A neuroscientist suggests Elon Musk needs LSD therapy

As a scientist, and simply as someone who would like to see society improve, I spend a lot of time thinking about what Elon Musk is doing to the world, and what he could be doing for the world.

Why? Because as the wealthiest human alive, he has more power to do good than anyone. Causal power is a term that scientists and philosophers use to describe the ability of an agent to have an impact on the world around them. If you have causal power, it means that you cause things to happen; that is, you generate effects. The chain of effects that follows a particular cause is known as a causal chain, and it is a concept that urges us to think about the unseen influence of our behavior on others, and on nature.

A rock doesn’t have causal power because it doesn’t do anything on its own. The average person has some causal power, but the magnitude of the impact of their ideas and behavior is often limited to their social network. A billionaire with a million social media followers, on the other hand, routinely creates causal chains that produce ripple waves across society. A popular tweet from Musk can generate 100,000 shares, produce hundreds of articles, and inspire countless conversations and actions in the real world. It’s hard to calculate the sum total of Elon’s influence on the nation, but there’s no doubt that he could sway the outcome of a close presidential election, if he made that his goal.

What does this mean for Musk? Well, as the saying goes, with great power comes great responsibility. The Elon I used to know and root for is not the man I see today. I see a person who is out for revenge. I also see someone who is behaving in a way that is increasing division and political polarization. For example, in a tweet obviously designed to antagonize the Left, Musk wrote, “My pronouns are Prosecute/Fauci.” It is not the criticism of Fauci’s professional performance that bothers me — it is the vindictive nature of the method of delivery on a platform that is notorious for inspiring stalking and violence. This tweet is just one of many that indicate a pattern of behavior that reveals an intention to stoke division rather than unify the nation at a time when it desperately needs it. And that’s a shame, because Musk is undoubtedly a brilliant and unrelenting innovator, with the potential to do more good for humanity than any single individual in history.

That being said, the aim of this article is to cause a shift in how Elon sees the world, such that he is inspired to do the greatest good for the greatest number of people. If a new perspective on life and the universe can convince him that the human progress he wants to achieve requires unification, it could motivate him to use his causal power to help bring us together under a common goal and a shared worldview — one that aligns our interests.

While this article is focused on shifting the Twitter CEO’s worldview, the hope is that it has the same effect on the reader, because right now all of us must also make a conscious decision to reverse the division that fear and anger has sowed. The old saying, “United we stand, divided we fall,” tells us that doing so is not a choice, but a matter of survival. Overcoming our shared existential threats will ultimately require the full causal power of the collective human network.

But for Elon to have the sort of awakening that motivates someone to adopt a radical new perspective and approach to doing things, he must be open to undergoing such a transformation. Science has shown that psychedelics — like LSD, DMT, and psilocybin (the psychoactive ingredient in “magic mushrooms”) — have the power to prime a person’s mind for exactly this type of transformation.

How Psychedelics Can Alter One’s Worldview

Empirical studies have shown that psychedelics “relax beliefs,” meaning they make you question your assumptions about reality and open you up to new ways of seeing the world. They exert these effects on us by dissolving our ego and our ideological framework. Most of us have rigid ideologies, regardless of whether that ideology is a religion, a political affiliation, or a national identity. These worldviews can give us a sense of purpose and direction, but they can also create blind spots that prevent us from seeing truth. Additionally, they divide us into tribes, and create tribal tendencies within us. By relaxing our belief structures, psychedelics temporarily open us up to a new way of perceiving reality, and create an opportunity for us to transcend our tribalism.

A 2017 study published in the Journal of Psychoactive Drugs that surveyed over 600 people found that psychedelic experiences shifted people’s political and moral beliefs toward ones that could be described as more compassionate, and more opposed to authoritarianism. This happens because these experiences tend to reveal the interconnected, interdependent nature of the biosphere, which includes the biological network we call human civilization. This feeling of universal harmony can infuse life with meaning and purpose, and motivate the individual to live in a way that creates a positive influence on the world. We may call this perspective “the Cosmic Perspective,” and we will see that this way of looking at reality actually has a scientific basis that is quite compelling, and in some ways shocking.

If the goal is to influence Musk’s beliefs with a new psychedelic philosophy, it would help to know a little about his current worldview. According to a recent New York Times article, “it’s complicated.” Just a few years ago, most people probably would have considered him to be a liberal or progressive. He claims to have only supported Democrats until recently, including voting for President Biden in the last election. His major life goals are to put humans in space (SpaceX) and to bring environmentally-friendly cars to the world (Tesla), which certainly seem like left-wing ambitions.

But just before this year’s midterms, he encouraged people to vote Republican, claiming that it would be the way to bring about a healthy balance of political power. In a tweet that received 280,000 likes and 43,000 retweets, he wrote: “To independent-minded voters: Shared power curbs the worst excesses of both parties, therefore I recommend voting for a Republican Congress, given that the Presidency is Democratic.” But it seems that the plea to voters was just as much about revenge as it was about trying to evenly distribute power. In a follow-up tweet, he admitted that “I’ve been under unfair & misleading attack for some time by leading Democrats.”

From the available evidence, it is impossible to get a clear understanding of Musk’s political philosophy or belief system, but it is obvious that he’s not advocating for anything radically new, like a worldview that could unify the nation — and that seems like a big missed opportunity. Psychedelic therapy could be helpful in opening Musk’s eyes to a philosophy that transcends political affiliation, but is radically “progressive” in the sense that its purpose is to promote human progress — social, moral, and technological. This solution may sound far out to some, but Musk is already a believer in the benefits of psychedelics, so now he just needs to understand how to extract their full power.

The power of the experience comes from the truths being revealed about nature, not the actual chemical compound. Therefore, reaping the full benefits of psychedelics means exploring the deeper story of nature the experience is pointing us toward. Musk has already shown he’s willing to entertain radical new ideas about the nature of reality, like the Simulation Hypothesis, which argues that we are living in something like a computer simulation generated by a highly advanced technological civilization. Whether or not you find this theory to be plausible is irrelevant — the point is that it proves that Musk is open to big new ideas. So, what is the big idea that psychedelics are trying to show us?

The Cosmic Perspective: A Unifying Worldview for the Spiritual and the Secular

The interconnectedness we grasp while tripping is not a hallucination or an illusion. It is a perceptual state that reflects an intuitive understanding of the causal dependency in nature. In other words, we are all connected through our interactions, because the actions of one agent will produce an effect in another, and that effect may propagate throughout the social network. The sense of oneness we often feel indicates that the whole of human civilization is something like an organism, which is constantly developing, adapting, and learning. Zooming out, and looking ahead to the future Musk envisions, we see a story of life spreading outward from its planet of origin, exerting an ever-increasing causal influence on the universe at large.

Taking the Cosmic Perspective should immediately make one wonder whether biological evolution and the spread of intelligence are part of the cosmic evolution process. We can see that the world has grown more complex over time, but we do not usually speculate about whether we are an essential part of that process. That is, until we eat a magic mushroom.

But some of the greatest scientific minds of our time have come to that conclusion without any pharmacological assistance (presumably). The list includes the prolific inventor Ray Kurzweil, Google’s Director of Engineering, the theoretical physicist David Deutsch, the father of the quantum computer, and the neuroscientist Christof Koch, who is responsible for making consciousness research part of mainstream science. All three of these men are considered to be leaders in their field, and they all believe that the universe is growing increasingly complex, through a process of cosmic evolution that inevitably gives rise to life, consciousness, and culture.

According to this scientific paradigm, the universe is not just this big random machine evolving arbitrarily; it is a self-organizing system that is assembling itself through a hierarchical or multi-level process. As the evolutionary process proceeds, nature’s fundamental “parts” come together to form greater “wholes,” which then become the building blocks for the next level of complexity. This might sound complicated on the surface, but the story is relatively simple. Subatomic particles came together to form atoms, which came together to form molecules, which formed cells, which formed complex organisms, which formed societies, and human civilization now seems to be forming what has been described as a “global brain” that spans the planet, thanks to the internet. Humans are analogous to neurons in the global brain, because we are exchanging information through our digital and real-life interactions in much the same way that neurons exchange information in the brain. Under this view, we are not accidents of nature; we are the primary drivers of complexity growth at this stage of cosmic evolution.

What is perhaps most astonishing about this process is that it appears to be just getting started. If Koch, Kurzweil, and Deutsch are right, then we are at just the beginning of a process of open-ended evolution and complexity growth, where life emerges and then proceeds to transform the inanimate world around it into a fabric that can feel. Just as the planet Earth was composed of entirely inanimate matter 4 billion years ago, but is now completely covered with life, the same could be true for much of the cosmos 4 billion years from now.

In his 2012 book, Consciousness: Confessions of a Romantic Reductionist, Christof Koch writes:

The rise of sentient life within time’s wide circuit was inevitable…islands within the universe—if not the whole cosmos—are evolving toward ever-greater complexity and self-knowledge…the laws of physics overwhelmingly favored the emergence of consciousness. The universe is a work in progress…. the evidence from cosmology, biology, and history is compelling.”

Similarly, in his 2005 book The Singularity is Near, Ray Kurzweil writes:

“Intelligence is, in fact, a powerful force and we can see that its power is going to grow not linearly but exponentially, and will ultimately be powerful enough to change the destiny of the universe…Human intelligence will trump the dumb forces of cosmology.”

Although this paradigm is completely naturalistic, many will find its philosophical implications to have a spiritual quality because they suggest that life has cosmic significance. By “cosmic significance,” I mean that life is a mechanism for the growth of complexity in nature that is poised to shape the evolutionary trajectory of the universe and determine its large-scale development. If this is true, and biologically-based intelligence is the primary driver of cosmic evolution, then life has a grand and mysterious purpose that transcends the individual. In his mind-bending 1997 book The Fabric of Reality, David Deutsch writes:

“Narrowly conceived evolutionary theory considers us mere ‘vehicles’ for the replication of our genes or memes; and it refuses to address the question of why evolution has tended to create ever greater adaptive complexity, or the role that such complexity plays in the wider scheme of things.”

Deutsch expands on this “role” of ours in his following book, The Beginning of Infinity (2011):

“Like an explosive awaiting a spark, unimaginably numerous environments in the universe are waiting out there, for aeons on end, doing nothing at all...Almost any of them would, if the right knowledge ever reached it, instantly and irrevocably burst into a radically different type of physical activity: intense knowledge-creation, displaying all the various kinds of complexity, universality and reach that are inherent in the laws of nature, and transforming that environment from what is typical today into what could become typical in the future. If we want to, we could be that spark.”

The cosmic perspective gives human civilization a collective goal and a purpose: to see that life, consciousness, and creativity continues into the future. For that to happen, our civilization must progress into a more complex, resilient, integrated, and intelligent state of existence. In particular, we must acquire the ability to get off of the planet before the sun dies and takes all conscious life with it (preferably much sooner, as an insurance plan against a catastrophic asteroid impact).

Without the life-spreading technology currently being developed by SpaceX, intelligence and consciousness cannot expand beyond its planet of origin. So, Elon’s ambition to put life on other planets is of cosmic significance. By initiating a causal chain that extends life’s effects on the universe at large, he is acting as an agent of cosmic evolution. But if he fails to see the worldview that provides a justification and larger context for his ambitions, he will not understand why a more unified world is essential for his vision of continual human progress.

The cosmic perspective is potentially unifying because it suggests that our shared existential challenges will require the full computational power of the interconnected global brain. That means we must cooperate and collaborate. Nuclear war, weaponized A.I, the spread of authoritarianism, income inequality, pandemics, and climate change — these are things that threaten the entire human race. Since our civilization is an interdependent system, if one crucial part goes down, the whole global network suffers. We saw how a local problem can quickly wreak global havoc with the 2008 financial collapse, and again with the 2020 pandemic. It is worth reiterating: coming together despite our ideological differences is not a luxury, but a necessity.

Under the Cosmic Perspective, there is no “us versus them,” there’s only “we.” Rather than seeing the world as a disconnected and random collection of events, we can view it as an interconnected and purposeful whole, with each part contributing to the overall evolution and development of cosmic complexity. It is the story of nature that psychedelic experiences have been hinting at. If Elon Musk adopts the Cosmic Perspective, it would align his behavior and politics with the scientific and spiritual philosophy that is consistent with his ambitions for humanity. From the look of this tweet, it is the philosophy he's been searching for.

Elon Musk_philosophy tweet.png

We’ve only scratched the surface of the science underlying the Cosmic Perspective, but for those who are curious, it is described in mechanistic detail at my Substack, Road to Omega, and in my new book The Romance of Reality: How the Universe Organizes Itself to Create Life, Consciousness, and Cosmic Complexity. So far, it has resonated with influential left-wing voices, like David Pakman and Cenk Uygur of The Young Turks, but also people like podcast host Joe Rogan, who like Musk has been criticized by liberals for leaning Right on some issues. If we want a truly progressive ideology to go mainstream — one focused on restructuring our social, political, and economic systems according to principles that will most effectively bring about human progress — then we must be willing to reach out to the people on the fence. Making Musk out to be an irredeemable villain will only push one of the world’s most powerful people further toward the Right. Those who desire progress must not let that happen, especially with Donald Trump planning to run for president again in 2024.

The great cosmologist and educator Carl Sagan once said, “A religion, old or new, that stressed the magnificence of the Universe as revealed by modern science might be able to draw forth reserves of reverence and awe hardly tapped by the conventional faiths. Sooner or later such a religion will emerge.”

Religion is a loaded term, but a spiritual ideology that is guided by science and aided by technology, that gives us a shared existential goal, will be the worldview of the future. It has to be if we want our civilization to survive.

Bobby Azarian is an author, a cognitive neuroscientist, and a blogger for Psychology Today. He has written for The Atlantic, The New York Times, BBC Future, and Scientific American. Follow him @BobbyAzarian.