Sunday, 23 October 2011

Do Visionary Shamans Dream of VALIS?


This article is excerpted from The Psilocybin Solution: The Role of Sacred Mushrooms in the Quest for Meaning, recently released by Inner Traditions.

For most people, Philip K. Dick (hereafter known as PKD) is best known through films like Blade Runner, Total Recall, Minority Report, and A Scanner Darkly, which were all based on his writings. Classic movies like The Matrix and Vanilla Sky also owe a great debt to PKD's work. What is not so well known is that PKD was a bit of a latter-day mystic, a man who spent the last decade or so of his life struggling to come to terms with a series of visionary experiences (not related to psychedelics) that befell him in the early 1970s. In these experiences, PKD felt as if some vast cosmic intelligence was communicating with him, as if a deity was slipping him secret information. Such was the impact of these theophanies that he chose to incorporate their thematic content into a number of novels as well as an eight-thousand-page exegesis. To the consternation of his peers, PKD began to be not a little obsessed with ideas of "divine invasion" and the like, his last books testifying to his escalating interest in theology and theistic philosophy (interestingly, his last novel, The Transmigration of Timothy Archer, partly concerns the search for a sacred mushroom).

Since his death it has been speculated that PKD suffered from what is known as temporal lobe epilepsy -- a brain disorder that can lead to hallucinatory experiences -- and that this explains his mystical encounters. However, leaving aside the contentiousness of this claim, it does not deal with the burning issue of immediate mystical experience. To label an experience in order to explain it away is to avoid the very real nature of the mystical experience, however it should arise. In fact, as Huxley noted in The Doors of Perception, we should not be surprised if there is always unusual neuronal activity concurrent with a mystical experience, for, as we have seen, modified neuronal firing patterns are related to expanded forms of consciousness. Altered forms of awareness demand altered brain processes, and such a change in brain state can be achieved in many different ways, whether through psilocybin mushrooms, endogenous DMT, yoga, meditation, fasting, or spontaneous epileptic disturbances. Mystical experience is therefore not to be conveniently disposed of with a diagnostic label.

Even before his visionary experiences, PKD had long fought to discover the true nature of reality. It was his pet fascination. In a talk he delivered in the late 1970s, he admitted that for all the years he had thought about the question "what is reality?" he had gotten no further than concluding that reality was that which remained even if you stopped believing in it. Admittedly a thin definition, it is nonetheless indicative that the true nature of reality is not so easily pinned down.

PKD juggled with countless explanations for his mystical experiences. Some involved a Judeo-Christian God, others involved the Logos outlined in some of the Gnostic gospels (these are the "alternative" gospels dug up at Nag Hammadi, Egypt, in 1945), while others even opted for an advanced extraterrestrial intelligence. Whatever the case, PKD was certain that he had been "contacted" by some form of advanced transcendental intelligence-cum-Other.

One of his more enduring theories concerned VALIS, which is an acronym for "vast active living intelligence system," a notion that accords well with our intelligent Other. In the semiautobiographical novel of the same name, VALIS is a hidden entity of immense power and sentience that is in the process of infiltrating our reality by establishing communication with certain individuals. These disclosures are experienced as theophany. For our purposes, the key point is that VALIS is essentially outside of our dimension, but able to penetrate our world. The question arises as to the feasibility that a superior intelligence exists in another dimension with the capacity to move across into ours. This is one of our fanciful options concerning the Other.

To more fully understand what PKD was suggesting, consider the plot of his acclaimed novel Ubik. In this story, the main characters are seriously blown up in an explosion at the start of the story and then placed in a kind of collective suspended animation machine that keeps a portion of their brain processes functioning. In this way the characters enjoy what PKD calls a "half-life." What is more, the collective nature of their half-lives ensures that they experience a simulated reality, a reality so real that the half-lifers fail to realize that they are no longer in the real world. In other words, they don't realize that they are actually wired up in the half-life unit of the Beloved Brethren Moratorium. Indeed, they falsely believe that they survived the explosion with just a few scratches (you can now see why The Matrix is a decidedly Philipdickish movie).

Our interest grows when we see what happens when someone outside of their simulated reality system attempts to communicate with them (using the standard electrode headphones of course). At one stage in the tale, the protagonist, Joe Chip, who is unaware that he now exists inside a simulated reality, is contacted by someone from the "outside." This communication is experienced by Chip as an eerie sequence of synchronistic events in his simulated world. For instance, he begins finding significant messages everywhere -- scrawled upon washroom mirrors and turning up on matchbook labels and in bits of consumer junk. Personal messages even begin interrupting TV shows (this idea was borrowed to good effect in the Emmy-award winning BBC sci-fi drama series Life on Mars). In short, the communicator has invaded Chip's world in such a way that the communication gets distributed across different media, turning up in the most unlikely of places rather than manifesting as a big booming voice coming out of the sky.

I think it is this cunning idea, which PKD used on many fictional occasions, that captures his views on the nature of VALIS. VALIS was an "outside" intelligence able to penetrate our world, revealing itself through mystical experience and through the unlikely juxtaposition of meaningfully related events. Can we possibly utilize this notion and map it onto our idea of the Other?

If we were to do this, then it would be tantamount to suggesting that the "programmer" of the Universal Computation is able to "jump into" the program, reaching in as it were to influence the state transition of the computation. Or perhaps this transcendental influence can only be felt in the psyche, in which case all theophanies would represent the manifestation of the Other as it penetrates our reality.

But what does it mean to be outside the system, outside the Universal Computation process? Can there really be an outside? It is possible to imagine that in the future we will be able to create a kind of simulated universe or an elaborate virtual-reality world that we can enter for years, if not a lifetime. And yet despite the fact that there will indeed be an outside to a simulated reality, we cannot say with certainty that there is also an outside to our present reality. If we do entertain the notion of a dimension outside of our world, we run up against the old infinite regress pit of despair, for surely the "outsides" could be continued indefinitely. In other words, if the intelligent Other exists outside our (simulated) reality, then what lies outside the Other's dimension?

It is these dilemmas, which would appear to be insurmountable, that lead me to think that the solution to the Other cannot be found by appealing to a supernatural "outside the system" option. Indeed, we have already seen that the Other appears to represent a creative process conveyed by the mind whereby information organizes itself and takes on lifelike properties. The Other, therefore, is surely more likely to be found firmly entwined within the Universe along with ourselves (even if only as a mysterious potential expressed under certain circumstances). If we once more restrict ourselves to this one Universe, then at least our theoretical model will be somewhat constrained and more amenable to a single holistic explanation. This does not deny the existence of PKD's VALIS; rather, it locates VALIS within our reality. Somewhere.

Teaser image by nikisublime, courtesy of Creative Commons license.

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