Drugs and the meaning of life

Illuminante articolo di Sam Harris:

Everything we do is for the purpose of altering consciousness. We form friendships so that we can feel certain emotions, like love, and avoid others, like loneliness. We eat specific foods to enjoy their fleeting presence on our tongues. We read for the pleasure of thinking another person’s thoughts. Every waking moment—and even in our dreams—we struggle to direct the flow of sensation, emotion, and cognition toward states of consciousness that we value.

Drugs are another means toward this end. Some are illegal; some are stigmatized; some are dangerous—though, perversely, these sets only partially intersect. Some drugs of extraordinary power and utility, such as psilocybin (the active compound in “magic mushrooms”) and lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD), pose no apparent risk of addiction and are physically well-tolerated, and yet one can still be sent to prison for their use—whereas drugs such as tobacco and alcohol, which have ruined countless lives, are enjoyed ad libitum in almost every society on earth. There are other points on this continuum: MDMA, or Ecstasy, has remarkable therapeutic potential, but it is also susceptible to abuse, and some evidence suggests that it can be neurotoxic.

[…]

I have two daughters who will one day take drugs. Of course, I will do everything in my power to see that they choose their drugs wisely, but a life lived entirely without drugs is neither foreseeable nor, I think, desirable. I hope they someday enjoy a morning cup of tea or coffee as much as I do. If they drink alcohol as adults, as they probably will, I will encourage them to do it safely. If they choose to smoke marijuana, I will urge moderation.[2] Tobacco should be shunned, and I will do everything within the bounds of decent parenting to steer them away from it. Needless to say, if I knew that either of my daughters would eventually develop a fondness for methamphetamine or crack cocaine, I might never sleep again. But if they don’t try a psychedelic like psilocybin or LSD at least once in their adult lives, I will wonder whether they had missed one of the most important rites of passage a human being can experience. This is not to say that everyone should take psychedelics. As I will make clear below, these drugs pose certain dangers. Undoubtedly, some people cannot afford to give the anchor of sanity even the slightest tug. It has been many years since I took psychedelics myself, and my abstinence is born of a healthy respect for the risks involved. However, there was a period in my early twenties when I found psilocybin and LSD to be indispensable tools, and some of the most important hours of my life were spent under their influence. Without them, I might never have discovered that there was an inner landscape of mind worth exploring.

(articolo completo qui)

The Mental Life of Plants and Worms, Among Others (di Oliver Sacks)

Oliver Sacks

Charles Darwin’s last book, published in 1881, was a study of the humble earthworm. His main theme—expressed in the title, The Formation of Vegetable Mould through the Action of Worms—was the immense power of worms, in vast numbers and over millions of years, to till the soil and change the face of the earth. But his opening chapters are devoted more simply to the “habits” of worms.

Worms can distinguish between light and dark, and they generally stay underground, safe from predators, during daylight hours. They have no ears, but if they are deaf to aerial vibration, they are exceedingly sensitive to vibrations conducted through the earth, as might be generated by the footsteps of approaching animals. All of these sensations, Darwin noted, are transmitted to collections of nerve cells (he called them “the cerebral ganglia”) in the worm’s head.

“When a worm is suddenly illuminated,” Darwin wrote, it “dashes like a rabbit into its burrow.” He noted that he was “at first led to look at the action as a reflex one,” but then observed that this behavior could be modified—for instance, when a worm was otherwise engaged, it showed no withdrawal with sudden exposure to light.

For Darwin, the ability to modulate responses indicated “the presence of a mind of some kind.” He also wrote of the “mental qualities” of worms in relation to their plugging up their burrows, noting that “if worms are able to judge…having drawn an object close to the mouths of their burrows, how best to drag it in, they must acquire some notion of its general shape.” This moved him to argue that worms “deserve to be called intelligent, for they then act in nearly the same manner as a man under similar circumstances.”

As a boy, I played with the earthworms in our garden (and later used them in research projects), but my true love was for the seashore, and especially tidal pools, for we nearly always took our summer holidays at the seaside. This early, lyrical feeling for the beauty of simple sea creatures became more scientific under the influence of a biology teacher at school and our annual visits with him to the Marine Station at Millport in southwest Scotland, where we could investigate the immense range of invertebrate animals on the seashores of Cumbrae. I was so excited by these Millport visits that I thought I would like to become a marine biologist myself.

(continua qui)

Caro vecchio neon

Caro vecchio neon è un brillante monologo contenuto in Oblio di David Foster Wallace, una raccolta di racconti e di riflessioni non sempre digeribili ma che – lo ammetto – mi affascina sempre di più pagina dopo pagina. Vuoi per le sue strizzatine d’occhio a Borges, vuoi per la profondità delle intuizioni, vuoi per patologica intelligenza che emerge. Forse, forse, ne parlerò più in là.

Ora in tutta fretta volevo solo incollare una parte del racconto, che mi ha ricordato certe considerazioni di Dennett in Coscienza:

[…] Conosci già la differenza tra l’ammontare e la velocità di tutto quello che ti balena dentro e quella parte infinitesimale e inadeguata che riusciresti a comunicare. Come se dentro di te ci fosse questa enorme stanza piena si direbbe di tutto quello che prima o poi è presente nell’universo e invece le uniche parti che ne emergono devono in qualche modo essere spremute attraverso uno di quei piccolissimi buchi della serratura che si vedono sotto il pomello delle vecchie porte. Come se cercassimo di vederci fra di noi attraverso quei minuscoli buchi. Ma un pomello ce l’ha, la porta si può aprire. Ma non nel modo che pensi tu. E anche se ci riuscissi? Pensaci un attimo: e se tutti i mondi infinitamente densi e mutevoli dentro di te ogni istante della tua vita a questo punto si rivelassero in qualche modo completamente aperti ed esprimibili dopo, dopo la morte di quello che ritieni essere te, e se dopo questo momento ciascun istante fosse in sé un mare o uno spazio o un tratto di tempo infinito in cui esprimerlo o comunicarlo, senza neanche il bisogno di una lingua organizzata, e ti bastasse come si suol dire aprire la porta e trovarti nella stanza di chiunque altro in tutte le tue multiformi forme e idee e sfaccettature? […]

David Foster Wallace, Caro vecchio neon