Possible Starting Points for 
Exploration and Discussion

Part 2

Week 7  The Politics of Consciousness, Altered States, & Baseline Consciousness

·        What do you mean by “consciousness”?

·        Can meaning be ascribed to a conscious state itself? Or only to its products? (perhaps neither, perhaps both?)

·        What are some different states or forms of consciousness that you are aware of? (e.g. waking, sleeping, autistic)

o       Are some more valid than others?

o       If so, what gives a state its validity?

o       Who determines this?

o       Are these determinations held universally (i.e., cross-culturally)? Historically? 

·        Have you ever had an experience that was discontinuous with your normal mode of reality? How did you deal with it after the fact?

·        What is occurring when one daydreams? Dreams at night? Sleeps without dreaming? Are these states the same as ‘regular’ consciousness?

·        Do you identify with your consciousness? Does it ‘belong’ to you? Would you permit someone else to control it?

·        How do your experiences relate to your consciousness and its/your development?

·        Do certain items you consume have an effect on the state and / or functioning of your consciousness? Consider coffee, beer, rich food…Would you be conscious without food and drinks for a month?

·        If your experiences and intake of food and drinks are seen to regulate and shape your conscious states, then is it fair to say that you alter your states of consciousness intentionally?

o       That you have a choice in how this is done?

o       That consciousness can be altered by both internal and external forces?

o       Do you only consume ‘natural’ products, or do you choose to consume some artificial products too?

·        What is meant by ‘altered states of consciousness’ (ASCs)?

·        Why might one choose to enter or engage in an ASC?

o       Could there be benefits, dangers?

·        Is it possible that by having an experience that is discontinuous with one’s ‘regular’ way of experiencing reality, one might learn something new?

·        What is a ‘mystical state’?

o       Why is it that so many founders of, and important figures in, various religious systems describe experiences that profoundly affected them, yet make little or no sense when compared with our current, ‘normal’ (scientific?) view of reality?

·        What would have happened if one had a mystical / religious experience, and told others about encountering strange beings and fantastical visions, in Salem Massachusetts, 1692? And today?

·        Can you think of other examples of people being persecuted for having experiences that did not conform to the socially accepted norm (what Charles Tart calls ‘consensus reality’ or ‘consensus trance’)?

·        Why are ASCs disturbing to our society?

o       Are there any cultures that consider ASCs to be important?

·        Is an ASC an ASC under any circumstances, or only when has been induced in a particular manner?

·        Consider the widespread use of drugs such as Ritalin or Prozac:

o       What are the possible consequences of medicating large portions of a society with these drugs?

o       If the incidence of ‘need’ for these drugs is increasing, and the drugs only cure thee symptoms and not their causes, what are the implications for the future of society in general?

o       Do children really tend to be more hyperactive today than in the past?

o       These drugs can have some significant side effects (Ritalin has been blamed for the death of some children) – aside from death, how might side effects permanently alter a person’s cognition?

Week 8:   Drugs:  A Highly Opi(nion)ated Battle

·        What is a ‘drug’?

o       What is the difference between a legal drug and illegal drug?

·        What are some of the possible benefits of drug use (consider various drugs)?

·        Could some drug experiences be genuine religious experiences?

o       If so, what might be the effect of an increased percentage of the population having access to transcendental experiences?

o       Is the First Amendment intended to protect all religions, regardless of the sacrament used and the ‘correctness’ of their view of reality, or only particular religions? –That is, do certain religions or styles of religion have oligopoly rights over the First Amendment? 

·        Drug laws are often justified by paternalistic arguments, such as the claim that the laws stop people from harming themselves. Is it possible to take drugs without harming oneself?

o       Are there ways in which the incidence of such harm could be reduced?

o       Does the potential for self-harm outweigh the value of a possible life-enhancing experience?

o       Why are certain drugs (in our society, caffeine, sugar, tobacco, and alcohol) considered acceptable, and others not so?

o       Why are pharmaceuticals with potentially dangerous side-effects (such as the birth-control pill) permissible if self-harm is such a great concern?


·        Why is ‘escapism’ such a threat to some people? Is all drug use hedonistic and escapist?

·        Certain drugs have been shown to have (or have potential) psychotherapeutic potential – does it make sense to allow testing of these drugs in humans by researchers?

·        It is possible, in an environment of legalized drugs to create laws that minimize mis- or ab- use of drugs?

·        What is the difference between decriminalization and legalization?

·        What might be the effects on a society of completely decriminalizing or legalizing all drugs?

·        Has the drug war been successful?

·        What are the advantages and disadvantages of criminalizing particular kinds of mental states (and tools that may be used to access these states)?

o       Can one be free if one cannot choose how one wishes to operate one’s own mind?

o       Is it the government’s role to protect people from the possibilities of their own minds?


·        Does the current method of drug scheduling take into account the differences between different drugs that are lumped into the same schedule (for example, both heroin and LSD are in Schedule I)?

o       In an anti-drug atmosphere, is there perhaps a better way of determining the status of individual drugs?

·        From a cognitive liberty standpoint, do you think that all drugs would have to be legalized, or would it be possible (or desirable) to only change the status of a select few?


Weeks 9 & 10
:   Technology & the Mind & Social Implications

·        The opportunity to enhance one’s mind and life is instantly appealing to most of us – but what are the implications of the technologies that claim to be able to do so?

o       Drugs such as Prozac and Ritalin are being touted as panaceas, able to solve our problems quickly and easily, and are thus being sold in mass quantities, marketed on the basis of their acclaimed life-enhancing properties…what are some of the possible benefits and hazards of altering a significant proportion of the population’s mind states in the name of making people feel ‘normal’?

o       What is ‘normal’? who defines it? Why do more people claim to feel less normal than ever? Can ‘normalizing’ drugs resolve the root problem, or are they just a distraction that allows the problem to keep bothering us (that is, do they give the user the ability to reflect and understand the cause, so that they make relevant lifestyle changes to alter it?)?


·        What are the ethical implications of forced drugging of suspected criminals (consider the US v Sell case)?

o       Can they defend themselves fairly / or give reliable testimony?

o       Is forced drugging a form of torture?


·        Was MKULTRA (and its associated operations) a reasonable CIA investigation into the potentials of a variety of mind-altering chemicals and techniques?

o       Is it acceptable for the government to perform covert experiments on the minds of its citizens? Why do we feel that this is wrong?

o       How about during wartime? Are prisoners’ minds essentially different from ours? Would it be acceptable to us to find out that an enemy nation or organization was using such methods on our citizens that it had captured?


·        Excluding when one is under oath, does one have a right to lie?

o       Have you always told the truth?

o       If you knew someone that you loved (or someone undergoing unfair persecution) was innocent yet being sought for detention and / or punishment by the government, would you ever consider lying to protect and hide them from their persecutors? Would you do so if the persecutors had an accurate computer-based lie detecting method or a sure-fire truth serum, and threatened to punish you should you be found to be lying? What would the implications of such technology have been in war-time Nazi Germany?

o       Do governments always tell the truth?


·        What will happen to those persons who cannot afford brain enhancement?

o       Who will control who may or may not make use of such technologies?


Week 11:   Reading the Mind: Looking Out, Looking In–Surveillance Technologies

·        How do you distinguish between the realms of public and private?

o       How do you feel when that which you wish to have remain private is made public by someone else?

·        What are some benefits of surveillance technologies?

·        Who controls the information gathered? Do they have the right to sell it?

·        Is there anything that can be done to limit the rapid expansion in surveillance technologies that we are currently experiencing, or are technological developments too fast to be managed appropriately by the law?

·        How might the knowledge that one’s thoughts or actions are being observed affect one’s consciousness? The way one acts?

·        Technologies are often marketed by businesses on the premise that they are beneficial to society – if accepted as such, either consciously or unconsciously by society, how will we be able to define acceptable limits to what may be surveilled? (for example, today a video camera in a store may be used to capture any thefts on tape, as a means of protecting society, and jail time is often given to those caught acting ‘against the public good’; photo-radar is accepted by many as a means of ensuring that people drive safely, and a fine is sent to the home of anyone acting ‘against the public good’. Would randomly placed microphones (or iris-reading cameras) linked to a government computer that could detect when a person is lying, and the issuing of fines be for the ‘good of the public’?

·        Should children be fitted with global-positioning implant chips so that parents know of their whereabouts?

·        Would it be possible to avoid having one’s movements tracked in a ‘cashless society’, where all financial transactions are monetary? Would it be possible to survive?

·        Why do we tend to object so strongly to the idea of being watched by the government?

·        Will such technologies as brain-fingerprinting machines at airports lead to greater discrimination? How could false-positives be dealt with fairly?

·        Why was the notion of ‘Big Brother is Watching You’ so odious in George Orwell’s 1984?

o       Why does it seem to bother people less now?

·        Since the attacks of September 11th, people have been far more accepting of surveillance: at what point do you draw the line between safety and infringement of privacy?

·        Face-recognition technology was tested at the Super Bowl XXXV, without the knowledge of attendees. According to the LA Times (Feb. 1, 2001), hidden cameras were used to electronically compare attendees faces with known criminals. Does scanning a face constitute a search, and does it erode the concept that one is innocent until proven guilty?


Week 12: Reality Models

  • What is a ‘reality model’?
  • How do different reality models compete?
  • Is there such a thing as an ‘objective’ model of reality?
  • Can one perception of reality be more ‘valid’ than another?
  • Why do proponents of certain views feel threatened by people who think differently?
  • What are the dangers of encouraging or coercing a population to conform to a particular model?
  • Has such an attempt ever been entirely successful?
  • What are the effects on an individual of being forced to change their reality model?
  • Why do we frequently hear that many depressed people suffer from a ‘chemical imbalance’ – yet nothing is mentioned about people who are far happier and optimistic than average?
  • Do you still view the world and your existence in the same way as you did a year ago? Five years ago? Ten? When you were five years old?
    • Has the world really changed that much? Or did you?
    • Do you expect to have the same view of the world as you do now in twenty years time?
    • If your picture of the world is capable of shifting, can you be certain that it is ‘better’ than that of others who hold a distinctly different world-view?
    • Have you ever tried living as convincingly as possible for a week according to the (legal) lifestyle of someone whose system you think is thoroughly crazy, even though it seems to work well for them?
  • Consider an event or occurrence that made you very unhappy for a short period such as a week. How did this simultaneously affect your perception of other elements of your life?

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