Permitting Smart People to Hope

June 1994

McKenna traipses through a mélange of scientific and technological folderol—the detection of the top quark, swift progress on sequencing the human genome, newfangled theories about the origin of the moon, quantum bafflements like non-locality, the proliferation of the internet and information technology, speculations on the nature of time from Prigogine, and sundry other bamboozlements. He elucidates how these breakthroughs in diverse fields might converge to profoundly transform human civilization, culture, and consciousness in the imminent future.



There’s so much concrescence of time and compression of historical development going on in the world right now that you can hardly pick up a journal in your favorite field without seeing that all paradigms are being challenged. This is happening regardless of the area you’re working in. It may be the design of solid state circuitry, it may be quantum mechanics, or cosmology, or information theory. They’re simultaneously, now, going on so many breakthroughs in the investigation of nature and mathematics that one of the themes of these discussions will be how unpredictable the consequences are of all this knowledge flowing together. No one is planning how these various technologies, insights, and tools are going to fit together. And in a way it creates opportunity, because there is so much chaos, because very small forces can exert major changes. I’m sure you all know the cliché about the butterfly whose wingbeat starts the hurricane. I got a fax the day before I came down here saying that Interpol had put out an all points bulletin for that very butterfly, and it was attempting to corner it and halt the hurricane season. So they do take this stuff seriously.


So just to review some recent developments that may or may not be related to each other, but they are certainly related in the sense that they are all occurring right now. Some of you may have followed the detection of the top quark in a recent series of experiments at CERN in Geneva. Well, this essentially ends an entire program of nuclear and particle physics that’s been carried on since the 1920s. Now the quark model of matter is essentially complete in its more modest formulation. All the predicted particles have been detected. There’s good agreement between theory and theoretical formulation. And this represents the culmination of an effort to come to grips with matter that’s been underway since the Greeks. And it essentially—in 1994, the general sense is that it’s now pretty well nailed down. This is astonishing, and ends a whole intellectual effort that, as I say, began with the Greeks, gained momentum with Newton, gained incredible intellectual focus throughout the twentieth century, and is now completed. It’s the equivalent of the sequencing of the human genome in biology, which is the next subject that I wanted to mention, which is: this project, which was slated to be finished around 2020, is now probably going to be finished well before 2000. Because once they got into it, they discovered that it’s like riding a bicycle: the more you do it, the easier it is to do. And very, very sophisticated computer-driven chemical simulation techniques have been invented, and the human genome is just filling up like a crossword puzzle, day by day, week by week, as we speak.


Could you explain what that is? I don’t [???]



Oh, well, every organism in nature is specified by a unique sequence of chemical labels called nucleotides. And they are stored in the DNA. And this nucleotide message, in the case of human beings, is like up to 20 million units long. And it’s basically the script for a human being. Now, whether you get you or me depends on whether the switches are set in up and down positions, but all human beings have the same gene sequence, it’s called. And so if you can sequence, if you can determine the human genome, you can predict the occurrence of all kinds of hereditary diseases and have a kind of utopian approach to medicine, where everyone throughout their entire life knows what they are at risk for, and in contemplating any possible pairing for procreation you know just down to a gnat’s eyelash what the child’s genetic predisposition for various diseases is, and enzyme deficiencies, and this sort of thing. So this is happening—at a startling pace.


Can I ask you something?




So if you say that it’s predetermined, do we have anything to say about it? I mean, can you prevent them? Diseases?



Oh yeah, you can definitely prevent. Because, you see, if you can locate where on the genome the defective gene is—


How do you spell genome?




Thank you, okay.



If you can locate where in the genome the problem is for any genetic defect, then you can design a repair gene that can go in there and actually just scissor the bad piece out and put the good piece in. And this is not science fiction, this has been done in the laboratory now, and it’s happening. The main point of what I’m talking about tonight is: all these crazy, far out, Flash Gordon things are well advanced, and yet—and the other point—highly ignorant of each other, so that the cross-fertilization process that is really going to make all this come into a kind of new paradigmatic order hasn’t yet been revealed.


Okay, other items. And some of these range toward the Oh wow! Remember, ultimately this is just a laundry list of things on my mind. The events that will occur in the vicinity of Jupiter in the third week of July of this year are extraordinarily interesting from all kinds of points of view. Are you all aware of what I’m talking about?





Okay. In January, an object was detected breaking up under the tidal forces of Jovian gravity. And this was named Shoemaker-Levy 9. And it is now in about 25 pieces that are three to five kilometers in diameter each. And the Newtonian mechanics of this decaying system of orbits dictates that, between the 19th and the 26th of July of this year, these objects will smash into the planet Jupiter on the dark side; on the side turned away from the Earth at the moment of impact. But because—well, it’s a fascinating event for many reasons. First of all, it’s going to churn up an enormous amount of material from deep below the cloud tops of Jupiter. And within six hours the parameter will turn into view of Earth-based telescopes.


The other thing is: these planet-crushing events, these collisions of large objects in the solar system, have a very interesting and not fully understood role in the formation of our own Earth, and the way the history of life has developed on it. For example—and this is the next new thing I wanted to talk about—there has been a sudden coalescence of agreement in planetary geophysics over the past six months over a problem (which may not have been bothering you, but it bothered me), which was: where did the Moon come from? And there have been, for hundreds of years, different theories. I mean, clear back to Laplace. In one theory, Laplace noticed that galaxies, and solar systems, everything condensed down out of dust. And he put—this is in the 1770s—put forth the very plausible theory that the Moon simply was an aggregation of material in the same way that the Earth was an aggregation of material, and that it formed around the Earth. Well, then there are problems with this; technical problems. It just doesn’t check out.


So then another theory that had its vogue was that the Earth was spinning very rapidly in its early history, and a blob—actually, it just separated off. A hot blob of stuff which went off into space. Suddenly, new techniques for analyzing Apollo rocks, and stuff brought back from the Moon, and all kinds of conferences, and so forth, they figured it out. And the answer is extraordinary, and none of the above. The answer is that 4.1 billion years ago, the Earth was struck by an object the size of Mars, and that in this catastrophe enough ejecta went into orbit around the planet to condense as the Moon. It’s remarkable that such a catastrophic and dramatic theory could get unanimous acceptance in the field of planetary science where all this stuff is most haggled over.


What was the planet the size of Mars that hit the Earth? Was it Mars, or—



No, it wasn’t Mars. It doesn’t exist. Its core has now sunk into the core of the Earth. It had an iron core. It is now part of the Earth. And the light-weight pyroxene ejecta formed the Moon. And if you’re interested in this, this month’s Scientific American has it on the cover: a photo of the event. So, just extraordinary revolution in theory in a very fundamental matter, because some people claim that the Moon was captured, and that it was captured as recently as 65 million years ago, and that the complexity of mammalian phylogeny is related to the presence of the Moon. And now all that’s out. The Moon is very old. It emerged in this catastrophe basically at the moment of the solidification of the surface of the Earth. It was a climactic event that came at the end of a series of asteroidal infalls that basically built the planet.

So then, other things.


How does this tie into this thing with Jupiter, then? Is that just to give us an idea how that happened?



Yeah. That we’ve never had an opportunity to observe anything like this. The extinction event which killed the dinosaurs and created the beginning of the Mesozoic era 65 million years ago was not as energetic an event as this thing that’s going to happen in July. It was very interesting to watch how the scientific press played this thing, because Shoemaker-Levy 9 was discovered on January 9th, and the bulletin of astrophysics on the 12th broke the news to everybody who wasn’t already following it on email or something. And they called it a once-in-a-hundred-million-year-event. Which—interesting that this once-in-a-hundred-million-year-event would occur at a moment when human beings have instruments on their way to Jupiter. So then they, within the month, they had it down to once-in-a-million-year-event, and now I think they’re saying nobody has any idea. This may be once every hundred years it happens. But it’s very interesting. The explosion will be so large. And since it can’t be directly seen by Earth-based telescopes, the energy release will be measured by measuring the flash of reflected light off the moons of Jupiter. In other words, they will rise in luminosity and then fall very suddenly as this explosion takes place on the back side. So that’s that.


Sort of in line with all of this, and with a kind of Esalen spin on it, something every interesting that’s been going on (if you’re a fan of the history of science and ideas) is that, in the last six months, there’s been a very interesting effort to look again at David Bohm’s work. David Bohm is now dead, and I believe he taught here or he visited here many times. In any case, his ideas are well known here, and he was sort of always “our” physicist— “our” meaning the slightly flakier end of things. And for that reason he was not taken as seriously as he should have been in the halls of physics. Well, then, I think he died about 18 months ago. Well, now, in Scientific American and in physical review letters there have been long editorials saying that a problem which has haunted quantum physics throughout the twentieth century could be solved by admitting that the Copenhagen School—which is Niels Bohr and Heisenberg and all those untouchable and godlike figures—to admit that they were actually wrong about something fundamental. And that David Bohm’s quantum physics—which gives the same numerical results as theirs—is, in fact, a more elegant formulation. And what it is that is at issue here is something that everybody who concerns themselves with quantum physics for ten minutes has encountered, which is the famous uncertainty conundrum. Every school child knows by now that you cannot determine the velocity and the absolute position of an electron at the same time, because as you bring velocity into focus, absolute position smears out. As you bring absolute position into focus, velocity smears out. This is called the uncertainty principle, and probably more muddle-headed prose has been generated around this problem in physics in the last 70 years than any other.


Well, it turns out that if you go with David Bohm there is no uncertainty. You can know the position and the speed (the velocity) with perfect certainty at the same moment of time. The problem is—and the reason why he was never taken seriously—is that all these quantum formulations carry with them certain metaphysical baggage that is hard for other theorists to accept. And the impossible baggage that Bohm’s theory carried was what is called non-locality. Non-locality. This is the peculiar feature of nature which is built into Bohm’s formulation of quantum physics: that any two particles ever associated with each other at some time in what we call the past maintain a magical and instantaneous connection with each other no matter how far apart they are for the rest of their existence. And that this is not subject to the inverse square law that slows the speed of light. This is some kind of magical property which is instantaneous.


Well, this seemed so outlandish that it was just thought to prove on the face of it that Bohm was wrong. Because they said, “Well, look at the consequences if you were to accept this insane thing that would be built in there.” But now, because of what’s called Bell’s theorem, they are actually doing experiments which demonstrate—in the same way you demonstrate the charge of the electron or the speed of light—they are actually doing experiments which demonstrate that non-locality is real. You associate two electrons, you pass them through a grid of some sort which separates them, you capture one of them, determine its charge, flip it to its opposite charge, and (having captured the other one) you notice that when you flip the charge on one, the charge on the other one automatically reverses instantaneously, and that these things behave as though they never left each other’s presence. Non-locality. Well, this sets the stage for a staggering realization, because if the universe is non-local in terms of information, then all the raving over the past 30 years about holographic universes, and psychedelic plenums, and the monadic facto higher-dimensional Akashic hoo-ha—all that suddenly begins to gain vindication. And… okay, so that’s all happening.


Meanwhile, three doors down the hall in the branch of things marked “information theory,” they’re realizing that there is a way to analyze physics. So that what you get is that what we call matter is simply information in association with energy. That information associated with energy is matter. So then you go back to this other branch of understanding, and they’re saying that information is non-local. And then what that begins to sound like, then, is that matter also is non-local in some sense. And if you could download that into a technology, you could walk from here to Zubenelgenubi without ever going through high vacuum, and that would be big news. Do you understand what I’m saying? Good.

Yes, it would be reasonable to ask a question at this point.


So how does the principle of non-locality come in to prove that you can determine position and velocity at the same time?



Oh, it doesn’t. It’s simply that, as a consequence of accepting the parts of his theory which allow you the absolute prediction of velocity and position, you get—as a kind of you-can’t-not-order-it side dish—this non-locality thing. And when, really, a way of talking about non-locality is to say—and then this goes to a whole other branch of knowledge that’s also just boiling at fever pitch—is to say what we’re really saying is that the universe is fractal. That it’s an enfolded set of values such that you can extract the whole story from any subset. And again, all of this—complexity theory, chaos dynamics, fractal mathematics—what’s happening is that the computer is allowing us to go beyond the mathematical objects of Greek philosophy, which were, you know, what did we have? We had the cube, the perfect circle, the dodecahedron, so forth and so on. And then, through the genius of Newton and Leibniz and that crowd, the infinite set of ellipses that we could extract from the sectioned cone that allowed us to do calculus, that allowed us to do modern science. But that’s sort of where it ended, you know? With Newtonian mechanics, and then statistical mechanics to handle the quantum. But now, with chaos dynamics and fractal mathematics and complexity theory, we are actually producing mathematical models of nature that are more like nature than anything we’ve ever seen before. And it’s in a sense the culmination of the holy grail of a certain branch of human thinking that, out of numbers and their relationships—which are, after all, objects in the human mind; whatever that is—comes this incredible close correspondence to nature which is the most remotely removed and ontologically independent thing we know vis-à-vis the human mind.


Okay, so that was a little paean to David Bohm. And then, moving through that and going further, Ilya Prigogine—who has also been to Esalen and had an influence on many people who taught at Esalen, and me among them, although I was just sort of, like, sharpening his pencils at that stage—who has already established his track record by winning the Nobel Prize for physics by destroying the second law of thermodynamics, which was no small accomplishment, believe me! Because there was no law of nature to emerge in the nineteenth century more tenaciously believed in than the second law of thermodynamics. And Prigogine just showed that, you know, it was a generally true statement of a rather complex situation in which, actually, sometimes, it was bunk. And he secured that mathematically. That was twenty years ago.


Now Prigogine is coming forward with a theory that I modestly suggest sounds somewhat like my notion about time: that time is, first of all, not a construct of the human mind, it is, in fact, a property of the universe like energy, like matter. It’s a thang, is what we’re trying to say here. It’s not an abstraction. And this is not the first time science has had to make this leap. I mean, the curved field, the electromagnetic field, was at first thought to be some kind of weird mathematical contortion you had to go through to understand electricity, but couldn’t possibly actually have anything to do with what it was. And then it was realized, you know, that it was actually a point-for-point description. So Prigogine is beginning to say that time is a thing, and that therefore it has an arrow, and that complexity is conserved as you approach the present—which is what I’ve been saying year in and year out here for a while. I didn’t call it complexity, I called it novelty and used Whitehead’s vocabulary. But there is, you know, a very exciting convergence of intuitions here that seem really to hold the possibility of a whole new way of thinking about time and determinism and novelty and the buildup of structure in time.



I thought that your theory of novelty was that it was not conserved but increasing?



Well, what I mean by “conserved” is that its general tendency is to never slip back. In other words, once some novelty is achieved, it’s tenaciously retained, and it becomes instead the foundation for new novelty. And that’s how novelty increases over time: by building on pre-established levels of novelty. So that, for instance, a molecular structure very novel at its inception becomes ultimately the pre-condition for biology, a later arriving phase of novelty. And then culture builds on biology, and so forth, like that.



So when you said that—what was the other term? Not novelty, but… complexity—


Oh, complexity.


—is maintained as you get closer to the present?


Yes. That complexity seems to be clustering near the present.


Meaning this present or any present?



No, this present. In other words, what he’s saying, part of his breakthrough, is: he is saying the arrow of time is real. The universe is, from end to end, oriented in one direction. It isn’t an artifact of human perception. This is a break with ordinary physics, which insists that all these transforms can be run backward in time as well as forward. He says: no. And that’s what I’ve been saying. My conception is that the cosmos is what I call a novelty-conserving engine, and that through sort of a two-steps-forward-one-step-back process marches ever deeper into novelty and ever faster. That’s the other thing that interests me, because I am, now—I have a very palpable sense that time is accelerating, and that the convergence of some of these things we’ve been talking about is going to eventually lead to a discussion of what is the nature of time and experience? That, in fact, history does seem to be ending. This sort of vague and murky intuition of religious ontology is now respectable in physics laboratories. And the presence of human culture on the planet at this incredibly advanced state of acceleration and novelty seems to indicate that, you know, we are making it impossible for ourselves to go anywhere but into another kind of cultural dimension.


Well, which I guess leads me on one level to one of the other things which I wanted to talk about, which is, in a sense, the illusion of stability in social space—if there is one, if you’re able to maintain the illusion of stability in social space. It’s because the exciting thing that’s going on is invisible. And what it is, is: it’s the growth of the net. It’s the rise of the web which, hour-by-hour, day-by-day, is reaching around the planet. Deeper and deeper and deeper. The number of people getting email has doubled every six months for the last five years. It’s doubled every six months! If this goes on at the current rate, every man, woman, and child on the planet will have email before the year 2000. And, of course, there’s nothing to see. There’s nothing to touch. I mean, there’s some appliances involved, but they’re quiet and in the background. And yet, what it is, is that the human neuro-net, the unconscious of the species, is actually being hardwired as an artifact. We’re pouring glass and gold and silicon down the micro-tubules of the racial imagination and, as it were, making a kind of casting of the state of the human imagination at the close of the millennium. And to what degree this imaging of ourselves in silicon will ever reach a limit is hard to tell. I mean, we’ve begun with the past. You know, we’re archiving it, we’re virtualizing it, we’re creating databases that allow us to stroll around in it. But more and more time will be consumed, and eventually the only choice will be to allow it to flow over into the presence and, you know, prosthesis is already practically a way of life.


What’s coming is very hard to imagine. And Prigogine—to loop one of these concerns back to another—Prigogine got his start studying traffic theory on freeways. Well, it’s now thought by the complexity people that, when you get somewhere above 69 entities operating in an environment of connectivity, that you get (and now we switch philosophers and vocabularies) what David Bohm called emergent properties, and what you and I would call “anybody’s guess.” I mean, that’s what an emergent property is.


What is an emergent property?



It means something utterly unexpected. Something completely unexpected. For example—I mean, he used very simple examples. For example, if you have five gold atoms, you don’t have the color yellow. You don’t get that until you have hundreds of gold atoms. That color is an emergent property. It requires a large number of gold atoms for the fact that gold is yellow to begin to be part of the picture. Similarly, wetness. If you have a water molecule, it is not wet in any sense that you can relate to. Wetness is a property of thousands of water molecules. It’s an emergent property. So there’s obviously nothing magical about this, unless you happen to be conscious at one of these phase transitions and you actually see an emergent property come out of a species. And clearly, what we are trying to do is overcome our differences. Our thing is a curious dichotomy between our individuality and our drive toward community. And technology is facilitating the drive toward community at this incredibly accelerated rate.


Traffic is accelerating.



Traffic is accelerating. And, you know, my enthusiasm for psychedelic states of mind I see simply as a kind of aboriginal, precognitive anticipation of this state of electronic data fusion and information transparency that is being put in place. Essentially, what we’re doing is: we’re realizing our cultural ideals, whether we’re conscious of them or not. And one of our cultural ideals is agapē: Christian love, or transparent telepathic sharing. And so our technology becomes this, you know? I mean, that’s why we invented printing presses, and clear windows, and lingerie, and the computer, and all of these things facilitate.


Do you think that anybody viewing The Celestine Prophecy—what do you think about that? Maybe that’s why [???]



Well, you know O’Henry said, “Never read a book till it’s five years old,” and I don’t always follow his advice, but in the case of The Celestine Prophecy I have… I’m kind of weird. I was very embarrassed a week ago, or ten days ago. I was in New York City, and I was with some friends of mine, and they’re in a rock and roll band, and they were on the Letterman show. So I went with them to the Letterman show for the taping of the show—it was the Spin Doctors. And I had never seen the Letterman show! So I kept saying to people, “Is that Letterman?” You know? The janitor would go by and—because we were there an hour ahead of time. So I’m not very au courant with these cultural icons. I wish the author of The Celestine Prophecy—he, she, them, or it, whoever it may be, good luck; a he—what I’ve been able to glean from the ether about The Celestine Prophecy is that it is a species of anticipatory, visionary breakthrough, right? Saying that the world is going change beyond our possibility of recognizing it. I think this is absolutely true. The details are where it gets tricky. Part of my notion of how we should all behave as we move toward this attractor or this transcendental object that is the telos of the historical process is to just try and spread calm and good vibes, so that people—you know, it’s like a roller coaster, the signs which says, “Do not stand up.” You know? People should not… just keep your mouth shut, keep your hands on the handlebars, and you can yell your head off if you want, but do not stand up, please.


Just a word about this. I mean, to the immense boredom of half the people in the room who’ve heard me say this before. But this question about anticipations of the millennium: the way I think of it is that huge events have a kind of backwash into the past. They are not cleanly divided from the time which precedes them. So that, before they happen, you can almost feel the certitude of their arrival. And so this thing that lies ahead of us now, not very far in the historical continuum, is the grandmother of all of this kind of thing. And social theories, philosophers, psychedelic trips, visions had in the desert, all of these things will just organize themselves like iron filings around the presence of this object ahead of us in time. And so, in a sense, all of history is an anticipation of the end of history. And the closer you get to the end of history, the clearer the anticipations become. So, you know, when you’re two thousand years from it, it’s something about how God and man will be fused in one body, and the messiah will take a chosen people into a land of milk and honey, and that’s the best anybody can do. That’s the clearest image anybody could get of what the deal was. So then, circa 1948, you’re up to, you know, the Rigelians will come with enormous ships and advanced medical techniques, and teach us how to clean up our Earth and love one another and grow food from the sea, and so forth and so on. It turns out that, no, that isn’t it either. And as we get closer, the amount of prophetistic speculation is just going to grow exponentially, because all the old systems of thought are failing. And all the old systems of thought are capable of doing is denying the obvious, which is that the Earth is on the brink of the greatest change since the end of the Mesozoic, you know? But people don’t like to think about that, because all they can think about is, you know, the possibility of personal extinction. Technology, religion, psychedelic drugs, archeology that could at any moment spew something out of the ground that would completely scramble everybody’s notion of what really did go on, or something—and I’m not a face-on-Mars guy, or some malarkey like that, let me make that clear. But still, you have to be open to the fact that something might come along.


Well, what else do we want to say about that? Let me see if I covered my list. I think we were talking about the nets and the webs. Yeah, this collectivity that is coming into being is coming into existence more rapidly than anyone can chart or clock or understand. You know, I have a protocol that goes on in the middle of the night and searches databases all over the world for keywords of interest to me. And when I get up in the morning, these files are just stacked on the screen, ready to be gone through. And it can be trivial, but it could be a Greek Orthodox heresy of interest to fully a dozen people on the planet. And, if the information is out there, the computer will eventually winnow and winnow and winnow, because it is so tireless and so deeply dedicated to my wishes. I mean, what else does it have to do? It doesn’t know.


What search word [???]?



Well, the word I was thinking of is Mandaean, which is a religious cult that I’m interested in that’s existed continuously for about 2,800 years.





Mandaean. And they now are down to a few hundred people in the swamps of Iran and Iraq. And I wonder about the state of their community. I wonder how they came through the Gulf War. I wonder if they were able to preserve their very strict kosher laws and a bunch of other things. I mean, you may wonder: why do I care about them? I have a lot on my menu here.


Did you say kosher?



Well, by kosher I mean they had rules as a religious community that would be almost impossible to follow in the twentieth century. For instance, one of their rules was that, if your eye fell on a non-believer, if you’re a Mandaean and your eye fell on a non-believer, then you had to have six days of purification. Well, since there are only a few hundred Mandaeans on this planet, it was tough to not occasionally encounter a non-believer. You can imagine. So then, huge amounts of community time and energy were being taken up in these ritual ablutions and cleansings to try and make it okay, and I wonder how they fare under Saddam Hussein. Well, so then you go on to the net and program this word, and you discover that, in Pennsylvania, there’s a committee of people who are concerned about the Mandaean community, and then in Germany there are people who are preserving Mandaean liturgy, and at the University of Heidelberg there’s a guy who can read the books.


You know, Tim Leary said a wonderful thing years and years ago. He said: find the others. Find the others. And the computer is the tool for finding the others. And it was never intended for folks like you and me. It’s one of these things that fell off the military vehicle as it rumbled by, and we peasants pulled it out of the bushes and discovered what we could do with this thing. But you can find the others. There are hundreds and hundreds of conferences going on on Usenet. And if it’s a work of literature, if it’s a sexual preference, if it’s a complex programming problem, if it’s an issue of historical research, or diet, or anything else, there are fifty or sixty people just waiting to talk to you about this.


So, you know, I sort of believe that the psychedelic revolution is beginning to bear fruit, and that we shouldn’t have thought of it as the sixties revolution, we should’ve thought of it as the Thirty Years’ War. And, you know, victory is now within sight. No one can run or program these vast networks except guys with ponytails. And the suits who are depending on all of this stuff to hold the world together are entirely beholden on guys with one earring and ponytails and all that. Everything that loathes and revolts them is interposed between them and the technology, because printheads can’t hack it—literally, they can’t hack it. And as Thomas Kuhn said in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions: the way you really make revolutions is by waiting for the old guard to die off. And they are dying off. And then the synergy that comes from all of these fields melting together. I mean, my intuition was always that the psychedelic experience was a fractal anticipation of human history. You know, that it starts out the same way, everything’s normal, you’re just cooking your food around the fire. And then it builds. And then there’s structure, and then dissolution of structure, and then technical accretions, and vast downloading of ideas, and so forth and so on. And it’s happening.


I mean, the unitary mind is being created. It is, in fact, in existence. The autonomic functions of the human superorganism are already in place. And what do I mean by the autonomic functions? I mean the daily pricing of gold, the computer transactions that characterize the banking system: this is all going on all the time. Machines are talking to machines, moving billions of dollars around, setting the value of currency and precious metals and commodities. I mean, most of this is on automatic. Human operators are only called in when unexpected fluctuations are picked up inside the system. And yet, it’s not clear what is being maximized. The topmost level of control is only assumed to exist. This is very exciting. We all assume that if you follow these trees of control up and up, finally—at the level of the IMF, the World Bank, the National Security Council—someone is running it. But it’s actually not true. It isn’t a tree. It doesn’t lead to focal nexus of control. It’s a net. It’s a web. And, you know, when you realize this, you realize that a very large amount of power is in your hands.


The people in this room—even if a couple of homeless have crept in here this evening, which is not likely—the people in this room probably represent the upper five per cent of the most powerful manipulators on the planet. Because if you just have a telephone credit card, you’re in the upper ten per cent of the powerful manipulators of information on the planet. Yeah, a calling card. And if you own a Powerbook and an email address, you know, you are a member of the twenty million elite that is running the planet through the cybernet, and talking to those people, changing their minds, interacting with them is the way to steer it. And they are not the suits. They are not the guys chewing the black cigars. They’re a much more malleable and open crowd. It’s hard to pass a capitalist dominator through the keyhole of cyberspace, you know? You have to be young and lean and mean. Tattoos help! That sort of thing.


You said something about artists and, say, religious or spiritual sages, who might look at the technology that you’ve been talking about or the science you’ve been talking about, and say: we’ve known this all along, this is sort of old hat. And how you integrate that sort of state of consciousness is much different from the scientific way of seeing things. And where these people—


You mean like yogins or something like that?


Yogins, yeah. Shamans that have no need for these ideas. Or…



Well, shamans, I think, are a good case, in that apparently they have no need of these ideas. And what I mean by that is: their societies are at dynamic equilibrium. Left alone, they seem to do fine. So forth and so on. India, I would argue, shows no such ability to deal with its problems. I mean, socio-politically it’s a mess. They should be (and in fact are) very interested in this kind of technology. You see, the difference between Eastern and Western religion—I mean, there are many differences, but an important one for what we’re seeing here this evening is that Eastern religion is basically timeless. When time is invoked, it’s either in the Hindu system where it’s chiliocosms of eternity, and there are just cycles upon cycles. Or it’s the time of Taoism, which is the time of a moment and an insight. The weird thing about Western religion—Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, and all the cults that they have spawned—is the insistence that God will enter history. Which is a crazy idea: that God will enter history. At a given moment it will be redeemed, and the hell of toiling for our daily bread and the whole thing will somehow be made right by God’s direct manifestation at a certain point. And this idea finds just no support in the East.


So then, when you ask about how these religious teachers relate to this technical thing: to me, the more interesting relational approach to it is through somebody like Teilhard de Chardin, who I take as my direct inspiration. I never read de Chardin that carefully when he was hot. But since I’ve come out where I am about all this I’ve looked back at it, and he and I are basically in 100% agreement, except I go further: I say the date. And he is crafty enough in his Jesuitical way to stay away from anything so likely to expose you to scorn and ridicule. But what he’s saying in The Phenomenon of Man is that we are now generating what he calls the noösphere. And the noösphere is the atmosphere of technical accretions and electronic information-transfer and electromagnetic fields—VHF, UHF, so forth and so on—and that this is part of evolution. His great insight was to see geology, biology, and sociology as a continuous spectrum.


And McLuhan talked a lot about Teilhard de Chardin. With McLuhan you never knew whether he was being entirely serious or just going for the good line, but he said that the age of the Holy Ghost—which was to occur immediately before the end of the world—that the age of the Holy Ghost… we had Edison to thank for it. And that the spread of electricity around the world was the direct descent of the Holy Ghost. And that, as cities turned to oceans of electric light, he saw it as an epiphany of the third person of the trinity. This is an argument for keeping Catholics far from the machinery of power. They’re clearly screwballs of some sort.


But it seems to me that, if you make a religion out of consciousness—which unconsciously, I think, we in California have done; that this is what the New Age is about: we worship mind. We worship mind. Well, if you make consciousness your religion, then clearly the body of consciousness is the technical accretion: the superhighways, the computers, the color, the fiber optic networks. All that is how consciousness manifests itself. Consciousness wants—it’s as though we’re still involved in the alchemical concerns of the sixteenth century: that consciousness achieves its fullest perfection through the fusion with matter. You know? That the union of spirit and matter—which in materialist scientific terms is crazy talk; it doesn’t happen—but in the terms of the magical pre-Cartesian attitudes toward matter, this is what they were going for. And, in a sense, Mircea Eliade said this. He said it’s ironic that the twentieth century, with its score for the magical notions of the sixteenth century, has achieved the full program that those notions set forth. In other words, changing of lead to gold: we do this. It costs a lot of money, but we can do it in our reactors, our cyclotrons. We change lead to gold. We sequence the genome, the secrets of life and longevity are unfolded before us. And then this final thing in the computer. I mean, the computer is the union of spirit and matter. And, you know, five or six years ago, you used to hear a lot of talk about how computers could never do all kinds of things, and they were simply adding machines, and this and that. Well, that’s a kind of computer. But those voices have grown strangely muted as massive parallel processing and neural nets and stuff like this.


So I don’t know where all this rests. You know, James Joyce said, “man will be dirigible,” which is like the flying saucer phase. I would like to think that the philosopher’s stone is a suitable goal for human evolution; that we are actually downloading ourselves into a solid state realm where all that moves is ideas in a kind of electronic collectivity of mind. And then the Earth is left to itself. But how this is to be accomplished, I’m not sure. But, on the other hand, it’s not up to me. I mean, if you read people like Hans Moravec, his book—what’s it called?—Mind Children: The Future of Machine and Human Intelligence. There are ideas in there that’re so bizarre and far out. And yet, you know, being discussed by someone with a tenured position at Carnegie Mellon University. All that really holds us back as these boundaries dissolve is our imagination. The difference between the psychedelic experience and history is that history is real. And at the end of it you’re going to be able to stay there (wherever there is) if you want, and do those things. And I think it’s coming very, very quickly. Even the wildest things that we’ve talked about here, to save certain theoretical constructs such as time machines, are now being talked about in the popular scientific press. There was an article about time travel three issues ago in Scientific American.

So, does anyone want to say anything? Yeah.


Can you see a distinction between understanding/knowledge and consciousness? Or do you see those as one and the same thing?



Well, this is a hot and complex thing that’s being debated right now. The materialists (who hold the high ground in neuromolecular physiology) what they like to say—they’re very happy with this formulation—they like to say that consciousness is short-term memory plus attention. This is the new buzzword: short-term memory plus attention. Actually, William James said this first, but it’s just been brought forward. And if you think about it, that’s a pretty good working model. If you say that consciousness is short-term memory plus attention, then it’s probably a characteristic of most animals. And so then you get a seamless web. Where it gets complicated is that what we seem to be able to do is build very, very flexible models of future courses of action. And this may be a relationship to long-term memory. The relationship of higher animals to long-term memory is not clear. In other words, a mountain lion, hunting—does she retain a memory of an incident with important learning embedded in it months and months after it occurs? And in what way does she retain it? Does she retain it as a reflex or does she actually, as we do, recall? And when we say recall, we mean: picture a scene in our minds from the past and run it forward.


How, again—well, this leads to something that I wanted to say: that memory, if you wanted to point to an incredible and significant failure—I’ve been talking about all these far out things that have been going on—the greatest disappointment in science, I would say, in the last 35 years, is the utter failure of science to make any progress on the question of memory. I mean, I’ve been following it for almost—well, not 35 years, but 30 years—and they’re nowhere. They have not gotten beyond the kind of stuff that Karl Přibram was talking about in Languages of the Brain, which was published in 1973, for crying out loud! Walter Freeman’s work: creative, brilliant work—no conclusion. The hard-core materialists have gotten nowhere. And this is a central thing for understanding consciousness, because where are the memories, you know? Karl Lashley was the first person to ask this question, and it’s never been satisfactorily answered. And, you know, now there are new theories about interference patterns in the brain, and this sort of thing. But, you know, when the telephone was new, neurophysiologists like Ramón y Cajal said the brain was like an international telephone network. Now, suddenly, we have a hot new metaphor, and we apply it to the darkest area of our ignorance, which is the brain. And then, you know, you have the hard-core mystics who say the effort to understand consciousness is intrinsically doomed to failure; that brain cannot elucidate brain. And there’s something to be said for that. You know, Gödel’s incommensurability theorem, and that whole thing.


I don’t exactly understand what it means to say “explain consciousness.” Understand it—I mean, what would that mean? Does that mean we would start with a synaptic event and end with an experience, and be able to trace the transition from synaptic event to experience all the way through? I like—and, you know, it’s a free enough field now, you can say anything you want—I like the idea that the brain is an antenna, not a storage device, and that seeking memory in the brain is like tearing transistor radios apart looking for little men. You know, there aren’t little men in there. So what you have instead is a quantum mechanical antenna. That would make sense, because I really believe nature is a kind of seamless, self-regulating oscillator of some sort. And so it’s much more important to be in tune with the larger sets of what’s going on than to be isolated from that, and somehow inwardly cognizant of what philosophers call an interior dimension of transcendence. I don’t believe that. I think, you know, that we are the most existentially isolated of all animal species as a consequence of language, and that part of our difficulty in correctly picturing the mind and its place in nature is the fact that we assume our uniqueness and our isolation and the strength of the ego boundary.


But if you saw the brain—that’s why my idea of the regulation of culture through the psychedelic experience is not that there is something magical about the psychedelic experience in and of itself, but that what it is is an attunement to natural harmonics on many levels that we could call (I do call it) the Gaian mind. It’s a higher intentionality. But it’s not mystical mumbo jumbo, it’s biology. There’s level upon level of pheromones, oscillations, chemical oscillators, all kinds of things that regulate biology besides the gross activation of enzyme systems inside the wetware of an organism. When you’re in the jungle like the Amazon, you see that this is seamless, this is one thing. It’s only my style of knowing that tells me this is a palm tree, this is a crocodile, this is a butterfly. But the way it’s all working is: it’s just genes, and gene-exchange, and life and death, and procreation, and symbiosis, and so forth and so on.


I was thinking of Rupert Sheldrake. I was thinking of idiot savants, too, with their minds like an antenna tapping into this incredible knowledge. And there’s no way they could ever learn.



Yes, well, I count myself among their numbers, without doubt. No, that’s the only way—that is how I explain my career, because it has, you know, fundamentally, a mathematical basis that’s very solid and beyond reproach by all but the most stalwart. And yet, clearly, I’m some kind of cannabis-smoking lunatic. So how did that happen? Well, it’s just the principle of the idiot savant, I think—and that nature is knowable, you know? If you’re God’s fool, the secret will be given over to you. I mean, it’s everywhere. It’s in every drop of water. Everything has it in it. That was the alchemical phase, and it’s the fractal phase as well.


I have a question about the antenna thing. As I understand it, in terms of picking up certain ideas or whatever, but when you talk about receiving specific memories that you as a single entity have experienced, so you as an entity have an experience of this thing and now it’s just floating out there.


You mean, does it actually call you up and say, “Hey! You!” Is it like that?


What is it that produces that? I mean, I can imagine receiving certain things that are cultural, or diet, whatever. But when you receive, you’re talking about your own personal memories of stubbing your toe eight years ago, you know? Why is that floating around?



Oh, I see what you’re saying. Well, this is the great problem for all theories of memory. We know that, if you live to be 70 years old, that every molecule in your body will be exchanged approximately ten times. Well, then, how is it that a 70-year-old woman can remember what it was like to be taken in the arms of her grandmother and the smell of the perfume that the old lady wore? I mean, that is just an absolute mystery. And if you’re a hardcore materialist—and God knows they’re around somewhere; probably not here—but if you’re a hardcore materialist then you say: well, something must persist, and if we could figure out the one thing that persists, then we’d have it nailed. Well, it turns out that there is something that persists. The neurons do not cycle over. You are born with a certain number of neurons and you die with a few less, depending on your drug-taking history. And they are never replaced. And they are never cycled out.


But then the materialists break down, because this magical substance—which you would think would help them solve their memory problems—the theories necessary to turn it into the story-side of memory are too fantastic for them to swallow. You would have to go to something like The Invisible Landscape (plug, plug) to find a theory radical enough to account for that, because you would have to hypothesize molecular storage almost at the speed of a tape recorder of theoretically an entire lifetime. So, 70—let’s make it 35 years, because presumably you don’t retain your dreams very useful—so let’s say 30 years of continuous tape recording being downloaded into something under eight ångströms in diameter with no degradation of the data stream, and so forth and so on. It becomes insupportable and fantastic in their minds—but perhaps not.


I mean, why is—I mean, nature has a peculiar way of using redundancy. Like, once nature finds a way to do something, she will tend to use that technique over and over again in different applications. We see that the problem of storage of information, and retrieval of information, and non-degradation of that information has all been solved in the functioning of DNA. But the information that is stored in DNA, if you talk to an information theorist, they will say, “Well, it’s not like memory. It’s not like people’s faces or their addresses and telephone numbers. It’s just protein synthesis. It’s structures for protein synthesis, and you mustn’t be so naïve as to confuse this with real information,” and pat on the head, so forth and so on. But here we have the DNA—the central molecular machinery of life—and for reasons known to nobody, vast sections of it are what are called silent DNA. What does that mean? It means those parts of the DNA don’t code for proteins. Well, but maybe they code for something else. Maybe they code for memory. And maybe the so-called random, or trash, arrangement of nucleotides in those sections of the DNA are, in fact, our memory. I mean, memory is very mysterious. And the mechanism which explains it may involve principles at the edge of, or beyond, the grasp of current science. I mean, think of it! You know, I have memories going back to eight months. And many people report memories under three years. And often these are movies, you know? The most highly degradable and data-dense form of image storage there is. I mean, that’s why it’s so maddening to store images, you know, videotape on computers today, because it’s so memory-intensive as they say in the biz. And yet this seems to be how we store our memories.


Oh, let’s see, what else needs to be said? Well, again, this is simply a laundry list of things, cutting edge concerns and ideas, in the realm of what I’ve left out—and I’ll mention it, and then maybe we can knock off our pop political ideas. I’ve talked to you guys before about the idea of one woman, one child. I’ve slightly modified it recently or made an addendum to it, which I think would be very interesting, if every woman had one child. We’ve talked about that and the social consequences of that. But how interesting it would be, then, if 75 per cent of those children were female. And that the feminization of society, I think, should not proceed through the feminization of men, it should proceed by dialing down the overall number of men in the society. And I think probably the 50:50 sexual ratio is actually an artificial ratio maintained by crazed monogamites and their dominator stooges—not to judge it, of course, but…. And that, usually, in large mammalian social animal groups, males are more at a premium. And so that’s something I’ve been following and talking to people.


And then, lastly, and in somewhat a lighter vein, I want to urge you all to consider the Zippies and their crusade to save the soul of America, which you may not have heard of. Well, that’s how it is with crusades! The ZSippies are a bunch of English bohemians who are trying to launch a third British cultural wave, following in the model of the Beatles first, and Malcolm McLaren, and the Sex Pistols second, and now come the Zippies. And they exemplify a certain kind of syncopated house trance dance techno music, and what I like about them is that they operate under the banner of what they call pronoia. And pronoia is the creeping idea that people are plotting behind your back to help you. And I see pronoia as part of the phenomenon of boundary dissolution. You know, things are going to get better and better. And what a Zippie is is basically a freak who has their shit together. You know, Zipppies are freaks, but they don’t have large amounts of garbage in their apartments; freaks who recycle: that’s your typical Zippie. And so they’ll be making their way across country, and if you get a chance to attend any of their raves, you should do it. Raves are very good for the soul.


There’s a lot of youth-bashing going on in this country, and it’s very weird and directed from large glass-and-aluminum boxes along Madison Avenue in Manhattan. You know, there’s nothing wrong with people under 25. They’re fine, thank you. It’s the culture that they’re inheriting that is so toxic and weird that they don’t know what to do with it. Somehow, the response of that culture is to stigmatize them and lay down all sorts of horse shit trips about Generation X and this and that and the other thing. I really think the Zippies are the real youth culture, and it’s psychedelic, and it’s experience-based. That’s the other thing, something we’ve preached here over and over again: that the primacy of direct experience is what life is about. Not what Time magazine is telling you but, you know, how you feel in your body, right here, right now. And, you know, the drugs you take, and the sexual acts you participate in, and the things you do with your mind and body in real time, and everything else, is highly abstract and not to be trusted, I think.


In New York I gave a talk for the Zippies trying to formulate what it is. And it’s mostly what it isn’t, you know? It’s about not believing, not consuming, not following. It’s about taking back direct experience. If we could feel our circumstance, if we could feel what we’re doing to the Earth and each other, we wouldn’t do it! It’s that simple—because it’s too horrible. But you can anesthetize yourself with ideology, with wealth, with distance, with religious obsession, and so forth and so on, and then you can’t tell shit from shinola. But pain is pain, agony is agony. There’s plenty of it out there. So I think the precondition for any kind of response to that—any kind of political or reforming response to it—is to feel. And that means taking back your own social space from the machinery of media and domination and value-manipulation and so forth and so on. So I live life with an immense sense of intellectual excitement and hope—that’s the thing. I think there are a whole bunch of cards on the table that permit intelligent people to hope. Intelligence and cynicism—which have gone hand in hand throughout the twentieth century—are no longer good company with each other. It’s inappropriate. Cynicism is now inappropriate. It’s déclassé. It’s not chique, my dears. Something else is on the horizon, and so permitting smart people to hope. That is the goal.

Terence McKenna

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