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
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
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
Teaser image by nikisublime, courtesy of Creative Commons license.