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Technology and Terence McKenna

I thought I’d follow up my blog entry from last week — ”Thoughts on Robots” —  –(and those amazing YouTube video clips of the latest robots) with a short entry on technology and an alternative perspective offered by psychedelic plant philosopher Terence McKenna.

If you’re not familiar with McKenna and his work, you can read the basic but good Wikipedia entry about him here:

McKenna lived from 1946 to 2000, dying (appropriately) in the year of the new millennium, though tragically young at at just age 53. (Note that this Terence McKenna is not to be confused with the Canadian filmmaker of the same name.)

McKenna was a contemporary of Timothy Leary and Ram Dass (formerly Dr. Richard Alpert and bestselling author of Be Here Now) — the two professors whose experiments with psychedelics (notably LSD) got them booted out of Harvard and on to being heroes of the counterculture.

Where Leary was something of a showman, and Dass became a guru-like proponent of eastern philosophy and mysticism, McKenna was more soft-spoken. Yet he may have been the greatest intellect in the bunch, and likely the most articulate.

McKenna had a complicated personal life, traveled widely, and achieved extremely original insights into the nature of reality and human consciousness by fusing knowledge and discipline from hard science (biology, chemistry, physics, etc.) with studies in shamanism, enthobotany and person experiments with psychotropic plants such as ayahuasca — a drink made from a vine and another plant found in the Amazon:

Amazonian shamans had discovered long ago that the vine they use for Aya contains and/or releases DMT — a chemical present in all plants and animals that in concentrated doses has a hallucinogenic effect (to put it crudely) on human beings. DMT is not bio-available when eaten as a stomach enzyme neutralizes it. By combining two different plants and mashing them into a foul-tasting drink, the shamans were able to bypass this enzyme and open up what some consider the most powerful “trip” available anywhere. (DMT is chemically close in structure to Psilocybin, the active ingredient in magic mushrooms, and to some extent LSD in its effects.)

Of course, conventional science tends to dismiss any insight gained from this kind of drug-induced “tripping” as superstitious nonsense. Hence, McKenna’s exclusion from the scientific mainstream. Others view DMT as a healing plant, or even a kind of entity that opens up deeper dimensions of reality to users. DMT has come to be called the the “spirit molecule” by some who note that its location in the pineal gland in the human brain corresponds with the “third eye” in eastern meditative religions. An excellent documentary entitled DMT: The Spirit Molecule can be discovered here:

and also located in its entirety on YouTube (and also via a Facebook page with the same title).

In recent years some physicists have conducted serious experiments to show that consciousness is universal and non-local, and that some of the leading-edge insights from quantum mechanics are consistent with concepts propounded over the millennia by religious visionaries.

A leading physicist who promotes such contentions is Amit Goswami, Ph.D., who wrote what is still the standard text on quantum physics in universities around the world. A documentary about him, The Quantum Activist, can be found here:

(Be sure to browse through to some of the short videos, too, about weird things in leading-edge physics on this site. It’s a mind-bending overview about what it calls the “revolution going on in science.”)

Anyway, getting back to the topic at hand, Terence McKenna is perhaps the most articulate spokesperson for the view that we humans are on a technological journey fulfilling some kind of cosmic destiny, not so much “pushed” be evolution as “pulled” by what he calls the “attractor” — a God-like force that stands at the end of time.

McKenna is perhaps most famous for coming up with what’s called the “stoned ape” theory of human evolution, claiming that we were anatomically and mentally modern for hundreds of thousands of years but it was when our ancient ancestors stumbled upon psychedelic plants that we started painting on cave walls and creating mythologies and so on that became culture and, eventually, what we call civilization. (McKenna wrote that the counterculture’s rediscovery and embracing of psychedelic plants, rhythmic music and ecstatic dance, etc. is what he called the Archaic Revival — a rejection of the sterile Newtonian universe with its fixed laws and reduction of everything to mere matter in favour of a spirit-infused conscious universe governed by some kind of intention.)

McKenna’s stone ape premise was recently recapped and popularized by the British author Graham Hancock in his fascinating book Supernatural, which I recommend, though I don’t feel Hancock gave as much attribution to McKenna as he ought to have done.

Let me add that there’s plenty in McKenna’s thinking that I question or outright disagree with. His quotes about the convergence of the Mayan calendar and human consciousness as we step into another dimension seem laughably dated now, although he did caution that this date was just a hunch.

But, apropos of robots and technology, McKenna had some fascinating things to say about how the Internet, microchips, information (which he calls “novelty”), machines, virtual reality and related technologies are coming together in what will be, he thought, the next evolutionary jump, either somehow integrating human consciousness with machines using a yet-to-be-discovered technique, or, alternately, via a leap in which machines become conscious on their own (the famous “singularity” of AI and science fiction fame), leaving us mortal humans behind as midwives to a great cosmic process in which machines expand information/novelty at an accelerated rate across the universe.

Anyway, McKenna does a better job explaining his ideas than me. A great online resource is the website TerenceMcKennaLand, which you can locate here:

I recommend you scroll down to the Audio/Video section, and watch the short five-part series “A Conversation with Terence McKenna” (which starts about three video clips from the top).

Whether you agree with McKenna’s views or not, if you’ve never encountered him before you’re in for a treat! As I say, he’s an incredibly articulate spokesperson for a point of view that is not mainstream, but is increasingly reflected in the insights of some of the world’s leading philosophers and physicists.

FOOTNOTE: For an updated perspective on materialist science and its bias against alternative understandings of evolution and consciousness, take a look at Thomas Nagel’s book Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Natural is Almost Certainly False (Oxford University Press, August 2012) the details of which can be located here:

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