Nov 14 2012

The Great Consciousness Swindle: Why Philosophers Will Never Find Consciousness, And Why They Secretly Don’t Want To


As someone who writes regularly on aspects of the brain and consciousness, I have recently received a large amount of correspondence from people wondering what I think about a news article linking consciousness to quantum gravity in cellular microtubules, and how this model could offer “proof” of the soul’s ability to survive outside the body through some kind of nonlocal quantum hocus-pocus.[1] Even though this theory is presented purely as an exercise in theoretical mathematics, because it was suggested by Roger Penrose, a lauded and respected mathematician and philosopher, many people have jumped to the conclusion that this theory is not only correct, but that it somehow “proves” that consciousness is eternal, immutable, and can travel in and out of the body like a soul. My personal take on the theory is that it is garbage disguised as science, and not only is it wrong, it perpetuates a myth of consciousness that philosophers have been using to mislead gullible believers for centuries.

What is the myth of consciousness that Penrose is perpetuating? The central myth of this theory is that consciousness is a “thing”, and that consciousness “exists” in some “place” that we can’t  see. I call this the “invisible mind” model of consciousness, and the invisible mind model basically says, “Consciousness is so ineffable and mysterious that no material description is sufficient to define its boundaries. Therefore, we must assume that consciousness is an immaterial or ‘phantom’ presence we can’t locate or measure, trapped somewhere inside the organic machinery of the body.” This model is also known as Dualism, which claims that in addition to the material body there is also an immaterial “mind”, “spirit”, or “soul” that inhabits the host. The greatest feature of Dualism, as far as I can tell, is that Dualism claims the mind and spirit are immaterial and invisible, and therefore can never be accurately measured or described. And here is where the great swindle takes place. If I can convince you that something invisible exists, like an “invisible mind”, but I also say it is immaterial and can never be measured, then I have just made myself an expert in something that does not actually exist, but also cannot be disproven. In academia this is called “philosophy”, but in laymans terms this is called “bullshit”. I do not have a degree in philosophy, but I have a PhD in bullshit, and I can always smell it a mile away, and this theory of consciousness smells like bullshit to me.

The great Consciousness swindle, and the myth that Penrose and his ilk keep perpetuating, is the assumption that “Consciousness,” with a capital C, is so complex and mysterious that stupid blind neuroscientists can never explain it all with their crude, classical, materialistic descriptions. This, of course, is a complete intellectual fallacy. Scientists who study the brain understand that “consciousness,” with a lowercase c, is not a “thing” with a “location”, but is instead the abstract process of being self-aware, or a relative measurement of general self-awareness. When you talk about consciousness with a lowercase c, then it becomes easy to see that consciousness is not mysterious at all, it is a description of our everyday waking life. For humans, consciousness comes online when we wake up and goes through peaks and valleys throughout the day. Consciousness gets hungry, tired, bored, excited, aroused, irritated, distracted, and so on, until we go back to sleep and consciousness disappears and we become “unconscious”. Then consciousness comes back online in a very limited “secure test environment” for a few seconds at a time while we dream, then it disappears again. And when we wake up the cycle resets and consciousness starts a new day. The system of consciousness is mediated by many areas and functions of the brain, and when one area of the brain is damaged the area of consciousness mediated by that area of the brain is also damaged. Consciousness is material, it is a material thing that relies on material neurons and material fuel and material stimulus to work correctly. We only think it is invisible because it is inside the head, but having looked in a few heads I can tell you for a fact it is not invisible in there. There is actual stuff happening in the brain as it twitches with activity, and that stuff is consciousness.

This materialistic description of consciousness simple, it is testable, you can see it in action. It is not mysterious and ineffable, it is functional and it works. How do we know this is the correct description of consciousness? When something goes wrong with your ability to think, do you go to a philosopher to tell you that your Consciousness is mysterious and invisible and cannot be measured? Does it help if he tells you that Consciousness is a function of quantum gravity in microtubules, or that your consciousness is a fundamental force of the universe that predates life? What if your doctor tells you that Consciousness flows through you like air or water, or that everything is Consciousness? Does that help you fix your brain to think better and manage your daily life? No, that doesn’t help at all, that is just some smoke blown up your ass by fake gurus who want to sell books. When you really have a problem with your consciousness you don’t go see a philosopher, you go see a neuroscientist who can diagnose you and fix the problem, because the neuroscientist generally understands how the brain works. The philosopher only understands bullshit about invisible minds, and that bullshit may be fascinating, but it will never fix your brain or help you understand how consciousness actually works.

So why the swindle? What is going on here? Why would someone want to convince you, me, and everyone in the world that an invisible mind exists? The obvious answer, to me, is that it is an easy way to sell books and publish papers without doing any actual research, because the thing that “Consciousness” researchers claim to be experts on is conveniently invisible. But beyond that, why would so many people willingly accept this non-description of invisible mind as “truth” when it is clearly a shell game far beyond the level of rational testability? I think the swindle reduces itself to the fact that humans have an inflated view of themselves, and also tend to invent invisible forces to explain things they don’t understand. Consciousness with a capital C is one of these mythical invisible forces that makes humans feel special about themselves, and if you claim to be an “expert” in this invisible force you never have to do any research or produce any results. But once Consciousness with a capital C is defined as a crude biological process that can be measured in waves of self-awareness that fluctuate throughout the day, all the philosophers who rely on Consciousness being a mystical primal force of the universe are out of work. They need to go back to talking about the soul or invent another invisible force to chase, because as of this article, the Big C Consciousness racket is officially over. I am calling bullshit on anyone who steps into this field from now on.

How do I know that the Consciousness swindle is a racket, for sure? What is my proof? In the logical deconstruction of the Dualistic definition of the variable [Consciousness] : “[Consciousness] is a mysterious metaphysical force that animates matter, and all animated matter is imbued with [Consciousness]”. Now take this same definition and substitute the words “God”, “demon”, “magic”, “spirit”, or “soul” in the place of Consciousness and see if the argument of the invisible mind changes. It does not. Let’s go back to the Penrose conjecture and say, “The mysterious force of [Consciousness] is mediated by quantum gravity in microtubules.” Now substitute the word Consciousness with the array of alternatives I described above. Does the argument change? No. Now substitute the words “hyperdimensional alien telepathy” or “quantum spirit beetles” or “psychoplasm” or “morphic field” or “subatomic pink elephant semen” for “Consciousness”. Now substitute all those words when talking about an invisible mind hidden in the body, or an invisible penetrating force that informs all organism-level intelligence. Does the Dualistic argument change one bit when we change the essential word of the argument to gibberish? The argument does not change. That is because if you are arguing for the existence of something immaterial that is invisible and cannot be measured, you have not really defined what you are looking for, and can insert literally any nonsense word or concept into the argument and it is the same fundamental argument. This is the core of the Consciousness swindle, and you can tell it is the same old swindle because the word  “consciousness” can be substituted for “God” or “soul” and it still means, “Something I claim is mysterious and invisible that cannot be measured that only I understand.” To me, this is the classical definition of bullshit.

When it comes to “consciousness” there is a lot of bullshit out there, and when bullshit comes from a respected scientist or MD and is picked up by the media, it is sometimes hard to tell how badly the bullshit smells. But when it comes to “theories of consciousness,” the proof is in the neuroscience. Modern neuroscience has neatly defined all the major brain functions and primary locations of the functions that mediate consciousness. Most of the “mystery” of consciousness has been taken out of the “consciousness is mysterious” argument. So if any argument begins with the presumption that consciousness is “mysterious” or that consciousness “has not been properly located or defined,” then that is immediately a bullshit theory. Any theory of consciousness that begins with the “mystery” assumption is not really looking for “consciousness”, it is looking for the invisible mind, or a God, or a soul, or is looking for a way to sell books to people who do not understand the brain. Philosophers would rather believe “consciousness” is a “mysterious animating force” because it sounds cooler that way and it gives them something interesting to bullshit about. And for the people who buy into these theories of invisible mind, they are always happy to believe in mysterious invisible forces until something goes wrong with their own mind, and then they go running to a psychotherapist or a neurosurgeon like Sanjay Gupta fix their “consciousness” like it was a car engine to be tweaked and tuned. That’s because consciousness is like the humming of a car engine, and a good neuroscientist can diagnose operational issues of the mind just by testing and measuring. Neuroscience can’t fix all problems with consciousness, but it can fix many of them, and it can measure and diagnose almost all of them, which is way more than any trendy quantum theory of consciousness can ever hope to achieve. Because this is the simple truth: Any theory that purports to understand consciousness, but does not support the crude operational model of self-awareness built on a substrate of neural spikes in a synaptic neural network, is bullshit. Because the consciousness built on neural spikes in a synaptic network is our everyday consciousness. It can be modeled, measured, diagnosed, operated on, tested, damaged, and corrected. The other definition of Consciousness, with a big C, does not meet these tests, and does not help anybody understand anything at all. And what does that smell like to me? You guessed it.


James Kent is the author of Psychedelic Information Theory: Shamanism in the Age of Reason

Aug 05 2012

How I Learned About the DMT Entities


Of all the weird jobs I’ve had in my life, the most entertaining was probably a floor managing gig I took in the early 2000s at a metaphysical shop called Gateways Books. In a town known for its high WTF factor — Santa Cruz, CA — this place was quite possibly WTF Headquarters. Gateways was a magnet for a vast panoply of enlightenment seekers, occultists and countercultural characters of all strains: Buddhist monks, cult escapees, Shiva worshippers, black magicians, clairvoyants, pagan priestesses,  psychedelic trippers, channelers, Tantrists, breatharians, Silence of the Lambs-style cross-dressers in smeared black makeup, etc., etc.

Ah, how I loved all these Star Wars cantina creatures and their endlessly unpredictable antics. I routinely feasted on wildly original ideas from some of the most unique characters on the planet, such as the shaven-headed fellow who vigorously explained that to be 5150 (police code for crazy) was to be greater than 100% ( i.e., greater than 50/50), or the numerologist/rune expert who pontificated at length about the metaphysical links between the faerie archetype and the actress Fay Wray (fay-ray: get it?) and between comedienne Minnie Pearl and the New Testament’s “Pearl of Great Price.” (“You see, Minnie Pearl came from Memphis, and the rune for ‘Mem’ has a numerical value of 14, which, when divided by the numerical value of the rune for ‘Phis’ and then multiplied by the number of the Goddess, comes out to Minnie Pearl’s street address, which also happens to be the last three digits of my phone number.” That kind of thing.)

To me, the customers who didn’t fit the profile of the calm, soft-spoken “spiritual” type often came off as more legitimately mystical than the ones who did. Many of the by-the-book types (in honor of whom I sometimes called the store Getwise Books in secret) appeared to be wearing spirituality like a temporary tattoo, whereas the rowdies and crackpots seemed more like thrill seekers who had accidentally crashed their hang gliders into realms of higher consciousness.

On any given day at Gateways, you might witness a disheveled store patron sending himself into orgasmic ecstasy by pressing an AA battery against his teeth, or you might hear a self-professed UFO abductee impassionedly extolling the virtues of hooking a crystal up to a car battery and then placing it to your forehead. One regular customer, a secret societies aficionado who used an expensive array of radionic devices to achieve spiritual contact with the ’80s pop singer Tiffany, was interesting enough to earn a starring role in the stunningly strange documentary film I Think We’re Alone Now, which can and should be watched streaming via Netflix or here. And trust me: when two or more of these characters interacted with one another, it was epic viewing on par with Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein or Godzilla vs. Mothra.

The job perks weren’t bad, either: on one occasion, a Hindu man in a saffron robe gave me a dried pineapple ring that left me feeling oddly elated, and on another, a friendly Buddhist raver kid handed me a freshly picked mushroom that gave me an almost religious appreciation for the magnificent precision instrument known as the human eye.

One afternoon, a tall, frighteningly animated guy from L.A. burst through the front door, startling the entire shop—and quite possibly a few wild beasts of the Serengeti—with his overpoweringly loud voice. “HEY, BRO!” he shouted. “DO YOU HAVE A BOOK CALLED ‘PLANTS OF THE GODS’?”

After taking a moment to peruse our computer records, I responded affirmatively. The customer—let’s call him Taz—assimilated this information by jumping around as if he had a spider in his sock. “NO FUCKING WAY!” he bellowed. “ARE YOU SERIOUS? NO, MAN, YOU DON’T UNDERSTAND—I’VE BEEN LOOKING ALL OVER THE COUNTRY FOR THIS BOOK! I CAN’T BELIEVE YOU’VE GOT IT!”

Speaking in the most soothing tones I could find in my voice box, I led him to the Psychedelics section, where the book in question lay in wait. Letting out a victory yelp, he seized his prize and feverishly thumbed through its pages. Within seconds, he zeroed in on a colorful painting of a bulls-eye pattern with a flower petal-like border. “YOU SEE THIS RIGHT HERE?” he demanded, seemingly on the verge of gouging out his own eyes with excitement. “I SAW THIS! I SAW THIS!!”

Now, it so happened that the man standing to our immediate right was dressed as a druid. Not a cheap, Halloween-style facsimile, mind you—this guy was a real-deal, straight-outta-Rivendell, fireball-hurling badass, complete with staff, white beard, black cloak and hand-crafted metal bracelets. (We’ll call him Draco.) With the calm, knowing air of a learned magus, he turned toward us and intoned, “I’ve seen it, too. But not just those circles.” He waved the extremely long nail of his index finger toward a gaggle of animals and spirits surrounding the bulls-eye pattern. “All this as well.” With an extra measure of wizardly self-assurance, he added, “Did you know you can go inside those circles you saw?”

Taz completely lost his shit. “I DID!! And then I heard this SOUND…”

“Stop right there,” Draco cut in. “It was one of two sounds.” He emitted a low, metallic rumble that sounded something like a robot playing a didjeridoo. This didn’t seem to ring a bell with Taz. But when he switched to a high-pitched space probe whir, he hit pay dirt. “THAT!!” Taz screamed.

Unsurprised by his success, Draco pressed on: “And did you meet… Them?” He leaned forward slightly, smiling conspiratorially. “Do you know what I mean by ‘Them’?”

“Ohhhhhhhhh, yeah! Ohhhhhhh, yes I do, bro!” The assurance in Taz’s tone left no question that he knew exactly what Draco meant, and that he had, in fact, encountered “Them.” Fighting the urge to raise my hand and say, “Huh?”, I listened raptly as the two trippers journeyed into conversational terrain where I could no longer follow.

“Waaaaiiiiitttt a second, bro,” Taz interjected. “Did we have the same catalyst for this?”

“Probably,” Draco replied. There was a momentary pause, and then, with an uncanny similitude of timing, pitch and inflection that had to be heard to be believed, they both blurted out, “DMT.”

It was a magical moment. Everyone within earshot of the conversation, including Taz and Draco, burst into laughter at the perfection of the synchrony. Eccentricity aside, there was something undeniably powerful going on here.

The conversation lingered on my mind for days afterward. Could DMT be a guest pass to hidden dimensions with an objective existence? And what, exactly, had Draco meant by “Them”?

Only much later, after skimming Rick Strassman’s DMT: The Spirit Molecule and listening to some rants by Terence McKenna, would I learn the answer to the latter question. “They,” as many readers already know, are the otherworldly beings that an astounding number of experimenters claim to have encountered while under the influence of DMT. Most such claimants are convinced that the DMT entities are not aspects of their own psyches, but are in fact independently existing denizens of a domain completely alien to our understanding. One popular theory is that DMT is a portal to the afterworld, and the entities are none other than spirits of those who have crossed over.

From an outsider’s perspective, there is, of course, a much simpler explanation: we have here a situation where the question “What have you been smoking?” doesn’t even need to be asked. This would be an easy position to take were it not for the astonishing consistency with which certain archetypes show up in different people’s DMT visions. Among the most common of these figures are insectoid aliens that perform some sort of surgery and/or testing on the tripper, and playful, self-transforming “elves” or “gnomes,” many of which offer the DMT voyager inscrutable objects that they’ve created by way of some kind of visible language. I personally have talked with folks whose descriptions of their own experiences of entity contact perfectly matched the stories I’ve read, in spite of the fact that some of these people had never heard of “Them” before smoking DMT.

Former Trip Magazine publisher James Kent has proposed that the entities are the product of DMT’s disruption of our visual processing: being anthropomorphically oriented by nature, the brain tries to find order in the chaos by sculpting the neural static into humanoid figures. Seems reasonable enough, though it doesn’t explain the regularity with which incredibly specific visions occur (surgical scenes, for example), nor does it account for all the highly intelligent DMT users who have undoubtedly entertained this hypothesis, yet who still insist that there’s something more going on here.

If you went back to the 15th century with a microscope and told folks that this piece of plastic and glass was a gateway to some kind of secret domain where various odd-shaped critters were moving around, they’d have called you crazy. Similarly, the very idea that you and someone in another country can see these words at the same time probably would have seemed insane, impossible or magical to pre-electronic civilizations. Perhaps DMT is a kind of “technology” that provides access to data that our primitive 21st century minds just aren’t capable of comprehending.

Getting back to the shop: Gateways is no more; in 2011, the recession forced the place to shut its doors after 32 years of service to the AA battery-munching community. I can’t imagine where I’ll ever find another gathering place for such a colorful assembly of otherworldly beings.

Oh, wait a second — yes, I can…

Jun 09 2011

The Death of Music


Composer John Cage

We are at a sad time in human history. We have lost one of our most vital forms of expression, music, and we are only now coming to grips with the realization. It is hard to tell exactly when music breathed its last gasp, but most experts pinpoint the time of death within the past few decades, leading up to the melding of all musical genres into one endless Dubstep mash-up. It is hard to believe music is dead, I know, no one wants to admit it. Admitting that music is dead means that we killed it, or more precisely the music industry and digital production technology killed it, and killed it good. But we are the murderers. Music is dead and it is our fault.

You may not understand what I mean when I say music is dead, because you can hear music everywhere you go, or hear musicians perform for large audiences. But what you are hearing coming out of your ear-buds and amplifiers is not music, it is the badly reanimated corpse of a once thriving and evolving monster, now extinct as the dodo, cloned and recycled into a consumer commodity. For those of you who are not convinced that music is dead, here are a few indicators that should sway your opinion.

There are no new musical genres. Some people believe music died in the ’70s and ’80s, when Disco and Punk and New Wave grew out of the remnants of rock and took over the world. Some people believe music died in the ’90s, when Hip-Hop merged sampling and spoken word, Grunge wrung the last gasps out of rock, and computers made it possible to synthesize any beat, melody, or noise within the range of human hearing. In the decades since electronic music took off, existing genres have been run through every possible permutation, every song has been sampled, re-sampled, and recycled. Experimental composers have made music with static, glitches, silence, ambient noise, abstract sounds, and tones that go outside the range of human hearing. It is the end of the road for creating something new. The last new musical Genre created by humans is Filk, a folksy blend of sci-fi and fantasy fan music, and it sounds like a terrible parody of older better music. That’s the future.

There are no new musical instruments. The last musical instrument humans will ever create is the Eigenharp, a synthesizer you can play like a drum, a stringed instrument, a woodwind, a brass instrument, a keyboard, and whatever else you can think up and program. This instrument can produce any sound, and can be played in any way. It is every instrument ever created, and all instruments that will ever be created. Tellingly, this instrument looks exactly like the crazy saxophones used by the Cantina Band in Star Wars. If you have an Eigenharp, you can play every part of any song or symphony ever written in the exact style it was composed. And since you can loop and layer tracks on an Eigenharp, one person can become an entire band, or you can program the instrument to play automatically without the need to thump, strum, or blow. It is a musical instrument that can play itself. The only other musical instrument since the Eigenharp is the iPhone/iPad, which is an extensible platform that can perform a limited set of the Eigenharp’s functions depending on which app you load. And you can produce and mix professional quality tracks on the same device you play as your instrument. And it fits in your pocket.

There are no more musical styles or sounds to sample. Every style of traditional, ethnic, and world music has been incorporated into the modern pop uber-genre. There are no more Afro beats, throat singers, Middle Eastern microtonal scales, Buddhist Ohms, Irish sea shanties, American folk songs, Navajo ancestral chants, and so on, that haven’t already been chewed up, digested, and shat out by modern pop composers. Since the Beatles went to India, no style of World Music has remained outside the clutches of the uber-pop corporate regime. The entire planet has been sampled. Every natural sound, every gust of wind, every bird chirp, every wave crashing on the beach, every siren, every car horn, every gun shot, every power drill, every electronic bleep and bloop… It’s all been done. Hi-Fi, Low-Fi, No-Fi, 8-bit, acoustic, acapella, you name it. There are no more sounds to steal. We have devoured every last morsel.

There are no more sounds to steal. We have devoured every last morsel.

The world’s biggest pop stars are not producing new or ground-breaking music. Every new song sounds like an old song, and the artists that try to innovate move towards deconstruction and atonal noise, because that’s all that’s left. A musician today cannot innovate new musical styles because there are no more musical styles to invent, so the only way to get attention is to be louder, wear a crazier costume, wear less clothes, be angrier, be more provocative, be more controversial, be more “real” than the next artist, or perform some kind of publicity stunt that has nothing to do with the music. In terms of lyrics, songs have covered every topic known to humans, they’ve told every story, they’ve portrayed every emotion. Whatever mood you can think of, whatever strange otherworldly atmosphere you want, whatever lesson you want to learn, whatever ridiculous philosophy you want to reinforce, there is already a song for that. We’ve heard it all before.

And even though music is dead, musicians will insist on dragging the dead corpse around for who knows what reason. You can make the same comparison to visual art. Since the evolution of surrealism, cubism, abstract expressionism, pop art, and op art, every new artist has to compete with distorted frames of reference, no frame of reference, paint splatters, subtle shades of grey, soups cans, and geometric grids, all called masterpieces. If you want to create art that has photographic depth and realism, too bad, Caravaggio already did that at the turn of the 17th century, it’s all been a downhill experiment in postmodern deconstruction since then. If you can find something more innovative than a blank canvas, or a symphony that consists of nothing but twenty minutes of silence, good luck. Art has reached the point in its evolution where the absence of art is the most radical thing you can produce. But when you want to listen to something new, forget about it. All we have now is the memory and the echo of history, because music is dead.

James Kent is the former publisher of Psychedelic Illuminations and Trip Magazine. He currently edits, a drug blog featuring news, humor and commentary.