Interpreting Altered States of Mind through Bergson & Schopenhauer

(Lecture notes from  the 2013 Breaking Convention conference held at the University of Greenwich, London)

Update: These lecture notes have been transformed into an essay for the book Neurotransmissions, including a large addition to the final section.

Interpreting Altered States of Mind through Bergson & Schopenhauer

– ©Peter Sjöstedt-H MMXIII –

peter sjöstedt-h bergson schopenhauer psychedelics psilocybin psilocin lsd dmt salvia breaking convention 2013


The main points I wish to convey in this short lecture [25 mins]:

  1. That all existence is movement: ‘Process Philosophy’
  2. That language is extremely useful because it is extremely misleading.
  3. That the understanding has evolved for practicality (power) rather than for knowledge
  4. That brain does not produce the mind, despite neural correlates of consciousness.
  5. That the observer is the observed; (that subject and object are partially one.)
  6. That mind is ubiquitous: ‘Panpsychism’
  7. That fundamental reality is pure Creativity (real time/pure consciousness) which drives evolution and art – and that this can be intuited through psychedelic intake.


–       Henri Bergson was a French philosopher, nobel laureate and much celebrated thinker of his time (1859 – 1941).

  • Aldous Huxley used part of Bergson’s philosophy to explain his mescaline experiences in his ‘The Doors of Perception’. I shall seek to elaborate more of his thinking for the same purpose.

–       Arthur Schopenhauer was a German philosopher, who bridged Kant and Nietzsche. He was somewhat neglected due to the prevalence of his contemporary, Hegel. He lived from 1788 to 1860, dying a year after Bergson was born and Darwin’s Origin of Species published.

–       Although they differ on some fundamental points (e.g. atheism/theism), they also concur on many others, many of which will be fruitful to our talk. I shall fuse their thinking, with a few additions from Hume and Nietzsche.


1. Process Philosophy


–       Process Philosophy is a term addressed retrospectively to Bergson, and notably to A.N. Whitehead who explicitly borrowed his ideas from Bergson.

–       Bergson emphasised the fact that if we consider any so-called object we realise that it has no definite boundaries in space or in time.

  • For instance, a “mushroom” constantly changes its form, and is in fact one with its mycelia (roots), which in turn is one with the nutrients ‘it’ gathers in the substratum, etc. There is no clear boundary.
  • Even with more durable objects, if we accelerated time and saw them over eras, we would see mountains fluctuate like waves in the ocean.
  • Contrariwise, so-called atoms and molecules also fluctuate of course – here modern quantum physics shadowing Bergson’s premeditations.


2. That language is extremely useful because it is extremely misleading.

3. That the understanding has evolved for practicality (power) rather than for knowledge


–       It is only language, or more specifically words/symbols, which cut out of the fluidity that is reality, isolated ‘things’. (By ‘language’ I include logic and mathematics.)

–       This isolating process (differentiation) serves the human species very well: in order to predict the future and to create tools/technology (for our survival and development), we need to assume that there are stable ‘things’ so that we can put them into a model, and apply to these things stable ‘laws’/’constants’, and expect from these practical results.

  • And though this method of extraction and hypostatisation (solidification) yields the produce of science (medicine, weapons, etc), we must realise that this natural method is merely a model of reality, not reality itself.
  • As both Bergson and Nietzsche stated, through divergent lines of thought, we are all inbuilt Platonist: we mistake the concepts for reality.
  • We are especially prone to geometry, mistaking the fluid reality for the motion of stable things in a pure geometric space.
    • In reality, things and space are one entity: movement/becoming/change.
    • It is difficult for the human species to think of movement without thinking that some thing must exist which moves (e.g. water in waves), but that is simply a result of our natural mode of thought.
      • It was the abandoning of the theory of Ether as the substance underlying the movement of electromagnetism that led to Einstein’s theories (via Maxwell).

–       The most dangerous effect of this mistaking reality for isolated, stable things is, according to Bergson, the mistake of spatialising time.

  • That is, to think of time as a (spatial) line, as an independent variable (independent of the ‘things’ in the model) which can be divided ad infinitum into ‘instants’ (T1, T2, etc) – but there can be no instants in reality (because if they had no length/duration, they would not move successively).
  • It is dangerous because time is real, not spatial, not a mysterious flow of ‘instants’ – a mistake that leads to Materialism and Determinism (a false view of reality):
    • That reality can be reduced to ‘things’ (corpuscles) which act according to timeless laws (‘constants’) which can be thus theoretically predicted instant-by-instant. [‘possibility’ vs ‘virtuality’: the determinable vs the undeterminable potentialities.]
    • This belief is based on our natural practical bent, it is useful to mankind, yet it is mistaking the model for reality. The purpose of Philosophy, according to Bergson, is to think beyond this human condition.

–       In summary,

  • There can be no ‘instants’ (a mistake due to the spatialising and division of such spatialised time).
  • There can be no ‘things’ (a mistake due to isolating repetitive movements away from their continuations)
  • There can be no known ‘laws/constants’ of nature, due to the Problem of Induction (David Hume): the natural belief that the unobserved resembles the observed – a necessarily non-provable axiom).

– Therefore:

  • We must acknowledge that our understanding has evolved for practicality rather than for pure knowledge.
  • Illusion serves us well.
  • Other creatures will have their own modes of thought, useful for them. Their realities thereby no doubt differing widely from ours (As Negel asked, What is it like to be a bat?!)

–       Thus, our normal consciousness and our sciences are not true representations of reality


 4. That brain does not produce the mind, despite neural correlates of consciousness.


–       Due to this, our evolved practical mode of thought, we are naturally inclined to reduce all phenomena to things-moving-in-time (rather than the reality of pure movement).

  • This is then Materialism, or Mechanism.

–       So when addressed with the phenomenon of consciousness, it seems natural to reduce it to material things moving in the variable of time.

–       Such a belief has a long history, stemming back at least to the Atomism of Leucippus and Democritus 2500 years ago.


  • Today, more specifically and especially, consciousness is presumed to reduce to neurons firing impulses & molecules to one another within the brain.

–       This error (of confusing model for reality) is further entrenched within the modern mindset due to the additional error of confusing correlation for sufficient cause or identity.

  • It is believed that because consciousness is correlated to brain activity (in brain scans and in brain damage), the brain must either sufficiently cause consciousness (epiphenomenalism) or be identical to consciousness (identity theory).
    • The so-called ‘neural correlates of consciousness’.

–       But from correlation to cause or identity is a non sequitur (it does not logically follow): (why not? Because:)

  • As Bergson points out, there is also a perfect correlation between a radio set and the program it’s playing. Change the radio’s circuitry and you’ll change the perceiving of the program.
    • One could even predict/read the program from investigating the radio’s circuitry.
    • But, of course, this perfect correlation does not imply that the radio sufficiently (totally) causes the program!
    • Neither does the perfect correlation imply that the radio is (identical to) the program.
    • In fact, in this case, the radio merely picks up and translates the program, which has its source elsewhere. This is analogous to the ultimate Bergsonian view.

–       This argument seeks to show that mind is not necessarily brain, or caused by the brain.

–       Another old, but recently revived argument, shows that the mind cannot be sufficiently understood by the examining the brain: the ‘Hard Problem of Consciousness’:

  • That is, that ‘things’ (molecules, pulses, etc) moving according to procedures (‘laws’) can never yield the full understanding of any knowledge of subjectivity.
    • For instance, dopamine levels may be correlated to the feeling of satisfaction, but no matter the complexity, satisfaction cannot be fully understood by a mere analysis of matter moving, there is a huge chasm between matter moving and qualia.

–       Both problems are only problems for Materialism.

  • Both problems emerge due to the original mistake of isolating from the flux of reality, separate (artificial) parts in terms of space and time.


  1. That the observer is the observed; (that subject and object are partially one.)

–       So, if brain is not mind, what is?

–       Bergson employs his Process Philosophy (that all is process, becoming, movement, change) and argues that:

  • The perception we have of ‘something’ is actually a part of that something as well as a part of ‘oneself’. There is a continual uninterrupted flow.
    • (Obviously the words ‘something’ and ‘oneself’ here are used metaphorically at this point, as ultimately are all words.)
  • Consider, say, looking at a star. If we trace the actual elements involved in this process we understand that electromagnetic waves of a certain frequency move towards us, this light then transforming through the eyes’ lenses hitting the retina, transposing into an ionic pulse through the optic nerve to the occipital lobe, thereafter continuing to virtual (possible) bodily actions via the whole nervous system, etc.
  • The words ‘star’, ‘eyes’, ‘brain’, ‘nervous system’ seemingly present these concepts as isolated parts which may interact with each other.
  • The reality is, Bergson argues, that these are all one system, with artificial cuts (necessary for utility).
  • There is no absolute distinction between the eye, the brain and the nervous system. So why isolate consciousness at an artificially-created part of the entire flow (at the brain)?
  • Furthermore, why isolate the ‘eye’ from that which it perceives? The eye and the electromagnetic frequencies it redirects are part of one process. And the electromagnetic frequencies are part of the star from which they emanate, again there being no absolute distinction.
    • In other words, the observer is the observed (and it is words that make us think otherwise).
    • Part of the star, and my perception of the star, are numerically identical (the same thing).
      • (All words in this phrase being mere artificial extractions from a single flowing reality.)
      • That part of the star that is my perception of it, is the part that evolution has extracted for the practical purposes of me, the human.
      • I.e. my perception of an object, and part of that object, are one. They lie in the relation part-to-whole rather than in the relation representation-to-object.

–       If one damages or alters part of the brain, part of the process is altered, so a concomitant alteration in mind would ensue; but likewise, alter the process elsewhere (outside the body) (for example, cut the emanating light with a cloud) and the consciousness will also change.


  • If we scanned the brain during a star-gazing session, one would expect to find a perfect correlation between the neural correlates and the reported vision, according to Bergson’s hypothesis that the brain does not produce consciousness, but is merely a centre for the redirection of incoming signals (frequencies) to virtual (potential) bodily actions.
    • Again, such neuroscientific correlative data does therefore not suggest a necessarily materialist explanation.
    • This purpose of the brain, for Bergson, to direct incoming data to possible (virtual) bodily movements, gives us power over our environment. It is not to produce consciousness, but only to streamline it to practical considerations.
      • (Nietzsche is here in accord with Bergson.)


–       Furthermore, Bergson states, all perception includes memory:

  • For instance, to see the colour of an object involves contracting innumerable electromagnetic waves into a ‘present’.
  • Therefore, consciousness is essentially memory (as there can no consciousness without a contraction of the past).
  • And as the brain does not produce consciousness per se, memory is metaphysical.
    • For Bergson, the past always exists in its entirety, it is the brain that limits its recollection to practicalities, and brain damage that limits its reception.
    • In dreams, Bergson writes, when the mind is not immediately concerned with its physical environment, the past is more open to revelation.


5. That mind is ubiquitous: ‘Panpsychism’


–       So, if the brain is not sufficiently responsible for consciousness, and it is only the inbuilt Platonism of our understanding that lets it seem that it is, – but yet that consciousness exists (which is the most certain fact that one can have, beyond any scientific ‘fact’), then the implication is that this flow, this movement, this becoming that is pure reality is itself a form of consciousness (which is memory).

–       Panpsychism: that everything is mind, is accepted by both Bergson and Schopenhauer.

–       The difference between them is that Bergson thinks consciousness, or subjectivity to be more precise, is ubiquitous only throughout life, whereas Schopenhauer argues that subjectivity is ubiquitous throughout everything, including stars and molecules.

  • Not that they believe, say, a table per se to be conscious!: Bergson confines subjectivity then to organisms, and Schopenhauer confines it to holons (self-organising systems).
  • (so the holonic molecules that make up the table have a subjectivity in themselves, basic but there).
    • A plant for Schopenhauer has a basic subjectivity that is probably confined to basic feelings of desire (for nutrition, sunlight, etc). Lack of neurons does not logically imply lack of subjectivity.

–       In this case, I should agree with Schopenhauer as the line between the organic and inorganic seems to be a merely verbal difference when one gets to the gray limit between them. (Perhaps Bergson fell for the same verbal mistake for which he criticised others!).


–       But for both, this ultimate mental reality is one, which we participate in as individuals according to the purposes of our practical wills.

  • For Schopenhauer it was the Will to Survive; for Nietzsche the Will to Power. Bergson seems to be more in accord with the latter.


6. That fundamental reality is pure Creativity (real time/pure consciousness) which drives evolution and art – and that this can be intuited through psychedelic intake.


–       Also for both Bergson and Schopenhauer, an intuition of this unity that is ultimate reality is the basis of both art and (descriptive) morality.

  • Bergson emphasises the fact that it is a mistake to believe that intellect is the only means to knowledge. He opposes this path to that of intuition, which though very difficult to pursue (as it opposes our human practical condition), can yield many advances because by transcending the ‘cut-up’, falsely differentiated world proposed by the intellect, many former problems, paradoxes (like Zeno’s), and so on, are seen in a pure light, as it were. His own philosophy perhaps being a prime example.
  • Now, by subduing the mechanism of our nervous system, psychedelics seem to be a route of entering this state of intuition, uniting with the Absolute consciousness, by disassociating from the practical Will.
    • Like a drop of water entering the ocean, returning to its source.
    • Often this is mixed with the intellectual faculties, however, as the intake is not a complete shutdown of the Will, body.
      • In fact, from this perspective, psychedelic experience could be considered as a temporary or partial death.
        • (Consider the Tibetan Book of the Dead, and its similarities to the psychedelic experience – as Timothy Leary expressed.)

–       Furthermore, as the psychedelic molecules quell our normal nervous-system operations (as modern neuroscience seems to sanction, at least with psilocybin), it is possible that we may enter different speeds of time/duration (as there is no absolute speed), thereby contracting external waves differently (e.g. non-human representations of reality, possibly akin to other organisms, possibly alien to all.)

  • Moreover, Bergson argues that through intuition (via instinct) organisms may enter the mind of others, as consciousness is not absolutely isolated from its environment. Likewise, if psychedelic experience offers us intuition of the real, entering the mind perspective of other organisms is a distinct possibility, and may explain the many ineffable oddities revealed to the so-called ‘psychonaut’. [taking ‘psyche’ in its ubiquitous sense.]
    • In other words, the psychedelic experience in not simply abstract hallucinations caused by the brain, but rather the diffusing of the individual consciousness into the larger Absolute and into alternative organic modes of being. It is the ordinary everyday consciousness that is the hallucination in the sense that it is but a mere fractional-practical perspective.

–       So, this fundamental reality that is essentially mind, ‘the Absolute’, is, Bergson continues, also a creative force.

  • One method by which he argues for this is through the examination of evolution. Bergson showed the problems inherent within Lamarckism and neo-Darwinism, offering an alternative theory (‘creative evolution’) whereby a vital principle strives through matter to expand itself to full consciousness.
    • Mankind is at the pinnacle of this vital drive (Élan Vital), but he makes room for the emergence of the superman, not too unlike the theories of Nietzsche:
      • A being who has supreme power over his environment as he can contract more of reality into qualitative elements.

–       If this ultimate reality is creativity, a creativity that guides evolution and art, and if psychedelic experience can diffuse ‘one’ into this principle, then the experience would be one of excessive creativity – creativity unchained from its practical (bodily) requirements.

  • In the psychedelic state, we lose our will and thus bodily power, but thereby diffuse and diversify into the panpsychic universe of creativity, a glimpse of what Kant might have called noumena.


In summary,

–       All is movement, there are no definite ‘things’ moving in ‘time’.

–       This movement is a form of conscious creativity.

–       Matter is a representation of this consciousness; matter is not therefore the producer of consciousness [more Schopenhauer than Bergson].

–       The perception of something is both part of the subject and object. [Bergson]

–       The human intellect is successful because it ‘breaks down’ this fluid reality into distinct parts, a breakdown useful to the Will which seeks power/development.

–       But it is successful because it forms an illusional reality (normal consciousness).

–       Psychedelics offer a means away from this illusion, back to diffusion into the Absolute, and empathy into other modes of being (purity according to dose).

©Sjöstedt-H MMXIII

Video Lecture:

matter memory process philosophy psychedelics psychonaut entheogen hallucination creative evolution metaphysics schopenhauer

Henri Bergson