What is cognitive liberty and why does it matter?

Transcript of the talk given by William Montgomery at Beyond Psychedelics 2016, Prague, Czech Republic.

I was telling a friend that I was coming here to present on the topic of cognitive liberty and he said ‘isn’t that just a pretentious way of saying freedom of thought’? it’s a good question. To answer that properly, we need to first remind ourselves about the importance of freedom of thought. 

US Supreme court justice Benjamin Cardozo has rightly said of freedom of thought that it is “the matrix, the indispensable condition, of nearly every other form of freedom.”

Maybe it’s such a fundamental right that most of us rarely think about it or debate it … how could it even be possible that someone could stop me from having my thoughts? 

Well, happily, just in case we do forget about it, our right to freedom of thought is enshrined in the first line of the first paragraph of article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights. It simply says: 

“Everyone has the right to freedom of thought”

My argument today is as follows: if we have the right to freedom of thought (which intuitively and legally, we do), that must naturally include a right to cognitive liberty, and if we have a right to cognitive liberty, then we must have a right to be left alone if we want to responsibly use psychedelics

So, to that end, I’d like you to join me on a journey through your mind.

Imagine for a moment that your mind is a vast citadel which belongs exclusively to you. Within this fortified estate there are tropical gardens meandering rivers, adventure playgrounds, lakes, and lagoons maybe somewhere there’s an ancient oak tree hiding a magical treehouse… maybe the citadel of your mind even has a few dungeons cages and traps. 

Most of this citadel is fully open… there are no boundaries, barriers, or fences: you can explore most of the citadel of your mind without exerting any special effort - this is the part of our cognitive landscape which we refer to as ‘normal waking consciousness’, or our ‘default mind-body state’. It’s the state that I assume you are all in today.

But its not all like that, some parts are surrounded by small fences which, with time and effort, you can learn to climb over - these areas are non-ordinary mind-body states which we can access through means which come from within ourselves, this might include the mind-body states we can achieve through doing martial arts, practicing yoga, having sex, meditating, and so on

Look a little further into the distance and you’ll see a new set of gardens, buildings and lakes but these are a bit different, they’re not open at all, in fact, they’re surrounded by gigantic brick walls; even with years of practice, there’s no way you’re going to get over them, the only access is through a locked gate - to get into these areas, you’ll need a key, something external to you, an exogenous force

So there are some areas of our mind’s citadel that we can only access with the right key – think about that for a moment… this means that there are some worldviews, perspectives and thoughts which potentially belong to you but which are only available to you if you’re in possession of the appropriate key. For the sake of argument, these keys might take the form of LSD or psilocybin, alcohol, caffeine, ayahuasca.

This, I think, is where my friend gets his answer. Most people intuitively think of freedom of thought as the right to roam freely around the citadel of their own mind. And this isn’t wrong, but its leaves a little gap of ambiguity. The concept of cognitive liberty fills this gap by explicitly emphasizing the fact that this right to roam freely, must naturally include the right to be in possession of keys to the doors which happen to be locked

The fact that I need a key to unlock the door to the magic treehouse doesn’t change the fact that this is still the citadel of my mind, it’s still my cognitive landscape, my state of consciousness and my brain chemistry which I am choosing to alter

By arbitrarily criminalizing the possession of some of these pharmacological keys, the UN drug conventions have made us criminal trespassers in our own minds

Worse, we have become criminal trespassers in some of the most magnificent , awe-inspiring and therapeutically useful cognitive landscapes known to humankind. Past and present governments the world over have stolen the keys to our consciousness.

A right to freedom of thought without the right to control the processes we use to have those thoughts is a bit like a right to freedom of speech without the right to communicate over the internet or by writing a book or a thesis or by giving a talk. At best it’s strikingly incomplete, at worst, it’s meaningless. 

Cognitive liberty then, isn’t just the fatuous assertion of a right to take drugs, it’s the assertion of a right to have full and proper access to our own minds; it’s the recognition of the demonstrable truth that normal waking consciousness is only one special type of consciousness, and that other mindbody states, psychedelic states especially, hold within them potentially valuable ideas, skills, insights and perspectives

To be against cognitive liberty is to be against human flourishing and curiosity, it’s to be against self-actualisation and the freedom of others, it’s to be against unusual perspectives and non-ordinary thoughts. You don’t have to be interested in psychedelics to be an advocate of cognitive liberty

Largely as a result of the relentless drive of ordinary people fighting against the status quo for the recognition of natural rights, a growing proportion of the world’s citizens can now proudly declare that their government cannot decide what they are allowed to say or print, or paint, who they are allowed to have sex with, or to marry or what they are allowed to believe. and yet as we gather here in 2016, we are in the curious position of having a global set of laws which determine the legal parameters of our own minds.

From women’s suffrage to civil rights to gay rights, those arguing for real and worthwhile change have often been labelled as radical, then laughed at, and then dismissed, and we should prepare for this to happen to those of us arguing for a right to cognitive liberty… but when we strip away the dogma, and the oppressive forces of the loud and ignorant and the collective fear of change, what could be less radical than demanding our right to control our own consciousness?

Now, it’s all very well making up a story about a magic treehouse to convince a room full of people who love psychedelics that they have a right to them, but why does cog lib matter out there, in the real world?  

A good rule in policy is that if you want a worthwhile solution, you need to find a decent way of framing the problem. and that’s exactly what cognitive liberty offers.  

Whilst in the past, we have perhaps preferred to take the easier or seemingly more palatable route of arguing for change from a perspective of minimising or reducing harms –perhaps now’s the time to shift our emphasis from reducing harms to maximising freedoms; from saving lives, to enhancing lives

By arguing from a standpoint of harm-minimisation, we risk implicitly signing up to the premises of prohibition: of accepting the erroneous assumption that drug use is harmful by definition, and that reducing drug use should be our primary aim. But when we argue for change from a standpoint of rights and freedom - from a standpoint of cognitive liberty - we take control of the narrative which will drive reform

Of course we can and should continue to go out and prove to the world that prohibition is internally incoherent, that it is partly to blame for so many of the ills to which it claims to offer a cure, that it kills more people than it saves, and ruins more lives than it enhances.

But if we wake up one morning and all the harms of drug use and prohibition have been minimized and reduced and eradicated, we’ll have done only half the job. If we’re to achieve the types of reform that we are really aiming towards, the drug policy debate needs a new ideology, one which doesn’t just pave the way to a less bad world, but to a genuinely better world. One which doesn’t stop at minimising harms, but insists on the paramount importance of maximising freedoms.

This is the argument from cognitive liberty, and we’re here to take back control of the keys to our minds.