Nature Loves Complexity

July 17, 1998

Terence argues that psychedelics reconnect us to archaic values like community, reverence for nature, and direct felt experience. He sees psychedelics as part of nature’s tendency to conserve complexity and novelty. McKenna critiques science’s misapplication of probability theory and suggests time itself fluctuates, finally proposing an ethics of aligning with nature’s creative unfolding.




You really can’t understand the future without the psychedelic experience. History seems to be becoming more and more psychedelic—if by that we mean self-complexifying, interconnected, proceeding along unexpected developmental pathways, more and more concrescent, more and more at the behest of the dynamics of emergent properties that are unpredictable. Alfred North Whitehead said it’s the business of the future to be dangerous, and of course, as we approach the millennium, this is the subject matter of every pundit and public speaker and street corner orator. Because though it is simply on one level an abstraction—you know, a turn of a zero—nevertheless, the calendar is the largest frame for our being that we allow the unconscious to generate. And the calendar is like a kind of geodesic structure inside of which being is caged. You know, the Mayan calendrical cycle is coming to a close in 2012. In a way, on a scale of even tens of thousands of years (hardly to speak of millions of years), you could see our own calendar and the Mayan calendar as almost in lock sync, differing only in a small percentage in their choice of a millennial or (in the case of the Maya) larger turning point. So no matter where in the spectrum of epistemological sophistication you lie, there is I think a sense of enormous pregnancy in these times. Vast processes are being summed up, and whole new cards are being dealt into the game—indeed, whole new players are entering the game.


So this is sort of what I want to talk about—not as seriously as my sleep-deprived solemnity might imply. Let me say a little bit about this business of the archetype of the circus, and why I see that as conversationally a bridge for talking about the psychedelic experience and the unfolding future. First of all, the circus is a wonderful place for children. In fact, it’s a celebration of the values of childhood—both individual childhood and archaic childhood. But it’s also ambiguous. Personally, I’m sure my first awareness of Eros that I have any memory of was when I was a person so small that they were wrapped in a blanket and passed from hand to hand, and I saw a lady in a tiny two-piece spangled costume hanging by her teeth, working without nets up in the big top, and I got it. I got the Eros/death dichotomy there. Similarly, in the circus, away from the light and the action, away from the center ring, are the exhibit halls: the thing in the bottle, the hermaphrodite, the fat lady, the goat-faced boy. In other words, realms of mutation, strangeness, dread for a child—or anyone else with their wits about them, for that matter.


And then the circus is a symbol for designated impropriety. When I was growing up on the west slope of Colorado in the town of Paonia, every fourth of July is Cherry Day—without a hint of irony. And a carnival always came to town, and we children were always told that, in the week the carnival was in town, we couldn’t stay out and play past nine o’clock because these strange people (some even of dark-skinned hue and so forth and so on) were there disequilibrating the normal social ecosystem. And then, of course, any child worth their salt wishes to run away to the circus. So it’s a symbol of an alternative to bourgeois values, is what it is.


So I see both the psychedelic experience and the future as having all these properties that I’ve just talked about: being more eccentric, more erotic, more menacing, more dynamically chaotic, more challenging, and more appealing to the inner child in each of us than the past has been. And as I say, it’s what in Jungian psychology is called a coincidencia oppositorum. It’s a union of opposites. It’s not a thing which is all good or all bad, all up or all down. Like all real things, it manages to encapsulate into itself contradiction and this sense of tension that comes from that contradiction.


Now, somebody hearing this might say: well, it’s strange to connect the psychedelic experience to the future, because isn’t it archaic? In fact, perhaps a tool for use in our distant hunting and gathering past, but now to be put aside by science-adumbrating sophisticates such as ourselves? This is one way of knocking the psychedelic enterprise. But I completely differ with that, because I believe that the only way to smooth our movement down the birth passageway here at the end of history is actually by going back and revivifying archaic values. That the journey through history took an enormous toll on our humanness, and that aspects of our being had to be suppressed or were suppressed—we can argue whether it was necessary or not. That science, Calvinism, urbanism, industrialism have all taken their share of an essential humanness that was intact as recently as 15,000–20,000 years ago. In other words, we’re not talking about biological evolution here, we’re talking more about how culture as an enterprise has insulted the individual.


We have all—whether we are Hottentots or Hasids or citizens of Houston—we have all made too many sacrifices in the name of fitting ourselves into the culture we find around us through the circumstances of our destiny. Culture, then, in my analysis, is—perhaps “enemy” is too strong a term—but it’s a toxic environment that one needs to negotiate with with great care. And people who are so clueless that they never realize this, who imbibe their culture, who somehow exemplify its values, are dehumanized in the process. Because cultural ideas are always caricatures. They are somehow a kind of necessary shorthand for doing the business of human organization. But they are not true to the complexity of each and every one of us, not true to what I call the felt moment of immediate experience. In fact, it’s that felt moment of immediate experience—whether in orgasm or in intoxication or simply in ordinary involvement with life—that culture is always making a claim against and trying to somehow minimalize or negotiate into a lesser position. Again, this has to do with the children wanting to run away from the village with the gypsy circus. Culture is felt to be stultifying.


The archaic mode, and why I think it represents an ideal worth struggling to somehow bring back into expression, was a mode based on connectivity and reciprocity. And I have a very complicated theory of human emergence and evolution that I won’t discuss here tonight—I’ve discussed it in the past in Boulder—but in a nutshell, I believe that our tendency to form dominance hierarchies and to operate with a high degree of brutality as social animals was actually interrupted by inclusion of psychedelic plants in the human diet, interrupted for perhaps 100,000 years, ending 15,000 years ago. And in that 100,000 years, when, by omnivorously expanding our diet, we allowed psychoactive alkaloids to become part of the human experience, our tendency to form these male dominant hierarchies was overturned. In other words, we literally medicated ourselves out of a style of organization that was brutal, if not neurotic.


However, when this cultural involvement with hallucinogens ended for various reasons, these tendencies in the human soma, in the human psyche, had never been eliminated, only suppressed. And they reemerge right at the moment that we call the beginning of civilization. I’m sure that the first cities were in fact areas where one group of people kept other people in pens like domestic animals. Domestication and civilization are curiously intertwined concepts. And, you know, 9,000 to 12,000 years ago, depending on where you look on the Earth, you have a sudden efflorescence of an entirely new cultural style based on agriculture rather than hunting and gathering—phenomenally successful agriculture. A consequence of which is surpluses, a consequence of which is paranoia. Because suddenly these surpluses have to be defended from out-groups. You have sedentary settlements. And consequently, the great nomadic round and movement of people and flocks that knows no notion of place or property was interrupted.


And so at that moment where you get the first urban centers, agriculture, you also get male kingship, standing armies, and role-specific social definitions—in other words, the high priest, the shaman, the miller, the metalworker, the soldier, the whore, the slave. This all comes into being where, before, everyone operated as required in any circumstance. And my analysis is that the fall from a sense of the eminence of god in whatever form you want to talk about it, the fall from a sense of the living vitality of nature, the fall from a sense of authentic community—these falls all characterize the experience of human history. And we are now basically at the end of our rope. We can fall no further without dragging the entire enterprise of planetary biology into catastrophe.


And so, according to some marvelous rule which must govern everything, at the last possible moment there’s a compensatory reflex. There’s a counterflow. And I think this counterflow in the West—I mean, it has many dimensions; this is a hideous simplification, you understand—but the counterflow in the West has to do with this incredibly pretentious and self-righteous science, which named itself anthropology, sailing forth about 100 to 120 years ago, and beginning to gather up all the detritus of the destroyed aboriginal cultures: their cooking utensils, their origin myths, their hunting implements, and yes, by golly, their medicine kits.


And the importation of these medicine kits and all this anthropological and ethnographic data back into the core of Western civilization was an authentic situation of a Trojan horse. Because inside these apparently harmless objects and plants was lurking the long-banished demon of community, egalitarianism, care for the Earth—all the things that had been compromised by the march towards scientific positivism and the present scientific civilization.


And in the course of the twentieth century this has been an enormously hard-fought social issue: do people have the right to explore their own minds for spiritual or hedonistic purposes absent the guiding hand of government? And many people—reasonable, decent people—have expressed puzzlement as to why the establishment is so resistant [towards] these apparently harmless stay-at-home activities, largely.


Well, to me the answer is obvious: the government is not so duped as one might imagine—and by “the government,” it’s a generic term for authority at all times and places—it is perfectly obvious (to me, anyway) that psychedelics so challenge cultural values that a society has to be incredibly confident of its first premises to allow its citizens to habitually and regularly explore altered states of consciousness. That’s a level of democratic dialogue that would rip this society asunder. I mean, American society cannot function without a vast, deep, hidden, dark closet into which nobody ever looks and no rhetoric ever penetrates, and if it did the whole enterprise would just rip at the seams. Every once in a while this happens—the President’s blowjob a case in point. But, you know, we move very slowly and cautiously in these areas.


But—but!—nevertheless, curious intellectual elites feeling the existential ennui imposed by scientific materialism have made special rules for themselves. And throughout the twentieth century we have had the phenomenon of bohemian culture: experimenting with sexual mores, experimenting with intoxicants of various sorts, experimenting with ideas. And I mean the bohemian community in a little larger sense than simply the artistic community, because there has always been a bohemian community in science as well—renegade scientists; the Rupert Sheldrakes of the world represent essentially the denizens of scientific Bohemia.


And someone could argue with this premise—but I would argue with them and win, I tell you—the enormous explosion of creativity (artistic, scientific, in popular culture, in design, in fashion, in literature) throughout the twentieth century has been driven by generically social disequilibrium, movement of people and ideas, and (in the background of that) psychedelics. The entire Internet computer revolution rides on the backs of people who were taking LSD in the sixties. And people have expressed horror at this idea, and then taken opinion polls at various professional gatherings such as SIGGRAPH and COMDECK and gatherings like that, and had this insight confirmed overwhelmingly. The entire post-1950s edifice of information transfer and replication technology was created by psychedelic people and is serving them very well—as well as a corporate elite.


And so what I see happening is that the dirty and unspoken secret of the twentieth century’s phenomenal diversity and creativity is its relationship to artificial stimulation of the imagination by whatever means. And we’re now so late in the twentieth century, so late in the unfolding of modernity, that I think it’s alright to talk about this. Now the creativity loop is very short. I mean, people are inspired and they can implement—through coding on the Internet, through graphic tools that they have at their disposal—and so faster and faster the imagination is vivifying itself. It is becoming more eminent.


And this is what the future is. The future is a breakdown of the notion of three-dimensional linear Newtonian space, to be replaced by a fractal landscape of a trillion private Idahos that are all reacting to each other and integrating with each other and leaping over each other in a dimension much deeper and much more variable than the social dimension that we’re used to seeing societies function in.


And I think that if you’re paying attention, or if you’re semi-unemployed as I am, you realize that you can spend all your time simply trying to understand what is happening to the world, and to yourself, and to technology, and sexuality, and medicine, and spirit, and mathematics, and art. And this drama of being is now being waged on so many levels at such an intensity that the metaphor of saying “history is like a psychedelic experience” is actually giving way to the demonstrable fact of the matter.


And the reason I think it’s worth talking this way and about these things is because this process—which is now identifiable in the terms I’ve laid out—is nevertheless embryonic at this point. In other words, we have a lot further to go than the distance we’ve already come. And we are going to go this final distance much faster than we have ever traveled before. And there is a lot of fear about the future and what it holds, and the opportunities and the challenges. I mean, when you start talking about life-extension, downloading human beings into circuitry, nanotechnology, an infinite number of easily designed and uncontrollable drugs (psychedelic and otherwise) that do all kinds of things, artificial intelligence, possibly alien intelligence—you realize the planet is busting at the seams.


And the main task of everyone who, by good fortune, finds themselves close to the top of the pyramid in the high-tech industrial democracies—and I mean everybody in this room tonight for sure—the main challenge, then, is to participate in the managing of this; the managerial process. Not that it can be flawlessly managed. It has a morphogenetic dynamic of its own. And, in fact, this morphogenetic dynamic is so powerful that if you don’t arrange yourself to its convenience, life will probably get very weird indeed. People who are homophobic or people who have racial prejudices or people who believe in grab as much as you can and hold the other guy down—these people are going to have extremely unpleasant surprises if they haven’t already along the road of life, because these are fatal—not simply erroneous thought structures—they’re fatal thought structures. Only the expansive, the generous, the psychedelic are going to be left standing when all of this stuff is sorted out, if it is ever sorted out.


So this archaic quality of the psychedelic experience—exemplified by the shaman as the paradigmatic figure who brings together archaic values—the shaman is, I think, the icon that might ease the transition into this new order of information and being. Because I think shamans have always stood in a position relative to the other of being sort of the advance scout for their cultural group or their tribe.


It’s a strange thing, you know, in, for instance, a tribal group there will be initiations into puberty for the boys and the young women, and often these will involve various theatrical (we would say) performances where demons appear or seem to appear, and are very frightening. Well, all this stage machinery (smoke machines and drums and so forth and so on) is in the hands of the shaman. The shaman is the one who is allowed to know how the culture is wired. Everyone else stands out bathed in the glow of the big screen of cultural values. But the shamans are the people who actually understand the reasons for these performances, myths, rituals.


I’ve spent time in the Amazon, and on more than one occasion you will go into some remote group, and the people gather around, and they’re very curious, and they want to touch your skin and your instruments and your tents and things. But always at the edge of this chattering happy group of people is a guy looking on who isn’t pushing his way forward and who doesn’t care about Gore-Tex. And this is the shaman. And he is essentially an alienated intellectual. And he observes the behavior of his culture from a higher point of view—and, in fact, if you know anything about shamanism you know that, worldwide, it explores motifs of levels. A transition: ladders are climbed, sacred trees are climbed, magical flights to distant realms are accomplished. The shaman can shift levels.


And, you know, we can say: well, this is a way of talking about intoxication, or trance, or… well, yes. But, in fact, when you stop talking about ways of talking and actually get loaded, what you discover is that they were speaking as clearly and concisely as not only they could, but as is possible, and that, in fact, under the influence of at least psychedelics (and I’m speaking here from my experience), the psyche unfolds. It’s almost as though it has two confirmational geometries: one folded, tight, culture-bound, paranoid, ego-driven, so forth and so on—the culturally defined persona, the good son, the hard worker, the good mom, so forth and so on. And then, absent those cultural constraints and under the influence of—and let’s use the Jungian word—inflating dynamic like a psychedelic, the self (the ontos of being) unfolds into a completely different world.


And I maintain that it is not fully grasped within psychological metaphors alone; that this world that is unfolded into is better grasped by mathematical metaphors. And what I mean by that is: this is not a vision, an insight, a trip. This is an other dimension, as Riemann, Lobachevsky and Euclid would understand the word “dimension.” This is why the shaman can see where the game will congregate, predict the weather, successfully cure. Because the shaman is perceiving the world from a higher-order mathematical domain that is outside the confines of cultural conditioning.


And just where am I going with this? We’re close now. The learning curve was steep, but now: a storm-battered cabin. Where this is going is: this evolution of the shamanic hyper-dimensional type out of confined culture is a fractal model for what is happening to us here at the end of history. We are trying to build not a class of shamans, but a shamanic culture. In other words: a culture—and there has never, I think, been a culture of this type on the planet—a culture that actually lived in the light of the fourth dimension. Not as passed down through a shamanic class, but as a component of the felt experience of every single member of that culture. And that is what this spatial displacement of locality is about; how our minds are spreading over the planet. We are losing our association to our genetically-endowed primate bodies. We are no longer—our gender self-definition is no longer bound by biological destiny. Our political institutions are designed to free us for class transition. We are in this act of expanding to fill a larger mental space.


And this is a huge thing. I mean, you hear about the paradigm shift, but we’re like barnacles on the whale of the paradigm shift, and it’s very hard for us to orient toward what is happening. We each think we’re having our own private adventure—with our career, with our sexuality, with our philosophical understanding, with our psychedelic voyages, with our spiritual teachers—but in fact, notice that everybody else is going through something very similar.


And the payoff of all of this, I think, is a more comfortable mode of being; that we really do feel the weight of some kind of original sin. We are cast from paradise. We feel flawed. And if we aren’t flawed, we rush to invent flaws. So if agriculture didn’t do the trick, then phonetic alphabets surely will. And if that can’t, how about monotheism? And if that can’t, how about science? And if that can’t, how about political correctness? And on and on and on—we flagellate ourselves for our perceived inadequacies, define ourselves as apart from nature, a fallen creature. And we say this came from the church or the corporation or the king, but everybody participated in this particular thought crime along the way. I mean, there were a few brave heretics who held out against it. Now there are many heretics who hold out against it and say the distinction between the artificial and the natural, between the male and the female, between the polis and the wilderness, these things must be erased because they are infantile, they are the things of childhood. We have come to the end of our childhood as a species, as a semi-cannibalistic, rape-prone, ravenous, copulating, destroying ape species. Business along those lines is a sure bullet in the head for every man, woman, and child on this planet within 500 years, no question about it.


And so what we pride ourselves on is our flexibility. Well, by god, we’re going to be put to the test. Everyone must push themselves. And the great enemy to this process—and people say: are you an anarchist? Are you a nihilist?—the great enemy to this process of freeing ourselves for a dynamic future, I believe, is ideology. Not bad ideologies—god knows, we have enough of them—but ideology itself is a form of neoteny, a form of self-juvenilization. It’s a cop-out. A mature civilized being lives without closure: without the closure provided by Freudianism, Marxism, Buddhism, positivism, capitalism, Zen, the Hopi prophecies, the teachings of the Arcturians, or anything else. Living without closure is honest living.


And it’s uncomfortable, because there’s something about the anal-retentive primate mind that we want to button it down, you know, and say, “Well, it’s this or it’s that,” with no sense of irony, no sense of scale, no tongue-in-cheek approach at all. I mean, if you met a termite who aspired to understand the cosmic workings of the universe, you would just roll your eyes at such a naïve misunderstanding of one’s own position in the cosmos. Well, do you think we stand so far from where the termite stands that our musings about how the cosmos works are carrying much force? I don’t think so.


Well then people say, “Well, but without ideology, isn’t it… aren’t we supposed to reject fascism and choose community and…?” No. I mean, at a certain stage, yes. But this is the sophomoric stage of becoming an intellectual person. Once you’ve reached the hoary ages that I now reside in, you see. And notice—you know, I visited my doctor recently, and as I was getting dressed he said, “You know, in the nineteenth century, most people your age were dead.” And I’ve thought of that remark on many different levels, and I realize: culture is a con game designed to bewilder you for 35 to 40 years. And then, if by some miracle you can outlive that span of time, a strange realization will begin to dawn as you sit at the poker table: you realize this is a bunch of crap! I’ve been had! Well, up until very recently only a very few people in any society lived into those ages, and then that was called wisdom. Said: “You know, he just sits on his porch and rocks and occasionally chuckles.” But now, because the cultural dialogue is so frank and because so many people live to very ripe old ages, the biologically generated con of culture is being seen through, and the falsity of ideology is exposed for what it is—something that you bamboozle children with for thirty years. But beyond that it doesn’t serve.


Well, so then, what is to fill this void that has always been filled by passionate convictions regardless of what they might happen to be? What is to fill the void is what I call—and I mentioned earlier—the felt presence of immediate experience. The felt presence of immediate experience. This is sufficient. This is hard for us, armored as we are and de-focused from the moment as we are by our previous imbibing of toxic cultural values. Occasionally we touch this.


Well, I think psychedelics are the way back; that you can train yourself. And there may be other roads back—meditation and so forth—but psychedelics is the fast track, I would argue, to a sense of here-and-now-ness, a sense of Bodhi mind, a sense of stillness, a sense of connectivity to the Gaian intent. And with that, the morphogenetic dynamic that is unfolding becomes exhilarating, adventuresome. Trust. You can reach down into it and trust nature. Without it it’s all paranoia, and “should I stockpile food?” and “what should I do with my investments?” and “where am I going to run to, given this catastrophe, that catastrophe?”


You know, people are so agitated by the notion of the end of the world, and yet don’t seem to notice that the end of their world is a pretty sure bet. Most people are dead, I hate to be the one to break it to you—whatever “dead” means. We don’t know. But most people are in that condition. And so it shall come to us, presumably, in one form or another. Well, compared to your own self-extinction, issues like the end of the world seem like fairly abstract political matters.


So I think that corporate capitalism and object fetishism—which seem to be two human traits that cross-fertilize each other—are run on anxiety, and that this anxiety trivializes what it is to be human, and that all of nature waits upon human beings to awake from the delusion of history and to reembrace the living processes that nature represents. And the medium of exchange are the psychedelics. They are very mysterious. Anybody who thinks they simply, through perturbation of brain chemistry or something, allow—I don’t know—repressed material from the personal unconscious to come into focus—this is such a dumbing down of what it is. These things carry intelligence—far greater intelligence than our own. An ocean of alien intelligence moves through the vegetable world, which is ancient beyond imagining on this planet. I mean, it goes back 500–600 million years. And an ocean of very strange intelligence, but approachable—at least approachable enough to be identifiable as intelligence—resides there. And we have wandered from this, and in our hubris built these paranoid schemes into our behaviors that I call cultural values, and they have pushed us now into very precarious places.


So it’s time to come back. And, you know, this is pretty egg-heady stuff. You can’t shout this on the street corners. But, as I said, we represent the upper ten, five percent of the pyramid of privilege and connectivity on this planet. And if we can begin to talk this way, think about things in these terms, transcend ideologies, we will move forward and we will assuage the anxiety of those less fortunate and further down on the social pyramid. And I’m really serious about this ideological thing, because I see that there’s a kind of bifurcation which—I almost said “ahead,” but no, we are in this bifurcation right now—and it’s whether we shall fragment into cult or embrace this thing I’m talking about, which is living without closure.


Cult is no answer. Cult is the old answer repackaged in smaller sizes. No human being has greater insight into your circumstance than you do. If you’ve somehow managed to convince yourself that this is not the case, you need to seriously think it through. Because our perspectives are unique. We can generalize from one person to another, but no one is in a position to claim leadership. It’s unnecessary. The dynamic of the situation is larger than any single human being. And anyone who says “I understand,” “I know,” “Follow me,” is certainly not to be invited home to dinner or tithed to. Because no one knows. It is a mystery. And a mystery is not an unsolved problem. This is what science has led us to assume: all mysteries—you hire people, they gather data, the mystery goes away. Only the trivial edges of the mystery can be illuminated in that fashion. The core of being is pure contradiction. Life is death. Death is life. The past is the future. The present is eternity. And comprehending this is not to become some kind of ivory tower intellectual. Comprehending this is to move past intellectual concepts to actually embrace love. Love is what waits beyond abandoning the search for closure. Love is not closure, love is challenge, emotion, being—in the purest sense: not becoming. This is the realm of becoming. And it is always striving, and it is always incomplete. Love is the realm of true being. And it lies beyond the prison of culture, beyond the prison of ideology, beyond the prison of self-defined limitations.


Thank you!

Q & A Session


The richest part of this for me is dialogue, because I know what I think (sort of), but I don’t know what you think, and I’m rarely not surprised. So if anyone would care to hazard a question—ah, nuts and bolts. Enough of this high-flown metaphysical baffle guard. Well, the question is: what flavor do I recommend? And I believe, I intuit, the question to mean: what psychedelics do I prefer, and would I say a few words about it? Is that correct? Yeah.


Well, people want different things from substances. And, you know, substances sedate, stimulate, provide erection, stamina, all kinds of things. The indole hallucinogens, the alkaloidal hallucinogens, comprise a very small family of molecules, considering the vastness of molecular nature. And they all have structural similarities. And I’m thinking of LSD, psilocybin, DMT, harmaline and harmine, the beta-carbolines, ibogaine, and that’s about it. Now, the only psychedelic sub—well, not quite the only—but one psychedelic substance left out there that has a noble pedigree is mescaline. It is an amphetamine—related, but different enough to fall into a different category. Another exception, the new kid on the block, is alpha salvanorin, the constituent of salvia divinorum. And this is truly a wild card in the deck. No diterpene was known to contain psychoactive properties until this one was discovered, and its molecularly totally different from all other known psychoactive substances, and so it is right now a great object of discussion and deconstruction in the laboratory.


But I mention these things in the interest of thoroughness. The main trail is psilocybin, DMT, and DMT made orally active through being complexed with an MAO-inhibitor like harmine. And what I mean by that is: DMT is smoked for its effectiveness. If you eat it, it’s destroyed in your stomach. There’s no psychoactivity. But if you inhibit an enzyme system in your digestive tract—called monoamine oxidase—if you inhibit that enzyme system, the DMT is not destroyed in the stomach, it passes into the bloodstream, hence through the blood-brain barrier, and delivers a psychedelic experience. And that’s what these jungle beverages from South America are all about—ayahuasca, yagé, natima, daime: those are all local names for some combination of a DMT-containing plant (usually psychotria viridis) and an MAO-inhibiting plant (always banisteriopsis caapi).


And people say: well, what about the synthetic, the laboratory psychedelics? In principle they are very interesting—in principle. In other words, there’s nothing wrong with them and we’ve no artificial versus natural chauvinism going on here. But in practical fact, we know less about them. In other words, when you decide you want to take mushrooms—let’s say psilocybin mushrooms—you can look at cultures in the Sierra Mazateca mountains of central Mexico that have used these things for at least a thousand years before the conquest—probably several thousand years before the conquest. Well, that is your human data. You know, then, that they do not cause miscarriages, blindness, Parkinson’s syndrome, and so forth and so on. A compound may come from the laboratory and deliver an absolutely overwhelming psychedelic experience on the money, but what do you know of this compound on a scale of 200 years of exposure or with large numbers of people?


And, you know, I am not interested in being able to stand up and say: I took every drug on Earth at every dose possible in every circumstance possible. That’s not the idea. The idea is to find a doorway that works, and then drive through the doorway. And this may mean psilocybin mushrooms, but at high doses and many times, and you may not bother to take any other thing.


The important thing is to find a way to this place that I’m talking about: this place where boundaries dissolve, language becomes visible, the plants talk to you, you see your past lives, you see the destiny of the universe, you understand the mysteries of higher mathematics, human love, and French cuisine. And when you find your way to that place, that’s the place, folks! And if you can get back there repeatedly by the same method, then that would be indicated as the thing to do.


You see, it’s an incredibly personal thing, because not only are we obviously as different from each other as we are, but this business of… you can get down to a pretty nuts-and-bolts level. How you react to a given substance is related to your own unique genetically endowed component of synaptic receptors. And these are like locks in your brain waiting for chemical keys to be inserted into them. And it’s well-known that there are compounds that one person in fifty reacts to them as an unbearable odor, but 49 out of 50 people, this is an odorless compound. That’s a gene. If you have this gene, you cannot stand the presence of this compound because the odor is so horrific. Well, how much more complicated, then, the synaptic interactions with drugs and these plant substances—which are themselves produced by the genome of a living creature? The plant transcripts its DNA, part of that transcription process calls for the production of these low molecular weight alkaloid compounds, and then you enter the food chain, and it moves out of plant tissue and into primate brain tissue, which has been hammered by evolutionary selective processes for millions of years in many different times and places, and so it’s a unique thing.


So there is—when you get into the psychedelic path, if you want to put it that way—a period where I think people do try different things and different circumstances, but the idea is to quickly figure out what works for you, and then use that tool judiciously and respectfully, and with attention. And these things are remarkably harmless. I mean, pharmacologically, medically speaking, these are some of the most harmless compounds that are active in organic nature. Someone once said to me, they said, “If you want to understand LSD as a chemical in terms of its power, imagine the Empire State Building being ripped apart in a half an hour by one ant.” An ant that could demolish the Empire State Building in thirty minutes: that’s how powerful LSD is as a molecule compared to a 145-pound human organism that it is taking from base to Buddhahood in an hour and forty-five minutes, you know?


Well, that was a long answer, but an important operational question. Well, this is interesting stuff. I’m in a contradictory position, which is exactly where I should be. Because, you know, if you talk to me—and many people are disappointed when they have this experience—I’m not friendly to all the weirdness being peddled in the intellectual marketplace. Not friendly to the face on Mars or to the recent discovery of Atlantis, or not… I mean, I’m a show-me kind of guy. And then people say: well, you’re some kind of a… you’re like a scientist or something. No, not exactly. I also have a very long and strange life of my own that’s been lived in weird places with strange people and bizarre drugs, and I have seen absolutely confounding things. I have seen objects change from one thing into another, I’ve experienced incontrovertibly telepathies of certain forms. But what I’ve also observed in my life of probing these areas is that these things are incredibly rare and, for my money, impossible to anticipate or control.


And so ultimately, I think, mind is the ground of being. But we do not understand what mediates its intransigence. In other words, if the world is an idea, why isn’t it the way we want it to be? Why is it so resistant if it is so plastic? So my approach has been—and I recommend this to you and to especially young people who are just starting out into the jungles and ashrams of this world—here’s how I operate it. I investigated the weird by rational means, and I was never a believer. And my theory went like this: the truth is the truth. It does not require the cooperation of Terence McKenna. On the other hand, all deception does require my cooperation. So lean as hard as you want on the flying saucer witness, the guru, the method. Lean as hard as you want. Because the real thing can take your leaning. Truth will not crumble before your critical onslaught. Bullshit will!


And it drives me crazy when people approach it—given, let’s say, spiritual or paranormal phenomena—reverently, with eyes averted, never asking the hard question, never slamming it. And then, of course, you know, Mountebanks, frauds, charlatans get the upper hand in that situation. So I say of a spiritual doctrine, an anomalous phenomenon, a spiritual teacher: kick the tires, honk the horn, drive it around the block. The truth can take and will pass all tests.


And here’s the good news: some people think that if you have that attitude, the mystery will be not found, that it will retreat ahead of you and that you will be left in an existential desert. Not so. I’m the living proof of that. I was as hard-nosed as I could possibly be. I was as brutal as I could possibly be. And there is unimaginable strangeness—not at Zubenelgenubi or Proxima Centauri, but north Denver. A phenomenal weirdness haunts the world nearby. And you can find it if you are not distracted by false weirdness. And there is so much false weirdness these days that I feel almost like I’m trying to save people from the clutches of all this new-age banditry that’s about. So that’s that.


Well, at the risk of dragging the reluctant into places they didn’t they’d go this evening… this is a fascinating thing. I mean, this is close to my heart, this question. Because, first of all, let me background this as I understand it for you. Probability theory is a way of understanding nature that has been evolved primarily in the last couple of hundred years. And it is the primary tool of modern science. And roughly it works like this: if you want to know something—like, let’s say, how much electricity is flowing through a wire—the way to find this out is to measure the electricity ten times, add those numbers together, and divide by ten. You now have a number called the average voltage moving through this wire. Now, you might immediately notice that this number need not be identical to any of the numbers which you added together. In other words, it does not agree with a single measurement that you made. It is the average of those measurements.


Now, I maintain that science has made a fundamental error. It’s an understandable error, but it’s not a forgivable error. And the error that science has made is this (in the application of probability theory to nature): probability theory assumes—on the basis of no evidence, but for purposes of simplification—probability theory assumes that when you make a measurement does not matter. That to specify that the measurement of the voltage moving through the wire was made on a Thursday rather than a Tuesday is utterly irrelevant to the question, “How much voltage is flowing through the wire?” And probability theory has gotten a long way with this simplification. Modern science is its crowning achievement, and all the technical toys that flow therefrom.


But for fifty years it’s been well understood by at least some people that truly complex phenomena just do not yield to this method of analysis. Can you understand love affairs by taking a hundred of them, adding them together, and dividing by one hundred, and then getting the generic love affair? Can you understand a corporate takeover or a social revolution by this method? No. So all higher-order phenomena—and, interestingly, notice those were all sociological examples—all higher-order phenomena that involve systems as complex as human systems, when you try to treat them statistically, you get a travesty. You get a cartoon, a flattening of the human affect, that totally betrays the phenomenon.


So I have proposed and worked out at great length—and I won’t attempt to transmit to you this evening, because it’s impossible and to some degree boring—but what I’ve looked at is: what if we were to accept the idea that probability is actually fluctuating? You see, when you say that time is invariant as the statisticians do, you’re turning time into what’s called an Aristotelean absolute. It’s not a thing, it’s an idea. Time, for probability theory, is pure duration. This was Newton’s phrase: pure duration. In other words, time is this mathematical dimension that you put stuff into so that its seriality is preserved. But I would suggest that time is a thing. A thing. As much a thing as water is, certainly as much a thing as thought is. Time is a thing; a part of the physical universe like light, energy, matter, time.


And no phenomenon in nature has ever been found to be mathematically perfect. You know, the Greeks thought the planets moved in perfect circles because they were gods, and so they had to behave perfectly. But they discovered they then couldn’t predict planetary motion, and it took centuries of beating their heads against this wall before somebody said: try an ellipse. And bingo! You know, perfect observation and prediction matching. But the ellipse is not a perfect Platonic form, and hence it was unsatisfying.


Well, one by one, science abandoned these perfect mathematical objects as descriptive of nature, with the single exception of Newtonian notion of pure duration which views time as a perfectly smooth surface, no matter at how great a magnification you zoom in. Zoom in by a power of 100 million, it’s still perfectly smooth. Zoom in another power of 100 million, it’s still perfectly smooth. Well, nothing in nature behaves like that. So why not entertain the rather messy idea that time, probability, fluctuates? You know, when you study probability theory, the first thing they teach you on day one is, they tell you memorize this: “Chance has no memory.” And then they give this example: a man has flipped a coin forty-nine times, and forty-nine times it has come up heads. Now he is flipping for the fiftieth time. What are the odds the coin will come up heads? And if you are a good student and expect to pass this course, the answer is: fifty-fifty. The coin does not know, does not remember, that it’s already come up forty-nine times in a row a certain designation.


But now, if you put that problem to a gambler, the gambler would say: well, I’ll bet heads. Because it’s on a run. Now, a run is a concept of a runnel in time. It’s not the Aristotelean perfection. Notice that if it were really true that the odds of heads or tails were fifty-fifty—if it were really, really, really true in a Platonic universe—then the coin would land on its edge every single time. You have to haunt some really low bars to find surfaces so sticky that the coin will land upright every time. So you take this to a statistician. You say: why doesn’t the coin land on its edge each time? And they say: well, there are secondary factors. And you say: well, what are they. And they say: well, obviously they’re there, because it was one or the other. And you get all this flimflam.


So I think—and this leads into deeper water, the proponent of something which I call novelty theory. And novelty theory is the idea that, over long periods of time, complexification is actually favored over entropic dissipation. And the one way I say this is: I say nature is a novelty-conserving engine. Nature, having once produced something interesting—a new molecule, a new species, a new form of matter—nature will tenaciously hang on to that. Nature does not easily allow herself to be pushed backward. Occasionally there are speed bumps, there are hesitations. It’s not a smooth ascent into complexity. But every time the vector of complexity is deflected, it quickly rights itself and returns to the process.


And I maintain that we ourselves are a manifestation of this phenomenon. That, after organic evolution running for 700 million years on the surface of this planet, nature’s preference for novelty, nature’s conservation of complexity, has led not only to extremely advanced higher animals with superb binocular vision and muscular coordination and acoustical skills, but also has added the new sheen of cultural, epigenetic behaviors: tool-making, mathematics, music, dance, theater, humor. And so people say: well, your belief that we are on a collision course with some kind of singularity of complexity—doesn’t that seem to you highly improbable? That, in the entire course of the universe, you would happen to find yourself so lucky as to be in the immediate domain of a concrescent complexification? And the answer is: no. We are part of this concrescent complexification.


In other words, the presence of tool-using, language-using, culture-building animals on this planet is the intimation of the approach of the Other. We are the outer edge of the shockwave of eschatology. Nature has pulled us forth out of being as simple witnesses to a much more complex phenomenon still to come, of which we will be a part. And I think that eventually I feel very confident, not of necessarily the mathematical details of my formulation of this theory, but that it will be found that there is, built into nature just like the speed of light and Planck’s constant and the charge of the electron, a preference for the conservation of complexity.


And if that’s true, you see, without kneeling down to anthropomorphic gods, we can abandon existential nihilism and all this rap about we’re the chance witnesses lucky to be here, and the universe is flinging itself from meaninglessness to greater meaninglessness—no, not at all. Suddenly we’ve uncovered the thread of the cosmic drama. Nature loves complexity. We are, in our hood, the most complex game around. Therefore, nature loves us. And immediately an ethic is implied: that which preserves and advances complexity serves the universal purpose. That which degrades, betrays, and destroys complexity serves the negentropic tendency that nature (at least organic nature, but I maintain all nature) is struggling to overcome. So this is very exciting to me: that we could uncover an ethical vector in the universe and align ourselves with it. As far as a bibliographic citation for a critique against probability theory, I think probably this talk is some of the most detailed that’s ever been given to the subject!

Terence McKenna

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