused by McVeigh’s intentional act, the same number had died in the federal building because of a fire caused by a mouse chewing wires. It would still be considered a tragic event, but our response to it would be quite different. There would not be the shock and outrage at the mouse. McVeigh is thought to have moral agency; the mouse is not. McVeigh was free to choose this evil; the mouse is not.

This comparison was made to illustrate the significance of free will in our thinking by Tamler Sommers, in his preface to an interview with philosopher Galen Strawson, about whom more anon.

Argument From Love

I suggested that free will is “among” the answers to the argument from evil. Some deeper reflection would suggest more. If evil is a “problem” for the God proposition, why isn’t love a problem for the atheist proposition? In arguing against God from the fact of evil, one takes evil as a given fact, and finds it irreconcilable with the God proposition. Well love is a given fact, too. Is it reconcilable with the atheist proposition?

The atheist view of reality necessarily has biological evolution as the sole source of what we call good and evil.  What we call evil is not hard to reconcile with that point of view. Man’s survival is in many instances served by selfish behavior. But what about love? The usual explanation for altruistic or selfless behavior is evolved desire for social living: our survivability is enhanced by living socially, and living socially is facilitated by unselfish behavior. Perhaps so, but that means the behavior is not truly unselfish or altruistic. It just feels that way. We may act on an instinct of selflessness in a given situation because we are programmed to do so by our genes.

If our behavior is a function of genetic programming, it is not a matter of free will, and if it is not a choice, can it really be called love at all? The logical answer would have to be “no,” given the atheist starting point. And yet few atheist philosophers consider this, or if they do, they explain it away with ever more complex and circular arguments, obscuring the point in prolix complexity.

One who does not is Galen Strawson. He is unapologetically a determinist. That is, he accepts the logical implications of atheist materialism: everything we do is the result of all the movement of matter in the universe from the Big Bang to the present, and there is no moral choice on the part of human beings. There is no moral agency, in his imagining.

Cosmic Love

So now to psychedelic drugs. I’ve been intrigued with some of the scientific revelations about the effect of psychedelic drugs like LSD. A book I’d like to get around to reading is Michael Pollan’s How to Change Your Mind: the New Science of Psychedelics. Among the ideas coming out of studies since the development of these psychedelics is that they might, in limited circumstances, have some positive therapeutic value. Obviously this sort of thing would have to be pursued with the greatest of caution, but if some good can be come of it, we should pursue it. For the moment, however, I’m more interested in what the study of psychedelics might teach about the philosophy of mind.

So here is Galen Strawson writing in The [London] Times Literary Supplement (“Brimming With X“), about LSD and Pollan’s book. Pollan’s work reveals that the overriding feature of psychedelic users’ experience is the overwhelming sensation of love. As one LSD-using researcher reported:

“My awareness was flooded with love, beauty, and peace beyond anything I ever had known or imagined to be possible. ‘Awe,’ ‘glory,’ and ‘gratitude’ were the only words that remained relevant.”

This kind of experience is common, apparently. It is “a cosmic vision of the triumph of love.”  Strawson wonders whether this “capital-L love” might be “the primary and fundamental cosmic fact.”

Well, that’s starting to sound a lot like God. Strawson is as diametrically opposed to the possibility of God as any atheist author I’ve read, though, and he’s having none of it. The idea is far-fetched, in his view, because of the fact of evil in the world. In fact, in Strawson’s view, the idea of pervasive cosmic love is incompatible with a God with the standard OOO (omnipotence, omniscience, omnibenevolence) of Christianity. To hold that they are compatible is, to Strawson’s mind, “morally obscene.” He doesn’t mention what he thinks is the source of morality.

Psychedeleic Insight

Strawson acknowledges that love requires a lover and a loved, inasmuch as it is a two-place relation. But a feeling of cosmic love can’t be real, because cosmic love requires a cosmic Lover. So: the psychedelic experience must be an experience only, and not a kind of tapping into universal Benevolence.

This doesn’t square with the hyper-connectivity of the tripping brain, however, nor with the idea that psychedelic drugs function as a removal of a filter that the matured brain imposes on itself, allowing the shining forth of the numinous light of childhood by taking the filter of self-focus off-line.

One might conclude, as Pollan apparently does, that the kind of experience heightened in psychedelic episodes is the primary source of religious belief. But no, not for Strawson. Instead it’s fear, vulnerability and uncertainty. Well of course that’s what a garden-variety atheist would say. But Strawson goes a step further. It’s also “human beings’ extraordinarily powerful need to feel that there is something practical that they can do in frightening or tragic situations that are in fact beyond their control.”

Indeed. We control nothing, if this determinist, stygian vision is true. No choice, and therefore no evil, and therefore no good. The argument from evil does not get traction because if there is no God, then there is no “evil,” and no “good.”  The argument erodes to nothing, along with its foundation.

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