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Once again, hard questions arise about the meaning and authority of such experiences, especially ones that appear to convince people that consciousness is not confined to brains and might somehow survive our deaths. Yet even to questions of this kind Griffiths brings an open and curious mind. “The phenomenology of these experiences is so profoundly reorganizing and profoundly compelling that I’m willing to hold there’s a mystery here we can’t understand.”

Griffiths has clearly traveled a long way from the strict behaviorism that once informed his scientific worldview; the experience of alternate states of consciousness, both his own and those of his volunteers, has opened him to possibilities about which few scientists will dare speak openly.

“So what happens after you die? All I need is one percent [of uncertainty]. I can’t think of anything more interesting than what I may or may not discover at the time I die. That’s the most interesting question going.” For that reason, he fervently hopes he isn’t hit by a bus but rather has enough time to “savor” the experience without the distraction of pain. “Western materialism says the switch gets turned off and that’s it. But there are so many other descriptions. It could be a beginning! Wouldn’t that be amazing?”

This is when Griffiths turned the tables and started asking me about my own spiritual outlook, questions for which I was completely unprepared.

“How sure are you there is nothing after death?” he asked. I demurred, but he persisted. “What do you think the chances are there is something beyond death? In percentages.”

“Oh, I don’t know,” I stammered. “Two or three percent?” To this day I have no idea where that estimate came from, but Griffiths seized on it. “That’s a lot!” So I turned the table back again, put the same question to him.

“I don’t know if I want to answer it,” he said with a laugh, glancing at my tape recorder. “It depends on which hat I’m wearing.”

Roland Griffiths had more than one hat! I only had one, I realized, and that made me feel a little jealous.

Compared with many scientists—or for that matter many spiritual types—Roland Griffiths possesses a large measure of what Keats, referring to Shakespeare, described as “negative capability,” the ability to exist amid uncertainties, mysteries, and doubt without reaching for absolutes, whether those of science or spirituality. “It makes no more sense to say I’m 100 percent convinced of a material worldview than to say I’m 100 percent convinced of the literal version of the Bible.”

At our last meeting, a dinner at a bistro in his Baltimore neighborhood, I tried to engage Griffiths in a discussion of the ostensible conflict between science and spirituality. I asked him if he agreed with E. O. Wilson, who has written that all of us must ultimately choose: either the path of science or the path of spirituality. But Griffiths doesn’t see the two ways of knowing as mutually exclusive and has little patience for absolutists on either side of the supposed divide. Rather, he hopes the two ways can inform each other and correct each other’s defects, and in that exchange help us to pose and then, possibly, answer the big questions we face. I then read to him a letter from Huston Smith, the scholar of comparative religion who in 1962 had volunteered in Walter Pahnke’s Good Friday Experiment. It was written to Bob Jesse shortly after the publication of Griffiths’s landmark 2006 paper; Jesse had shared it with me.

“The Johns Hopkins experiment shows—proves—that under controlled, experimental conditions, psilocybin can occasion genuine mystical experiences. It uses science, which modernity trusts, to undermine modernity’s secularism. In doing so, it offers hope of nothing less than a re-sacralization of the natural and social world, a spiritual revival that is our best defense against not only soullessness, but against religious fanaticism. And it does so in the very teeth of the unscientific prejudices built into our current drug laws.”

As I read Smith’s letter aloud, a smile bloomed across Griffiths’s face; he was clearly moved but had little to add except to say, “That’s beautiful.”

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