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Noam Chomsky on Drugs

a review of 'What Kind of Creatures Are We?'

by Ballard Quass, the Drug War Philosopher




September 24, 2023

oam Chomsky has little to say about drugs in "What Kind of Creatures Are We?" In fact, the word "drugs" only appears once in the entire book. It's a reference to the Drug War, to be precise, which he describes as the latest attempt on the part of bigots to criminalize Black life. This statement is all too true, of course, and it clearly demonstrates that Chomsky is on the right side of the topic, politically speaking at least, in his 2015 title published by Columbia University. So far, so good. But when it comes to philosophy, Chomsky ignores drugs entirely. This is a problem, because one of the book's apparent purposes is to give us Chomsky's authoritative end-of-career view on the nature of human consciousness, and yet in doing so he is clearly ignoring everything that the actual use of psychoactive substances might have to tell us on that subject.


This is an especially glaring omission in an author who is wont to decry Eurocentrism, for tribal peoples have a long history of exploring and expanding consciousness, a phenomenon that they would be loath to limit to human beings alone. As ethnobotanist Richard Evans Schultes tells us, "Hallucinogens permeate nearly every aspect of life in primitive societies." And so when Chomsky ignores the long history of the strategically and religiously altered consciousness of tribal peoples, it cannot help but suggest that the nonagenarian firebrand shares Schultes' own dim view of such tribal usage and wishes to dissociate himself entirely from their supposedly superstitious practices in the eyes of his stuffed-shirt contemporaries in the ivory tower. Nor am I alone as a westerner in suggesting that such drug usage may be relevant to the discussion of human consciousness. William James himself insisted that we must study altered states if we were interested in learning about ultimate reality.


"No account of the universe in its totality can be final which leaves these other forms of consciousness quite disregarded. How to regard them is the question--for they are so discontinuous with ordinary consciousness."
-- The Varieties of Religious Experience



Still, Chomsky has a lot of "drug-free things" to say on the subject of consciousness, with many a learned and well-documented allusion to Priestley, Descartes, Newton, Hume, Russell, etc... "Is consciousness ultimately physical, is it limited to human beings, is it really a 'hard problem' or is the topic misconstrued or based on an incorrect definition of language and/or communication?" etc. etc.


My first reaction to such a thoroughly annotated philosophical "throwdown" was, quite frankly, "I'm not worthy!" If only I could live so long as to be able to advisedly reference such a potpourri of philosophical luminaries in my work. But then my second reaction was, again quite frankly, "Words, words, words!" For I then asked myself the following heretical question: Would not Chomsky's logo-centric chatter look like insipient insanity in the eyes of a suppositious tribal people who regularly used psychoactive substances to communicate with plants and wildlife and, indeed, with the great spirit itself? "Why is this man talking about consciousness," such a native might ask, "without doing the proper research, namely, by actually using consciousness-expanding medicine?! Surely he would agree with our people that nature put the stuff here for a reason!"


Such native incredulity about the white man's obsession with words puts me in mind of the following telling observation by Quanah Parker of the Native American Church:


"The White Man goes into church and talks about Jesus. The Indian goes into his tipi and talks with Jesus."


Chomsky's failure to discuss the altered states produced by "drugs" is particularly surprising since he tells us twice in this book (on both page 13 and 48 of the Scribd edition) that human language (that "great leap forward" in our geologically recent past) must have come about by a "slight rewiring of the brain," given that "there has been no detectable evolution since our ancestors left Africa, perhaps 50,000 to 80,000 years ago." Well now, where have I heard THAT phrase before: "rewiring of the brain"? To anyone who's been following the literature for the last 20 years, that phrase "rewiring of the brain" instantly brings to mind the effects of psychedelic drugs, both as described by the miraculously therapeutic accounts of freelance psychonauts (such as Paul Stamets, whose mushroom use as a teen "taught" him how to stop stuttering) and by a growing list of academic researchers (including William Richards, Roland Griffiths, Stanislav Grof, Charles Grob, Rick Strassman, Alice Feilding, David Nichols, DJ Nutt, and Michael and Annie Mithoefe). Rewiring human brains is what psychedelics seem to be all about. One can only conclude that Chomsky has lived and breathed so much naturalist dogma during his academic lifetime that he is not even aware of his want of due diligence on this topic, let alone the disturbing Eurocentric overtones of that omission.


This is why I believe that, in a sane world, no one should be allowed to pronounce authoritatively about the ultimate nature of consciousness without having first passed a drug test: not one of those "gotcha" drug tests in which the beer--swilling boss cravenly searches your wee for substances of which racist politicians disapprove, but a drug test in which one's urine is searched for godsend entheogens instead. The failure to find any such consciousness-expanding wonder drugs will disqualify you from holding forth about the nature of human consciousness.


Author's Follow-up: September 24, 2023

Here's one example of what drug use might tell us about consciousness. About four years ago, I experienced a peyote "trip" in Arizona, in which I clearly saw (in my mind's eye, Horatio) a bright-neon-green slide show of Mesoamerican imagery. Mesoamerican imagery. Now, I grew up in Virginia and have had no particular experiences with such cultures, though I am fascinated by the pre-Columbian world. Imagine: such imagery, provided by a cactus in "Indian country"??? This incident clearly gives us hints about the possible existence of an overarching consciousness containing archetypes... Combine this with the increasingly known fact that plants can communicate in ways that, until a few years ago, we never dreamed of (see the 2023 documentary "The Secret Life of Plants" on Curiosity Stream) and the conceptual suggestions are tantalizing!

And yet the modern talk about the nature of consciousness seems to be limited to drug-free armchair philosophers and materialist neurosurgeons.




Next essay: Three Problems With Rick Doblin's MAPS
Previous essay: The Drug War Imperialism of Richard Evans Schultes

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Some Tweets against the hateful war on drugs

If I want to use the kind of drugs that have inspired entire religions, fight depression, or follow up on the research of William James into altered states, I should not have to live in fear of the DEA crashing down my door and shouting: "GO! GO! GO!"
I think many scientists are so used to ignoring "drugs" that they don't even realize they're doing it. Yet almost all books about consciousness and depression (etc.) are nonsense these days because they ignore what drugs could tell us about those topics.
Chesterton might as well have been speaking about the word 'addiction' when he wrote the following: "It is useless to have exact figures if they are exact figures about an inexact phrase."
I can think of no greater intrusion than to deny a person autonomy over how they think and feel in life. It is sort of a meta-intrusion, the mother of all anti-democratic intrusions.
After over a hundred years of prohibition, America has developed a kind of faux science in which despised substances are completely ignored. This is why Sci Am is making a new argument for shock therapy in 2023, because they ignore all the stuff that OBVIOUSLY cheers one up.
The government causes problems for those who are habituated to certain drugs. Then they claim that these problems are symptoms of an illness. Then folks like Gabriel Mate come forth to find the "hidden pain" in "addicts." It's one big morality play created by drug laws.
In a sane world, we'd package laughing gas for safe use and give it to the suicidal -- saying, "Use before attempting to kill yourself." But drug warriors would rather have suicide than drug use.
Here's one problem that supporters of the psychiatric pill mill never address: the fact that Big Pharma antidepressants demoralize users by turning them into patients for life.
"Dope Sick"? "Prohibition Sick" is more like it. For me the very term "dope" connotes imperialism, racism and xenophobia, given that all tribal cultures have used "drugs" for various purposes. "Dope? Junk?" It's hard to imagine a more intolerant, dismissive and judgmental terminology.
Both physical and psychological addiction can be successfully fought when we relegalize the pharmacopoeia and start to fight drugs with drugs. But prohibitionists do not want to end addiction, they want to scare us with it.
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You have been reading an article entitled, Noam Chomsky on Drugs: a review of 'What Kind of Creatures Are We?', published on September 24, 2023 on AbolishTheDEA.com. For more information about America's disgraceful drug war, which is anti-patient, anti-minority, anti-scientific, anti-mother nature, imperialistic, the establishment of the Christian Science religion, a violation of the natural law upon which America was founded, and a childish and counterproductive way of looking at the world, one which causes all of the problems that it purports to solve, and then some, visit the drug war philosopher, at abolishTheDEA.com. (philosopher's bio; go to top of this page)