Michael Posner’s article on ayahuasca (“Plants with Soul,”
July/August) was insightful and well researched. I would point out, though, that what may have proven beneficial to shamans or enlightened individuals can become a fad — and a dangerous one at that — in the hands of people seeking a shortcut to enlightenment. Consciousness can be altered without the hallucinations, nausea, vomiting, and other unpleasant side effects of psychotropic drugs. Other methods for dispelling the illusory nature of day-to-day reality are also available, and practitioners abound. Posner has convinced me that ayahuasca can accentuate consciousness, but nothing will convince me that this seed can germinate in a fallow field.
Michael Posner offers an interesting potted history of a US Supreme Court ruling, but overall he seems unaware of the extensive psychological and neurobiological research on psychotropic substances. This leads him to put forth indefensible mystical claims throughout his piece.
Posner’s main argument is a simplistic variant on the creationist case against evolution — specifically, the claim that the eye is too complex to have evolved through natural selection. He even rehashes the old saw about Darwinian theory being circular. But that is hardly a trump card; these rhetorical strategies have been challenged effectively by a number of authors, including the philosopher Daniel Dennett and the evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins.
For millennia, low-technology social groups in the Amazon have undoubtedly discovered combination drug therapies by trial and error. Pharmaceutical companies use the same method, although they apply sophisticated algorithms and test hierarchies. I am inclined to see claims that native peoples have mystical forms of ecological knowledge, as distinct from traditionally acquired, quasi-scientific knowledge gained by observation and experience, as a higher form of unexamined racism. Unsubstantiated claims about alternative forms of knowledge are essentially political and should be addressed with that awareness. Scientific claims can be political too, but it helps when they are adequately substantiated.
When Posner complains that science is utterly dismissive of mystical notions about common psychological experiences and imagery, he is creating a straw man: science is merely a method that aims to produce more reliable beliefs. It can be practiced by anyone, whether in Ottawa or Iquitos. There is no reason to leap to so exotic and untestable an idea as spiritual communication with plants to understand the results, but that is precisely what Posner is determined to do.
“How could nature not be conscious if our own consciousness is produced by nature??” asks Posner. This appears to be an elementary logical error, since parts of systems do not necessarily possess the same properties as the whole. Maybe consciousness is an emergent property that only becomes possible and discernible at the systemic level of the brain? No one would disagree that this remains an interesting unresolved scientific and philosophical issue. But Posner presents his exposition as though it were a viable alternative to sound critical thinking, when in fact it belongs firmly in the realm of religion. He even manages an obligatory swipe at George W. Bush, as though any political administration in Washington, DC — Republican or Democrat — would not have appealed a lower-court decision that it saw as a potential threat to drug laws.
By the way, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 is an interesting law, and one I wasn’t previously aware of. What use might Christian fundamentalists make of this law in the future? The more interesting issue may be that the Bush administration could find itself arguing against the provisions of a law that probably finds favour, under different circumstances, with its own political base.