The Ultimate Experiment

I just finished reading Sleepwalkers by Arthur Koestler on Kepler, Galileo and Newton.  I was surprised that he sided with the church against Galileo by arguing that the whole science vs. faith dichotomy is not based in historical fact.  Koestler was Jewish and a Communist before writing an influential novel exposing the dark side of the Stalinist Regime.

In Return Trip from Nirvana Koestler tells an interesting story about a research clinic he visited where they were experimenting with new drugs.   As he toured the clinic he recounts seeing a monkey in a strait jacket with probes sticking out of its skull – its wise, old eyes peering back at him, resigned to its terrible fate as a research monkey.

Somewhat ironically, Koestler was visiting the clinic to experiment with a new drug at the invitation of an acquaintance, Timothy Leary, the Harvard professor who popularized the use of LSD in the 60’s.  Leary’s letter to Koestler provides a snapshot into the decade of the 60’s.

Dear K …,
Things are happening here which I think will interest you. The big, new, hot issue these days in many American circles is DRUGS. Have you been tuned in to the noise? I stumbled an the scene in the most holy manner. Spent last summer in Mexico. Anthropologist friend arrived one Weekend with a bag of mushrooms bought from a witch. Magic mushrooms. I had never heard of them, but being a good host joined the crowd who ate them. ~Wow! Learned more in six hours than in last sixteen years. Visual transformations. Gone the perceptual machinery which clutters up our view of reality. Intuitive transformations. Gone the mental machinery which slices the world up into abstractions and concepts. Emotional transformations. Gone the emotional machinery that causes us to load life with our own ambitions and petty desires.  Came back to U.S.A.

Koestler did return to the USA and in a critical essay called “Return Trip to Nirvana” he wrote about his experiences with drugs while he was there.

…I was still in control of my outward behavior, and this remained true throughout the whole three or four hours of the experience. But at the same time I had completely lost control over my perception of the world. I made repeated efforts `to walk out of the show’ as I had been able to do during the first stages on the couch, but I was powerless against the delusions.  I kept repeating to myself: ‘But these are nice, friendly people, they are your friends’, and so on. It had no effect whatsoever an the spontaneous and inexorable visual transformations. At one stage, these spread from the faces of others to my own right hand which shriveled into a cripple’s, and to the metal bars of the table lamp, which were transformed into the claws of a predatory bird.

Drugs had promised to open a window into another dimension – “a kind of do-it-yourself approach to salvation” but the visions they produced were like those of a maniac – they were not spiritually helpful.  Some of the experiences with drugs recounted in his essay are fairly humorous.

While working on the material I was reminded of a story George Orwell once told me (I do not recall whether he published it) : a friend of his, while living in the Far East, smoked several pipes of opium every night, and every night a single phrase rang in his ear, which contained the whole secret of the universe; but in his euphoria he could not be bothered to write it down and by the morning it was gone. One night he managed to jot down the magic phrase after all, and in the morning he read: ‘The banana is big, but its skin is even bigger.’

Koestler also experimented with women and coauthored an encyclopedia on sex (apparently as a desperate measure to gain an income). Basically, Koestler seems to have gone through life like Solomon… trying everything.  His life was one great and terrible experiment.  But at the end of his life Koestler could never say with Solomon,

He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the hearts of men; yet they cannot fathom what God has done from beginning to end.  Ecclesiastes 3:11

Koestler had a pan-entheistic view of the universe.  He believed that quantum physics ultimately undermined the existence of matter and therefore all mechanistic and materialistic views of the universe were wrong (he is very critical of the current scientific establishment).   In the epilogue to his biography of the early astronomers, he writes,

Each advance in physical theory, with its rich technological harvest, was bought by a loss in intelligibility…. The chair on which I sit seems a hard fact, but I know that I sit on a nearly perfect vacuum… The list of these paradoxa could be continued indefinitely; in fact the new quantum-mechanics consist of nothing but paradoxa, for it has become an accepted truism among physicists that the sub-atomic structure of any object, including the chair I sit on, cannot be fitted into a framework of space and time.  Words like ‘substance’ or ‘matter’ have become void of meaning, or invested with simultaneous contradictory meanings. (Sleepwalkers, Koestler)

Koestler concludes that the universe is an emanation of Mind.  He quotes Sir James Jeans, the British astronomer and physicist,

Today there is a wide measure of agreement, which on the physical side of science approaches almost to unanimity, that the stream of knowledge is heading towards a non-mechanical reality; the universe begins to look more like a great thought than like a great machine.  Mind no longer appears as an accidental intruder into the realm of matter; we are beginning to suspect that we ought rather to hail it as the creator and governor of the realm of matter. (Sleepwalkers, Koestler)

Koestler came to believe in a Mind that created and governed the realm of matter but not a Person.  The universe was like a cosmic brain in which each human being was a brain cell.  I cannot think of anything more depressing than that.

Koestler’s last experiment was with death.  Having been diagnosed with cancer, he decided to end his life.  Tragically, his young and healthy wife decided to join him and so they committed suicide together.  Here is a portion of the note he left behind:

I wish my friends to know that I am leaving their company in a peaceful frame of mind, with some timid hopes for a de-personalised after-life beyond due confines of space, time and matter and beyond the limits of our comprehension. This ‘oceanic feeling’ has often sustained me at difficult moments, and does so now, while I am writing this.

I remember watching Avatar a while ago and feeling the impact of its strong pantheistic message.  The movie made that worldview very attractive and I have no doubt that the next generation will grow up with that movie heavily influencing their ideas.  Eastern religion has no laws to follow – just principles to adhere too.  Life is not a war – rather, we should go with the flow.  Peace out!

It is all very nice but is it true?  World Peace is a nice idea too but the last time we beat our swords in plough shares we quickly beat them back into swords again. And is Eastern religion really all that nice?  Look at what it has done for Eastern nations.  Japan Bushido, the Hindu Caste system… what is it that we find so attractive about these ideas?  And do I really want to come back again as another creature, hopefully a little higher up on the chain of being?  Is my highest aspiration to become a wave in the ocean eternally kissing the shore?  If I were just a mind, just a thought, then I might be ok with that… but I am more than that, I am a being.

I think one of the most remarkable stories in the Bible is the revelation of God’s name at Horeb.    Yahweh, the One who Is.   Yahweh, the one who created the world with a thought – yes!  But also with love!

 And this is eternal life, that they know you the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.  John 17:3


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