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David Christopher LaneDavid Christopher Lane, Ph.D. Professor of Philosophy, Mt. San Antonio College Lecturer in Religious Studies, California State University, Long Beach Author of Exposing Cults: When the Skeptical Mind Confronts the Mystical (New York and London: Garland Publishers, 1994) and The Radhasoami Tradition: A Critical History of Guru Succession (New York and London: Garland Publishers, 1992).

THE STUDY OF CONSCIOUSNESS
Glimpses into the Life and Work of Great Thinkers in Neuroscience and Philosophy

Terence McKenna

Yan Xu

Terence Kemp McKenna is an American philosopher, psychonaut, and ethnobotanist. His life was full of extraordinary adventures and ideas that many people considered radical and insane. He was one of the most famous pioneers in the field of human consciousness in the 20th century and was well known for his explorations of psychedelics.

Terence McKenna
Terence McKenna

In the year of 1946, he was born in Paonia, Colorado. He is half Irish from his father's family and half Welsh from his mother's ancestry. In his early childhood, he was interested in fossil hunting and human history under his uncle's influence, which later on established his devotion to the complexity of language and history. He came upon an essay entitled “Seeking the Magic Mushroom,” which opened a door for him towards the study of human consciousness. McKenna also read Carl Jung writings at the age of ten, which fueled his interest in the field of psychology. In addition, according to the interview between Bodhi Tree Book Review's co-editor Mark Kenaston and McKenna in 1993, McKenna admitted that Aldous Huxley's The Doors of Perception and Heaven and Hell made him aware of psychedelic substances when he was a young teenager. As he stated in the interview, “I regard science fiction as the entry drug into the psychedelic world.” This interest motivated him to travel to Jerusalem and Nepal while he was enrolled in the University of California, Berkeley. In Jerusalem and Nepal, he continued his journey of curiosity by studying shamanism and psychoactive drugs, such as hashish.

McKenna was fascinated by the internal experiences that Lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD) produced to him. Due to this reason, McKenna traveled with his brother Dennis to the Colombian Amazon in order to search for the oo-koo-hé, which is a plant that contains dimethyltryptamine. However, they did not find the plant; instead, they found the gigantic psilocybe cubensis mushrooms. In 1971, he returned back to the University of California and finished his study of shamanism and ecology. He also brought back the spores from Amazon, which allowed him to cultivate psilocybin mushrooms. He then published a book called Magic Mushroom Grower's Guide. According to McKenna, he believes that the mushrooms were found by the early proto-human primates who try to search for the new resources of food. In his book Food of the Gods, he claims since the mushrooms improve visual acuity and stimulate sexual desire, it actually increases reproduction success and is evolutionarily beneficial. Besides that, McKenna also points out that psilocybin is the catalyst for the human language and art: “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.”

McKenna advocates the usage of natural psychedelic substances, because he suggests that it takes people to a higher level of understanding the universal mysteries by elevating them to another dimension through hallucination. McKenna describes the experiences of hallucination as “a revelation of an alien dimension—a brightly lit, non-three-dimensional, self-contorting, linguistically intending modality that couldn't be denied.” Basically, he justifies the usage of psychedelic substances by stating that it opens the path of imaginations for the human to discover the truth of reality. In his book The Archaic Revival, he wrote, “Psychedelics are illegal because they dissolve opinion structures and culturally laid down models of behavior and information processing. They open you up to the possibility that everything you know is wrong.” Upon that, he also hypothesizes that psilocybin mushrooms might be a higher form of intelligence that makes human to reconsider their relationship between nature and man.

Due to the early study of shamanism, McKenna was heavily influenced by the fractal patterns in Chinese philosophy of the I Ching, which later contributed to his theory of Timewave (Novelty Theory). According to John Major Jenkins' article Early 2012 Books, McKenna and Waters: “Terence advanced the notion that time is not a constant but has different qualities tending toward either 'habit' or 'novelty.' In the early 1970s, Terence developed a graph of time wave data based on I Ching's 64 hexagrams. He analyzed the “degree of difference” between each hexagram and find out the mathematical orders and “intentional construct” within I Ching. This study leads him to notice how time obtains certain behavior called “self-same similarity,” which means that its small section is identical to the future's larger event. Jenkin's article also concludes Terrance's novelty theory implies that “larger intervals, occurring long ago, contained the same amount of information as shorter, more recent, intervals. History was being compressed, moving quicker. And the process had to have an end.” This theory helps him identifies the date of the ultimate end of the process; he decided to choose 1945's atomic explosion as an “extremely novel” date for human history and predicted that the final phase would happen in 2012, which corresponds with Mayan calendar's prediction of cataclysmic events.

Although McKenna was known as a pioneer in the field of psychedelics, McKenna faced a lot of criticism for justifying the usage of such drugs. Others, however, lauded his efforts; the article “Terence McKenna, 53, Dies; Patron of Psychedelic Drugs” by Douglas Martin wrote that Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead said that he was "the only person who has made a serious effort to objectify the psychedelic experience. McKenna was one of the few pioneers who saw the future of virtual reality and the Internet in the 1990s. According to the article “Terence McKenna's Last Trip” by Davis Erik, Terrence observed that psychedelic cultures would become common on the Internet. He argued, "Psychedelics were always about information...Their very existence was forbidden knowledge at one point. You had to be Aldous Huxley to even know about them." Unfortunately, McKenna died at the young age of 53 in the year 2000 due to brain cancer. However, his work has become even more widely known today and his influence how grown exponentially over the past two decades.

Further Reading

1. Food of the Gods: The Search for the Original Tree of Knowledge A Radical History of Plants, Drugs, and Human Evolution, Bantam; Reprint edition (January 1, 1993

2. True Hallucinations, HarperOne; Reprint edition (April 22, 1994)

3. The Archaic Revival: Speculations on Psychedelic Mushrooms, the Amazon, Virtual Reality, UFOs, Evolution, Shamanism, the Rebirth of the Goddess, and the End of History, HarperCollins; 1st edition (May 8, 1992)

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Terence McKenna's
Last Trip

Excerpt from Wired Magazine (January 5, 2000)

"The psychedelic experience is not the equivalent of a dust bunny under your psychic bed," says McKenna. "It's a product of the fractal laws that govern the world at an informational level. There is no deeper truth."

McKenna is the most loved psychedelic barnstormer since Timothy Leary, the self-appointed guru of LSD who died in 1996 amid a flurry of digital hype about online euthanasia and his plans - which he scrapped - to undergo cryonic preservation. Like McKenna, Leary was an intellectual entertainer, a carny barker hawking tickets to the molecular mind show. McKenna calls it "the harlequin role." At the same time, McKenna is a far mellower man than Leary. "I don't seek to live forever," he says, "and I don't want the removal of my head to become a Net event."

Leary spent the late '60s attempting to gather a hippie army under the notorious battle cry of "turn on, tune in, drop out." Taking his advice, McKenna headed east to India, where he bought Mahayana art and smuggled hashish until a stateside bust forced him into hiding in the wilds of Indonesia. In 1971, he and his brother went to the Amazon to hunt for ayahuasca, a legendary shamanic brew. But when they arrived at the Colombian village of La Chorera that spring, what they found were fields blanketed with Stropharia cubensis, aka magic mushrooms.

Within 36 hours of his seizure, 1,400 messages poured into McKenna's email in-box. The flood is testament to his underground stature.

In some ways, it was a turning point in American psychedelic culture. Back home, Leary's LSD shock troops had already disintegrated into harder drugs and bad vibes, and Leary himself was hiding out abroad after escaping from a US jail. Serious heads knew all about the psilocybin mushroom from scholarly books on shamanism, but no one in the US was eatingS. cubensis in the early '70s because no one had figured out how to cultivate them. After returning from South America, the McKennas discovered the secret, which they promptly published. Magic mushrooms were on the menu.

McKenna farmed 'shrooms into the 1980s. He could turn out 70 pounds of them every six weeks, like clockwork. The trade financed the middle-class existence of a relatively settled man. Then a good friend of his, an acid chemist, got busted. "They fucked him so terrifyingly that I saw I couldn't do this anymore. I had to work something else out." What McKenna worked out was "Terence McKenna," a charismatic talking head he marketed, slowly but successfully, to the cultural early adopters.

McKenna got his 15 minutes of fame when four of his books came out in rapid succession. His 1991 collection of essays, The Archaic Revival, is particularly influential, especially among ravers and other alternative tribes attracted to the idea that new technologies and ancient pagan rites point toward the same ecstatic truths. Food of the Gods, published in 1992, aims directly at the highbrows. In it, McKenna lays out a solid if unorthodox case that psychedelics helped kick-start human consciousness and culture, giving our mushroom-munching ancestors a leg up on rivals by enhancing their visual and linguistic capacities.

Though anthropologists ignored his arguments, the time was right for McKenna's visions. He was tempted with movie deals, got featured in magazines, and toured like a madman. He hobnobbed with Silicon Valley hotshots like interface gurus Brenda Laurel and Jaron Lanier and performed at raves with techno groups like the Shamen. Timothy Leary called him "the Timothy Leary of the 1990s."

McKenna also was a popularizer of virtual reality and the Internet, arguing as early as 1990 that VR would be a boon to psychedelicists and businesspeople alike. But unlike Leary, who planned to use the Net as a stage for his final media prank, McKenna realized that the Internet would be the place where psychedelic culture could flourish on its own. "Psychedelics were always about information," McKenna observes. "Their very existence was forbidden knowledge at one point. You had to be Aldous Huxley to even know about them."

To his great satisfaction, McKenna has lived to see the psychedelic underground self-organize online. Sites like the Lycaeum and the Vaults of Erowid now provide loads of information on chemistry, legal status, dosage effects, and - perhaps most important to the uninitiated - experiential feedback. Other groups like the Heffter Research Institute and the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) use the Web to further their advocacy efforts. But to McKenna the Net is more than just an information source. He is convinced that an unprecedented dialog is going on between individual human beings and the sum total of human knowledge.

"The Internet is an oracle for anyone in trouble," McKenna explains, using his illness as an example. "Within 10 minutes I can be poring through reams of control studies, medical data, and personal reports. If anything, my cancer has made me even more enthusiastic about the idea that through information, people can take control of and guide their own lives."

Unfortunately, by last October, five months after the initial diagnosis and treatment, he needed much more than just information. Despite the radiation therapy, the tumor was still spreading. McKenna traveled to the medical center at UC San Francisco, where a team of specialists surgically removed the bulk of the tumor. They then soaked the cavity with p53, a genetically altered adenovirus meant to scramble the hyperactive self-replication subroutines of the remaining tissue's DNA. Gene therapy is highly experimental; as Silness put it, McKenna became "a full-on guinea pig."

At first, the doctors at UCSF were extremely pleased with the results, and for four months the tumor cooled its heels. But in February, an MRI revealed that it had returned with a vengeance, spreading so thoroughly throughout McKenna's brain that it was deemed inoperable. He retreated to a friend's house in Marin County, and his family began to gather. By the time you read this, Terence McKenna will likely have died.

MSAC PHILOSOPHY GROUP

The Study of Consciousness

Human interest in the nature of consciousness dates far back to our ancestral past. However, it is only in the last century or so that researchers and philosophers have been able to tackle the problem in a more scientific way. This is primarily due to our increasing understanding of human physiology and how our brain functions. With the advent of ever more sophisticated technology—from fMRI scans, functional magnetic resonance imaging, to DARPA's neural engineering program, understanding neural “dust”—we are now able to not only create vivid simulations of cerebral activity but also to systematically reverse engineer the brain. Whether such empirical observations will unlock the secrets of self-reflective awareness is still open to vigorous debate. Nevertheless, the study of consciousness is now considered to be of elemental importance and has invited a large number of brilliant thinkers—from a wide range of disciplines, including mathematicians, quantum physicists, neuroscientists, and philosophers—to join in the discussions and offer their own contributions.

The following essays briefly explore the life and work of pioneers in the field of consciousness studies. Included in this eclectic mix are such notables as Giulio Tononi (University of Wisconsin), Paul and Patricia Churchland (University of California, San Diego), Noam Chomsky (M.I.T.), the late Timothy Leary and Terence McKenna, and Jean Pierre Changeux (Collége de France) among others.




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