IN COLLEGE, I WAS ASSIGNED to read William James, the physician and philosopher and founder of American psychology after whom my main classroom building was named. I learned that the middle-aged James, while high on nitrous oxide and peyote, had had brilliant, poetic insights. “Our normal waking consciousness, rational consciousness as we call it, is but one special type of consciousness,” he wrote in The Varieties of Religious Experience, published in 1902,
whilst all about it, parted from it by the filmiest of screens, there lie potential forms of consciousness entirely different….Looking back on my own experiences, they all converge towards a kind of insight to which I cannot help ascribing some metaphysical significance. The keynote of it is invariably a reconciliation. It is as if the opposites of the world, whose contradictoriness and conflict make all our difficulties and troubles, were melted into unity….I feel as if it must mean something….Those who have ears to hear, let them hear; to me the living sense of its reality only comes in the artificial mystic state of mind.
James remained an empiricist and a rationalist, but he had come to understand the allure and significance of radically different, entirely subjective modes of perception. I realized that he’d figured out in the 1890s the sense of existential fluidity that was in the 1970s quickly becoming an everyday principle, the way modern Americans were supposed to think, whether or not they were high. I have my truth, you have your truth, we each have our truth.
For the first half of the twentieth century, it was traditionalists in America, such as the conservative Christians, who despaired at how rationalism and modernity were taking over, reshaping minds, wrecking everything. But after World War II, the academic Establishment also developed second thoughts about reason. Two German philosophers, Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, fled the Nazis to live in America where (in poshest West L.A.) they wrote their 1947 magnum opus about the failure of the Enlightenment. Reason and rationality had led to an obsessive, excessive focus on efficiency and practicality and technology. “The Enlightenment’s program,” they wrote, “was the disenchantment of the world. It wanted to dispel myths, to overthrow fantasy with knowledge….Yet the wholly enlightened Earth is radiant with triumphant calamity.” Calamity such as the recent Nazi project.
During the 1960s, large swaths of academia made a similar turn, away from reason and rationalism as they’d been understood. Many of the pioneers were thoughtful, their work fine antidotes to postwar complacency. The problem was the nature and extent of their influence beginning at that 1960s moment, when all premises and paradigms seemed up for grabs. That is, they inspired lots of half-baked and perverse followers in the academy, whose arguments filtered out into the world at large.
In a nutshell: all beliefs and approximations of truth, science as much as any fable or religion, are mere stories devised by people to serve their own needs or interests. Reality itself is a social construction, a tableau of useful or wishful myths that members of a society or tribe have been persuaded to believe. The borders between fiction and nonfiction are permeable, maybe nonexistent. Superstitions, magical thinking, and delusions—any of those may be as legitimate as the supposed truths contrived by Western reason and science. The takeaway: Believe whatever you want, because it’s pretty much all equally true and false.
This set of ideas emerged in two basic varieties, theoretical and applied—the philosophers and sociologists in their offices cogitating, and people from psychology and anthropology out in the field, going native.
It really got started right at the beginning of the 1960s. In 1961 the French philosopher Michel Foucault published Madness and Civilization, echoing the new skepticism of the concept of mental illness, and by the 1970s he argued that rationality itself is a coercive “regime of truth,” oppression by other means. Foucault’s suspicion of reason became deeply and widely embedded in American academia. The following year a young UC Berkeley professor of science history, Thomas Kuhn, published a groundbreaking book called The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. In the way of Szasz and Laing, psychiatrists discrediting psychiatry, Kuhn had trained as a physicist. His book was not polemical like the antipsychiatrists’, much broader in scope, both a popular bestseller and one of the most intellectually influential books of the age. Appearing when it did, it fed the new skepticism about science and scientists and, by extension, about rationality as propounded by elites, the mainstream, the Establishment.
Before Kuhn, the history of science had been understood as a steady march toward better approximations of the nature of existence, accomplished by observation, experiment, and scientists’ habitual criticism of one another’s work and all conventional wisdoms. But Kuhn argued that revolutions in science—the realization that the Earth circles the sun, or that subatomic particles behave according to different rules than larger objects—are not really just the result of better evidence piling up. Rather, “normal science” is conducted by drones doing “mop-up work,” buttressing existing theories by working out the details (not unlike theologians working out the details of their religion’s main beliefs). Then a Copernicus or an Einstein leaps way beyond the evidence with some radically new conjecture about the nature of reality (not unlike Martin Luther deciding the Catholics had it wrong). If and when enough scientists decide they agree with the new theory, and perform observations and experiments that seem to confirm it, a “paradigm shift” occurs and everybody changes their minds—until eventually too many inexplicable new facts come along and the next set of revolutionary revisions must be dreamed up.
Fascinating, provocative, bracing. But as that big idea spread into the public understanding, it caused a popular paradigm shift itself, making science seem iffier and sketchier, driven less by a dispassionate examination of facts than by…mere beliefs. Kuhn was Toto pulling back the curtain and exposing the Wizards of Oz: are our great and powerful scientists just dazzling humbugs whose power derives from persuading other people to believe?
Meanwhile in 1966, over in sociology, a pair of professors in their thirties published The Social Construction of Reality, one of the most influential works in their field. Not only sanity and insanity and scientific truth were somewhat dubious human concoctions, they explained; so was everything else. The rulers of any tribe or society do not merely dictate customs and laws; they are the masters of everyone’s perceptions, defining reality itself. To create the all-encompassing stage sets that everyone inhabits, rulers first use crude mythology, then more elaborate religion, and finally the “extreme step” of modern science. “Reality”? “Knowledge”? “If we were going to be meticulous,” Peter Berger and Thomas Luckman wrote, “we would put quotation marks around the two aforementioned terms every time we used them.” “What is ‘real’ to a Tibetan monk may not be ‘real’ to an American businessman.”
When I first read that at eighteen, I loved the scare quotes. It was the early 1970s, so this new paradigm made scales fall from eyes, and not just adolescents’. The book was timed perfectly to become a foundational text in academia and beyond. It just seemed so profoundly true that nothing was absolutely, immutably true. And if reality is simply the result of rules written by powers-that-be, then isn’t everyone able—no, isn’t everyone obliged—to construct their own realities?
A more extreme academic evangelist for all truths being equal, and a more ultra-1960s character, was a UC Berkeley philosophy professor named Paul Feyerabend. In the preface to The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Kuhn had thanked him for his “most far-reaching and decisive” contributions. Feyerabend, an Austrian immigrant, had always been indifferent to and even excited by the world falling apart around him. He had been a teenager when the Nazis took over Austria, but to him, “occupation and the war that followed were an inconvenience, not a moral problem.” He became a lieutenant in the Nazis’ Wehrmacht, commanding tanks and infantrymen. He arrived in Berkeley in his early thirties, got tenure, then had a full 1960s conversion. Empirical proof and rationalism had nothing on irrational subjective belief. “It dawned on me,” he wrote in a kind of memoir called Farewell to Reason, that the intricate arguments and the wonderful stories I had so far told to my more or less sophisticated audience might just be dreams, reflections of the conceit of a small group who had succeeded in enslaving everyone else with their ideas. Who was I to tell these people what and how to think?” He took the relativism that was mostly implicit in the new academic thinking and made it explicit, celebrating the chaos.*1
His best-known book, published in 1975, was Against Method: Outline of an Anarchistic Theory of Knowledge. “Rationalism,” it declared, “is a secularized form of the belief in the power of the word of God,” and science a “particular superstition.” In a later edition of the book, published when creationists were passing laws to teach Genesis in U.S. public school biology classes, Feyerabend came out in favor, comparing creationists to Galileo.
And because science is just another form of belief, he insisted, the temples of reason must own that, making “the sciences…more anarchic and more subjective.” Myth, revelation, astrology, witchcraft, whatever—because for anyone anywhere attempting to figure out how existence works, “only one principle…can be defended under all circumstances and in all stages of human development. It is the principle: anything goes.”
What’s more, the magical beliefs that modern reason had defamed and disgraced were often superior. For people without science and technology, he wrote, “there were no collective excursions to the moon, but single individuals, disregarding great dangers to their soul and their sanity, rose from sphere to sphere to sphere until they finally faced God himself in all His splendor while others changed into animals and back into humans again.” This wasn’t just poetic fancy. “Voodoo has a firm though still not sufficiently understood material basis,” Feyerabend wrote, “and a study of its manifestations can be used to enrich, and perhaps even revise, our knowledge of physiology.” He believed, seeking out shamans to treat his various illnesses, including the brain tumor that killed him.
Over in anthropology, meanwhile, where the exotic magical beliefs of “traditional” cultures were a main subject, the new paradigm took over almost completely—Don’t judge, don’t disbelieve, don’t flash down the street pointing your professorial plastic finger. It was understandable given the times: colonialism ending, Native American genocide confessed, U.S. wars in the Third World. Who were we to roll our eyes or deny what these people believed? In the 1960s much of anthropology decided that oracles, diviners, incantations, and magical objects should be not just respected but considered equivalent to reason and science. If all understandings of reality are socially constructed, those of Kalabari tribespeople in Nigeria are no more arbitrary or faith-based than those of professors.
An enormously influential paper by a leading anthropologist laid it out clearly in 1967. Both science and shamanism are on a quest “for simplicity underlying apparent complexity; for order underlying apparent disorder,” and both “make up for the explanatory, predictive and practical deficiencies of everyday, common-sense reasoning…by portraying the phenomena of the everyday world as manifestations of a hidden, underlying reality.” One tells stories of a Big Bang, subatomic particles, gravity, and microbes, the other of gods, Water People, curses, and spells. We rationalist laypeople believe the incomprehensible things our scientists tell us the same way Third World magical thinkers trust their wizards. The hard distinctions we make between natural and supernatural are spurious. It’s all good. Except that ours are more often bad.
In 1968 the University of California Press published the master’s degree dissertation of a UCLA anthropology student who’d gone to Arizona to conduct a field study of southwestern Indians’ medicinal plants. In the Yuma bus depot, the student, Carlos Castaneda, met an old guy named Juan Matus, who turned out to be a Toltec sorcerer. Matus fed him hallucinogens—jimsonweed, peyote, psilocybin mushrooms—and told him he would reveal the “secrets that make up the lot of a man of knowledge.” Under the influence of drugs, Castaneda says he turned into a crow, talked to coyotes, and communed with the spirits. The M.A. thesis became The Teachings of Don Juan: A Yaqui Way of Knowledge, which was followed in 1971 and 1972 by two more bestsellers about Don Juan. Every with-it young American of the era was required to know these books. More followed, and tens of millions of copies were bought.*2 Margaret Mead, his celebrity anthropologist predecessor, had reported on so-called primitive people in the 1920s and ’30s to persuade her fellow Americans that sex was natural and should be guiltless. In the 1960s and ’70s, Castaneda, enthusiastically endorsed by Mead, reported on so-called primitive people to persuade Americans that magic was real.
Reviewing all three books in the Sunday Times, an important young anthropologist called them “a work which is among the best that the science of anthropology has produced,” in part because Castaneda reveals “his personal struggle with standard Western reality whose thrall kept preventing him from accepting Don Juan’s lessons on their own terms.” The old man hadn’t just imagined that a dog was Mescalito telling Castaneda that he was “the chosen one”—it was, the professor said, “what really happened.” Moreover, the point of anthropology was no longer “finding out what other people’s conceptions of the world are” but “learning…about the way the world really is.”
Our tour of the 1960s academic pantheon began in psychiatry, proceeded through the departments of philosophy, history, sociology, and anthropology, and now returns finally to psychology. Back in the 1930s and ’40s, a Duke University botanist-turned-psychologist established parapsychology as a U.S. academic discipline—that is, a field committed to proving telepathy, clairvoyance, psychokinesis, reincarnation, and ghosts are real. He founded the Parapsychological Association, and in the late 1960s (with Margaret Mead’s encouragement) the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) certified it as an affiliate. One of his young protégés was a University of California psychologist named Charles Tart. Tart’s first big claim to fame was a 1968 experiment in which, he wrote, a “young woman who frequently had spontaneous out-of-body experiences”—didn’t claim to have them but had them—spent four nights sleeping in his lab hooked up to an EEG. Her assigned task was to send her mind or soul out of her body while she was asleep and read a five-digit number Tart had written on a piece of paper near the bed. He reported that she succeeded.
Other scientists considered the experiment bogus, but Tart got tenure at UC Davis and proceeded to devote his entire academic career to proving that attempts at objectivity are a sham and that magic is real. In an extraordinary paper published in 1972 in Science, he complained about “the almost total rejection of the knowledge gained” while high or tripping “by the scientific establishment.” He didn’t just want science to take seriously “experiences of ecstasy, mystical union, other ‘dimensions,’ rapture, beauty, space-and-time transcendence.” He was explicitly dedicated to going there. A “perfectly scientific theory may be based on data that have no physical existence,” he insisted. The rules of the scientific method must be revised. To work as a psychologist in the new age, Tart argued, a researcher should be in the altered state of consciousness he’s studying, high or delusional or filled with the Holy Spirit “at the time of data collection” and during “data reduction and theorizing.” Tart’s new paradigm for research, he admitted, poses problems of “consensual validation,” given that “only observers in the same [altered state] are able to communicate adequately with each other.”
Tart popularized the term consensus reality orientation for what you or I would simply call reality, and around 1970 consensus reality became a permanent interdisciplinary term of art in academia. Later he abandoned the pretense of neutrality and started calling it the “consensus trance”—people committed to reason and rationality are the deluded dupes, not he and his tribe. His articles continued to appear in legitimate scientific journals and the Oxford Dictionary of Psychology.
Parapsychology established academic beachheads all over. In the late 1960s UCLA set up a lab, founded by a former actor and screenwriter who’d published a bestseller about her LSD experiences. In the 1970s Princeton University set up its Engineering Anomalies Research lab, also devoted to proving that paranormal phenomena are real. In the Age of Aquarius, make-believe became blue-chip.
EVEN PAUL GOODMAN, beloved by young leftists in the 1960s, was flabbergasted by his students in 1969. “There was no knowledge,” he wrote, “only the sociology of knowledge. They had so well learned that…research is subsidized and conducted for the benefit of the ruling class that they did not believe there was such a thing as simple truth.” Ever since, it has been the American right that most insistently decried the spread of relativism. And that’s because it has focused on relativism’s most obvious and immediate origins and effects. The right hated how relativism undercut various venerable and comfortable ruling ideas—certain notions of entitlement (according to race and gender) and aesthetic beauty and metaphysical and moral certainty. Appalled by academia moving away from old-fashioned reason and by the uppity youth, conservatives conflated the phenomena. They saw only a single bratty, furry mob of bohemian barbarians inside and outside the gates.
But once the intellectual mainstream thoroughly accepted the notion that there are many equally valid realities and truths, once the idea of gates and gatekeeping was discredited not just on campuses but throughout the culture, all the barbarians could have their claims taken seriously. Conservatives are correct in pointing out that the anything-goes relativism of the campuses wasn’t sequestered there, but when it flowed out across America, it helped enable extreme Christianities and consequential lunacies on the right—gun rights hysteria, black helicopter conspiracism, climate change denial, and more. The term useful idiot was originally used to accuse liberals of serving the interests of true believers further left. In this instance, however, postmodern intellectuals—postpositivists, poststructuralists, social constructivists, postempiricists, epistemic relativists, cognitive relativists, descriptive relativists—turned out to be useful idiots for the American right. “Reality has a well-known liberal bias,” Stephen Colbert said, in character in 2006, mocking the beliefs-trump-facts impulse of today’s right. Neither side has been aware of it, but large factions of the elite left and the populist right have been wearing different uniforms on the same team—the Fantasyland team.
*1 What is it with America’s nineteenth- and twentieth-century imports from German-speaking Europe? In addition to Feyerabend, the authors of The Social Construction of Reality and Wilhelm Reich were from Austria. The inventors of mesmerism, phrenology, the water cure, homeopathy, and the patent medicine Microbe Killer were all Germans, as were the postwar Enlightenment-haters Adorno and Horkheimer and Esalen’s Fritz Perls. Erich von Däniken, the swindler who popularized the ancient-extraterrestrial-gods idea in the 1970s, is German-Swiss, as was Hermann Hesse, whose Eastern-spirituality-soaked fiction was discovered by Tim Leary and company in the 1960s.
*2 Castaneda had hung out at Esalen in the early 1960s before he published the first Don Juan book. He eventually published a dozen, all ostensibly nonfiction, in which he becomes a sorcerer and travels to other universes. He also recruited some female UCLA anthropology grad students, “the witches,” with whom he led a cult in a house near the university for the rest of his life.