Eros and the Eschaton by Terence McKenna Editor's note: Terence McKenna was not just a raconteur with some interesting ideas,
he was a fire-breathing radical, a cultural revolutionary, as this talk shows.
What I wanted to talk about tonight, simply because it's the thing that is moving me to the edge of my chair at the moment, is — I called the talk "Eros and the Eschaton", and what I could have called it is "Eros and the Eschaton: What Science Forgot", because somebody asked me recently, “Is there any permission to hope?” More specifically, is there any permission for smart people to hope? — I mean, it's easy to hope if you're stupid — but is there any basis for intelligent people to hope? And I wanted to deal with that, because I think so.
Eros and the Eschaton — these are the two areas that I think comprise the old paradigm and give permission to hope; and strangely, neither of these words is that well known, which gives you a measure of how completely the dominator position has squelched, subverted and downplayed any opposition to its worldview. Eros, we know about, in some kind of devalued, schticky kind of glitzy way, because we get it in the eroticisation of media and society. But really, what Eros means in the Greek sense is a kind of unity of nature, a kind of all-pervasive order that bridges one ontological level to another. This is not permitted in the official worldview of our civilisation, which is science. The world of inorganic chemistry is not thought to make any statement about the organic world, and the organic world is not thought to be extrapolatable into the world of culture and thought. There are imagined to be clear breaks in these categories. I had a biologist tell me once, “If genes aren't involved, it ain't evolution”. So that means you can't talk about the evolution of the Earth as a physical body; you can't talk about the evolution of human social institutions; evolution is somehow a word appropriate to biology and appropriate nowhere else.
And this brings me, then, to the first factor easily discerned by anybody who has their eyes open, that compromises and erodes the hopeless existential view of the world that we're getting from science. And that is the idea that nature is in fact, across all scales and all levels of phenomena, a unity. It's not a coincidence that electrons spinning around an atomic nucleus and planets going around a star, and star clusters orbiting around the gravitational centre of a galaxy ... it's no coincidence that these systems exhibit the same kind of order on different scales. And yet science would say that is a coincidence. You know, P.W.Bridgeman, who was a philosopher of science, defined a coincidence as what you have left over when you apply a bad theory! It means, you know, that you've overlooked something, and what jumps out at you as a coincidence is actually a set of relationships whose casuistry — whose relationships to each other, are simply hidden from you.
And what I've observed — and I think it is fair to give credit to the psychedelic experience for this — what I've observed is that Nature builds on previously established levels of complexity. This is a great general natural law that your own senses will confirm for you, but that has never been allowed into the canon of science. What I mean by [saying] that Nature builds on complexity is the following: When the universe was born, in the dubious and controversial circumstance called the Big Bang, it was at first simply a pure plasma of electrons. It was the simplest that it could possibly be. There were no atoms, there were no molecules, there were no highly organized systems of any kind. There was simply a pure plasma of expanding energy. And as the universe cooled, simply cooled, new kinds of phenomena — we say emerged, out of the situation. As the universe cooled, atomic nuclei could form, and electrons could settle into stable orbits. As the universe further cooled, the chemical bond became a possibility. Still later, the hydrogen bond, which is a weaker bond, which is the basis of biology.
So as the universe aged, it complexified. This is so obvious that it's never really been challenged, but on the other hand it's never been embraced as a general and dependable principle, either. Follow it through with me. Out of atomic systems come chemical systems. Out of chemical systems comes the covalent hydrogen bond, the carbon bond, the complex chemistry that is prebiotic or organic. Out of that chemistry come the macrophysical systems that we call membranes, gels, charge transfer complexes, this sort of thing. These systems are the chemical preconditions for life. Simple life, the life of the prokaryotes, the life of naked unnucleated DNA that characterized primitive life on the planet. Out of that life come eukaryotes, nucleated cells, and then complex colonies of cells. And then cell specialization, leading to higher animals; leading to social animals; leading to complex social systems; leading to technologies; leading to globe-girdling electronically based information transfer-oriented cultures like ours. (Someone said, “What's so progressive about media? It's the spreading of darkness at the speed of light”. [laughter and applause] It can be... it can be.)
Well, so this is very interesting: that apparently, the way the universe works is upon a platform of previously achieved complexity — chemical, electrical, social, biological, whatever. New forms of complexity can be built that cross these ontological boundaries. In other words, what I mean is that biology is based on complex chemistry, but it is more than complex chemistry. Social systems are based on the organisation that is animal life; and yet it is more than animal life. So this is a general law of the universe, overlooked by science — that out of complexity emerges greater complexity. We could almost say that the universe, Nature, is a novelty-conserving or complexity-conserving engine. It makes complexity, and it preserves it. And it uses it as the basis for further complexity.
Now, there's more to this than simply that. I think we all observationally could agree with what has been said so far. The added wrinkle, or an added wrinkle, is that each advancement into complexity, into novelty, proceeds more quickly than the stage that preceded it. This is very profound, because if accepted as a serious first principle it ends the marginalisation of our own species to the level of spectator status in a universe that knows nothing of us and cares nothing for us. This is the most advanced position that modern science will allow us: spectators to a drama we didn't write, shouldn't expect to understand, and cannot influence.
But I say, if in fact novelty is the name of the game, if in fact the conservation and complexification of novelty is what the universe is striving for, then suddenly our own human enterprise, previously marginalised, takes on an immense new importance. We are apparently players in the cosmic drama, and in this particular act of the cosmic drama we hold a very central role. We are at the pinnacle of the expression of complexification in the animal world, and somehow this complexity, which is concentrated in us, has flowed over out of the domain of animal organisation and into this mysterious domain which we call culture, language, consciousness, higher values. Each stage of advancement into complexity occurs more quickly than the stage which preceded it. After the initial Big Bang, there was a period of billions of years when the universe cooled, stars condensed, planetary systems formed, and then the quickening process crossed an invisible Rubicon into the domain of animal and biological organisation.
Well, you see, since the rise of Western monotheism, the human experience has been marginalised. We have been told that we were unimportant in the cosmic drama. But we now know, from the feedback that we're getting from the impact of human culture on the Earth, that we are a major factor shaping the temperatures of the oceans, the composition of the atmosphere, the general speed and complexity of speciation on the planet; so forth and so on. A single species, ourselves, has broken from the ordinary constraints of animal nature and created a new world, an epigenetic world — meaning a world not based on gene transfer and chemical propagation and preservation of information, but a world based on ideas, on symbols, on technologies, on tools, on ideas downloaded out of the human imagination and concretised in three-dimensional space as choppers, arrowpoints, particle accelerators, gene sequencers, spacecraft, what have you ... all of this complexification occurring at a faster and faster rate.
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