Wednesday, April 24, 2013

the vast active living intelligence system revisited


realitysandwich |  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.

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