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The debate about Graham Hancock's talk

Please use this space to comment on the debate around Graham Hancock's TEDx talk, as described here:

http://blog.ted.com/2013/03/19/the-debate-about-graham-hancocks-talk/

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Closing Statement from TED

Thanks to all who participated in this conversation on TED's decision to move Graham Hancock's talk from YouTube to TED.com. It was scheduled as a 2-week conversation, and has now closed. But the archive will remain visible here.

We'd like to respond here to some of the questions raised in the course of the discussion.

Some asked whether this was "censorship." Now, it's pretty clear that it isn't censorship, since the talk itself is literally a click away on this very site, and easily findable on Google. But it raises an interesting question about curation. Should TED play *any* curatorial role in the content it allows its TEDx organizers to promote? We believe we should. And once you accept a role for curatorial limits, you have to accept there will be times when disputes arise.

A number of questions were raised about TED's science board: How it works and why the member list isn't public. Our science board has 5 members -- all working scientists or distinguished science journalists. When we encounter a scientific talk that raises questions, they advise us on their position. I and my team here at TED make the final decisions. We keep the names of the science board private. This is a common practice for science review boards in the academic world, which preserves the objectivity of the recommendations and also protects the participants from retribution or harassment.

Finally, let me say that TED is 100% committed to open enquiry, including challenges to orthodox thinking. But we're also firm believers in appropriate skepticism, or critical thinking. Those two instincts will sometimes conflict, as they did in this case. That's why we invited this debate. The process hasn't been perfect. But it has been undertaken in passionate pursuit of these core values.

The talk, and this conversation, will remain here, and all are invited to make their own reasoned judgement.

Thanks for listening.

Chris Anderson, TED Curator

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  • Apr 1 2013: "A truth’s initial commotion is directly proportional to how deeply the lie was believed. It wasn’t the world being round that agitated people, but that the world wasn’t flat. When a well-packaged web of lies has been sold gradually to the masses over generations, the truth will seem utterly preposterous and its speaker a raving lunatic."

    "The ideal tyranny is that which is ignorantly self-administered by its victims. The most perfect slaves are, therefore, those which blissfully and unawaredly enslave themselves."

    Dresden James"
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      Apr 1 2013: This is a good point, Adrian. However, one of my main concerns with Hancock's presentation is that one of its basic premises is a red herring. I am skeptical that the criminalization of psychedelics is the result of a "war on consciousness" and that identifying it as such and waging a counterattack will ever be successful. There is simply too much evidence to suggest that the "war on consciousness" is a myth. People are not prevented from dreaming or from expressing the contents of their dreams. Musicians and artists who have exceptionally active imaginations are not thrown in prison. Religious mystics are not arrested. The reasons people are locked up is not because of anything happening in their consciousness, but because they are breaking laws or are perceived as being dangerous to themselves and others. There are millions of legal ways to alter consciousness, from eating sugar (as Hancock suggests in his talk) to reading enlightening books and watching TED talks. Until "consciousness" is more clearly defined, I think any claims of a "war on consciousness" will be ineffective and even ludicrous.

      A better strategy would be to undertake a serious, detailed, responsible inquiry into the actual reasons why cannabis, mushrooms, ayahuasca, and other Schedule 1 substances were criminalized in the first place. I could be wrong, but I think a careful study will reveal that fear, racism, ethnocentrism, and other social, economic, and political factors were more significant. I think a prudish "war on sex", a sexist "war on women," and the circumstances of protests against the U.S. war on Vietnam will prove to be more significant than any "war on consciousness." The paths to decriminalization will be similar to those used for legalization of the Native American Church's use of peyote, of medical marijuana, and the emancipation of women, blacks, and LGBT individuals. They will be based on effective arguments that the initial legislation was unjust and unconstitutional.
      • Apr 2 2013: You seem to imagine Hancock is saying that there is a war on ALL of consciousness. Quite the contrary. He is saying that certain states are acceptable while others are criminalized without justification. So you can cite any number of examples of states of consciousness that are currently accepted, and you will have done nothing to address Hancock's concern about the particular states of consciousness which are criminalized.

        You also seem to be treating the idea of a war on consciousness as some distinct thing which can be peeled apart form the war on drugs. You even go so far as to suggest a causal relation between the two (albeit one you suggest does not exist). It's not like that at all. They are one and the same thing. The "war on consciousness" is just a description of the state of affairs that is the war on drugs. You might not think it is the best description possible, but there is no question that the description accurately captures one aspect of the situation. You know this though, and this is why you play the disingenuous "lack of a definition" card against Hancock at this point. It's disingenuous because everything else you write shows us you understand the definition perfectly well. And, fwiw, pretending to not understand what someone is saying (ie, asking for definitions), while at the same time disagreeing (I mean, how can you disagree if you don't know what the words mean) is the oldest (bad) philosophical trick in the book.
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          Apr 2 2013: Ah, so the war on meth labs is *part* of the war on consciousness and Hancock is against that? Thanks for the clarification.
      • Apr 2 2013: You don't have a common factor, so no.
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          Apr 2 2013: "They are one and the same thing. The 'war on consciousness' is just a description of the state of affairs that is the war on drugs." -- Steve Snark

          Why not just call it the "war on medicine" and be done with it?
      • Apr 2 2013: You see John, here's the level you've been reduced to. So desperate are you to argue against Hancock's talk that you are now seriously telling us you can't see a connection between drugs and consciousness. So blurred is this line, in your book, that nothing can be built on such dodgy foundations. Well, John, tell it to the UN:

        http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/United_Nations_Convention_Against_Illicit_Traffic_in_Narcotic_Drugs_and_Psychotropic_Substances

        The United Nations Convention Against Illicit Traffic in Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances of 1988

        That's narcotic and psychotropic. See what the point might be yet?
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          Apr 2 2013: I haven't said I don't see a connection. I also see a connection between food and consciousness. Is there a war on food? Hancock says in his TEDx talk that sugar and tea produce altered states of consciousness. Is there a war on sugar and tea? What, exactly, are the states of consciousness that are imperiled? Oh, I forgot. You're unable to define what consciousness is. Sorry.
      • Apr 2 2013: And see, here again, as with the dictionary: my point is written into the very wording of the law in question, while your point is based on some woolly Hoopesian historical analysis. I'm not saying, Hancock is not saying, this is the only possible description imaginable. We are simply saying it is a reasonable description given the effects of the substances and the one effect mentioned in the wording of the law banning them. If you don't get how that makes the war on (certain aspects of) consciousness a legitimate description then that is your problem.
      • Apr 2 2013: "The reasons people are locked up is not because of anything happening in their consciousness, but because they are breaking laws or are perceived as being dangerous to themselves and others."

        Can you honestly say there is no correlation?

        "I could be wrong, but I think a careful study will reveal that fear, racism, ethnocentrism, and other social, economic, and political factors were more significant."

        It makes sense to reduce consciousness to these things from within a materialist framework.

        "The paths to decriminalization will be similar to those used for... the emancipation of women, blacks, and LGBT individuals. They will be based on effective arguments that the initial legislation was unjust and unconstitutional."

        I'm inclined to agree with what you wrote here.
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          Apr 2 2013: At last! Time to pop open a bottle of bubbly, light up a big spliff, or something like that.
      • Apr 2 2013: The states of consciousness that are imperiled are the one's brought on by ingestion of the banned substances. The ones that are almost impossible for normal people to attain without said banned substances. The ones people have been taking the substances in question for millennia to specifically attain. These are the states Hancock is referring to.
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          Apr 2 2013: I'm skeptical of the "millennia" part (remember, I'm an archaeologist), but I understand what you mean. (I'm not sure that Hancock could define them, however.) The problem is that there probably need to be some reasonable controls over who and how and when and under what circumstances they can be used. Do you have any suggestions for what those might be?
        • Apr 2 2013: "The problem is that there probably need to be some reasonable controls over who and how and when and under what circumstances they can be used."

          I'm not sure I can get on board with this. You inevitably run up against the problem of enforcement, and we're back at square one. The hunch I'm entertaining currently is that these experiences self-regulate in irrational, unpredictable ways.
      • Apr 2 2013: John, I appreciate you right the disagree with Hancock, but when dealing with his discussion which is at the heart of the debate he is absolutely correct. We must have the sovereignty over our own consciousnesses.
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          Apr 2 2013: I agree with that part. I do not agree with Hancock's premise (actually, one that I think he got from Daniel Pinchbeck) that there is a "war on consciousness".
        • Apr 2 2013: How can you agree we should have sovereignty over our own consciousness when you don't accept we have consciousness in the first place?
      • Apr 2 2013: Adrian, John doesn't believe that consciousness exists - thus, in his eyes, there can be no war on it.
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          Apr 2 2013: Bollocks.
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          Apr 2 2013: Adrian, Steve can't even explain what consciousness is, so don't mind him.
    • Apr 2 2013: OK John, a straightforward question. Do you believe humans have consciousness?
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        Apr 2 2013: Yes.
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        Apr 2 2013: What will you give me in return?
        • Apr 2 2013: Love your reply, John. Currently consciousness seems to be one of those Primary Indefinables, the 'Well, I can't prove it but I know it when I see it,' sort of things. Does it enter into a vessel when the brain reaches a certain level of receptivity or complexity, then returns to the great ocean when the host dies? Or is it a product of the brain itself, never more to be when the brain dies? What does this say about computers and the coming so-called Singularity? Is everything conscious, the Earth, the sun, the stars? Is anything conscious? Does consciousness even exist? Every one of these points has been argued for and against for thousands of years.
        • Apr 2 2013: I had nominated Jayne's definition earlier.

          "Jaynes defines "consciousness" more narrowly than most philosophers. Jaynes' definition of consciousness is synonymous with what philosophers call "meta-consciousness" or "meta-awareness" i.e. awareness of awareness, thoughts about thinking, desires about desires, beliefs about beliefs."

          See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Julian_Jaynes

          EDIT: It doesn't really give an answer to how one's 'state of consciousness' can be modulated though. My guess is that consciousness cannot be defined from within a materialist context. Something like idealism, however, should have less difficulty. I find idealism to be more parsimonious than materialism, but as of right now I'm in the minority. I've reason to believe that this is liable to change, though, as more people, particularly reputable 'experts', gain fluency in the subtle distinctions and implications specific to each.
        • Apr 2 2013: Thank you, Noah. Are you speaking of of Julian Jaynes? I can't say I agree with Jaynes definition, but then I have yet to agree fully with any definition, though some of the more metaphorical and poetic attempts - generally from our Eastern traditions - come close. I'm with you on the general impossibility of any valid, scientifically verifiable definition even being possible from a materialistic context. God and the devil are both in the details, as they say.

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