Professor Richard Dawkins is best-known as a vociferous critic of religion and a champion for the cause of science. So much so that he is often attacked for being dogmatic himself, in believing only his own preferred worldview should triumph. Some thought his latest book, The Magic of Reality – aimed at children, and explaining the scientific truth behind primitive mythologies – had gone beyond the pale in preaching literalism as the ‘one true way’.
More than a few times I’ve heard people say “what Richard Dawkins needs is a good hit of LSD”. Surprisingly, Richard Dawkins appears to agree with that view. Late last year, Dawkins visited the British city of Bath to promote his most recent book, doing a reading at the city’s library. In the question and answer session that followed, local resident Graham Hancock – best-selling author himself on topics including ‘alternative history’ and shamanism – asked if Dawkins would be prepared to take a hallucinogenic drug.
Hancock framed his query in terms of how ancient cultures believed in a spirit world through their use of psychoactive plants for shamanistic purposes, and whether Dawkins – as a scientist, and critic of religious and mystical views – would be interested in using such substances to give him direct experience of the worldview he so often attacks. “As a scientist,” Hancock asked, “have you ever seriously engaged such techniques to have first-hand experience of what they’re talking about, and perhaps even to challenge your own concept of what is real?” He suggested that Dawkins might want to try the (DMT-containing) shamanic brew from the Amazon, ayahuasca.
To his credit, despite some laughter from the audience as the question was asked, and the usual pressure for a stock answer from a respectable public figure, Dawkins unflinchingly replied that he actually *would* like to try a hallucinogen. “I would be very curious, I must say, to take, perhaps not that drug, but something like LSD or mescaline,” he responded. “I would be prepared to do that under proper medical supervision, if I were absolutely convinced that it would do me no lasting harm. And I would actually like to do it.”
Dawkins, however, left no room for doubt about how he would view the experience. “I think it very unlikely that, whatever happened to me, I would interpret it as indicating anything supernatural,” said Dawkins. “I would on the contrary interpret it as a manifestation of what a wonderful thing the brain is, and how the brain can see and can experience even more things, under the right kinds of chemical stimulation…”
Well I surely would like to see Professor Dawkins’ opinion on a high-dose DMT trip. Can we do a Kickstarter for this or something?
Full transcript follows.
Graham Hancock: Dr Dawkins, many traditional hunter-gatherer cultures believe there are other realities, spirit worlds, and so-on and so-forth, and concrete techniques, such as the use of psychoactive plants, to access them. For example, the visionary brew ayahuasca, used for thousands of years by indigenous culture throughout the Amazon basin. As a scientist, have you ever seriously engaged such techniques to have first-hand experience of what they’re talking about [*audience laughter*], and perhaps even to challenge your own concept of what is real? If not, would you consider doing so, and when would you be ready to begin [*audience laughter*]? If you would not consider doing so, then please explain why not.
Richard Dawkins: I would be curious, I must confess. I mean I’ve read some of the accounts of drug-induced trances and things. There’s a lovely one in Redmond O’Hanlon’s book about going up the Amazon [In Trouble Again], which you may have read…and he visits the Yanomami tribe, who are sometimes described as ‘the fierce people’. They have a drug which they take by shooting it up the nostril with a great long blow-pipe, and I think he tries that.
I would be very curious, I must say, to take, perhaps not that drug, but something like LSD or mescaline. As Aldous Huxley describes it in The Doors of Perception, he felt when taking mescaline that his eyes were opened, the doors of perception were cleansed, and he saw things that were, in some strange way, beyond reality. I would be prepared to do that under proper medical supervision, if I were absolutely convinced that it would do me no lasting harm. And I would actually like to do it.
I did once take part in an experiment in Canada, where a neurobiologist had developed a technique of passing magnetic fields through the brain, using a modified helmet – a motorcycle helmet – with magnetic coils. And in about 80% of subjects, this does induce some sort of trance-like state, some sort of feeling of one-ness with the Universe, in some cases in people who have a religious faith it tends to induce visions of whatever particular religion they’ve been brought up with…Virgin Marys if they’re Catholic, and so-on. I did this as an experiment – I was taken by the BBC as an experimental subject – unfortunately I turned out to be one of the 20% who are completely unaffected by this technique, much to my regret. I was not expecting to see any angels or Virgin Marys; I was expecting, and hoping, to have some sort of feeling of transcendent wonder. And it’s my loss that I didn’t.
The control in that experiment was a local vicar who they thought would be an interesting control. He also claimed that it had no effect. But his EEG record, which the scientist Dr Michael Persinger was monitoring, showed that actually he was a prime subject, one of the 80%. And Dr Persinger suspected that he wasn’t telling the truth, when he said that he didn’t have any trance-like state. Surprisingly – I wouldn’t have thought he would have wanted to…dissemble on that. I showed the classic EEG pattern of somebody who was not going to be a subject.
So I would like to undergo some-such experience. I think it very unlikely that, whatever happened to me, I would interpret it as indicating anything supernatural. I would on the contrary interpret it as a manifestation of what a wonderful thing the brain is, and how the brain can see and can experience even more things, under the right kinds of chemical stimulation – or other things can do it, like meditation, or starvation/fasting. [*audience applause*]