Thursday, September 14, 2017

Terence McKenna explores Mind-Expansion and the Human Condition





Food of the Gods: The Search for the Original Tree of Knowledge, A Radical History of Plants, Drugs, and Human Evolution – Terence McKenna (1992)

            I first read this book when it came out in 1992, around my sophomore year in college.  Much of the insight of this book was lost on me, as I had not yet had time to understand the very far-reaching socio-historical implications of Terence McKenna’s scholarship.  Picking it up again, after 25 years of growth and reading and experience, only served to impress me even more.  This is a highly important book, and should become a foundation for the changes that humanity must make as a whole in order to thrive, and in order to better live in harmony with the life-world that we take for granted.

            One of the most intriguing questions regarding the development of our species is when and how the roaming primates developed a higher level of consciousness from the other primates on Earth.  There are many proposed ideas, most of them based on theology/mythology and not actual grounded empirical knowledge.  Terence McKenna was one of the very first to propose that the naturally occurring hallucinogenic plants and fungi helped expand the minds of the hominids, who would ingest these items in their search for food.  In a sense, he proposes that these hallucinogenic properties created the first “shamans” who then had to figure out a way to explore the rich world that natural plant hallucinogens open up.  He has much evidence for this, and it does help explain the sudden rise of what we call modern humans (Homo Sapiens Sapiens) around 100,000-250,000 years ago, and their/our amazing ability to process information and solve problems.

            After discussing the origins of the human exploration of mind-altering substances, Terence McKenna goes into a very depressing but integral analysis of the role that substance addiction and use affected our human culture.  After the matriarchal, communal, tribal stages of life, where the shamans (initially female, as they were the ones gathering plants and mushrooms and testing them as food, and then both female and male) would open up their minds with these natural compounds, to better understand the needs of the tribe or the patient.  After several millennia, humanity began to live in larger aggregations, in locations that were fixed, and the access to the natural hallucinogens waned.  In this time, the fermented juices and grains began to be used for intoxication as wine and beers.  This new substance was then used much as the old hallucinogens were.

            Once humans managed to distill alcohol, to get purity and strength, it all went to shit.  The problems we face today of alcoholism, rage, violence, and neglect have been around ever since humans distilled the “spirit” of the wine into a potent and toxic drug.  The next drugs to overtake all of humanity, and to continue helping in the degradation of the tribal units, were caffeine, sugar, and tobacco.  Tea initially carried the caffeine addiction but it was not until the spread of coffee, and of the mass manufacture of refined sugar, that caffeine addiction and abuse became a very real thing, and just as deadly as any other drug out there.  Combine this with tobacco, and you have a large amount of the population living constantly in an “altered consciousness” state.  The high from sugar is just as euphoric and the crash just as brutal, as tobacco or caffeine.  The massive and mind boggling extent of the human slave trade was a direct result of the addiction to sugar and the rum that can be created from it.  The Dutch and the British set up a very neat system.  They would gather up slaves in Africa, sell them in the New World to coffee, sugar, and tobacco plantations, buy vast amounts of rum, sugar, and tobacco, sell it all for a massive profit in the UK and Europe, and then go right back to buying humans and selling them off.  This lasted for HUNDREDS of years.

            Once these substances were in use, the state and the merchants combined forces to create vast networks of distribution for these substances.  The British government controlled the tea trade much like drug cartels do so today.  They then decided to get into the opium trade, purposefully flooding China with opium in an effort to make a nation of subservient addicts.  They almost succeeded.  At every step of the way, these drugs were refined and made even more potent and deadly.  Opium was refined to morphine, and thought to be a cure for opium addiction.  Heroin was refined from morphine, and likewise was supposed to combat morphine addiction.  The power of heroin to destabilize and subsume a population is evident when McKenna describes the purposeful distribution by the CIA of an exceedingly pure heroin brought in from Vietnam and surrounding areas.  It was called China White and was released to only the black neighborhoods, creating generations of junkies, unable to stand up for their rights.  Our government and in fact, most governments, use these drug cartels to their own ends.  Most of them are propped up by our support.  Pathetic.
            Terence McKenna continues on to describe his plan for the elimination of what he calls “the Dominator Culture” that we all live in today.  Instead of human unity, our culture pushes and prizes division.  Instead of legalizing natural substances capable of helping people deal with addictions, trauma, and which open the mind to possibilities unknown, our Dominator Culture sets hallucinogens as CLASS 1 drugs, meaning they have absolutely no medicinal, social, scientific value, which is a flat out lie.  It is solely a means by which to control those who would study these amazing plants and fungi.  However, they easily allow the deadliest and most addictive of drugs to be widely marketed and sold in every corner.  Alcohol, tobacco, and sugar products are what keep people subservient, diseased, and mentally dull.  It suits their interests.  It does not suit our own individual rights.  This is why there was such a crackdown on the hippies.  Their drug taking did not lead to subservience and a drone-like ability to do meaningless 9-5 jobs.  They had to be broken and humiliated.  We must all remain robots.  That is what they want and they are succeeding.

(This book can be read here:  https://archive.org/stream/TerenceMckenna-FoodOfTheGods.pdf/TerenceMckenna-FoodOfTheGods_djvu.txt )

Thursday, August 24, 2017

Neil deGrasse Tyson brings the Astrophysics to us





Astrophysics for People In a Hurry – Neil deGrasse Tyson (2017)


            The science of Physics, and specifically Astrophysics, has always fascinated me.  I have found that the best way to step outside my own reality tunnel, and to gain what Mr. Tyson labels the “Cosmic Perspective,” is to read and study about the amazing achievements and discoveries that humans from ancient times have made regarding the cosmos we live in.  Our current world-society, with its incessant data-feeds and distractions, impedes people from reflecting on the Universe at large, and the amazingly complex and utterly massive nature of it.  We are all obsessed with our day-to-day grind, our jobs, our families, the news, politics, financial worries, etc.  It is because of this glut of activities and concerns that take up much of the modern human’s life that Neil deGrasse Tyson wrote this great little book.
            One of Neil deGrasse Tyson’s greatest traits is his ability to be a science explainer.  Very few scientists have this ability, and because of this, many non-scientists feel that either science is too complex to be understood by them or that scientists are purposefully being obtuse and intricate so as to not share their knowledge with “normal” people.  That is a real shame, because the basics of all the sciences affect us every single day, and without this knowledge it is too easy to be fooled by charlatans and con-artists seeking to impress you with pseudo-science and psychobabble, which all sound very plausible as long as you do not think critically about them.  Some hard-line nerds may put down Mr. Tyson because his focus is on education and dissemination, just as they used to insult Carl Sagan, that last great astronomer-teacher.  Screw them.  The world needs people who can clearly, and patiently, explain the vast knowledge we have accumulated to those who are interested, but do not have the rigorous and expensive education needed to grasp the mathematical underpinnings of science.  I would rather our best and brightest minds become celebrities than the vapid illiterates that society worships.
            In the first chapters Neil deGrasse Tyson explores the development of astrophysics and humanity’s evolving understanding of the heavens above, deliberately highlighting how new discoveries and technologies forced us to change our perspective, from being self-absorbed and obsessed with our human primacy among the cosmos, to finding out that our planet Earth is not the center of the Universe, to discovering out that our Solar System is just one of countless billions in our Milky Way galaxy, to learning that our immense galaxy is just one among billions that populate the Universe, to understanding that we cannot even see much of the Universe due to its expansion.  It is a breathtaking journey that is all the more amazing because it happened in a blink of cosmic time, the teeny tiny sliver of time that Homo Sapiens Sapiens has been studying the heavens.  Compared to the age of our Earth (around 4.5 billion years) humans have not been around very long at all. Compared to the age of our Universe (around 14.5 billion years) we have barely begun to exist!  It blows my mind to think that we humans have only been able to study the heavens as they are for the past several hundred years.
            Each chapter is divided into the different ways that astrophysics are able to study the cosmos.  Some deal with the visible light available.  Others talk about the discovery of the remnants of the big bang, mapped through microwaves.  One chapter details the development of radio frequency telescopes, capable of exploring parts of the Universe that are invisible in any other manner.  From gamma detectors to cosmic rays, to the particle/antiparticle pairs that are popping in and out of existence throughout all of “empty” space, every major movement and field of study in astrophysics is presented, and the latest data and ideas about these findings are shared with the reader.  This is all in the service of what Mr. Tyson discusses in the last chapter, which is the beauty and joy of the Cosmic Perspective.  Understanding that we truly are one with the cosmos, that we are made of the same material that the Universe is made of, that our world is one of billions, that all life on Earth, and maybe all life in the Universe, is united by the common threads of our existence, and that it is our ability to understand the Universe itself that sets us apart, all are vital for each and every human being to understand.  The divisions that humans create to aggrandize one group and demean and subjugate another are illusions.  They are outright lies.  We are all humans, all conscious, all alive, all looking for our place in the Universe and our place among our human society.  I hope many people read this book and take the Cosmic Perspective to heart.

Monday, August 7, 2017

The Horrors of the Soviet GULAG prison-camps and the humanity that survived





A World Apart – Gustav Herling (1951)

            Horror can come in so many ways.  It could be the sudden arrival of an incomprehensible terror.  It could also be the slowly dawning realization that hope is a feeling best left dead.  In many ways, the horrors experienced by Mr. Gustav Herling while serving in a Soviet GULAG hard-labor prison run the full gamut.  For several years, the author, a Polish native who had left for the Soviet Union after Poland had been annexed by the Third Reich, experienced horrors both physical and mental, and in sharing his story he helps us understand the true evil that totalitarian government inflicts upon the entire population.
            Reading Mr. Herling’s account of his time as a prisoner brought back memories of my youth reading Animal Farm and 1984, and of wondering in indignant rage why people tolerated the obviously absurd and illogical pronouncements of the ruling parties.  As a young teen, those books filled me with a deep hate for mindless subservience and for blind allegiance to any political system, especially those of a totalitarian state.  Mr. Herling’s life in this forced-labor camp shared so much of the idiocy and stupidity that the animals on Animal Farm or the citizens in 1984 had to accept or else be destroyed by the state.
            Mr. Herling meets prisoners from all walks of life.  One is a former diva of Soviet theater who was sentenced to ten years hard labor.  Her stated crime was being a traitor to the Soviet State.  What was her actual crime?  She danced for too long with the Japanese ambassador at a gala event in Moscow.  That was it.  Several of the inmates were there merely because they were not Russian.  These were Poles who got stuck in Russia avoiding the Nazi takeover of Poland.  There were people whose jobs pre-revolution were in education and intelligentsia, and of course a totalitarian state cannot abide having anyone else be an authority on anything.  The state must the ultimate authority on anything!  How fucking horrible.  With the Soviet Union officially banning all organized religious activities, priests and nuns were also laced in these ruthless work-to-death camps.  All kinds, even those that believed themselves deeply committed to the Communist Party, found out they were worthless pieces of a machine in which they had no control.
            The life in the camp is terrible, with surreal and illogical precision running everything.  The prisoners were fed according to their crimes, and according to how much they worked daily.  Those that worked heavy labor were lucky to receive a few grams of bread and a thin barley “soup” at the end of the day.  Those that were unfit for heavy labor received solely a thin warm liquid with no meat and no vegetables.  If you were sill or injured you spent some time in an unheated “infirmary” where you received the bare minimum food portion, and minimal medical care.  If you were unable to get better enough to work, they would send you to the Mortuary, where the dying waited to die in relative peace.  Mr. Herling spent time in the Mortuary and describes the twisted sense of calm and rest combined with the foreknowledge of your impending death.  There is no comfort anywhere. The paranoia, the pain, the SMELL of countless rotting, sickly, and dying men and women, awash in their own feces, ever-seeping sores, malnutrition, night-blindness from lack of vitamins, and eventually the complete loss of their conscious ability to think all wash over the narrator, as he slides into this horror himself.  Throughout all this, Mr. Herling manages to share any and all wisdom he gained, most of it bleak, and brutally honest about what a man has to deal with when hope is gone yet life continues interminably.  It is a brutal story, and the fact that we know he managed to survive and publish this a few years later does nothing to diminish the trauma of his and all of the other prisoner’s experiences.
            Prison for actual criminals is bad enough.  When the state sets up prisons for those who do no crime other than political opposition?  Evil.  When the state punishes people pre-emptively, trying to weed out supposed traitors before they even have a chance to act?  Evil.  When the state’s own reasoning is so twisted and flawed and fucking pointless that they have to retroactively invent methods to protect their own lies?  Evil.  Under Stalin, Soviet/Russian history was turned into a pathetic joke, with whole secret government entities erasing people’s entire lives from the historical record, solely to appease the whims of the mustachioed madman controlling everything. Whole families disappeared.  Whole generations of educated people were sent to Siberia to die in labor camps.  This same shit happens in all totalitarian states, and is happening right now in Saudi Arabia (religious rule by an autocratic family of assholes), North Korea (totalitarian rule by a fat man-boy with a tiny pecker and total control of his starving population), etc.  It could happen anywhere.  It could happen in the USA.  The only thing that prevents dictators is the willingness of brave people to stand up to them, to the death.  Never expect a despot to “make sense.”
            During WWII the Germans, the Russians, and the Americans all had forced-relocation camps.  The Germans used theirs to attempt a mass genocide of European Jews, as well as anyone deemed undesirable by the Reich.  This included the homosexuals, religious leaders, Romany, mentally and physically handicapped people, and anyone else deemed as “the Other.”  Russian forced labor camps were barely any better.  Their goal was not to solely exterminate enemies.  It was to suck out as much forced labor as possible with the bare minimum of food and support, thereby killing the state’s enemies while also benefiting the state’s GDP.  In the USA, our forced-relocation camps consisted of thousands and thousands of Japanese-Americans, many of them full citizens of the nation, including children and the elderly.  They were treated as if just because they were of Japanese ancestry, they were a treasonous threat to the nation.  While they were not treated as inhumanely as those in German or Russian camps, the very existence of such places in the supposed “Land of the Free” should be enough to strike terror in the hearts of free-thinking humans anywhere.  Who knows how bad it could have gotten for the Japanese-American prisoners if the war had raged on, or if the Japanese had managed a full on attack of the USA mainland?  Totalitarianism is a slippery slope indeed.  We must be ever-vigilant against it, even if it is an unpopular stance to take.

(This book is available for download as a PDF here: https://archive.org/download/worldapart007324mbp/worldapart007324mbp.pdf )

Friday, July 14, 2017

If I Could Have the Nervous System of an Octopus, Without Its Many Arms...





Other Minds: The Octopus, The Sea, and the Deep Origins of Consciousness – Peter Godfrey-Smith (2006)

            Much of my reading, and many of the books reviewed here at the Intellectual Journey, deal in some way with the idea of consciousness.  Some books explore the relationship between the outside world and the “inner mind.”  Others seek to understand the raw organic material that our bodies are composed of and why it creates the entity we call Mind.  Still others describe the progress of our collective knowledge and myth-building, especially as they relate to human social constructs like religion and government.  It appears that the human capacity for consciousness and thought inspires many writers, scientists, and philosophers.  One of the great things about this book is that it takes a step back away from our human field of experience, to explore one of the few other animals on Earth that also has a highly complex neurological system, this being the octopus, and their cousins, the squid and the cuttlefish.

            Peter Godfrey-Smith began his journey to writing this book because he witnessed something that many other people who work with or near these amazing animals have noted.  They appear to be observing you, just as much as you are observing them!  They interact with humans, both in the wild and in captivity, like creatures that have some sort of self-consciousness, or sentience.  In the wild, an octopus will often reach out a single tentacle arm towards a human diver, to touch them and taste them (octopuses can sense chemicals with their skin, essentially being able to “smell” and “taste” anything they encounter).  A cuttlefish will often produce the most dramatic displays of color and light through its amazing skin, in a seeming effort to interact.   In captivity, there are countless stories of octopuses that can recognize individual humans in a group, even when they are all dressed exactly the same.  Other octopuses have learned to squirt water with their siphons at people standing outside their tanks.  A few have even learned that a squirt of water is handy in turning off the aquarium lights above their tanks.  They are masters of camouflage, mimicry, and contortion.  Because the largest “solid” part of an octopus is its eyes, it can squeeze through any hole that their eye will fit through, allowing a sixty pound octopus to escape captivity through a two inch hole.  Amazing!

            One of the coolest parts of this book details how the development of an amazing nervous system occurred separately in cephalopods than in primates.  The earliest common ancestor between cephalopods and humans lived very likely over 200 million years ago, back when all animal life was in the oceans.  From this animal a branching occurred, in one direction leading to the bilateral animals, including the ones with spines and bilateral symmetry and in the other branch, a path leading to the mollusks and eventually to the cephalopods studied in this book.  For us humans, much of our nervous system is encased in a hard shell (the skull) and this is the apparent seat of our conscious and unconscious thought.  Nervous signals are received from throughout the body and processed in the brain.  Cephalopods do not work in this manner.

            An octopus has nearly as many neurons as a human, but they are not localized in one certain area.  The octopus’ neural network is spread throughout their entire body, allowing them to have massive control over their shape, color, and skin texture.  Each arm of an octopus has its own functional node of neurons, essentially controlling the arm separately from the main “brain.”  These animals appear to have consciousness of a high order, but they do not have the same equipment as us humans.  In fact, in cuttlefish for instance, each individual neuron reaches from the skin to the brain node, without any other intervening connections.  Humans and most other animals do not work in this way.  We have sequences of neurons, each connected in linear form, to allow signals to travel from our finger to our brain and back.  This, while seemingly super-fast, actually slows down the signals considerably, as not only do electrical signals travel through the neuron, but chemical signals must be released and received in the connections between the neurons.  The octopus does not have this problem, and it’s sensory world must operate on a level that to a human would be unspeakably fast.  

            There is much discussion about the history of the study of sentience and consciousness, which is awesome, and provides a great background into the current state of thought on “thought” itself.  It helps the reader to understand the real differences between human consciousness and cephalopod consciousness, which is critical.  Humans have the ability to process in semantic layers, with some thoughts being submerged, others being lifted, and yet others trying to understand the thoughts being thought!  This creates a massively rich internal life in humans, and in other smart animals that have been studied, such as birds, dogs, dolphins, etc.  The octopus however lacks this inner life it seems.  What it does have is a nearly infinite ability to sense the world around it, to respond to it, and to explore it.  Our brains suit us, as we have a relatively long lifespan and a lot of information to learn as humans.  The octopus and most cephalopods live very short, brutal lives, sometimes not making it past a second year of life.  It did and does not need to store long term memory, to develop individual consciousness like humans.  It instead needs as much input from the world around it as it can get, in order to stay alive and procreate.

            I have always loved octopuses and cuttlefish.  I am so glad I found this cool book.  Peter Godfrey-Smith has given me quite a lot to think about as I continue on my Intellectual Journey.  I will for certain be reading more about the latest research on cephalopod intelligence.  As the writer states, meeting an octopus in its habitat is the closest we may get to meet a truly “alien” intelligence.