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." http://www.cognitionfactor.net/cinema/screen-7.aspx