What is a good life? What are good states of consciousness? If you could re-experience all the lived moments in your life, would you? Would even half of them make the cut? These are questions that German philosopher Thomas K. Metzinger wants us to consider.
A professor at Johannes Gutenberg University of Mainz, co-founder of the Association for the Scientific Study of Consciousness, and former president of the German Cognitive Science Society, Metzinger introduced the term “bewusstseinskultur” (German for “consciousness culture”) in 1994—but only now, in the midst of the psychedelic renaissance, has it slowly begun to receive the attention it deserves.
“Developing a consciousness culture would mean that we would ask ourselves more often, if our current state of consciousness—the one we are in at that very moment—actually is a state of consciousness we want to have,” Metzinger tells DoubleBlind, referencing a pilot study called the “eternal playlist” that he and his philosophy students recently carried out. Based on a thought experiment, the students were asked to imagine a postmortem afterlife in which they were not allowed to have any new experiences. “Instead they have to choose experiences they made during their lifetime, which they can then relive once they died,” he explains. “Out of all the experiences they have had, they can compose an eternal playlist [which] will then be shuffled to them in eternity and they will live through these experiences again and again.”
To keep study participants conscientious of the overarching question at play, one tech-savvy student programmed an SMS server to send 10 randomly-timed signals a day, over seven days, reminding them to decide whether the last moment before the conscious experience of their phone’s vibration was a moment they would take with them into the afterlife.
For many, the result was surprising: the number of positive conscious moments per week varied between 0 and 36, with an average of 11.8—or almost 31 percent of the phenomenological samples. In other words, 69 percent or a little more than two thirds of the recorded moments were spontaneously ranked as not worth reliving or entering into the “eternal playlist.”
Only 11.8 moments “of a life worth living” per week is not very much, says Metzinger. “But that is probably how most of us experience life: No dramatic suffering, but always a bit bored or slightly annoyed, having had too much to eat, emotionally exhausted or overstimulated, running errands, fulfilling duties,” he says, noting that the happiest student with the most memorable experiences added 18 moments, most of which were spent playing music.
“That is probably how most of us experience life: No dramatic suffering, but always a bit bored or slightly annoyed, having had too much to eat, emotionally exhausted or overstimulated, running errands, fulfilling duties.”
This is where psychedelics come in. “For example, they might lead you to a single experience that gives you sustained memory that your life was worth living only for this one timeless moment,” says Metzinger. “It is now justified as a whole [and] makes you grateful, even if the overall balance continues to be negative.” But moreover, he adds, psychedelics may help us discover what we actually consider as valuable states of consciousness or a life worth living: “It is not that the psychedelic experience itself necessarily is a desirable state of consciousness, but that if you want to know what a good life is and what truly valuable states of experience are, it is an excellent instrument to find your own answers.”
Asking these questions can help us figure out which states of consciousness are desirable and which aren’t, which are ones to show our kids and which are worth preventing, Metzinger elaborates. These aren’t decisions that a society should make for everyone, however, given that the criteria for a good life differs among individuals. “But if psychedelic experiences or let’s say the states of consciousness and insight one can reach in meditation, would be considered desirable experiences for some, society would have to come up with ways to provide free citizens in a free country with ways to explore these experiences in a safe and protected way,” Metzinger says. “What’s most important is that people live an examined life in a Socratic sense. The repressed fact is that psychedelics can greatly contribute to exactly this: a life that derives meaning out of rational, evidence-based decisions rather than following pseudo goals dictated by someone else.”
“The repressed fact is that psychedelics can greatly contribute to exactly this: a life that derives meaning out of rational, evidence-based decisions rather than following pseudo goals dictated by someone else.”
Metzinger doesn’t necessarily advocate for legalizing psychedelics, but envisions a world where potential psychedelic explorers could take a pre-screening to find out if they’re suitable for such an experience, given their medical history, and have a community where they can prepare for and integrate the experience afterward.”We would have to come up with legal cultural contexts that open a space for heightened awareness and respect towards the experience one is about to have, where people have to ask themselves why they are taking psychedelics and how these substances can make their lives better by bringing more depth and more knowledge about the self,” says Metzinger. “We have to develop an ethics of consciousness, and our political institutions will certainly not help us with this.”
Developing a consciousness culture, however, is no small feat. It might require us to face what Buddhist philosophers call “dukkha,” the fundamentally dissatisfactory nature of mundane life. “Asking these “bewusstseinskultur” questions has an extremely subversive potential, much more than shallow political discussions,” says Metzinger. “A lot of people would probably escape the capitalist logic of exploitation once they dared to take a good look at what it really does to their minds and their lives—and those of other sentient beings, now and in the future.”
But maybe that’s just what we need to achieve freedom, to up the number of moments we’d add to the eternal playlist, and perhaps even live a life worth reliving.