View from the Far Side

Remember to remember: Take away lessons from my interview with Tim Ferris

Earlier this month I had the pleasure of appearing on Tim Ferriss’ podcast.  Our conversation was wonderful and wide-ranging; Tim is an excellent interviewer. We touched on a number of topics of course but I was reminded of something his assistant suggested I should ponder, ahead of our interview, namely, if I had the opportunity to rent a billboard someplace, what message would I post there?  It was an interesting question, especially since I’m not used to thinking in this way.

Actually what I would like to post would fill more than one billboard but if I had to boil it down to some overarching theme, I think it would be, “Remember to Remember”. Psychedelics are useful tools for stimulating remembrance of important truths that we already know but may have forgotten, or deliberately chosen to ignore. Here are a few of my most ‘memorable’ psychedelic takeaways…

Remember how little you know.

For me a consistent takeaway from my psychedelic experiences is a humbling reminder of how little we actually know — and its corollary: there will always be far more beyond the boundaries of our knowledge than within them. For some this may be a rather depressing realization, because it means that, however much we strive to expand our knowledge, it will always be a tiny fraction of what there is to know. For me, far from being depressing, this insight is actually reason for joy, because it means that if you enjoy learning (and I do) you will never exhaust the opportunities to expand your knowledge. There is simply no end to what there is to know. But you will never be able to know everything; there will never come a point when you can say, ‘we’ve got all this figured out.’ In fact we have almost nothing figured out, and never will, and that’s a good thing.

“there will always be far more beyond the boundaries of our knowledge than within them.”

Science is one of the most powerful tools we have for asking questions of Nature and getting meaningful answers back. Meaningful in the sense that they can be verified (within limits) through the ‘scientific method,’ the iterative process of developing hypotheses and testing them against observation. But science is often blind to its limitations, sometimes displaying a certain arrogance, an unspoken assumption that if we just keep applying the scientific method long enough, eventually Truth will emerge. Of course this is not the case (vide infra). Science is very good at studying and explaining tiny slices of reality in great detail. It is not so good at explaining the whole of existence from the cosmic perspective, or even fitting all the pieces together. Hence there is no room for arrogance in science, but it is far too prevalent, and it is a threat to true understanding.

In my opinion all scientists should be required to take a course in philosophy of science that forces them to consider what it really is in its purest form. True science is the search to discover the nature of reality, within the limits of what we can comprehend. We will never arrive at the Ultimate Truth, there may be no such thing, but Science can aim for that as an aspiration. Science is most effective as a tool for discovery if it is practiced with humility, and a recognition that there is always more knowledge to be uncovered, and some of it will occasionally overturn much of what we think we know. That is the challenge and promise of Science.

Remember to be astonished.

There is much to be astonished about. This follows from the understanding that our knowledge is limited. The universe is full of surprises. There is something ‘new under the sun,’ something that has never happened before in the entire history of the cosmos, that happens every day. This is a delightful fact of existence, and another reason for joy. Everywhere we look, whether using our own senses or the sensory extensions of our scientific instruments, we see a universe that is astounding in its complexity and beauty. Some have leveled the criticism at science that it removes the ‘mystery’ from existence. I could not disagree more. To my mind, every step we take to extend our knowledge only expands the mystery, and the instruments of science give us the tools to discover that beauty, complexity, and mystery fundamentally permeates existence at every level, from the quantum to the cosmic.

every step we take to extend our knowledge only expands the mystery

Remember that we monkeys are not running this show.

Another constant reminder I take away from my psychedelic experiences is: ‘we monkeys are not running this show.’ A moment’s reflection is all it takes to arrive at this realization. If anything, our presence on the planet at this point is a threat to the smooth running of the ‘show’ (and by ‘show’ I mean the ongoing unfolding of life on earth). Far more than our species, as puffed up with self-importance as we may be, it is the other members of the community of life that are ‘running the show.’ In particular, it is the plants that are running the show.

Plants are running the show because they have evolved the ‘miracle’ of photosynthesis, the means by which cosmic energy (in the form of sunlight) is captured and used to convert inorganic carbon dioxide into complex organic compounds, while releasing oxygen into the atmosphere as a byproduct of these biochemical reactions (conveniently for those of us who breathe). Were it not for photosynthesis, there would simply be no life on earth, or if there was, it would be a rather boring affair, limited to single-celled anaerobic bacteria, much as it was for the first 500 million years or so of earthly life. Photosynthesis enabled the proliferation of complex life forms and allowed for its expansion into terrestrial ecosystems. Photosynthesis is also the means by which the balance of atmospheric gases, especially carbon dioxide and oxygen, are kept at equilibrium within the narrow parameters that are tolerable for life. Fixation of carbon dioxide into the biomass of photosynthetic plants is the primary mechanism by which it is sequestered from the atmosphere.

Plants are running the show because they have evolved the ‘miracle’ of photosynthesis

Except that now, human activity, deforestation and the burning of fossil fuels, is pushing these limits to the breaking point. We need only open the newspaper or turn on the news to see that we are  already approaching these limits. However resilient these equilibrium processes may be, once they are pushed beyond a certain point, it may be impossible for them to recover. Once we cross that line, we enter a situation where the planet, or very large portions of it, are no longer hospitable to life. We are crossing that critical threshold right now, within this historical and coevolutionary moment. We will know within a decade or less whether we have succeeded in pulling back from the brink, or whether we have plunged over it. The current anemic response of governments and institutions to this looming and very real threat does not bode well.

Remember to be grateful.

It’s easy to get caught up in the ebb and flow of day to day events, and sometimes it can seem like a bit of a slog. When that happens, it can be useful to step back for a few moments to reflect: The Universe is unfolding exactly as it should, as it always has and always will. But what is cool is that we are all participating in this unfolding process; we are blessed to be part of it for as long as we are manifesting our being as nodes of consciousness, only a droplet in a vast ocean, but a droplet nonetheless — in this web of cosmic intelligence. We dwell on the absolute cutting edge of novelty, along with all sentient beings everywhere, and our uniqueness contributes to the making of every moment unique, and unlike any other moment that has ever occurred in the history of the Universe.

The Universe is unfolding exactly as it should, as it always has and always will.

It’s useful to reflect on how unlikely this entire existential situation really is. In a Universe that is largely comprised of dead matter and radiation, somehow we find ourselves inhabiting a biochemical machine, endowed with a complex brain and  the curse or blessing of consciousness that goes along with that, along with billions of other carbon based entities having similar experiences and varying degrees of consciousness. The ongoing drama of life as we know it is taking place on a backwater planet in a minor arm of a minor galaxy…only one of billions or perhaps trillions of similar galaxies scattered throughout space and time.

Is Earth the only planet to harbor complex, intelligent, technology-utilizing life? Surely it is not the only planet where life of a comparable level of advancement can be found? Surely it is not…and yet so far we have no definitive proof that intelligence exists beyond our planet. (Given some of the choices we’re making, we have no proof that real intelligence exists on Earth!) Whether or not intelligent life is so rare in the Universe that we are the only example, or whether the Universe is permeated with life and intelligence (the far more attractive possibility, but so far unproven), the fact is, it seems highly unlikely that such a state of affairs exists at all. But we know it does, because here we are. We may be a unique experiment, an N=1; or we may not be particularly unique, or even interesting, example of many similar examples scattered across space and time. Whether it is option A or B, it’s important that we recognize, and show gratitude for the concatenation of circumstances that have enabled us to be alive and conscious in this moment. We have done nothing to earn this; it is a gift that we have been given, and like all meaningful gifts, it is to be cherished.

Given some of the choices we’re making, we have no proof that real intelligence exists on Earth!

Listen to the Podcast with Dennis McKenna & Tim Ferriss.