I have been one of Gregory Bateson's students for three years and I was able to help him select the essays which are here brought together for the first time in one volume. I believe that this is a very important book, not only for those who are professionally concerned with the behavioral sciences, biology, and philosophy, but also and especially for those of my generation — the generation born since Hiroshima — who are searching for a better understanding of themselves and their world.
The central idea in this book is that we create the world that we perceive, not because there is no reality outside our heads (the Indochinese war is wrong, we are destroying our ecosystem and therefore ourselves, whether we believe it or not), but because we select and edit the reality we see to conform to our beliefs about what sort of world we live in. The man who believes that the re-sources of the world are infinite, for example, or that if something is good for you then the more of it the better, will not be able to see his errors, because he will not look for evidence of them.
For a man to change his basic, perception-determining beliefs — what Bateson calls his epistemological premises—he must first be-come aware that reality is not necessarily as he believes it to be. This is not an easy or comfortable thing to learn, and most men in history have probably been able to avoid thinking about it. And I am not convinced that the unexamined life is never worth leading. But sometimes the dissonance between reality and false beliefs reaches a point when it becomes impossible to avoid the awareness that the world no longer makes sense. Only then is it possible for the mind to consider radically different ideas and perceptions.
Specifically, it is clear that our cultural mind has come to such a point. But there is danger as well as possibility in our situation. There is no guarantee that the new ideas will be an improvement over the old. Nor can we hope that the change will be smooth.
Already there are psychic casualties of the culture change. The psychedelics are a powerful educational tool. They are the surest way to learn the arbitrariness of our ordinary perception. Many of us have had to use them to find out how little we knew. Too many of us have become lost in the labyrinth, have decided that if reality doesn't mean what we thought it did then there is no meaning in it at all. I know that place. I have been lost there myself. As far as I know, there are only two ways out.
One is religious conversion. (I tried Taoism. Others are choosing various versions of Hinduism, Buddhism, and even Christianity. And such times always produce a host of self-proclaimed messiahs. Also, a few of those who study radical ideologies do so for religious rather than political reasons.) This solution may satisfy some, although there is always the danger of satanism. But I think that those who choose ready-made systems of belief lose the chance to do some truly creative thinking, and perhaps nothing less will save us.
This second way out—thinking things through and taking as little as possible on faith— is the more difficult. Intellectual activity — from science to poetry—has a bad reputation in my generation. The blame falls on our so-called educational system, which seems designed to prevent its victims from learning to think, while telling them that thinking is what you do when you study a textbook. Also, to learn to think, you must have a teacher who can think. The low level of what passes for thinking among most of the American academic community can perhaps only be appreciated by contrast with a man like Gregory Bateson, but it's bad enough to cause many of our best minds to give up looking for better.
But the essence of all our problems is bad thinking, and the' only medicine for that is better thinking. This book is a sample of the best thinking I've found. I commend it to you, my brothers and sisters of the new culture, in the hope that it will help us on our journey.
— Mark Engel Honolulu, Hawaii April 16, 1971
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