Sex, Scepticism & the End of the World
Many believe the world will end at the stroke of midnight on December 21st, 2012.
This belief is the most recent expression of man’s enduring tendency for apocalyptic thinking – to always think the worst of things.
Nevertheless, many scientists and reasonable people take belief in the Mayan apocalypse very seriously – seriously enough to want to show why it is false. NASA, for example, made a video which explained why the world did not end. They planned to release the video on December 22nd 2012, the day after the end of the world.
Only they couldn’t wait. Did they fear that there might be nobody around to watch their video?
Unlike NASA, I have little interest in why the world will not end. It is obvious to me that it won’t, at least any time soon.
What does interest me, however, is how people can believe such odds things like the Mayan apocalypse.
I am fascinated by those times in history when confusion becomes the norm and reasonableness the exception.
All widespread confusions have a history. I want to tell the story of how so many people came to be so confused, and in their confusion became convinced of something that was so obviously untrue.
Essentially, the story of the Mayan apocalypse is the story of an error. It is the story of a confusion to which a number of counter-cultural figures were subject - a Victorian occultist, a psychedelic ’techno-shaman’ from Boulder, Colorado and their small, yet devoted following.
But most of all, it is the story of the ideas of one man – a Scottish philosopher by the name of David Hume.
The unreasonable legacy of a reasonable man.
David Hume was not some dusty old academic who scribbled away his life in a far-off ivory tower. The eighteenth-century philosopher was an impeccably reasonable man who, in an age of Christian dogma and solemnity, lived a gregarious lifestyle free of any faith in the supernatural. He much preferred to play billiards with his friends than spend his time in Church or tinkering with intractable intellectual conundrums.
But David Hume’s thoughts have come, by strange twists and turns, to shape the modern mind like the thoughts of no other.
Many of the architects of the New Age world out of which belief in the Mayan apocalypse arose knew of Hume’s work. Although in some cases separated by a hundred years or so, they shared the belief that man was entering a “New Age” in which the systemic brutality of Western civilization would be lost forever, to be replaced by a better, more harmonious world.
They were hippies, in other words, who believed that western rationality could be boiled down to a destructive addiction to scientific materialism. Science, for them, was the root of mankind’s problems.
The ideas of David Hume seemed to provide what they were grasping for – a way of challenging the dominance of the scientific method which had come to dominate the western mind, and whose usefulness – they thought – had forged a violent new empire.
But these hippies only read Hume selectively. In place of the dogmatic attachment to western science and industry, they found solace in a dogmatic rejection of reason, unaware that they had also pulled the rug right from under their very feet.
What is fascinating is how the architects of this world-view had little awareness of the irony of using the ideas of a mild-mannered and sceptical philosopher to erect an implacable and apocalyptic new dogma.
David Hume’s apocalyptic idea.
David Hume tried to show that everything we know about the world is the product of our experience. This idea is known as empiricism – the view that people are not born with innate ideas about the world, but must acquire them as they grow.
But most of all, Hume is remembered today for his discovery of ‘the problem of induction’ – a problem which continues to vex philosophers still to this day.(1)
It was this problem which captivated many of the architects of the New Age, out of which belief in the 2012 phenomena emerged. The problem seemed to provide them with what they eagerly sought – an argument against the scientific attitude they so despised.
These figures took David Hume to have concluded that since there was no rational basis to think that the knowledge we gain through experience is absolutely certain, it is unreasonable to put our faith in the results of repeat observation – the kind of results which modern science produces. We cannot observe that the past will be like the future – that is just an assumption we make so that we can get on both with our daily reasoning and our scientific experimentation.
And what this assumption amounts to is an unconscious expectation we seem to have that nature appears to us as uniform. Events will occur in a similar fashion in the future as they have done in the past, for example, or that effect will always follow cause. What the problem of induction amounts to, then, is that although uniformities of nature are necessary for our knowledge from observation to count as genuine, the existence of such uniformities cannot themselves be known by observation or deduced from the definition of induction.
In seeming to deny the existence of natural uniformities, the problem of induction appears to put in question such uniformities as cause and effect. In the words of a late Victorian occultist by the name of J.F.C Fuller (who we’ll learn more about in a moment):
(Hume) took Newton’s second law of motion, i.e., of Cause and Effect, and wrote against it a colossal ‘WHY?’(2)
When you see a footballer kick a ball into a goal, for example, you never see the footballer’s foot cause the ball to enter the goal. When we watch a footballer score a goal and say that they caused the ball to enter a goal, what we actually mean is that if the footballer had not kicked the ball, the ball would not have entered the goal. So to claim that something caused another thing turns out to be a claim about something which cannot actually be observed – what was seen was the ball entering the goal, rather than the ball not entering the goal.
According to Hume, what actually happens when we observe one thing “causing” another is that we observe two events in close spatio-temporal coincidence – a footballer kicking and a ball entering a goal – and we assume that the first event was the cause of the second. This is simply because regularly seeing two events in coincidence teaches us to assume that there must be regularities in nature, that events will occur in the future in the same manner as they have done in the past.
But on this view, the real existence of regularities in nature remains outside our ability to be rationally certain of. And the problems get more serious when we think about science. Since induction lies at the heart of knowledge acquired through observation, and scientific experiment proceeds by observation, it seems that the validity of the scientific method is called into question.
And this is precisely what the many architects of the New Age world out of which emerged the 2012 phenomena found so appealing in the ideas of David Hume. Many clung to the problem of induction because it seemed to give them a reason to doubt the status of science as the unique arbiter of truth.
But in place of their doubt in science there arose a dogmatic attachment to the end of world. If it is reasonable to think that the world does not in itself contain such uniformities as effect following cause or time moving at a regular pace, then it follows that many other seemingly-absurd beliefs like the end of the world are just as reasonable. If the world is not uniform, what is there that is certain upon which we may depend?
If, in other words, the world might not be the same tomorrow as it was today, then, for all intents and purposes, the world of today ends in the dawning of tomorrow. Modern apocalyptic belief is the consequence of a philosophical doubt in the rational abilities of mankind.
Or so thought the architects of the New Age world out of which belief in 2012 phenomena emerged.
David Hume’s hand in Victorian sex magick.
In late Victorian England, a cadre of Victorian occultists turned to the work of David Hume in their search for grounds for their apocalyptic beliefs and unusual practices.
This is Aleister Crowley:
Crowley was a notorious occultist and poet who lived a rock and roll life even before the advent of rock and roll. He was the inspiration for the manipulative character of Oliver Haddo in the W. Somerset Maugham novella, The Magician. Rock stars from Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page to David Bowie and the Beatles all looked fondly to Crowley as an early example of someone who had already lived the life of excess to which they each aspired. Crowley was a practitioner of what he termed ‘magick’, a syncretic practice consisting in the ritual enactment of techniques culled from medieval grimoires and Elizabethan spiritualism. The idea was that mystical knowledge regarding the nature of being could be acquired through visionary experiences and put to use for one’s own worldly purposes, an idea founded in the neoplatonic ideas of Renaissance magicians.
During his life, Crowley founded a magical organization, the A:.A:. based on the rituals of the secretive Golden Dawn of which he had been an enthusiastic member. One of the organization’s core beliefs was that a self-selecting esoteric elite could make use of sexual ritual to conceive a ‘magickal child’ who would grow up to usher in a new paradigm of human history.
Crowley and his ‘thelemite’ cohort were, in a way, a more extreme version of Madame Blavatsky’s Theosophical Society. But rather than a rosy new dawning of humanity with its next evolutionary step that had been envisaged by theosophists, Crowley prophesied that an upcoming transition between spiritual ‘aeons‘ would result in numerous cataclysmic and bloody upheavals. Wishing to bring about this new world, Crowley took on pupils with whom he practised various arcane sexual rites, often perverse and deeply degrading. When he was not ritually sodomizing these students after sacrificing all manner of livestock to the relevant deities (or indeed when they were not sodomizing him as per his request) he would recommended they read the philosophical works of, amongst others, David Hume – works he considered “classic(s) of academic scepticism.”(3)
One early pupil of Crowley’s was J.F.C Fuller, whose thoughts on Hume’s problem of induction we’ve already seen.
Here is a picture of Fuller:
Fuller thought that the combined philosophies of Berkeley, Hume and Kant were the confirmation of Crowley’s view that mystical attainment is not merely a matter of reasoning to the correct view, but a matter of direct experience:
Reason alone is inadequate to solve the Great Problem; for ultimately all systems based on a rational foundation arrive at an inscrutable mystery.(4)
Fuller‘s view of Hume’s philosophy as sceptical is symptomatic of the popular misunderstanding of Hume we have already covered: “Hume started with the proposition that ideas are copied from impressions and ends in the unknown.”(5)
These early architects of the New Age belief out of which the 2012 phenomena arose saw in Hume’s work a confirmation of their own prejudices about the limitations of science. Science, they thought, had neither the ability to explore mystical states properly, nor the right to override claims made by mystics about the nature of spiritual reality.
Their belief that special sexual rituals could catalyse a cataclysmic transformation in human affairs was, conveniently, beyond the power of science to discredit.
The father of the Mayan apocalypse.
The counter-cultural revolution of the 1960s saw the re-emergence of an interest in all things esoteric and mystical. Many of the intellectual figureheads of this movement had an abiding fascination with David Hume – a depth of interest matched only by a gross misunderstanding of his views. Philip K. Dick(6) and Marshall McLuhan(7) frequently name-dropped the Scottish philosopher in their writings and lectures, even whilst utterly failing to grasp the true nature of the Scottish philosopher’s work.
But there was one figure who stands out amongst all others for the responsibility he bears for promoting the 2012 phenomena and New Age belief in the Mayan apocalypse, a figure by the name of Terence McKenna.
Photo: Giorgio Samorini.
A charismatic speaker and purveyor of high-minded curiosities, Terence McKenna remains a strangely neglected figure in media treatment of belief in the Mayan apocalypse, despite him being the nearest thing the phenomena has to an intellectual father. McKenna spent the 1980s and 1990s endorsing his own brand of New Age psychedelic techno-shamanism, arguing for a range of novel views, amongst which include his ‘stone ape’ theory that human consciousness first arose in our early hominid ancestors as a direct consequence of ingesting psychedelic mushrooms, and his speculations regarding the means by which alien races might choose to communicate with mankind through the medium of visions which the ingestion of psychedelic compounds elicit.
Odder still, McKenna believed that physical reality was undergoing a vast teleological process of spiritual perfection. This process was one he claimed to have uncovered through a terse mathematical analysis of the King Wen sequence of the I-Ching, the ancient Chinese divination system.
From his “analysis”, McKenna produced a graph which he claimed describes a time in the near future of infinite novelty, a point beyond which reality would undergo some radical transformation.(8) He called this graph ‘Timewave Zero’.
In choosing December 21st 2012 as the end date for this graph, the 2012 phenomena gained an air of counter-cultural respectability – McKenna had a rather substantial following in North America, and his popularity amongst some quarters today remains just as strong.
Here is a fantastic video interview of McKenna conducted by Geoffrey Mitchlove. It gives a vivid sense of McKenna’s eccentricity and flare for language:
All of McKenna’s ideas were rooted in rejection of science and its methods. One suspects that his dislike of science might be personal. McKenna frequently spoke of his negative experiences at MIT in the 1960s. Scientists, McKenna claimed, do not encourage original thinking, but work hard to stifle it instead.
At the first of many lectures he was to give at the counter-culture melting pot that was the Esalen Institute on the Big Sur Coast, California, McKenna told audiences:
[...] as I became more familiar with the epistemological assumptions of modem science, I slowly realized that the structure of the Western intellectual enterprise is so flimsy at the center that apparently no one knows anything with certitude.(9)
McKenna elaborates this point at a later talk:
I think all [scientific] experiments as currently understood are futile, because all [...] make the assumption that time is unvarying, and I don’t believe that time is unvarying. [T]he idea that time is invariant is entirely contradicted by our own experience and is merely an assumption science makes in order to do its business. [...] The problem is, if we ever admit that time is a variable medium, a thousand years of scientific experiments will be swept away in an instant. It’s simply a house of cards that’s better left where it stands.(10)
Philosophers since Newton have recognized that scientific experiment relies on the assumption that time is a uniform medium through which events seem to unfold at an even rate. McKenna, by contrast, thought that our ordinary experience refutes this assumption. Echoing the phenomenological insights of the french philosopher Henri Bergson, McKenna’s first step into his elaborate view of time was noting that it feels as though time flows at different rates on different occasions.
McKenna used this stance as a perch from which to attack what he saw as the pretensions of modern science. If no two particular points in time share the same underlying properties, then it makes no sense to try and observe the same phenomena in the future since no two events will ever be “the same”. You cannot step into the same river twice, in other words – an aphorism of the ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus to whose world-view McKenna was especially partial.
In denying the existence of uniformities in the passage of time upon which a science which offers mankind a privileged route into knowledge must depend, McKenna was treading in the footsteps of David Hume.
Mistakes leading up to the end of the world.
So why, then, were these figures incorrect in their reading of the work of David Hume?
But these figures only read those sections of Hume’s writings which seemed to confirm their hostility towards science, even whilst they relied upon a pseudo-scientific apparatus upon which to base their claims.
In fact, what we are left with after acknowledging that there is a problem with induction is a dilemma: Either we accept that the methods of scientific discovery have no rational justification or we acknowledge that there must be some other means than deduction and induction by which scientific discovery is legitimate. Both views are equally problematic, hence the dilemma. However, they are problematic in different ways.
Accepting the first horn of this dilemma means that the results of scientific inquiry are no more justified than any other route to knowledge. This was the view accepted by the various counter-cultural figures whose story I have been telling.
Accepting the second horn of the dilemma, on the other hand, means that the early-modern view of epistemology is incorrect. This was the view accepted by David Hume.
Our characters took Hume to be a radical sceptic. They thought his philosophy amounted to the view that since our knowledge and observational capacities lacked any rational grounds, ‘anything goes’ when it comes to which sources of knowledge we should trust.
What they ignored, however, was the small detail that Hume did eventually find a way to trust his senses once again. He did this not by giving up and accepting that ‘anything goes’ in questions of who or what to trust, but by coming to believe that the early modern view of epistemology was incorrect – that we do not require rational grounds for trusting our senses. Our senses, if we are being careful about what we observe, are trustworthy from the start.
But none of the architects of the New Age world from which belief in the 2012 phenomena arose ever took this view seriously, preferring instead to cling to the idea that Hume had thoroughly discredited the scientific method.
What they failed to see, however, was that they had thrown the baby out with the bath-water, since our daily reasoning from experience must be equally unreliable. Why, then, should we believe anything, the end of the world included?
- For a summary of Hume’s problem of induction, see here. ↩
- J.F.C. Fuller The Star in the West, pp.182. ↩
- See http://www.the-equinox.org/sectionone.html ↩
- J.F.C. Fuller, The Star in the West, pp.161. ↩
- ibid, pp.189. ↩
- ‘How to Build a Universe That Doesn’t Fall Apart Two Days Late’, (1978), http://deoxy.org/pkd_how2build.htm ↩
- ‘Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man’, http://deoxy.org/um.htm ↩
- Terence McKenna, Rupert Sheldrake and Ralph Abraham (1998) The Evolutionary Mind: Trialogues at the Edge of the Unthinkable (Trialogue Press: Santa Cruz), pp.34-5. ↩
- Talk given in 1983. See his ‘Tryptamine Hallucinogens and Consciousness’ in The Archaic Revival: Speculations on psychedelic mushrooms, the Amazon, virtual reality, UFOs, evolution, Shamanism, the rebirth of the goddess, and the end of history (Harper: San Francisco), pp.39. ↩
- Terence McKenna, Rupert Sheldrake and Ralph Abraham (1998) The Evolutionary Mind: Trialogues at the Edge of the Unthinkable (Trialogue Press: Santa Cruz), pp.34-5. ↩