First we had Rupert “can-dogs-find-their-way-home” Sheldrake peddling woo and antiscience at TEDx Whitechapel, and now, at the very same venue, we see Graham Hancock decrying materialism and spouting woo and pseudoarchaeology. Here’s his 18-minute talk:
I actually agree with Hancock’s argument that we should be allowed to take whatever consciousness-altering drugs we want, but I totally reject as unsupported his arguments about our ancestors’ evolution being triggered by hallucinogenic substances and about ancient cave art clearly reflecting psychedelic trances. And I strongly decry his anti-science rant that begins at 9:50:
“That leads me to ask, ‘What is death?’ Our materialist science reduces everything to matter—materialist science in the West says that we are just meat: we’re just our bodies, so when the brain is dead, that’s the end of consciousness. There is no life after death; there is no soul—we just rot and are gone. But actually, many honest scientists should admit that consciousness is the greatest mystery of science, and we don’t know exactly how it works. The brain is involved in it in some way but we’re not sure how. Could be that the brain generates consciousness the way a generator makes electricity. If you hold to that paradigm then of course you can’t believe in life after death: when the generator is broken, consciousness is gone.
But it’s equally possible that the relationship—and nothing in neuroscience rules it out—is more like the relationship of the t.v. signal and the t.v. set. And in that case, when the t.v. set is broken, of course the t.v. signal continues. And this is the paradigm of all the spiritual traditions: that we are immortal souls, temporarily incarnated in these physical forms to learn and to grow and to develop. And really, if we want to know about this mystery, the last people we should ask are materialist, reductionist scientists. They have nothing to say on the matter at all! [Audience laughter.] Let’s go rather to the ancient Egyptians, who put their best minds to work for 3,000 years on the problem of death. . . “
Yep, consciousness is a mystery, but if anything will help us solve it, it will be reductionist science—certainly not woo or spirituality!
Hancock then argues that the best minds of the ancient Egyptians showed that our souls do live on after death and that we will be held accountable for our thoughts, actions, and deeds. (They divined this in part through “dream states” experienced from psychedelic plants.) At the end, he argues that we may be denying ourselves the “next vital step” in our evolution—it’s not clear whether he means biological or cultural evolution—by refusing to sanction the use of psychedelic substances.
This, then, is Sheldrake-ian woo, and an unconscionable denigration of science in favor of “insights” derived from ingesting drugs. It’s also the denigration of materialism: a criticism that, as the audience reaction shows, is favored by many. Too many folks of a religious and spiritual bent resent the successes of science (as compared to faith) in understanding our cosmos, and often express this by hooting and jeering, as do Hancock and Sheldrake, at “scientific materialism.” “There’s a lot more to the world!”, they cry.
That reminds me of a story that I may have told before. When I was in college, a friend and I were—as was the custom in the Sixties—spending an evening under the influence of psychedelic substances. Suddenly I had a brilliant insight into the nature of the universe. Knowing I’d forget it, I wrote it down on a scrap of paper. After a while I went to bed, and when I awoke the next day I remembered the paper and reached eagerly into my pocket for it. On it was scrawled my eternal truth, which turned out to be this:
“The walls are fucking BROWN.”
Many who grew up in the Sixties have a story like this.
I don’t deny that taking drugs can be a valuable way of expanding one’s consciousness. It was for me, for it reinforced my view that each of us is simply a small atom of animate matter in a very large universe, and helped me see the beauty around me that we often overlook. I think Sam Harris has made similar points. But taking drugs is not a substitute for science: it won’t help us understand whether we live on after death, or how consciousness arose, both physiologically and evolutionarily.
Here’s the TEDx blurb on Hancock:
Graham Hancock is the author of The Sign and the Seal, Fingerprints of the Gods, Keeper of Genesis, Heaven’s Mirror, Supernatural and other bestselling investigations of historical mysteries.
His books have been translated into twenty-seven languages and have sold over five million copies worldwide. His public lectures and broadcasts, including two major TV series, Quest for the Lost Civilisation, and Flooded Kingdoms of the Ice Age, have further established his reputation as an unconventional thinker who raises controversial questions about humanity’s past. Hancock’s first venture into fiction, Entangled, was published in 2010 and his second novel, War God, on the Spanish Conquest of Mexico, will be published on 30 May 2013. Hancock maintains an active Facebook presence: http://www.facebook.com/Author.Graham…. His website is: http://www.grahamhancock.com.
Hancock believes that the Ark of the Covenant was real, and his book The Sign and the Seal (a bestseller, of course), is about his search for that Ark.
Over this weekend I’ve pondered whether talks like Sheldrake’s and Hancock’s should be taken down: would that be “censorship”? And then Carl Zimmer called my attention to this stipulation from the TEDx “rules” page:
Speakers must tell a story or argue for an idea. They may not use the TED stage to sell products, promote themselves or businesses. Every talk’s content must be original and give credit where appropriate. Speakers cannot plagiarize or impersonate other persons, living or dead.
Speakers must be able to confirm the claims presented in every talk — TED and TEDx are exceptional stages for showcasing advances in science, and we can only stay that way if the claims presented in our talks can stand up to scrutiny from the scientific community. TED is also not the right platform for talks with an inflammatory political or religious agenda, nor polarizing “us vs them” language. If Talks fail to meet the standards above, TED reserves the right to insist on their removal.
Sheldrake was not only selling his book, but making false claims about science. Hancock does the same thing by insisting that ancient Egyptians tell us things about our consciousness that science hasn’t—and can’t. TEDx has the right to remove talks that abrogate these rules (what is Hancock’s anti-science rant but “us versus them” stuff?), and it should remove Hancock’s and Sheldrake’s videos. If they don’t, it will simply confirm a growing view that TED and its subsidiaries are moving away from good science and heading toward Deepak and Oprah.
The motto of TEDx is “ideas worth spreading.” Well, so is manure.
h/t: Carl Zimmer