Escaping Huxley’s Island: Psychedelics, Scientific Paganism and the Changing Images of Man

In Aldous Huxley’s final novel, Island, the guru of Ultimate Revolution and predictive programming presents a subtly different and more nuanced version of the original “soma” culture depicted in his Brave New World. While Huxley’s earlier novel presented a culture in which a magical drug called “soma” was used to chemically regulate people’s inner worlds to keep them “happy,” Huxley’s last novel presents a more mature vision in which the earlier system of psycho-chemical control evolves into a much subtler system of psycho-spiritual manipulation.   While Brave New World’s “soma” culture dulled the pain of an unfulfilled and innate longing within human beings—which the true philosophers, saints, poets and theologians across the ages have always embodied—the novel Island offers a clever imitation in the form of a magical substance called “moksha” (the name is appropriated from Hinduism). Huxley’s island thus presents a “spiritual” medicine capable of meeting a human being’s most innate and deepest desires for transcendence.   Not surprisingly, the invariant in both Huxley novels is a culture of diverse eugenic practices, sex cults and mass drug use. In the case of the latter novel, the essence of control is based on offering something which imitates genuine transcendence and gives people the feeling of having attained their higher self-actualized self.   As we approach a new critical juncture in the history of Western civilization, which involves regularly priming individuals with the idea of an end to the “age of abundance” and constant doomsday predictions warning of biblical floods and fires unless mankind repents for its sins against “Mother Nature”, we should give careful consideration to the latest fad of psychedelic-infused “spirituality” currently being presented to Western audiences.   Perhaps there’s more than meets the eye?  


Rewind to the 1960s. We find ourselves at a pivotal moment in the West’s shift towards a post-industrial society. Aldous Huxley and Timothy Leary are musing about a “coming revolution.” The Beatles are dominating the airwaves, Janis Joplin is begging you to take another piece of her heart, and Jimi Hendrix is soaring through a purple haze. A flurry of rebellious anti-establishment rock bands are being promoted by the world’s largest entities in the commercial music world. At this moment, Dr Leary and Huxley discuss the obstacles standing in the way of a new enlightenment. As Huxley explains to Leary, central to any fundamental transformation are new “brain drugs”:
These brain drugs, mass produced in the laboratories, will bring about vast changes in society. This will happen with or without you or me. All we can do is spread the word. The obstacle to this evolution, Timothy, is the Bible.
  Leary then reflects on the obstacles they encounter as they seek to flesh out their vision of a new enlightened religion:
We had run up against the Judeo-Christian commitment to one God, one religion, one reality, that has cursed Europe for centuries and America since our founding days. Drugs that open the mind to multiple realities inevitably lead to a polytheistic view of the universe. We sensed that the time for a new humanist religion based on intelligence, good-natured pluralism and scientific paganism had arrived.
  With Dr Leary and many of the psychedelic proselytizers being CIA and related intelligence assets, one could argue over exactly what “spreading the word” meant. However—setting aside questions of who served as a witting or unwitting intelligence asset for the CIA’s MK Ultra program, then or now—rather than some new idea driven by an organic mass awakening, many of the frameworks for realizing Huxley’s mature vision of psycho-spiritual control were rigorously laid out in a notable 1974 white paper by the Stanford Research Institute (SRI) entitled The Changing Images of Man.   Led by futurist Willis Harman, the authors of The Changing Images of Man present a new vision for Western civilization which shifts the emphasis from a so-called “Age of Abundance” to an age of “New Scarcity”:
An ecological ethic is necessary if man is to avoid destroying the complex life-support system on which our continued existence on the planet depends. It must recognize that available resources, including space, are limited and must portray the human as an integral part of the natural world. It must reflect the ‘new scarcity’ in an ethic of fragility, of doing more with less. It must involve not only a sense of mutual self-interest between individuals, but also the interests of fellow men and the more extensive interests among fellow creatures (both near and far, both present and future).   An ecological ethic would imply movement toward a homeostatic (yet dynamic) economic and ecological system, in which the human acts in partnership with nature to harmonize ecological relationships and in establishing satisfactory recycling mechanisms. Such an ethic is necessary to achieve a synergism of heterogeneous individual and organizational micro-decisions such that the resultant macro-decisions are satisfactory to those who made the component decisions, and to society. (The Changing Images of Manp. 114)
  According to the SRI team, at the heart of Western civilization’s problems lay a so-called “rationalist man”, which they astutely observe came to full fruition with the advent of the European Golden Renaissance:
In contrast to the Greek notion of “man,” the Judeo-Christian view holds that “man” is essentially separate from the rightful master over nature. This view inspired a sharp rate of increase in technological advances in Western Europe throughout the Medieval period. On the other hand, the severe limitations of scholastic methodology, and the restrictive views of the Church, prevented the formulation of an adequate scientific paradigm. It was not until the Renaissance brought a new climate of individualism and free inquiry that the necessary conditions for a new paradigm were provided.    Interestingly, the Renaissance scholars turned to the Greeks to rediscover the empirical method. The Greeks possessed an objective science of things "out there," which D. Campbell (1959) terms the “epistemology of the other.” This was the basic notion that nature was governed by laws and principles which could be discovered, and it was this that the Renaissance scholars then developed into science as we have come to know it.  
The authors premise their proposal for a subtle re-alignment of the characteristic “images of man” based on a very conscious understanding of the tectonic shift that occurred in Western civilization with the Renaissance:
From the warp and woof of new and revived ideas fostered during the Renaissance and Reformation came notions of man as the individualist, the empiricist, and the rationalist. These notions gained irresistible power with the discoveries of Copernicus and Galileo, and brought about an essentially new image of man and his role in the universe.
  While some readers may find themselves agreeing with various observations found in the SRI document, context is everything. The authors never propose new fundamental breakthroughs or the development of new physical principles like fusion power, greening deserts, or altogether new programs which in any way transform mankind’s ability to act and thrive in the universe. Nor do they ever address the pillaging of civilization by exploitative cliques. For the authors of The Changing Images of Man, the real problem is the Promethean and Judeo-Christian image of man itself: the Classical and religious Western heritage.   Not surprisingly, the SRI hails from the same Stanford University that is responsible for promoting the scientifically fraudulent Limits to Growth mathematical models used to justify global population control policies since the 1970s. From global warming doomsday predictions to hyperinflated Covid19 death projections, the Club of Rome and Stanford researchers’ approach has defined the precedent for all the pseudo-scientific doomsday computer modelling guiding Western policy.   Therefore, let us pay closer attention to how the Stanford Research Institute team approaches reframing the “image of man” and their implications.  

The Changing Images of Man

Vitruvian Man

Vitruvian Man (after Leonardo da Vinci), Medical Forum, Birmingham, Alabama. Public domain.

How to achieve the most fundamental transformation faced by any individual, let alone a civilization? Drawing from clinical research and studies in psychotherapy and group therapy, the authors observe that the most difficult kind of transformations encountered by any individual struggling to make a fundamental change in their lives involves their basic self-image:
No aspect of a person's total belief and value system is so unyielding to change as his basic sense of identity, his self-image. It is a well-known phenomenon in psychotherapy that the client will resist and evade the very knowledge he most needs to resolve his problems. A similar situation probably exists in society and there is suggestive evidence both in anthropology and in history that a society tends to hide from itself knowledge which is deeply threatening to the status quo but may in fact be badly needed for resolution of the society's most fundamental problems. The reason contemporary societal problems appear so perplexing may well be not so much their essential abstruseness and complexity as the collective resistance to perceiving the problems in a different way.
  The authors discuss a shift from the prior emphasis on external material progress to an inner “spiritual” progress based on expanded consciousness and a “self-realization” ethic:
The desirability of this characteristic of the new Image is based on the view that the proper end of all individual experience is the evolutionary and harmonious development of the emergent self (both as a person and as a part of wide collectivities), and that the appropriate function of social institutions is to create an environment which will foster that process. This is the ethic which must supersede the man-over-nature ethic and the material-growth-and-consumption ethic which have given rise to a large portion of man's problems as he became increasingly preoccupied with solely material aspects of exploiting and controlling nature for selfish ends on a fragile and finite planet where the pursuit of such goals can be suicidal.
  While progress today is often viewed, at least outwardly, as the creation of material wealth, financial security, new scientific discoveries and innovations that better the living conditions for human beings generally, a shift in emphasis from ostensibly outer progress towards inner progress is seen as the key to shifting the paradigm. As a result, expansion in the levels of “consciousness” is identified as one of the major pivots for moving from a post-Renaissance Western paradigm towards a new more sustainable Gaia-centric “ecological ethic”:
The new paradigm will likely incorporate some kind of concept of hierarchical level of consciousness, or levels of subjective experience. These will be distinguishable in the sense that concepts and metaphors appropriate to one level do not necessarily fit another. They will be hierarchical, not in the sense that one is higher than another on some value scale, but in the sense of structural hierarchy, and also in the sense that the consciousness of intense moments of creativity are accompanied by, in some testable meaning, more awareness than times of ‘ordinary consciousness,’ and those in turn involve more awareness than deep sleep.   The notion of a spectrum of potential consciousness connotes extending the range of recognized ‘unconscious’ processes (i.e. processes of which we are not usually conscious although the potentiality appears to be present of experiencing them directly) to include a vast range of reported experience in the provinces of creative imagination, ‘cosmic consciousness,’ aesthetic and mystical experience, psychic phenomena, and the occult. 
  Towards this end, the authors propose an “extension of the scientific method” in Western thought into parapsychology and psychic research, among other things:
• Telepathy. The perception of another person's on-going mental activities without the use of any sensory means of communication.  • Clairvoyance. The ability to know directly information or facts about events occurring in remote locations, without normal sensory means.  • Precognition. The ability to know of events or happenings in the future without sensory or inferential means of knowing.  • Psychokinesis (telekinesis). The movement of matter by non-physical means or direct mental influence over physical objects or systems.
  From a “science” of spoon-bending to tarot cards and Madame Blavatsky's séances, the alternative to having a society that seeks to understand the laws governing the universe, and to do so with an eye to bettering the general human condition, is the extension of the scientific method to new levels of “consciousness”.   The Renaissance or Promethean view of man as imago viva Dei and capax Dei, each individual being understood as a unique microcosm of the macrocosm, and therefore having within themselves access to the same principle of creative reason which the universe itself is governed by, is the genie that these social engineers wish to capture and reframe.   But how to put the proverbial genie back in the bottle?  

From Prometheus to Gaia: Reframing “Mother Nature”

Prometheus Brings Fire To Mankind

Prometheus Brings Fire To Mankind, Heinrich Friedrich Füger (1819). Public domain.

Praise be to you, my Lord, through our Sister, Mother Earth, who sustains and governs us, and who produces various fruit with coloured flowers and herbs. This sister now cries out to us because of the harm we have inflicted on her.
—Pope Francis’ opening prayer in Laudato si’ (2015)
  Recently, the current Jesuit-trained head of the Catholic Church, Pope Francis, came out attacking the same Renaissance conception identified by the SRI team in his 2015 encyclical, Laudato si'. There, the Pontiff takes direct aim at the Promethean image of man:
An inadequate presentation of Christian anthropology gave rise to a wrong understanding of the relationship between human beings and the world. Often, what was handed on was a Promethean vision of mastery over the world.
  For Francis, as for the World Economic Forum (WEF) and Europe’s hereditary “blue-bloods”, this Promethean vision is old and obsolete. By erasing the Promethean and Renaissance idea of man as endowed with a divine creative spark which allows him to master knowledge of “fire,” it is believed, the thoughts and belief structures of the masses can be repackaged within more sustainable axiomatic frameworks. Civilization must now return to a more “sustainable” age. Fortunately, the generous and beneficent Lynn Forester de Rothschild and other City of London-related financial circles have teamed up with the currently Jesuit-captured Vatican to create the Council for Inclusive Capitalism to assist these efforts.   Notably, the same desire has been voiced by none other than current leading WEF spokesman and reigning monarch of the House of Windsor, King Charles III. As a leading spokesman for the WEF and its “Great Reset” agenda, the “Green King” Charles spoke of how the wisdom of Canadian First Nations people might offer useful insights into how humankind might “reset” civilization and bring it back into balance with Mother Nature. Speaking on BBC 4 in 2020, the then Prince Charles said:
I’ve been talking to quite a lot of the First Nations leaders in Canada over the last year, and it’s high time we paid more attention to their wisdom, and the wisdom of indigenous communities and First Nations people all around the world.   We can learn so much from them as to how we can re-right the balance and start to rediscover a sense of the sacred, because nature—Mother Nature—is our sustainer, we are part of nature. We are nature.
  Not surprisingly, the hereditary blue-bloods of Old Europe and their brains trusts have been hard at work doing what empires have always done going back to ancient Rome, Greece, and Babylon: create and spread new pagan cults and gnostic ideologies. For underlying the tradition of “conservation” has been the assumption that there exists a universal equilibrium in nature—a sacred “balance”—which humanity was destined to submit to, as if humankind were just another animal living in a fixed ecosystem.   In this tradition, which may be traced back to the earliest Earth goddess cults of Greece, Rome and Babylon, the human species is essentially no different than other life-forms, aside from being a more complex biological organism exhibiting new “emergent properties”. Man is otherwise ultimately composed of the same fundamental building blocks as, say, a worm or bacterium.   While usually framed using various forms of behavioral science-infused messaging, sometimes the quiet part is said aloud. For instance, take a candid passage by the author of The Population Bomb (1968), patron for Population Matters (formerly the UN Optimum Population Trust), Paul Ehrlich. Ehrlich serves alongside some of the world’s leading advocates for population control, including James Lovelock, the father of the modern “Gaia Theory” of ecosystems.   Professor Ehrlich writes:
A cancer is an uncontrolled multiplication of cells, the population explosion is an uncontrolled multiplication of people. We must shift our efforts from the treatment of the symptoms to the cutting out of the cancer. The operation will demand many apparently brutal and heartless decisions.
—Paul Ehrlich, The Population Bomb (1968)
  Sir Alexander King, the former director of the Malthusian Club of Rome, wrote:
In searching for a new enemy to unite us, we came up with the idea that pollution, the threat of global warming, water shortages, famine and the like would fit the bill … All these dangers are caused by human intervention, and it is only through changed attitudes and behavior that they can be overcome. The real enemy then, is humanity itself.
—Sir Alexander King, The First Global Revolution (1991)
  John Holdren, who served as former president Barack Obama’s science czar, is also among those comfortable saying the quiet part out loud. Writing in his 1977 book Ecoscience, Holdren states:
Perhaps those agencies, combined with UNEP and the United Nations population agencies, might eventually be developed into a Planetary Regime—sort of an international superagency for population, resources, and environment. Such a comprehensive Planetary Regime could control the development, administration, conservation, and distribution of all natural resources, renewable or non-renewable, at least insofar as international implications exist.   Thus the Regime could have the power to control pollution not only in the atmosphere and oceans, but also in such freshwater bodies as rivers and lakes that cross international boundaries or that discharge into the oceans. The Regime might also be a logical central agency for regulating all international trade, perhaps including assistance from DCs [developed countries] to LDCs [least developed countries], and including all food on the international market.   The Planetary Regime might be given responsibility for determining the optimum population for the world and for each region and for arbitrating various countries’ shares within their regional limits. Control of population size might remain the responsibility of each government, but the Regime would have some power to enforce the agreed limits.
  Stripped of all its behavioral science-infused messaging and computer models, saving “Mother Earth” today takes the form of humanity’s collective decision to either adopt the supranational and legally binding governance structures of the UN COP 26 and the WEF’s “circular economy,” or prepare for the imminent biblical floods and fires.   So goes the science of ecology.  

From Soma to Moksha


Much advance, both in biological evolution and in psychosocial evolution, including advance in science, is of course obtained by adding minute particulars, but at intervals something like crystallization from a supersaturated solution occurs, as when science arrives at an entirely new concept, which then unifies an enormous amount of factual data and ideas, as with Newton or Darwin. Major advances occur in a series of large steps, from one form of organization to another. In our psychosocial evolution I believe we are now in a position to make a new major advance.
—Sir Julian Huxley, Changing Images of Man (1968)
  How could a handful of the wealthiest individuals, some of the oldest institutions in the world, and an army of social engineers convince the majority of people on Earth to give up their basic quality of life and willingly reduce their own numbers to approximately one billion people?   Going back to the 1960s and MK Ultra mind-control programs, research into psychedelics and the creation of new cults and “spiritual” movements has been at the center of developing new ways of repatterning one’s memories of the past and basic self-image. While such things could have beneficial effects when used to revisit past traumas or a distorted self-image, that such powerful repatterning could be achieved also makes clear why MK Ultra researchers of CIA “mind control” notoriety took such giddy interest in the use of psychedelics and the possibility of creating new “multiple realities”.   As journalist Tom O’Neil recounts in his groundbreaking Chaos: Charles Manson, the CIA and the Secret History of the Sixties, psychedelics played an important role in the cultivation of the person of Charles Manson and “the Family”. O’Neil found articles authored by some of the individuals responsible for treating Manson and his disciples. Research papers found in The Journal of Psychedelics Drugs—a journal belonging to the Haight-Ashbury Free Medical Clinic (HAFMC) where Manson was treateddescribe the study of psychedelics and their effects on group dynamics.   O’Neil recounts reading several articles authored by David Smith and his fellow researchers at the HAFMC. Notably, David Smith happened to be one of the clinicians regularly attending Manson and “The Family” at the HAFMC.   O’Neil writes:
One of these articles hoped to find out ‘whether a dramatic drug-induced experience’ would have a ‘lasting impact on the individual’s personality.’ Another observed that feelings of ‘frustrated anger’ led people to want to try LSD: ‘The soil from which the ‘flower children’ arise,’ the author wrote, ‘is filled more with anger and aggression, thorns and thistles, rather than passion and petunias.’ Under ‘emotional pressure,’ acid could induce ‘images and sensations of anger or hate magnified into nightmarish proportions. David Smith had studied these same phenomena, formulating an idea that he called ‘the psychedelic syndrome,’ first articulated in 1967 or early ’68.   The gist was that acid, when taken by groups of like-minded people, led to a ‘chronic LSD state’ that reinforced ‘the interpretation of psychedelic reality.’ The more often the same group of “friends” dropped acid, the more they encouraged one another to adopt the worldview they’d discovered together on LSD, thus producing ‘dramatic psychological changes. Usually the psychedelic syndrome was harmless, but regular LSD use could cause ‘the emergence of a dramatic orientation to mysticism.’
  From the early peace and love hippie days to its final kill-on-command unravelling, O’Neil details the many different stages of repatterning that the Family and its members appeared to undergo, especially in respect to psychedelic use.   Naturally, these MK Ultra related researchers were not the only ones taking interest in the psychedelic scene. Huxley, Leary et al. viewed psychedelics as one of the keys to repatterning Western civilization as a whole.   Furthermore, in Huxley’s Island we see a certain adaptation of Eastern mystical practices infused with regular drug use, creating a “spiritual” culture in which people can regularly get their fill of transcendence by simply following the Moksha medicine man’s guidance. As a Huxleian literary flourish which plays on the Indic meditative traditions of awareness, a recurring voice throughout Island takes the form of a squawking bird repeating, “Attention! Attention!”   Not surprisingly, the SRI team set their sights on finding ways of integrating certain aspects of Eastern mysticism into their new science of “consciousness”:
While it is commonly believed that science, or what we think of as the scientific method, originated in post-medieval Western Europe, this is not the case. The scholars of this period, searching for more adequate methods of inquiry than those "worn out" by medieval scholasticism, turned to translating manuscripts of distant times and places. Only when the Greek scientific writings were translated into a culture that would support a "technological ethic" (as would fifteenth-century Europe with its Semitic roots) did the widespread exploitation of these ideas come to fruition.   Although the modern scholarship behind this finding is somewhat controversial, the delayed application of Greek science likely represents an instance where one image of humankind had a clear-cut influence on cultural development. We explore this phenomenon in Chapter 4 because it provides a suggestive historical analogy for the present-day application of Eastern thought in the development of a science of consciousness.
  To this day, the perversion of Eastern mysticism by networks associated with the Esalen Institute and its Human Potential Movement has remained key to reframing Western civilization around a Gaia-centric ecological ethic. Of course, these pseudo-Eastern practices are infused with drug-based spiritualities, since the denizens of a more sustainable world will no longer have the luxuries of bread and circuses afforded by an industrialized Brave New World.   Naturally, the SRI authors make the link between psychedelic use and the need for transcendent experiences “of a religious or cosmic nature”:
In the last 15 years there has been increased interest in chemical substances that change the quality and characteristics of normal everyday consciousness, particularly through such drugs as lysergic acid, mescaline, psilocybin, and others. These drugs, referred to as psychedelics, hallucinogens, or psychoactive chemicals, expand or contract the field of consciousness; they seem capable of enhancing perceptions and sensations, giving access to memories and past experiences, facilitating mental activity, and producing changes in the level of consciousness, including what are reported as transcendent experiences of a religious or cosmic nature. (Masters and Houston, 1966)
  As already identified by Huxley, Leary and others, psychedelics were seen as a revolutionary way of repatterning mankind’s positive and negative affectations, creating a distance between memories of the past and an openness to multiple new realities. So, Huxley saw the importance of offering the population the greatest degrees of freedom to create their own alternative realities, especially in the case where the actual reality would be a very limited one governed by strict Malthusian logic.   Of the two novels, Island is, arguably, the more perverse. For in it, we see Huxley applying his most intimate knowledge of a human being’s deeper spiritual hunger, but only for the purpose of creating a more efficient system of control.    

Imitation or the Real Thing?

What if there’s more to a new age of psychedelics replete with new images and gods? From Lagom and “New Scarcity” to the promotion of mystery cults and investigations of the “entities” encountered in psychedelic experiences, new images of man are currently being promoted at every turn. Personalities ranging from Joe Rogan to Jordan Peterson are heralding psychedelics as a new kind of spiritual drug that may finally allow modern man to escape the prison of his immediate reality.   At the center of these efforts lies the promotion of drugs which, we are told, have the power to “expand consciousness,” which would, we are told, allow us to transcend our present limited selves and “actualize” our full potential. The fact that, say, a Nicholas of Cusa, Teresa of Ávila, Kepler, Friedrich Schiller, Marie Curie, Albert Einstein or Max Planck (to say nothing of the Eastern masters like Confucius, Mencius or Rumi) never needed some magical substance to actualize their human potentials and insights is a consideration that rarely arises in discussions among this new age of chemical prophets. And why should one bother with such things now, if the transcendence afforded to the saints, lovers of wisdom, and poets across the ages is now available in the form of a convenient pill or mushroom?   We all have a desire to transcend the boundaries of our mortal condition. The poet Percy Bysshe Shelley famously referred to this as “the desire of the moth for the star.” For we wish to partake in something greater than ourselves, rather than simply remaining the product of localized phenomena. Transcending the limitations of any fixed time or place, indeed, rising above all time and all place, we wish to partake in the truly timeless. But while the greatest poets, sages, mystics and theologians have shown mankind the way throughout the ages, what if Huxley’s vision isn’t so much the moth for the star as, say, the moth for the bug trap?   As old bonds are broken and new connections are made, let us carefully consider the many subtleties and nuances of these new images. Let us ask, “Is this imitation or the real thing?”      

Works Cited

  The Center for the Study of Social Policy & SRI International. The Changing Images of Man. Pergamon Press, 1982.   O’Neill, Tom. Chaos: Charles Manson, the CIA, and the Secret History of the Sixties. Little, Brown, and Company (2019).