The Psychedelic Transhumanists: A Virtual Round Table Between Legends Living & Dead

Michael Garfield
17 min readDec 11, 2023

The Psychedelic Transhumanists. Leary — c/o Philip H Bailey; McKenna — c/o Erowid; Pesce — c/o Mark Pesce; Erik Davis — c/o Andy Miah.
Background photo by Paul Downey.

Originally published in HPlusMagazine on September 29, 2009, this piece was featured on the cover of one of the magazine’s last print news-stand issues alongside Erik Davis’ writing on the TV series Dollhouse.

Commissioned by Editor-in-Chief R.U. Sirius to write a piece on the entanglement of psychedelic philosophy and transhumanist thinking, it felt appropriate to make something in which the medium was the message: an artificial conversation staged between minds both living and dead, cut up and reassembled from previously-unavailable transcripts.

Looking back on this from December 2023, it seems to prophesy this year’s efflorescence of media featuring dead celebrities “resurrected” by A.I. … We are now inescapably in conversation with the past about how the affordances of our digital environment allow us to cheat death — and about how the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Enjoy! For more, find my podcast and more writing on Substack.

Transhumanism in a fortune cookie: the familiar human world is just one point along a continuum of evolution, and we have an unprecedented capacity to participate in that process. And yet, the future being as slippery as it is, there are as many visions for how this might occur as there are visionaries to guess at it. Computer scientists tend to have one transhumanism; genetic engineers, another. However, coherent themes emerge for those who have taken it upon themselves to make a sweeping survey of human inquiry, integrating a keen reading of the vectors of our technology with postmodern insight into the nature of mind.

Some of these thinkers have been catalyzed by the psychedelic experience — in a way, the most informative window into a world beyond the human that we have yet discovered. They understand the message of psychedelics and the message of technology to converge on the horizon of a deeper reading of reality that recognizes mind and matter as dimensions of the same truth — a truth for which language has ill-prepared us.

Among the ranks of these “psychedelic transhumanists” are legendary rebels like Timothy Leary, wise fools like Terence McKenna, cultural commentators like Erik Davis and Mark Pesce and avantpsychopharmacologists like David Pearce. Hailing from disparate knowledge domains, they all share a hyperliterate intelligence that is, in its own way, rigorous. Their arguments are not necessarily subject to the conventional scientific method, but they are not so easily refuted.

Their common vision shares much with the rest of the transhuman community, including an embrace of technology and science as both potent and inevitable; an evolutionary model of the universe and humanity; a sense of the human organism as something that can be tinkered with and expanded; a recognition of drugs as a technology that can dramatically reinvent identity, and a playful challenging of fixed boundaries. In many ways they demonstrate the seed of transhumanism in this moment by exemplifying self-revision and the reevaluation of assumptions as an open ended and ongoing process. And along the way, they tatter the mechanistic control fantasies we have held onto in spite of our most sophisticated inquiries.

Among these visionaries, we find a general agreement on the emergence of machine intelligence, but from a less dualistic perspective than most in the transhuman sphere — leaning towards a deeper and more balanced recognition of both inner and outer realities. They tend to critique philosophies that consider mind a mere epiphenomenon, or that fail to recognize the role of the speculator in speculation.

They see technology as ideas, and ideas as technology. They question our fanatical efforts at control via the runaway complexity of progress, and remind us of the stubborn persistence of the unconscious, the body and the other. They remind us to see the evolution of humanity and beyond as much in terms of qualia as quanta, and paint the future as more sensitive to psychological, spiritual, ethical, and biological concerns than those on the hardboiled tech edge.

The distinctions between this vision and the more common idea of a technological singularity are easily distilled. In their own words, presented as a “virtual conversation” of transcripts and correspondences, here are the core messages of a transhumanist vision informed by the psychedelic experience.

> Medium is message, and information is psychoactive.

Information is a more fundamental substrate of reality, an implicate order. “Pattern” replaces “matter.”

Timothy Leary: I’m a great follower of a man named Marshall McLuhan who wrote those wonderful books about communication. He said that if you want to change a culture, if you want to change yourself, if you want to change religion, change the medium, the mode of communication. He said that Gutenberg created Protestantism where he had the mass-assembled book, where everybody can read. And now the new form of communication is electronic…

Terence McKenna: The realization that has flowered in the wake of the internet and the rise of cybernetics is that everything is made of information. Information is the primary datum of being. Concepts like time and space and energy are orders of magnitude removed from the present at hand when compared with a concept like information. Every iota, every bit of information that passes through us, changes us.

Mark Pesce: If you took a picture of this room in 1990 and you took a picture of it today, everything would look exactly the same and yet everything is completely different. Because in 1990 we didn’t have this layer of bits that’s flowing seamlessly among all of us. And it’s changed us. It’s radically sped up the way we deal with information in society. And every bit of information that passes through you changes you. You cannot be unaffected in any way by any bit of information. So the internet is acting as this enormous accelerator…

Erik Davis: Information came to be seen as an abstract, almost transcendental stuff that could “circulate unchanged among different material substrates.” Once we begin to believe that information is more essential than material forms, we vacate the old cosmos defined by presence and absence, entering a world characterized by the binary feedback of pattern and randomness, signal and noise.

> This accelerating knowledge leads to widespread acceptance of all reality as virtual… and that it has always been this way.

The transhuman age is simply making this inescapably obvious. Aldous Huxley’s descriptive “far antipodes of the mind” (He used the phrase in a discussion of his mescaline experiences) and their real ecologies is the intellectual progenitor of The Matrix, and of a pragmatic relationship to the questions of ontology.

McKenna: The minute I understood the concept [of virtual reality] I knew… that this would be the next great thing. As a tool of art. As a tool for leading us beyond the notion that we are a hive society of advanced primates, because that’s how we visually appear to the empirical point of view. That’s an out-of-context description of what we are. It’s like a schematic or an aerial map. What we really are is a community of mind, knitted together by codes and symbols, intuitions, aspirations, histories, hopes — the invisible world of the human experience is far more real to us than the visible world, which is little more than a kind of stage or screen on which we move. The purpose of VR is to show us aspects of reality that are not artificial, but that are fields of data not ordinarily coordinated by ordinary perception.

I see virtual reality not as a way of escaping the notion of empirical reality, but as a way of re-portraying invisible levels of the given world that are very vital and important to us: how we see flows of energy, how we understand complex economies, how we understand the fractal hierarchies of nature…

What is already co-present with three-dimensional reality is being literalized… but being literalized in timescales that make the nature of the game apparent to all but the dullest among us. I mean after all, we have always lived in virtual realities, ever since we abandoned nomadism and defined a polis and a wilderness.

Davis: Media have long sought to create immersive spaces of fictional reality: Baroque cathedrals, 19th century panoramas, even, perhaps, the Paleolithic caves of Lascaux or Altamira. Today, the accelerating perceptual technologies of media are on a collision course with cognitive science and its understanding of how the human nervous system produces the real-time matrix we take for ordinary space-time.

Pesce: My first experience of virtual reality happened in 1990 and required absolutely no technology except about 500 micrograms of LSD-25. And what I found in this virtual world, the thing that I must have suspected I would find in this virtual world, wasn’t an artificial Tron-like environment. It wasn’t something that was entirely artificial. What I beheld in that environment was an image of the planet, as if I was cruising above it in a spaceship. And I knew that part of my own destiny as connected with virtual reality wasn’t to escape into another dimension, but to find a way to make real to us the things that we can’t always see, because we exist at a level of scale, of experience, that hides them from us.

Where we’re going, the simulated and the real are going to get really blurry. And we don’t have any tools of mind. Western culture, which is based on this objective external reality — it’s not hard, it’s all become very soft, and it’s all flowing together. So we need to now start to find ways of describing what’s going on. And so what we need to do — I found in my own investigations — is to take a look at cultures that describe the world magically, that understand that perception shapes what you are, and you shape what you see. And that they’re not separate areas, they’re not separate domains, and you have to consider them as a whole.

My own explorations had led me to understand that in fact, in a world where anything you want is true, the only way to deal with this is by learning how to deal with your will. Dealing with will is what magic has, in all cultures, always been about. This is why the shaman doesn’t go insane when the world just disappears — they’re ready for it. Because they understand that where they are isn’t bound up in their idea of the world.

> Prioritizing information over matter makes the issue of machine sapience irrelevant.

Consciousness of the other is an intractable mystery even between two people. It’s a mystery we can sidestep, if we grant awareness by degree.

Davis: I think that we’re going to find ourselves relating interpersonally with machines, whether or not they’re actually alive or conscious in a way that scientists can debate about, we’re going to be interacting with things that have those qualities.

That’s going to change the way we’re going to experience life and other people. I think we’ll come to meet future artificial intelligences in the personae of animated characters, on a pop culture level. There’s an element of animism in technology now that’s going to increase — in scientists exploring artificial life, kids interacting with intelligent dolls, in the relationship between ecology, technology and the environment — it all comes down to a growing element of animism, throwing us back to being Palaeolithic man living in a world of animated nature.

Pesce: Each one of us grew up in a world where people and pets were invested with a certain internal reality that bricks and blocks obviously did not possess. This is not true for our children.

With Furby we have crossed a line in the sand, and there’s no going back: the current generation of children, comfortable with the in-betweenness of Furby, have a growing expectation that the entire material world will become increasingly responsive to them as they learn to master it.

> The emergence of “artificial” intelligence is a process of symbiosis, transcendence via inclusion, and the posthuman integrates the human, rather than dissociating from it.

Evolution proceeds by including prior forms in novel structures of higher complexity… likewise, the biological will likely be taken up into the embrace of intelligent machines. There is no precedent in evolutionary history for the “leaving behind” of evolutionary precursors. Bacteria and barter still exist, both independently and as elements of more complex organisms and economies.

Pesce: These are prosthetics, these machines, or perhaps, looking the other way around, we are theirs, but neither can really exist without the other. So this “rise of artificial intelligence” is a misapprehension. The rise of intelligence, however — that seems historically inevitable.

Intelligence cannot be made. Intelligence can only be grown. And that means that in essence the machines are no different than ourselves. These are not our masters we’re talking about. These are our children. And how can we not help but love our children? How could they not help but love us?

We can draw a line between ourselves and our machines no more easily than I can draw a line between myself and my eyeglasses.

> Blind faith in technological progress as salvation is called into question, especially as regards the illusion of, and desire for, absolute control.

Psychedelic transhumanism acknowledges the stubborn reality of the body. Our visions of the future are themselves products of our extended phenotype and evolutionary psychology and thus do not merit wholesale acceptance. Absolute control is an illusion, the consequence of ignorance about the nature of the emergent processes by which life and mind come into being.

McKenna: Our technologies… are obviously lethal I would say, but they are fortunately a kind of chrysalis of ideological constraint that technology is in the process of dissolving. William Butler saw this in the 19th Century, Teilhard de Chardin reached it in the forties and the fifties McLuhan expressly articulated this vision in the fifties and the sixties.

Everything is about to get very much more complicated, much larger, the number of choices are about to exponentially explode. In a sense, these technologies point us toward, if not literal godhood, then a kind of fictional godhood. We are all going to become the masters of the narrative in which we are embedded. Our separate stories are going to take on dimensions so multifarious that for all practical purposes we will each move into a cosmos of our own creation and control.

Attention becomes the limiting factor in an ecology of mind. And with finite attention and infinite possibility, the vast majority of whatever world in which we find ourselves will remain beyond our dominion.

New technology not only liberates new realms of expression, exploration, identity, and ethical depth but pushes the world ever-farther from our ability to control it. This is a simple property of complex systems, as much a fact of existence as anything else.

David Pearce: I think discontinuities in our normal state of consciousness lie ahead that exceed the gulf today between waking and dreaming consciousness. That which can’t even be discussed today because we lack the necessary “primitive terms” may well be the most important. What can the congenitally blind person say about the nature of visual experience? For the congenitally blind, more illuminating than intelligence-amplification is the gift of sight.

I think it’s fair to say the transhumanist community is mostly interested in intelligence-amplification — superintelligence rather than supersentience. I share an interest in cognitive enhancement, but in my opinion there is an important sense in which a congenitally blind person with an IQ of 220, or 920, is just as ignorant as a congenitally blind person with an IQ of 120. I worry more about our ignorance in the latter sense than I do about our limited reasoning powers. Psychedelic drugs can briefly give us a tiny insight into how “blind” we normally are; but we soon lapse into ignorance again. Such is the state-dependence of memory. If I’d never tried psychedelics, then I fear I would be scornful of their significance because of the incoherence of most users’ descriptions of their effects. But using the blindness analogy again, someone congenitally blind who is surgically guaranteed the gift of sight can take years before they can make sense of the visual world… at first they are overwhelmed and confused by visual stimuli.

We are linguistically unprepared to address the incredible diversity of perspectives that seem poised to bloom from increasing disparities in bodymind configurations and deepening strata of developmental levels within each of those continua. Claiming to know how these trends will ultimately manifest themselves in the world is what Leary called “caterpillar fantasies about what post-larval life will be like.”

Given an imperfect knowledge of the future, we have to be careful that transhumanism does not lapse into merely commodifying the unknowable, playing to people’s drive for immortality and pleasure as a meme in competition with the satisfaction of more immediate concerns. If transhumanism is understood as faith in our transcendental potential, then wisdom is a technology and real transhumanism starts now.

Davis: How do we live with creative intelligence and awakened senses in a groundless world beyond our control? Behind the veneer of objective medicine, psychopharmacology is simply offering its own resolutely philosophical answer to the eternal problem of human suffering: Use technology to control its symptoms. The posthuman self is a self on drugs — SSRIs, hormones, brain boosters, neurotransmitters. We have entered an era that sanctions the psychoactive use of commercial chemicals, not just to cure disease or even to relieve suffering, but to reformat who we feel we are.

It’s likely that people will become ever more comfortable with the notion that unpleasant (and unproductive) psychological states are simply bad code in the Darwinian bio-computer. And once you’re comfortably ensconced inside that materialist cosmology, where meaning is secondary to mechanics, there is no particularly compelling reason (other than medical fallout) not to debug the mind with consumer molecules. The paradox is that these mechanistic molecules can produce deeper, more authentic selves. People on SSRIs often describe themselves as finally feeling like normal people, like the person they were meant to be. This paradox… lies at the heart of the posthuman condition.

If one thing makes itself apparent from the psychedelic experience, it’s that the more you know the more you don’t know, and admitting this is a form of death. The acceleration of intelligence and extension of the individual lifespan means that life itself will increasingly come to resemble a constant re-imagining of self — not the indefinite perpetuation that many of us desire, but an ongoing process of death and rebirth. And by its very nature, death is across the event horizon, an impenetrable unknown.

Davis: If I choose to automatically curb a basic dimension of my interior life with a targeted chemical, haven’t I implicitly adopted a highly constricted model of what constitutes “the self”? Rather than embrace these new feelings of relief as the “real me,” someone who modifies their everyday personality with pharmaceutical products must identify with the “I” that chooses to instrumentally control its states of mind.

Most advertising is aimed at the Controller, that portion of self that wants to expand its ability to manipulate the world in order to achieve its goals. Psychiatric drugs, though, add a crucial twist. When [pharmaceutical companies claim that their drugs] can “help you handle it,” the “it” in question is, in the end, nothing other than a now alienated portion of you.

That’s OK if the goal of your life is simply to feel as good as possible for as long as possible. But happiness and freedom may ultimately depend less on maintaining particular states of mind than on cultivating the appropriate attitude toward whatever states of mind arise out of the elegant chaos of life. And it seems to me that control is not the attitude to hold in the long run.

> Seeing the unconscious as persistent and progress as a dialectic leads to the ethical imperative of what can be generally understood as “heart”… a consequent sense of responsibility and a call for coherent and mature visioning of a future upon which we can collectively agree.

Ultimately, a transcendental future does not simply fall on us but is something we collaboratively construct in every moment.

Leary: A renaissance preaches a basic religion of humanism. The aim of individual life is to know yourself and treat each other as human beings…

Davis: Work like that at Princeton University, measuring fields of human consciousness — for example when lots of people focus their attention on sporting events — suggests that it might actually matter what we think about. Then you look at… how technology allows certain kinds of imagination such extraordinary power. I think we’ve lost the tools to navigate these worlds the old-fashioned way, we’re almost rending the physical body, spending more and more time in that kind of etheric space, with no idea what we’re doing, and the fact that this is going to have real world consequences is kind of obvious.

Of course the whole world has always been interconnected, and everyone depends on the world around them, but we tend to feel that we’re outside of that, that we’re individual subjects, that we have control over nature. So it’s almost like a return of the repressed — we want that back again, we need it back if we’re going to deal with sociological and ecological problems.

Pesce: Even as we talk about this gnostic release, this uploading of the soul into some sort of silicon… there’s this body that’s behind, sort of bitching, saying “I am real. And I am the potential, I am the ground in which you work.”

The question of the body is one of the largest questions in virtual reality. Where is the body in cyberspace? Where are you when your email is flashing across the net, when your agents are doing your bidding? Where are you, and how do you maintain your self?

Psychedelics can produce these boundary dissolutions where you flow into another thing. What we’re going to see, and it’s actually quite true, is that certain types of VR can produce the precisely same affect. There are zones where virtual reality can be very dangerous for that reason, or incredibly powerful and meaningful for that reason. So… I really want to work from the heart.

I personally think in my own philosophy that to work in technology, you have to work from the heart center. Because otherwise you’ll create golems, you’ll create Frankensteins, your creations will run away from you. That’s the essence of the story of the golem — that this is a creature that was created with the breath of life but without the light of knowledge or the heart. The heart of God.

I also want to explore the joyous nature of what we can do. One of my biggest gripes about the internet is that it can’t, as yet, contain the tenor of human emotion which is so important. If we’re building this edifice to be the global mind and it can’t laugh, we’ve got a big problem. If it can’t sing, we’ve got a big problem.

McKenna: And what we’re talking about here is using technological prosthesis to extend and enrich humanness, to enrich communication, and it is, believe me, the want of good communication.

If anything undoes us, this will be it: that our languages fail, that we misread each other’s intent, that we could not understand each other.

So I’m seeing here almost a theosophical epiphany of language trying to bootstrap itself toward realms of platonic perfection, which as organic beings we experience as Love. Love, Beauty, Truth — these are the vectors of human becoming. They always have been, they always will be, and the technologies that open these paths for us are no more and no less powerful than the human beings that wield them. So this is an enterprise of integrity and millennial implication, and what lies as the goal is true humanness, in sympathetic symbiosis with the planet, and with these strange children that we have brought into the world, our machines. That is the challenge at the end of history.

As we approach the event horizon, the only mature response is a humble participation in its unfolding mystery… which involves a deep scrutiny of our assumptions that the future will be the modified present, that the posthuman will be merely “humanity plus.”

We think we make the future. But it is equally true that the future makes us, to the degree that our thoughts of the future constitute our minds in this moment, and these minds constrain our experience both present and forthcoming. The fantastic power of language and information upon which the psychedelic transhumanists agree enthrones humble and compassionate intent as a crucial touchstone in our construction of a posthuman ecology of minds. The prevailing theme is that while we may not understand what we are, or are becoming, one thing is clear: We’re all on this trip together.

Paleontologist-Futurist Michael Garfield is the host of Future Fossils Podcast and the author of How to Live in The Future. An alumnus of both The Santa Fe Institute and The Long Now Foundation, he enacts an embodied philosophical praxis through art, music, and parenting.

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Michael Garfield

Here to help you navigate the accelerating weirdness! Biologist turned philosopher, host of #FutureFossils & #ComplexityPodcast, ex @sfiscience ex @longnow.