thomas nagel

Notes on the TEDx Censorship – Graham Hancock, Rupert Sheldrake, and counter-culture writings

graham-hancock-355x252Notes from the heated TED debate have been floating around my network, so I decided to put them in one place for my interested readers. If you haven't guessed, I disagree with TED's decision to reify the status quo, but can anyone be surprised? TED stands for "Technology, Entertainment, Design," nothing in there about challenging folks with big bucks or the established scientific community. But, largely, TEDx has become an extended podium for alternative ideas to flourish, so of course it was disappointing to see TED remove Sheldrake and Hancock's presentations. If I were one of the movers-and-shakers, I'd have left their videos up, but opened a special forum to debate and nuance their weight, and leave a link you can click on from the videos to access that forum. Like a wiki page with a tag that says: "This article's information is contested." And you can go and see why, agree, disagree, or even agree to disagree. But to shut it down just makes controversy. People will seek out the heretical videos. You reify the divide between mainstream scientific discourse and alternative arguments in counter-culture. The same thing happened with Thomas Nagel's book Mind and Psyche which challenged orthodox Neo-Darwinism as an outright failure in its theory on evolution. With a sub-title like, "why materialism is almost certainly false," you can bet he drew a lot of heat from scientists and bloggers alike.

I suppose it might also be happening with the TED controversy. Hancock's video pretty much attacked the orthodox view of psychedelics as a "War on Consciousness," pinning the established government and social policies against indigenous and ancient world views. Yes, you are going to start a fight if you put it that way. And in Hancock's mind, maybe this is what needs to happen. Just like Nagel may be thinking the best way to change things is to stir the pot. And they certainly both did.

Sheldrake's TEDx video, while certainly less argumentative, still challenged established thinking with his argument that the fundamental laws of the universe were not so fundamental, but able to change. Hence his whole theory on universal habits. Online science bloggers jumped on his claim that the speed of light, a universal constant, had changed since the last century. I'm not going to get into the pros and cons of this claim (because I really don't know the science well enough), but I can comment on how we, as a culture, respond to unorthodox views.

Sheldrake was blasted in the 80's for his book A New Science of Life (maybe harkening back to Vico's similar title: New Science). A science writer went so far as to invoke the inquisition, demanding his book be burned (I read this in the back of the book itself. A later edition documented the backlash to the book's publication). Following such outrageous inflammatory reactions, many people highlighted the uncomfortable truth that even scientific communities are just that, communities. They are groups of people with opinions and ideas, and sometimes, the benefits and clarities of the scientific method fall to the wayside for the occasional lynching mob. But this is old news too, if you've read or heard of Thomas Kuhn's Structure of Scientific Revolutions.

So Sheldrake has a history of stirring the pot. And good for him. I think he' got interesting things to say. If you disagree, go read his books, check out his studies. Outright dismissal of "woo-woo" ideas always bothers me, because it assumes that your world view can't be challenged. In most cases, I think the opposite is true: your view can always be stretched, even if a little, and be better for it.

Too often we dismiss things that challenge our understanding of reality because we assume there's only junk, pseudo-science, plastic vs. the real thing. But that's simply untrue (and sadly the debates never examine the good evidence, which is there).

8558263355_47a705245cI think Sheldrake is one of many individuals who, while they may not always be right, are at least not afraid to stir the pot. They're pointing to a developing truth: not all is well with the orthodox view of mind in materialism. There, I said it too.

You may disagree, and I'll give you (if you're a science writer, blogger, or even scientist yourself) benefit of the doubt by saying that consciousness is so complicated we can't make any grandiose claims about it. But, to me, materialism is such a grand claim.

This all goes way beyond philosophers debating on the nature of reality or whether or not mind is located solely in the brain. Outside of the West, of course, traditions and cultures have gone on, in their minds, working with spirits and practicing Eliade's "techniques of ecstasy." I think what we're seeing here, with these TED talks and Nagel's book, and the whole under-ground of spiritual counter-culture in America and elsewhere, is the rise of a non-materialist worldview, one that is gradually eroding secular materialism from the inside-out. Heck, we're already living in such a world, technologically speaking, communicating with one another non-locally and blurring the lines between real and virtual, private and public, personal and collective. It's strange that in such a technological society, animism is the unspoken religion.

The West has been busily constructing a cosmology where materialism has been undone, and everyday life necessitates communication with intelligent objects, altered states of digital out-of-body experiences, and interconnected polities of non-local human networks. We consult our ensouled objects to navigate cities, know what our significant others are up to, and foretell the weather. The fact that Nagel, Sheldrake and others are now bubbling to the surface of social debate marks a psychological turn that has already happened.

These TED talks were bold, but expect bolder. I suspect it's only the beginning.

Anyhow, here are a few interesting links I've gathered while tracking the debate:

C4chaos, as always, provides in-depth documentation and arguments on the TED scandal. Needless to say he's critical of TED's decision:

This sends a clear message to all TEDx organizers. By revoking the TEDxWestHollywood license, TED has now made it official that they will not allow voices from the fringes to be on the TED/TEDx platform. TED has no interest in “spreading ideas” ideas that challenge the scientific establishment and the status quo. The TED platform is only big enough for “skeptics” and scientific materialists. Disappointing, yes but hardly unexpected. As I said before, TED ought to change its slogan to “Status Quo Ideas Worth Spreading.”

Charles Eisenstein also gives us his critique of TED. Now I especially appreciate his implicating of scientific orthodoxy's role in neo-colonialism and undervaluing indigenous world-views:

The challenge to science (as an institution if not as a method) that Sheldrake, Hancock, and several of the exTEDxWestHollywood speakers pose implicates much more than science. For instance, science has often been an agent of colonialism, devaluing and replacing indigenous ways of knowing. It has been an agent of social control, celebrating as progress the transition from traditional, organic, community-based modes of interaction to those which are planned, optimized, centralized, and engineered. It has often been an agent of economic and ecological exploitation, disregarding and destroying anything it cannot or will not measure. TED's genuflection toward science (as institution), and in particular an intransigent faction within that institution, is actually a defense, however unwitting, of a primary pillar of the world as we know it.

Graham Hancock was invited onto the Evolver Learning Lab (with whom I just started working with!) to present his thoughts and reflections on his TEDx censorship with panel speaker, and Reality Sandwich co-founder, Ken Jordan.

Ken recently also wrote an Open Letter to TED's Chris Anderson, challenging his decision to appeal to orthodoxy and censorship of ideas:

What is the official position of TED? We invite you or a TED representative to an online forum where you can speak candidly about what TED means by "pseudoscience," and in what context a discussion about consciousness as a potentially nonlocal phenomenon might take place. This would be an opportunity for TED to clarify the criteria it uses to decide what does or does not belong at a TED sponsored event, and to address criticism that the decision to distance TED from particular speakers was based not on lack of knowledge, but on informed opinion.

Stay tuned for more notes folks. In the meanwhile, here is some food for thought from Nagel's book, Mind and Cosmos:

"The world is an astonishing place, and the idea that we have in our possession the basic tools needed to understand it is no more credible now than it was in Aristotle's day... If contemporary research... leaves open the possibility of legitimate doubts about a fully mechanistic account of the origin and evolution of life, dependent only on the laws of chemistry and physics, this can combine with the failure of psychophysical reductionism to suggest that principles of a different kind are also at work in the history of nature, principles of the growth of order that are in their logical form teleological rather than mechanistic. I realize such doubts will strike many people as outrageous, but that is because almost everyone in our secular culture has been browbeaten into regarding the reductive research program as sacrosanct, on the ground that anything else would not be science." – Thomas Nagel

A worldview enters its decline when it spends most of its time defending its orthodoxy over the rising tide of fresh versions of the truth. From tracking the debate as well as reading recent publications over the past few years, I think we are seeing the decline of materialism and the rise of some other, stranger and more complicated understanding of our cosmos.

Edits: Lots and lots of edits. I wrote this on morning coffee brain, so I hope it's starting to make more sense!

TL:DR: My thoughts on TED: materialism is already over, here's why.