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Rain Taxi
Sunday, December 31st, 2006
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The Evolutionary Mind: Conversations on Science, Imagination and Spirit

by Rupert Sheldrake and Ralph Abraham and Terence McKenna

Consciousness: The Final Frontier

A review by Sarah Fox

This volume collects a series of conversations -- termed "trialogues" -- which took place over several years between three exceptional thinkers. Though working in different fields—Ralph Abraham is a chaos mathematician and computer graphics pioneer; Terence McKenna (who died in 2000) was a psychedelic explorer, ethnopharmacologist, and time theorist; and Rupert Sheldrake is a biologist who developed the theory of "morphic resonance" -- the three were close friends and shared many common concerns. They moved their private conversations to the public arena in 1989 at the request of the Esalen Institute in California, and over the years they met frequently at various locations, resulting in the first trialogue volume, Chaos, Creativity, and Cosmic Consciousness. This second volume, sadly, will be the last of the published trialogues due to the untimely "departure from the corporeal plane" of McKenna, the group's obvious Firekeeper.

The conversations recorded in this collection read more like a sequence of manifestos, and share none of the flavor of a live conversation. They are wide-ranging, erudite, achingly articulate, and entirely focused, although perhaps intellectuals of this magnitude really do talk with such remarkable fluidity. The primary impetus for discussion is, as the title suggests, evolutionary psychology -- each participant addresses a shared suspicion that human evolution will occur most significantly at the level of consciousness, and all concur that this evolution will happen not over millennia, or even centuries, but swiftly and soon. Essentially, according to these three, human evolution will likely entail a complete transcendence from history, and quite possibly from any concept of time.

McKenna sees humans as representing a peculiar species influenced by an "attractor pulling in the direction of symbolic activity." In the chapter called "Time," McKenna elucidates that the attractor, with which we are colliding, is:

"an object that we cannot precisely discern, lying just below the event horizon of rational apprehension; nevertheless, our cultural east is streaked with the blush of rosy dawn. What it portends, I think, is an end to our fall, to our sojourn in matter, and to our separateness. It lies so close to us in historical time, by virtue of our having collapsed our options in three-dimensional space, that you need only close your eyes, have a dream, take a shamanic hallucinogen, practice yoga, and there you will see it. It's an attractor that's been working on the species for at least a million years. I maintain that it is actually a universal attractor, and we represent a concrescence of complexity that is truly transcendental....The ride to the end of history is going to be a white-knuckled experience."
McKenna conceives of this end of history, this "last thing," as "The Eschaton," a kind of black hole whose basin will provoke a violent break from any boundaries, including the boundaries between life and death: "truly beyond ambiguity, beyond syntax." All three suspect that "time is speeding up...there isn't much left." Nevertheless, the prospect is not handled necessarily with pessimism. McKenna again: "We are literally packing up and preparing to decamp from Newtonian space and time, for the high world of hyper-dimensional existence." Abraham favors a fractal model for understanding the phenomenon of boundaries. "Chaos and cosmos must be properly balanced for a healthy social system," he claims, and "an openness to all attractors...based on a cosmology in which the stream has the same morphology as the heavens, which have the same morphology as some mathematical object" could ensure the "stability and longevity of a culture as well as the health of an individual."

As to "when" this meeting with the Eschaton may take place, McKenna theorizes "December 21, 2012." This date happens to coincide with the ancient Maya calendar's "end of the 13th b'ak'tun" which many have surmised predicts the apocalypse. However, McKenna came by his theory through science, evaluating historical data, how it produced curves in ebbs and flows of novelty in time, and basing his prediction on "spiral closure." Like most Maya scholars, McKenna too sees this end date as representing more of a "new beginning" than an absolute end. Yet his vision anticipates a fatal global crisis. Sheldrake, on the other hand, sides with a more Utopian, sustainable prediction, arguing for a period of total transformation involving "first of all, psychedelics; secondly, the revival of animism; thirdly, mathematical objects visible to all through computers; and fourthly, communication with the stars." This vision, in Sheldrake's mind, will culminate in a time in which "the kingdom of heaven is realized on Earth."

In the chapter "Between the Apocalypse and Utopianism," Sheldrake, Abraham, and McKenna explore ways of defining the impending transformation through a triad of their individual specialties, respectively scientific utopia, chaos utopia, and psychedelic utopia. They view two traditions -- the Utopic, described as triadic and virtuous, and the Millennarian, described as spontaneous and apocalyptic -- and attempt to locate their own trinity in an overlap between these two. Elsewhere they discuss fractals, psychic pets, skepticism, psychedelic revival, and everything else, and always towards the potential for intersection.

All three heartily conclude that consciousness is the final frontier, and is where our human future lies. There is no question that the book delivers radical, mind-blowing encounters on every page. Yet the form of conversation lends a spirit of generosity to the rendering of very complex ideas -- the reader is placed in the role of eavesdropper, leaving her free to take sides, but also encouraged along by an absence of pedantics in favor of friendly and collaborative conjecture. While not culminating in any ultimate, mutual determinations, the existence of these trialogues assures the evolution of the ideas within them -- all readers will feel stimulated to spawn their own impassioned conversations examining consciousness and its potential.


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