We have been firm friends since we first met in 1982, in California,
and have been meeting at regular intervals ever since, both in the
United States and in England.
We spend most of our time together talking, trying out ideas,
arguing, speculating, and enjoying each others' company. Our
professional interests and backgrounds are very different: Ralph is
a chaos mathematician and pioneer in the field of computer graphics;
Terence is a psychedelic explorer, ethnopharmacologist, and theorist
of time; and Rupert is a controversial biologist, best known for his
hypothesis of morphic resonance, the idea that there is an inherent
memory in nature.
We also share many interests and enthusiasms in
common, not least our affinity for India, where we have all lived at
We soon found that these three-way discussions were especially
stimulating and fruitful, at least for ourselves. We had no thought
of these being anything other than private meetings of friends. But
after some six years of these informal conversations, we were asked
by Nancy Lunney, of the Esalen Institute, in Big Sur, California, to
lead a weekend workshop together.
As a consequence, our trialogues
emerged into the public domain in September 1989. These discussions,
together with others we held at Esalen in private over the next two
years, formed the basis of our book
Trialogues at the Edge of the
West, published by Bear and Co. in 1992.
This book has been translated into Dutch, French, German, Polish and
Portuguese, and many people have told us that they found it
stimulating, and that it has sparked off lively discussions among
groups of friends. We have been encouraged to find that ideas and
conversations can spread in this way, and hope that the present book
will enable this process to go further.
We have continued to meet as opportunities have presented
themselves, and this book, The Evolutionary Mind, is based on
discussions at Esalen in September 1992; in June 1993 in the West of
England, at Hazelwood House, in the Devon countryside; and at
Terence's rainforest retreat on the slopes of the volcano Mauna Loa,
on the Big Island of Hawaii, in September 1994.
We have called this book The Evolutionary Mind because this title
best summarizes the common themes of our discussions. Most are
strongly influenced by the idea of evolution— of life, science,
technology, culture, and indeed the entire cosmos; and also by the
prospects for a greatly enlarged understanding of minds, expansion
of experience, and transformations of consciousness beyond anything
we can at present conceive.
We are very grateful to Becky Luening of Wordrhythm for the accuracy
of her transcriptions, and to Paul Herbert for the gift of his
recordings. And once again we are indebted to Nancy Kaye Lunney and
the Esalen Institute for hospitality.
Back to Contents
Chapter 1 - Grassroots
Rupert: As the organization of science becomes increasingly
professional and institutional, big science increases in its scope
and power. More research gets directed into huge projects like
particle accelerators and the human genome project. Inevitably these
attract funds, prestige and researchers away from the more
traditional, low expense, low prestige branches of science.
tendency toward big science and fewer "centers of excellence" is
going on all the time. Access to big money is coming to dominate the
whole structure of science as we know it. This is merely a carrying
further of the process of professionalization and
institutionalization that's overtaken mainstream science in the
In the 18th and 19th centuries, the situation was very different.
Charles Darwin, for example, never held an academic post in any
institution. In his books, for example in my favorite one, The
Variation of Animals and Plants Under Domestication,1 the research
base on which he was drawing was that of practical plant and animal
breeders, animal trainers, pigeon fanciers, colonial administrators,
and so on. In other words, there was a vast wealth of knowledge and
experience that fed into Darwin's kind of science, hardly any of
which came out of government-funded scientific institutions.
We now see a completely different picture, as the non-professional
experience becomes increasingly marginalized. You can't do research
until you've got a Ph.D., and you're in an institution, and you've
got a grant, and you can write the kind of proposal that impresses a
committee of professional scientists.
Organized science is moving further and further in this direction,
and is becoming increasingly commercialized as well. I question
whether things have to be as they are. Is a new model possible? I
think a new model of science is not only possible, but desirable;
and not only desirable, but necessary.
On the one hand there's been a decline in public support for
science. Genetic engineering is getting very bad press, and research
in biotechnology excites more public fear than admiration. The same
is true of nuclear research, particle physics re-search, star wars
research, and many other aspects of big science. People blame the
environmental crisis, nuclear pollution, factory farming, chemicals
in food and toxic wastes, fairly or unfairly, on the scientific
establishment. As public support for science declines, governments
seeking to make cuts find it's quite easy to reduce science budgets.
It does not cause many votes to be lost, in fact it may even be
This declining public esteem and reduced funding has led to a
reduction in scientific morale, and the proportion of young people
who want to study is falling in Britain and in many other countries.
Many scientists are very demoralized, and it looks as if the golden
age of ever-expanding science budgets in the '60s and '70s is over,
perhaps forever. In this context, a possible new approach to science
becomes more feasible. It is necessary simply for economic and
Fortunately, holistic research is much cheaper than reductionistic
research. If you study whole systems you usually need relatively
small funds. Conversely, the smaller the thing you study, the bigger
the apparatus and the more the funding. When you get down to the
most evanescent nuclear particles, you need accelerators many miles
long, costing billions of dollars.
I have come to realize that interesting and important research
projects can be done on very small budgets by students, or by
amateurs outside the framework of institutional science. In my
Seven Experiments that Could Change the World: A
Do-It-Yourself Guide to Revolutionary Science,2 I propose seven
experiments, any one of which could break our current paradigms,
most of which could be done for less than $50. One example is
research with dogs or cats that know when their owner is coming home
I think the conditions are right for a new awakening, a new
renaissance of research, a more democratic kind of science in which
more people are empowered to take part. When you think about it, the
kind of knowledge that Darwin drew on exists today, even more so.
There are tens of thousands of amateur plant breeders, for example
orchid growers, who lavish care and attention on the plants with
their own funding, and some are breeding new varieties of orchids.
There are rose societies, bamboo societies, cactus societies, and so
on, where people swap specimens and share their experience and
knowledge. There are probably more pigeon enthusiasts, dog breeders,
and rabbit fanciers than ever before; many millions of people
worldwide. There are people who train horses and dogs, falconers who
train falcons. There are old-style naturalists, such as
bird-watchers, still around.
There are also millions of computers,
previously the preserve of big institutions, making sophisticated
mathematical analysis available to almost anyone. In addition
there's the whole realm of psychedelic experience, where
professional research is very limited in scope but amateur research
has accumulated a wealth of experience
In summary, a great body of knowledge is currently avail-able
through amateur networks and societies, at present almost completely
disregarded by institutional science, and flourishing despite the
lack of external funding. From this basis a new kind of grassroots
science could arise, possibly through the extension of existing
networks, possibly by building up regional research networks. This
grassrots science need not be seen as a rival to existing science,
but as complementary to it.
These two systems could cross-fertilize
and influence each other.
Ralph: This sounds wonderful and very promising, and if it can
simply happen as you've described it, then the decline of science
could be reversed. Clever young people would be attracted and more
and better information and understanding could be developed. I
certainly think that's desirable, although I share with many
ordinary people a decline of confidence in science, for the reasons
you've described. The acceptance of a new model of grassroots
science by the scientific establishment seems somehow very unlikely.
The population of the scientific establishment would have to be
totally exchanged with new young people who had grown up in these
new kinds of research groups. This would have to evolve through a
series of developments difficult to envision at this time. I see a
problem in the extension of networks and the sharing of results; the
function of big science provided by publication in journals with the
peer review process.
The very growth of population, civilization,
and the scientific establishment means there's an immense amount of
data, that if not shared or made available or archived in libraries,
can't be accessed. I think the key to the development of a new model
would be a new model of communication, for sharing the results of
It won't be sufficient for each group of pigeon fanciers
in South Burlington, Vermont to have a journal or regional
newsletter. There would be too many newsletters to read. How will
the regional networks be organized and communicate with each other?
The secret key to empowering the success of this new development is
the communications aspect of the computer revolution—electronic
bulletin boards, computer networks, central electronic libraries,
and developments not yet envisioned for the archiving and sharing of
research information. Until everyone can access the results of
previous research and easily survey all that has been done in a
certain area, the dream can't really become a reality.
It may be that the lack of this kind of successful means of
communication is the very reason that big laboratories and big
sciences actually evolved. The governments have tried, experimented
and proved, to their own satisfaction, that the investment of big
bucks in the big laboratory gives a bigger bang than granting
smaller sums to a large number of small laboratories.
these small groups will need grants.
They'll need some support and
equipment. Inexpensive science still costs.
Rupert: If you take, say, pigeon fanciers, they already have
journals: in Britain, for example, there are several, such as Racing
Pigeon Weekly. None of them get grants. They buy their own pigeons,
raise and maintain them, breed them, and there's a system of
competitions and prizes for successful winners of races. The whole
thing is completely self-financing. Cooperation between these
different communities of researchers or practitioners already
One could pose certain questions to
"How do racing pigeons home?"
This kind of question, when formulated
and put out in the racing pigeon press, might engage a certain
number of people wanting to do experiments, for example, moving the
lofts away from the pigeons and seeing if they can find them. The
results would be fed through these existing magazines and networks
and there would be a debate within and beyond the pigeon fancying
It's partly a question of formulating questions that are of wider
interest than the nuts and bolts questions asked within existing
groups, leading to a larger picture.
Ralph: If the interesting questions come from a central authority,
capturing the imagination of groups worldwide, and they accumulate
their data in standard form readable by other groups, then a bigger
regional or global picture could be developed. In order to
synthesize all this information, a really large map or computer
graphic display is required; something two steps beyond the budget
of these small groups.
There would be a network where pigeon
fanciers doing research with homing pigeons would create primary
data stimulated by a certain question, and then secondary groups
would access the data from other centers and other countries and
test certain hypotheses about the strength of the morphogenetic
field, for example.
For all of this to happen would require
substantial motivation. These amateur groups have the habits of the
19th century. Broadcasting their results to central labs and
secondary research groups trying to develop a larger global picture
isn't part of their habit. The question of global environmental
problems touches on what may very well be the powerful motivation
that would incline these groups to a higher level of cooperation
In the context of this idea bad news is good news;
the rapidly approaching environmental problems are going to
stimulate a global response.
Terence: I'm as interested as the next person in the reform of big
science. However, rather than seeing Rupert's statement as a
practical plan for the reform of science, I see it more as a
proposal that can point out what's wrong with science and how far
off the track we've got.
Grassroots science can approach rather
tangible problems, but if you're interested in something like the
neutrino output of the sun, instrumentalities of great cost are
necessary. Science has not only moved from the easy problems to the
hard problems in its evolution over the past thousand years; it's
also moved from the cheap problems to the expensive problems. It's
now wedded to instrumentalities of such size and cost that even
nations seem to need to band together.
For instance, I don't think
there's any way for grassroots science to finance and execute a
super-collider project or an expedition to Mars.
Science has been vastly transformed from the simple impulse to
understand the natural world around us, into a kind of hellish
marriage with instrumentality, technology, capitalism, and the
Addressing these four areas of concern:
Instrumentality refers to the great cost of scientific
Technology refers to the fact that science as the
handmaiden of advanced product research has gained overwhelming sway
over most of our lives
Capitalism refers to the demands of an
economic system that distorts the scientific impulse to understand
the natural world, so that we spend hundreds of millions of dollars
discovering whether chemicals that go into a facial soap are
allergenic, while we wouldn't allocate $100 thousand to study a very
basic and interesting question like how pigeons home
Military Industrial Complex refers to the largest governmental
institutions which have largely appropriated major scientific
Science isn't done in the spirit of Greek curiosity about the order
of nature, it's done to make money on a vast scale, and then to
defend those fortunes. I dare say, no funding would be forthcoming
if there was no anticipated payback from that funding.
I see your proposal as not so much leading to the reform of science,
as to the creation of a parallel institution. We could call it the
"people's science," or "hands-on science." I've named some of the
most overwhelming and monolithic forces in our society.
How can we
rescue Dame Science from the hands of such intractable foes of the
original Greek impulse to simply understand the world?
Rupert: Part of the answer comes from the shift in paradigm which is
happening for a variety of reasons independent of politics and
economics, namely the move toward a more holistic model of science.
As I said earlier, holistic research, looking at whole systems, is
much cheaper than analytical research, looking at smaller systems.
Atomism, which is the philosophy that underlies reductionism, puts
the greatest emphasis on the smallest possible things. The smaller
the thing, the bigger the apparatus. The highest prestige attaches
to superconducting super colliders, which are the biggest pieces of
apparatus you can make, and are for studying the smallest particles
of matter. If we undergo a shift of models, as we are doing,
reductionist science seems somewhat less interesting, less relevant,
You can see this happening in medicine. If the medical research
system is entirely in the service of mechanistic medicine, the
emphasis is on new methods of biochemical diagnosis using
genetically engineered diagnostic aids and high-tech scanning
equipment. Meanwhile holistic healing methods flourish successfully
in small towns all around the world. There's not really much effort
to compare these approaches, to see which work better than others.
It's clear that the economics of the medical system, with its
escalating costs constantly spiraling upwards, is provoking a
worldwide crisis in health care. If we can cut down on the cost of
heart transplants and expensive scans by people doing more
meditation, or acupuncture, or taking homeopathic remedies, it could
lead to far cheaper medical insurance and a different kind of
For example, systematic surveys could be carried
out by students or local communities, who would ask people what
diseases they've had, how they think they've been cured, and how
they rate the effectiveness of the different systems they've used.
In many cases the word-of-mouth method is in fact how one gets to
know about things like acupuncture or chiropraxis; somebody tells
you they've been cured that way, and so you try it. Such a survey
could be done at any level of sophistication or depth.
I think that as soon as you begin to look holistically at things,
the need for large instruments is lessened. If we think differently
about the need for missions to Mars, star wars technologies, human
genome projects, large-scale nuclear physics projects, the need for
vast instrumentalities may become less.
Terence: What you seem to be advocating is the collection,
correlation and study of data as something which doesn't cost a lot
of money and which can be done on home computers by self-organized
networks of people. I agree that probably the forward rush of big
science has ignored a lot of areas, but what do you say to the
extraterrestrial planetologist or to the astrophysicist, or to the
It seems there are large areas of science which
have become so wedded to the need for instrumentalities of great
cost that there is no way to do them without large research programs
and enormously expensive instruments. What you're really focusing
on, is not so much a down-sizing of science, as a re-focusing of it
in the biological, medical, and sociological domains.
This is highly
warranted, but can it be done? To tell the astrophysicist that the
exploration of the galaxy will be halted, to tell the oceanographers
that the exploration of the deep sea will be halted, is not entirely
in the service of the original Greek impulse to understand nature.
Ralph: They're going to be told that anyway.
Rupert: They are being told already in Britain. Nuclear physicists
are in shock.
Ralph: Even if popular support remained tremendous for sub-nuclear
particles, the budget crisis would make it impossible to continue in
that line. Meanwhile, we have new crises. Nuclear physics was a
response to an urgent need in the military-industrial complex. Now
we have new military problems, and the defense departments of
various nations are doing an about face to reorient themselves
toward new kinds of enemies.
We acknowledge that big science is going to continue to exist, but
it must economize, reorient itself toward real problems in order to
maintain popular support, and reintegrate with grassroots science
because of economics, and because the information on that level is
needed. I foresee that the new model for big science is going to be
data banks, together with scientific visualization strategies based
on computer graphics, which as you correctly implied, is expensive.
The "Mission to Planet Earth,"
NASA's proposal to monitor the
temperature everywhere from satellites, will actually be very
inexpensive compared to ground-based methods of collecting the same
data. The problem is how to visualize it. Here we see groups working
at the national laboratory level with enormous super computers that
are really expensive, trying to devise ways to synthesize all this
data and get the total picture. Until that's figured out, I don't
think we'll benefit from all this grassroots science, either what
exists today or what would be delivered in the future in response to
some really exciting new questions proposed from a larger view of
global planetary behavior.
The piece of the budget pie for science
is shrinking. To get the largest results from a fixed or shrinking
budget, it will continue to be necessary to have big science lab
centers, where the synthesis of all the information is handled. The
largest problem of science in the future will be to manage this
The fact that physical scientists, rather than
social and environmental scientists, have gotten a disproportionate
piece of the pie so far is because they've not had to deal with
databases that are of unmanageable size to deliver a product that's
adapted by business for high-tech commodities, gadgets and consumer
Terence: Institutions expect a payoff on the investments they make
and the people they train, and big science has been the tent under
which product development has led to a pay-back for the university,
so that laboratories can be endowed and so forth.
It's very hard to
see how the small science model closes the loop and pays its own
way. It reminds me of the English squire or naturalist, who carries
out observations in his local area that are very interesting, but
that only his private wealth allows him the luxury of pursuing. How
will grassroots science support itself?
How will it be other than
something in the hands of hobbyists and dilettantes?
Rupert: There are two things that can happen. Already amateurs do
these things on quite a large scale. Pigeon fanciers, of whom there
are about 250,000 in Britain, are mostly working class, and some are
on social security. It's so cheap that you can do it on that level.
This wouldn't just involve squires. We live in a far more prosperous
society than ever before, so that this kind of expenditure of money
on what people really enjoy, is widely available. Even if it's only
at the level of gardening, one of the most popular of all hobbies,
people don't need grants to buy plants for their garden, and they
wouldn't need grants to graft different ones together or to breed
different ones by crossing them.
When it comes to the need for
additional funding for things like data banks, there could be a new
system of regional research councils, where a tiny fraction, less
than 1% of existing science budgets, would be put into funding
A tiny fraction of existing science or education
budgets devoted to funding this grassroots network would be
politically popular, and help to regenerate interest in science.
Terence: Don't you think, though, that the public support for
science is based on an expectation that it will usher in new
technologies which the mass of people have a great faith will
deliver them into a somehow better world? If you break that chain of
"We're now going to do science in such a way
that you can forget about new technologies,"
...that the interest in
science will decline to the level of the interest and support of
Ralph: Forget the old model. We're talking about a revolution of
science in the context of a major paradigm shift in which it would
be one component. One of the things we're anticipating is global environmental problems. They're already here, in fact.
People thinking of the future are going to expect from science, from
government, from religion, from themselves, salvation from these
serious problems. Just as from medical science people want cures for
cancer and AIDS.
They want solutions, they don't want only products.
In order for grassroots science to participate in the solution of
these problems, it isn't sufficient to develop a new and parallel
scientific establishment living on its own and doing its best work
on a low budget. We need to integrate that with a new model for
society which would emerge under the evolutionary pressure of
The new grassroots science would have to
link up in an effective way with scientific journals and glossy
magazines like Scientific American, presenting the progress they
make toward solutions of major problems, alongside the results of
big laboratories and everybody else. It's not enough to offer
competitions and prizes.
You must offer the possibility of
publication, and access to the public support that nourishes amateur
as well as professional scientists.
Terence: Take as a test case the depletion of the ozone. To study
this requires the cooperation of several national Air Forces with
massive data acquisition and analysis facilities. When you move from
studying it to doing something about it, it may take a significant
portion of every dollar we all make for the rest of our lives. The
fate of the planet may hang in the balance. How can a grassroots
science make a contribution to that?
Ralph: The ozone hole was first observed in Federal laboratories,
which was correcting old data that it had neglected to study. If
amateur scientists would have had access to the data sitting in this
archive, then they might have made the discovery. The hole was
originally thought to be totally isolated over the poles, but now
they've discovered a vortex that is gradually sucking ozone from the
If amateur scientists had ozone observers, which
are simple little telescope devices, they could measure the ozone
density over their own home, then the rate at
which the ozone depletion is diffusing over population centers would
be observed when it might very well be overlooked by the large
laboratories who exclusively devote their research to the activity
over the polar regions.
Terence: And what about doing something about it?
Ralph: I can envision a new model in which big science existed as it
is today on a lower budget, grassroots science existed as it does
today on a larger budget, and the two are coupled together much more
tightly, through information sharing mechanisms. The National
Science Foundation, for example, of the United States, might have as
its main mission the storage and provision of access to this
enormous data, so that people can come up with a new hypothesis, a
The small competition would stimulate high school
students who could then actually obtain the data that no one else is
looking at, about the ozone depletion or whatever, and win the prize
for making a phenomenal new discovery from data.
keep on returning to the fact that big science provides the data
or else the data is accessible by non-expensive, local means;
that somehow the problem is to acquire the data. For many
problems, like the ozone hole, or the danger of planetesimal impact
on the earth, or analyzing the effect of the Philippine volcanic
eruption, the acquisition of this data is going to keep big science
in business for a while.
I absolutely agree with you that there
should be no such thing as classified scientific data, but I wonder
if, at least in this stage of the technological revolution, a Mac is
sufficient to deal with the data collected. Perhaps it is. If not,
then the small scientist remains at a disadvantage, because number
crunching is an important part of the analysis of the huge data
stream that is coming in. Maybe the answer is to concentrate on
dropping the cost of super computing.
Ralph: Well, that's happening.
Terence: Won't that require an enormous governmental project costing
billions of dollars, the very thing we're trying to get away from?
Ralph: The computer revolution is actually the answer to the main
problem. The prices are spontaneously dropping. Your personal super
computer on the desk is a reality today. It'll be cheaper tomorrow;
we can take that for granted.
Terence: Brought to us by Microsoft, one of the largest corporate
entities in the American capitalist system. It won't be done by two
guys in a garage. That era is gone forever.
Rupert: In concentrating on these huge problems, like the ozone
hole, what do you do about it? While I don't deny there's a problem
at that level, there are problems at much lower levels, where an
enormously greater amount can be done by amateur data collection
without vast number crunching, and where doing something about it
can come about much sooner and quicker than solving enormous climate
problems. A lot more has been done, in Britain at least, by amateur
groups like Green-peace and Friends of the Earth.
These things don't
need huge number crunchers. Fairly simple data is needed to turn
doing something about it into political action through existing
pressure groups. Friends of the Earth collects samples in rivers
downstream from industrial firms and from drinking water supplies.
For example, they find that in much of Britain the nitrate levels
permitted by British and European regulations are exceeded,
pesticide residue levels are far too high, etc. This kind of data,
if collected at all by our government, is kept secret.
When it is
collected and published, requiring no great sophistication or
enormous number crunching, it can lead to enormous political
effects, and pressure to do something about these things.
Environmental groups already use rather simple analytical
techniques, and very simple data processing methods, to great
Terence: I think we're left with the conclusion that there has to be
a parallelism that somehow leaves room for both of these approaches;
that they address different areas of concern; and when they can make
common cause, that's all well and good, but they're really directed
toward, in most cases, different ends.
Rupert: Not necessarily. You said that people wanted science to give
a product or something useful, but that's not really true in some
cases. One of the most popular things in the whole of science, of
interest even to three-year-olds, are dinosaurs. The interesting
thing is that one of the most useless branches of science,
paleontology, has enormous grassroots support.
Terence: A major paleontological project has the character of a
major dam-building or excavation project. It costs millions.
Rupert: Most of these bones were collected in the last century
amateurs for virtually nothing. But it may cost millions to build
huge plastic models of dinosaurs that emit roaring noises.
Terence: I'm talking about sinking a fossil shaft somewhere in the
Gobi Desert and extracting in a proper scientific manner the fossils
therein. This requires maintaining hundreds of people in the field,
from staff scientists down to coolies, over two years, along with
air transport of hundreds of tons of rock back to the museums.
Rupert: Paleontology was already a well-established science in the
19th century, on incredibly low budgets, mostly funded by amateurs.
A wonderful example of low-cost, grassroots science.
Terence: I don't have that great a familiarity with paleontology,
but I do know something about archeology, and it costs a fortune to
do it right. Today, when you go into Guatemala or the Yucatan to
excavate a Mayan site, you have to keep a team in the rainforest for
Ralph: Rupert hasn't suggested slashing all budgets to zero.
Presumably most of the expensive projects will continue to be funded
according to the degree by which they can gain public support,
provide exciting results, and solve important problems.
Simultaneously, they could be influenced enormously by discoveries
of the grassroots science groups, feeding into the determination of
how this budget is supposed to be spent.
Terence: Sticking with archaeology for a moment, it's an interesting
science in that it doesn't generate new products, or give us a sense
of progress. It doesn't feed into the military industrial complex.
It seems almost the model of what we're talking about, and yet for
all those reasons it's absolutely famished for money, finding it
very difficult to obtain funding.
An enormous amount of archaeology
is funded only by the patronage of wealthy enthusiasts. It's not a
happy experience to spend an evening with archaeologists listening
to them discuss the difficulties they're having funding projects
that they can in a few minutes convince you are very worthy and
Archaeology may show us problems that we can anticipate
if we try to expand this model.
Rupert: At the moment, the archaeology budget, I'm sure, is a tiny
fraction of the budget for the genome project or the super collider.
Archaeology is actually a good case to use as a model. There's a
large grassroots base, amateur participation, popular interest, and
even the biggest projects are relatively cheap compared with
What I am proposing is not that a hundred percent of available
funding should go to grassroots science and zero to existing
institutional science, but rather that we change the present
situation where 100 percent goes to existing institutional science.
If 99 percent went to institutional science and 1 percent to
grassroots science, it would turn around the situation, changing the
base of science's popular appeal and I think bringing a whole new
vigor and a whole new spirit into the scientific endeavor.
Another case in point is in your particular realm of expertise,
Terence. Psychedelic research seems to me a very important component
of consciousness research. We hear a lot about the need for
consciousness research because we know so little about the human
mind. A lot of funding goes into cognitive psychology, particularly
if it involves computer models, because it can feed the development
of new generations of computers.
Relatively low funding goes into
research that's to do with psychotherapy, because it's mostly the
province of practicing psychotherapists who are funded by the people
that go to see them. A certain amount goes into official psychiatric
and drug research to do with tranquillizers, and so on. But the vast
majority of psychedelic research, which has a lot to say about the
nature of consciousness, the range of the imagination, and the
powers of the human mind, is not funded at all by official agencies.
In fact every effort is made to suppress it.
Yet, in spite of
official discouragement and suppression, research actually
continues. Here's an area where for legal and other reasons,
virtually the whole of the research effort is in the amateur domain.
Here's an area where the formulation of appropriate questions could
lead to interesting research being undertaken by explorers of the
Terence: I quite agree. This would be an obvious area where the
simple codification and making available of data would have a
tremendous impact on the models being developed within the field.
Ralph: A related area is astrology, and the so-called
pseudo-sciences, altogether funded by amateur groups. If the means
existed for sharing the information that already is known, it could
result in various experiments that would lead psychedelic research,
pseudosciences, and other theories, now totally rejected by regular
science, to reemerge back into the mainstream and begin making a
contribution toward the solution of our global problems.
Terence: Human sexuality is another area where data is not gathered
because of institutional biases that are conscious or unconscious.
It's probably one of the least organized areas of social research
that exists, and yet it's central to our psychological health and
our sense of equilibrium in the world. Nutrition is another.
Ralph: One of the faults of big science is associated with the
reductionist perspective, which has led to a gradual, progressive,
never-ending elimination, trimming, pruning off of different things
that are labeled pseudoscience, amateur science, fringe science, and
so on. The paranormal, nutrition, all kinds of alternative
medicine—all these things that are rejected comprise a daily growing
group, while the number of natural phenomena studied by big science,
official science, and establishment science is always shrinking.
of the important gains of the new model for alternative science
would be to open up cracks in the structure for the reintegration of
all these different threads, which represent a kind of a holistic
approach to the field of knowledge, especially when you include
archaeology, history, and social science.
What we're talking about
is bigger than science really; the reintegration of the entire
Rupert: So how can all this be implemented?
Ralph: We've sort of derived a workable alternative system here,
assuming that other paradigms in society will shift simultaneously.
The key for the transformation into this new model would be changes
in the universities and high schools. We mentioned several times
high school students responding to prizes offered for solving
problems. Universities have been one of the main institutions
supporting the restrictive peer review, super professional, and
archaic model of science.
If universities were reformed so that they
had departments of integration, interdisciplinary programs, and a
holistic approach, they could play a tremendous role in preparing
people to be amateur scientists. The questions being proposed by the
question centers should become part of the curriculum in
The kind of change we want is a recognition that the full holistic
range of intellectual endeavor, including what we call research, is
nothing more than participation. A person who's going to participate
in life, in evolution, in building the future of the planet and the
species, will find that among other things, it's necessary to do
One can be an amateur athlete and an amateur scientist and
an amateur historian and so on.
If universities are preparing people
with a model of self-education which can be continued indefinitely,
then of course they would be teaching grassroots science. They would
be teaching where to find the questions, where to publish the
answers, how to use the computer to, and generally how to, do it.
Rupert: In a sense, the move in science education towards students
doing projects is working in this direction. The only trouble is
that most of the projects they do are banal and derivative. It's
assumed that a student cannot really do a truly original and
interesting project. There are very few student projects that I've
come across that can be seen as real research.
But the system of
student projects is already in place; it is mainstream. It's just
that taking its potential seriously hasn't happened yet.
Ralph: Students are demanding more interesting problems, and if they
aren't forthcoming, they abandon science and go to something which
is more interesting; where they have real problems that students can
address, like computer science.
The creation of a new model for
grassroots science would actually give universities the opportunity
to revitalize their science curriculum, thereby attracting better
students, and giving them something to aim at in their lifetime of
research, without large grants and working in big laboratories for
the military-industrial complex.
1 Charles Darwin, The Variation of Animals and Plants Under
Domestication (London: Murray, 1875).
2 Rupert Sheldrake,
Seven Experiments that Could Change the World (London:
Fourth Estate, 1994).
Back to Contents
Chapter 2 - Psychedelics, Computers, and Mathematics
Ralph: I was sitting in my office with my secretary Nina about a
year and a half ago when there was a knock on the door. Nina said,
"This is a friend of a friend of mine, who wants to interview you."
I was very busy with the telephone and the correspondence, so he
came inside and I answered his questions without thinking. After a
month or so, when a photographer arrived, I began to realize that I
had given an interview for Gentleman's Quarterly (GQ) magazine. I
called my children and asked them what was GQ magazine. They live in
Hollywood and know about such things. I was in Italy when the
magazine finally arrived on the stands. I was very proud, in spite
of my style of dress, that I had been the first one in our circle of
family and friends to actually be photographed for GQ.
But I was
shocked in Firenze to open the first page of the magazine, and see
my picture occupying a large part of the first page, with the table
of contents, with the heading:
"Abraham sells drugs to
There were some other insulting things in the
interview, that as far as I can remember, was largely fiction. I
didn't mention it to anybody when I came back to California, and was
very pleased that nobody mentioned it. Nobody had noticed. There
were one or two phone calls, and I realized that nobody after all
If they do look at the pictures, they overlooked mine. I
was safe after all at this dangerous pass.
Until suddenly, my peace was disturbed once again by 100 phone calls
in a single day asking what did I think of the article about me in
the San Francisco Examiner, or the Chronicle, or the
Mercury News, and so on. All the embers in the fire left by GQ had
flamed up again in the pen of a journalist.
A woman who writes a
computer column for the San Francisco Examiner had received in her
mail box a copy of the Gentleman's Quarterly article, in which
Timothy Leary is quoted as saying,
"The Japanese go to Burma for
teak, and they go to California for novelty and creativity.
that California has this resource thanks to psychedelics."
article quoted me as the supplier for the scientific renaissance in
the 1960s. This columnist didn't believe what was asserted by
Timothy Leary and others in the GQ article, that the computer
revolution and the computer graphic innovations of California had
been built upon a psychedelic foundation. She set out to prove this
She went to Siggraph, the largest gathering of computer
graphic professionals in the world, where annually somewhere in the
United States 30,000 who are vitally involved in the computer
revolution gather. She thought she would set this heresy to rest by
conducting a sample survey, beginning her interviews at the airport
the minute she stepped off the plane.
By the time she got back to
her desk in San Francisco she'd talked to 180 important
professionals of the computer graphic field, all of whom answered
yes to the question,
"Do you take psychedelics, and is this
important in your work?"
Her column, finally syndicated in a number
of newspapers again, unfortunately, or kindly, remembered me.
Shortly after this second incident in my story, I was in Hollyhock,
the Esalen of the far north, on Cortes Island in British Columbia,
with Rupert and other friends, and I had a kind of psychotic break
in the night.
I couldn't sleep and was consumed with a paranoid
fantasy about this outage and what it would mean in my future
career, the police at my door and so on. I knew that my fears had
blown up unnecessarily, but I needed someone to talk to. The person
I knew best there was Rupert. And he was very busy in counsel with
various friends, but eventually I took Rupert aside and confided to
him this secret, and all my fears.
His response, within a day or
two, was to repeat the story to everybody in Canada, assuring me
that it's good to be outed, and it would be good to come out in a
best-selling book, which John Brockman, our agent, could hawk for a
huge royalty advance. I tried thinking positively about this
episode, but when I came home still felt nervous about it and said
"no" to many interviews from ABC News, and the United Nations, and
other people who called to check out this significant story. I did
not then rise to the occasion, and so I've decided today, by popular
request, to tell the truth.
It all began in 1967 when I was a professor of mathematics at
Princeton, and one of my students turned me on to LSD. That led to
my moving to California a year later, and meeting at UC Santa Cruz a
chemistry graduate student who was doing his Ph.D. thesis on the
synthesis of DMT. He and I smoked up a large bottle of DMT in 1969,
and that resulted in a kind of secret resolve, which swerved my
career toward a search for the connections between mathematics and
the experience of the logos, or what Terence calls "the transcendent
This is a hyper-dimensional space full of meaning and wisdom
and beauty, which feels more real than ordinary reality, and to
which we have returned many times over the years, for instruction
and pleasure. In the course of the next 20 years there were various
steps I took to explore the connection between mathematics and the
About the time that chaos theory was discovered by the
scientific community, and the chaos revolution began in 1978, I
apprenticed myself to a neurophysiologist and tried to construct
brain models made out of the basic objects of chaos theory. I built
a vibrating fluid machine to visualize vibrations in transparent
media, because I felt on the basis of direct experience that the
Hindu metaphor of vibrations was important and valuable.
I felt that
we could learn more about consciousness, communication, resonance,
and the emergence of form and pattern in the physical, biological,
social and intellectual worlds, through actually watching vibrations
in transparent media ordinarily invisible, and making them visible.
I was inspired by
Hans Jenny,1 an amateur scientist in Switzerland,
a follower of Rudolf Steiner, who had built an ingenious gadget for
rendering patterns in transparent fluids visible.
About this time we discovered computer graphics in Santa Cruz, when
the first affordable computer graphic terminals had appeared on the
market. I started a project of teaching mathematics with computer
graphics, and eventually tried to simulate the mathematical models
for neurophysiology and for vibrating fluids, in computer programs
with computer graphic displays. In this way evolved a new class of
mathematical models called CDs, cellular dynamata.
They are an
especially appropriate mathematical object for modeling and trying
to understand the brain, the mind, the visionary experience and so
on. At the same time other mathematicians, some of whom may have
been recipients of my gifts in the 1960s, began their own
experiments with computer graphics in different places, and began to
Eventually, we were able to construct machines in Santa Cruz which
could simulate these mathematical models I call CDs at a reasonable
speed, first slowly, and then faster and faster. And in 1989, I had
a fantastic experience at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in
Maryland, where I was given access to, at that time, the world's
fastest super computer, the MPP, the Massively Parallel Processor.
My CD model for the visual cortex had been programmed into this
machine by the only person able to program it, and I was invited to
come and view the result. Looking at the color screen of this super
computer was like looking through the window at the future, and
seeing an excellent memory of a DMT vision, not only proceeding
apace on the screen, but also going about 100 times faster than a
Under the control of knobs which I could turn at
the terminal, we immediately recorded a video, which lasts for 10
minutes. It was in 1989 that I took my first look through this
To sum up my story, there is first of all, a 20-year evolution from
my first DMT vision in 1969, to my experience with the Massively
Parallel Processor vision in 1989.
Following this 20-year evolution,
and the recording of the video, came the story with GQ and the
interviews at Siggraph in the San Francisco Examiner that
essentially pose the question,
"Have psychedelics had an influence
in the evolution of science, mathematics, the computer revolution,
computer graphics, and so on?"
Another event, in 1990, followed the
publication of a paper in the International Journal of Bifurcations
and Chaos, when an interesting article appeared in the monthly
notices of the American Mathematical Society, the largest union of
research mathematicians in the world.
The article totally redefined
mathematics, dropping numbers and geometrical spaces as relics of
history, and adopting a new definition of mathematics as the study
of space/time patterns. Mathematics has been reborn, and this
rebirth is an outcome of both the computer revolution and the
psychedelic revolution which took place concurrently, concomitantly,
cooperatively, in the 1960s.
Redefining this material as an art medium, I gave a concert, played
in real time with a genuine super computer, in October, 1992, in the
Cathedral of Saint John the Divine, the largest Gothic cathedral in
the world, in New York City
We come to our subject. I want to pose one or two
read here one or two excerpts from some favorite books. We have to
accept, I think, mathematics either in the new definition, or the
old one. In the Renaissance cosmology of
John Dee, mathematics is
seen as the joint therapist of Father Sky and Mother Earth, or a
kind of an intellectual, spiritual, elastic medium connecting up the
heavenly realms and Gaia herself.
That puts mathematics on the same
level as the logos, or the holy spirit. Let's consider that for the
sake of discussion. Having seen mathematics as a language of
space/time pattern, let me ask you this, Terence and Rupert: To what
extent could the psychedelic vision of the logos be externalized,
either by verbal descriptions or by computer simulations, or by
drawings of inspired visionary artists?
On the other hand, in what
ways could mathematical vision serve the spirit, and extend the
mind? Is there a role, in other words, for this kind of thing in our
main concerns? To give you a fast-forward toward the answer, let me
read a couple of things from your writings.
First, from Terence's
Food of the Gods 2:
"The archaic revival is a
clarion call to recover our birthright, however uncomfortable that
may make us. It is a call to realize that life lived in the absence
of the psychedelic experience, upon which primordial shamanism is
based, is life trivialized, life denied! Life enslaved to the ego
and its fear of dissolution in the mysterious matrix of feeling that
is all around us.
It is in the archaic revival that our
transcendence of the historical dilemma actually lies.
something more. It is now clear that new developments in many areas,
including mind machine interfacing, pharmacology of the synthetic
variety, and data storage imaging and retrieval techniques; it is
now clear that new developments in these areas are coalescing into
the potential for a truly demonic, or an angelic self-imaging of our
Our second passage is from Rupert's
The Rebirth of Nature 3:
as we allow ourselves to think of the world as alive, we recognize
that a part of us knew this all along. It is like emerging from
winter into spring. We can begin to reconnect our mental life with
our own direct, intuitive experiences of nature. We can participate
in the spirits of sacred places and times.
We can see that we have
much to learn from traditional societies who have never lost their
sense of connection with the living world around them. We can
acknowledge the animistic traditions of our ancestors, and we can
begin to develop a richer understanding of human nature, shaped by a
tradition and collective memory, linked to the earth and the
heavens, related to all forms of life, and consciously open to the
creative power expressed in all evolution.
We are reborn into a
Terence: The nuts and bolts question posed in all of that, is,
the psychedelic state be visualized with technologies ranging from
paint and brush to super computers?"
I think it can. I think it is
not, in principle, mysterious.
It may be fleeting, like the
situation that follows upon the splitting of the atom. It may be
remote. But it is in principle describable. It's a domain to be
explored. It's simply a matter of paying attention, gaining
inspiration, and gaining skill of technical execution.
Any models that we can build, verbal, visual, or mathematical, are feeble compared to the experience itself. On the other
hand, this experience is within all, and without all, and we are
immersed in the spiritual world, so the tiniest resonance from the
most feeble model may suffice to excite, as poetry excites emotion,
spirit. The essence of communication is to have a compact
representation of an experience that's infinitely complex. The
representations have to be really simple.
Representation restricted to verbal mode alone, might be too feeble
to excite by resonance, the similar state. Not every person is going
to become a cephalopod.4 Not every person has the time to become a
shaman. We need, however, a certain number of shamans in our culture
to help to reconnect human society and the play in the sky. We need
some kind of amplifying and communicating device between the few
people who are our real shamans, let's say sacred artists of the
future, and the mass society watching MTV.
The question is, can
these means be of use to the clarion call that you've given in your
Terence: I think that what makes it confusing is when you go into
these domains, the encounter is an emotionally powerful one. The
situation is so novel that the experiencer tends to assume that this
emotional power is coming from the input. It's not. It's coming from
the encounter with the input. I mean it's like posing the question,
"Can you make a stirring record of the Grand Canyon?"
Yes, you can,
with helicopter-mounted cameras and this sort of thing. But the
emotion you have watching that, you bring to it. The psychedelic
dimension is objective, but it's also so awesome and so different
from what we know that it encourages and promotes and triggers awe
in us. We bring something to it, which we can never image, or reduce
to a verbal description or a piece of film.
The thing itself is just
more of reality, like the heart of the cell, or radar maps of the Venustian surface, or the center of the atom.
Ralph: Do we need more reality? We've already got so much.
Terence: We need more of this mental logos world. It's the logos
world that we've lost the connection with. These computer programs,
psychedelic drugs, dynamic modeling schemes, are the equivalent of
probes, like Voyager. They're sent not to an alien planet, but to an
alien phase-space of some sort, one that we need connection to.
Rupert: I agree with Terence. The problem is that the emotional
intensity of a psychedelic experience is totally different from
seeing a computer graphic display. It's possible to get something a
bit like that just by shaking a kaleidoscope and looking into it. In
these expensive novelty shops that dot California, you can find
fancy kaleidoscopes beautifully made. You look through them, and you
can see a dazzling display of pattern and color, but within a few
seconds you're just bored.
Nobody ever really looks at them for very
long. Somehow they have no meaning, and don't engage one. I think
the difference between representation of the state and being in the
state itself is this sense of meaning, engagement and intensity. I
for one, being a botanist, am very drawn to flowers. I love looking
at flowers. Sometimes you can look at a whole garden full of flowers
like here in Esalen, and it's quite meaningless. At other times you
can look at a single flower for a long time, you can go into it,
it's like a mandala.
You enter into that realm, and it takes on
incredible meaning, beauty and significance. The same with
butterflies and many other natural creations. It seems to me the
problem is how to enter into that engagement, intensity and sense of
meaning, rather than the representation of the pattern itself.
are plenty of patterns around in the natural world.
Ralph: These are space/time patterns. Although we say the words
"space/time pattern," we have no language for individual space/time
patterns. As experienced by us, there is a kind of a resonance
between patterns that somehow makes a resonance with different
patterns of neurotransmitters in the visual cortex. Some aspects are
perceived, and other aspects are not, remaining invisible to our
You've been speaking of flowers in the garden, or the
images in the kaleidoscope. These are static patterns, and we have
an extensive verbal language for that. What I'm suggesting is an
expansion of our visual/linguistic capability in the direction of a
universal language for space/time pattern, such that we could truly
speak of our experiences, giving them names.
At the mere drop of a
word or a code, an I-75, Highway 1, Highway 0, we would transmit a
clear image of space/time pattern along with whatever emotion we
remember from the experience. If we can awaken these feelings in the
mind of the listener, we can converse, intellectualize, understand
and reconnect with the space/time pattern of the spiritual world.
Let's face it, we have the most extensive experience of this world
through visual metaphors of, well, movies. We experience the logos
We don't experience it as words, although there are
sounds, and there is sometimes writing on the wall like graffiti.
Basically reality is an infinite field of consciousness, of
vibration, of waves moving, of intelligence.
When we travel in this
realm, we go somewhere we've been before and we recognize it, and
that excites in us memory, which is reinforced and extended, and
upon this experience we base further experiment. We three have had
our many experiences, which I have great faith, are similar, even
universal experiences, and yet we are absolutely speechless in
verbalizing them to each other.
Words fail me.
Terence: It seems to me that mind responds with an affinity for
itself. If an expression is universal, then it has an affinity for
the universal mind. What's interesting about the example of the
kaleidoscope is that it's boring after a few minutes. If you analyze
how it works, and take it apart, the base units in most
kaleidoscopes are pieces of broken glass, pebbles, detritus, junk.
Somehow splitting this into six sections with a mirror and putting
it in heavy oil is supposed to bring you into the realm of something
endlessly watchable and interesting. But it isn't.
machines being produced in Germany are the same way. All pattern
seems to quickly lose its charm unless it's pattern that has been
put through the sieve of mind. We enjoy looking at the ruins and
artifacts of vanished civilizations a lot more than random
arrangements of natural objects.
It seems to me what we're looking
for when we say the MPP [Massively
Parallel Processor] data on chaos
is like a DMT [Dimethyl tryptamine] trip, what we're saying is,
"Here in this pattern is the footprint of meaning."
It's as though
an architect passed through. We're always looking for the betraying
presence of an order that is more than an order of economy and pure
We look for an aesthetic order, and when we find that, then we have
this reciprocal sense of recognition and transcendence, and this is
what the psychedelic experience provides in spades.
A critic of the
psychedelic experience would object,
"Of course it's made of mind.
It's made of your mind."
For the psychedelic voyager, the intuition
is, it's made of mind, but not made of my mind. Either there's an
identity problem, or a real frontier of communication is being
When we look for living pattern, or aesthetically
satisfying order, what we really look for is a sign that mind has
somehow touched the stochastic processes of nature.
Rupert: The limiting factor seems to be neither the richness of
display we find in nature, nor the language that we communicate
with, but rather the ability to go into something with intensity of
vision. I don't think language is a limiting problem.
music can be written down in a language. I can read music, but for
me it doesn't come to life from this language. I have to hear it for
it to come to life.
Presumably mathematical notation is a way of
notating things in the mathematical landscape, which comes alive for
mathematicians. Take the realm of plants again. If you look at the
incredible richness of botany, of flower forms, there is a language
for this, used by botanists and florists, describing the species of
plants in technical jargon. Even so, it doesn't mean that most
botanists spend most of their time contemplating the beauty of
They're rushing to the next committee meeting or getting
their next paper ready for publication in a technical journal.
Somehow there isn't much time to actually enter into these realms,
even for people whose profession it is to be concerned with them.
We're neither short of images nor of languages in many realms, but
rather of the time, the space, and the inclination to enter.
Ralph: Music is a good metaphor. Let's just think of this for a
minute. I don't propose that a mathematical model of a brain or a
plant would be as wonderful as a brain or a plant. Life will not be
replaced by language. Nevertheless, the evolution of music has been
greatly aided by musical notation. Because we wouldn't like music to
simply end and simply be left with a library of musical scores.
Nevertheless, the evolution of music has been enormously facilitated
by having a graphic language that to some extent recalls the actual
musical experience. This is the role that I'm proposing for
mathematics, not to replace the Earth or the heavenly realms, but to
facilitate their understanding through an analog on the same level
as musical staff notation, pertaining to the visual experience of
Algorithmic information theory is a way of telling the difference
between chaos and randomness. As Terence was saying, there is in
verbal representation a kind of economy, where a simple formula
calls forth a complex experience. What seems to us as random
sometimes can be generated by a very small code, like a musical
When data from a scientific experiment looks random,
one can test it as to whether there is or isn't a compact economical
model for it. A truly random process would provide data which could
not be represented by any formula shorter than the data itself. It
turns out that the weirdest, most random-looking data from the
natural world, for example, earthquakes, sun spots, and so on,
always seems to have a very compact mathematical model. Therefore it
is not truly random, it only looks random.
This is what is called
What I'm suggesting is an increase in our encyclopedia of models,
extending language, so that we can name, store, retrieve, and
recreate not the experience itself, but the data, for the sake of
communication. This is exactly what musical staff notation did for
music. It pertains not only to the spiritual experience, but also to
fundamental questions on the future of human society.
understand the space/time nature of the planet well enough, since
it's so complex, to be sensitive enough to cooperate with it? If we
can't even understand what we're seeing when we look, there's not
much we can do to cooperate.
Biogeography, for example, is a
botanical field that could be revolutionized by a staff notation for
Rupert: Surely what we're looking for is meaning in terms of
significance. In terms of information, even patterns, we've got
libraries full. Go into any book shop, and you're overwhelmed by the
quantity of stuff there. The idea of having even more models on the
shelf, somehow doesn't seem very exciting to me.
What would be
exciting would be to see some deep meaning in all of this. Maybe
mathematics is one way to find the deep meaning in things. If so,
I'm not quite sure how.
Ralph: The taxonomy of plants is not full of meaning, nevertheless a
vocabulary has evolved so that when words like exfoliate are put on
a page, another botanist can read it and actually tell what kind of
plant this is.
A further development in the evolution of language is
the generation of meaning. Meaning is not given in the data. We have
to grok things. We have to struggle and evolve understanding by some
People said when printing began, that it
would be the end of memory, and when writing began, it would be the
end of history.
Terence: In both cases they were correct.
Ralph: Yes, when language began we lost our connection with the
Terence: Maybe it was the kind of language. Ralph: Spoken language.
Terence: Language processed acoustically. It's not in the generation
of it that you want to put your attention, but in the
reception/decoding of it. When language became something
acoustically processed it became the willing servant of abstraction.
Whereas language processed visually is here and now stuff of great
density, acoustical language permits a level of abstraction that
creates a higher inclusiveness, achieved by a necessary dropping out
Ralph: I'm glad to hear you say so, since it always sounds like you
think the logos itself is speech.
Terence: Speech beheld.
Ralph: I'm astonished at the resistance I'm getting here to the idea
of visual language. When I travel in France, I'm riding in the train
or something, and I'm really bothered by all the gossip going
around, because I understand French. I realize that this couple is
having trouble, and the train is not stopping in the station that I
expected, and so on.
When I travel in Japan, I don't understand
anything, so it seems to me really very quiet there. I just don't
hear anything. Where we have an oral language for certain phenomena,
we then perceive it. It's like a moving van comes along and
transports this stuff from the unconscious system to the conscious
system, where we can deal with it. These space/time patterns for
which we have no visual language, are essentially unconscious to us.
Therefore we can't interact with them, and this might be a
fundamental reason that the planet is dying.
Either we shouldn't
have verbal language, or we should have verbal language and visual
language as well. Verbal language is poorly adapted to space/time
patterns. For example, we describe music with staff notation, a
visual rather than verbal language.
I think that our intellectual
relationship to the sky and to the earth would be vastly improved by
developing a larger closet of models for visual processing.
Terence: I think you're right. I regard language as some kind of
project that's uncompleted as we sit here. The whole world is held
together by small mouth noises, and it's only barely held together
by small mouth noises. If we could have a tighter network of
communication, we would in a sense be a less diffuse species.
Communication, or the lack of it, is what's shoving us toward the
brink of possible planetary catastrophe.
If we buy into the idea that psychedelics are somehow showing us an
evolutionary path yet to be followed, then it seems obvious this
entails a further completion of the project of language. Maybe what
all this technology is about is a more explicit condensation of the
word. Modernity is characterized by an ever-more explicit evocation
of the image. We just have to go back 100 years, and the best anyone
could do was an albumin tint photograph.
Now we have color
Ralph: High Definition TV.
Terence: HDTV. High-speed printing. Virtual reality. The world wide
web. It's as though language is becoming flesh. Meaning condensing
into the visual realm would be a kind of telepathy compared to the
kind of linguistic reality we're living in now.
Ralph: Glad to hear it.
Rupert: What we may be doing is returning after a detour of
centuries into the realm of literacy. In most of human history, and
still today for more than half the people alive on this planet,
literacy is not the big thing in languages. Most cultures are
originally oral cultures. The majority of people still can't read
If you can't read and write, it means that the visual
cortex in the left hemisphere of your brain has not been hijacked by
the speech centers. As soon as you learn to read and write, the
visual part of the left-hand side of the brain gets taken over by
the speech centers, which have to do with the processing of sound.
The brain gets into the habit of dealing with linear print, becoming
adapted to reading and writing letters, and this knocks out a large
part of the visual processing capacity.
Ralph: Now you're afraid I'm going to knock out the other half.
Rupert: As far as I know, there have been very few studies of the
difference in thought patterns between people who can't read and
write, and those who can. I'm not now talking about people in our
society who can't read and write because they're dyslexic or dropped
out of school, but whole cultures, like many traditional ones, where
nobody, or very few, read and write.
Where language has a different
role. When I lived in India, I found that for illiterate people
language is an extremely powerful medium, conjuring up metaphors and
images in a quite different way than it does for people who are
literate. You yourself have complained that new generations of
students at Santa Cruz can't read or write anymore.
It may be that
the process of short-circuiting literacy is already well-advanced,
and that a new kind of visual language is developing.
Terence: There's actually been a huge amount of discussion about
this difference between so-called print/linear cultures and oral,
aboriginal cultures. This is what Marshall McLuhan was saying,5 that
somehow the symbolic signification of language, first through
writing and then through printing, has had all kinds of effects on
the evolution of the Western mind, that we, until McLuhan, were
totally unaware of.
He believed, for example, that the linear,
uniform quality of print created the intellectual preconditions for
the acceptance of an idea like democracy, invented by the Greeks
only after they had a phonetic alphabet. He felt that modern
industrial methods of production based on interchangeable parts were
inconceivable except by a print culture that had the notion of
moveable type. The idea of citizen as a uniformitarian impulse laid
over our individual biological diversity could never have occurred
in a culture without print.
The bottom line in the McLuhanist
analysis is that we tend to be incredibly naive about the
information-processing technologies we put in place, because all we
care about is input and output. What we don't understand is that the
plumbing between input and the output gives a culture its tone, its
values, its implicit political assumptions, as well as its attitude
What we are is a print culture, both linear and
Ralph: What we are? Or what we were?
Terence: We're undergoing a transition in the 20th century.
Unfortunately, the intellectuals at the top of the pyramid, are the
last to get the news. They're still poring over Locke and Hegel,
when what's really happening is trip hop trance dance and the
Internet. Culture tends to be ruled by people who are last to get
the news in terms of new technologies which are reshaping the
All this beefing about the death of literacy. . .we might
as well beef about the passing of the high-button shoe or the beaver
hat. Literacy is finished. It was a phase. It's not to be preserved
by anyone other than curators. The rest of us are going to live,
obviously, in a culture shaped by new forms of media.
Ralph: The reason I complain that my students are illiterate is that
history is unavailable to them. There's no way to tap into it. All
these fantastic books on the Middle Ages, prehistory, archaeology
and so on, are never going to be translated into documentary videos.
It's not enough to have a few curators who are in touch with the
Library of Congress and the British Museum.
Terence: Don't you think, Ralph, that's actually a kind of amnesia?
It's not that your students are illiterate. Illiterate is when you
don't know the difference between Melville and Hawthorne. Amnesia is
when you don't know whether the 30-Years War came before or after
the War of the Roses.
Ralph: If you're literate, and you forget, you can look it up in the
Encyclopedia Britannica. You can dial it up in a hypercard. These
historical media, let us say, don't lose their importance just
because newer media are developed.
There's a further problem, which you touch on extensively in your
book, which relates to television as a drug. We had botanical drugs,
and we had chemical drugs, now we have electronic drugs. The fact is
that my students have watched television, according to your book,
six to nine hours a day, since birth.
They're unbelievably quick
with images, and this is a fantastic advance in human intelligence.
Astonishing amounts of information can be communicated in 25 seconds
by the best of television commercials. You can't show these
commercials in the African bush and get a response. People have be
trained up to it by doing their visual calisthenics six and a half
hours a day since birth.
What's not so good is that the material
that's available in the video store or on television is unbelievably
If you make a PBS documentary on Food of the Gods, nobody will
watch it, because they're busy watching Dynasty. Somehow the
drug-abuse aspect of the new media has already dominated its future.
This credo is already so deep that it's unlikely we can swerve the
video technology into an effective cultural resource.
Rupert: That's my problem with your approach, actually. These
computer graphics use basically television-style technologies.
Ralph: Super computers like the 200-megaflop Massive Parallel
Processor, which cost $13 million three years ago, can be had today
for $500,000. In five years there will be one in the kitchen keeping
track of your recipes and running your microwave. I think that when
these super computers are available in kitchens and kindergarten
playrooms, and people are brought up with them, as an extension of
life, it will mean a vast increase in the size of the playroom.
These machines become almost as interesting as psychedelics when you
can interact with them. What's wrong with the passive medium of
television is that it's dead; some idiot programmed it and made it
available, and it's distributed like a drug.
People are actually
addicted to the passive process of sitting there knocked out, and
receiving somebody else's fantasy.
Terence: You can't underestimate the perversity of people, in terms
of their tendency to prefer the passive. In 1977, when I bought my
first home computer, it came bundeled with a manual called Basic
Basic. The intent of this manual was to teach you how to program
your computer. Six months of trying to peddle that to the American
public, and the manufacturer realized they had to completely rethink
the product, as only a vanishingly small number of people were ever
going to program a computer. Once when you bought an automobile you
got a toolbox with it.
That's not been true since the '20s. There's
a certain responsibility on the part of the consumer not to demand
the prepackaged stuff. The MPP, these super computers, are, to my
mind, like the psychedelic drug state, but everybody's trip is the
software they bring to it. Someone who goes to the MPP machine to
keep track of their recipes is trivializing the tool, because they
don't know what it can do.
This is probably the equivalent of taking
a psychedelic drug to solve your relationship problems. The question
you framed is stupid and mini-minded, and perhaps the psychedelic
can help, but what a tremendous misappropriation of power.
Ralph: Every tool will be misused as well as used. The most popular
books are cookbooks. Nevertheless we write books, and to some little
extent, they participate in the evolution of history. The fact that
most books are used for recipes doesn't destroy the value of books.
So it is with the new media: whereas most people will use them to
hypercard a stack of recipes, or sex postures, or something, there
will still be a lot of arcane and important material available in
this medium which can't be accessed any other way.
must say, I became very depressed this year when I realized that not
only couldn't my students read or write, but their interest in
computers was much less than the preceding class. For the last three
or four years interest in computers has been on the decline, except
for computer games.
The most brilliant kids in high school are doing
nothing but playing Nintendo. I have colleagues, brilliant
professors of mathematics, who do nothing after work but play Tetris
Terence: Ten years ago it would have been heroin. Now it's just
Ralph: It's much more dangerous! It hasn't been made illegal yet.
Rupert: One final point I want to make. The model you are suggesting
takes us further into the artificial manmade world of technology,
and we've still got an incredible diversity in the natural world
that hardly anyone's interested in anymore. There are herbaria
collections, plants and butterfly collections, geological museums
with rocks and crystals of every kind, and they're deserted.
an incredible diversity of form in the natural world, and we are
becoming more and more plugged into the entirely human world of
technologies and manmade patterns. How does this relate to giving us
a greater sense of connection with the bigger world?
Ralph: I believe that our connection to the natural world will be
enormously enhanced by the new media, in spite of the fact that most
people will relate to it as a new form of drug. I think that
planetaria, for example, which are artificial models of the sky,
brighter and simpler and easier to understand, along with special
programs that show only certain motions at one time, can have an
enormous potential to turn people on to the real sky, which is after
all the ultimate source of our mind, our intellect, our mathematics
Although the construction of planetaria in big cities
around the world is an expansion of the synthetic world at the
expense of the natural one, the whole idea of it is to try to turn a
switch in some few people, making them aware of what was there all
I think a HyperCard stack with high-speed, high-quality
color pictures and sound, giving all the beetles in the Amazon
jungle, would enormously help me personally to understand what I'm
seeing when I actually go there.
Terence: I'd like to defend Ralph. I don't think that it's really a
journey deeper into artificiality. Science has been dependent on
instrumentality for a long, long time. The natural world that
Ralph's program would reveal is the natural world of syntax. In
other words, language would become a much more accessible object for
study if it were visually explicit.
And I expect that this is
happening. It seems to me we have reached a new frontier in the
natural history of this most complex and least understood of all
behaviors; language. While the instrumentalities may be computers,
high-speed imaging, and so forth, it's no different from using the
Hubble telescope to tease data out of a very distant part of the
universe, and then making it explicit. If we could understand
language, we would understand something about our own place in
nature that eludes us.
It's clearly the most complex thing we do,
and we're the most complex thing we know. The feedback from language
is culture, the most anomalous phenomenon in the natural world.
Ralph: I want to end by saying this: Mathematics is part of the
natural world. It's a landscape which can be explored, simply and
directly, and with incredible pleasure, delight and advancement,
just like the psychedelic logos, or any other aspect of the world.
The mathematical landscape does not belong to the human species. It
belongs not even to the earth, but to the sky.
It's part of the
infinite universe we live in. Whatever microscopes, telescopes,
kaleidoscopes, or computer graphic tools we can devise to enhance
our vision of the mathematical universe is definitely advantageous.
How this will fit into society, however, is a problem. We are in an
evolutionary challenge from which the human species may not survive.
I feel that part of our difficulty is our culture's rejection of
Mathematics is essentially the marriage of
and Mother Earth. I've given my life work to understand this
relationship between the psychedelic and the mathematical vision.
I'll leave it there.
1. Hans Jenny, Kymatik.
2. Terence McKenna, Food of the Gods.
Rupert Sheldrake, The Rebirth of Nature.
4. See Terence McKenna, The
5. Marshall McLuhan, The Gutenberg Galaxy (Toronto: University of
Toronto Press, 1962)
6. Understanding Media: The Extensions of
Man (Toronto: McGraw Hill Book Co., 1965).
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