Terence McKenna: The Inner Elf
Terence McKenna has become one of the most (in)famous figures in the exploration of psychedelia and its impact on society and technology. Here McKenna espouses his thoughts on psychedelic mushrooms, virtual reality, shamanism and evolution.
By Mark Dery 1996
Image Source: YouTube
Terence McKenna died of brain cancer on April 3, 2000. He was 53. The centerpiece of this article is a lengthy interview with McKenna, conducted in two epic sessions in 1996. As a rule, I maintain a zero-tolerance policy toward New Age vacuity. Even so, I looked forward to interviewing McKenna, whose writings and interviews offered unquestionable evidence of a prodigious intellect, sweeping erudition, and a nimble wit. I was not disappointed. A foeman worthy of anyone’s steel, he proved to be as generous of spirit as he was intellectually formidable. Though some of his ideas struck me – still strike me – as so much refried ectoplasm, I was enchanted by his silver-tongued eloquence: equal parts Irish tale-spinning, scholarly discourse, and Joycean river-run. And that voice: drawling, nasal, sly with irony, suffering fools graciously, if not gladly. Like many, I’ll think of Terence on December 12, 2012, the portentous day his Transcendental Object at the End of Time is supposed to arrive. Whether it will or not, he only knows. – Mark Dery, 2001.
On a rainy February evening in 1967, fueled by the mind-morphing hallucinogen dimethyltryptamine (DMT), Terence McKenna’s ontological warp drive engaged, leaving a contrail of frozen light where his ego used to be. James Joyce would have dubbed the event an “epiphany.” The psychologist Abraham Maslow would have called it a “peak experience.” The sci-fi writer Philip K. Dick would have used the Platonic term anamnesis, the recollection of the absolute truths hidden within us. And a theologian would refer to it as a metanoia, or metamorphosis of consciousness.
In his lecture, “Psychedelics Before and After History,” McKenna describes it as “a revelation of an alien dimension – a brightly lit, non-three-dimensional, self-contorting, linguistically intending modality that couldn’t be denied.” Imagine the inside of your cranium, redecorated with frescoes of the Marvel Comics cosmology by Jack Kirby, or a Disneyland “dark ride” based on a near-death experience as envisioned by Benoit Mandlebrot, or a virtual reality tour of God’s cerebral cortex, hosted by the Lucky Charms leprechaun. McKenna recalled the episode in a recording of a 1987 lecture:
“I sank to the floor. I [experienced] this hallucination of tumbling forward into these fractal geometric spaces made of light and then I found myself in the equivalent of the Pope’s private chapel and there were insect elf machines proffering strange little tablets with strange writing on them, and I was aghast, completely appalled, because [in] a matter of seconds... my entire expectation of the nature of the world was just being shredded in front of me. I’ve never actually gotten over it. These self-transforming machine elf creatures were speaking in a colored language which condensed into rotating machines that were like Fabergé eggs but crafted out of luminescent superconducting ceramics and liquid crystal gels. All this stuff was just so weird and so alien and so un-English-able that it was a complete shock – I mean, the literal turning inside out of [my] intellectual universe!”
“This went on for two or three minutes, this situation of [discontinuous] orthogonal dimensions to reality just engulfing me. As I came out of it and the room reassembled itself, I said, ‘I can’t believe it, it’s impossible.’ To call that a drug is ridiculous; that just means that you just don’t have a word for it and so you putter around and you come upon this sloppy concept [that] something goes into your body and there’s a change. It’s not like that; it’s like being struck by noetic lightning.” [Author’s note: "Noetic" derives from the theologian Pierre Teilhard de Chardin’s "noosphere" – the collective consciousness of humankind conceived of as a sort of philosophical virtuality.]
“[What] astonished me was [that]... in the carpets of Central Asia, in the myths of the Maya, in the visions of an Arcimboldi or a Fra Angelico or a Bosch, there is not a hint, not a clue, not an atom of the presence of this thing,” says McKenna. “This was more [multiplex] than the universe that we share with each other. It was the victory of Neo-Platonic metaphysics; everything [was] made out of a fourth-dimensional mosaic of energy. I was knocked off my feet, and set myself the goal of understanding this. There was really no choice, you see.”
McKenna’s quest led him to Nepal and Tibet, where his studies of Central Asian art and culture reaffirmed his belief that, contrary to Timothy Leary and Ralph Metzner’s assertions in their switched-on version of the Tibetan Book of the Dead, the psychedelic experience had no strict corollaries in traditional systems of esoteric thought. Nonetheless, the pre-Buddhist shamanism of Nepal and Tibet, which involved the use of hashish and datura, had captured his imagination. Delving deeper into the subject, he traveled to the outer islands of Indonesia, where he spent a year in search of an indigenous tradition of magico-religious drug usage, supporting himself through the suitably surreal “blood sport” of professional butterfly collecting.
Finding none, he journeyed to the Amazon Basin in 1970, where the Waika and Yanomamo Indians inhale a powdered form of the visionary vine ayahuasca. “The dominant motif is a flood of visual imagery that, try as one might, one cannot recognize as the contents of either the personal or the collective unconscious,” he says, in “Sacred Plants and Mystic Realities,” an interview included in his book The Archaic Revival: Speculations on Psychedelic Mushrooms, the Amazon, Virtual Reality, UFOs, Evolution, Shamanism, the Rebirth of the Goddess, and the End of History. “This was truly fascinating to me. I had made a thorough study of Jung and therefore had the expectation that motifs and idea systems from the unconscious mind would prove to be reasonably homogeneous worldwide. What I found, instead, with the peak intoxication from these plants, was a world of ideas, visual images, and noetic insight that really could not be co-mapped on any tradition – even the esoteric tradition. This was so fascinating to me that I have made it the compass of my life.”
In the years since his fateful encounter with the self-transforming machine elves of hyperspace, McKenna has elaborated a personal cosmology which for funhouse logic and fever dream detail rivals the Palais Ideal of the “outsider” artist Ferdinand Cheval – a sprawling delirium of temples, towers, monuments, grottoes, spiral stairways, and statuary, fashioned from cement studded with pebbles and encrusted with shells. A born raconteur, he has fashioned his mental Merzbau on the New Age lecture circuit, where his effortless eloquence, encyclopedic erudition, and inside-out wit have earned him the benediction of the psychedelic High Priest himself, who dubbed McKenna “the Timothy Leary of the ’90s.”
Entertainment Weekly, an unimpeachable source on spiritual matters, lumped him together with Deepak Chopra, Tony Robbins and Marianne Williamson in a round-up of “power gurus,” and rave bands such as the Shamen have set his ruminations to billowing techno-trance music. His theories are expounded in his books (The Archaic Revival, True Hallucinations, Food of the Gods: The Search for the Original Tree of Knowledge, and The Invisible Landscape, co-authored with his brother Dennis, a respected ethnopharmacologist) but McKenna’s metier is the spoken word – stand-up philosophy that meme-splices Alfred North Whitehead and Alfred E. Neuman, delivered in a reedy, insinuating voice that sounds like Paul Lynde doing an impression of Don Juan (the Yaqui Indian sorcerer, not the legendary Spanish rake). Available on tapes with titles like “Having Archaic and Eating it Too” and “Shedding the Monkey,” his lectures are tours de force of verbal virtuosity and pack-rat polymathy, leaping trippingly (in both senses of the word) from quantum mechanics to medieval alchemy, from the chaos theory of Ilya Prigogine to the neo-Platonism of Philo Judaeus. Elevating ontology hacking to an art form, McKenna brings Carl Sagan’s worst nightmare to life: the reason, rhetoric, and technical vocabulary of science appropriated in the service of a unified field theory concocted from psychedelic Darwinism, fringe linguistics, and New Age eschatology.
Tens of millennia ago, he theorizes, climatic changes forced the proto-human primates of the African savannah to abandon their exclusively vegetarian diet for an omnivorous one. Following the vast herds of wild cattle whose dung harbored the insects that were undoubtedly part of their new diet, they cannot have missed the striking stropharia cubensis (magic mushrooms) growing in the cowpies. “The mushroom is a totally anomalous object in the grassland environment – it stands out like a sore thumb,” asserts McKenna, in “Sacred Plants and Mystic Realities.” According to McKenna, natural selection would favor the mushroom-eating apes, since psilocybin (the psychoactive ingredient in cubensis) has been proven to enhance visual acuity and stimulate sexual desire. Citing Henry Munn’s essay “The Mushrooms of Language” and Julian Jaynes’s Origins of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, he argues that psilocybin catalyzed the emergence of language in early hominids by expanding “their arboreally evolved repertoire of troop signals” into the hunting-pack signaling necessary for survival in their new environment. “It is reasonable to suggest that human language arose out of the synergy of primate organizational potential by plant hallucinogens,” he writes, in “Mushrooms and Evolution” (from The Archaic Revival).
From there, it’s only a silly millimeter to the edge. “Hallucinogenic plants may have been the catalysts for everything about us that distinguishes us from other primates, except perhaps the loss of body hair,” writes McKenna. “All of the mental functions that we associate with humanness, including recall, projective imagination, language, naming, magical speech, dance, and a sense of religion may have emerged out of interaction with hallucinogenic plants.” During one particularly memorable trip, the mushroom told him (his words) that it is literally not of this world, that, in fact, stropharia cubensisis is an alien symbiote whose spores were borne across the galaxy. If this scenario sounds strangely reminiscent of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, with its extraterrestrial “pod” plants, it’s worth mentioning that as an “odd kid” growing up in a remote Colorado town in the 1950s, McKenna was an avid fan of the seminal science fiction magazine Weird Tales. In his defense, however, it should be noted that no less reputable a scientist than Francis Crick has advanced the theory of directed panspermia, which proposes that all life on this planet somehow sprang from extraterrestrial spores, possibly engineered by a higher intelligence. Alternately, suggests McKenna, the mushroom may be an intergalactic communications device, “allowing me to hear the alien when the alien is actually light-years away, using some kind of Bell nonlocality principle to communicate.”
Ironically, in enabling our quantum leap out of nature and into culture via the abstraction of embodied experience through language, the mushroom set in motion an evolutionary telos that McKenna believes will culminate in a union of signifier and signified. In a cyberdelic variation on Marshall McLuhan’s vision of Homo Cyber “retribalized” by electronic interconnectedness, McKenna envisions the magical reassembly of the primordial world-view shattered by language, like the shards of a broken vase flying together in a film run backwards. “[W]e will recover what we knew in the beginning: the archaic union with nature that was seamless, unmediated by language, unmediated by notions of self and other, of life and death, of civilization and nature,” says McKenna, in a 1988 interview (“In Praise of Psychedelics,” The Archaic Revival).
Humanity’s post-Logos apotheosis will be precipitated, says McKenna, by the arrival of “the Transcendental Object at the End of Time.” A cross between the enigmatic monolith from 2001: A Space Odyssey and de Chardin’s Omega Point (an evolutionary epiphany that marks the arrival of an “Ultra-Humanity”), McKenna’s Transcendental Object is, in his words, a “cosmic singularity” – a term from chaos theory which refers to the transition point, in a dynamical system, between one state and another. Evolution, he asserts, in Douglas Rushkoff’s Cyberia (Harper Collins, 1994), is poised to break free of “the chrysalis of matter... and then look back on a cast-off mode of being as it rises into a higher dimension.”
The question of the literal truth or falsity of McKenna’s theories is largely irrelevant, since they so obviously function as bedtime stories for cyborgs, spun from Arthur C. Clarke-ian sci-fi mysticism, New Age millenarianism, and the Dionysian “expressive politics” of the ’60s (specifically, Norman O. Brown in Love’s Body). Understood as theology, they take on almost conventional shapes: the fateful fungus and the tumble into language as the story of the fall of man; McKenna’s visionary experience in “fractal geometric spaces made of light” as Saul’s conversion on the road to Damascus (“suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him,” Acts 9:3); and the Transcendental Object at the End of Time as the eschaton foretold in the Revelation.
Intriguingly, McKenna was raised in the Catholic tradition, a background he shares with one of his acknowledged influences, the devout Roman Catholic Marshall McLuhan. In Escape Velocity: Cyberculture at the End of the Century (Grove Press, 1996), I note that for McLuhan as for McKenna, the invention of the written word was the “separating membrane,” dividing the “I” from the “all-that-is-not-I” and casting Western civilization into the postlapsarian world of isolation, objectivity, and rationality. His limning of this event in a 1969 Playboy interview sounds unmistakably like the Biblical allegory of the fall: “The whole man became fragmented man; the alphabet shattered the charmed circle and resonating magic of the tribal world, exploding man into an agglomeration of specialized and psychically impoverished individuals, or units, functioning in a world of linear time and Euclidean space.”
Elsewhere in the same interview, McLuhan holds forth the McKenna-esque hope that the psychic convergence facilitated by electronic media could create the universality of consciousness foreseen by Dante when he predicted that men would continue as no more than broken fragments until they were unified into an inclusive consciousness. “In a Christian sense, this is merely a new interpretation of the mystical body of Christ; and Christ, after all, is the ultimate extension of man... I expect to see the coming decades transform the planet into an art form; the new man, linked in a cosmic harmony that transcends time and space, will... himself... become an organic art form. There is a long road ahead, and the stars are only way stations, but we have begun the journey.”
Likewise, for McKenna, a self-styled “mouthpiece for the incarnate Logos,” history will only achieve closure when the disembodying technology of language is at last re-embodied – when the Word is made flesh, in other words.
Mark Dery: The ability to hold apparently contradictory ideas in one’s mind is “the test of a first-rate intelligence,” to quote F. Scott Fitzgerald. Even so, your attitude toward technology seems somewhat inconsistent. In your recorded lecture, “Shamanic Approaches to the UFO: Angels, Aliens, and Archetypes Symposium,” you inveigh against it, maintaining that technology is a “demonic pact” that has led “to the present cultural and political impasse, [which] involves massive stockpiles of atomic weapons, propagandized populations cut off from any knowledge of their real histories, [and] male-dominated organizations plying their message of lethal destruction and inevitable historical advance.” At the same time, in your lecture “Psychedelics Before and After History,” you conjure a cybernetic Arcadia made possible by nanotechnology, where “the technological appurtenances of the present world have been shrunk to the point where they have disappeared into [nature] and... we all live naked in paradise but only a thought away is all the cybernetic connectedness and ability to deliver manufactured goods and data that this world possesses.”
Terence McKenna: I’m mistrustful of the dynamic at work in high technology, but you’ve probably heard me quote the French sociologist Jacques Ellul, who said, “There are no political solutions, only technological ones; the rest is propaganda.” I believe that. I feel a commitment to democratic pluralism, but other than that, political solutions seem fraught with difficulties. I believe in what I call a forward escape, meaning that you can’t go back and you can’t stand still, so you’ve got to go forward and technology is the way to do this. Technology is an extension of the human mental world, and it’s certainly where our salvation is going to come from; we cannot return to the hunter-gatherer pastoralism of 15,000 years ago. As far as the antithetical positions that you hung on me, I would just say, along with Oscar Wilde, “I contradict myself? I contradict myself!”
I’m not sure that there’s a contradiction, since you seem to fall neatly on one side of the fence, for the most part – that of New Age techno-eschatology. Then again, there’s an obvious contradiction in the fact that you vilify language and yet you’re a virtuoso raconteur with a gift for wordplay.
Well, when I talk about the Logos I always invoke Philo Judaeus, who introduced the concept of the Logos into the Hellenistic world but who was unsatisfied with it and spent a great deal of time talking about the more perfect Logos, the Logos that goes from being heard to being seen without ever crossing over a definable moment of transition. In a sense, my position is that all of history is a making of the Logos more and more concrete. In the same way that McLuhan saw print culture as replacing an earlier, eye-oriented manuscript culture, my hope is that cyberdelic culture is going to overcome the linear, uniform bias of print and carry us into a realm of the visible Logos. I really believe that not only human society is involved in what could be looked at as a conquest of dimensions but that biology itself is, as well. This is the great overarching theme of evolution – this is why we go from being slime mold to having binocular vision and bipedalism and then adding memory and language at the top end of animal organization. It’s because the thing which we are, whether you call it bios or Logos incarnate or whatever, is striving to ascend to higher and higher dimensions.
And if I understand you, that ascension leads inevitably to a state where the name for the thing and the thing itself are reunited in a sort of epistemological epiphany?
But aren’t you chasing the same mirage intellectuals have pursued down the centuries, from Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave” to Baudrillard’s “Precession of the Simulacrum?” Isn’t it in the nature of human perception that we see things darkly, rather than as they “really” are? And doesn’t Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle suggest that reality itself is a slippery concept? The notion of an ultimate reality seems to be an ontological illusion; the closer we get, the further it recedes.
Well, this may be true, but on the other hand, it’s not that it’s not real, it’s that it’s never realized; it serves as an arrow for the process. I mean, these problems were completely solved within the context of the 16th Century, but that didn’t end history, and now we’re trying to solve the problems of the 18th and 19th centuries. When we do, I don’t think it will usher in the absolute stasis of the eschaton; it will simply define a new cultural playing ground for us. But there’s no question that as a result of the phonetic alphabet and Western religion and the growth of the ego and industrial power, we are facing a narrow neck. The world didn’t end when Rome fell, but the Roman world ended when Rome fell, and what I’m trying to do is put a little spin control on the electronic world that is going to emerge out of the ashes of the assumptions of capitalism, communism, linear print culture, heavy industrial culture, and so forth.
Are you suggesting that even though we’ve passed into post-industrial culture, our worldview is still shaped by the mechanical paradigms of the industrial age?
Yes. Spencerian social theory and the economics of Smith and Keynes: these are the thoughts that rule our society, and they’re all 19th Century. Ever since the birth of the atomic bomb and the electronic and psychedelic technologies that were emerging at the same time, we have essentially lived on the capital built up by these 19th Century ideologies. One of the problems with cyberculture is that these ideologies don’t match our technologies.
What would an ideology better suited to our technological landscape look like?
Well, what these new technologies are doing is dissolving boundaries. The nation state, the monolithic party, and the nuclear family – all boundary-defined institutions of one sort or another – are legacies of the past; what we need is an ideology that is mercurial, shifting, non-static. And as long as we’re talking about mercury and mercurial things, there is in alchemy (a pre-modern form of thinking) the idea of the coincidencia oppositorum, which means that you have to have ideologies which are able to accommodate positions which, within the context of the previous ideology, would’ve appeared contradictory. The very notion of noncontradiction is a notion that emerges out of the linear, print-created mindset; the whole sterility of that worldview is its inability to live with the presence of contradiction. And so it denies it, which creates the unconscious of a society where we’ve got serial killers running around. The world is not as simple as we desperately wish to make it within the context of the linear worldview.
The notion that we’ve said goodbye to the Gutenberg Galaxy is a McLuhanesque perception. You often invoke McLuhan, who built his historiography on a bedrock of techno-determinism. But is the presumption that our worldview is shaped by the technologies of our age the best way to analyze culture and history?
I think it’s a good method, although I would hate to be caught saying it’s always the way to go. I suppose the reason I’m so enthusiastic about psychedelics, at this point, is not because I think they’re a sure fix, but because I really register the urgency of the situation. If this boat could have been turned around by mere hortatory rhetoric, it would have been turned around by the Sermon on the Mount. We don’t have a lot of time, and the only thing that I have ever seen change a lot of peoples’ minds in a hurry is psychedelics. So I advocate them not as the best solution but as a wild long shot that’s the only game in town at this point.
Help me keep all the spaghetti on my fork, here; I’m having difficulty with the loose ends. You’re saying on the one hand that what cyberculture needs is a brave new ideology consonant with its technologies, and on the other hand that you believe in technological solutions, which would seem to render ideology irrelevant. Doesn’t this return us to the Carousel of Progress in Disneyland? Wasn’t looking for technological solutions to what are essentially social or political problems the keystone of technocratic thinking in the ’50s and ’60s?
I think we’ve always had these two factions, one thinking that utopia was just around the corner with the next invention, and the other claiming things always stay the same. Again, it’s a coincidencia oppositorum that things do stay the same but on the other hand they’re changing at a faster and faster rate. So it isn’t a matter of making a choice between these things; it’s a matter of substituting a kind of Boolean logic where you can simultaneously hold both possibilities as potentially realizable even though in a different kind of logic they may appear incommensurate. This is the kind of world we’re living in.
As an example of that, think about quantum physics, which is the basic metaphor of the new civilization: in quantum physics, you have ordinary logic, the either/or kind of logic we’re all familiar with, and then embedded like raisins in bread dough in that logic you have what are called Isles of Boole – Boolean logic, incommensurate with the logic that surrounds it. That quantum mechanical image can be raised right up to the level of the macrophysical realm we’re living in. Contradiction is not a problem; contradiction is the proof that you’re actually dealing with the ”real."
Science is in real crisis because the guy who works for some company developing products in an R&D environment and thinks of himself as a scientist has probably never read a work on the philosophy of science, and the philosophy of science is in deep, deep trouble. The Isles of Boole embedded in ordinary logic or the implications of Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem are the death knell for what most people think of as scientific thinking because they’ve allowed us to scratch down into the levels of reality where we confront not truth as it was assumed to exist in the 19th Century but rather this magical coincidencia oppositorum. The world really is based on contradictions; nowhere is it writ large that the primate mind should be able to hold within its confines a correct model of being, and yet this is what science assumes.
The New Age has used the new physics to contest the traditional scientific notion of an objective, absolute truth and thereby legitimate its own worldview ever since Fritjof Capra’s The Tao of Physics.
It’s my understanding that you make your living on the New Age circuit, lecturing at places like the Esalen Institute or the Omega Institute for Holistic Studies in upstate New York. Nonetheless, in an earlier conversation, you told me, “I am not New Age; I loathe all this Fall-of-Atlantis, color-therapy stuff – it’s just bunk.” Even so, in the Q&A sessions on your lecture tapes, you’re very indulgent toward channeling, UFOs, and other notions dear to the New Age. In fact, in your taped lecture “Shamanic Approaches to the UFO,” you say, “I have had contact experiences, I have seen a UFO very close, I have met with entities from other dimensions.” In such moments, you adequately earn the label “New Age”; either that, or you’re using terms like “UFO” and “entities” metaphorically, which makes me wonder if this is just a tactful way of not alienating paying customers.
Well, I do feel a distance between myself and the New Age, most of which is just menopausal mysticism. But let me break your question into two parts: First of all, whenever I mention channeling, I say that if you can do this without drugs, you’re probably mentally ill. Now, the experiences of spinning disks in the sky that fill the supermarket tabloids are a whole other can of worms. Have you read Jung’s book, Flying Saucers: A Modern Myth of Things Seen in the Sky? It’s the best book ever written on UFOs; it appeared within two years of the first flying saucer sighting in 1948, and it essentially solves the mystery.
If I recall, your reading of Jung led you to conclude that flying saucers in the sense of extraterrestrial machines do not exist, but that they are a sort of phantasmagoric manifestation of the collective Id erupting into the mass imagination.
Well, there’s more to it than that. This acceleration of history and technology that we are so intensely experiencing – and which we can look back into history and see has been going on for a long time – is, in fact, real, and we are being pushed toward what I call the Transcendental Object at the End of Time, which can be thought of as the ultimate tool in three-dimensional space. It’s a higher dimensional object of some sort and either this thing is coming to meet us (which raises questions I can’t answer) or we are summoning it out of ourselves. By virtue of its hyperdimensionality, the Transcendental Object is acting as an attractor in the historical continuum. It sets off sparks or resonances that go back through time so that when the farmer in Iowa sees the spinning disk in the sky, he overlays it with his Fundamentalist religious upbringing, his reading of supermarket tabloids, and so forth; he dresses it in these culturally conventionalized ideas. But what it is is a true (again, this phrase) coincidencia oppositorum, the epistemic umbilical mark of reality; it is proof that there is a telos to the historical process. This planet is haunted at the higher levels by archetypes of various sorts and the entire historical thrust is toward confrontation with the Other. If you’re living in the 16th Century, it’s conceived of as a visitation by the Virgin Mary; in the 20th Century, it’s interpreted as friendly extraterrestrials from Zeta Reticuli. But in fact what it is is none of these things; in truth, it is the Other – that which cannot be reduced to anything familiar in our world – and the process of history is the shock wave which announces the eminence of this rupture of reality by this Transcendental Object.
You’ll forgive me for being so mulish, but I’ve found a drill-bit insistence on hard facts to be a rather effective way of boring through opaque rhetoric. What, exactly, is the Transcendental Object at the End of Time? How did you arrive at this concept?
Basically, from reading Jung on alchemy. Do you know anything about alchemy?
A little; is your Object a cross between the Philosopher’s Stone and the monolith in 2001: A Space Odyssey?
That’s exactly it; Jung liked to talk about how, in the pre-scientific age, when people were naive about the categorical separation between mind and matter, they were able to imagine a migration of terms so that what was matter and what was mind would come together in something which was of the nature of both and neither. I would say that we are still epistemologically naive about the nature of mind and matter and that history is the effort to build a tool, and that tool is the self, and the self is this trans-dimensional vehicle; it transcends life and death, it transcends space and time, it is both here and there, it is both real and unreal, and so forth and so on.
So history does have a purpose and the revelation of this purpose is not that far in the future. In fact, the chaos of the 20th Century signifies that the historical process is coming to an end. We are now in a position to actually understand and confront this Transcendental Object at the End of Time and we are drilling toward it with psychedelic drugs and cybernetic machinery and so forth, and it is drilling toward us in its fashion (which is incomprehensible to us at this point).
At the same time, we’re caught up in the 19th Century desire to eliminate teleology from thinking about the world in order to keep Darwinism uncontaminated by deism. That has to be put aside because there is in fact a teleological attractor, and fields like chaos and catastrophe theory completely legitimate this kind of thinking in a scientific context which was not possible in the 19th Century because they couldn’t conceive of that.
With the aid of a programmer, you’ve produced a software package called Timewave Zero that illustrates your vision of the end of history – on December 12, 2012, to be exact – with the arrival of the ineffable mysterium tremendum that you call the Transcendental Object at the End of Time. Is your zero hour a poetic metaphor or an actual calendar date?
You mean how seriously do I take it? Well, as a rationalist I don’t take it seriously at all. I mean, these things are models. On the other hand, I’m puzzled, because I have a whole theory about time that is a true theory – not a conversational theory, but a mathematical formalism, a fractal that describes the topology of temporality, which in Newtonian physics is assumed to be a smooth surface. I substitute for the traditional zero curvature a complex fractal dimension, and then I can see that all time that we have any data about, meaning historical or paleontological or whatever, can be mapped onto this fractal. But with a peculiar caveat: for the wave to fit the data, it must be generated from A.D. 2012.
But millenarians throughout history have fixed on arbitrary endpoints and adduced an abundance of evidence to support their prophesies. Inevitably, the great day comes and goes and history grinds on.
I’m well aware of the slippery nature of prophesy, and how once a prophesy is made, there is ample evidence at hand to support it. However, I think the evidence is that we are pointed toward a very tight choke point of some sort, and people who blithely assume that history will be a going concern in 500 or 1,000 years don’t seem to have grokked the transformative power of technology. My Timewave Zero software places tools in your hands for you to decide whether this theory is just the product of too much psilocybin; it’s a laboratory for moving this wave around and looking at it against historical data. This complex mathematical object is a touchstone for connecting a bunch of different data points that otherwise would appear completely unrelated to each other. I’m very aware of the selectivity of perception and the slippery nature of historical data, but if I could corner you with this software for a couple of hours, I could at least shake your faith that 2012 is going to be a year like any other.
Are there any parallels between your Transcendental Object and Tipler’s Omega Point? [Author’s note: In the weeks that elapsed between the two epic sessions in which this interview was recorded, I sent McKenna some articles by the physicist Frank J. Tipler which I thought might interest him. The essays in question set forth themes elaborated in Tipler’s Physics of Immortality: Modern Cosmology, God and the Resurrection of the Dead (Doubleday, 1994), where he offers nothing less than a "testable physical theory for an omnipresent, omniscient, omnipotent God who will one day in the far future resurrect every single one of us to live forever in an abode which is in all essentials the Judeo-Christian heaven." Tipler posits an Omega Point (a term borrowed from the French theologian Pierre Teilhard de Chardin) of infinite density and temperature toward which the universe will collapse in a backwards Big Bang called the Big Crunch. The energy generated by this implosion could be used, he theorizes, to drive a cosmic computer simulator (think of Star Trek: The Next Generation’s holodeck) with infinite processing power – enough, certainly, to bring back to (virtual) life every creature that ever lived.]
I’m in complete agreement with Tipler and Teilhard de Chardin except that I’m willing to actually talk about the endpoint as imminent. I thought that Tipler’s response to the German theologian (“The Omega Point as Eschaton: Answers to Pannenberg’s Questions for Scientists,” Zygon, vol. 24, no. 2, June 1989), was an incredibly creative piece of dreaming – all these ideas about computers of such size that the entire universe can be modeled raise the possibility of fairly apocalyptic scenarios. And the speed at which microminiaturization and computing power are going forward makes it not unreasonable that some of the scenarios that Tipler is talking about could probably be realized pretty much by 2012. The rate of technological acceleration in many fields is such that when you propagate all these curves forward into the future, you see that sometime after the turn of the century they seem to go asymptotic or become infinite. I would like to hear more from Tipler about his eschaton theory and know a bit about the background of this kind of thinking. The notion of an attractor seems to have re-legitimized teleology in science.
Yours seems to be a teleology of strange attractors.
You could call it that. Have you read Process and Reality by Alfred North Whitehead (Free Press, 1978)? That’s where my whole metaphysic is drawn from; Whitehead has a concept that he calls “concrescence,” and by that he means the eschaton, the Omega Point, the Transcendental Object at the End of Time. What I’ve done is simply take the Whiteheadian metaphysic and create a mathematical model that is consistent with his concept and then shown how it would work as a heuristic machine.
Don’t you draw on Bateson as well?
I hardly know anything about Bateson, although I do occasionally use his phrase “the pattern which connects,” but my intellectual roots are Jung, McLuhan, and Whitehead, and perhaps a little Thomas Aquinas, imbibed without realizing it as a result of being raised Catholic.
I’d like to re-attack the question of the New Age’s relationship to science and technology. In Strange Weather: Culture, Science, and Technology in the Age of Limits (Verso, 1991), Andrew Ross writes, “If metaphysicians no longer habitually find themselves placed in the anti-science corner, it is because theoretical science in the wake of quantum physics has shattered the intellectual security of the mechanical picture of discontinuous time, space, matter, and objectivity.” He goes on to note that some in the New Age community “have made common cause with quantum physics, finding among the more speculative adherents of that discipline a tolerance for mysticism that complements their own holistic metaphysics and a new raison d’etre for closing the gap between the two cultures.” What do you make of such developments?
Before, science was based on calculability and sober reflection, whereas now it’s based on premises which most people would find highly irrational and counterintuitive. I feel pretty comfortable being on the side of the philosophy of science but it’s post-Newtonian, post-quantum physics science. I’m a little suspicious of the New Age’s appropriation of the language of quantum physics, because I think most of these people couldn’t solve a partial differential equation if their lives depended on it; they’re just surfing on the obfuscation of quantum physics that its mathematical basis provides.
With all due respect, could you solve a partial differential equation?
No, but I don’t call on quantum physics to support my point of view.
But you often wrap your ideas in the mantle of science by using scientific terminology.
There’s science and then there’s reason, and science has at times used reason, although at times its conclusions have been fairly unreasonable. Reason is a universal method for dealing with information, whereas science is an extremely culturally conventionalized method. I think there’s a role for reason and the razors of logic, but this is a branch of formal philosophy, not a branch of science; science appropriates everything to itself and then we tend to genuflect before it, but what we really need is a relativistic approach to the true scope of science which is considerably less than it has claimed for itself. In the 20th Century, it’s claimed to be the arbiter of truth in all domains when in fact it’s simply the study of those phenomena so crude that the restoration of their initial condition causes the same thing to repeat itself, and that’s a very small part of the sum total of the phenomenal universe.
The question of whether or not what’s ultimately important about a scientific theory is its mathematical foundation or its popular misconception is an interesting one. You should take a look at Misia Landau’s book Narratives of Human Evolution (Yale University Press, 1991), in which she argues from a lit-crit point of view that the theory of evolution is nothing more than a campfire story, with all the elements of good theater. It has someone of poor and humble and origins who goes a great distance in search of a great gift, forming alliances along the way and finally attaining this gift, but it brings him self-doubt rather than happiness, and so on. I view everything as narrative and science is simply a part of that; its reliance on mathematics is much less impressive to its high priests than it is to the rest of us.
So you make common cause with the post-structuralists to the degree that you view science as a text to be read closely for traces of culturally constructed, rather than empirically verifiable, meaning.
I’m a little uncomfortable being connected with deconstructionism, having just read Camille Paglia (anybody who read Sexual Personae would be uncomfortable being connected with those people!). But I think these critiques need to be done. Imre Lakatos, a Greek philosopher of science who wrote a very influential book called Criticism and the Growth of Knowledge (Cambridge University Press, 1970), talks about how certain theories which we accept as scientific have in fact been very reluctant to state the circumstances under which they would be proven false, which is what characterizes real science. Freudianism, for instance, is in this position: no Freudian has ever said what piece of evidence would be necessary in order to abandon Freud.
But isn’t the question of falsification a moot point for someone interested in “reading” a discourse as reflective of cultural biases? The empirical grounding – or lack thereof – of Freudianism seems irrelevant, in such a context.
Well, I think you do have to ask this question of falsification, ultimately. For instance, in my own theory of time I’ve been very concerned to make it clear that if the historical continuum does not exhibit certain properties then the theory should be dumped.
What is interesting about the Timewave is that it seems to supply a map of historical vicissitude, a map that you can confirm for yourself by looking at how it maps the past, which then gives you a certain measure of confidence as you notice that it seems to map the immediate future astonishingly well. Where the cognitive dissonance enters into it is that all of these mappings only work if you assume a major singularity emergent on the 12th of December, 2012. That’s such a screwy position that most people grow fairly uncomfortable with it. I mean, here is a formal mathematical theory which nevertheless has built into it a bearded character carrying a sign that says, “Repent, for the end is near!”
How comfortable are you with the stickiness of that position?
Well, I’m not entirely comfortable. On the other hand, if you look at the orthodox position on the universe, it’s that it sprang from nothing in a single moment. You would be hard pressed to construct a tighter limit test for creditability than that! All I’m saying is that the singularity is more likely to spring from a very complex situation than to spring from what is a completely featureless situation, which is what the Big Bang says.
But you’re turning a semantic somersault, there: Science’s position is not that everything sprang from nothing, but rather that we do not know what the state of the universe was one picosecond before what we now theorize happened.
You’re right; they don’t say the universe sprang from nothing, they say we can calculate back to a moment when it was smaller than the diameter of the electron and then we can’t calculate any further, and they call that last picosecond the prephysical era, indicating that it’s somehow bad taste to attempt to push the laws of physics into that realm. But it seems to me that this is not a wit different from saying, “Let there be light,” and resting with that. It’s much more likely that the universe is driven by a singularity, but the singularity is of the nature of an attractor rather than an impelling force. Thus, it isn’t a coincidence that at a high point of human history the singularity occurs; what I’m suggesting is that history is a phenomenon which announces the imminence of the concrescence: you only get language-using, technology-elaborating animals a geological nanosecond before the singularity occurs.
But what is the engine that drives that teleology?
Well, now we go on to Tipler’s paper: It’s this Omega Point that he’s raving about. What’s fascinating about Tipler’s paper is that he’s saying that physics supports the de Chardinian point of view, which is a theological point of view, but he, like de Chardin, makes the unnecessary assumption that the Omega Point is far away in time, when actually there’s no way of making a judgment as to our distance from it based on what is present in Tipler or de Chardin. What I’ve come up with is a map of the temporal continuum which, when you have fitted its saw-toothed edges into the ebb and flow of historical vicissitude, enables you to look at the end of the wave and discover that far from meandering millennia or mega-millennia into the future, it actually comes to ground 21 years into the future.
What exactly will happen in 2012?
I’ve given a lot of thought to this and the answers range over a spectrum, from soft to hard. The softest version is: nothing at all. The Seventh Day Adventists believe the end of the world occurred in 1830, which is a very soft version; it can happen and you don’t even notice! In the extreme, hard version, which maps Whiteheadian metaphysics onto Christian eschatology, the stars fall from heaven, the oceans boil, the dead rise, and so forth – in other words, a complete breakdown of ordinary physics.
But aren’t you fudging the disprovability of your theory, given that the spectrum of possible proofs includes an event, on the extreme “soft” end, whose cultural reverberations are below the threshold of detectability? If nothing perceptible happened on December 12, 2012, how would an outside observer discern whether you simply got the date wrong, or the predicted event transpired but was simply beneath the threshold of registration?
Well, you need to move into the domain of what’s called best-fit theories of curve matching. In other words, we have a curve – the Timewave – and we have a data field – human history – and what’s needed is an impartial method of matching the curve to history. This is a difficult problem but not in principle an insoluble one; what makes it difficult on the face of it is that history is not a quantified data field – you don’t get good agreement about what the vicissitudes of history really mean. However, there is a kind of vague consensus that you could use to guide you. If you had a thousand tenured professors of history and you asked them to name the ten most important turning points of the last 5,000 years, there would be a fairly high percentage of agreement on the Golden Age of Greece, the Italian Renaissance, the fall of the Roman Empire, and so forth as having global consequence upon all peoples that followed upon them. Eventually, what you would try to do is get a consensus by experts in the field of history and then get them to propose a set of variables onto which the original set of variables could be mapped and then the best-fit configuration of these two data streams should either indicate that 2012 is the end of the Timewave or indicate some other date as the end of the Timewave. So the answer to your question is that the comparison of these two theories lies in the realm of the quantification of historical data.
I don’t incline toward the softer end of the scale, but I find the hard end of the scale, where you have the stars falling from heaven, equally hard to believe. I see the eschaton as a planetary phenomenon. I think the Timewave is a topological manifold of the unconscious of biology or something like that; I think the fate of this planet is entirely caught up in this 2012 end date. I’m willing to be the devil’s advocate for that, to try to make it seem creditable, because the orthodox theory of history taught in the universities is one of what’s called “trendless fluctuation,” meaning that history isn’t under the governance of any set of laws. Well, if that’s true, then history is unique in this universe – the only phenomenon not under the governance of a set of rules.
The notion of an “unconscious of biology,” by which I assume you mean some sort of planetary sentience, sounds like a New Age gloss on the Gaia hypothesis.
I’ve held different points of view about this. Sometimes I incline more to this theory that you’re asking about, that the Gaian mind has somehow deputized a subset of higher animals called the primates to be the energy-garnering units in the global ecosystem, and then the question would be why? I’m interested in the phenomenon of these earth-crossing asteroids. Every solid body in the solar system clear out to the moon of Pluto is heavily cratered by cometary material and it may be that life actually has a kind of hyperdimensional proprioception, that there is an anticipation of danger on the planetary scale and so human beings have been called forth as a kind enzymatic response to this sense of danger, and the goal of human history is to use thermonuclear weapons to blow apart some very large object that would otherwise make a real mess out of things.
I’d like to end with a suitably facetious question: What do you consider yourself? Are you a psychotropic philosopher, a cartographer of altered states, a stand-up comedian for those whose neurons have been permanently rewired by psychoactive alkaloids, or . . . ?
I’m a cunning linguist (laughs).
Points of Reference:
Psychedelics Before and After History, a 90-minute tape available from Sound Photosynthesis, (415) 383-6712, POB 2111, Mill Valley, CA 94942-2111.
McKenna, Terence. The Archaic Revival. New York: HarperCollins, 1992.
Timewave Zero software, available from 48 Shattuck Square #147, Berkeley, CA 94704.
Metamorphosis, an 88-minute video of a “trialogue” between McKenna, the chaos mathematician Ralph Abraham, and the biologist Rupert Sheldrake on chaos theory, Gaian consciousness, “morphogenetic fields,” and New Age eschatology, accompanied by fractal graphics and ambient techno, is available from Mystic Fire Video, 524 Broadway, Suite 604, New York, NY 10012, (800)292-9001, $29.95.
Copyright Mark Dery; all rights reserved.