“We are faced with the urgent task of changing the direction of global civilization if we want to avoid biospheric collapse and species burnout.” – by Daniel Pinchbeck

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“As the pioneering psychedelic chemist Alexander Shulgin (1927-2014) has pointed out, the idea that the Earth moved around the Sun was radical heresy at one time. A century later, it was a commonplace truism. The prospect that the inner exploration of consciousness with psychedelics might be recognized as, in itself, a positive and worthy endeavor is another radical heresy that may be seen as self-evident in the future. Rather than collapsing into anarchy, a civilization that supports the adult individual’s right to utilize these chemical catalysts for self-discovery and spiritual communion might advance to a more mature and stable state. Much of the anxiety and negative conditioning around the subject could be dispelled with logical argument based on evidence for the relative safety of psychedelics, especially natural ones, compared to other drugs. The point is not that everyone needs to take psychedelics but that the minority of people who find themselves compelled to make this exploration could be permitted to do so. (…) In a culture that is awash in prescription chemicals, drugs of abuse, and mood-altering SSRIs, it seems increasingly odd to ban a handful of plant substances and related compounds (even LSD is closely related to a chemical found in ergot fungus) that have been used by human beings for untold thousands of years.”

 * * * * *

“To a large extent, the cultural and social movements of the 1960s developed in reaction to the Cold War, which nearly reached a devastating nuclear climax during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. The awareness of humanity’s hair-trigger proximity to self-inflicted annihilation inspired individual acts of courage and brilliance, and mass movements for social and personal liberation. It also led to widespread interest in psychedelic exploration as a fast track to self-knowledge and spiritual illumination. Rather than leading to instant “enlightenment”, the visionary insights, temporary dissolution of ego boundaries, and deconditioning from proscribed social codes often induced by entheogenic explorations helped some people to reevaluate their own role in society at that time.

Today, we are faced with an intractable and unpopular war in Iraq that has already continued longer than the U.S. involvement in World War II, a rise in terrorism, and a global ecological crisis of terrifying magnitude. Just as the 1960s generation had to confront the militaristic insanity of the Vietnam War and the Cold War, our generation has to reckon with the individual and collective mind-set that has brought us to this critical threshold, quickly approaching the point of no return. While it would be the height of silliness to consider psychedelics, in themselves, as the Answer to the massive problems now facing us, they continue to offer some individuals a means for looking at the world from a different vantage point, integrating new levels of insight.”

* * * * *

“When we cast a cold eye on the current planetary situation, we discover that the industrial culture and excessive lifestyle of the affluent West masks an intensifying scarcity of resources that is unsustainable, even in the short term. According to scientists, 25% of all mammalian species will be extinct within the next 30 years. Our oceans are 90% fished out, with the potential for an irreversible collapse of many fisheries. As accelerating climate change leads to an increase in natural disasters, the polar ice caps are melting at rates that exceed predictions, potentially leading to a significant rise in global sea levels, causing coastal flooding. At current rates of deforestation, there will be no tropical forests left on the planet in 40 years. According to many geologists, we are on the verge of ‘peak oil’ – the highest possible production of oil, after which procution must decline – leading to higher prices and potential scarcity of energy in the next decades… Our efforts to find short-term technological fixes for the problems we create often lead to deeper errors and more dangerous unintended consequences. We are faced with the urgent task of changing the direction of global civilization if we want to avoid biospheric collapse and species burnout.

Without romanticizing native cultures, we can recognize that in many cases their intimate and sacralized relationship to the natural world kept them from overshooting the carrying capacities of their local ecosystems. The modern fixation on abstract, quantifiable, and rational modes of thought has profoundly alienated us from the directly sensorial and mimetic forms of knowing and relating maintained by indigenous cultures, allowing us to treat the natural world as something separate from ourselves. The entheogenic experience can temporarily reconnect the modern individual with lost participatory modes of awareness that may induce a greater sensitivity to his or her physical surroundings, beside raising a psychic periscope into the marginalized realms of mythological archetype and imaginative vision. It is not a question of forfeiting our mdern cognition for fuzzy mysticism, but of reintegrating older and more intimate ways of knowing that can help us find a more balanced relationship with the human and nonhuman world around us.

It may seem unlikely that psychedelics could be rehabilitated, but who knows? Profound shifts in consciousness and culture happen in surprising ways, overturning the smug certitudes of academic experts and media commentators. New forms of awareness develop below everyday consciousness, gestating in hidden reaches of the collective psyche, long before they are allowed to be articulated and manifested as new social realities. What was once scandalous and impossible can become acceptable and obvious to a new generation, and doors that long seemed securely padlocked may swing open at the merest touch. As new paradigms of knowlege emerge, breaking through the crust of old habit and received conditioning, change becomes possible – and sometimes inevitable.”

Daniel Pinchbeck,
Introduction to The Psychedelic Experience, by T. Leary, R. Metzner and R. Alpert,
Penguin Classics, 2007.

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Art by Alex Grey, portraying the chemists Alex and Ann Shulgin. Watch below a documentary about them, “Dirty Pictures – The Creator of MDMA (Ecstasy) ” (90 minutes):

 

“The Joyous Cosmology – Adventures in the Chemistry of Consciousness”, by Alan Watts (1915-1973) – Preface by Daniel Pinchbeck

Joyous

Introduction by Daniel Pinchbeck

The Joyous Cosmology inevitably sends me into a state of poetic euphoria and anarchistic delight. Alan Watts wrote this wonderful little book in the early 1960s: that long-lost moment of innocence when psychedelic substances like LSD and psilocybin were starting to permeate the culture of the modern West but no final decision had yet been made on their utility or fate – or their legality. It was a time when a handful of philosopher-poets had the chance to muse on the power of these compounds — “to give some impression of the new world of consciousness which these substances reveal”, Watts wrote.

Reading it again, I can’t help but recall my first forays into the soul-unfolding and mind-opening qualities of the visionary plants and chemical catalysts. Those first trips unmasked the brittle delusions of our current culture and revealed that deeper dimensions of psychic reality were available for us to explore. Watts is such a fluid stylist — such a master of evanescent, evocative, pitch-perfect prose — that it is easy to gloss over or to entirely miss the explosive, radical, even revolutionary core of his message and meaning: the Western ego, the primacy of self that our entire civilization is intricately designed to shore up and protect, simply does not exist.

When one uses the magnifying glass or microscope provided by one of a number of chemical compounds that, Watts cannily noted, do not impart wisdom in itself but provide “the raw 
materials of wisdom,” one finds nothing fixed, stable, permanent — no essence. Only relationship, pattern, flow. Watts’s psychedelic journeys provided experiential confirmation of the core teachings of Eastern metaphysics: that the Tao is all, that consciousness is “one without a second”, that there is no doing, only infinite reciprocity and divine play.

This book retains the freshness of precocious notebook jottings. It also, almost accidentally, gives a beautiful sense of life in the dawn of the psychedelic era on the West Coast, when groups of friends would gather in backyards beside eucalyptus groves to explore together, with the gentle humor of wise children, the infinite within. “All of us look at each other knowingly, for the feeling that we knew each other in that most distant past conceals something else — tacit, awesome, almost unmentionable — the realization that at the deep center of a time perpendicular to ordinary time we are, and always have been, one”, Watts wrote. “We acknowledge the marvelously hidden plot, the master illusion, whereby we appear to be different.”

Over the past forty or so years, we have suffered from the cultural delusion — put forth by a corporate media and government working overtime to keep consciousness locked up, as our industries suck the lifeblood from our planet — that the psychedelic revolution of the 1960s was a failure. Revisiting Watts’s Joyous Cosmology reminds me that the psychedelic revolution has barely begun. The journey inward is the great adventure that remains for humanity to take together. As long as we refuse to turn our attention to the vast interior dimensions of the Psyche — “The Kingdom of God is within” — we will continue to exhaust the physical resources of the planet, cook the atmosphere, and mindlessly exterminate the myriad plant, animal, and insect species who weave the web of life with us.

When on psychedelics, we tend to find that each moment takes on archetypal, timeless, mythological significance. At one point, Watts and his friends enter into a garage full of trash, where they collapse with helpless laughter. “The culmination of civilization in monumental heaps of junk is seen, not as thoughtless ugliness, but as self-caricature — as the creation of phenomenally absurd collages and abstract sculptures in deliberate but kindly mockery of our own pretensions.” Our civilization mirrors the “defended defensiveness” of the individual ego, which fortifies itself against the revelation of interdependence and interconnectivity, the plenitude and emptiness of the void.

We are lucky to have Watts’s testament of his encounters: The Joyous Cosmology is a carrier wave of information and insight, which has lost none of its subtlety, suppleness, or zest. It is also an expression of a larger culture process, one that is unfolding over the course of decades, through a “War on Drugs” that is secretly a war on consciousness.

Dr. Thomas B. Roberts, author of The Psychedelic Future of the Mind, among other works, has proposed that the rediscovery of entheogens by the modern West in the mid-twentieth century was the beginning of a “second Reformation”, destined to have repercussions at least as profound as those of the first one. In the first Reformation, the Bible was translated into the common vernacular, printed, and mass-produced, providing direct access to the “word of God”, which had previously been protected by the priests. With psychedelics, many people now have direct and unmediated access to the mystical and visionary experience, instead of reading about it in musty old tomes. As Watts’s scintillating prose makes clear – and all appearances to the contrary – the future will be psychedelic, or it will not be.

Daniel Pinchbeck,
author of 
Breaking Open the Head: A Psychedelic Journey 
into the Heart of Contemporary Shamanism.
New York City, 2013.
Excerpted from “The Joyous Cosmology” © 2013 by Alan W. Watts. New World Library.

Alan Watts (1915-1973) was the author of more than twenty books, including The Way of ZenThe Wisdom of Insecurity, and The Book: On the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are. An acclaimed writer, philosopher, and student of Buddhism, he was also an Episcopalian minister, a professor, and a research fellow at Harvard University.

Alan Change

The Joyous Cosmology – download e-book in PDF at libgen.org (7 mb, Vintage, 1965)

George Harrison visits Frisco’s Summer of Love #1967

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In 1967, the Summer of Love was blossoming. North American counterculture was at its peak, with beatnik writers, folk singers and psychedelic rockers trippin’ with their doors of percepton wide open and producing awesome art. In 1967 were born, to quote just a few era-defining masterspieces, The Beatles’ Sgt Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band, Jimi Hendrix’s Are You Experienced?, Velvet Underground’s V.U. & Nico, Cream’s Disraeli GearsJefferson Airplane’s Surrealistic PillowLove’s Forever ChangesThe Door’s self-titled debut, Pink Floyd’s The Piper at the Gates of Dawn.

Amidst this creative effervescence, a British lad, one of the Fabulous Four From Liverpool, decided to go visit Haight-Ashbury, San Francisco, the epicenter of Hippieland, the shrine of Merry Pranksterism. This was in August 7, 1967, and this is how George’s girlfriend Patti Boyd tells the tale:

“…we thought it would be fun to go and have a look at Haight-Ashbury, the district that had been taken over by hippies. Musicians like Jefferson Airplane, Grateful Dead and Janis Joplin lived there, and it was the LSD capital of America. On the way, Derek produced a tab. Would we like some? Since we were going to Haight-Ashbury, it seemed silly not to.

The area is named after the intersection of two streets, Haight and Ashbury, and as we approached, the driver said he wouldn’t drive down the street itself, he’d park among the side-streets. It seemed a little odd but we didn’t argue. We got out of the car, the acid kicked in and everything was just whoah, psychedelic and very… I mean, it was just completely fine. We went into a shop and noticed that all these people were following us. They had recognised George as we walked past them in the street, then turned to follow us. One minute there were five, then ten, twenty, thirty and forty people behind us. I could hear them saying, ‘The Beatles are here, the Beatles are in town!’

3 We were expecting Haight-Ashbury to be special, a creative and artistic place, filled with Beautiful People, but it was horrible – full of ghastly drop-outs, bums and spotty youths, all out of their brains. Everybody looked stoned – even mothers and babies – and they were so close behind us they were treading on the backs of our heels. It got to the point where we couldn’t stop for fear of being trampled. Then somebody said, ‘Let’s go to Hippie Hill,’ and we crossed the grass, our retinue facing us, as if we were on stage. They looked as us expectantly – as if George was some kind of Messiah.

We were so high, and then the inevitable happened: a guitar emerged from the crowd and I could see it being passed to the front by outstretched arms. I thought, Oh, God, poor George, this is a nightmare. Finally the guitar was handed to him. I had the feeling that they’d listened to the Beatles’ records, analysed them, learnt what they’d thought they should learn, and taken every drug they’d thought the Beatles were singing about. Now they wanted to know where to go next. And George was there, obviously, to give them the answer. Pressure.

George was so cool. He said, ‘This is G, this is E, this is D,’ and showed them a few chords, then handed back the guitar and said, ‘Sorry, man, we’ve got to go now.’ He didn’t sing – he couldn’t have: he was flying. We all were. I was surprised he could even do that.

Anyway, we got up and walked back towards our limo, at which point I heard a little voice say, ‘Hey, George, do you want some STP?’

George turned around and said, ‘No, thanks, I’m cool, man.’

Then the bloke turned round and said to the others, ‘George Harrison turned me down.’

And they went, ‘No!’

And then the crowd became faintly hostile. We sensed it because when you’re that high you’re very aware of vibes, and we were walking faster and faster, and they were following.

When we saw the limo, we ran across the road and jumped in, and they ran after us and started to rock the car, and the windows were full of these faces, flattened against the glass, looking at us.”

Pattie Boyd, Wonderful Tonight

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The Value of Art in this Time of Transition: Daniel Pinchbeck at TED

Read some Pinchbeck’s writings:

http://www.danielpinchbeck.net/writing/essays/

Zen Master Alan Watts Discovers the Secrets of Aldous Huxley and His Art of Dying

Reblogged from Hip Monkey

Few figures were as influential as Alan Watts and Aldous Huxley in popularizing experiments with psychedelic drugs and Eastern religion in the 20th century. Watts did more to introduce Westerners to Zen Buddhism than almost anyone before or since; Huxley’s experiments with mescaline and LSD—as well as his literary critiques of Western technocratic rationalism—are well-known. But in a countercultural movement largely dominated by men—Watts and Huxley, Ken Kesey, Timothy Leary, Allen Ginsberg, etc—Huxley’s widow Laura came to play a significant role after her husband’s death.

In fact, as we’ve discussed before, she played a significant role during his death, injecting him with LSD and reading to him from The Tibetan Book of the Dead as he passed away. In the interview above, Laura speaks with Watts about that experience, one she learned from Aldous, who performed a similar service for his first wife as she died in 1955. The occasion of the interview—conducted at Watts’ Sausalito home in 1968—is the publication of Laura Huxley’s memoir of life with her husband, This Timeless Moment. But talk of the book soon prompts discussion of Huxley’s graceful exit, which Watts calls “a highly intelligent form of dying.”

Watts relates an anecdote about Goethe’s last hours, during which a visitor was told that he was “busy dying.” “Dying is an art,” says Watts, “and it’s also an adventure,” Laura adds. Their discussion then turns to Huxley’s final novel, Island (which you can read in PDF here).Island has rarely been favorably reviewed as a literary endeavor. And yet, as Watts points out, it wasn’t intended as literature, but as a “sociological blueprint in the form of a novel.” Laura Huxley, upset at the book’s chilly reception, wishes her husband had “written it straight.” Nonetheless, she points out that Island was much more than a Utopian fantasy or philosophical thought experiment. It was a document in which “every method, every recipe… is something he experimented with himself in his own life.” As Laura wrote in This Timeless Moment:

Every single thing that is written in Island has happened and it’s possible and actual … Island is really visionary common sense. Things that Aldous and many other people said, that were seen as so audacious – they are common sense, but they were visionary because they had not yet happened.

Those things included not only radical forms of living, but also, as Huxley himself demonstrated, radical ways of dying.

Related Content:

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Washington, DC. Follow him at @jdmagness

The confrontation with Gaia is imminent… (Bruno Latour)

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GAIA IN THE ANTHROPOCENE By Bruno Latour

“Geologists are beginning to use the term ANTHROPOCENE to designate the era of Earth’s history that extends from the scientific and industrial revolutions to the present day. These geologists see humanity as a force of the same amplitude as volcanoes or even plate tectonics. It is now before GAIA that we are summoned to appear: Gaia, the odd, doubly composite figure made up of science and mythology, used by certain specialists to designate the Earth that surrounds us and that we surround, the truly global Globe that threatens us even as we threaten it.

If I wanted to dramatize – perhaps overdramatize – the ambiance of my investigative project, I would say that it seeks to register the aftershocks of the MODERNIZATION FRONT just as the confrontation with Gaia appears imminent.

At all events, we shall not cure the Moderns of their attachment to their cherished theme, the modernization front, if we do not offer them an alternate narrative… After all, the Moderns have cities who are often quite beautiful; they are city-dwellers, citizens, they call themselves (and are sometimes called) “civilized”.

Why would we not have the right to propose to them a form of habitation that is more comfortable and convenient and that takes into account both their past and their future – a more sustainable habitat, in a way? Why would they not be at ease there? Why would they wander in the permanent utopia that has for so long made them beings without hearth or home – and has driven them for that very reason to inflict fire and bloodshed on the planet?

After all these years of wandering in the desert, do they have hope of reaching not the Promised Land but Earth itself, quite simply, the only one they have, at once underfoot and all around them, the aptly named Gaia?”

BRUNO LATOUR.
“An Inquiry into Modes of Existence: An Anthropology of the Moderns”
Harvard University Press, 2013. Translated by Catherine Porter.
Download e-book at Library Genesis.
Join: http://www.modesofexistence.org

 

Adam and Eve (Art by Alex Grey)

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You might also enjoy:

The Affects of Capitalism (full lecture)
(If you wanna skip the intro, Latour actually starts speaking at 12 min and 45 seconds.)

“What Is It Like To Be A Bat?” – The Sci-Fi Philosophy of Thomas Nagel

BAT IN FLOWER A pollen-gilded bat emerging from a flower of the blue mahoe tree. This bat lives in eastern Cuba in a colony more than one million strong— a pollinating powerhouse. Photograph by Merlin Tuttle, National Geographic.

In one of the greatest essays in his book Mortal QuestionsThomas Nagel invites us to dare reflect in a bold and innovative way, as awe-inspiring as the best Science Fiction novels or films. Forget about mankind for a while and try to identify yourself with the perspective of an animal that’s quite different from bipeds and primates such as ourselves. Put yourself inside the skin of a bat, but not only in a cartoonish or playful way (don’t even waste time pretending you are Bruce Wayne, wearing a black costume and a horned mask, patrolling Gotham City in search of criminals to crush). Nagel is asking us to attempt to become a bat as it really is in Nature’s web of life, and how does it feel to be such a creature What Nagel is proposing is an exercise in which a human mind tries to move away from its humanness, venturing outside the zone of familiarity, and tries to really grasp what sort of experience it would be like to exist as a bat – or an eagle, or a worm. That ain’t easy, and “philosophers share the general human weakness for explanations of what is incomprehensible in terms suited for what is familiar and well understood.” (pg. 166)

This is not just a role-playing game (“let’s pretend we’re animals and meow like cats!”), nor it’s creative phantasy imagining the future (similarly to what was crafted with such greatness by David Cronenberg in The Fly). What Thomas Nagel is after with his sci-fi thinking, as we’ll further attempt to explore, is an explanation for consciousness in its great diversity. Reality contains objectively myriads of different organisms, with different perspectives and subjective experiences, and this field of study – Nature’s richness and diversity – may be explored not only by poets, mystics or people high on LSD, but also by philosophers, physicists, scientists, artists… Maybe we’ll become better humans if we try to understand better what it is like not to be human?

“Conscious experience is a widespread phenomenon. It occurs at many levels of animal life, though we cannot be sure of its presence in the simpler organisms, and it is very difficult to say in general what provides evidence of it. (Some extremists have been prepared to deny it even of mammals other than man.) No doubt it occurs in countless forms totally unimaginable to us, on other planets in other solar systems throughout the universe. But no matter how the form may vary, the fact that an organism has conscious experience at all means, basically, that there is something it is like to be that organism. (…) We may call this the subjective character of experience…” (p. 166)

 Those among you, dear readers, who are not poetically inclined, may deem as utter philosophical madness to refer to such a thing as “the subjectivity of bats” – or the conscious experience of pigs. But it’s been for centuries the self-imposed task and delight of poets, mystics, shamans, artists and many other human animals to understand and try to verbalize what it means like to be an animal different than ourselves. William Blake, for example, had a fruitful relationship with flies, as you’ll see in the following poem, and he also sung with his lyre some quite fascinating stuff about dogs, horses, skylarks:

 William_Blake_-_Songs_of_Innocence_and_of_Experience,_Plate_37,_-The_Fly-_(Bentley_40)_-_Google_Art_Project

“Little Fly,
Thy summer’s play
My thoughtless hand
Has brush’d away.

Am not I
A fly like thee?
Or art not thou
A man like me?

For I dance,
And drink, and sing,
Till some blind hand
Shall brush my wing…”

* * * *

“A dog starved at his master’s gate
Predicts the ruin of the State.
A horse misus’d upon the road
Calls to Heaven for human blood.
Each outcry of the hunted hare
A fibre from the brain does tear.
A skylark wounded in the wing,
A cherubim does cease to sing…”

  WILLIAM BLAKE

Thomas Nagel is interested in exploring the idea of animals as beings who experience the world from a perspective different from ours, from a subjective standpoint which differs greatly according to the organism’s complexity and to the various environments. For example, a polar bear and a huge whale like Moby Dick have very different conscious experiences by living where they do, I mean, the first in freezing snowy temperatures, the latter beneath the oceans’s rolling waves. But let’s go back to Nagel’s bats:

Human-Speech-and-Bat-Sonar-The-Same-Basis-2
“I assume all believe that bats have experience. After all, they are mammals, and there is no more doubt that they have experience than that mice or pigeons or whales have experience. (…) Bats, although closely related to us, nevertheless present a range of activity and a sensory apparatus so different from ours that the problem I want to pose is exceptionally vivid (though it certainly could be raised with other species). Now we know that most bats perceive the external world primarily by sonar, or echolocation, detecting the reflections, from objects within range, of their own rapid, subtly modulated, high-frequency shrieks. Their brains are designed to correlate the outgoing impulses with the subsequent echoes, and the information thus acquired enables bats to make precise discriminations of distance, size, shape, motion and texture – comparable to those we make by vision.” (pg. 168)

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These fascinating and scary creatures, winged mammals who fly speedily in the air even though they can’t see anything (thus the expression “blind as a bat”), have an existential experience which is quite hard for a human to imagine and that it’s impossible for us to really “live”. How is it like, subjectively, to fly around being a bat and using a sonar for sight? Does our imagination really permit us to truly experience Batness? And how to avoid scenes of Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, or from the Batman comics, from messing-up our experiment by appearing on our Hollywood-colonized human-minds everytime we think of men and bats? Imagination is limited and usually binds us to a human perspective, argues Thomas Nagel, and to experience what truly is the subjective consciousness of a bat it’s not enough “that one spends the day hanging upside down by one’s feet in an attic.” (pg. 169) Now we’re getting closer to his point: Nagel wants to know “what it is like for a bat to be a bat.” (p. 169)

There seems to exist an abyss of ignorance separating each species, though they all belong to the one and the same Web of Life. We might call this the Abyss of Alterity, but maybe someone needs to be a poet or a mystic to grasp what that means. Thomas Nagel paints a portrait of such an abyss, that we are seldom able to cross, when he writes about men and bats: humans can’t know what it’s like to be inside the skin of a bat, and neither the bat has a clue about how the heck it feels to be a primate such as ourselves. Simply because there’s no bridge that can serve as means of transportation, from human experience right into bat experience, and vice versa: “even if I could by gradual degrees be transformed into a bat, nothing in my present constitution enables me to imagine what the experiences of such a future stage of myself thus metamorphosed would be like.” (p. 169)

Even an imagination so powerfull and daring as Franz Kafka’s could only reach an anthropomorphized report of what it meant for Gregor Samsa to discover himself living inside the body of a bug. However, for Gregor Samsa, a human mind and a human consciousness are still locked inside the beastly body that he wakes up, in Kafka’s masterpiece The Metamorphosis, suddenly transformed into.  Thomas Nagel knows perfectly well that one can’t become a bat after being born a monkey, a wolf, a bacteria or a human being, but he also states that human imagination fails to give us any true depiction of the specific subjective character of the experienced subjectivity of creatures of other species  – “it’s beyond our ability to conceive.” (p. 170)

This sets, methinks, epistemology in new grounds and adds a new chapter to the history of Skepticism in philosophy. Nagel’s highly skeptical conclusion – we’ll never really experience what it’s like to be an animal different than the animal we are – also spreads into his consideration of human affairs, where similar abysses of mutual ignorance also exist. For example: “The subjective character of the experience of a person deaf and blind from birth is not accessible to me, nor presumably is mine to him. This does not prevent us each from believing that the other’s experience has such a subjective character.” (p. 170)

If we’re ever to meet extra-terrestrial organisms – be they iron-headed Martians, bizarre aliens from Titan, or other weird creatures from a far-away galaxy… – the same problem would certainly arise: the aliens wouldn’t have a clear perception of what it is like to be a human, similarly to our human difficulty – or even incapacity –  to truly understand what it is like to be a bat or a whale, a butterfly or an eagle, a worm or a lizard. Subjectivity, thus, is so highly varied in its manifestations, in its different incarnations, that we must revise our concepts and renew our vocabulary: “subjective” shouldn’t mean only “the personal self”, but some sort of existential perspective that exists in myriads of different ways according to the varied organisms and environments. This “enormous amount of variation and complexity” can be partially explained by Darwin’s theory of Evolution, but what Thomas Nagel seems to be pointing out is this: reality is too complex, its multiplicity is too great, for a mind such as ours, with a language such as we have developed so far, to truly understand it – which means, with an understanding that embraces all subjective conscious experiences of all living beings. This is one of the main problems his philosophy deals with, especially in the excellent mind-boggling philosophy-ride View From Nowhere.

The View From Nowhere

Buy The View From Nowhere at Amazon

“The fact that we cannot expect ever to accommodate in our language a detailed description of Martian or bat phenomenology should not lead us to dismiss as meaningless the claim that bats and Martians have experiences fully comparable in richness of detail to our own. It would be fine if someone were to develop concepts and a theory that enabled us to think about those things; but such an understanding may be permanently denied to us by the limits of our nature.” (pg. 170)

Some sort of disconnection between the human animals and the Animal Kingdom as a whole seems to arise, Thomas Nagel argues, from our mind’s incapacity to truly understand any subjective experience that differs too much from ours. This can’t be explained only by biology, by processes of Natural Selection, because Culture intervenes with its systems, its symbols, its values. In a civilization, for example, where in the thousands of supermarkets one can buy the meat of recently killed animals, already packed and frozen and wrapped in plastics, people tend to dissociate their minds from any sort of empathy with pigs, cows or chickens. When it’s barbecue time and the dead bodies of recently killed animals are being grilled, people tend to never think about the slaughterhouses, and never think about what life feels like when lived subjectively as life destined to be slaughtered for meat. Great masses of humans, then, devour tons of meat in their barbecues and in their day-to-day lifes, they erect myriads of fast-food joints and stain the Landscape with McDonald’s-like signs and ads, without paying no mind to what they deem an unimportant matter, I mean, what sort of existence the animals that ended up on the plate or inside the Big Mac had lived through from birth to bacon.

“This brings us to the edge of a topic that requires much more discussion than I can give it here: namely, the relation between facts on the one hand and conceptual schemes or systems of representation on the other. (…) Reflection on what it is like to be a bat seems to lead us, therefore, to the conclusion that there are facts that do not consist in the truth of propositions expressible in human language. (…) The more different from oneself the other experiencer is, the less success one can expect with this enterprise. (…) A Martian scientist with no understanding of visual perception could understand the rainbow, or lightning, or clouds as physical phenomena, though he would never be able to understand the human concepts of rainbow, lightning, or cloud, or the place these things occupy in our phenomenal world.  (…) Although the concepts themselves are connected with a particular point of view and a particular visual phenomenology, the things apprehended from that point of view are not: they are observable from the point of view but external to it; hence they can be comprehended from other points of view also, either by the same organisms or by others. Lightning has an objective character that is not exhausted by its visual appearance, and this can be investigated by a Martian without vision. And, in understanding a phenomenon like lightning, it is legitimate to go as far away as one can from a strictly human viewpoint.” (NAGEL, Mortal Questions, p. 173)

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TO BE CONTINUED…

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