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Was Psychedelic Guru Terence McKenna Goofing About 2012 Prophecy?

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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Rational Scientific American readers surely scoff at claims—based on ancient Mayan calendars and other esoterica—that life as we know it will end this December, especially now that NASA experts have “crushed” the prophecy. But many folks out there are reportedly worried. Perhaps I can allay their anxieties by relating my  encounter with a prominent popularizer of the 2012-doomsday meme, psychedelic guru Terence McKenna.

In his books and lectures, McKenna extolled psychedelic drugs as a spiritual path superior to that of any mainstream religion. His book The Food of the Gods (Bantam 1992) was a rigorous argument—complete with footnotes and bibliography—that mind-expanding plants and fungi catalyzed the transformation of our brutish ancestors into cultured modern humans. The visions inspired in our ancestors by these substances—and particularly by plants containing psilocybin, dimethytryptamine (DMT) and other psychedelics–were the seeds from which language sprung, followed by the arts, religion, philosophy, science and all of human culture, McKenna asserted. By outlawing psychedelics, he said, we have cut ourselves off from the wellspring of our humanity.

Food of the Gods showed that McKenna could play the serious scholar when he chose. But he was truer to himself in True Hallucinations (HarperSanFrancisco, 1993), a memoir packed with psychedelic tall tales and wild riffs on the nature of reality. McKenna was less a scientist or even philosopher than a performance artist or jester, and I mean that as a compliment. What follows is an edited excerpt from Rational Mysticism (Houghton Mifflin, 2003), which describes my 1999 meeting with McKenna and my attempt to find out what he really thought would happen in December 2012.

The Man in the Purple Sparkly Suit

Raised in a Colorado ranching town, Terence McKenna discovered psychedelics in 1965 when he enrolled at the University of California, Berkeley, where he studied ecology and shamanism (ah, the Sixties). He became an itinerant scholar-adventurer, traveling to the Far East and South America in search of exotic mind-altering philosophies and substances, including two of his favorites, magic mushrooms and ayahuasca, a DMT-laced tea brewed from plants native to Amazonia.

In the early 1970s, McKenna and his younger brother Dennis (who became a slightly more sober authority on psychedelics) trekked into the jungles of Colombia, where they ingested enormous quantities of ayahuasca, marijuana and mushrooms. McKenna’s visions persuaded him that tryptamines–a class of chemicals that includes DMT and psilocybin—were messages from an alien civilization, or “overmind.”

McKenna’s trips also inspired his “timewave” theory, which holds that existence and even time itself emerge from the interaction between two opposing forces, one conservative and the other creative.  McKenna devised a mathematical model that charted the ebbs and surges of creative, “novel” events—including wars, revolutions, famines, plagues and scientific and technological advances–throughout human history. When McKenna extrapolated the model into the future, it predicted a huge spike in novelty in December 2012.

McKenna first suggested that something dramatic might happen in 2012 in his 1975 book The Invisible Landscape, co-written with Dennis, and he elaborated on his prediction—and the timewave theory–in True Hallucinations. In the latter book, McKenna’s arch, ultra-hip tone gave way now and then to moments of genuine poignancy. He confessed that, as he was finishing his book, his sixteen-year marriage to his wife Kat, with whom he had two children, was dissolving. All his psychedelic insights, he said, had “done nothing to mitigate or ward off the ordinary vicissitudes of life. Like the Soul in Yeats’s poem I am still an eternal thing fastened to the body of a dying animal.”

I found this blend of earnestness and irony intriguing. McKenna himself seemed unsure whether his psychedelic visions were genuine revelations or just delusions, whether he was serious when he talked about the timewave and the impending apocalypse or just goofing. I hoped to get a better sense of McKenna’s true beliefs in May 1999, when he left his home in Hawaii and traveled to New York City to give a talk.

As I took my tape recorder and pad out of my backpack on the night of McKenna’s performance at an auditorium in mid-town Manhattan, a man in front of me, whom I’ll call Glen, turned around to chat. He was bearded, about my age, a bit wild-eyed. Glen had never seen “Terence” before, but he owned all his books and two of his taped lectures. He was blown away by Terence’s prediction that in December 2012 the shit was going to hit the fan. Glen hoped that tonight Terence would get a little more specific about what was going to happen.

Glen had dropped a lot of acid when he was young. In fact, he liked drugs so much that he became a pharmacologist. Working in a pharmacy got boring after a while, so he became a psychotherapist specializing in “energy healing.” Glen hadn’t done acid in a long time. He really wanted to do some again, but he didn’t know where to get it. Glen looked at me expectantly. When I shrugged, he glumly turned his back on me.

Applause erupted as McKenna strode onto the stage and sat in an armchair. Tall, bearded, owlish, with curly brown hair going grey, he looked like a gaunt, Gaelic Allen Ginsberg. His voice had a wheedling, nasal edge. His speech was much like his prose, a bouillabaisse of scientific and high-tech visions, primordial lore, environmental fear-mongering, anarchic political commentary and psychedelic metaphysics.

He kept wandering down apparent digressions that somehow circled back to his main theme: The purpose of existence is novelty-generation, and our culture is generating novelty at an accelerating rate. The internet, nanotechnology, pharmacology, superstring theory, genetic engineering, artificial intelligence are shattering our old paradigms and bearing us toward some fantastic, psychedelic future. And according to his calculations on December 21, 2012, something big would happen, something apocalyptic, that would bring about “the end of life as we know it.”

One possible catalyst, McKenna said, was artificial intelligence, which would soon produce machines smarter than any human. (Yes, McKenna was an early proponent of the Singularity.) “If the hyper-intelligent AI is not filled with bodhisattva compassion,” McKenna warned, “then our ass is probably grass.” McKenna presented all of this with a mischievous grin, daring us to take him seriously.

I was still unsure what to make of McKenna when I met him the next day for lunch atop the Millennium Hotel, a gleaming ebony monolith in downtown Manhattan just across from the World Trade Center (which was still standing). We sat in a booth beside a window, McKenna with his back to the glass, beyond which skyscrapers loomed. McKenna looked even more owlish up close than he had on stage. He wore a black t-shirt emblazoned with a bronze dancing figure. The gap between his front teeth enhanced his air of raffishness.

When I said that his talk the previous evening had been quite entertaining, McKenna rolled my descriptor slowly around in his mouth—”En-ter-tain-ing”—as if he wasn’t sure he liked its taste. I added that I thought he had exaggerated the extent to which old scientific paradigms were crumbling and yielding to a radical new “psychedelic” vision of reality. I admitted that I had once been a staff writer for Scientific American, and I still shared that magazine’s rather skeptical, conservative perspective.

Scientific American, McKenna assured me, was one of his favorite magazines. It was “incredibly psychedelic,” and a major source of his inspiration. Anyone who reads Scientific American, McKenna continued, can see that science is in the throes of “an enormous crisis, or maybe not crisis but turmoil, based on the breakdown of paradigms.” Just look at superstrings, parallel universes, hyper-dimensions, time travel and other bizarre notions emerging from physics, and technological advances like artificial intelligence. “Nobody knows what mind is,” McKenna said, when it is “operating at multi-gigahertz speeds in virtual realities unconstrained by gravity and economy of any sort.”

I told McKenna that many of the supposed revolutionary advances he had read about in Scientific American and elsewhere were grossly over-sold. Artificial intelligence, far from being on the verge of creating “hyper-intelligent” machines, is a joke, a failure, with a string of failed prophesies behind it. As for superstrings, they are so small that it would take a particle accelerator the size of the Milky Way to detect them; that is why many physicists believe that superstring theory and its variants will turn out to be a theoretical dead end.

McKenna shrugged. Whether or not superstring theory pans out, no one can deny that physics is “a field in rich ferment, in need of broad new paradigmatic visions. I mean, sort of where physics was circa 1898, when no one could make sense of Planck’s black-body studies and Einstein was chasing girls around bars in Basel, and it just hadn’t quite frozen out to be what it was.” What was most impressive about McKenna’s riffs was their apparent effortlessness.

When I asked McKenna if he seriously believed that psilocybin mushrooms represent messages from an alien intelligence, he told me that his proposal was not as whimsical as it sounded. Mushroom spores, he said, can survive the cold of outer space; in fact, mushroom cultivators here on earth store the spores in liquid nitrogen. “So if somebody were designing a bio-informational package, a spore is how you would go. Millions of them pushed around by light pressure and gravitational dynamics would percolate throughout the galaxy.”

Psilocybin’s unusual chemical structure suggested an unusual origin, McKenna added. It is “the only four-phosphorelated indol in all of nature,” which indicated “that maybe it came from outside the terrestrial ecosystem.” The personality of the mushroom, as revealed by the experiences it triggers in humans, also had an alien, science-fiction quality. “It presents itself as this particular slice of alien, aesthetic motif from Hollywood–the shiny metallic surfaces, the mercuroid forms, the piercing, instantaneous biointelligence.” McKenna was enjoying himself; he uttered “aesthetic motif” and “mercuroid forms” with a kind of tactile relish.

I said my impression was that he was often… kidding. McKenna guffawed. “I’m Irish! What’s your excuse!” He added soberly, “I’m cynical, and a fair cynic must also be cynical about himself.” He called himself a “visionary fool,” who “propounds this thing which is a trillion to one shot”—the timewave theory–and then “gets to live out the inevitably humorous implications of that.”

He recognized that some people think he is “softheaded” because of his rants about “self-transforming machine elves from hyperspace and all that.” Actually, he had a “keen nose for other peoples’ bullshit.” He despised New Agers who gave credibility to alien-abduction rumors or claimed to be channeling the spirits of long-dead sages. “These things are like intellectual viruses loose in the theater of discourse,” he said scornfully. “And you can’t really argue with these people, because they don’t understand the rules of argument.” McKenna added that “the howling tide of unreason beats against pure fact with incredible fury.”

When I told him that his writing sometimes reminded me of one of my favorite authors, the Argentinian fabulist Jorge Luis Borges, McKenna was delighted. He was a Borges fan, too. McKenna shared Borges’s intuition that “scattered through the ordinary world there are books and artifacts and perhaps people who are like doorways into impossible realms, of impossible and contradictory truth. DMT being the chief example of this.” DMT transports us not to heaven or hell but to a “parallel dimension that is somehow intimately tangled up with our own language processes and how we make reality.” Modern science, McKenna remarked, “operates on the assumption that there are no miracles at the macro-physical level. Well, I would put it to you, DMT is a miracle at the macro-physical level. And the smarter you are, the more impressive it is.”

I said that his riffs on extraterrestrial psilocybin spores and the coming apocalypse struck me as intellectual performance art, not to be taken too seriously, but I suspected that many of his fans took his ideas literally. I told him about my conversation the previous evening with Glen, the man who sat in front of me at McKenna’s lecture. McKenna nodded ruefully. “My function is largely pedagogical,” he said, “trying to teach people, first of all, that the world is a weird, weird place. And then, so what do you do about it? Do you become a Scientologist? Do you return to your Irish Catholic roots? What is the response,” he said, “to the discovery that the world really is totally weird?”

When I told McKenna that I wasn’t sure exactly how his timewave theory worked, he launched into a vigorous explication of it. The essence of the theory is that existence emerges from the clash of two forces: not good and evil but habit and novelty. Habit is entropic, repetitious, conservative; novelty is creative, disjunctive, progressive. “In all processes at any scale, you can see these two forces grinding against each other. You can also see that novelty is winning.”

As novelty increases, so does complexity. From the big bang on, McKenna elaborated, “the universe has been complexifying, and each level of complexity achieved becomes the platform for a further ascent into complexity. So fusion in early stars creates heavy elements and carbon. That becomes the basis for molecular chemistry. That becomes the basis for photobionic life. That becomes the basis for eukaryotic stuff. That becomes the basis for multicellular organisms, that for higher animals, that for culture, that for machine symbiosis, and on and on.”

Modern science often depicts humanity as an accident, a bit player in the universe, but the timewave theory puts us at center stage in the cosmic drama, according to McKenna. If he had to define God, he would define it as this novelty-generating process. This definition could serve as the basis for a new moral order. “Anything which destroyed novelty would be bad, and anything which helped build it up and advance it would be good.”

What about Nazi Germany? I asked. Wasn’t that novel? Or the hydrogen bomb? Or AIDS? McKenna acknowledged that novelty may be accompanied by increased suffering and death, but in general progress of some kind emerges out of these catastrophes. In the case of Nazi Germany, “the twentieth century had to deal with the issue of fascism. It couldn’t close its eyes and waltz past that. And it did! So in that sense Nazi Germany, with its science-fiction production values and its silly rhetoric, served a useful purpose.” McKenna, deep down, was apparently an optimist.

As early as the 1970′s, McKenna sought to make his drug-inspired insight precise and quantitative. He discovered that fractals, mathematical objects whose patterns repeat themselves at different scales, provide an excellent model of the entropy-novelty dialectic. “The fall of the dynasty, the collapse of the love affair, the ruin of the corporation, and the death of the amoeba are all somehow dramas with the same energy points and flows imbedded in them.”

So what did McKenna really think would happen on December 21, 2012? “If you really understand what I’m saying,” he replied, “you would understand it can’t be said. It’s a prediction of an unpredictable event.” The event will be “some enormously reality-rearranging thing.” Scientists will invent a truly intelligent computer, or a time-travel machine. Perhaps we will be visited by an alien spaceship, or an asteroid. “I don’t know if it’s built into the laws of spacetime, or it’s generated out of human inventiveness, or whether it’s a mile and a half wide and arrives unexpectedly in the center of North America.”

But did he really think the apocalypse would arrive on December 21, 2012? “Well…” McKenna hesitated. “No.” He had merely created one mathematical model of the flow and ebb of novelty in history. “It’s a weak case, because history is not a mathematically defined entity,” he said. His model was “just a kind of fantasizing within a certain kind of vocabulary.” McKenna still believed in the legitimacy of his project, even if his particular model turned out to be a failure. “I’m trying to redeem history, make it make sense, show that it obeys laws,” he said.

But he couldn’t stop there. His eyes glittering, he divulged a “huge–quote unquote—coincidence” involving his prophecy. After he made his prediction that the apocalypse would occur on December 21, 2012, he learned that thousands of years ago Mayan astronomers had predicted the world would end on the very same day. “And now there has been new scholarship that they were tracking the galactic center and its precessional path through the ecliptic plane. What does all this mean?” McKenna leaned toward me, his eyes slitted and his teeth bared. “It means we are trapped in software written by the ghost of Jorge Luis Borges!” He threw his head back and cackled. “Tell that to the National Academy of Sciences!”

Two weeks after I met him in New York, just after he returned to his home in Hawaii, McKenna collapsed in the throes of a seizure. Tests revealed an enormous, malignant tumor deep inside his brain. McKenna’s choices were grim. The physician recommended gamma-ray surgery, in which converging beams of radiation bombard the tumor. This treatment might give McKenna another six months to a year, but it could also cause dementia and other side effects. Untreated, McKenna would probably die within a month. McKenna chose the radiation surgery. He made it past the great millennial cusp, but he went downhill rapidly after that. He died on April 3, 2000, less than eleven months after I met him. He was 53.

During my lunch with McKenna at the Millennium Hotel, I had asked him if all his psychedelic excursions had mitigated his fear of death. His reply revealed how hard-headed he was, beneath all the phantasmagoric blarney. “I wouldn’t say I have no fear of death,” he said. “I am interested. Ultimately, my assumption is that, if I have the opportunity, I would embrace it if I saw it coming. But I’m scientific in my approach to my own knowledge of death. In other words, DMT may show you what the dying brain is like… But dying is not death. Near-death experiences are not death experiences.”

Just before his death, another psychedelic advocate told Wired that McKenna’s outrageousness, like that of Timothy Leary, may have harmed the psychedelic cause: “Some people would certainly argue that it doesn’t help to have the most famous second-generation psychedelicist be another man in a purple sparkly suit.” McKenna’s attempts to serve as a serious advocate for psychedelics were no doubt undermined by his irony and wit, his penchant for Borgesian fantasy, but those were precisely the qualities that I found so appealing in him. To McKenna wonder was the essence of gnosis. As he told me during our interview, all his confabulations were intended to make us see that the world is “a weird, weird place.”

To shake us out of our perceptual torpor, McKenna played the holy fool, the crazy wisdom sage. He pushed our faces in the most exotic, lurid inventions of modern science and technology, including superstring theory, time travel, virtual reality and artificial intelligence. He even stooped to speculating about extraterrestrials and to forecasting the end of life as we know it. What elevated him above most other prophets was that he delivered his prophesies with a wink, an implicit acknowledgement that ultimately reality is stranger than we can say or even imagine.

Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Addendum: Fans of McKenna will want to check out this wonderful series of videos, the Terence McKenna Omnibus, including one in which McKenna says: “Shamanism is just show business and philosophy is just a branch of that vaudevillian impulse.”

John Horgan About the Author: Every week, hockey-playing science writer John Horgan takes a puckish, provocative look at breaking science. A teacher at Stevens Institute of Technology, Horgan is the author of four books, including The End of Science (Addison Wesley, 1996) and The End of War (McSweeney's, 2012). Follow on Twitter @Horganism.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. jgrosay 4:47 pm 06/6/2012

    DMT is not a compound that produces hallucinations by itself, but one that some native americans found plants containing it that when mixed with others plants having other active principles produced hallucinations by knocking down the metabolic pathways that eliminate some products that do have an specific hallucinogenic potential. Besides impairing all our social control responses, I’ve always guessed that psychedelic drugs may act by disconecting some kind of a firewall -like the ones in personal computers – that prevents some noxious external influences entering our mind, and also bringing its users to elementary conditions, much closer to animals running thru the wild to find food and obtaining a territory and somebody to mate with, that to more complex and elevated human tasks and productions. Many users of hallucinogens soon developed a nearly insane interest in sorcerery, all human groups dealing mainly in shamanism have done worse than those having a religion, be their deity as criminal as it wanted to be, and it’s not at all alien to our culture and to our beliefs that shamanism and sorcerery have roots in the satanic world. We have nothing to gain from psychedelic drugs but very dangerous and sometimes irreversible highs, and if these products were banned after their initial free marketing is because it was proven they were harmful. Watch your step! Salut +

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  2. 2. psalience 8:02 am 06/7/2012

    Mr Horgan,
    You write,
    “His book The Food of the Gods (Bantam 1992) was a rigorous argument—complete with footnotes and bibliography—that mind-expanding plants and fungi catalyzed the transformation of our brutish ancestors into cultured modern humans.”

    Footnotes it may have had, the argument may even have been “rigorous” but I fear it was much the same as Terence’s other endeavors – entertaining but not very “hard” scientifically. We had discussed the idea of a “psychedelic awakening” in an exchange of letters before publication of his book, but it seemed to me even then that his proposed scenario put the critical influence of psychoactives in a far-too-distant time frame (coming down out of the trees to follow the herbivores upon whose dung arose the agents of awakening…) In addition, his proposals that psychedelics were “mutation-causing” agents that “directly influenced the rapid reorganization of the brain’s information-processing capacities” seemed to me unsupported by any significant lines of evidence.

    Since the publication of his book we have had two important developments which can be used to propose a much more recent time frame for a psychedelic awakening. The Out-of-Africa (II) hypothesis and the Machiavellian Intelligence hypothesis. Just how I use the latter requires some detailed explanation which I cannot go into here, but the big-bang hypothesis of a rapid awakening for modern humans some time between 50 and 150 thousand years ago, (supported by such top paleoanthropologists as Chris Stringer and Spencer Wells, among others) quite cries out for the intervention of some powerful agent, such as the debut of shamanic use of psychoactive plants. A paper on this matter has already been published as a chapter (in Italian: “Il Sogno Sulla Roccia” by Fulvio Gosso and myself) and is currently awaiting publication in English.

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  3. 3. abraxas123 1:34 pm 06/7/2012


    I have enjoyed your books and how you take psychedelics as a serious subject of scientific interest (as do I). Terence McKenna was certainly entertaining and had some provocative insights into the evolution of thought and language. Still,his influence (like that of Timothy Leary before him and Daniel Pinchbeck now)in getting psychedelics taken seriously has been overwhelmingly detrimental.
    An imaginative mind, no matter how intelligent, if it lacks an education disciplined by scientific rigor can too easily become a circus side-show of sensationalism.I am afraid that you and I may never see the application of legal psychedelic use in society in our lifetimes because of the irresponsibility of these people.

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  4. 4. egucciar 3:32 pm 06/7/2012

    I really enjoyed this article. I’m not sure what generation I’m a part of (born in 91) but personally I feel we will be able to see the use of psychedelics in the studies of cognitive science very soon. There are more studies being done today than there were merely 5 years ago. Recently a study came out suggesting these substances were much like a “high pass” filter for the brain. I feel sorry for the readers who are very pessimistic about the application of these substances in science. I know this is “Scientific American” but there are other countries out there with much less strict regulations where I’m sure there are young academics who are taking interest in the subject.

    I for one believe that an altered state of mind is something we should study and embrace. We base our knowledge on reality upon two things, observation and measurement. We know for a fact that our observations cannot always depict the true nature of reality, and when it comes to quantum physics, even our measurements only grasp at half the story. But considering our visual field is only made up of I believe 1% of the EM-spectrum, we should be rather open to the notion that an altered sensory depiction of our universe is not an entirely “incorrect” one.One thing Terrance says that rings true with science is that the universe is weird. If anything recent scientific discoveries and even older ones (like entanglement) really prove the universe is much weirder than what we can perceive. One role psychedelics plays into it is not by giving us delusions and illusions of grandeur but rather it helps us open our minds to the limitless capabilities of our universe and the smallness of what we know.

    I know you’ve argued in the past that we’ve reached the ‘end of science’ but the novelty theory is just one of several similar theories (Like Kurzweil’s Time-Chaos and Exponential Progression) that insist there are even more fundamental powers at play in our universe. Just because something cannot be measured easily, does it not have quality or quantity? The difficult thing would be to find a consensus on such a matter, well, that is unless everyone was subjected to psychedelic experiments and asked to come up with accurate depictions of reality. Maybe a common denominator in the reports of people tripping balls can shed light on why the Psychedelic experience in all its mystical strangeness seems to the people who experience an undeniable truth.

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  5. 5. henru 3:25 am 06/8/2012

    all I gotta say even if TWZ doesnt happen at the next end date, it introduced me to the iching, WHICH CAN BE QUITE EERIE.

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  6. 6. B. Akers 7:34 pm 06/10/2012

    Thanks to John Horgan for this interesting, informative piece. T. McKenna leaves us a perplexing legacy, not without disturbing overtones I find. Among other things, he left us a psychedelic version of evolutionary pseudoscience – previously a monopoly of bible conservatism, posing a strange convergence of left and right fringes. Perhaps no secret, the integrity of scientific understanding, education and discourse in media, society at large seem to have come into ideological crosshairs in our milieu. Some dubious interests apparently covet science’s credibility and influence for their own, judging by how they stake false claim on its discursive authority.

    This goes to a point by a poster above, who (like myself) appreciates critical psychedelic-related inquiry — that McKenna’s influence has been detrimental. On one hand I couldn’t agree more, for many reasons, a host of issues. On the other hand, it seems a circumstance largely unacknowledged, hardly remarked upon – amid a gush of devout, often gullible-sounding tribute. I observe a gap for the most part between commentary about the merits of McKenna’s ouvre, and what meets the eye – recalling sense of contradiction experienced by the child, in the Emperor’s New Clothes.

    A recent blog post seems to reflect the pattern, in exception to it:

    “As a huge fan of psychedelics, I think that McKenna’s theories, on the whole, are goddamn embarrassment … with as many psychonauts as there are that embrace them, it’s easy to see why most people look down on drug culture. It makes us look downright idiotic to anyone that made it through 9th grade biology. The Stoned Ape Theory is based entirely on McKenna’s ideas and has precisely zero evidence in its favor. The visual acuity part? McKenna made it up. The study he cites was not about acuity.” )

    But its troubling to witness endless, ongoing ‘improvements’ of these pseudotheories, retreading, renovating – keeping up sideshow imitation of science. Fine to suggest ID (or whatever sermons in pseudoscientific garb) are genuine in their own terms, presented as theories. But they dodge critical engagement. And playing ‘keep away’ tends to expose them as fraud, by default. Science is a call-out to claims made on its ground. Reading posts here I’d pose this soberly to distant colleagues (among whom I count Gosso and psalience) as matters of hard thought and soul searching.

    I’d congratulate anyone on a paper published, but respectfully suggest – my bias coming from biosciences and anthropology (PhD and MA respectively) – no recourse to Out of Africa plus ‘machiavellian intel’ hypothesis, nor anything else, can salvage anything in McKenna’s talk about psychedelics as the “clue to human evolution, the mysterious catalyst of our origin” etc. I’m sorry, to suggest otherwise is instant credibility issue. Surely evolutionary questions and evidence about human origins have been raided enough already from rightwing?

    And, where is such challenging theory being published, what is its audience? What critical review is it seeking, and receiving (as theory)? There is a great deal that escapes my understanding, and I’d like to improve it. I’d moreover enjoin some hard non-trippy thought – review of priorities, values, and purposes, as related to inherent issues.

    Here’s McKenna on his evolutionary pseudo-theorizing; sounding unusually candid : (Question: Why did you write FOOD OF THE GODS?):

    “I felt if I could change the frame of the argument and get drugs insinuated into a scenario of human origins, then I would cast doubt on the whole paradigm of Western civilization, the same way realizing we came from monkeys did … If you could convince people that drugs were responsible for the emergence of large brain size and language, then you could completely re-cast the argument … So it was consciously propaganda, although I believe all that and I believe its going to be hard to knock down.”

    That interview was 1992; McKenna’d had time to notice Scientific Creationism, a Frankenstein monster of 1970’s creation – getting disproven over and over, without ever being ‘knocked down.’

    The most serious issues in McKenna’s legacy aren’t to do with making psychedelics look bad – as if any insights one might come to under their influence can only be delusional, they mainly ‘inspire’ incoherence and egotistical grandeur. Rather, larger concerns I recognize are of wake effects – doctrine and indoctrination, much the same whenever prophecy fails: cognitive dissonance, subliminal seduction. Forms of thought programming and social control, conditioning effects that imprint culture, are apparently proliferating in our milieu.

    Thanks again for a very interesting and well-balanced article.

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  7. 7. liquidsouljah 5:01 pm 06/24/2012

    lets think positive and stay strong… this is for all the 2012 survivors out there!!

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  8. 8. Schwann 4:29 pm 07/17/2012

    Hey John,
    Terence was a friend of mine. Well written. I think you will definitely like the Terence Mckenna OmniBus 2012 series. It’s the definitive Mckenna bio in 12 parts. Six of which have already been released. You can see them on our website –
    Headspace Studios
    Producer TMOM2012
    Twitter: @webtrance

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  9. 9. JonathanR 8:21 pm 07/19/2012

    Thank you, John Horgan, for a very intelligent piece on Terence Mckenna. As well as his books there exist a large number of taped and / or video clips of Terence McKenna’s public seminars, available to watch on Youtube. I stumbled upon these somehow and have been working my way through them with, I confess, great interest.

    like you, I had found the ‘Timewave Zero’ theory bizarre, for someone as intelligent as Mckenna. He had to be leading us on, didn’t he? So your airing of this subject is very useful, because you did’t just junk the guy. Personally, I think mischief was a significant part of Terence’s character. But so was thinking and voicing perplexing ideas. That was one of his major talents. Like a child turning over stones to look at the wondrous, beautiful, disgusting array of creatures to be found ‘Just three tokes away’. The man had quite an instinct for connecting idea with idea and yes, perhaps he was a kind of fool. But if so, he was one with a mind like a mobile library. Perhaps it takes a fool to voice outlandish or heretical beliefs in public, but here was surely one of the most eloquent and entertaining public speakers of our time? He went where other people dared not. And he persisted with his folly.

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  10. 10. Schwann 12:17 pm 07/27/2012

    Part 7 of the Terence Mckenna OmniBus 2012 has just been released; “The Vaudevillian Impulse”. I think it fits in nicely with the above article.
    Producer: TMOM2012

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  11. 11. rivrfox 12:45 am 11/13/2012

    “It’s clearly a crisis of two things: of consciousness and conditioning. We have the technological power, the engineering skills to save our planet, to cure disease, to feed the hungry, to end war; But we lack the intellectual vision, the ability to change our minds. We must decondition ourselves from 10,000 years of bad behavior. And, it’s not easy.”
    ― Terence McKenna

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  12. 12. RHMRHM 2:31 pm 12/8/2012

    I just came across your article today. Having known Terence fairly well for the past few years of his life, I can say that your piece captures quite elegantly so much of his personality and persona. “James Joyce on acid” would be my thumbnail precis of him.

    But, as to his “timewave zero” theory, while he might have believed it while he was still high in the South American jungle, or for some while after that, when I asked him point blank in 1997, face to face, whether he actually believed what he had written, and was then selling as a computer software module to look at “novelty” over time(which was done by T’s arbitrarily retrofitting a curve he based on the 64 hexagrams of the I ching onto a calendar), he looked at me, smiled and shrugged, and quipped: “Well, it pays the bills!”.

    That was as real as he needed it to be, and indeed, as real (or moreso, unreal) as it was/is, ie. not really at all, other than to the extent that people believe(d)in it.

    It was mental gamesmanship, a time consuming entertainment, mass marketed as ‘prophecy’, Terence’s last and biggest laugh of all. He was not a prophet nor a soothsayer, not even an accurate historian by any means, but he was a very funny storyteller, and a genuine comedian. R.I.P.

    Link to this
  13. 13. RHMRHM 2:32 pm 12/8/2012

    typo: That was “last few years of his life”, not “past few.”

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  14. 14. badger256 2:53 pm 12/18/2012

    What none of you can really do, empirically- is deny the possible reality of any of TM’s theories..It was noted above that he was “arbitrarily retrofitting a curve he based on the 64 hexagrams of the I ching onto a calendar..”as if he did it haphazardly. It was arbitrary because that is the nature of a fractal,the pattern is visibly repeated at all levels. ‘As above so below..’ as it were. His starting point was what is called the King Wen sequence of the I Ching (he had only a passing familiarity with this artifact before the impartation/vision/hallucianation of the information given in the mushroom trance.

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  15. 15. badger256 2:54 pm 12/18/2012

    and the King Wen sequence, it was allowed him to know, is a map of time.

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  16. 16. badger256 3:38 pm 12/18/2012

    Terence also was fond of saying that “belief” (even belief in his theories) was the death of thought/inquiry…I think this may be why he was hesitant to say he whether he “believed” his own theories or not.

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  17. 17. Schwann 2:58 pm 01/13/2013

    For those of you interested in TMK, presumably everyone who reads this, the Terence Mckenna OmniBus 2012 is finished and the Eschaton is over, or is it?

    Final episode here;

    Reasd Gonzo Ebook on Amazon about finding Terence and the others; Journey to Everywhere – Intro by Dennis Mckenna –

    Journey to Everywhere on your Kindle:

    Link to this
  18. 18. panchmazin 10:21 pm 08/2/2013

    I just want to comment how entertainingly incorrect jgrosay’s comment is. Hallucinogens do the opposite of cut things off in your brain, that’s what dissociatives do. Also, a lot of research including a report from the former UK Drug ‘czar’ (as we’d call him here) suggested that psychedelic drugs are much safer to society and the individual than alcohol and many widely available chemicals. If you listen to what he said closely, he made it clear that he didn’t necessarily think that the world would end, but that life as we know it would end and/or our understanding of time and physics would change drastically. Actually, it kind of has if you read some of the crazy discoveries of the past year. This article actually confirms that interpretation, as well. Oh well….

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  19. 19. Nora Drenalin 5:50 am 08/3/2013

    Terence’s job was to open up for new ideas. Or something bizarre. And all of this probably only so to prepare you for the absolutely bewildering, mystical and bizarre properties of the psychedelic experience.

    I think he was just thinking of possibilities and sometimes these will happen to coincide with reality, other times not. For example, low-dose Psilocybin has been associated with cell-growth in the hippocampus and extinction of trace fear conditioning.

    The way he verbally enunciates his theories has a tactile delicacy to it that feels to me as if he had converted a synaesthetically perceived idea during a psychedelic trip, the kind of idea that is so stretched out and liquid that you won’t be quite able to grasp it, so you could run it with subtitles for the observer of a sober mind.

    All of his works I think he did just so you could make your mind up about wether or not your assorted intoxicated thoughts were leading someplace to derive deeper understanding from or not.

    I’m sure as hell he’s thought a lot about synchronicities too, that stuff is a good way to start looking for personal meaning in mundane everyday experience.

    Once you have experienced a mutual dream you know you’re onto something you’re not quite familiar with but may feel you had been looking for all the time.

    Link to this

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