Are We The Universe Trying To Understand Itself? Revisiting McKenna's Arcitectonics of Being

“As life develops, it folds itself, it becomes a three dimensional object, it replicates itself in time, by those means it claims the temporal dimension… after two or three billion years it has evolved itself to the point where, with strong muscles, it can move through space; with superb visual organs it can coordinate its exterior environment; and, finally, through the advent of language, it can tell its story.”

— Terence McKenna

This isn’t necessarily easy to explain. 

It’s a notion from the unquiet mind of Terence McKenna —  a way by which we can drastically and dramatically redefine our perception of how time flows and, more importantly, how we perceive ourselves to exist in our universe through our frightfully limited comprehension of it. 

To get a full grasp on this idea, one has to fundamentally reconsider everything they currently presume to know about how time works and how the universe itself is structured; while it’s tedious and quite possibly fruitless by comparison to other more digestible conceptualizations of time, it’s undeniably an exercise in philosophy that gets the mind wrapped around itself in knots — a workout of a thought experiment that is rare to come across from the mind of a man that had been (and seemingly remains) both under and overrated. 

“You are an explorer, and you represent our species, and the greatest good you can do is to bring back a new idea, because our world is endangered by the absence of good ideas. Our world is in crisis because of the absence of consciousness.”

Time is a construct that we’ve co-existed with since long before we could even begin to understand how the universe works. In countless forms, from celestial processions to sand grains in an hour glass, time is a law that we abide by without too much of an actual understanding. 

Like McKenna believed, time is weaved into the fabric of life and matter in a much more intimate way than we can even begin to understand, a way that may be observable on a different level of comprehension from that which we’re used to.

McKenna’s quotes, presented below, are derived from a lecture he gave under a context of dark energy and the makings of the universe — it helps to acknowledge this, first and foremost, as we wade through the murky theory that he sought to elucidate. 

“I think that what happened was that people with a very different set of agendas than those of western civilization chased after an understanding of time in the same way that we chased after an understanding of matter.”

McKenna first draws a contrast of how time can be understood — it’s understanding from a Western perspective (which is vehemently tied to the understanding of matter) and from an Eastern perspective (which arguably approaches an understanding of the world from within the mind and body together). 

While it can be said that the West favors a linear progression model and certain parts of the East favor canonical or circular frameworks of time (philosophically speaking), all is to be ultimately disregarded as we try to consider the way by which time is evidenced through the organisms which interact with it; not limited to just humankind and animalia, but also in organic and non-organic matter alike. 

In other words, time is impressed not just on the mind of Heraclitus when he gazes upon his river, but it is also impressed (or “micro-cosmically downloaded”), into Heraclitus’ river itself.

“Time, and the essence of understanding time, lies in understanding organism”

McKenna’s proposition continues to claim that, in order to understand the true workings of time, we ought not rely on the technological instrumentation which we’ve grown accustomed to but, rather, the observational style of natural science and, specifically, our own observations of how nature works.

McKenna fervently believed in the universe’s ability to expand itself, to grow ever-more complicated and to bifurcate under its own evolution. Just as we had with our own evolution, there exists a purpose that prompts us to progress to the point of self-awareness and beyond — self-understanding, self-learning. 

In this way, the universe and the organisms within the universe are able to impress upon themselves various forms of information, this micro-cosmic downloading, which carries within it the very architectonics of our being. 

While it may sound like the usual McKennian far-fetchedness, it’s perfectly exemplified within our own species: we are an organism that is uploading and downloading information about the world around us; some would go as far as to say (and have gone as far as to say) that we are the Universe observing and learning about itself. 

“My hypothesis is that if you eventually do this with sufficient care and attention, you get down to some kind of level where you’re actually at the level of the primal quantum mechanical vibrations that lie behind everything"

By observing nature, and by observing ourselves, we can witness subtle forms of knowledge and energy that are microscopically (or quantum mechanically) intertwined in everything. These vibrations, or ‘primal patterns’, act and behave and interact in a way that eventuates (or serves to explain) the macro-physical world.

Recent discoveries in quantum theory haven’t necessarily proven McKenna wrong, as we continue to learn more about our world by observing the nature of molecular life on a sub atomic level. 

But what about time, specifically? Why is any of this important to consider under a temporal context? 

McKenna either fails to or decides not to throw a bow on the entire concept, leaving the actual purpose and meaning behind this concept open for interpretation. 

The more we can attribute a sense of tangible existence to time, the more we can better appreciate other, less tangible qualities to our reality. Remember, McKenna had been speaking about time under a context of dark energy. 

In other words, empty space isn’t necessarily empty space. 

Whether we’re talking about Plato’s theory of forms of Kant’s transcendent idealism, philosophers have long grappled with the idea that reality exists in far different ways than those we can perceptually understand. 

To McKenna, time itself is as palpable at electricity and real as radiation. It can be observed, not as some abstract concept we’ve created to abide by, but observed in a more real way that we don’t yet fully comprehend — not by the swaying of a pendulum or by the rising of the sun, but by the impressions it creates in nature, which serves to coherently try to understand itself, its own existence. 

"It’s a thing. What’s going on is that objects which arise in time, carry the impress in the structure, of the medium in which they arose. And so organisms become some microcosmic downloading, a mapping, of the architectonics of being"

The more we begin to view every aspect of our reality as interlinked, the more dust we blow off of a particularly eye-opening realization: everything in our world is simply trying to understand itself —and we’re no different. 

"Think of a sand dune, notice that when you envision a sand dune that it looks like wind. The thing in your mind looks like wind. Now lets analyze what’s going on here. The sand dune looks like wind because sand dunes are made by wind… It’s a download, a flattening — it’s a one dimensional picture of the wind. If you had a good computer and you had a sand dune, you could compute backwards from the sand dune to the speed of the wind. Taking that image, think of it this way: think of the grains of sand as genes; think of the wind as five hundred or seven hundred million years of time moving those genes around, blowing them around, recombining them, breaking them apart, pushing them together. At the end of that time, life would bear the imprint of the medium in which it came to be… The human organism would have impressed upon it the categories that shape time, because we arose in time." - Terence McKenna

Image by Nici Keil