Bios and Logos
Delivered at MINSTATES Jamaica
3 October 2002
I have been thinking about the Eschaton since I read Robert Anton Wilson’s Cosmic Trigger over 20 years ago. This means that my thinking has undergone an evolution within a changing environment of ideas, maturing as I have matured.
Because of my familiarity with these ideas I am occasionally asked to weak or write about these topics, and eventually expressed them – albeit subtly – in book from. That’s what The Playful World is all about…
What I want to do today is step back and present a big frame, a “resonant” theory of history, which harmonizes very nicely with McKenna’s idea of the timewave, that there is an ingressive force through history that possesses a fractal dimension – the same process is happening, on different timescales throughout time.
This idea has any number of names, depending upon who is talking about it. Back in 1973, McKenna called it the Eschaton, and said, a few years later, that his theories were grounds for commitment to an insane asylum.
I’m pretty sure that’s because very few people actually grasped the subtlety of the concept of the timewave, chalking it up to a very weird psychedelic experience. But if we’re here talking about shamanism and the revealed information of the shamanic state, why should we ascribe any less reality to the ideas uncovered by the McKennas than we would to something learned by an aboriginal shaman? That doesn’t seem reasonable.
In any case, I’ve been studying the timewave for the last several years, and I want to actually do my best to add some fuel to the fire – in part because the topic has entered the scientific discourse through a back door.
In 1993, a writer named Vernor Vinge gave a talk to NASA, in which he described the architecture of an event he called the “Singularity”, which is identical in every feature to McKenna’s Eschaton.
Because of that talk, the concept of a singularity in history (as opposed to physics, where the concept enters through the Big Bang and Black Holes) has become a topic of much interest.
My main goal this afternoon is to reiterate the argument made by Terence & Dennis McKenna in The Invisible Landscape: Mind, Hallucinogens and the I Ching, that the historical processes in which we are embedded have a physical dimension, and that this process has its own internal resonances, which represent the ebb and flow of history.
The McKennas went on to say that this process was, by now mostly ebb and not flow, and would eventually culminate – on 21 December 2012 – in a transcendent moment of resonance. In other words, history would end – as we would understand it.
That sounded pretty nutty back then, but over the last decade, a certain group of scientists have picked this same idea up, and have begun moving it forward.
Most notable of these is Ray Kurzweil, who, in his book The Age of Spiritual Machines, looks forward to a day in the future – no more than 30 years away – when machinic intelligences have so far advanced beyond any human capabilities that they exceed our understanding.
At that time, Kurzweil says, we’ll no longer be the dominant species on the planet, the world will belong to the machines, our intellectual heirs.
I don’t buy this argument, for a number of reasons based in science, but that doesn’t mean that I think the theory is false – only the chain of logic by which he comes to the conclusion.
Let me present an alternative theory, then, by which we can arrive in the same place that both the McKennas and Kurzweil discovered, but let’s do it through a study of the physical reality of the world.
In order to do this study, we’re going to adopt a theory of history, for the sake of argument, which involves three cycles of history, arcs of history, which begin at three different times: at the creation of the world, 4 billion years ago; at the creation of Homo Sapiens, 150 thousand years ago, and at the dawn of the common era, about 5500 years ago.
The Dawn of Life
To have a discussion of the origins of life on planet Earth, I need to discuss two fundamental texts, books that I would encourage you to read.
The first of these is John McFadden’s Quantum Evolution, in which he takes a look at a hitherto unresearched field – how quantum mechanics influences molecular biology, and, in particular, the functioning of DNA.
DNA enters a superpositional state – that is, it enters as many as ten-to-the-500th universes, in order to find a situation where it can produce some situation where it will entangle itself in the physical world – in other words, can sustain itself.
The improbability of life thus comes to rest on a firm foundation of physics, the first time there’s been any hint that our understanding of the world can help us understand one of the great mysteries of the world – how life came to be.
The second book is the recently published A New Kind of Science, by Steven Wolfram. Wolfram may be the Issac Newton of our generation (people are still debating this point, and will for the next hundred years).
Wolfram defines something called the Law of Computational Equivalence. We think of physics as being composed of formula, such as e=mc2, or F=ma or pv=Nrt. While Wolfram doesn’t call the validity of these formulae into question, he does insist that they’re not enough to describe the reality of the physical world. In addition to these formulae, there are processes, outcomes which can not be predicted in a simple, mathematical fashion, but rather are more like computer programs which need to be executed before their results can be known.
The difference between the world before Wolfram and the world after is the difference between Newton and Darwin.
Newton saw the entire world as a giant clocklike work of machinery and gears, together working seamlessly to create the physical universe.
Darwin envisioned the world as a collection of processes, working through time, to create the nearly infinite variety of forms which populate the natural world. Without process, there is no model for evolution; organisms do not evolve according to formulas, but rather because of their continuous interactions within the environment.
In his book, Wolfram tells us that this is the new model for physical reality, and we need to apply this model as broadly as possible. Nearly all physical processes of consequence in our world take place not in isolation, but as a consequence of repeated interactions in their environments.
What does this mean about the history of Earth? What we know is this: just about as soon as the Earth had cooled enough to allow the formation of some relatively complex chemical structures, life began. The Earth still had an average temperature of 160 degrees Fahrenheit (!) when life began.
Why could life begin? The quantum evolution hypothesis states that these molecules could search the quantum multiverse of 10-to-the-500th power worlds to find a world where they could sustain their interactions, where they could continue to exist.
We’re talking about creating quantum computers today, which can employ these same properties to crack encryption codes or solve other sorts of mathematical puzzles far beyond us now, but it turns out that nature has probably been exploiting this trick all along! And the latest scientific tests show that these simple molecules can enter that weird quantum world, so, as far as it’s been possible to prove the underlying assumptions of quantum biology, they’ve held up.
Once life popped out of the multiverse, it became subject to the new laws unearthed by Steven Wolfram. Within the environment, organisms interacted in unpredictable ways, and every interaction of every organism on any other organism changed both organisms. Some organisms fought with each other, some combined with each other – for example, the mitochondria which provide the power for your body’s cellular processes are the by-product of such a fusion – and from a simple set of rules, endlessly repeated throughout time, we can actually see the grand sweep of evolution emerge out of the physical processes which undergird nature.
The next four billion years of life could be characterized as a continuous set of interactions between different organisms in the natural environment, and every interaction in every environment leaves an impression – an information transfer – between these organisms. Some or even most of these interactions are nearly insignificant, but some of them concern the life or death of an individual member of a species, and, in those rare instances, that species either becomes extinct or a change is made in the species, recorded in the natural memory of DNA.
DNA is the information – and it’s nothing but information – which is the ultimate arbiter of the forms of the natural world; it’s a form of very slow memory. In each one of you, in nearly every one of your cells, is a memory of all the interactions your ancestors have ever had, from the very first cell, down to the present moment – that present moment being a rather long one – about 150 thousand years.
The Dawn of Man
It’s believed that homo sapiens emerged in Southern Africa, just about 150,000 years ago, and although there are now some contradictions to the “out of Africa” argument about humanity’s origins, it seems that the humans that we are all came from this same place, at around this time, slowly diffusing northward across Africa, and reaching the Eurasian land bridge in the Middle East, and fanning out from there toward both Asia and Europe.
Now although we call these first ancestors homo sapiens – meaning they were genetically identical to ourselves – we don’t think of them as human in the same sense we think of ourselves as human. This is for one primary reason: we don’t see the hallmarks of human culture in these earliest human beings.
What do I mean by culture? Well, until last year, we had though that humanity as we know it began about 35,000 years ago, because we found the representative elements of a human culture. However, last year we found equally convincing proof that this actually extends back at least 75,000 years. It could be that, eventually, we’ll see that humanity-as-we-understand-it goes back as far as homo sapiens itself. Who can say?
We mean culture, in the sense of modern humans, because of the existence of cultural artifacts.
Homo Neandertalis, the Neanderthal who preceded the modern human, had a larger brain than ours, and was stronger and able to survive across a wider range of climates. However, the kinds of artifacts the Neanderthals left behind were extremely crude; very basic stone tools, which did not show any significant evolution over the lifespan of the species.
In other words, while the Neanderthals were completely situated within the natural environment, their adaptation to it happened just once, and then stopped.
So now we come to what makes us human: the history of homo sapiens begins, some 75,000 years ago, with some etchings on a piece of rock, nothing more than a series of wavy lines. This may not seem like much, but it’s the first example of decoration.
What is decoration? It’s something that serves no functional purpose – for example, a coat of paint doesn’t change the function of a house – but acts as a signifier of some reality that exists only in the mind of the beholder. In other words, a physical object has become a symbol, standing in for something other than itself.
The thing that separates us from the Neanderthal isn’t brain size, or brute strength, but a symbolic manipulation capability.
In order to have symbols, you need to have a consciousness capable of symbolic manipulation, that is to say a linguistic consciousness. While paleoanthropologists believe that the Neanderthal had some very basic linguistic capabilities, it is believed that these abilities were very limited – perhaps similar in nature to those of a year-old child, capable of identifying objects or actions, but little more.
What we see with homo sapiens is that this linguistic ability overflowed into the entirety of consciousness. The first benefit of this was the emergence of what we understand as language: nearly every human being has an innate capability to take a few symbols and manipulate them infinitely.
For example, although few of us ever use more than about 2000 English words, we can describe just about anything with those words, because we can instantaneously recombine them in any sensible order to create new forms of expression.
That’s what those 75,000 year-old squiggly lines on a piece of stone imply: that our internal linguistic capability, which gave us language, had overflowed onto the material world, and that the material world had been consumed by our linguistic capability.
This is an important point, perhaps the central point I’m trying to make today: everything you look out upon from your eyes, exists less as a physical reality than as a construction of linguistic form.
This is what Terence McKenna meant when he said that the world is made of words, and that if you know the right words, you can make of the world whatever you will.
But there’s another point we need to understand about the consequences of our linguistic capability, because it’s set us on a path toward the Singularity.
Raymond Kurzweil says that his machine singularity is absolutely inevitable because machines can perform computations about 10 million times faster than human neurons can. That’s as may be, but once again I think Kurzweil missed the big story.
For 4 billion years, DNA was the recording mechanism of history, the memory of biology. As soon as we developed language, we no longer needed the slower form of DNA for memory; we could use the much faster form of language, which produced with it a deep sense of memory within the individual – since the linguistic symbols could be contained within the human mind.
Since we became a symbol-manipulating species, our forward evolution, in DNA terms, has come to a dead stop. (This has recently been proposed by reputable scientists.) However, our linguistic capabilities allow us to perform acts of memory much faster than DNA, probably at least 10 million times faster!
So, suddenly, homo sapiens is not just a biological entity working within the matrix of DNA and its slow historical recording, but now bursts through and starts processing its interactions within the environment 10 million times faster than ever before.
That’s a great thing. It’s made us the planetary force that we are today. But there’s a big price we paid for it, a price we’re not even vaguely aware of.
For all of evolutionary time, information had to travel the slow route through biology – through the bios – before it would be coded into our DNA. Now we had this additional process – which we call the logos, the Word – which was a completely new thing, and not something that the bios had any time prepare for.
Because of that, homo sapiens can be identified by one specific characteristic; we are controlled not by the dictates of the bios, but the are dictated by the logos.
From its first recognizable moment, humanity demonstrates an entirely new relationship between bios and logos. Information, freed from its need to be embedded in the slow, dense vehicle of our DNA, speeds up 10-million-fold.
This renegotiation of power, between the previously unchallenged bios and the brand-new logos was not something that the bios was prepared for.
Most likely immediately, the bios was overwhelmed by the logos. The natural environment of the first humans was entirely and utterly replaced by a symbol-driven environment.
The post-modern philosophers claim that this is a new thing, that the Disneyification of the world has overloaded the natural world with the mediasphere. But this isn’t a new thing, even if our recognition of it is; as long as shaman and storytellers have been spinning myths that tell us who and what we are, the world ceased to exist as nature, and became a linguistic element in the story of homo sapiens.
However – and this is the second most important point I want to make today – the logos has its own teleology, its own entelechy, its own drive to some final dwell-state.
We assume that we are masters of language, of word and world.
The situation is exactly reversed. We are not in control of words, they control us.
Evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins got it entirely right when he invented the concept of “memes,” which can be thought of as the linguistic equivalent of genes. Rather than being part of the bios, memes are the carriers of the logos.
OK, so we’ve covered the emergence of the bios, some 4 billion years ago, and the emergence of the logos, perhaps as much as 150 thousand years ago. Now let’s bring ourselves forward into the world we can recognize.
The Dawn of Modern Culture
I set the beginning of the common era to about 500 BC, because of one particular cultural artifact; Lysistrata by Aristophanes, a Greek comedy about how the women of Athens stop a war by denying their husbands sexual favors. If you’ve ever read the play, you know that the attitudes (and dirty jokes) of these women are entirely modern – it’s as if all of the elements of the modern world are entirely present in the work.
We, as a species, have been driven by memes for the last hundred thousand years, and this has forced us further and further away from any direct connection with the natural world.
It’s not as though modern man has had any choice about his alienation from the natural world, and it’s a fallacy to presume that “primitive” cultures are any more closely connected to the natural world than we ourselves are. They too have completely overloaded the natural world with their linguistic natures – else how could the plants “talk” to them?
There may be many discrete forms of alienation from the natural, but they are, in essence, all the same. And they all point toward the same general trend:
We’re being hollowed-out by our memes. That is to say that our interiority, which is an artifact of the slow, quiet progression of the bios, is rapidly vanishing.
The modern conception of interiority is really a creation of the Enlightenment in Western Europe, and was only noted by philosophers as it was beginning to vanish utterly.
So here’s the central point of what I wanted to come to Jamaica to say: the singularity is absolutely inevitable, and absolutely meaningless. The closest analogy we could make would be the whine of feedback you get when you place a microphone too close to an amplifier. The screech drowns everything else out, just as what we are – as individuals and culture – are being replaced by a rising form of activity dedicated to a single goal: making a clear path for the transmission of the logos. We’re improving the fidelity of meme swapping until it asymptotically approaches its theoretical limits.
And the truth is, we’re so far down that path that we have only a little bit more to go.
Temporal Hierarchy, Resonance, and Technology
How do these ideas have any connection to the McKennas’ work as expressed in The Invisible Landscape? In that work, the McKennas advanced a theory of time and of becoming which had grown from Terence’s encounter with the process philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead.
Whitehead argued for the idea of concrescence; this is the idea that creation was the product of the intersection of distinct forces, which could, synergistically, create something new.
Terence McKenna took this idea and ran with it, envisioning all of history, from the birth of the universe through the end of time, as fractal function where waves of concrescence – which Whitehead termed “ingression into novelty” interacted with each other on different time scales, producing the visible results of history.
In their words, they went all the way back to 75 billion years ago – perhaps 60 billion years before the birth of the universe – through to the present day.
Using the I Ching, McKenna examined the internal resonance of the different time scales as a hierarchy, where each time scale was 64 times greater than the time scale underneath it.
Much as the hour can be divided into minutes, and minutes into seconds, Terence McKenna divided the whole of time into similar divisions. He presumed that the overall shape of time was the same within any of these divisions large or small – because the same physical processes were in play.
However, because they were happening simultaneously on different levels of scale, the quality of each moment of time could be the combination of all of these time scales, interacting with each other.
From this calculation, the McKenna’s produced a formula which could provide a mathematical value for novelty – the degree of concrescence – associated with any moment of time.
While it is possible to argue whether this formula is in any sense real, the McKennas took the model as a guide, and then tried to fit it to the historical processes they best understood, and determined that the various fractal processes would reach a resonance point – in which they’d be within perfect alignment – on 21 December 2012 (a date I suspect you’ve heard before).
It’s not my job here to discuss whether the date is particularly correct (though I suspect it is), but to provide an alternative model of arriving at the same facts, without using the I Ching, or any other divinatory methods. Instead, I want to use science, history and anthropology.
There are three cycles that I’ve been able to identify for you over the course of this talk:
The emergence of life, 4 billion years ago
The emergence of a linguistic species, 100,000 years ago
The emergence of a technological species, 5500 years ago.
Let’s take these one at a time, and see how they’re convergent.
First, the emergence of life, 4 billion years ago, was propagated through the medium of DNA, which acts as the informational carrier for life. This medium was very gradual, but within the last twenty years, the medium of DNA has been translated into linguistic form.
Think of the human genome, and the images you may have seen of it, not in the twisting double-helix of the molecule, but in the endless series of A, T, G, and C which make up the base-pairs.
We have recently come to treat DNA as a code, a linguistic artifact, and, because of that, our ability to understand and manipulate DNA is now undergoing the same 10-million-times acceleration that happened when we became linguistic entities.
Second, the emergence of a linguistic species caused us to be taken out of nature entirely, and the world became a description of things, rather than things-as-they are.
Although language sped the pace of novelty substantially, it was still bounded by proximity, and the speed of sound. When, around 1840, the telegraph was developed, the speed of information transfer increased well over a million-fold.
Marshal McLuhan, the great Canadian media theorist, considered this made the entire human species the equivalent of a single nervous system, but even the nervous system is very slow when compared to electric communication.
The transmission of facts and ideas became instantaneous, and the speed of the development of novelty followed. When ideas move faster, there’s a greater capacity for them to interact, to produce concrescence.
The history of the 20th century could accurately be described as a series of advancements in communication, beginning with radio and ending with the Internet, each technology successively colonizing the world, and each more rapidly than the technology before it.
Third, the emergence of a technological species. Let’s take a good look at that.
Technological artifacts are concretized language; that is, any technology is a bit of language that has been turned into a physical object.
The first technology that was turned into a physical object was the linguistic technology itself. Writing is the first real technology of importance, because it freed linguistics from their oral substrate, and made the carrier medium much more durable. We have an idea of history from 3500 BCE forward because of the invention of writing, which has created a continuity in humanity.
All other technologies, are, each in their way, the descendants of writing. Writing was the exteriorization of our drive to communicate.
We’ve seen the linguistic acceleration of DNA as codes, and the linguistic acceleration of communication as telecommunication, but we’re only now on the threshold of the acceleration of technology.
Things may look as though they’re going fast now, but this is nothing – literally, absolutely nothing – next to what’s about to happen, because (and now we have precedent for it) we’re about to see a technological acceleration on a similar order to the acceleration we saw when the logos separated from the bios. In this case, techne, our ability, is about to be freed from logos, our ability to describe it.
What do I mean when I say this?
There’s an emerging science, known as nanotechnology, which will, before the next few years have passed by, give us a very fine-grained control over the material world.
For example, Sasha Shulgin has to use time-tested techniques (or invent his own) when he’s brewing new molecules, using fairly large-scale processes when he wants to add a methyl group to a molecule, or take a methyl group off. It’s amazing we can do this at all, and it’s taken a hundred and fifty years of organic chemistry and a fair bit of genius to get to this point.
Still, Sasha just stood up here in front of you and dreamed of a time when he could snap molecules together as easily as if he were working on a chalkboard.
But the next step forward is going to be as big as the difference between building sand castles and working with LEGO bricks. You can build with either substance, but you have a lot more fine control over LEGO bricks than you do over a fine powder of sand.
With nanotechnology we should be able to precisely design molecules to order, for whatever purpose we might desire.
This is the coming linguistic revolution in technology, because, at this point, the entire fabric of the material world becomes linguistically pliable.
Anything you see, anywhere, animate, or inanimate, will have within it the capacity to be entirely transformed by a rearrangement of its atoms into another form, a form which obeys the dictates of linguistic intent.
It’s very hard for us to conceptualize such a world, and I have continuously been forced to draw on the metaphors of world of magic for any near analogies.
It will be as if we have acquired the ability to cast spells upon the material world to achieve particular effects. Let me quote Terence McKenna once again:
“This downloading of language into objectified intentionality replaces the electrons that blindly run, and replaces it instead with a magical, literarily-controlled phase space of some sort, where wishes come true, curses work, fates unfold, and everything has the quality of drama, denying entropic mechanical existence.”
This isn’t to say that we’re about to acquire the omnipotence we normally ascribe to God, but that our abilities will be so far beyond anything we’re familiar with today that we have no language to conceptualize them. No language at all.
And that search for a language to describe the world we’re entering is, I think, the grand project of the present civilization. We know that something new is approaching.
Some people are filled with horror when they start to sense the shape of this new world, and retreat into the various forms of fundamentalism. We’re only too familiar with that.
Other people are blindly optimistic, willing to accept any form that this world might offer them, even if it’s only in some sort of symbiosis with a machine intelligence that little knows or cares of their human existence.
These are the Scylla and Charybdis of the modern age.
It’s my belief that the psychedelic community represents a search for a middle path, that the activity of stretching of being which is the natural consequence of an intersection of the unspeakable world of the psychedelic experience is a search for a language which encompasses this third revolution, the one which threatens to redefine humanity so utterly that there’s no room left for the human at all.
So we have three waves, biological, linguistic, and technological, which are rapidly moving to concrescence, and on their way, as they interact, produce such a tsunami of novelty as has never before been experienced in the history of this planet.
And here we are.
In the end, the specific mechanisms of McKenna’s Invisible Landscape don’t much matter, what does matter is his vision of the architecture of time, and the question it poses to us.
For we find ourselves in an increasingly narrow space, and our freedom of movement is more and more confined by both linguistic constructions and technological mechanisms; and even our DNA is coming to be controlled.
But there is a new birth coming, a new form erupting into being. And we, as the folks focused on the future, who broaden our minds in every conceivable way – by reading about the future and doing the work of creating new culture, with everything that entails, be it esoteric spiritual practices or taking psychedelics – we may be among the few who can take stock of the entirety of the transformation, because we have occasionally been thrust into spaces where what is to be permanently true for everyone else has become temporarily true for us.
Because we have been there, we know we need not be afraid, or give in to amazement, and can avoid being hypnotized by speed or pretty blinking lights. Talking to aliens? Been there. The end of history? Been there, too. Maybe all the bizarre trips that we’ve all had are just what we need, even as humanity enters its last, strange trip.
Just a few months before he died, I went to visit Terence in Hawai’i. I asked him to sign my copy of The Invisible Landscape, which he did. He wrote: “Properly understood, this book is a map to the stone. As above, so below.”
The stone he referred to is the Philosopher’s Stone, which could raise base materials to their highest, transcendent state. He knew that at best he’d constructed a metaphor, a way to conceive something inconceivable.
But he got it right in those last words, “As above, so below,” because in saying that, recognized that the stuff within us, the stuff we have experienced, is the ultimate guide to the incredible journey that lies before us, as these waves come together and crash down on the shores of our souls.
3 Lamat (3 October 2002)